Eradicate (page 2)
- - -
Rhodey arrived on the scene a few minutes after the Avengers’ Quinjet had landed. Police cars, ambulances and a few S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles were already present, and Pepper was surrounded by Happy, Black Widow and a couple EMTs.
Pepper looked up as he landed, the War Machine armor clanging heavily against the broken asphalt. He counted two bodies laid out between vehicles, covered with a tarp, but it seemed the report he had gotten was accurate: minimal casualties.
“Rhodey,” Pepper called out, standing up. She looked shaken but okay.
“Where is he?” Rhodey asked. He knew Iron Man had arrived on location before the Avengers. He also knew the fight had been over quickly, which meant Tony hadn’t wasted any time getting things sorted out.
Pepper pointed towards the Avengers Tower. “He and Dr. Banner are in the sub-level garage with a bomb team from S.H.I.E.L.D. Apparently the attackers planned on planting a powerful explosive in the Tower.”
“Is it still going to blow?” Rhodey frowned. He would have expected some kind of evacuations if that were the case.
Pepper shook her head. “No. Tony took care of it – at 300,000 feet.” She tried to sound calm, like it was just a couple feet here or there, but Rhodey knew better. He also knew Tony, and knew what kind of problems he’d been having with high altitudes after the Battle of New York.
“I’ll make sure he’s okay,” Rhodey promised and ordered the armor to open, then strode across the street and to the open doors which led to the garage. A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent stopped him before he could enter, which pissed Rhodey off. “I’m here to see Tony,” he noted.
“Please wait outside,” the agent demanded.
“Either you let me in, or I’ll go back, put on that suit, and we can start this conversation from the beginning,” Rhodey threatened matter-of-factly, nodding towards the War Machine armor.
The agent took one look at it and let him pass.
It didn’t take long before Rhodey located Tony: the man was sitting on top of a sports car that had to be one of his, fingers folded and pressed against his lips in a thoughtful expression. Bruce Banner and what had to be the bomb team from S.H.I.E.L.D. were on the other side of the garage, poking at what looked like the remnants of some kind of machine. Rhodey assumed it was dead and harmless and strode over to his friend. “Hey,” he called out, to not startle Tony.
The brown eyes moved to his face and Tony unfolded his hands. “Fancy meeting you here,” he replied.
“I was in the neighborhood,” Rhodey admitted. Well, he had been half-way across the country when the first call came in that the Avengers Tower was being threatened, and while he knew he wasn’t going to be needed in between the actual Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., he had still flown here at top speed.
Tony gave him small smile, as if he knew exactly how nearby Rhodey hadn’t been. “Good to see you,” he said instead.
Rhodey nodded, looked at the carcass of the bomb and then back at Tony. “You okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” Tony shrugged one shoulder.
“Pepper told me you took a trip up to the mesosphere.”
“Oh, Colonel Rhodes! Hearing you use technical terms makes me all tingly,” Tony teased him, then eased the smile from his lips. “I made an educated guess – which was the correct one – that the bomb wouldn’t handle heights very well. Neither did the guy attached to it.” His tone didn’t waver, not one bit. Rhodey wasn’t certain which concerned him more: the fact that Tony had almost flown into space and wasn’t rattled by that, or that he had dragged an unprotected human being up there with him. He guessed it had been one of the attackers, but it still seemed harsh compared to Tony’s usual methods.
“You sure you’re okay?” Rhodey pressed. “I know Pepper’s worried –”
“She shouldn’t be,” Tony snapped. “I told her I fixed it. I’ve told you, haven’t I?”
Yeah, Rhodey recalled a message Tony had recorded on his phone when Rhodey couldn’t answer his call. Part of him had assumed Tony was just drunk or sleep-deprived – or both. “You don’t just fix stuff like that,” Rhodey told him. “If that were possible, you would have sorted it out years ago,” he added. Rhodey knew Tony had been carrying a lot of baggage since Afghanistan – they all had – and every time he thought he had seen it all, he was reminded he was merely scratching at the surface of Tony’s traumatic experiences.
“Before Extremis, I couldn’t,” Tony informed him. “Did you listen to that message I left you?”
“Most of it didn’t make any sense.”
“What part of ‘I’m cured’ didn’t you get?” Tony snorted. “Whatever. That’s not…” He got a dark, pensive look on his face. “Pepper could have died today,” Tony went on after a bit, looking to where Bruce and the S.H.I.E.L.D. specialists were still working, but Rhodey had a feeling he wasn’t really seeing any of it. “We got lucky; Happy was alert, directed them away from the gunfire. I… It wouldn’t have mattered if I had been in the city or not, if she had died when the first shots were fired.”
Rhodey could see this fact upset the other man. “Look, Tony, you can’t be around her all the time. She’s the CEO of your company. She’s gotten into trouble before, but you can’t put her into a protective box and lock her away –”
“I know!” Tony snapped at him and jumped off the car, pacing angrily. Orange lines appeared on his skin. Rhodey still had a hard time looking at him when that happened, even though he knew it was what had saved Tony’s life during and after the surgery. “As long as she’s involved with me and my company, she’s going to be in danger. I’m responsible for that. She got Extremis because of me. She could have died, strapped into that…” He stopped pacing and closed his eyes. The orange lines intensified and then faded. Rhodey hoped it was because Tony forced them to recede. “The last time I talked to Happy, before he almost got killed, he told me she was the best thing that had ever happened to me. He was right. I have to protect her – and for the most part, it’s me she needs protecting from.”
Rhodey wasn’t certain whether Tony was talking about the incidental fires or the day’s events. “You’re still worked up from the fight,” he offered. “Let’s sort things out here, then go upstairs. Go to bed early. Hold her, and listen when she tells you this wasn’t your fault.” Because Rhodey knew Pepper would tell Tony those things, over and over, but his friend just chose not to hear them.
Tony nodded slowly, opened his eyes and offered Rhodey a small smile. “You’ll stay the night?”
“Might as well,” Rhodey shrugged. “I flew all the way over here; I’m not looking forward to getting back into the suit and flying back to California.”
Tony’s expression brightened a little and the two of them moved back towards the door to fetch Pepper. By that time most of the street had been cleared, the bodies taken away and the S.H.I.E.L.D. officials were sorting out the technicalities with the local authorities. Pepper looked relieved at the sight of them and came over, Happy a constant shadow behind her; Happy had been patched up a little, but there were only a couple scratches here and there, probably from flying debris. Pepper was mostly unscathed, save for a bandage on her shoulder.
“Let’s go inside,” Happy urged. “We’re sitting ducks out here.”
“Relax, Hogan,” Tony ordered. “The danger’s passed. Besides, the Iron Patriot is here,” he added, clapping Rhodey’s shoulder.
“It’s War Machine, and you know it,” Rhodey snapped and started towards the suit, but Tony’s hand tightened on his shoulder.
“J.A.R.V.I.S. will handle that,” Tony told him, and a second later the armor perked up on its own, turned and strode towards them and past them, into the building, disappearing inside.
Rhodey frowned. “You know I don’t like it when you do that. It’s my suit.”
“One day, you might thank me,” Tony deadpanned. “Besides, technically, it’s my suit.”
“Get over it,” Rhodey muttered, but followed the others inside, Tony’s hand a constant pressure on his shoulder. He took strength from it, knowing that Tony was alive and well, although possibly not as okay as he pretended to be. Whatever Tony had done to himself to become convinced he was ‘cured’, Rhodey didn’t want to know, but he had a feeling he should find out before it blew up in his face.
They went up to Pepper and Tony’s floor, ordered dinner and sat down. Tony fixed them drinks and didn’t have more than a few himself, which was very moderate. Rhodey didn’t comment on it, though, because he considered it a good change from Tony’s usual alcohol-fueled coping mechanisms.
The food arrived a while later and they settled down to eat. Happy suggested briefly that maybe he should go, but Pepper gave him one look and he sat his ass down. Pepper also asked Tony to open a bottle of wine, which he did, and Rhodey let himself relax a little.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up after a while, “Captain Rogers requested that you be informed that the Avengers have decided to spend the night at the Avengers Tower.”
“Consider me informed,” Tony replied.
“Very good, sir.”
“Should we invite them over?” Pepper asked.
“No,” Tony replied at once, then added a bit more softly: “I can hang out with the super-friends another time.” He gave Happy a discrete look as if he were supposed to understand something the others didn’t.
Happy simply pursed his lips but poured himself another glass of wine as if he agreed with Tony’s statement.
During the night, Rhodey didn’t really get a chance to talk to anyone. Sure, there was a lot of chatting involved, but none of the topics circled even close to Tony’s current state of mind. Either it was on purpose, or no one wanted to ruin the mood by dragging the cat out of the bag.
Pepper took Tony to bed at eleven, which left Rhodey and Happy in the living room, opening a case of beer. “There are guest rooms prepared for you both, in case you actually want to sleep,” Tony threw over his shoulder as Pepper was leading him away.
Rhodey toasted him with the beer bottle, then looked at Happy. “You wanna go to bed?”
“I’m too pumped-up to sleep,” Happy stated and they clinked bottles.
“Hear, hear,” Rhodey murmured then took a sip. “Have you noticed something’s off with Tony?” he asked then, now that he was finally able to.
Happy snorted with passion. “Off? You mean that speech about how he’s fixed himself?”
Tony’s old bodyguard looked at his bottle for a moment, tilting it from side to side thoughtfully. “We all know he’s been through some serious stuff,” he finally said, looking at Rhodey – who nodded again in encouragement and agreement. “Those events have left their mark. On and off, we’ve… seen it, I guess. More so after New York and that whole thing with the wormhole. Then the whole Mandarin thing went down and he got Extremis, and… I don’t know what to think anymore. Pepper said he slept well after the surgery, but then the nightmares came back with a vengeance. Then a few days ago Tony told me he had done something to stop that and… I’m not saying it works, but we’re at ground zero of his worst nightmare,” he gestured at the Tower around them. “He’s talking about New York – he’s in New York – and he’s fine with it.”
“What do you think he did?” Rhodey asked with a frown on his face. Tony must have done something, that was for sure, but knowing Tony’s methods when he felt pressured to get something done…
“I don’t know, but I bet it has something to do with Extremis,” Happy said darkly and took a swallow of his beer. “And all I know about Extremis is that it’s trouble.”
While Happy’s opinion may have been a little biased, Rhodey could still agree with most of it. He settled back on the couch, drinking and thinking about it, wondering if they might catch a break, just once, and this would end up being a good thing. After the palladium poisoning, though, Rhodey no longer trusted Tony enough to take his word on anything.
They ended up sitting there until the morning hours. Rhodey supposed he should have gone to bed, to get some rest, but his next meetings were a day away and he would just report back to base that he would be staying in New York for an extra day. The attack on the Avengers Tower would be all over the news and no one would be asking twice about why he was staying over.
It was past four o’clock when voices rose from the direction of the master bedroom. Rhodey looked towards the disturbance then glanced at Happy, who had dozed off, snoring a bit as he lay on the couch opposite from Rhodey’s. The voices rose again, and Rhodey got up, alarmed, because if this was another nightmare episode…
“Colonel Rhodes, could you please go to the master bedroom?” J.A.R.V.I.S. requested a second later, startling Rhodey a little, but he nodded and picked up the pace.
The bedroom door was unlocked when Rhodey got to it and he pushed it open. Part of him expected flames and heat, but instead he came across Pepper standing by the bed, hands covering her face, while Tony sat rather awkwardly on the mattress. Both of them looked at him coming in and Tony’s expression shifted over to relief. “Rhodey! I’m glad you’re here. I’m not sure… Look, miss, could you please stop crying?” he said to Pepper, who let out a sharp gasp and almost sank to the floor as sobs wracked her body.
Rhodey stared at her, moving over to support her, then glared at Tony. “What the hell, man? What did you do?”
Tony looked taken aback by his tone. “Okay, I may have been a little hard on her, but I told her, as gently as possible, that I don’t do mornings well, and I probably told her that last night. I even apologized that I don’t remember her name!”
Silence followed Tony’s statement, broken only by Pepper’s uneven breaths. Rhodey looked at her and the obvious distress she was in, trying to make sense of all this.
“Could you just show her to the door?” Tony begged from the bed.
Rhodey looked at his best friend and for a moment he wondered if this was some kind of sick joke he wasn’t getting. Well, by the looks of it, Pepper wasn’t getting it either. “Tony, why would I need to show Pepper to the door?” he asked icily. “She lives here – well, technically I don’t know where the hell you two are living right now, but that’s beside the point.”
Tony frowned. “No, that’s not… We’re at the Tower, right? I checked with J.A.R.V.I.S. –”
“Sir, you are being illogical and appear to be disoriented.”
“I’m feeling fine! Stop arguing with me!” Tony snapped in the general direction of the ceiling. “I know this all seems very horrible, but honey, I’ve done this song and dance many times, and none of the others have ever put up this much of a fight when I told them to leave,” he added in Pepper’s direction.
Pepper drew in a long, shaky breath and tried cleaning up her face. She looked at Rhodey, eyes wide with something that was pure fear. “He doesn’t know who I am,” she finally stated, voice shaking just as badly as her entire body was. “He woke me up and asked me to leave – like I was one of his one-night stands!”
Rhodey’s first instinct was to go and punch Tony in the face, hard. Then he took a look at the somewhat helpless look on his friend’s face and tried to put the pieces together in some way that would make sense. “Tony, do you know who she is?” he asked slowly and carefully.
At first Tony shrugged, then frowned. “She seems familiar – but that doesn’t mean anything!” he added hastily, as if that would somehow aid Pepper’s cause more than his. “J.A.R.V.I.S. called her ‘Pepper’ and ‘Miss Potts’, so I guess there’s a name in there somewhere.”
“Tony, she’s your girlfriend,” Rhodey stated slowly and a bit forcefully. “She’s the love of your life!”
Tony blinked at that and his hands tightened on the sheet he was clutching to his lap, as if to cover himself although he was wearing underwear and a tank top. “I don’t…”
“Remember?” Rhodey snapped. “How the hell do you go to bed together and then wake up not remembering her?!”
In his arms, Pepper fell into another fit of gasps, and Rhodey pulled her to his chest, giving her all the comfort he could muster at the moment.
Tony opened his mouth and closed it, looking a little worried. “I don’t…”
“Did something happen during the night?” Rhodey demanded. “Some weird attack?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary has been recorded in this room, the building or the surrounding area,” J.A.R.V.I.S. clarified. “However, the Extremis readings have been high throughout the night.”
“The what?” Rhodey blinked.
“The Extremis,” Tony murmured, then pressed his face into his hands as if that would help him think better. “I remember… I know what day it is. I remember meeting with the Avengers on the Helicarrier. I remember flying back because there was some kind of situation, and…”
“And then what?” Rhodey tried hurrying him up.
“I went to bed,” Tony went on slowly. “I think I remember her being there.” He looked at Pepper, as if that would help. “Does she work for SI?”
“She was your PA before you made her CEO,” Rhodey explained, unable to believe Tony’s mind had somehow wiped Pepper’s existence clean in a matter of hours.
“CEO?” Tony’s frown was back.
“Yeah, when you were dying. Remember that?”
The silence Tony gave him was more terrifying than all the other things combined. “I think so,” the other man finally replied, but with a sort of detachment that people used when talking about something that didn’t directly affect them – like world hunger while you were eating in a five star restaurant.
- - -
The woman he had woken up in bed with – Pepper Potts – had avoided him for most of the morning. After Rhodey had thrown Tony out of his own bedroom, in order to give Pepper some privacy, Happy had stirred on the couch and soon enough the other Avengers were milling around as well, most of them not pleased by the early wake-up call.
Rhodey didn’t care about anyone’s lost hours of beauty sleep: he went over the morning’s events quickly and efficiently, which left Tony feeling like a dick and the other Avengers looking at him like he had grown a second head.
“How could he forget Pepper?” Natasha asked, voice tight.
“Beats me,” Rhodey shrugged and looked at Tony for an explanation – which he didn’t have at this time.
“I think the more important question is why,” Bruce said from the side. He had procured a cup of tea from somewhere and was pouring all his nervous energy into stirring the drink with the spoon. He could have probably made a smoothie out of it with the right ingredients.
“Why would he forget the woman he loves?” Steve rephrased the question, as if thinking that someone needed to do it.
“I sense no traces of magic,” Thor declared, frowning at Tony.
“It isn’t magic,” Happy finally snapped from behind them. He was probably hungover, judging by the several empty bottles of beer around the living room, and in a foul mood. “It’s Extremis.” Happy went on muttering about how no one in their right mind would have injected themselves with it. Tony didn’t bother getting into that argument with him; he vaguely remembered doing that before, and if Happy hadn’t changed his mind by now, he probably wouldn’t start today, either.
“I thought the purpose of this Extremis was to aid him with his demons?” Thor mused. “Lady Pepper does not seem like a threat to him.”
“That is kind of confusing,” Clint agreed.
Silence settled heavily upon the room. Tony tried to put the missing pieces together for a moment and then gave up because it was easier to let it go rather than to linger on the teary face of the woman he was supposed to know and love.
“Maybe that’s it,” Rhodey suddenly perked up. “Yesterday, after the fight was over, Tony told me it was his fault Pepper was in danger in the first place.”
“Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out,” Clint commented, then sat up and looked piercingly at Tony. “So, what, this is a fucked up way to protect her from him?”
“It might be,” Bruce agreed with the archer. “Logically, it makes just as much sense as it doesn’t. Extremis has been affecting Tony’s emotional responses for days now, suffocating and removing certain triggers entirely. It doesn’t matter what the threat is, as long as the biological fear response is similar.”
“So while he’s trying to protect Pepper, his brain is being protected against the potential pain that her getting hurt or killed might create?” Natasha guessed.
“Something along those lines, yes,” Bruce agreed. “I cannot say for sure before I see exactly what Tony did –”
“No,” Tony said at once. “There’s nothing wrong with my programming. If… if I forgot Pepper, it was because it’s necessary.”
“Necessary how?” Rhodey glared at him. “For you to be happy?”
“For me to function,” Tony snapped back at him. “I put a lot of thought into this. Nothing was done on a whim.”
“Yeah, because you always admit it when you’ve made a mistake,” Rhodey took a step towards him. “How can you sit there and claim this is okay?!”
“Because he doesn’t remember,” Natasha and Steve said in the same breath, then looked at each other. Natasha was the one who kept talking: “If his Extremis has erased any personal attachment to Pepper, he doesn’t feel like he’s lost anything at all. A human brain adapts remarkably well, filling in the blanks or completely ignoring them, and right now Extremis is working to smooth over any conflicts that might be left. Isn’t that right, Tony?”
Tony looked at her, wondering if she knew what she was talking about, then glanced at Bruce, who looked expectant. “I would assume so,” Tony admitted.
“But you’re not sure?” the scientist asked.
“I didn’t reprogram Extremis to erase entire people from my life, although I think I would benefit from not remembering a few,” Tony pondered. Come to think of it… “Generally speaking, it works just as I designed it to. This might be a hiccup – or a purposeful removal of something or someone whom I’m better off not remembering being part of my life.” It boggled him, though, that he would forget someone he loved. Someone like that shouldn’t be that big of a threat.
He thought of Pepper again, and the rude awakening in the early morning. She had been shocked, angry and heartbroken, while Tony himself had felt little if anything at all. Even now, it was hard to bring himself to care for someone who might as well be a stranger.
“How do we undo this?” Rhodey asked next. Tony opened his mouth to argue, and Rhodey took another step towards him, hands fisted, body poised to attack. “If the next words coming out of your mouth aren’t relevant to solving this mess, shut up,” he ordered. “You might not see it, but I’ll have to go in there and talk to Pepper,” he pointed angrily towards Tony’s bedroom, “to tell her it’s going to be okay although you’re not giving a flying fuck about any of it!”
Tony flinched a little at his tone; he couldn’t remember the last time Rhodey had exploded at him like this.
“Forgetting is not the same as overcoming your obstacles,” Thor said as Rhodey started pacing, breathing hard through his nose.
“I would gladly forget a few things about my life,” Clint mused.
“But where do you draw the line?” Bruce asked and his eyes locked with Tony’s. “When the worst of it is gone, can you stop? Will you?”
Tony guessed that was a fair question – but it wasn’t enough for him to start regretting what he had done.
- - -
Bruce had known Tony for a while now. He had known the man to be a genius even before they shook hands on the Helicarrier, but learning just how close to the edge of insanity that brilliance teetered… comprehending that seemed to take a little longer.
Tony was damaged goods; from a childhood of neglect to his kidnapping and becoming Iron Man, he had been through a series of traumatic experiences that had left their marks. When such issues became too much to handle, piling up, a human being was prone to either folding under the pressure or finding an outlet for those feelings.
One might have said the Hulk was Bruce’s personal outlet. On most days he even believed it.
Tony, however, had waded through the accumulating crap, trying to outrun it, but eventually it all caught up with him, and Tony’s blessed genius became his pitfall: he thought he could tamper with something that should have never, ever been tampered with.
From the moment Tony told Bruce, rather excitedly, that he had modified the Extremis to handle his stress signals, Bruce had heard the distant sound of an avalanche approaching. Now that he and Tony sat in one of the labs at the Avengers Tower, he couldn’t help but come to the decision that they weren’t going to outrun this one.
Tony sat on top of a table, swinging his legs – not an examination table, but an actual table where Bruce liked to conduct some of his experiments. The surface was empty right now, save for one genius-billionaire-former-playboy-philanthropist. Bruce failed to see Tony’s success and instead debated whether he was looking at a broken clock or smoking ruins. Neither description satisfied him, though, and he kept pressing the side of his hand against his mouth, staring at Tony, who had long since grown bored.
“Are we doing this or not?” Tony asked, filled with impatience and already on the offense.
For the past few days, Bruce had tried figuring out Tony’s condition. First he had tried to do it sneakily, stealthily, but little got past Tony and eventually Bruce threw all caution to the wind because it was slowing him down while Tony was getting worse, and the other man already knew what he was trying to do.
What Tony presumed Bruce was going to try to do next was to try and trigger him; to bring forth a fear so sharp Extremis could not compensate. So far, there had been no such luck, but Bruce was convinced getting around Extremis would serve two purposes: it would show him Tony was still capable of responding to certain stimuli, and Tony would have to face the fact that he was dulling his senses.
“Maya Hansen,” Bruce started. “You were there when she died.”
“Yup,” Tony replied casually, like they were talking about the fine weather outside or what they were going to have for lunch.
“Do you recall how she died?” Bruce pressed.
Tony stopped swinging his legs for a bit. “Sure. Killian killed her.” There had been a minor delay in his reply.
“How did she die?” Bruce repeated.
Tony’s brow furrowed. Either he couldn’t remember the actual details – or he did and the Extremis was glossing over the more horrific parts. Bruce knew, from what Tony had told him before all this, that Aldrich Killian had shot Maya Hansen in front of Tony, out of the blue. Tony may have been angry at Maya for her recent actions, but that didn’t take away the shock and hurt of witnessing her death.
“She was shot,” Tony finally said. It hadn’t taken all that long for him to find the words. Sometimes, when Bruce got close enough, Tony would go catatonic as Extremis responded to the memories Bruce had managed to raise. “Is this relevant?” the other man asked after a bit, legs swinging again. The motion was agitated rather than relaxed.
Bruce allowed himself a small sigh. He was running out of things that he knew bothered Tony on a deeply personal level; his first choices had been to talk about the Battle of New York and the wormhole, but those had been the memories Tony had wanted gone. He recalled the events, more or less, even though Bruce could detect parts were missing.
His next bet had been Afghanistan, but that must have been Tony’s second least favorite memory in the world – which meant Extremis had already dealt with it. Tony remembered even less about his kidnapping than he did of the first battle the Avengers fought together. After that Bruce had tried getting creative, but Tony’s emotional responses became less and less sharp as days passed.
When Bruce didn’t give Tony an answer, the man swung himself down from the table and headed for the door. “I’ll go eat. If you come up with another topic to throw in my face, I’ll be in the kitchen,” Tony told him without looking back and exited the lab.
Bruce sat still for a moment, feeling as if Tony’s words were a direct taunt from the Extremis, telling him to try harder, to be better, in order to defeat it. Anger mounted inside him and finally Bruce sprang to his feet, grabbed the heavy table Tony had been sitting on and flung it to the side. The table crashed against a cabinet beside it, cracking the reinforced glass, then fell over.
His chest was heavy and Bruce closed his eyes, centering himself again. He felt tempted to let the other guy out and see if that got a response out of Tony, but the other man hadn’t feared the monster when they first met, and it was unlikely he would start now.
Bruce was at an impasse.
He hated himself for not being able to get a rise out of Tony. It was as if that accursed nanotechnology in his friend’s brain were one step ahead of him all the time – and if it wasn’t, it still didn’t really matter because Bruce couldn’t fight something that had control over Tony’s brain.
Well, not complete control, but he feared that if he drove Tony in the wrong direction, that would happen.
“Dr. Banner,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up.
“I’m good,” Bruce replied, guessing the AI was concerned about his outburst of anger.
“I can see that,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied and didn’t sound like he cared about the overturned table or the cracked cabinet door. “I was wondering whether I could be of assistance in your attempts to… reach Mr. Stark.”
That was surprising – mostly because J.A.R.V.I.S. was Tony’s AI and couldn’t, most likely, directly intervene. “If you can turn off the Extremis in Tony’s body for a few hours, that would be helpful,” Bruce noted dryly.
“That is not within my capabilities,” the AI replied. “However, I have been tracking your attempts to create an emotional conflict in Mr. Stark and I think I may have a solution.”
It made sense J.A.R.V.I.S. would know dark secrets from Tony’s life that no one else did. “Please, anything,” Bruce looked up eagerly, although that wasn’t necessary; J.A.R.V.I.S. had eyes everywhere and nowhere, but Bruce felt like making eye-contact with one of the discrete cameras the AI used to track the events that took place in the building.
“Harley Keener is a young boy Mr. Stark met in Rose Hill, Tennessee,” the AI explained.
“Ah, yes,” Bruce nodded, then frowned. “How is that going to help?”
“I have a feeling it might,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied cryptically.
Whether J.A.R.V.I.S. was acting outside his jurisdiction – jurisdiction set by Tony – or just liked not answering Bruce’s question to the full extent, he didn’t know. What Bruce did know was that he was running out of options, and possibly time, and if Tony’s AI made the effort to tell him to consider contacting a pre-teen boy in Tennessee, Bruce was ready to take that leap of faith.
- - -
How Bruce had convinced everyone that they should go to Tennessee, Tony wasn’t sure. Perhaps no one just said ‘no’ to the man who turned into a Hulk.
If anyone had asked him, Tony could have told them exactly what they would find in ‘the Volunteer State’, but since he was being dragged along like a piece of luggage, he opted to keep his thoughts to himself.
Since they were all in New York City when Bruce reached his new epiphany, they opted to drive south-west instead of flying. Whose idea that was, Tony wasn’t sure – he wasn’t consulted on that one, either – but it was possibly the crappiest road trip of Tony’s entire life. He tried alternating between the two vehicles they had, but neither one offered him entertainment: the other Avengers were quiet and cranky in various degrees, and Rhodey, who had joined them on this venture, was silently suffocating the life out of Tony with his dark looks and tight jaw-muscles.
Still, Tony kept ending up in the same car with his best friend, mostly because he couldn’t listen to Thor’s attempts to educate him on the Asgardian remedies for nightmares and impaired memory – nor did he want to linger in an enclosed space with Natasha when she was mostly scowling at Tony as if he were going to stab her in the back. After all, Tony still had the vague feeling she was usually the one doing the back-stabbing, although whatever hurt must have caused that notion wasn’t bothering him all that much anymore.
Out of all of them, Clint’s silent, knowing stares were the easiest to bear – mostly because he was the one who got Tony’s decision, out of the whole lot. That didn’t mean the archer agreed with what Tony had done, but at least Clint was allowing it to play out.
Steve was fairly subdued about the whole ordeal, although every once in a while he found it in himself to confront Tony, mostly about his lack of appropriate responses. He had called Tony ‘cold’ more than once, which was a bit harsh, but Tony tried not to get into a fight with him. After all, Steve was the leader of the Avengers and Tony respected him… all of which Steve didn’t seem to accept, for some strange reason, as if Tony should have been fighting with him.
Bruce had stopped trying to provoke him after they left New York. The man mainly sat in the same car with Rhodey, splitting the driving duties with him, and they often conversed in low, conspiring voices. Whenever they thought Tony wasn’t listening, though, they talked a bit more freely.
Tony was half asleep in the back seat, more on the side of dozing than awake, when his brain started paying attention to the muted conversation going on in the front seat:
“Did you talk to Pepper?” Bruce was asking. The name still didn’t ring any special bells in Tony’s mind.
“No,” Rhodey replied. “Happy said she’s been going to the office, putting on a brave face, but she’s a mess. If this doesn’t help, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
“So far, no one knows?”
“I think it’s better the government and military don’t get wind of this just yet. Knowing Tony, it will just get worse before it gets better.” Rhodey was quiet for a second before speaking again: “I have no idea what I’ll do if we don’t get him back.”
Tony felt like telling him ‘he’ was right there, but kept feigning sleep.
“How much farther do you think it will go?” Rhodey spoke up when Bruce didn’t. “How much more will he forget?”
“Honestly? I have no idea. The big issues have been taken care of, clearly, but forgetting Pepper changed the game. It isn’t an irrational assumption that he might, eventually, forget that he’s Iron Man.”
Rhodey made a noise in his throat, much like the one Tony felt like releasing. He couldn’t imagine not being Iron Man, and he refused to see why Bruce thought he might forget it. Sure, it put him in danger, but that wasn’t what the Extremis modifications were about; that was for all the crap that came with being in danger, and surviving said danger.
“I just keep thinking,” Rhodey spoke up, voice desperate in a way he never was around Tony, “that the next time he wakes up, maybe he won’t remember me. There’s so much shit between us, in the past. Before, I thought putting distance between us would be good, but he’s been my best friend for so long… I can’t cope with the idea that he’ll look at me like he looked at Pepper.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Bruce said softly, although not as encouragingly as may have been appropriate. “After all, if he forgets you, I don’t think the rest of us are that far behind.”
Tony pressed his eyes tightly shut and refused to open them until the car stopped the next time.
“Is this it?” Rhodey asked.
“This is the address J.A.R.V.I.S. gave us.”
That explained things for Tony, somewhat. He would have a long, thorough talk with his AI about telling his team about Harley when he got back. Why they had come all the way here, Tony couldn’t yet completely grasp, but if it had been J.A.R.V.I.S.’s idea, perhaps the AI thought Harley could help ‘fix’ Tony the way the kid had helped him with Mark 42.
“Okay,” Rhodey said and turned off the engine, then shifted in his seat. “Tony? We’re here.”
Tony opened his eyes, still pretending to have been asleep. “Are we there yet?” he asked in his most annoying voice.
“Yeah,” Rhodey confirmed, not suspecting a thing.
“Where’s ‘here’?” Tony asked next, although he knew the house the moment he saw it.
“All you need to know is that it’s important,” Rhodey told him and opened the door, getting out of the car, leaving Tony and Bruce to follow. Their second car was already neatly parked a couple feet behind theirs, the other Avengers standing outside, looking around the quiet neighborhood.
Tony’s eyes moved from his fellow heroes onto the faded red door of the garage he had sought refuge in many months ago. The memory was sharp although he couldn’t recall the pain and desperation that had surely been there. That was a strange mix – remembering and not remembering – but it was one that Tony had grown used to since he reprogrammed the Extremis in his body, and it bothered him less and less each time it happened.
“What’s our next move?” Steve asked, as if he weren’t used to leading them in the field – well, all of them but Rhodey, who was still on the military’s payroll.
“Perhaps we should have called ahead,” Rhodey mused.
“And say what? That we need a kid to shrink Iron Man back to sanity?” Clint scoffed, watching the house with sharp eyes.
“We can’t tell anyone about what’s happening to Tony,” Natasha noted.
“So what are we going to tell the kid?” the archer challenged her words.
Tony left them to it, already tired of their argument: he walked across the lawn, now free of the snow, and approached the red door. Last time he had broken in, but now he tested the handle, just in case – and found the door open. There was only one thing to do after, and Tony pushed the door wide open, stepping inside, then stopped to look around.
The garage looked better than the last time he’d seen it in person. He could spot several of the things he had gotten for Harley, as well as unfamiliar gadgets that no doubt were the kid’s newest projects. Tony invited himself in and rounded a table, poking at stuff, noting that his gifts of appreciation had been fully utilized.
Suddenly, he sensed someone looking at him, and raised his head. In the doorway stood the kid, with a plate of three sandwiches in his left hand. Harley’s eyes were nailed on him, as if he had for a moment hoped he had a potato gun to point at the intruder.
“Tony?” a voice called from outside a second later, and Harley whirled around so fast he almost dropped his plate.
Taking a few steps to the side, Tony could see Rhodey and the Avengers approaching the garage door. By then they had spotted Harley, who was gaping at them, and Tony waited for the inevitable yet predictable exchange that would soon follow.
“You must be Harley,” Natasha said, voice a bit softer than normal – her ‘I’m talking to a spooked kid’ tone.
“Who are you?” Harley asked, suspicious.
“The Avengers,” Tony stated before they could start with the ‘we’re Tony’s friends’ bullshit; Harley was smart and he would only have to stare at Thor for about five seconds to put two and two together. Besides, everyone knew Rhodey was War Machine.
Harley whirled to look at him again, and Tony stepped forward to save his plate of sandwiches. He looked at them critically, then picked one up and dug in. “What are you doing here?” Harley asked, dismissing the food thievery in order to try and corner Tony against the wall. He sounded excited.
“Ask them,” Tony mumbled from around a mouthful of sandwich and moved back over to Harley’s work desk to look at what the other had been up to in his absence. At least he wasn’t building a suit of armor. Not that Tony would have been offended, because his suit was awesome.
“We require your help,” Bruce volunteered and led the way until the superheroes were all somewhat awkwardly crammed in at the front of the garage.
“My help?” Harley repeated.
“Yes,” Bruce nodded.
“With him,” Rhodey noted, nodding at Tony, who gave the others a cursory glance.
“What’s wrong with him?” Harley asked, making it sound like Tony was a faulty engine. Tony gave him a dirty look for that. Harley just cocked an eyebrow and looked back at the others.
“It’s a long story and we can’t tell you most of it –” Steve started.
“You’re Captain America!” Harley interrupted him.
“Duh,” Tony rolled his eyes.
“This is so awesome,” Harley kept grinning, then looked at Tony as if he had made this happen. Well, he had, sort of, but it hadn’t been intentional.
“Uh, sure,” Steve searched for words, clearly trying to get back on track. “The thing is, I’m not sure how much Tony told you when you first met…”
“Everything,” Harley volunteered.
“I did not,” Tony disagreed, although he was growing weary of this slow pace. “You remember the glowy Extremis creeps?”
“Yeah,” Harley nodded, a bit more serious suddenly. “Are they back?”
“No,” Tony replied. “Well, not as far as I know. That’s not the point.”
“Can you remember what the point is?” Rhodey asked, and Tony was tempted to tell him to fuck off.
“I’m not demented,” Tony said instead, because Rhodey was his friend and although he was annoying, he meant well. Probably.
“That’s debatable from where I’m standing,” the other man snapped right back.
“Well, perhaps you should move; that might help!”
“You know well enough what would help, and it has nothing to do with from where I’m looking at this shit move of yours.” As soon as he said it, Rhodey must have realized there was a kid in the room. He looked at Harley with embarrassment. “Sorry,” he murmured.
“So… what’s the problem?” Harley asked carefully, looking from Tony to the Avengers.
“He’s forgetting things. Important things,” Bruce started.
“So he really has dementia?” the kid dared to ask.
“More like amnesia,” Clint offered. “The selective kind.”
“What does that have to do with Extremis?” Harley frowned. Tony felt weirdly proud of him, for not having forgotten what had been said earlier, and for making the others squirm a bit at the fact that Harley knew about Extremis when most of the government was in the dark about it.
“I took it, fixed it up and put it into by body, to get rid of the anxiety issues. Obviously, it worked,” Tony supplied.
“Yeah, so well that he’s forgetting things left and right – including his girlfriend.” Rhodey just couldn’t stop coming back to that.
Harley cringed at Tony. “Seriously? You forgot who you’re dating?”
Tony narrowed his eyes at him. “It was for the common good.”
“I bet,” the kid had the nerve to say, and it was clear he didn’t believe Tony for a second. “How come fixing your PTSD led to forgetting your girlfriend?” he asked next, navigated over to Tony and stole one of the remaining sandwiches from the plate.
Thor, never to miss out on food when it was being offered, strode over and took the last one, nodding his approval as he bit in.
“First of all, I didn’t have PTSD,” Tony started, looking at Harley.
“You totally did,” the kid disagreed.
“Okay, maybe. But, everything’s working as it should.”
“Clearly not if they brought you here,” Harley pointed at the Avengers, then frowned. “Why are you here?”
“We were hoping you could help us make Tony see his mistake,” Steve replied.
“A mistake in the Extremis?” Harley asked and took another bite of his sandwich, looking thoughtful.
“There’s nothing wrong with my Extremis,” Tony huffed. “I’ve told you, a hundred times: it’s working as it is supposed to.”
“By making you forget Pepper?” Natasha deadpanned.
Harley nodded along with her.
“We think the process can be stopped, even reversed, with the right incentive,” Bruce ventured. “I’ve been trying to trigger a certain response in him for days, but it’s not working. Then Tony’s AI suggested that we should contact you.”
“J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Harley grinned. “How is he? All fixed up, I hope.” He looked at Tony. “How about the armor?”
“J.A.R.V.I.S. is okay and I blew up the armors,” Tony shrugged, feeling only a small pinch somewhere inside his chest at that distant memory. The kid frowned at his answer, as if not getting it, but Tony didn’t offer to explain it further.
“So, what kind of reaction are you looking for?” Harley asked Bruce next. Seeing as he had enjoyed agitating Tony in the past – for some reason, Tony remembered that fact about Harley – it wasn’t strange that he jumped at the idea.
“Fear would be good,” Bruce answered. “However, Extremis is blocking his fear response, so anger would be another option. A way to trigger an unpleasant memory would probably be the best.”
“But those are the ones he’s trying to get rid of, right?” Harley guessed.
The kid looked at Tony again. “Is that why you forgot your girlfriend? I’m sure she was really unhappy about that.”
“Shut up, kid,” Tony groused at him and stuffed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, buying himself some time.
“I kind of like him,” Rhodey dared to murmur from across the room.
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