Del Rion's website - Eradicate (page 1)
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Eradicate (page 1)






Story Info



Title: Eradicate

Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)

Fandom: The Avengers & Iron Man (MCU)

Era: post-Iron Man 3

Genre: Drama, angst

Rating: M / FRM

Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Happy Hogan, J.A.R.V.I.S., Harley Keener, Pepper Potts, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor. Brief cameos: Nick Fury, Tony’s bots (DUM-E & U)

Pairing: Pepper/Tony

Summary: In order to overcome his anxiety issues and worsening nightmares, Tony repurposes Extremis and proceeds to eliminate memories he can do without. However, treading the line between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’ is difficult, and Tony begins to lose touch with the things that are essential to his life.
Complete.

Written for: Marvel Bang 2013.
Also fills the “amnesia” square on my card on Trope Bingo’s Round 2.

Artist: viviantanner (link to banner)

Warnings: Some canonical violence, language, PTSD, selective amnesia. Spoilers for Iron Man 3.

Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Universal Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.

Beta: Mythra

Feedback: Much appreciated and welcomed with the burning heat of Extremis.


About Eradicate: The premise for this story was simple enough: Tony, still plagued by his nightmares after the encounter with Aldrich Killian and AIM, comes up with a solution to get rid of them. Only, there are drawbacks, and Tony’s never been good at stopping before it’s too late.

I’m not entirely certain if this story represents all that I wanted it to, from character interaction to the angst and fear of losing a person you know and love. However, I hope people enjoy this story and find subtle notes of desperation and sadness within the text.


Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

Eradicate








Written for Marvel Bang 2013. Also fills a square on my Trope Bingo’s Round 2 card (square: “amnesia”).





Eradicate



The darkness curls around him, more suffocating than a tightly drawn blanket; it steals his breath and presses down on his lungs with more pressure than the depths of the ocean. Ice breaks through his skin, seeping in, freezing and killing him inch by inch – unless he does something.

Unless he burns hotter than the cold.

The only thing that exists between him and the icy darkness is the fire, and he breathes into it, fills his lungs and lets it burn, to rage deep within his body, growing until it’s strong enough to breach the ice and the darkness, to drive it all back in an assault that will leave him free of the fear and –

Burning.

Something was burning.

“SIR!”

The voice – J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice – wasn’t coming from the bedroom, but somewhere much further off. Tony tried to breathe, to properly wake up, and then he realized he was sitting in a cocoon of fire, the flames licking up the walls.

“Pepper!” Tony jumped up, not feeling the heat – not with his body generating more of it in a frantic attempt to push away the darkness that wasn’t even real. “Pepper?!” he looked around frantically but couldn’t find her. It was like an entirely different nightmare – one of hers, to be exact, before Tony had found a way to stabilize the Extremis in her body.

“Sir, Miss Potts has been evacuated from the building,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice reached him again. “I suggest you do the same, sir. The fire department is on its way.”

Tony’s chest rose and fell rapidly as he stumbled out of the inferno that was their bedroom. Outside, the sprinklers were working tirelessly, the hallway a drenched mess, but for some reason the same wasn’t happening in the bedroom. One last glance at the burning room told him why: the ceiling was burned and melted, the sprinklers along with it.

“Sir,” the AI started again, the speakers much closer this time, “perhaps some clothes?”

Tony looked down at himself. He had been wearing a tank top and shorts upon going to bed, but now he was naked, not even the smoking remains of his clothes clinging to his skin. Nodding, he veered to the side and found the laundry room. He stood there for a moment, his skin steaming as the high temperature met the cool water from the sprinklers. With effort he managed to pull back the heat, to stop himself from radiating it, then grabbed a dirty pair of sweats and a hoodie, pulling them on and moving to the front door.

Outside, a crowd had gathered. Pepper stood nearest to the door, her hands covering the lower half of her face; relief appeared instantly on her face when Tony walked out, and she gave him a brief, tense hug before Tony pulled away and sat a good distance away from the people, trying to work through the lingering effects of the panic attack that still tightened his chest.

Off to one side, Pepper greeted the firefighters and managed the situation, leaving Tony to battle his demons.

- - -

Pepper had been woken up by J.A.R.V.I.S.

The instant she was awake, though, she knew why: heat radiated from beside her in bed, and Tony’s skin was aglow with orange-tinted light. She didn’t waste time trying to wake him up from his nightmare: she simply scrambled up, took her clothes, bag and phone, leaving the bedroom. She stopped in the hallway to slip into her clothes, heart hammering in her chest, and behind her the bedroom went ablaze with fire.

Several instincts told her to scream, to shout – to go back for Tony.

Rational thinking and J.A.R.V.I.S.’s firm urging kept her moving towards the door, though, as the sprinklers were activated. She could see smoke once she stood outside, the inferno intensifying behind the bedroom window. Even though she knew J.A.R.V.I.S. would try to wake Tony up and the man would probably be fine, she was still afraid.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened, but it hadn’t gotten this bad in the past. Perhaps that was why the AI had wanted her to leave the premises; J.A.R.V.I.S. must have known it was worse, somehow.

The bedroom window exploded from the heat.

People were gathering, murmuring. Someone asked Pepper if she was okay, and she simply nodded. She kept looking at the doorway, waiting – telling herself she wasn’t terrified, that she was simply pressing her hands to her face to keep herself from inhaling all of the smoke.

Eventually Tony stumbled out of the door, skin no longer glowing. He looked nothing like himself in the rumpled, dirty clothes, his face still haunted. Half his mind was probably still in the dream, and the panic attack that was sure to echo in its footsteps.

Pepper had to hug him, briefly, to make sure he was in one piece. It wasn’t what Tony needed right now, though, so she let him go and managed the situation as fire trucks arrived, telling them the flames were contained and how to best get to them. Now that Tony was out, she felt calm and collected, in control, and aiding in the fire extinguishing gave her a job to do.

Every once in a while her eyes moved over to Tony, who was sitting on a wooden bench under a nearby tree. The hoodie he had grabbed on the way out was open at the chest, unzipped, showing smooth, untarnished skin where the arc reactor used to be. His expression was tired and defeated, his fists balled up and shoulders tight. It hurt her to not be able to help him through this, but they had tried before and it just made them both feel worse.

So, Pepper left him to it, until the situation was cleared up and she could go back to trying to talk Tony into sleeping in bed with her. It would take days before he would agree, all the while cracking mirthless jokes that he would be better off sleeping in the tub.

Pepper had been the same, while Tony had worked on stabilizing the Extremis in her system. She knew what he feared most.

‘I have to protect the one thing I can’t live without.’

Tony looked up, briefly, meeting her eyes. An apology sat there, invisible to anyone else – anyone who hadn’t feared that their next nightmare would set the bed on fire and their lover with it.

- - -

“Fire-retardant sheets. What a fucking joke,” Tony snorted and kicked his chair across the room. The bots looked at it go and quickly made themselves scarce.

“I believe the sheets were not designed for –”

“I know, J,” Tony sighed, pressing a hand to his face. “I know the math. I know the temperature limits. I know a goddamn dream triggers enough heat to bake an entire town’s fucking Thanksgiving meal!” He wasn’t really mad about the fire. Okay, so he was, because he and Pepper were in between actual homes and he had rather liked that place. Now the bedroom needed to be re-done, the structures to be checked for fire, heat and water damages, and they were going to spend more time in a hotel. Not that Tony had anything against that, but in all honesty he would have preferred his own bed – and workshop, because even his private work area at Stark Industries’ headquarters felt wrong.

The real problem wasn’t the bedroom, the hotel, or even the room he was currently standing in, equipped with sufficient tech to do whatever the hell he pleased. The real issue was that Tony couldn’t sleep, and when he did, he had nightmares.

“What goes around, comes around,” he murmured.

“Sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. asked.

“Nothing,” Tony waved the AI off and walked across the room to fetch his chair, grabbing it and pulling it back to the computers. The wheels barely made a sound on the smooth floor, but the chair creaked slightly as he sat on top of it.

He really missed his old shop, in his old house. All the stuff…

Tony felt a tightness atop his lungs, where the arc reactor used to sit. Now, it was a signal of something else, and he cleared his mind of the debris of the past. He had survived all that. He had come to terms with a lot of things, about being Iron Man and what the armors meant to him as a person. He had faced off against the demons he had created and survived more or less unscathed. In the process he had gotten Pepper hurt, but he had also gotten her through it, and she was okay now. She was also still with him, for some unfathomable reason – even now that he was starting to regress to being as much of a mess as he used to be.

The problem was that where he used to simply toss and turn and moan, now the Extremis that Tony had injected into himself was acting out, just as it had last night. Tony wasn’t going to go ‘too hot’ for his body to handle, but he sure as hell went too hot for anything else.

Tony opened a heavily encrypted file, logged in and decrypted it, then stared at the lines of data. He could possibly tweak the Extremis a little, to lessen the chances of another fiery nightmare, but that was simply a matter of extinguishing the symptom. Everyone always talked about dealing with the problem – the illness – and Tony knew what that was.

For years now he had tried to cope with experiences and memories no one should have to carry with them. He was tired of all the shit and the barely contained terror that was literally making him lose it. He’d thought panic attacks were the last straw, but even they could get worse and it was starting to affect his mental state in ways he didn’t like.

Pepper had told him to go to therapy.

Happy and Rhodey had agreed with her.

Hell, Banner had told him that talking to him wasn’t going to do the trick.

Tony supposed telling people to get themselves some therapy was an easy way to sidestep a problem and wash their hands of dealing with it. However, he wasn’t going to start pouring his problems out to a stranger. Most of his issues? They were like the encrypted Extremis data, so secret most of them weren’t even written down in a file somewhere, locked away from prying eyes. Who was Tony going to tell about Obie, Afghanistan, the arc reactor, a wormhole in the sky or an alien invasion? Who was going to take him seriously when he talked about people burning up from the inside but who were most certainly not dying from that?

Sure, maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. would have someone qualified enough, but Tony had a distrust of the organization on the best of days, and he wasn’t going to sit down with one of their best and brightest and pour out the darkest secrets of his soul in an attempt to find a way out.

Besides, talking about the problem was still about managing the symptom, not the origin.

Tony narrowed his eyes at the partial Extremis code in front of him. “J.A.R.V.I.S., open the old armor data banks and any bio-scan feeds you have from any of my freak outs. Let’s get some comparisons going.”

“Freak outs, sir?”

“Panic attacks, partial ones or the whole shebang. Also, any data we have of the last flight of Mark VII.” He wouldn’t say ‘wormhole’ or ‘New York’, because those still caused him some nasty sensations.

“What are you looking for?”

“Readings. Heart rate, blood pressure – brain activity. Go as far back as when I got back from Afghanistan. I want to track down this son of a bitch and take it down for good.”

“Sir…”

“What, J?”

“Perhaps you should have a few more hours of sleep before starting a new project.”

“Trust me, J.A.R.V.I.S.: if I’m onto something here, I’ll never have another night of undisturbed sleep in my life,” Tony enthused. He was a genius, and he had just thought of a way to remove the problem.

After a few days, he had his epiphany – after which it was all just a matter of making that epiphany into reality.

“Alright, you ready?” Tony asked You, who was holding the camera.

The bot let out a sound of assent.

“Okay,” Tony took a deep breath and looked at the camera, checking its angle from a monitor next to him. “The following test… a procedure, has a very simple goal: to stop the brain from being triggered by traumatic experiences. If I’m right, the Extremis has the capability to recognize and isolate fear patterns associated with certain pre-disclosed parameters. Stopping those signals will erase their effect long before any actual physical responses manifest, exempli gratia, a panic attack.” He looked to the side, pondering for a moment what to say next. He hadn’t actually prepared a speech – he rarely did – but now that he was here…

“In the event that something goes wrong,” he went on, looking at the camera again, “there is a reset button. Or, a code, which should reboot the Extremis, so to speak, and make it forget it ever learned this nifty trick. However,” Tony added forcefully, “I don’t see how this could become a problem. A trauma needs to heal, and if it cannot, things will just get worse. So, I’m blocking it. I deserve to be able to sleep at night; to go into the city I grew up in and be able to look up to the sky. I want to be able to not be afraid all the time.” He swallowed, voice growing a bit thicker, then stood up.

You moved along with him, keeping him in the camera’s view as he moved closer to the bot.

“If something does go horribly wrong,” Tony noted as an afterthought, “I want Pepper to know I love her. I’m doing this for you. For us.” He moved his hand to switch off the recording and plucked the camera from You’s grip, placing it on a table.

“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up, “the machines are ready.”

“Good,” Tony nodded, trying to remove the uneasy tremor from his voice as he stripped off his shirt.

“You don’t need to do this.”

“I think I do,” Tony told his AI and looked up at the nearest camera that served as one of J.A.R.V.I.S.’s many eyes. “I want to get better, J, and to do that, I need to be unafraid.” He stepped over to a table, sat down on top of it and placed a specially designed helmet on his head. It tightened around his skull and Tony lay down, trying to relax. “Commence reprogramming,” he ordered and saw one of the screens by the table light up.

Needles plunged in at the back of his neck and he grimaced against the pain, then relaxed as a sedative was injected into his system for the duration of the procedure.

- - -

Happy knocked on the door of Pepper’s office and entered. The woman looked up and gave him a smile, standing up from her desk. “Happy,” she smiled and crossed the room to meet him half-way, embracing him quickly.

With an uneasy shrug, Happy straightened his suit jacket when she pulled back. “How are things?” he asked. “I hear you had a… fire at the apartment.” It had become necessary to be tactful about such subjects in the past: at first it had been Pepper’s issue with the Extremis, and now Tony was going through the same thing. On most days, Happy didn’t understand why his former boss had willingly injected himself with the thing that almost got them all killed. Sure, he understood Tony’s need to get the shrapnel and the arc reactor out of his chest, but this seemed a bit extreme.

Pepper gave him a small smile that hid the uneasiness the subject raised. “Minor damages. We were prepared.”

Which meant they had been expecting it. Happy didn’t know how they lived with that kind of fear in their daily lives. “Tony’s okay?” he checked next.

This time there was no hiding the uneasiness. “He’s been locked in his lab for over a day now. I’ve tried to get him out, but he’s on lock down.”

“Do you need me to get someone to open the door?” Happy asked. Tony’s current shop was in the Stark Industries R&D building, and as the Head of Security, Happy had the right to get in there if need be.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as opening the door,” Pepper smiled wryly. “He might be on the premises, but he’s fortified that place by now and no one’s getting in without his express command, you know that.”

Happy guessed she was right.

“I had hoped you might go down there and try your luck,” Pepper went on.

Happy nodded. He wasn’t sure it would work, seeing as he and Tony… well, it was complicated – had been ever since Happy woke up at the hospital. The events following his incident at the Chinese Theater had been recapped for him, but he didn’t need a translation for the look of guilt that sat on Tony’s face whenever the two of them were in the same room. Tony might not have been directly involved this time around, but he blamed himself for what had happened to Happy. It had strained their interactions ever since, but that guilt might just be enough to leverage him out of his workshop.

“I’ll let you know how it turns out,” Happy promised.

Pepper smiled at him and watched him leave her office.

Happy took the elevator down to the restricted research level and headed out to Tony’s corner of the building. It had been a while since he worked within the SI headquarters and people were still getting used to that. Mostly Tony was still a recluse and his workshop just happened to be situated on the premises.

As Pepper had guessed, Happy’s access code didn’t work, nor was there any response to his buzzes and knocks. Not even J.A.R.V.I.S. replied to his queries. “Tony!” he eventually shouted, guessing that even if he wasn’t letting anyone in, Tony might be listening. “Pepper’s worried.” When that got no reply, he looked up and down the empty hallway then faced the door again. “Don’t make me blow up this door. It will come out of your paycheck.” That was a ridiculous threat, but he was the Head of Security and Tony had better respect that –

The door opened with an almost inaudible hiss and Tony poked his head out. “Happy!” he grinned. He looked sweaty, hair poking up in all directions. “Come on in.”

Happy didn’t believe for a second that his threat to blow up the door had worked, but he slipped inside and walked further into the lab as Tony closed the door behind them. There didn’t appear to be any projects lying around – no super-secret tech that Tony wanted to hide from the world until it was done. A suit of armor stood on the far wall, powered down – there was no way Tony would ever not have one of those lying around, arc reactor or no – and eventually Happy looked at the man he had been responsible for once upon a time.

“What’s up?” Tony asked casually.

“You tell me,” Happy deflected the question.

“You look good,” Tony went on, circling Happy and getting himself a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’m glad you’re here, actually,” he went on before Happy could comment on the half-assed compliment. “I could use your help.”

“On what?”

“A test.”

Happy looked around again. “What kind of test?”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Tony came back over to him and sat down on a table. “I just want to talk.”

“About?”

“I don’t know,” Tony shrugged, then immediately went on talking: “New York, maybe.”

That set off warning bells ringing in Happy’s head. “You never want to talk about New York. You get a shade paler whenever someone just mentions the city – or the state.”

Tony pursed his lips, not appreciating the comment, but shrugged again. “Well, we can talk about that, or maybe Killian and the whole AIM business. Did we ever tell you the whole story?”

“Yeah, you did,” Happy snapped. “What’s going on?”

“I’m conducting a test,” Tony explained. “I was hoping you would help me and not be cantankerous on purpose.”

“I’m not being… cantankerous!” Happy argued. “I’m worried about you. Everyone is.”

“Well, you can stop with that because I’m fine. Better than fine, I think. That’s why we’re doing this test, right now,” Tony motioned between himself and Happy. “Help me out, will ya?”

“How is talking about New York going to help you?” Happy challenged, purposefully throwing the much avoided word in there.

Tony inhaled, as if to better ingest the question, then smiled. “Just like that.”

Happy didn’t get it, but at the same time he noticed Tony wasn’t getting tense or nervous; he sat there, calm and smiling as if he had just gotten the keys to the kingdom. “Are you high?” Happy asked, suddenly suspicious.

“Better,” Tony grinned. “I’m cured.”

- - -

It worked.

Well, of course it worked because he had made sure it would, but theory and practice were often two very different things and there had been certain concerns…

The fact was, though, that Tony could talk his own ears off about New York City and he didn’t need to go la la la in his brain because a mention of the city was no longer threatening to pull a trigger next to his temple.

To make sure it wasn’t an accident, he went over scans and readings of the wormhole the Tesseract had opened above Stark Tower on that fateful day that the Avengers got together to fight Loki and the Chitauri, and none of the images, readings or facts thrown at him caused a single twist or flutter in his stomach.

Tony was completely calm for the first time since the Battle of New York, and it almost brought him to tears.

Seeing Happy had been a bit harder than Tony had expected, but he had turned that into another test – which had been a sound success; it had proven that he could broach previously painful topics with other people.

Of course a friendly chat hadn’t been what letting Happy into his shop had really been about; ever since Happy had almost died, Tony had been riddled with guilt. The memory of his friend lying in that hospital bed, possibly to never awaken again… it had been hard. It had fueled his actions while he looked for the Mandarin, badly clouding his judgment at times, and even after Happy got better and life resumed, Tony had still had a hard time looking the man in the eye and not feeling responsible for the scars he would carry for the rest of his life.

That guilt had colored his nightmares for months, playing out in different scenarios, some too vague to be recognized as what they truly were, but now all those nasty little sensations were gone. Tony was rationally aware that Happy had almost gotten killed because of him, but he no longer felt the overwhelming and unnecessary terror and helplessness because of it.

He was able to move on, finally.

Wasn’t that what life was all about?

- - -

Everyone could see Tony was a changed man. Not just because he had a glowing disc missing from his chest, but because of the fire that was missing from his eyes.

Clint understood it, though: a man did anything he had to in order to cope. Sometimes that meant deadening yourself against the world. No one knew the extent of the trauma Tony brought back with him from the wormhole – and not from lack of trying either, because S.H.I.E.L.D. felt like that sort of business was their business – but it had obviously left its mark on Tony.

A mark he was now trying to cover up.

He was doing a good job of it, too; Clint was a bit of an expert on dealing with traumatic experiences, the worst of them all having taken place shortly before Tony’s impromptu visit to the other edge of space. If Clint hadn’t been who he was, he might have asked Tony for pointers.

The Avengers hadn’t been in the same room together since their post-battle Shawarma meal, and had last seen each other in Central Park when Thor and Loki took off with the Tesseract. There had been small disasters here and there, keeping individual Avengers busy, but Nick Fury had finally gotten the idea that everyone should sit their asses down for a friendly chat, and so they were all dragged up to the Helicarrier.

Even Thor was present, having recently arrived back on Earth, and perhaps that was why Fury had chosen this time for the Avengers to meet. It was a small miracle all of them showed up, although the only real wild card had been Bruce Banner, yet the scientist arrived with Tony as if the two of them had been in touch. It was entirely possible that was the case, seeing how cozy they had been from the moment they met – according to Natasha; Clint, obviously, hadn’t been there to see it.

Everyone milled around the room, greeting each other – rather, Thor was making his way around, loudly, while Clint and Natasha had sort of huddled on one side with Steve, watching the situation unfold. The Asgardian had halted beside Bruce and Tony, who were in the middle of some kind of argument. It sounded like they had been at it for a while now:

“You’re just being a prickly bear because I had the guts to change the game,” Tony was saying.

“I’ve told you I understand why you decided to inject yourself with the Extremis. I’ve also told you that I understand why you underwent the surgery. What I am trying to tell you is that what you’re doing now is dangerous, Tony!” Bruce snapped. He looked like a man uncomfortably close to the edge. “Have you looked at yourself lately?”

“Right before I left the men’s room,” Tony replied snidely. “I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the latest tweak –”

“Shouldn’t that tell you something?” Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I told you to talk to someone – a professional.”

“I talked to you!”

“I’m not that kind of doctor!”

“Oh, so you’re just pissed because I head-shrinked myself instead of pouring thousands of dollars into the pockets of some greedy psychiatrist?”

Bruce lowered his face and pinched the bridge of his nose like he was getting a headache. “You’re being obstinate because you know I’m right and you don’t want to admit it.”

“Yeah?” Tony’s eyes narrowed, just a little.

“My friends!” Thor intervened at that moment, so loudly that the scientists couldn’t dismiss him. “It is good to see you.”

“Sure,” Tony said facetiously and turned his attention back to Bruce, who was looking at Tony with a tired yet alarmed expression.

Thor cleared his throat, loudly. “We –”

“We’re in the middle of something here,” Tony snapped, pointing at himself and Bruce.

“Actually, I think we’re done,” Bruce argued, softly this time, and took a step away from Tony.

For a moment Tony looked like he might lunge at Bruce, but then he took a deep, steadying breath and nodded. Clint wasn’t sure but it seemed like Bruce was seeing something the rest of them weren’t.

“What’s all that about?” Steve asked in a low tone.

“After the AIM mess, Tony injected himself with nanotechnology called Extremis,” Natasha supplied. “It enabled him to get rid of the arc reactor and get the shrapnel removed from his chest. What else it does is anyone’s guess.”

“What do you think it does?” Steve asked her.

“Let’s just say there have been reports of fires in some of the locations Tony’s been staying at, and you’ve probably seen S.H.I.E.L.D.’s file concerning AIM’s experimentations.”

Steve nodded. It looked like he was going to need to keep an eye on Tony, just in case – not that it changed anything from before.

Clint wondered what all that had to do with Bruce’s obvious distress. Tony looked like a man who had his life in order, but he was also a person of many faces, which meant it could be a front. A damn good one, though.

“Should we get started?” Steve offered.

“What did we come here for, cookies and lemonade?” Tony turned around, as if for the first time realizing there were people in the room other than Bruce.

Steve’s lips tightened at once. “We’re here because Fury asked us to come.”

“So this isn’t that different from a play-date.”

“Yet here you are,” Steve shot back, and Clint couldn’t help a small smile.

“Here I am,” Tony said flatly as he selected the chair closest to him and sat down – then promptly lifted his feet onto the table and leaned back.

“Get your feet off the table,” Steve ordered.

Tony just snorted. He was probably only doing it in the first place because it would get on Steve’s nerves – which it did, because Steve stepped forward and forcibly swiped Tony’s feet off the table. In a heartbeat Tony was on his feet, facing Steve, and Clint knew he didn’t imagine the brief, intense lightshow that took place in the brunette’s eyes. “Want me to get in the suit, Captain?” Tony asked. “Go a few rounds?”

“Tony,” Bruce said from the side.

“Stark!” Fury bellowed from the door, striding in. “Captain,” he added, less loudly. “I see we’re getting acquainted. Again.”

Neither man stepped back. Clint had a feeling he was getting a glimpse of the rather infamous argument that had taken place while he was still under Loki’s control. Not a time he liked to think about, and for that reason he assumed Tony wouldn’t either, but it wasn’t the same for them.

Steve was standing tall, towering half a head above Tony, determined to see this one to the end. The challenge was accepted head-on before Tony suddenly frowned and the lights seemed to move from his eyeballs to the skin of his face before disappearing entirely. The frown vanished as if it had never been there, Tony’s facial muscles relaxed, and he blinked as if coming out of a reverie. He also stepped back as if finding himself in another person’s space without intending to be there, then took a few steps and selected another chair to sit in as if nothing had happened.

Their leader blinked in confusion and stared after Tony, then swiftly looked over at Bruce, as if expecting an answer from him. Perhaps Steve was onto something because Bruce looked far more worried than he had during his argument with Tony earlier. “What was that?” Steve asked in a low tone.

“This is what we were arguing about,” Bruce nodded at Tony, who raised an eyebrow back at him, as if not remembering the whole ordeal. “He’s playing with fire and refuses to see the dangers in it.”

“I’m fine,” Tony stated from the table, expression serene.

Clint decided that Tony was lying – and the worst part of it was that the man himself no longer knew that.

- - -

Tony hadn’t remembered it being this easy with the Avengers. Sure, at first it was like being tossed into a small room with a group of people he couldn’t stand and didn’t trust, but it got easier and eventually Tony could no longer remember what the problem had been in the first place.

He was on a team led by Captain America – which was something he had childishly dreamt about for most of his schoolboy years. There was also an honest-to-god alien demi god present who wielded a hammer whose power Tony was still trying to figure out and fit inside some kind of understandable parameters. Of course there was also a man of intellect rivaling Tony’s own – who transformed into an unstoppable force when provoked – and a couple of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s finest agents.

It was like a club with the coolest of weirdoes, and Tony had never really been part of any club where he could be himself.

He didn’t even care that Fury didn’t have a mission lurking in the shadows; Tony might have dragged his feet in coming here, but the fact was that he was an Avenger, and only five more people in the world shared that title with him. Sure, there was only one Iron Man, but some things were greater than a man in a can.

As Fury went on about some general goals for world safety, Tony looked at his fellow superheroes. Most of them pretended to be listening, but Tony would bet half his fortune on the fact that they were yearning for physical stimuli. Bruce was drawing physics notes on a piece of paper, instead of taking actual notes from Fury’s speech; Thor was perhaps the most obvious of all, gazing out the window on the far wall; Steve was looking at Fury but appeared to be counting the threads on the black shirt beneath the customary leather jacket; Clint and Natasha were both checking their weapons.

Tony’s eyes lingered on the only female in the room – a woman he had once tried to trust, but which had… backfired a little. He frowned and tried to recall that moment, committed to memory with venom on his tongue. He recalled the morning after his birthday party, the box of doughnuts in his lap and Fury’s voice barking orders at him. He remembered the small pang of betrayal when he realized ‘Natalie’ was actually working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and had gotten so close to him and his personal life, but there was something else, too…

The memory of a needle jabbing deep into his neck, the burn brief and then gone. The memory vanished; a moment of unpleasantness which was then scrubbed clean.

Natasha looked at him, feeling his eyes on her.

Tony gave her an easy half-smile.

The burn of betrayal subsided into a low throbbing, the painful scratch-marks gone; the Extremis smoothed away the distrust that had bothered him ever since that meeting at the diner.

- - -

Natasha knew the S.H.I.E.L.D. files didn’t contain all there was to know about Tony’s current condition. There were pages and pages’ worth of psych evaluations done from a distance and mission reports from the scuffle between Iron Man and AIM. There was even a completely separate file about Pepper Potts’ involuntary time spent as an Extremis test subject.

Tony Stark was notorious for his unwillingness to let strangers into the details of his life, even as an Avenger and a consultant for S.H.I.E.L.D. That forced every entry to remain rather vague, filled with a lot of guesswork – and if someone hit too close to home, there was a danger of getting hacked by Tony and having all that data removed or edited.

The files told one version of a story. Natasha had heard another; she still stayed in contact with Pepper, more so recently than right after Tony’s struggle with the palladium poisoning. She had even kept tabs on Happy Hogan, to follow his recovery in exchange for a few notes of intel; Happy was protective of Tony and Pepper both, but Natasha had once been an ally, and sometimes Happy liked to have a confidante.

Fury would have liked Natasha to include all her gathered information in Tony’s files, but she knew better. Not only would Tony see it as a threat and a breach of his privacy, but they were both Avengers now and Natasha had to carefully evaluate her loyalties.

She had decided, early on, that she would rather take Fury’s dark looks than to be on Tony’s bad side – not to mention all the people who backed Tony up.

However, this new development was more alarming than random fires triggered by Tony’s nightmares, and Natasha wasn’t certain she was aware of all there was to it – which begged the question of whether others, including Pepper, were aware of what Tony was up to. It was clear something had happened, recently – something that Bruce knew about, and which made him concerned.

It was the very thing that made Tony stand up to Steve one second and then back down the next, as if none of it had ever happened; as if Tony and Steve were the best of friends. The change wasn’t that glaringly obvious, of course, but Natasha had made leaps in her career just by watching people, and she had watched Tony longer than most. She could tell from his body language alone when he was comfortable, and she had never seen him relax around Steve – or the rest of the team, Bruce being an occasional exception.

Her biggest clue was the smile Tony gave her. Natasha knew that Tony had never forgiven her for the needle incident, and while he was fine with them being in close quarters and fighting on the same side, there was still an impenetrable wall between them, raised to defend him against the threat she posed. That wall was suddenly gone and Natasha felt deeply uneasy.

She looked to the side and met Clint’s gaze. Clearly these things weren’t lost on him, either. However, Clint didn’t seem all that concerned, and for good reason: he was still struggling to come to terms with what Loki had made him do, and perhaps he viewed Tony’s issues as a similar experience to his own. Clint would give Tony so much leeway that the harm would be done before Tony knew he should stop. Natasha didn’t blame Clint for that, but it was starting to feel like she would have to watch both men, to make sure they didn’t make a mess of themselves while trying to cope with their personal demons.

Fury finished talking, perhaps clueing in to the fact that no one was really listening – not even Steve. The Avengers were not a team of highly disciplined soldiers, and perhaps this little meeting was an attempt to simply get them into the same room for a few hours.

Tony’s phone chimed suddenly, snapping most of them out of whatever reverie they had fallen into. The man pulled the device from his pocket and stared at the screen, then pressed a finger against his ear. “Yeah?” he answered and listened for a bit. His face darkened.

“What is it?” Bruce asked from across the table.

Tony didn’t answer; he kept listening, then pushed his chair away from the table and stood up.

“What’s going on?” Steve repeated Bruce’s question and stood as well. Whether he was going to follow Tony out or stop him from leaving the room remained to be seen.

“The Tower’s under attack,” Tony informed them distractedly. “Pepper’s caught in the crossfire. They’re trying to get her…”

Natasha stood as well, as did everyone else.

Fury’s comm beeped an instant later and he must have received word of the events because he nodded grimly. “Get going,” he ordered, smartly not trying to suggest an alternative approach.

“We’ll be right behind you,” Steve added and looked at the rest of them for confirmation before the Avengers filed out of the room. Tony broke off from the rest of them, pocketing his phone and ordering someone – probably J.A.R.V.I.S. – to prep the suit.

“They’re getting a Quinjet ready for us,” Clint noted as Tony veered to the right to get to his suit.

Steve nodded and told his team to go suit up and meet at the aircraft.

Natasha hoped the situation didn’t escalate before they got there, but anyone who planned an attack on the new Avengers Tower was asking for trouble – and had probably come prepared for it.

- - -

When Tony dodged past the last building to get to the Tower, the nearby streets were filled with chaos: police cars were stuck amidst other vehicles and people were running and screaming.

Tony flew past them at top speed, finally getting visual of what he was most concerned about, which was the building opposite from the Avengers Tower – where Pepper and her entourage had escaped to when the attackers realized she was there. The data J.A.R.V.I.S. had already sent him suggested that the attackers had been aiming for the Tower when Pepper’s car stopped beside it, and they seized the new opportunity. They had failed to capture her, but right now hundreds of civilian lives were being put at risk while the Stark Industries security, a security detail from S.H.I.E.L.D., the police and the attackers were exchanging shots.

Readings from the weapons appeared on the HUD. Tension tightened in Tony’s stomach because this was what he feared most: Pepper becoming endangered because of their relationship. Rationally, Tony knew this would have been the case with or without a personal relationship, but when the world knew he and Pepper were together… so did the villains.

Well, he was about to teach them not to shoot at the lady, and to stay the fuck away from his property.

Tony dropped down in the middle of the street. Smoking ruins of cars lay haphazardly around him and he shoved one of them out of his way, sending it skidding to the side, colliding with another car which turned from its side back onto its tires.

On the other side of the street, the attackers noted his arrival. Their weapons, which stood on sturdy tripods, turned away from the building they had been firing at and the HUD warned Tony that he was being targeted. He could see that for himself and selected target-seeking explosives, then painted the biggest weapons and fired.

A cloud of tiny projectiles shot out of the armor’s shoulders, spreading and then swarming in, each finding their appointed targets. Tony watched with wry amusement as a few of the villains attempted to remove the explosives once they were attached to the weapons, but soon decided it wasn’t worth it and jumped back just before Tony detonated them.

The explosives were designed to turn inwards, to destroy whatever they were attached to with minimal harm to the surrounding area. The flashes were bright and then subsided, leaving smoking piles of metal on the asphalt where the weapons had been.

With the biggest threats eliminated, Tony moved in, tracking down the six hostiles. He raised his right arm and shot two of them before they had even properly raised a pair of smaller weapons in their defense. Next he turned towards the remaining four – three of whom rushed him, which was perhaps the stupidest move he had seen for a while; they weren’t getting through his armor with the guns they had left.

Tony didn’t turn down a fight. He was in a bad mood and punching a couple idiots in the face couldn’t make him feel any worse.

They shot at him, bullets bouncing off the armor. One of the guns had specialized bullets that actually dug a bit deeper into the outer layer of the suit, but Tony barely felt it. He stepped forward, grabbed the strongest gun by its barrel and twisted, probably spraining the arm attached to it, then hauled back and punched the man in the face. A cheekbone crunched and the man went down.

Tony was already feeling better about this whole mess.

The other two men looked at each other and then turned around, starting to run, but Tony rocketed after them, engaging the thrusters long enough to jump over to them, then grab them by the shoulders as he landed again and slam the two men together, dropping them in a groaning heap on the street.

One left…

Tony looked around, trying to spot the remaining attacker. Perhaps he had turned tail as well –

The armor’s sensors picked up motion at his four o’clock and Tony whirled around just in time to hear something lock onto his armor. “We were going to put this inside your Tower,” a voice informed him, “but this works just as well, Stark.” Tony came face to face with a man who was strapped into some kind of device – which was also attached to his suit. Tony’s armored hand yanked at the cables but they refused to let go. With enough force and the right angle, he could remove the magnetic lock holding them in place, but then he noticed the device the man had wrapped himself into and scanned it, a countdown clock appearing on the HUD: a bomb.

A quick analysis told him that the blast would threaten the nearest standing structures – his Tower and Pepper among them – and while the suit could take the blast in general, it might have difficulty withstanding the detonation when it happened right in front of his face.

The man standing in front of him grinned. Either he hadn’t thought this through, or he didn’t care he was getting blown to kingdom come along with Iron Man.

Tony took another quick glance at the material and mechanics of the bomb, then made up his mind. Fear was an immediate follow-up emotion because this was so close to the darkest source of his recent nightmares, but Extremis smoothed the sharp edge of terror and left his mind in a serene state.

He grabbed the smug villain by the front of his battle uniform, then engaged the thrusters and propelled them both into the air. Pushing the armor to the max, Tony watched the altitude counter on the HUD. A few alarms flashed in front of his eyes but Tony knew his armor could take it.

In the unyielding grip of the armor, the man shouted in terror, then screamed for a brief moment before going silent. Tony pushed through the clouds and higher still, the temperature dropping around them. The bomb stuttered within its casing as the pressure and temperature changed, then eventually malfunctioned.

Frankly, Tony had been waiting for a blast, but he preferred this option. He halted the ascension, hovering in the air, then dared to look down. He hadn’t flown this high in months. Even when he guided the nuclear missile into the wormhole, he hadn’t come this high.

“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. prompted, “the exosystems will hold out for another seventeen minutes at this altitude.”

Tony just hummed in response, signaling that he was listening. He felt so calm he didn’t want to talk. There was no fear of falling, or a terror of the darkness hovering above him, lit by thousands of stars. He looked down again, then at the man hanging from his clutched fist; the body was frozen, retinal hemorrhage leaving the wide eyes bloody red. The man’s mouth was still open from his last scream before he had died, some time during the flight.

He was certain he should have felt something, looking at the corpse, but Tony didn’t feel anything at all.

- - -





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