Phantom (page 2)
New York City, NY, USA
“This is ridiculous,” Tony said, pulling off the tie he had just fastened around his throat. “I can’t do this.”
“You promised Pepper,” Bruce reminded him, stepping over and tying the tie once more, although not as neatly as Tony.
“We should be looking for Steve, not… giving speeches,” Tony huffed, looking at nothing in particular over Bruce’s shoulder.
“They haven’t found him in all this time, I doubt a few more hours are going to make a difference,” Bruce said, attempting to be the voice of reason. “After this speech at MIT, you’ll have finished all the things Pepper had on her list, and we can go down to Brazil and scan every inch of the jungle until we find the Captain. In the meanwhile, you’ll spend a few hours impressing people and making them feel ridiculously awesome about themselves and their future careers.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at him. “You suck at giving inspirational speeches.”
“That’s why you’re their guest speaker, not me,” Bruce noted.
“They just like me because I’m the best damn thing to ever happen to that school…” Tony muttered, yanking at his tie again, but this time he merely straightened it and left it on. “He’s been missing for nine days,” he went on after a bit. “Wonder if he’s gone native in the woods.”
Bruce chuckled, although the whole situation was troublesome. Surely by now the group in Brazil should have found something. He knew that in the past week, Tony had been more than prepared to put on his suit and fly down there, but hell hath no fury like Pepper Potts when Tony blew off yet another commitment. Bruce hadn’t been eager to fly south either; if it so happened they found Steve, and he was still in a mood to attack his team, he didn’t want to bring the other guy into that particular mix.
There was only so much Captain America’s vibranium shield could cover between the Hulk’s fists and the hard place.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up before Tony could launch into another excuse why he should skip the MIT commencement speech and try to find their missing teammate. “There has been an update on Captain Rogers’ location.”
“What?” Tony blinked.
“It appears he managed to stowaway on an airplane and landed in Miami International Airport roughly thirty-two hours ago.”
“Why haven’t we heard of this before?”
“The incident hasn’t reached the news, and the airport’s internal investigation is on-going. However, Agent Romanoff gained access to the airport security feed about five hours ago and determined that it was indeed Captain Rogers who managed to elude the airport staff and escape. His current location is unknown.”
“Why didn’t anyone call us – again?!” Tony snapped, once again tearing at his tie as Bruce pressed his thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose.
“Where is the rest of our team now?” Bruce asked before Tony could go on.
“They are currently in a Quinjet, on their way to Miami.”
“Is Cap still in Miami?” Tony asked.
“I do not know, sir.”
“Find out,” Tony told him. “Track his movements. Every camera, CCTV, cell phone, YouTube video… Just find him, and when you do, you’ll tell me and not those clowns who keep leaving us out of the loop. Goddamn it…” Tony muttered and began to stalk towards the elevator.
“Sir, Director Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. is calling you,” J.A.R.V.I.S. added before the elevator doors had properly opened.
“Tell him I’m en-route to Boston, mid-flight. Can’t talk. Airplane safety and all that,” Tony replied.
“Doctor Banner –”
“I’m not available,” Bruce said swiftly before the AI could connect the call. “I’m… not here.”
Tony crossed his arms over his chest and sighed, the elevator doors closing between them. Bruce decided to go to the lab and perhaps work out some of the frustration of the last nine days while waiting for J.A.R.V.I.S.’s results on Steve’s location. They needed to find him, more than ever, before something else happened.
- - -
Tony had done MIT’s commencement speech several times after he’d graduated at the age of 17. After he missed it that one year because he was stuck in a cave in Afghanistan, he had become rather sought-after for various functions – well, after his mental state was cleared and he came out as Iron Man.
So, he had a speech prepared, more or less, and he went through the routine hand-shakes, drinks and compliments like a champ; Tony had his game face on, covering up his inner turmoil as he counted the minutes until he would get to leave, put on the suit and go looking for their missing teammate. He was confident J.A.R.V.I.S. would have information for him by the time he was done here, and then it would simply be a matter of tracking Cap down, taking him in and sorting out this mess. The others had fucked around in Brazil long enough; it was time to finish it.
“Mr. Stark, you’re up in two minutes.”
Tony squared his shoulders, checked himself casually in a mirror, then stepped outside and walked towards the stage, waiting for his cue. He had a microphone on, some cards in the palm of his hand, although he would end up pocketing them because he had a bit of an aversion to cards these days. It wasn’t as if he had no idea what to say to the brilliant young minds waiting out there.
When the two minutes were up, some of the faculty members waved him up, and his entrance was met with thunderous applause, followed by a certain amount of shouts and whistles. It was tame compared to most other times he went on stage somewhere, but he took it all in with a good-natured smile and for a moment forgot all about their missing leader.
“Alright!” he grinned at the crowd, spread his arms and gave them a small bow, then waited for the noise to end. “I assume everyone here knows who I am – but I also know who you are; the people who are, hopefully, going to shape a tomorrow we all can enjoy and be proud of.” That got him another wave of cheers. “When I started my –”
A loud sound echoed from somewhere further back on campus. Tony stopped automatically, associating loud sounds with potential experiment failures or an attack. Many heads in the crowd turned to look as well, and a few members of campus security moved out of sight, no doubt to check out the source of the distraction.
“As I was going to say,” Tony started again – then looked up at the sound of breaking glass. A security guard came flying through one of the windows of the Maclaurin building which flanked Killian Court, the man landing hard several feet away from the building. The crowd was beginning to move uneasily, then total panic erupted as shots were fired somewhere inside the building.
Tony took a steadying breath and tore the microphone from the lapel of his suit. He glanced over at the man who was playing his bodyguard today – a poor replacement for Happy Hogan, but right now he could prove his worth. “Where’s the suitcase?” Tony demanded.
“In the car, sir,” the man replied.
“Get it,” Tony snapped an order and the man didn’t hesitate or ask twice: he was already running.
More shots were fired and people were being guided away from the open space, to safety. Tony wondered what the hell was going on that they hadn’t taken the perp down already, seeing as security measures were up high today – then a figure crashed down into the yard through another window, rolling instead of landing roughly on the ground, and the familiar shield caught the sun.
“Well,” Tony murmured before someone pulled at his arm.
“Mr. Stark, we need to –”
“You know, I think I might just stay and see this one out,” Tony argued and pulled himself free. Because he was a known superhero, no one was going to argue with him. It would take several minutes for his bodyguard to get to their car and haul the second version of the suitcase armor over. Tony wasn’t leaving to meet him half-way, however, because he wasn’t certain whether the luck which had just dropped Steve Rogers in his lap was going to last.
“Hey!” Tony called out loudly, stepping forward. He didn’t want to call Steve ‘Captain’ in case someone put two and two together; if there was still a chance that they could keep the fact that Captain America had gone rogue from the world, he would seize that chance by the balls and not let go. After all, so far it had seemed that no one suspected it had been the first Avenger in the Miami airport, even with the genuine shield in his grasp.
Steve froze and turned towards him. People had moved out of the way surprisingly fast, and armed guards were approaching from all directions.
Tony wasn’t certain what he had expected, even with the reports from Brazil, but the unnaturally glowing eyes still gave him a start. He wondered if he could reason his way out of this, especially when Steve seemed to just look at him instead of immediately attacking, but then the security started shouting and cocking their guns threateningly, and Tony felt like screaming at them that telling Captain America to lie down wasn’t going to happen, ever.
Clearly that hadn’t changed even with this strange possession: the shield was lifted, body bracing itself for an attack, and Tony could almost see it before the shield went flying, knocking down three men before they even knew what hit them. Steve launched himself forward to intercept his shield again, then whirled around once he caught it, protecting himself from shots fired at him.
“Come on…” Tony muttered. Next time he was going to drag the armor along, no matter what anyone said. It was ridiculous he just had to stand here, watching as Steve flattened the resistance one by one.
“Sir, you must take cover!” someone shouted from behind him, and Tony turned to look at more campus police arriving. Most of the Court had been evacuated already, which made Tony stand out.
“It’s fine, I’m waiting for a delivery,” Tony explained. “And once it arrives, I’ll sort this out for you guys,” he promised.
The cop who had spoken to him gave him the oddest of looks, and then another one elbowed him in the side. “That’s Tony Stark.”
Tony flashed them a smirk – just before Cap’s shield came flying past him, knocking down the two men, sending them sprawling to the ground with pained gasps. Tony grimaced and turned, seeing Steve advance. His expression was cool and calm, the eyes still glowing so brightly it seemed they were leaking, which was beyond disturbing – as was the fact that he wasn’t blinking. “Why don’t we talk about this?” Tony offered, raising his hands to show that he wasn’t carrying a weapon – and hoping the cops would stay down, and their friends out of the way. “Put your shield down, and we’ll sort this out. You’re not yourself.”
Tony cringed as he heard heavy footfalls. When he turned his head, just slightly, he saw his bodyguard running over, large suitcase in hand. A cop moved towards him, to hold him back from the scene. “Let him pass!” Tony called out; it would be typical that when he was so close to suiting up, some moron would fuck it up.
“Put it down!” someone else shouted, and Tony turned his head further, seeing the rest of the officers pointing guns at Steve and eyeing him tensely. One of the two fallen officers had climbed back to his feet, while the other still lay on the ground, looking winded.
Tony snapped his fingers impatiently and gestured at his bodyguard. “Come on! We don’t have all day here.” He turned his attention to the cops. “Let me suit up and take care of this, gentlemen. Make sure no one gets in the way.”
“We have it under control, Mr. Stark.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Tony couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm from entering his voice, which the cop caught on to immediately. Okay, so this was going to be one of those days… “Case!” he ordered his bodyguard again, who looked conflicted between following his orders and the demands of the officer to not come any closer.
“Stop! Put down the… weapon… and lie down on the ground!”
Tony turned in time to see that Steve had taken several steps forward, the shield firmly in his grasp, body still poised to fight. His clothes were dirty and tattered, but didn’t look like something he may have worn in the jungle; he must have changed his wardrobe somewhere between the Amazon and arriving in Massachusetts. Well, as long as he wasn’t wearing the Captain America uniform, they might still be able to salvage the situation.
Keeping his eyes on the blond, Tony began to move to the side. The glowing eyes followed, Steve’s head turning slightly to keep track of him. Tony guessed that as long as Steve was staring at him, he might not attack. Tony continued backing away, eyes still on Steve. He reached out with his right hand, hoping his bodyguard was going to earn his paycheck and comprehend that he was still waiting for the suitcase.
Steve took a step forward, moving just as quietly and effortlessly as always. He matched one step for each four Tony took, and the cops were starting to shift uneasily.
“Drop it, mister,” one of them commanded again.
“Don’t provoke him,” Tony suggested tightly, gesturing with his outstretched hand. Finally he felt the handle of the suitcase and dropped his eyes as he laid it out on the ground in front of him and pressed his fingers against the sensors that would recognize it was him. The suitcase came to life, unfolding and then rearranging itself up along his body. Tony winced as his clothes were pressed tight against his body, not designed for this. As the faceplate finally snapped into place, the comforting information feed of the HUD greeted him with a more thorough look at the situation.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. acknowledged the fact that he was armored up.
“Let’s wrap up this party,” Tony noted. “Any readings we can get from Cap?”
“The armor’s sensors are not strong enough to get a full analysis, but there is a strange energy signature coming off Captain Rogers.”
Tony’s eyes glanced at the data on the HUD, registered it, then focused on the important part: “Alright, mister, give me the shield before you hurt someone else –”
The shield slammed him straight in the face, sending his body falling back, armor and all. Tony had never really gotten such a good taste of the vibranium before, but he wasn’t going to beg for a repeat – at least not in the thinnest of his current armors.
“Fine,” he started to say as he got back to his feet, tasting blood in his mouth. “The hard way, then.”
Steve attacked before he could elaborate, and Tony dodged, but there was no chance he was getting out of the way fast enough, with or without the suit. All he needed to do was avoid full collision that might be more than he could handle right now.
Tony felt the shield strike his shoulder and alarms flashed on the HUD. He ignored them for now and brought his left hand up and punched the other man, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Not a second after Steve hit the dirt was he back up, rolling backwards and onto his feet, his face still passive, eyes glowing. Tony lifted a hand as he forced himself to his feet, preparing the repulsor, and maybe Steve saw it coming or merely thought it a good time to strike, but he moved forward just as Tony shot at him. The shield took most of the impact, forcing the police to duck for cover as the repulsor blast bounced off the vibranium, and then Steve was right there, pounding at him as if it weren’t metal he was striking. Even with the buffer of the suit, Tony felt it – then pain coursed through him as the shield struck him in the side.
With a new set of alarms flashing before his eyes and several of his ribs possibly bruised, Tony released a couple flares to blind the other man and give him room to strike. He didn’t want to hurt Steve, but he was running out of ways to stop him without compromising his own health first.
The flares flashed between them, but Steve didn’t turn or shield his eyes. Instead he took Tony by the throat and shoved him to the side. With the lightweight suit, Tony fell over, slammed hard into the ground, and then the shield came down, at the same spot on his right shoulder as before, and pain flared across his upper arm and chest.
“The armor has several breaches, sir, and your vitals are –”
“I can feel it, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Tony gasped and then twisted, bringing his legs up, kicking Steve to the side. His right arm was on fire and he was fairly certain Steve had just managed to fracture his clavicle. “Transfer all power to the boot repulsors in five seconds,” he ordered, then rolled up, returned the favor and took Steve by the throat, then kicked himself off the ground. This suit wasn’t meant for heavy loads while in the air, its flight capabilities weaker than those of his usual suit. However, it might buy him some time.
Steve struggled, hands squeezing around Tony’s forearm. Tony forced his fingers to squeeze harder, to hopefully cut off the air long enough to render the other man unconscious. That was when Steve decided to swing, his legs wrapping around Tony’s. With the perfect flight position lost, Tony felt a sickening lurch in his stomach as they started to turn in the air – and then Steve grabbed his face, although the armor was in the way. The pressure was there, though, a faint whine of metal following.
“What are you doing?” Tony demanded. “You’re going to get us both killed…”
With his balance lost, they were careening lower, and then Steve sank his fingers in with precision. There was no way he should have known where to press, to get to the seam of the helmet, to pry it open by force. Tony felt the wind on his face for a brief two seconds before they crashed into a tree, the armor’s repulsors shutting down and sending them both falling, one painful branch at a time, all the way to the ground.
Tony fell on his already burning ribs in an attempt to keep his right shoulder from hitting the ground first. It hurt, so goddamn much, and he blinked hot tears from his eyes as he tried to scramble up, to regain control of the suit manually now that the more fine-tuned controls via his AI were out of his reach with the helmet damaged.
When he looked up, Steve was already standing above him. His hair was a mess, more so than before, small cuts on his face and bruising on his neck. The injuries were already healing, by the look of it. Good for him. “Steve…” Tony tried, attempting to force himself up to his knees, to ignore the stabs of pain licking his left side and the fact that he couldn’t really move his right arm.
The unblinking eyes stared at him, calm, glowing, as if he hadn’t just almost killed them both. Well, Tony had still been mostly in his suit even with the helmet torn, and they hadn’t been that high, but he could imagine a few scenarios where it would have ended badly.
“Steve, if you’re in there somewhere,” Tony tried again, “you need to stand down and let me take you home. Okay? No more fighting.”
There was no response – other than a sudden twitch of his entire body, and the blond suddenly fell down to the ground in front of him. Tony stared, blinking, not understanding what was going on – then noticed several men in S.H.I.E.L.D. gear moving closer, weapons raised. A half-dozen darts stood out from Steve’s back, no doubt filled with enough tranquillizer to take down a couple elephants. Even with that dose, though, the man was already shivering, eyes still wide open, his fingers beginning to curl.
“Uh, guys? If you’re going to secure him, I suggest you do it quickly,” Tony called out, and five agents moved out with heavy duty restraints, grabbing Steve’s arms and tying them behind his back, then tying his legs with a short chain between the cuffs. They lifted him first to his knees, then to his feet, and the glowing eyes still stared unerringly at Tony, as if mocking him.
Tony allowed his face to hit the ground and closed his eyes. “Not now.”
“Naptime’s over,” Director Fury informed him, halting beside him. Tony could feel his intimidating stare even without looking.
“In my own defense,” Tony started as he rolled onto his knees with some difficulty, “I’m totally innocent of whatever you’re currently accusing me of.” He looked up at the other man hopefully, wanting to believe he didn’t deserve the expression of deep dissatisfaction on Fury’s face.
“You didn’t know Cap was missing?”
“I heard about it a day after he went missing,” Tony admitted. “And at least I found him! I think I should be commended for that.”
Fury’s scowl deepened. “What the fuck was going on in your head when you thought I shouldn’t know that one of our top operatives had gone missing under unclear circumstances in the middle of the fucking Amazon?”
“I thought Mr. Agent was going to report it?” Tony tried. Really, it was Coulson’s problem, not his.
“Get up,” Fury finally snapped and turned on his heels, marching away. A couple choppers flew over them then, monitoring the situation, and Tony sighed, already feeling a headache coming on. It took him the better part of two minutes to climb to his feet, and he immediately regretted doing it. Where was help when he needed some? Not that he would ask for it, but there was at least one guy here who was getting paid to protect him.
When he walked out of the trees circling Killian Court, a Quinjet had landed in the middle of the open field. S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles were parked on all the nearby streets he could see and the police were being turned away like they were tourists. The whole commencement area looked a bit like a war zone, although not too bad. They should be able to continue later, but Tony wasn’t going to stick around.
“Are you injured?” a voice asked, and he turned to look at a female agent in the dark S.H.I.E.L.D. gear.
There were a hundred things Tony could have said, but he had just gotten the shit kicked out of him by the man who usually led him into battle, and he didn’t have the spunk left in him to act defiant. “Yeah,” he admitted.
She nodded. “Right this way. Let’s get you out of that armor.” The casual way she said it should have put Tony on edge, but he meekly followed her to one of the cars, allowing her and another agent to assist in the removal of the suit.
At some point between the chest pieces being jammed from the impact and his ribs almost making Tony scream, his bodyguard made an appearance. Tony told him to return to New York City. “I’ll be catching a flight home with these guys,” he nodded at the Quinjet.
“Of course, Mr. Stark,” the man said and almost ran away. The agents gave the bodyguard a somewhat amused look, then went back to stripping Tony of the armor.
New York City, NY, USA
They had all seen their fair share of nondescript warehouses S.H.I.E.L.D. liked to keep handy. So, when Bruce had heard from J.A.R.V.I.S. that there had been an unscheduled incident at MIT – involving their missing team leader – he knew to expect a call, if not from S.H.I.E.L.D., then from Tony.
S.H.I.E.L.D. called him first, and soon he was sitting in a bare room, waiting for the others, reading a few science magazines he had grabbed from the Tower before leaving and enjoying a fairly decent cup of tea.
Four people stepped in after he had been waiting for about an hour, looking weary and grumpy; Natasha was moving around stiffly and as soon as she sat down, she fished out a plastic container and popped several pills into her mouth. Clint and Agent Coulson looked tired, and Thor as broody as ever.
“Nice trip?” Bruce asked but tried to avoid both humor and sarcasm; the looks he received as a reply were enough to tell him that these four were not in a good mood. Well, considering what had happened…
“They got him?” Coulson confirmed.
“Yeah; caught him in Massachusetts,” Bruce nodded.
“I hope he put up a fight,” Clint muttered.
“I’m pretty sure he did; J.A.R.V.I.S. hinted that the armor Tony had with him is going to be scrapped faster than fixed.” Bruce had been a little concerned, but he had sensed Tony was okay. That’s why he wore the armor, after all, but it didn’t always protect him as well as people imagined it would.
A door banged somewhere down the hallway and the door to their room opened a moment later, allowing in the dark presence of Director Nick Fury. “Gentlemen,” he said sharply, giving Bruce a relatively polite nod, then proceeded to glare at everyone else. “Does anyone wish to volunteer an explanation for how all this happened – and why I wasn’t informed as soon as it appeared possible that Captain Rogers was compromised?”
“We were busy looking for him, sir,” Coulson started.
“And while you stumbled around the Amazon, he made his way to the Miami International Airport. I don’t need to explain to you how hard that’s been to cover up – especially with people dead and injured in two countries.” Fury fumed, and Bruce moved his chair a few inches away from him, just in case.
“We assumed he wouldn’t try to leave the area,” Natasha spoke up. “That was our first error: with the distance he covered in such a short time, he had to be moving with intent from the minute he left the camp. Thor, however, firmly believed that Steve was not in control, so how did he end up going to all the trouble of sneaking onto a plane to cross the distance between two countries?”
“Not to mention making his way from Miami to the Boston area,” Bruce added, pulling a tablet out from between the magazines. “J.A.R.V.I.S. managed to compile a somewhat shaky route he took in order to establish that. Unfortunately, the final draft wasn’t ready until after the incident at MIT. It’s… rather ingenious, really, the way he kept slipping from one vehicle and form of transportation to the next, going undetected for the most part.” Bruce had done that for years, while on the run, but Steve certainly knew how to be stealthy, too. Well, with the serum giving him a boost, it was certainly easier than in Bruce’s own case, but he could still admire the mind at work. “Why Cambridge?” he asked out loud. “Of all the places in the world… Of all the planes he could have snuck onto at the airport in São Paulo, he chose the one plane coming back to the States.”
“Maybe I’m just that attractive,” a voice joined them, and Tony came in through the doorway. If the room hadn’t been relatively quiet until then, it certainly would have been silenced at his appearance. “What?!” Tony snapped, narrowing his eyes. His face had several bruises and cuts. He was walking with a heavy limp, clearly favoring his left side, and his right arm was in a sling, accompanied by a clavicle strap that kept his shoulders drawn back.
“It would seem the hours since I last saw you haven’t been kind to you,” Bruce observed.
Tony let out a half-huff, half-laugh, then grimaced. “Yeah, no. I’m only going to say this once, and if anyone, ever, repeats it to Rogers, I will personally squeeze the life out of them: I got my ass kicked.”
“Welcome to the club,” Natasha muttered darkly.
“He is a considerable foe,” Thor agreed. “We all underestimated his strength against us.”
“More like how he knew how to take us down in a matter of seconds,” Clint said. “It’s disturbing.”
“He’s a leader – our leader – which means he knows our strengths and weaknesses. He also has the best tactical mind I’ve had the pleasure of working with, so it stands to reason he would know exactly how to disable all of us,” Bruce noted serenely.
“You don’t sound very concerned, big guy,” Tony noted as he carefully slid out a chair to seat himself. Bruce extended an arm to help Tony lower his body, receiving a very small look of thanks in return.
“I don’t think he really has a plan on how to contain the Hulk,” Bruce said. “And if he does, I’ll gladly take a few pointers.”
“We’ll see how you feel about it when you have his shield slamming you in the face,” Natasha challenged his theory.
“It certainly widens your horizons, and not necessarily in a good way,” Tony agreed.
“If you are done swapping case histories, I would like to propose we get onto the problem at hand: what is wrong with Rogers?” Fury leaned forward, palms planted firmly on the table, and his eye was directed at Thor as if the Asgardian would have the answers he needed.
“I felt a dark presence in him,” was all Thor said.
Fury kept staring at him, demanding more, but Thor offered nothing. Giving up, the Director looked at Coulson instead. “Do we have any concrete evidence?”
“Our scientists were still analyzing the ruins when we left,” Coulson replied promptly. “We should have results shortly, and perhaps now that Captain Rogers is in custody, we can try and reach him again.”
Fury nodded shortly. Clearly he was impressed with none of this. He pushed away from the desk and began to walk towards the door. “There better be some goddamn answers coming my way very soon,” he demanded before exiting and slamming the door shut in his wake.
“Well,” Clint started after a moment, “that went very well.”
Thor continued to stare at something none of the others could see, Natasha popped another few pills into her mouth, and Coulson briefly buried his face in his hands.
- - -
“What’s your damage report like?” Bruce asked quietly as the Avengers followed Coulson down the hallway towards the room Steve had been locked in.
“The suit needs to be rebuilt,” Tony replied unhappily.
“A couple bruised ribs, a fairly even coating of heavy bruising, and a fractured clavicle. Good times.” Steve was going to owe him big for this, once the man snapped out of whatever was running around in his system.
“Could have been worse,” Bruce noted.
Tony gave him a look and wondered how much worse Bruce was imagining. Well, there may have been a couple seconds when Tony entertained the possibility that Steve was trying to kill him, but he preferred not to think about it. Instead, he should focus on the upcoming weeks in which he would be forced to endure pain and an inability to use his right arm properly.
Oh yes, Rogers had it coming once he was back to his old self.
They reached the detention area and Coulson swiped his card through a reader to let them in. The group entered a small observation room from which had another door that led into the temporary holding cell. Steve was standing in the middle of the small room, staring at a blank wall by the door. His eyes remained as unblinking as before, overflowing with the inner glow, and it seemed he was doing nothing at all but stand there – even when there was a poor excuse for a bed along the opposite wall.
“What’s he doing?” Clint asked.
“Standing,” Tony observed.
The archer snorted. “I can see that. But why is he standing there, doing nothing? He could lie down and save his strength, or try to escape.”
“Perhaps he knows where he is,” Natasha offered. “Maybe he knows we’re trying to help him.”
“Only one way to find out,” Bruce decided, surprising the others, and moved to the door leading to the holding cell. Coulson followed him a bit slower, the rest of the group stepping closer, and then Coulson punched in a code that made the second door slide open.
Steve didn’t move, didn’t react to the sound or the movement, but somehow Tony felt like he was being observed. He wondered if the others shared the sensation.
“Steve?” Bruce stepped forward. “Do you know where you are?” No reply. Not even a twitch of a facial muscle. Bruce frowned, hands twisting in something that could be nervousness or indecision. “Do you know who I am? Can you communicate?” Again, there was no response.
“He didn’t say a word back in Brazil,” Natasha recounted and looked at Thor. “Now would be a good time to do something.”
The door behind them opened and Tony turned slightly to see Fury stepping in, closing the door firmly behind him. “Anything?” he demanded, striding over to them.
“This is not magic I am familiar with,” Thor frowned.
“Maybe it’s not magic at all,” Tony offered. “You said he touched something while in the tunnel. It could be a viral infection; it could be a parasite of some kind. Strange things happening don’t automatically mean they’re magic!” he noted vehemently and decided to go and sit down since there were chairs available in the observation room. He doubted they were going anywhere soon. After he had settled down, carefully, his ribs complaining all over again, Tony glanced up and noted that the glowing eyes were staring straight at him. Well, at least that’s what it felt like.
The others must have noticed as well – which meant Steve may have turned his head, just slightly, when Tony moved to the side in order to seat himself. “That creepy stare has an Edward Cullen vibe written all over it,” Clint stated.
Bruce looked back and forth between Steve and Tony, then raised his left arm and waved his hand in front of Steve’s face. Nothing happened; no blink, no tilt of the head. “Huh.”
“Any ideas, doctor?” Fury demanded.
“No,” Bruce replied. “He seems aware, although he doesn’t exactly respond to stimulus. Not unless he wants to.”
“So what does he want?” Clint asked. “A staring contest?”
“Such… malice…” Thor murmured.
“Look, Rapunzel: if you have nothing more than bad omens and magic to mutter about, refrain from speaking at all,” Tony snapped. “For all we know, this has a scientific explanation. Get those readings from the slab, and someone take some blood from the guy. We’ll see where we can go from that.” It was amazing he was the only one coming up with this stuff, and he was pretty sure he had a concussion from earlier.
Thor threw him a dark, withering look. “I may not know what we are dealing with, but I tell you, Tony Stark, that your technology will find no cure for what ails him.”
“We’ll see,” Tony replied darkly.
- - -
The following hours were filled with tests upon tests. It took a half-dozen agents and Thor to wrestle Steve onto an examination table. They tried sedating him, but the super-soldier serum just burned through it in a matter of seconds.
By that evening, certain things were clear: they were no closer to unlocking the mystery of what had happened to their leader, Steve hadn’t as much as blinked at anything they did, save for trying to fight back occasionally, and he wasn’t talking.
All there was that creepy, silent, glowing stare that seemed to follow them wherever they went in the room. The longer Bruce spent in the same room with Steve, the more uneasy he felt, and eventually he decided they should call it a night and resume their efforts tomorrow.
“We’ll look into the texts found inside the ruins,” he said. “We’ll take more samples, see if anything’s different. They’re also shipping in the slab of stone and other samples from the Amazon, so we’ll get to run our own tests.”
Tony, who was seated beside him on a Quinjet bench, nodded and yawned widely. The rest of the Avengers plus Coulson – who probably wanted to stay out of Fury’s way for the next few days – moved inside and they took off towards the Avengers Tower. Steve remained behind, under lock and key in quarantine.
Bruce doubted any of them would sleep particularly well – with the exception of Natasha and Tony, who were on pain medication for their injuries – but all would be clearer the next day with some rest under their belts.
It was not yet dawn, he could sense it. Unease was rising inside him, cracking the ice slightly.
He felt lonely again.
Steve still couldn’t think clearly and felt like a stranger in his own body. It hadn’t even been this bad right after the serum, although there were similarities. At least then he had been able to control his body, no matter how alien…
Tony… Where was Tony? The other man had been close, he had been sure of that – felt it, too – and all the roiling chaos had calmed into serenity for a moment, the ice melting slightly. He had felt like he was seated in brilliant sunlight, with no care in the world, but now it was gone and the need was rising once more.
He needed to be closer…
However, he was restrained. His body tied to a relatively soft surface. A table, perhaps. One he had lain on all too often. But, he knew about the restraints they had never used on him before, and he knew that if he wriggled, just enough, and pulled hard… He felt the bones of his hand shift, pressing closer together. The pain was there, but distant. He needed to do this, needed to be free, and so he yanked his hand free, feeling bones and muscles get pulled out of place under the pure force of the move.
Pain was secondary as he freed his other hand, then sat up and pushed the bones of his injured limb back into place. It would heal soon.
He freed his legs next, pulled out the IV on his arm, then slid off the bed. No hesitation; he went to the door, tested it, then pressed against one spot with all his strength. The steel eventually bent beneath the force, enough for him to expose an edge which he could use to pull the door until it was open enough to let him squeeze through the gap.
The hallways were quiet, save for two guards who stood outside the door leading to the room he had just escaped from. He grabbed them by the shoulders and smashed their heads together, stepping over their bodies before they had finished dropping down on top of each other.
His shield… he found it, then made his way outside, found a maintenance tunnel, following it away from the building, then slipped into another and crawled into a smaller tunnel that led into the sewers. Five blocks further he climbed out of the sewers, looking up to figure out where he was.
New York City.
He looked up again, searching for a familiar building, then caught glimpse of a letter “A” glowing high above the structures around it.
He had a heading.
- - -
Tony was tossing and turning. Not only was his fractured collarbone making his life a living hell, but the meds clearly weren’t doing what they were supposed to – which was to let him sleep.
After a few hours he gave up on the pretence of rest and pulled some clothes on. In his injured state, he went with something easy and comfortable, and besides, no one else should be awake so he was unlikely to run into anyone. And even if the other Avengers happened to become insomniacs, this was still his building, so if he wanted to walk around in sweatpants and a partially zipped hoodie, without socks or shoes – because those were a bitch to get on with just one working hand when bending over hurt like hell – they could take it up with a higher authority, which happened to be him. So, there…
He stepped out of his room and debated between the bar, the lab, his workshop or perhaps the gym, but eventually his feet took him to Steve’s floor. J.A.R.V.I.S. let him in, of course, and he stood in Steve’s bedroom, looking around, feeling lost. Everything was neatly in order and clean. The books were on the shelves, the art supplies neatly stacked on one side of the desk, and the bed looked like it came straight out of some military goods catalogue.
Feeling a sudden wave of fury, Tony allowed himself to sit down hard on the perfectly made bed. He regretted it once he landed, pain radiating up his bruised side, but at least he had creased the sheets. He sat there, feeling the emptiness and the quiet, and he thought back to how he had been, quite literally, the last person to talk to Steve; he had looked at the recording of that last call a dozen times, committing to memory the alarmed, pained look on Steve’s face and the first glimpse of the glow that soon took over. Had he not called him, on a whim rather than for a reason…
Tony looked around the room again, breathing deep regardless of the pain in his shoulder and upper chest. “What kind of an idiot crawls into a hole in the wall in some ancient ruins the locals avoid like the plague? Rogers, you goddamn moron…” He closed his eyes, trying to think back to their last proper discussion. Steve had been so excited, and for that reason alone Tony had debated perhaps joining the team in Brazil after all. If he had been there, maybe Steve wouldn’t be lost somewhere in his own head, behind those glowing, unblinking eyes that revealed none of the murderous intent they harbored.
Well, they had Steve now, and they would figure out what was wrong with him, and then they would fix him. Tony had complete faith in Bruce in that matter, and he would commit all his time and energy to getting rid of whatever had crawled up Cap’s ass in that fucking pile of rock –
“Sir, a distress signal has been issued from the S.H.I.E.L.D. base,” J.A.R.V.I.S. suddenly spoke up.
“What did they do now?” Tony asked, feeling tired and not at all looking forward to solving another S.H.I.E.L.D.-related crisis.
“It would seem Captain Rogers broke out of the containment cell and has gone missing once more.”
Tony jerked up, regretting it instantly. “How… Wait, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know how they weren’t able to do one single thing, for one single night,” he muttered. “Where’s he now?”
“Location unknown; S.H.I.E.L.D. is investigating his method of escape.”
“Awesome,” Tony sighed. “Hack in, see what they’ve got and then start a full-scale search on Cap. He can’t have gotten far.”
“Indeed, sir. I may have, however, already located him.”
Tony blinked. “You should lead with that next time. Where is he?”
“There is an intruder alert coming from the Tower basement, and while many of the cameras in the area are malfunctioning due to said intruder activity, the scanners show only one culprit, carrying a vibranium shield.” J.A.R.V.I.S. sounded entirely too smug.
“So he breaks out of S.H.I.E.L.D. and comes here?” Tony frowned. “That’s not very smart – unless he’s still hell bent on killing us.” Which wasn’t entirely true since Steve hadn’t killed any of them yet, while still definitely kicking their asses. “Where is he, currently?”
“In the elevator shaft, climbing up.”
“Of course he is,” Tony tried to picture that in his mind. “Is he planning on climbing all the way up? There are stairs. There are elevators. Maybe you should just tell him to get into one and bring him up – after I’ve suited up,” Tony added. “And if you manage to coax him into an elevator, bring him to the gym level. No reason to level the furniture.”
“Very well, sir. I shall keep you up to date on Captain Rogers’ cooperation.”
“You do that,” Tony nodded and got up with a grimace, then headed out to the nearest available Iron Man armor. “Oh, and J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he noted in hindsight as he pressed his palm against a scanner and a section of the wall opened to reveal an assembly platform. “Wake up the others.”
“Of course, sir.”
A moment later, as the armor moved around him, pressing rather painfully against each bruise and fractured bone, Tony heard a familiar beep from the Tower speakers and an ‘Avengers, assemble!’ call ringing across dark rooms. He had a feeling his AI was rather fond of that particular message, for he was ever so eager to play it. Tony didn’t have the heart to ruin it for J.A.R.V.I.S.
By the time Tony took an elevator to the floor they used mostly for training, the others Avengers were gathering together. Only Thor seemed to be in full gear, and Tony wondered if he had ever gone to bed. Clint and Natasha had their weapons, but clearly they had grabbed the nearest set of clothes they could find. Coulson, amazingly enough, was still wearing his customary suit, but it looked wrinkled and the tie was haphazardly tied around his neck.
“How is he here?” Clint asked, fingers shifting uneasily around his bow.
“What’s the plan?” Bruce added, looking around.
“I was hoping this place might jar a memory,” Tony noted, now that he stopped to think of it. Steve had spent a lot of time at the gym, and maybe he would feel less inclined to try and beat them up.
“Your theory is sound, but I fear it will fail,” Thor noted. “I have examined the writings on the ruins, and –”
“If you’re going to say this is magic, I swear I’ll blast you in the face,” Tony warned, pointing an armored finger at the Asgardian. “I’m up to here with your mumbo-jumbo, because there are a hundred things in a very real, corporeal world that might cause this, which have a purely scientific answer!”
“Yet it is not science that forces our friend’s hand against us,” Thor began to argue, lifting his hammer a bit higher, but just then one of the elevators on the side of the room let out a ping and the doors opened to reveal Steve Rogers, standing in the middle of the space, shield on his arm, temporary S.H.I.E.L.D. garments dirty as if he had crawled through the sewers before coming to the Tower – which was entirely possible, seeing as no one still had any idea how he had escaped. Tony didn’t open the faceplate to take a whiff, though.
“Captain,” Coulson spoke out, “we mean you no harm. Please put the shield down so that we can help you.”
There was no reply. Tony would have been comforted by a traditional ‘I don’t need your help!’ speech; anything but the silent stare of those glowing eyes.
He wondered if Steve was in there, at all. He had to be. Everything he had done, since escaping from the Amazon, was almost pure Cap, and… he had come home.
Steve raised the shield, and Tony reflexively raised an arm, weapons at the ready. Since it happened to be his right arm, pain exploded all along his upper body, but he stubbornly pushed it away. Thor was still holding Mjolnir in a tight grip. Natasha and Coulson had guns in their hands, and Clint had pulled out an arrow. Bruce, of course, stood unarmed, backing off slightly; Tony understood how Bruce didn’t want to pit the Hulk against their leader just yet. Not unless it became impossible to avoid.
“We don’t need to go down this road again,” Natasha said, a small note of discomfort in her voice. She was in no condition to fight, at least in any way that might defeat Steve, but Tony knew better than to ask her to stand down.
Steve replied by rushing forward, not even caring he was outnumbered. Tony hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, but Thor didn’t feel the same, stepping forward with a roar. Steve dodged and rolled beneath Thor’s blow. The floor shook as Mjolnir embedded itself deeply into it, creating cracks that might force Tony to check the building’s structural integrity later on.
Not wasting any time, Steve was back on his feet, and Tony stepped to the side, lowering his injured arm, then attempted to hit Steve with his left. Instead of dodging, Steve grabbed onto his arm and swung them both around, lining Tony up with what may have otherwise been a perfect shot from Clint’s bow.
Smoke and lights filled Tony’s field of vision as the arrow exploded right in his face, and Steve was still dragging him along until he lost his balance and crashed down. His sensors told him that Natasha, Clint and Coulson had moved out of the way, forced to gain themselves new ground while Steve was back on his feet, ready for another round.
It wasn’t going well.
Tony heard Thor gear up for another attack. Thunder filled the room, shots were fired, and he still couldn’t see a thing with his own two eyes. “Fuck! J.A.R.V.I.S., reboot Heads-Up Display!”
“I’m sorry, sir; Agent Barton’s arrow has severely malfunctioned the helmet’s sensors, rendering them unusable and unresponsive.”
“I’m going to fucking kill him,” Tony muttered and wiped one armored hand across the faceplate. His view was limited through the holes, still covered with a layer of soot, but he could see the fight had moved onto the gym area. One of the windows was broken, it was suddenly raining outside, and Steve and Thor must have gone a few rounds inside the room, scorch-marks on the walls and man-sized dents on all surfaces. Steve was standing with his back to a broken window, cool as a cucumber, and it didn’t look like he had even broken a sweat.
“Enough!” Tony barked, then tore his helmet off. It was covered in a black substance, and when Tony tried to scrape it off, he noted it did nothing at all. With a disgusted huff, he dropped the helmet to the floor and stepped forward. Steve’s glowing eyes met his, and it looked almost like his shoulders relaxed, just slightly. “Steve?” Tony asked tentatively, because he was going to give this one more shot.
There was no visible reaction, but the shield didn’t go flying, which was an improvement.
“Steve? I know you can hear me!” Tony tried, because he was certain of it. There was no way that whatever glow-worm had taken residence in his skull could fight exactly like Steve did – know their every weakness, their every move.
Thor moved towards him, hammer hanging low. “This is beyond science, my friend…” he offered in a solemn voice. “This is very powerful dark magic.”
Tony was about to tell him, again, what exactly he thought of magic, but instead he just stared at Steve, and at those infernal glowing eyes, and it was so fucking unfair. “We’re going to fix this,” Tony promised, not entirely certain whom he was talking to.
“Tranq him,” Natasha whispered from the side.
Clint drew an arrow and fired. This time he hit true, sinking an arrow into Steve’s thigh although their teammate moved his shield-arm to protect himself. He stumbled slightly, balance lost, and Thor moved forward with Coulson to restrain him and take his shield from him.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. medics had already determined it was impossible to put Steve under completely, so they didn’t even try, but Bruce brought over enough sedatives to make Steve relatively harmless until they figured out what to do with him next.
“Sir, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are requesting access to the Tower,” J.A.R.V.I.S. told Tony before they had even carried Steve out of the gym.
“Show them in,” Tony replied grimly, looking at the destruction around the room. It wasn’t the damages that worried him, but Thor’s blind belief that this was some kind of magic their technology could not touch – and if he happened to be right, then there was nothing Tony could do to help Steve.
He refused to accept that.