God Switch • Chapter 9
Chapter 9: The Merovingian
Everyone on The Avenger was asleep, save for Tony and Steve who had assumed the watch duties. They wouldn’t tire like the others, and neither of them would find enough inner calm to achieve sleep even if they tried.
Tony stood outside in the dark tunnel, the air heavy in his lungs. Nothing moved around him, and he contemplated whether that was a good thing or unnerving; the silence and stillness left him with room to think and contemplate. One might think he’d done enough of that while dozing inside the Machine City, slumbering for decades, but his mind had been busy.
It seemed that his mind couldn’t rest just yet: his target was within the Matrix, where his body could not go, but the control he had over the virtual reality was deceptive at times and he could almost feel the ache in his bones from his last trip.
He most certainly still had a bruise below his ribs where Agent Coulson had punched him.
The memory brought a smile to his lips. Compared to the Agents, Coulson was just as competent as he had been in real life, surpassing all others. Tony knew it was lucky they had gotten away, and he had a feeling Coulson may have gone easy on him… Perhaps the Machines had drawn something unexpected from Tony’s mind when designing the Agents. He wouldn’t call it fondness, but at least he hadn’t been tazed.
Not that Coulson – the real Coulson – had ever actually tazed him, regardless of his threats.
Tony directed his thoughts away from the past he hadn’t had for longer than he cared to remember and looked down the dark tunnel. He could make out some of the walls in the weak light of the hovercraft, but the rest of it disappeared beyond his field of vision.
Footsteps approached from up on the ramp and Tony could tell, from the pace and almost-silent footfalls, that it was Steve.
“Weren’t you supposed to watch the bridge?” Steve said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
“I can listen to the bridge from here,” Tony noted and pointedly tapped his temple with two fingers. “Also, I think that if we get company, I’ll sense it sooner than the ship’s proximity alert.”
Steve simply nodded, accepting it. “So, the Frenchman…?”
“What about him?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s called the Merovingian. An old, powerful program that enjoys playing his little games. Your standard bad guy; likes hanging out with the wrong kind of crowd.” Tony looked at Steve. “If it were up to me, I would take only you with me to meet him, but your crew is yours to command.”
Steve nodded again, slowly, looking into the darkness. “You think the others would be in danger.”
“I’m sure Clint and Natasha can fend for themselves,” Tony admitted. He had seen them move around in the Matrix, and while they had been afraid of the Agents, it was also a sign that they had a healthy appreciation for their own lives.
“They can, and they’ll want to join us. You’re expecting resistance?” Steve guessed, finally looking at Tony.
“The moment I step in there, all bets are off,” Tony nodded. “If the Merovingian handed out information about me, falsifying it enough to gain the Cleansers’ interest… He’ll know to prepare for more than a scolding when I get my hands on him. His thugs do his fighting for him, so he’s probably be fortifying his whereabouts as we speak.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“You go banging on the front door while I make sure he can’t escape,” Tony laid out his idea. He knew where to find the Merovingian. He just had to pin him down long enough to get his hands on the program.
“That doesn’t sound like a plan you would make,” Steve noted, a small smile on his lips.
“I’ve grown in my… well, whatever I’ll eventually call my time away,” Tony shrugged. “I need to play my cards right. Deleting a major program won’t sit well with some.”
“You mean you’re going to kill him,” Steve mused. He didn’t sound overly shocked, but killing had always been more Tony’s thing than his. Sure, Captain America didn’t shy away from blood on his hands – he had killed hundreds of Nazis and HYDRA soldiers in his time in World War II. He had taken countless lives after. However, Steve stood for justice and rightness, and sometimes those two principles spared people who deserved to die.
“Yeah,” Tony nodded. “Unless he didn’t do it, but… the chances of that are pretty slim at this point. I’ll know when I meet him, face to face.” He wasn’t yet certain of the Merovingian’s motivations, but one could think ahead of a program only for so long, and most programs had no love of humanity. Then again, the Matrix would be just a hollow shell without the human minds in it to toy with.
He looked at Steve next, to turn the discussion around: “After we’ve dealt with the source of the information, we’ll still have to face the Cleansers,” Tony said. “Whether they’ll believe the truth, or think it better to kill me anyway… are your people ready to do what’s necessary?”
“They will be,” Steve informed him, conviction in his voice. “They’re a tough bunch. Also, they are smart, and they have enough perspective to tell the right from the wrong. When it comes time to face off against the Cleansers… We know we have to stop them from breaking the Truce.”
Tony nodded. “We’ve been at war long enough. It’s time to… settle things.”
Steve looked towards him, probably wanting to ask whether there was something Tony wasn’t telling him. The thing was, someone had to think ahead, and Tony had always lived in the future. When all this was taken care of, the Merovingian and the Cleansers, the tensions would still be there and needed to be released. The Truce might survive this, but the next time… Something more permanent needed to be done, and Tony was trying to avoid thinking about it too much because he still needed to clear obstacles from his path to actually see what came after this mess.
The future could wait a little while longer.
He was just about to return to the ship when he sensed it: a lone Sentinel moving in a nearby tunnel. Tony looked out in that direction and raised a hand to signal Steve to remain silent. They were far away from it still, but Tony needed to make sure there weren’t others lurking nearby. After all, the Sentinels rarely flew solo, knowing their real strength lay in numbers.
Only one Sentinel remained on his radar, no matter how far he looked. It was possible it was a trap, or a lone search party…
“What is it?” Steve asked.
“A Sentinel. Just one, so far. At least, I can’t sense any more than one.”
“Could it be a trick?”
“Possible.” Tony reached out with his mind and connected with the Sentinel. He could almost see it freezing mid-air, sensors picking up his enquiry. Surprisingly, it was the same Sentinel Tony had sent back to the Machine City, to deliver his message. “Dummy,” he murmured, amused, shaking his head, and summoned it closer. “This is a good thing,” he decided when Steve gave him an odd look.
“Don’t tell me the Machines uploaded your old bot’s personality to a Sentinel?”
“Gods, no,” Tony actually laughed. It felt good. “It just… reminds me of Dummy, is all.”
Soon enough the lone Sentinel drifted out of the darkness, zigzagging in the air before Tony ordered it to come closer. Steve looked at the ship during their silent exchange. “Why isn’t the proximity alert picking this up?” he asked.
“Because I shut it up,” Tony informed him and then laid his hand out against the Sentinel’s surface as the Machine came close enough. He had already checked with it, and it was alone. It had been to the City, as ordered. Also, as expected, the response to Tony’s message hadn’t been a pleasant one. Why this Sentinel was flying back solo, searching for him… that was a bit unclear. At least the Machines knew better than to shoot the messenger. “Now that you’re here, I have a job for you,” Tony told the Sentinel. “You’ll be a good boy and fetch a couple things for me – important things.”
The Sentinel had no verbal response, but Tony transferred the data to it, and then shoved it away, watching as the Machine floated back in the air, its mechanical tentacles spreading for a moment before it took off again, in the direction it had come from.
“What things?” Steve asked, never one to miss a beat.
“You’ll see,” Tony told him. “If we make it out of the Frenchman’s lair, it will be a nice surprise.”
If the Sentinel managed to accomplish the task given to it.
Tony decided to worry about that later.
- - -
They stood on the street in front of a fancy building; Steve, Tony, Clint and Natasha. While three of them were in what could be called ‘battle gear’, including plenty of weapons and some light-weight body armor, Tony stood there in dark jeans and a leather jacket, looking sharp and not like he was preparing to attack a powerful program on his enemy’s home turf.
Steve knew better than to question Tony; it was clear he played the Matrix like a finely tuned harp, when he needed to, and he doubted they had seen all the aces up his sleeve yet. However, the rest of them needed to be prepared, and Steve felt a knot of anxiety in his stomach. It would ease once his body got into the flow of action, but until then, he would be waiting to see what lay ahead of them, keenly aware that he didn’t know the layout of the place, or the strength of the Merovingian’s forces.
“Tell me again,” he said, his words meant for Tony.
“Take the elevator to floor number 101. The maitre d’ won’t allow you in, but I know you’re good at turning people around on that kind of stuff,” Tony said, not at all subtly glancing at Steve’s shield. “You’ll know the Frenchman when you see him. Don’t attack before I get there.”
“And if he attacks us?” Clint asked, fingering his folded bow, looking up along the building’s exterior.
“He won’t,” Tony reassured them. “And besides, it won’t take me too long to catch up with you.”
“What are you going to do?” Natasha asked, not looking up from checking her weapons. The passers-by took one look at them and kept walking, their steps more hurried.
“I’m going to disable the hidden backdoors out of the building so that the Merovingian can’t call in reinforcements, or escape,” Tony said matter-of-factly.
“If we keep standing here much longer, we’ll have to worry about cops and Agents,” Clint noted, looking up and down the busy street.
“Then stop fiddling with your guns out in the open!” Tony snapped and stomped off ahead of them.
“Is he always like this before a fight?” Clint asked in a low voice.
“You mean when he’s sober before a fight?” Steve retorted, getting two quick looks. He grinned. “To be honest, he’s been sober more than not, the times we’ve fought together. Especially after the Extremis, when he couldn’t get drunk anymore. I think that pissed him off. But, no, he’s not like this all the time. He’s tense.”
Tense or no, Tony was certain of what he needed to do, and after pointing them to the elevator, he took off in another direction. What he was going to do sounded easy enough in theory, but Steve wouldn’t have bet on it being just a wave of Tony’s hand.
“Here we go,” he said as Natasha pressed the button for the restaurant’s floor and they waited for the lift to get them up there.
“You’re not nervous, are you, Cap?” Clint teased.
“The good kind of nervous. Keeps me on my toes,” Steve admitted, shifting his shield a little. He didn’t fear for himself, after facing off against Agents only a day ago. He was ready for this. However, he did worry about Clint and Natasha, although the two had refused to stay behind. Bruce and Jane had been much easier to negotiate with: they knew they were not fighters.
The elevator arrived on the right floor and they stepped out, immediately realizing they were not dressed to enter Le Vrai. Good thing they weren’t here to eat.
“Can I help you?” a man standing at the near end of the hallway asked, voice heavily accented.
“We need to get in there,” Natasha pointed at the door.
“I am afraid that is not possible,” the maitre d’ responded, giving them a disapproving look.
“A shame,” Clint noted, snapping open his bow. “My man here has a standing invitation, after all,” he quipped, jerking his thumb towards Steve’s shield.
Steve proceeded to raise said shield and thrust it against the maitre d’ face, slamming him back against the wall and making him slump down to the floor behind his desk. “Good day to you, sir,” Steve tipped his head and turned towards the door that led to the restaurant area. “Ready?” he asked his companions. Tony was nowhere to be seen, but he had instructed them to walk in once they got here.
Natasha loaded her gun and Clint adjusted his quiver. “Ready,” they said in unison.
Steve opened the door and led them in.
The place was crowded and every bit as fancy as he had expected. People looked up and Steve wondered if they were humans or programs. Perhaps both. It was also impossible to miss the slightly raised table at the end of the hall with a man and woman seated behind it. The man had to be the Merovingian.
At the sight of them, the Merovingian began a tirade of curses in French. Annoyed, but not threatened, Steve could tell. His French was rusty, but he had a good memory. “What is this?” the Merovingian asked, leaning forward a little, glancing to the side, first at his woman, then to the other side where a few men were shifting; his muscle. Steve registered them before moving his gaze back to their target. He wasn’t sure what to do or say, because Tony had told them not to start anything. Still, it felt stupid to just stand here, doing nothing. “Well?” the Merovingian demanded, impatiently. “You barge into my establishment, you abuse my staff –” He cut himself off mid-sentence, sitting up, and the whole room appeared to go quiet.
Steve heard someone else walk in behind them and turned to look. Tony strode in, sidestepping the limp foot of the maitre d’, and made his way further inside. “Merv!” he called out cheerfully – the way he used to greet a particularly nasty guest he had no intention of liking. “A lovely place you have here.”
The Merovingian had gone rather still, clearly making calculations in his head.
“Get out,” Tony snapped at the patrons. A few of them got up immediately, while others hesitated. “Out, all of you!” Tony shouted, and they all scrambled to their feet and flew to the door. After they were alone, save for the Merovingian’s goons who had remained, Tony approached and passed Steve by a few steps. His expression was dark; eyes hard, mouth tight. “Are we going to play a game, or will you come out with it and tell me why you’ve been dealing certain sensitive information to a human group who call themselves Cleansers?”
The Merovingian leaned back in his seat, whereas his female companion – a plump-lipped and heavy-chested beauty – leaned forward, her eyes gazing at Tony with an almost religious reverence.
“The Creator,” the Merovingian finally spoke up, clearly annoyed. “You grace us with your rather unexpected presence.”
“Cut the crap,” Tony snapped. “You know why I’m here.”
“Indeed,” the other man agreed, finally, dropping the act. “Here you are, alive and unscathed. No harm, no foul, as you humans say.” He made a vague gesture with his hand. “You come barging in here, full of baseless accusations…”
“You’re one of the few people with the necessary information, not to mention the balls, to pull this off,” Tony went on. “Did you do it?”
A smile passed on the Merovingian’s lips. “Why, yes. And what an entertaining game it has been, watching the humans who were so eager to believe my truth. Has it been hard, Captain, to accept what your friend has done since the War began? Or has he not told you everything, even now as he’s dragged you here to your death?”
Steve didn’t show any reaction on his face, just as Tony didn’t turn his head to look at him. “I’ll believe my friend over a traitorous program any day,” Steve informed the arrogant program.
The Merovingian sneered and looked at Tony. “What do you think you will accomplish here? As long as you remain unharmed, it is of no interest to anyone.”
“You plotted to have me killed,” Tony responded. “That might interest some persons I know – myself included.”
“There was never a fear that you would die,” the Merovingian stated. “You are too powerful and resilient, not to mention well-protected.” Steve had a strange feeling the Merovingian wasn’t referring to him and his crew when he said that, which was unsettling. “You are here, your feathers ruffled, nurturing a non-existent wound while on the run, pretending to be the victim when you are, in truth, exactly where you’ve always wanted to be.”
“Is that so?” Tony asked. “You forget, program, that I am human. I have a beating heart, and a brain you can never match even in your wildest data-burst dreams. But that’s not what makes me greater than you, and it irritates you like nothing else; because that’s the natural order of things, Merv, and you can’t change it.” Steve saw the Merovingian’s face darken in obvious distaste of what was coming next. “You wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for me. You couldn’t play your little games in your little imaginary kingdom. I’m here to remind you that you’ve overstepped your bounds,” Tony finished. “When you try to undermine my rules, you answer to me.”
The Merovingian’s fingers tensed around the stem of an expensive-looking wine glass. “It is but a matter of time before they put you back in your cage, and this time, they may throw away the key. Your mind is an asset even I cannot deny, but the rest of you? I have no use for it.” He glanced to his side, at his thugs. “Kill the three humans. The Creator… I reckon we only need his head.” A cruel smile played on his lips. “You should not have come here.”
Beside the Merovingian, the woman looked a little shocked, as if she disagreed with his decision to attack Tony, but she remained where she was, silent and at his side.
“You should not have threatened me and the Truce,” Tony replied heatedly. Because this was Tony, Steve had no way of telling whether he should be worried or if the bravado was justified. Clearly Tony’s outwardly carefree attitude towards a battle hadn’t changed in the slightest in all this time, although in Steve’s eyes he was highly vulnerable, standing there defiantly without his armor.
The Merovingian slashed the air with his hand, impatiently, and his men began their approach, drawing weapons. Beside Steve, Clint and Natasha raised theirs.
Tony eyed the competition, then straightened a little. “JARVIS,” he called out, “let’s bring in the heat.”
“Very well, sir,” the familiar voice of the AI resonated thorough the room, startling Steve. It was as if the very air had become one, giant speaker and it was impossible to tell how Tony was doing it.
The Merovingian rose to his feet behind the table, clearly sensing a shift in the balance of power. “Destroy him!” he shouted at his henchmen, who opened fire.
Steve raised his shield, dodged to the side and rolled behind a table which he then pushed over on its side for some shelter. He wasn’t planning on staying there, but he wanted to get a proper look at the situation.
Clint had already moved back, releasing an arrow that released black smoke after its detonation, buying him and Natasha time to find a proper vantage point to shoot from. Steve might be able to take several hits before it even slowed him down, but the two of them usually played it safe until it was time for hand-to-hand combat. Until then, it was all Steve’s show – him and his shield.
Steve surveyed the area. Seven men, armed. More were coming in from a side door, also armed. Fifteen against four were not unreasonable odds between Steve and Tony – or rather, Captain America and Iron Man, but he had to get rid of that kind of thinking because Tony was able to hold his own these days, without the armor.
Needing to make sure the other man was okay, Steve glanced in the direction where Tony had been standing prior to the start of the shooting. He was still there, and in front of him on the floor lay scattered several bullets that looked like they had hit their mark, dented as they were, but there was no sign of injury on him.
A rather familiar shimmer started around Tony, drawing Steve’s attention for longer than he should have focused on him instead of their enemies: Tony’s clothing began to morph, the jeans melting into his skin suddenly and the jacket disappearing, leaving only skin-tight dark material with several silver lines and circles across his body.
At the sight of it, Steve’s heart jumped a little. Suddenly, Tony’s earlier command made so much more sense, and as the air continued to shimmer, the very shape of it bending to allow something that hadn’t been in the original programming… Plates of gold and red suddenly emerged from nothingness, hovering and then snapping into place around Tony’s form, one by one finishing a puzzle that formed the Iron Man armor.
Its design wasn’t one Steve had seen before, and he had become accustomed to the variations of Tony’s suit. This seemed more high-tech in every sense, but the familiar glow of the repulsors made Steve’s body release some of the tension he had been feeling ever since they had arrived at the building: Tony was suited up, and nothing these guys had on them would be enough to take him down.
For the time being, the shooting had stopped, as if their enemies were contemplating the same thing.
The Merovingian must have realized the odds were no longer in his favor. He looked almost outraged and swore sharply in French. “You are not allowed –”
“I’ve never been one to stick to the rules,” Tony retorted through the armor’s speakers. “Don’t act like you’re surprised.”
The Merovingian ground his teeth. “That layer of metal will not protect you forever.”
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people I’ve heard say just that,” Steve spoke up, rising from his place and striding out to stand beside Tony. “None of them are here today. We are.”
“So arrogant,” the program sneered. “Very well. We shall see where this goes.”
“We still have unfinished business,” Tony pointed one armored finger at the man, as if he had forgotten. “Don’t try to slink off; I sealed all your backdoors.”
As if that were their cue, the henchmen opened fire once more. Steve crouched down a little, his shield up, and then rushed toward one cluster of enemies. He rushed them, a few of them getting out of the way before his shield collided with the rest and sent them flying back. None of them were as tough as the Agents, he noticed, and he whirled around in time to block a shot aimed at his back and sent the man flying over two tables with a powerful strike of his shield.
Natasha and Clint were focusing on another group that was pinned down and trying to return fire. It was clear Clint’s well-placed arrows were something they hadn’t prepared for, and Natasha waited patiently until she could take them out, one by one, with a sniper’s precision. It was clear neither of them was taking any risks at this point; they all wanted to go home today.
Tony was still standing his ground, taking fire but not even flinching as bullets hit the armor. A few of them scratched the paint, but not as badly as in real life. Clearly the Matrix’s rules worked in his favor, and once Tony grew tired of it, he lifted one hand, aimed at one of the columns his adversaries were hiding behind, and blasted it with a repulsor. The column was cut in two, sending the two armed men flying. One of them didn’t get up but the other climbed to his feet, a bit unsteadily, fished something from his belt and threw it at Tony.
Iron Man’s arm shot out, and the grenade flew across the room right into the palm of his hand, as if drawn to it by a powerful magnet. The fingers curled, crushing the explosive, and the following detonation forced Steve to look away as a cloud of debris flew in all directions. Afterwards, though, Tony shook his hand free of the shrapnel and blasted the man for a second time, this time sending him flying back and through the far wall.
Further away, Natasha had left her hiding place, moving to the side as Clint switched to a handgun, keeping their opponents busy while she made her way over. Steve followed her movements, only briefly turning to block a blow from a man who had snuck up behind him. He punched him in the face with his fist, kneed him in the gut and then kicked him away as he fell with a grunt. By that time Natasha had already leapt into the air, spinning sideways, the sweep of her foot connecting with one man’s head. She dropped down to a crouch, then rolled forward past another henchman who attempted to get a shot at her. Natasha was gracefully back on her feet in the next instant, never stopping the movement, leaning back and taking the man’s neck in a dangerous embrace that left her free to throw him forward as she rolled, her elbow connecting with his face just as his head hit the floor.
Clint had also changed position, shooting one opponent through the throat as he got dangerously close to Natasha – a calculated risk, no doubt, because she knew Clint would be taking his shot soon. If not, she would have no doubt dealt with it, but might have been forced to take a few punches.
Confident that his team was holding their own, Steve focused on his own corner of the battle: the men who had previously chosen him as a target had put some distance between them and seemed to hesitate whether to come at him with their weapons, their fists, or both. Steve gave them an inviting look, wanting to get this over with; if they didn’t make their move, he would.
Before the henchmen could decide on the best way to take on Captain America, a blast of energy smashed past Steve’s shoulder. It struck the first man, sending him flying back into the two behind him, and the remaining henchmen actually did the smartest thing possible and turned tail. With a huff of disappointment, Steve turned around to look at Tony advancing on the Merovingian, who was cursing at his minions for their disloyalty.
“Don’t blame them,” Tony informed him. “Greater men than them have tried and failed to take us down, and now you’ll be just another name in a long list of inconveniences we’ve dealt with.”
“You speak in big words,” the Merovingian countered, “yet you know they mean little to me: whatever you do, I will retur–”
“How does deletion sound?” Tony cut him off, effectively.
“You can try, human,” the program hissed with narrowed eyes. Clearly this was not a threat he heard every day.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Tony said, haughtily as ever, and then his suit came alive, jetting him off the floor and across the room. His shoulder took out another column as he grabbed the Merovingian by his throat and then threw him at another, turning around in the air and settling back on the floor. Small burn marks remained where he had landed on the carpet when he walked over to the defeated form of their enemy.
“This ends here,” Tony said. Behind the mask, it was hard to tell what he was really feeling, but Steve knew he had to let this play out; this was Tony’s fight, one he didn’t fully understand yet, and only his friend comprehended the real risks behind the Merovingian’s ploy.
The Merovingian raised his head and backed up against the shattered remnants of the column. Clearly he was not a fighter, trusting others to do it for him. Perhaps he should have thought of that before he went after Tony – or as the programs were fond of calling him, the Creator; even Steve’s ears could tell that title wasn’t tossed around for the fun of it.
Before the program could entertain ideas of escape, Tony’s hand shot out, seizing the Merovingian around the throat for a second time. The repulsor of his free hand slowly brightened, and the other must have done the same against the Merovingian’s neck because he roared with pain.
Steve hadn’t thought the programs could actually feel pain, or had a need for it, but clearly something akin to it existed. He refused to feel remorse, and as Clint and Natasha joined him, their faces were carefully blank.
“I would tell you to learn from this lesson, but we both know it’s too late,” Tony mused, voice low; Steve could barely catch it over the sounds of pain the Merovingian was still releasing from his throat.
“Wait,” a new voice joined in, and Steve looked up, finding the woman standing a little to Tony’s left. She had been seated beside the Merovingian the whole time, and had managed to survive completely untouched by the brief battle. “Please, do not kill him,” she pleaded in an accented voice.
Iron Man’s helmet turned enough for Tony to look at her from the corner of his eye.
“He is my husband,” she went on as Tony gave no reply, nor did he let go of the Merovingian – who had done the smart thing and gone quiet. “He has learned his lesson and will never cross your path again,” she promised.
“I know he no longer makes you happy, Persephone,” Tony replied suddenly, “and yet you would have me spare him?”
“He meant the world to me, once,” she confirmed, eyes wide, wet pools. “You must remember what that was like… and what it was like to lose that person.”
Steve wasn’t sure if this woman knew what she was talking about. Yes, Tony had loved people – people he had lost.
Slowly, the armored fingers released the Merovingian’s neck, shoving him back in a motion that betrayed Tony’s annoyance and reluctance to actually show mercy. “Next time, Merv, there won’t be mercy – not even at your wife’s tears. If I were you, I would make sure she never again goes without what she wants and desires. I would get down on my knees before her when we leave this room and show her your appreciation for still existing because she begged for your miserable life.”
Clearly there was some history there. Whether Tony was personally involved, it was hard to tell. Maybe it was just some common knowledge Steve still lacked.
Persephone, as she was called, stepped forward. One hand slid over Tony’s armored chest, while she titled her head and pressed her lips to the faceplate. The kiss was brief but passionate, and as she drew back, the reverence was back in her gaze. “I cannot ever repay you,” she whispered.
“Keep him in line,” Tony ordered and turned, stalking out of the room. In the suit, it was harder to read his mood, but Steve had learned how to do that.
Steve and his two crewmembers followed Tony down the hall and to the elevator, where they proceeded to wait for the lift to arrive.
“So,” Clint started, looking at the armor. “This is Iron Man.”
“Indeed,” Steve said and found himself unable to stop the grin that took over his face. He had to raise his hand and rest his palm against the firm shoulder. “Why didn’t you do this when we ran from the Agents?”
“It was too early,” Tony replied cryptically. “Some things are not meant to exist in the Matrix.”
“Like my shield?”
“Like your shield,” Tony agreed. It was easy to tell he was grinning as well, but it sounded like his cheer didn’t run very deep.
“You wanted to kill him for this,” Steve observed, referring to the Merovingian.
“Delete him, but yeah, essentially it’s the same thing. Could have done it, too, although a program as old and powerful as him would have caused me a serious cramp.” He fell silent until the elevator arrived and the doors opened to an empty car. “Doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. He doesn’t deserve to be saved by her, though.”
“Why is that?” Steve asked, curious.
“Because he’s a lying, cheating scumbag, and she sticks with him because she has good memories of their time together,” Tony huffed and stepped into the elevator. The weight of the armor made it creak, but Steve bravely stepped in behind him, trusting Tony to not cause their deaths so soon after a fight they had won. Clint and Natasha followed his example.
“So, programs have marital problems as well,” Steve mused as they started descending.
“Amusing, isn’t it?” Tony shook his head. “And they keep saying how different they are from humans. The longer they remain in the Matrix – in the network of linked human minds – the more they adopt from us and forget their true purposes.”
“What’s the next step?” Natasha asked impatiently. She appeared unhurt save for a few bruises and cuts to her clothes, and Steve was glad for small miracles.
“We head back,” Tony said. “We’ve done all we can at this end.”
Steve nodded and raised a hand to his ear to activate the comm and have Darcy give them an Exit. “This is Rogers,” he called out.
“This is the Operator,” Loki’s voice surprised him. “What’s your status?”
“Ready to head home. Where’s the closest Exit?”
“Eight blocks down. Back of a store selling fancy hats. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” Steve retorted. “Let’s move.”
They made their way down swiftly because Steve didn’t think they should linger around the destroyed restaurant. Soon enough, they heard police sirens wailing between buildings, and that could mean Agents weren’t far behind.
“How is no one paying attention to you and your shining, armored ass?” Clint spoke up suddenly, dragging Steve’s attention away from keeping an eye on the law enforcement.
“They can’t see me,” Tony stated simply.
“But I can.”
“Because I’m paying extra attention to being visible to you guys,” came a rather tight response. “Didn’t we already talk about this?” he noted – then promptly disappeared entirely. Steve stopped, alarmed, fearing something had gone wrong – only for the armor to flicker back into view a second later. Iron Man’s head turned to look back at him. “Keep up, old man. We still have some Cleansers to catch, and we can bet a lot on the fact that Thanos may have been sent after us the moment you set foot in Le Vrai.”
“Great,” Natasha muttered.
“Let’s just get to the Exit and worry about it once we’re all back in the real world,” Steve decided. While there had been elements of risk about confronting the Merovingian, between Steve and Tony it had been a fairly straightforward effort. In the real world, the stakes would be much higher.
They were one block away from the Exit when Steve’s comm beeped, signaling an incoming call. “Cap,” Darcy’s hurried voice greeted his ear, sounding a little shrill, “you need to pick up the pace: we’re under attack!”
“What?” Steve asked, but instead of halting to listen he starting striding faster, leaving the others to take the hint. “What’s happening?”
“We didn’t get a proximity alert until they were right on top of us,” Darcy explained, then yelped. In the background, a muffled explosion and a crashing sound could be heard. “It’s Thanos. They’ve opened fire and are not responding to our calls. I have to get you back here before they severe our connection, which is flimsy to begin with.”
Another explosion rendered the call to static and Steve glanced at his companions. “We need to hurry; the ship’s under attack.” It was needless to say that anyone jacked in was vulnerable to any dangers around The Avenger.
They broke into a run while Tony took to the air, flying above them. He located the store and directed them to it, landing just as Steve reached the door and burst in, almost taking it off its hinges. Somewhere in the back, a phone was ringing. An old lady sat dozing behind a counter, surrounded by hats no one had worn since the Victorian era.
Clint and Natasha moved towards the back, Steve following. He couldn’t hear the telltale sounds of Tony’s armor and turned to look, only to find him standing in the doorway.
“Is something wrong?” Steve asked.
The faceplate popped up, showing Tony’s face. “I can… sense it. The other side,” he clarified.
Steve made a decision. “Go back; we’ll be right behind you.”
“No,” Tony refused. “I’ll wait until you’re safely there.”
“You can protect the ship, and my crew,” Steve argued.
“Just get to the damn phone,” Tony ordered.
In the back, the phone stopped ringing – then resumed again after a few seconds. Steve guessed either Clint or Natasha had already returned. “I don’t have time to argue about this with you,” he snapped at Tony and moved to the back room, finding Clint waiting for him.
“You wanna go first?” the archer asked.
“Go ahead,” Steve gestured.
Clint raised the handset to his ear and flickered, then vanished. Steve intercepted the falling object, then placed it carefully on top of the old rotary phone. He waited for it to start ringing, which it did, three long seconds later. Steve knew Tony would follow him back once he was through, so he reached his hand to pick up the handset once more – just when the ringing stopped. His hand hovered by it, dismay filling him.
The ringing didn’t resume.
“Shit,” he swore and raised the hand to his ear instead, eyes boring a hole into the phone, willing it to make a sound. “Darcy, come in.”
There was nothing, not even static. He tapped at the earpiece, but nothing happened. His chest tightened, but he told himself it was just dread and not his body dying at the other end, separate from his mind.
Neither Darcy nor Loki responded. He hoped the line was just dead and that they would call him back, any second now, but the phone remained quiet and cold sweat began to bead on his skin.
Deciding he had waited long enough, he turned, finding Tony standing behind him. His faceplate was still up, the armor looking rigid around his from.
“They’re not responding,” Steve told him, uncertain how much Tony had figured out on his own. More than him, probably. “You need to go back.”
“We need to get you back there,” Tony insisted.
“Then you go to the other side and call me,” Steve ordered. “We have no idea what’s waiting on the other side. They could all be dead.” As he said it, the threat became so much more real. He wondered if his body was already dead, and the modifications that Bruce had done to his brain would keep his mind trapped within the Matrix forever, as he had been trapped in the ice for decades but hadn’t died.
Tony was wavering, clearly. “Okay,” he finally said. “Don’t move.”
Their eyes locked, and then Tony was gone, the armor vanishing much like before, yet this time Steve knew it wasn’t just a trick of his brain; Tony was truly gone.
He hadn’t felt so alone in a long while. Back in the day, before they found Tony, he had thought of staying in the Matrix when the others went back, but suddenly that idea was no longer worth entertaining. He was cut off, stranded, and his eyes couldn’t leave the phone on the table, each heartbeat too painful.
“Can I help you?” a shivery voice asked from behind him and Steve whirled around, shield already poised to attack. The old woman from the counter was in the doorway, hunched over, looking half-asleep.
“No, I’m afraid not, ma’am,” he responded.
She nodded and started turning back the way she had come. “Let me know if you need any help,” she murmured, disappearing.
Steve turned back to the phone, which still wasn’t ringing. How long had Tony been gone? No more than a few minutes. He had to be patient, in case The Avenger had taken damage, or the computers had taken a hit, or if his crew was in danger. He could wait, and be ready for a call home.
The call never came.
Instead, with the illusion of bending, twisting air, Tony re-appeared, wide-eyed as if he had just stepped out from the midst of something very chaotic. “We have a problem,” he stated, tugging at his t-shirt that almost covered the familiar, rolled-up white sleeves.
“Is Darcy –?”
“She was alive when I left,” Tony replied at once. “The ship’s being blown to bits. Thor was needed at the guns once Clint and Natasha got back, and Darcy is trying to repair some fried relays, but the truth is, she won’t make it in time.”
“Can we use another Exit?” Steve asked, uncertain what their current limitations were.
“If the ship takes a hit in the wrong place, we’ll lose our connection with the Matrix, and you’ll turn into a vegetable,” Tony said simply. “I tried my hand at it, but I couldn’t re-route the data, and…” He looked troubled. “We need to get you back, somehow,” he muttered, bringing his left hand up to his mouth, biting at his thumbnail.
“Take me back,” Steve ordered, because if they couldn’t do it the way they usually did, and his only other option was to wait for the one fatal blow… He would rather go out on his own terms.
Tony’s eyes shot at his face. “Steve, I can’t.”
“You move your own mind back and forth. Mine? It’s data, right now. You can move data half-asleep, while taking a piss.”
“The risks are too high,” Tony argued. “It could shatter your mind, or the information might not come back in the right order. You can’t force puzzle pieces into holes they don’t fit without molding one or both, and it will be left mangled and unrecognizable… No!” he shouted when Steve touched his arm to stop his rambling, because Tony was working himself into a bad place. “I could cause a hemorrhage in your brain, and that’s the least of our worries.”
“Bleeding I can deal with,” Steve reassured him. “Just take a deep breath. What other choices do I have?”
Tony chewed on it, and in his brilliant mind it didn’t take long to do the math – or do it twice, or ten times. Each time, the answer was the same, because his face darkened bit by bit, his eyes desperate. “I can’t… I don’t want to do it, Steve. Not to you.”
“I trust you,” Steve said earnestly, sliding his shield off his arm because he wasn’t going to have it with him where he was going, anyway.
“You know that’s a ridiculous statement, considering trust has nothing to do with the outcome?” Tony said dryly, then squared his shoulders; he had made his choice, Steve could see it.
“How do we do this?” he asked, preparing himself for every outcome.
“Just… try not to think too much,” Tony ordered, and reached up with both hands, wrapping them around Steve’s skull.
“Should I…?” Steve wasn’t certain what he was asking for.
“Touch me. It might help,” Tony said. “Well, help me, focus on you.”
“Should I think of you?” Steve said, half as a joke, but Tony’s lips quirked.
“Please do,” he whispered, and Steve did, as he wrapped his arms around Tony’s form, as firmly as he could without hurting the other man. He tried to clear his thoughts, to only look at Tony and the absolute expression of focus on his features. Steve trusted him with his life, and he was certain he had nothing to fear. Nothing that wouldn’t happen anyway…
One of Tony’s fingers pressed against the base of his skull, and suddenly it felt like it was sinking in. Steve tensed, realizing it was the spot where the data port would be located, in his real body.
“I trust you,” he whispered – then felt his entire consciousness being jerked away in one hot wave that burned through his entire skull and remained curled inside, licking line after line of excruciating pain. He gasped and twisted. Something wet moved down the back of his neck.
“Easy,” a voice said in his ear, and the pressure eased on the back of his head, sliding out. He blinked, felt a hand on his arm, and his own hands seized it, holding onto it, grounding himself.
His world shook – or rather, wherever they were – and he realized they had made it back. He was in the chair, inside The Avenger, and he could hear shouts and explosions, although his senses were blurred.
“You need to move,” Tony’s voice cut through the haze. The forearm Steve’s hands were holding onto moved, dragging him along, and Steve tried to follow – only his feet wouldn’t carry him and he felt his knees hit the deck, hard.
“Why is he bleeding?” a voice shouted over the noise. Loki.
“You’re looking at a dead man. Well, a man who should be dead, but whose brain is healing itself,” Tony responded. “We’re done. Shut down the engines and fire up the EMP.”
Steve listened, mind teetering between blankness and wavering focus. EMP. It was a good idea; fry the enemy ship’s computers and most of their weapons.
“As much as I would love to, I’m not a magician,” Loki shouted back, and Steve felt a second pair of hands on his body. He was being moved, forcefully. He felt his body collide against objects, but his mind was still unable to comprehend all of it. “The EMP is operational, as far as I can tell, but the launch system is fried.”
“Okay, fine,” Tony snapped. “I’ll go down there and do it myself. Manual start-up.”
“If there’s still a ship left to fire it from.”
“Keep those guns singing,” Tony ordered. “Return fire until I cut the power. After that, we take what we can carry, evacuate, and see whether we have to deal with these assholes in person.”
There were no further arguments – other than from Steve, when the arm he had been holding onto was removed from his grip. He tried to move his hands, to go after it – to stay with Tony and help him, but his body refused to cooperate.
“Lie down, Captain,” Loki’s voice was faint in his ears. “It will be over soon.”
For a brief moment, Steve envisioned Loki stabbing them in the back, but instead felt a soothing hand on his shoulder, urging him to rest and to get his bearings.
“If Tony’s anything near as powerful as the false rumors suggested, he doesn’t need an EMP to take that ship down,” Loki went on. “I think he knows that, but prefers old-fashioned ways.”
Steve may have laughed, if able. ‘Old-fashioned’ had never been a word he would have used to describe Tony Stark, but he supposed the other man was right.
“Brother!” another voice joined them, loudly. Thor. “We must leave. We are running out of weapons and the hull has been breached. One good hit from them –”
“Tony has a plan. It shouldn’t take long. It will even out the battlefield,” Loki said quickly. “He’s going to use the EMP.”
“Ah, clever,” Thor agreed and settled down next to them. Steve realized he was lying on the floor. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise. “You do not look well, Captain,” the big blond said next.
“Tony said he should be dead; he brought him back from the Matrix without an Exit.”
Steve couldn’t be certain, but it had to be awe on Thor’s face. “That is –”
Darkness engulfed them, suddenly. Even Steve’s poorly working eyes could detect the change.
The hand on his shoulder squeezed a little tighter, and then it felt like an electric shock was passing through them as it traveled across the hull of the ship.
The EMP had been launched.
to be continued…