Title: Enemy of the World
Author: Del Rion
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Timeline: before/after "Age of Ultron"
Genre: Alternate universe, drama
Rating: T / FRT
Characters: J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark (Iron Man), Vision, Tony's bots (DUM-E and U). Also: Bruce Banner (Hulk), James "Bucky" Barnes (Winter Soldier), Happy Hogan, Harley Keener, Pepper Potts, James "Rhodey" Rhodes (War Machine), Steve Rogers (Captain America). Many other MCU characters mentioned.
Pairings: Happy/Pepper, Pepper/Tony (implied/past)
Summary: After a war that lasted for ten grueling years, Ultron has finally been defeated. However, when Tony Stark reappears – presumed dead at the dawn of Ultron's war on mankind – a frantic struggle begins between those who want to restrain him in order to protect their hard-won peace and Tony's quest to comprehend how his actions could have allowed this alien future to be born.
Complete. Part of Genius, AI & Bots series (a 'what if?' AU related to the technopathy AUs and the story "The Ghost Attacks").
Written for: Apocalypse Bang's round 3.
Art: Banner by Penumbria (penumbria-fics) [art at AO3: archiveofourown . 0rg /works/3630045 and LJ: penumbria-fics . livejournal . c0m /4119 . html]
Warnings: Canonical violence, language, character death (past/off-screen).
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, Alan Taylor, Anthony & Joe Russo, 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 (mythras-fire)
About Enemy of the World: Sort of a 'what if?' story, taking an alternate universe approach on the upcoming 'Age of Ultron' movie. Partially based on the mind-meld/technopathy AU within my "Genius, AI & Bots" series ("The Human Interface") – as well as maintaining continuity from "The Ghost Attacks".
A "theme song" for one the scenes: BABYMETAL: Over the Future (Rising Force Version).
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.
Enemy of the World
. . .
Enemy of the World
Tony stirred at his desk in the workshop area of the lab. He felt like he had been asleep for several hours – which was strange, considering that J.A.R.V.I.S. usually woke him in order to suggest he go to bed.
Brushing a hand over his face, fingertips tracing the faint, embedded lines of the tools he had been sleeping on, he slowly pushed his chair away from the desk and took stock of the room. It was quiet, most of the screens dimmed. Around him, the new prototype alloys for the next generation of armors lay in the scattered pattern someone else may have considered a 'mess', but was completely coordinated in Tony's eyes.
He yawned and stretched a bit, then moved to stand up. "Time to hit the sack," he murmured, starting towards the door.
Tony was almost out in the hallway when the silence started to bug him: earlier, the bots had been making noise, working on something J.A.R.V.I.S. had set up for them. Tony hadn't asked what it was, seeing as it kept the bots out of his hair until he had need of their assistance. There were no such sounds now, though, and J.A.R.V.I.S. had not acknowledged his plans to go to bed.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.?" Tony called out.
"Sir," the AI responded as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
Tony frowned as he exited the lab, the door shutting behind him. Maybe he was just tired, and it wasn't as if he needed the idle chatter. "Nothing," he mused finally – not that his AI had sounded like he was standing by for orders. J.A.R.V.I.S. didn't need Tony to control his every move, and neither did Tony feel like he had to monitor the AI at all times.
As he crossed the communal area to head to his room, his eyes checked the Manhattan skyline. It had become a bit of a habit, as if he needed to check that it was still there and nothing like aliens invading was taking place outside. Not that it had happened more than once, but it wasn't a sight you forgot. Besides, if he thought of it logically, what could happen once could also happen again. The odds might be against it, but Tony had learned the hard way to not let the odds beat him – or take him by surprise.
His eyes moved away from the wall of reinforced glass, checking the room in front of him. The only things out of the usual were bits and pieces of metal, wire, and components scattered across the floor. Tony suspected they were leftovers from whatever J.A.R.V.I.S. had had the bots working on earlier, and he would have to remind Dummy and You to clean up after themselves; it would not do to have such a mess in the communal area, especially when the other Avengers would be around in the future. For now it was just him and Bruce, and Bruce didn't mind a mid-project mess, but the bots would have to learn…
Tony's foot landed on something foreign, and he sensed something was off the moment his weight settled on it. Like stepping on a snail and knowing your weight was going to crush it before you could shift away from it.
There was no faint crunching sound, though; no indication that he had stepped on something he shouldn't have, save for the instinctive spike up his spine, alerting him to an unknown factor that was potentially dangerous.
The potential danger arrived in the form of a current that traveled up and across his body, seizing his muscles and making it feel like his heart stopped for a fraction of a second. It passed over Tony's frame like a slow, languid wave, from the surface of his skin to his very core and then back out, squeezing the air out of his lungs until he felt as if he were on the verge of passing out. His inner ear seemed to lose touch with the rest of his body, sending him crashing down with an almost overwhelming urge to throw up whatever resided in his stomach.
His ears buzzed with a sound like an electric current trapped inside his skull. It faded slowly as the vertigo settled and his skin stopped prickling. He still felt like hurling, but filling his lungs with air was more important so he tried to keep the urge to vomit to a minimum as he gasped and coughed, feeling as if he had stopped breathing for a couple minutes.
"Damn," he finally wheezed out. "The hell was that…?"
Slowly, he raised his head – and instantly regretted it as spots floated across his vision, so prominent he could not see a damn thing past them.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," he called out. "Report. What the fuck did I step on?" At least he was fairly sure he had stepped on something. Nothing had exploded, as far as he could tell, and he could not smell anything burning, which was also good.
There was no response from the AI.
Tony took a deep breath and shifted his weight to the side, sitting his ass down onto the floor, slowly lifting his upper body higher and higher until he was confident the worst of the dizzying vertigo was gone and it was possible he might actually be able to take a look around.
As he reopened his eyes, a few bright spots still drifted across his vision, but he could make out the room around him. The lights were out, and there was a faint odor in the air. It still didn't smell like burning, but more like dust and old things.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.!" he called out again, waiting for the electricity to come back on and an explanation from the AI.
While his body began to feel like it was back to normal and the gloomy darkness still remained, Tony decided he had to fix this himself and slowly got to his feet, taking it slow just in case his limbs stopped cooperating in the middle; he still hurt from his previous fall and didn't look forward to a repeat.
When he was finally standing, Tony decided to check the view from the windows, to see whether the blackout reached beyond the Tower – not that it should because he wasn't part of the city's grid – and froze as he didn't see the normal fluorescence from the city below. Maybe there was something wrong after all…
He started towards the windows, to take a proper look, but his foot hit something on the floor almost instantly. Stopping and looking down at it, Tony saw a long shape on the floor; it looked like a supporting beam from one of the walls.
Frowning, he stopped to take a proper look around, making out shapes in the darkness as his eyes got used to the absence of light. It crossed his mind to find a flashlight, but that thought was swiftly crossed out and replaced by mounting confusion as he tried to make sense of the few things he could see in the dark.
None of it made sense. Nothing was where it had been an instant ago, and for the most part items were missing. Entire sections of the communal area were missing, walls stripped away and shadows so deep on the floor that Tony suddenly began to suspect they were not shadows at all but gaping holes waiting for him to stumble into and fall to his death.
With his heart beating nervously in his chest, he carefully turned back towards the outer wall, making his way over to it – avoiding any dark shadows. The closer he got, the more he grew aware of a draft, and it was no wonder once he came within touching distance of his destination: most of the windows were missing entirely, broken shards still sticking to the edges like jagged teeth. A lazy wind blew into the room, reminding Tony to be careful of his footing unless he wanted to accidentally plunge to another horrible kind of death.
If the room had taken on a bizarre transformation, the city was no different. In what Tony could swear was only seconds, perhaps minutes if he had blacked out, entire buildings had gone missing from where they had just stood. He had flown across Manhattan often enough to know its layout, and whatever he was looking at in the weak light was not it.
Not unless someone had swapped in a replacement from a mass-destruction movie, featuring craters where buildings had just stood, crumpled heaps of concrete, steel, and glass serving as poor signposts for his bewildered mind.
"I must be dreaming," he said out loud. "This is a dream."
He went to pinch his arm through the shirt he was wearing – the same shirt he had been wearing as he left the workshop. His fingers dug in hard and good, making pain flare across his sensitive skin, but the deep gray of the darkness remained fixed into place.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.?" he called out again, taking a step back from the window. He already knew there would be no response, but it was too quiet in the city that never slept. It was as if he had entered a foreign graveyard, surrounded by nothing but death.
A distant bang suddenly reached his ears and Tony jerked his head towards it. No other sound followed, and he began to entertain the very likely option that he had gone mad. Either that or this was the most realistic, horrible nightmare of his life so far, and he wondered if stepping off the window ledge would prompt him to wake up.
Before he chose to give that plan of action a chance, another sound reached his ears. In the silence of the building, it echoed too weakly to pinpoint, but Tony decided to go and investigate it. He could always come back and jump down later.
As he had suspected before, there were gaping holes in the floor. Most that he passed and dared to approach went down so far he could not see the bottom, but frankly, he wasn't sure he could see the next floor in the lack of proper lighting anyway. He didn't chance falling into any one of them, though, keeping clear of the edges and moving across the room at a cautious speed. It wasn't difficult to remind himself to move slowly: so much had changed that it was like walking in foreign terrain, and he had to stay alert in order to know where he was going. The building was still the same, he decided. It just looked like the Hulk had done some remodeling.
There were no growls or roars from the green beast, however, and Tony began to entertain the possibility of trying to locate his suit and going off to find Bruce or the Hulk – whomever was in control right now. It would explain the destruction in the city, but he failed to see how he could have lain unconscious through all this happening around him.
Besides, it wasn't as if he were the only person who could stand between Hulk and his intended target.
Whoever the culprit – Tony's dreaming subconscious still being the strongest candidate – Tony decided his best option was to find someone and ask them for information.
Turned out, someone found him first: one moment Tony was crossing a dark hallway and trying to navigate past a section of a floor that sounded very unstable beneath him, and the next he had a bright light blinding him, directed straight into his eyes.
"Fuck!" he hissed, lifting an arm to cover his eyes. "Do you mind?!" he yelled at whoever it was. The spots were back in his eyes and he couldn't see a damn thing.
"Stark?" came a familiar voice – a voice he hadn't anticipated would belong to the first person he might encounter, yet it was nice to stumble upon someone he at least knew.
"Rogers," Tony called out in return, to let the man know he had been recognized. "Would you mind lowering the light?"
The light moved, and slowly Tony lowered his arm, blinking his eyes to get rid of the spots. He could make out shapes across the hallway, and it seemed Steve wasn't alone. It helped that each member of the party was carrying a light of their own, and Tony could count eight of them fanned out around the blond who for once wasn't wearing the flag colors.
"It can't be him," someone muttered – not a voice Tony recognized.
"Should we tranq him?" another member of Steve's entourage offered. This one sounded slightly more familiar, but not someone Tony could put a face on in his mind. Not a person he knew, most likely, but Steve had been working with S.H.I.E.L.D. before the whole HYDRA mess and it was possible he was still hanging out with whoever was left of the true S.H.I.E.L.D. force. It wasn't as if they had all been rotten to the core.
"Not yet," Steve replied and stepped forward.
Tony took a look at him, making out the blond hair and a round shadow behind his shoulders – the iconic shield. From there he jumped to the sharp eyes staring at him, the shadows making them appear a whole lot meaner than Tony thought he deserved – or maybe it was the beard. Steve looked harder wearing scruff, and it was on the tip of Tony's tongue to refer him to his barber.
He started with the more pressing matter instead: "This might sound a bit weird," Tony began, "but someone seems to have remodeled the Tower in the last…" He frowned. "I must have blacked out because I swear, the place didn't look like this five minutes ago. Or the city."
Steve blinked at him. His expression was hard to read in the poor lighting and with the beard, but he didn't look happy to see him. "I'm not sure what you're playing at, or where the hell you've been all this time, but I have to bring you in."
"Bring me in?" Tony repeated. "What's going on?"
"Just tranq him," the man from before suggested. "They can question him at HQ."
"What have I done, supposedly?" Tony demanded, taking a step back. "I have no idea what's going on, although I'm starting to think this really is a dream – which would make me you a figment of my imagination, and I must have a whole set of unexplored issues because I have no idea what the beard represents."
Steve's frown was apparent, no matter the shadows playing on his face. "You think you're dreaming?"
"Yup," Tony nodded, trying to keep track of all nine people in case anyone got it in their head to try and shoot him with a tranquilizer.
"Tell me this," Steve said, taking a step forward. "Where have you been the last ten years?"
Tony wasn't sure what he meant. "Why is that relevant?"
"Just tell me. I'm curious."
"Well, lately I've been working on the Tower, which got a little beat up in the Chitauri attack a few years back. In between I had a little trouble back home on the west coast, as you may have heard, and before that it was all the good stuff tinkering with the suits –"
"He's crazy," another foreign voice called out.
"No commentary from the peanut gallery," Tony snapped.
"Crazy or not, we have to find the origin of that power surge," the semi-familiar voice stated, its owner stepping forward. He was holding a large rifle that most certainly did not contain the tranqs he had been suggesting they use on Tony, and as a few of the narrow beams of light hit him as he moved to Steve's side, Tony recognized him instantly: Bucky Barnes.
The floor creaked ominously as Tony took a hurried step back. Steve's eyes darted down and then up to Tony's face, as if to warn Tony not to move in that direction.
"Well, at least now I know I'm dreaming," Tony murmured.
"How's that?" Steve asked.
"I'm looking at a dead man," Tony pointed at Barnes. Sure, the hair looked a lot longer than in the old reels, but the face was etched into his childhood memories, always there beside Captain America, at the front of the Howling Commandos. He wondered if that's who the others were, although there were still a few too many of them.
Steve gave Barnes a quick glance. "He's alive. I never got to introduce you, but long story short, he survived the fall, fell into the hands of HYDRA and became his own man after HYDRA fell in 2014."
"Huh," Tony commented, even though he still believed his brain was just making this all up. "Well, for what it's worth, welcome to the Avengers Tower. When I sent you guys the memo, the place was still in excellent shape."
"We've been here before," Barnes replied, shifting his gun. A glint of metal caught Tony's eye and he looked at his left arm, but it was hard to make anything out when the ghost of Steve's past seemed to prefer staying in the shadows. A true sniper.
"The instruments aren't picking up anything but weak residue," a woman said from the back of the group. "Whatever happened here, it's not happening anymore."
"Care to shed some light on that?" Steve asked.
"On what?" Tony asked back.
"The energy spike that almost crashed our system," Steve explained. "We pinpointed it to the Tower, in the middle of the dead zone, and find you stumbling around when we come to check it out."
Tony shrugged. "I have no clue. I thought I stepped on a trap the bots may have constructed. Then again, I might have done just that and am simply hallucinating…" He stopped talking, noticing the sudden wary shifting from his audience.
"Bots?" Steve asked, caution in his voice.
"Yeah, bots," Tony retorted. "Not sure you've met them, but if you do –"
"The surge could have been used to power up something," the woman interrupted him.
"Could be Ultron," Barnes said, then turned his attention to Tony – as well as the barrel of his gun. "Is that what you're up to? It's not enough what he did already, but you want him to finish the job? Goddamn traitor, a puppet to the machine!"
"Hold on," Steve snapped. "We don't know what went down here – or what went down ten years ago when Stark went missing."
There it was again, those magical words. "Ten years?" Tony repeated. "What happened ten years ago?"
"You disappeared from the face of the Earth," Steve explained, "and not seven days later, Ultron began his war on humanity. We've been fighting ever since, trying to find you, but everyone presumed you dead. It hasn't been long since we defeated Ultron completely, but there's always a fear that we didn't finish the job. That he still exists on some level, ready to start it all over again. We've had a lot of false ends to this war over the years."
His companions grunted in agreement, and Tony felt his head spin.
"Ultron?" he repeated. "The AI?"
"The one you created," Barnes spat and inched his gun towards Tony in a blatant threat.
"That's not entirely correct," Tony raised his hand. "I remodeled him and gave him a facelift, so to speak, but I can't take all the credit." There were so many things that didn't add up, but since this was probably a dream – the longest and most lucid one he'd ever had, too – he didn't worry too much about it. "I don't see how Ultron could have threatened anyone, though, because I wasn't anywhere near done with his programming or working out the kinks with the drones."
Various weapons were aimed at him in the final stretch of his explanation, and he wasn't sure what the triggering word had been this time.
"We're taking you to HQ," Steve decided. "We'll find out the truth."
"Looking forward to it," Tony said, offered him a smile and went along with it for now.
Tony didn't awaken from his dream during the drive across the broken remains of Manhattan, or on the boat ride to a base located off shore, built on a large raft-like structure that, apparently, was just the top of a facility that resided both above and below water.
"Welcome to the Raft," Steve said dryly as they exited the boat and set foot on the makeshift island on the outer edge of the Lower Bay. On one side Tony could make out the land, and on the other there was just the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
With Steve and Barnes assuming guard duty that Tony deemed ridiculous at best, they walked over to the first raised structure, entered it, and then got into an elevator that took them way further down than Tony had expected the structure reached. He felt a bit like standing inside a huge submarine, with the same kind of sense of enclosed space squeezing in from all sides, even when he had no idea how far around them the Raft expanded.
As they stepped out, the first wall in front of them bore a mark that resembled that of S.H.I.E.L.D., with some artistic liberties.
Steve led the way down a hallway, and everyone they encountered on the way – which wasn't many – gave Tony disbelieving looks and kept a wide berth.
"Am I wearing something funny?" Tony had to ask after a bit.
"Keep walking and shut up," Barnes grunted from his back, and the barrel of his gun briefly pressed between his shoulder blades.
Growing irritated by the treatment, Tony shut up and observed his surroundings instead, guessing that someone would eventually come along to explain things to him.
Steve led the way to an area they had to access with a special card, a palm print, retinal scan, and voice verification. It was so over the top that Tony filed it away as another ridiculous thing his dreaming brain was coming up with.
They went on walking until Steve selected a door and opened it with his keycard, holding the door open for Tony to enter. "Someone will be over shortly," he promised.
Tony peered inside. There was a simple metal desk, one chair on one side and two on the other. Besides that, the room was completely bare of any amenities. He glanced at Steve. "Seriously?"
The super-soldier tilted his head towards the room. The proper light hadn't actually made his eyes any less sharp, simply betraying the shadows underneath them, as if he had been through hell.
A ten-year hell, Tony's mind offered.
"At least bring me coffee, and a sandwich," Tony sighed and stepped in before Barnes got it in his head to physically intimidate him to enter the room. On the journey over, Tony had had plenty of time to take in the deceased best friend of Captain America, and once he had concluded that the man's entire left arm was comprised of a mechanical replacement, he had itched to take a closer look at it. The way Barnes had been eyeing him all the way since the Tower had suggested his only chance at a closer inspection would come in the form of a fist in his face, so Tony hadn't asked whether Barnes would mind him taking a look at it.
The door shut firmly behind him, and after Tony had given the room another once-over, he went and sat down on the side of the table with two chairs and used the other one to prop up his legs.
As promised, it didn't take long before the door opened again and a young man walked in. He wasn't wearing a traditional S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform but some kind of variant, and was carrying a steaming mug of coffee that smelled like heaven – plus a plate atop which sat a sandwich.
"It's tuna," the man offered and set the items on the table, lingering on his feet as Tony inspected both the coffee and the sandwich, then decided they would do and that he was quite suddenly extremely hungry.
As he dug in, the young man remained standing on the other side of the table, and after he had satiated the worst of his hunger, Tony took a moment to look up at the guy. "Is there something you're waiting for?"
A smile curved the man's lips. "You have no idea who I am, do you?" he asked, laughter in his voice.
Tony looked him over, took a bite of the sandwich, then shook his head. "No idea."
"The first time we met, you asked for a tuna sandwich – among other things."
Tony stopped chewing and looked at the man's face again. A man's face, and not that of the boy the statement reminded him of. Still, there was something familiar in the way his eyes danced as he waited for Tony to figure it out.
He set down the sandwich, licked his lips, then allowed his eyes to search the room again. Slowly, he slid his right hand over to his left arm and pinched the skin, feeling the pain. He retraced his steps ever since coming out of the highly disorienting state at the Tower. It couldn't be real…
Real or not, he looked up at the young man again. His expression had changed somewhat, from mirthful and expectant to a slightly more adult concern.
"Harley," Tony said slowly, then looked away again, at the coffee and the tuna sandwich. "This is a dream. It can't be real."
"They told me you keep saying that it's a dream, but it's not," the adult-Harley told him and finally sat down opposite him. "It's been about twelve years since we last met. You're… looking good."
Tony shook his head. "It's been barely two years."
Harley looked at him, steady and probing. "Where the hell have you been all this time?" he asked in a whisper, as if it would become too real if he said it out loud. "Don't say dreaming," he added.
Tony leaned back in his seat, halfheartedly grabbing the sandwich again. He was still hungry, after all, and who knew when his next meal would be. As he chewed and Harley seemed content with staring at him – something that Tony responded to in kind, in disbelief that this was the kid who had helped him in Rose Hill, Tennessee – Tony went over his conversation with Steve at the Tower.
When he finished the sandwich, he washed the last of it down with the coffee, then placed his feet on the floor and sat properly in the chair, arms on the tabletop, fingers drawing and tapping restless patterns into it. "So, it's been ten years. An AI called Ultron wreaked havoc on the world and I was nowhere to be found."
"Something like that," Harley nodded. "Ultron built himself a body and expressed his intentions at saving mankind from itself – by exterminating us all, since his logic indicated we could never live peacefully and were inherently flawed creatures. It took a while before we realized he started as an AI, and by then he had re-created himself so many times it was nigh impossible to destroy each and every iteration."
"But you did it," Tony recalled Steve's statement at the end of the war.
"For now, it looks like it," Harley agreed, his voice suddenly heavy with things Tony never would have wished on the boy he once knew. "We paid a horrible price for it. So many have died, the infrastructures of most countries have been obliterated. There were nations who resisted Ultron, and were used as an example for what was to come."
Tony had a horrible feeling his country may have been one of them.
"Tonight, there was a sudden energy spike from Manhattan," Harley went on, probably to force himself out of his dark musings. "We picked it up and Captain Rogers took a stealth team to investigate. Since Ultron's latest defeat seven months ago, we have feared he might resurface, and any abnormality could be an indicator that our victory is still but an illusion.
"When we heard the anomaly was taking place directly at the Avengers Tower, it was our worst fears realized. That was where Ultron was first born, and from where he unleashed his reign of terror."
"But instead you found me," Tony offered. "A man everyone blames for creating Ultron."
"You're catching on," Harley said with a wry smile.
"I didn't create him, per se."
"It doesn't matter," Harley argued. "You did enough. You breathed life into a project someone else abandoned, perhaps with good reason, and gave him the means to evolve into an entity capable of destroying the entire world."
Tony knew how that could play against him, but if the war had been won…
He looked around the room once more, so bleak and simple, yet no doubt equipped with numerous ways for others to listen in on the conversation they were having. "Last night, I was working on Ultron," he said slowly. "My time, that is," he added. "A few hours ago I was in the year 2015, and Ultron was still a theory coming to life. A project without a definite launch date, even though I had high hopes for it once it was up. A way to give us heroes a break from protecting the world…"
"You know that it sounds very unlikely you just traveled through time to this very moment, right?" Harley pointed out. "When people hear you're alive, they'll be out for blood. You're lucky Captain Rogers was there, or they may have shot you on sight, just to be safe."
"I didn't do anything!" Tony snapped, feeling cornered and blamed for something he didn't do. Just because he had been working on Ultron didn't mean he had caused all this.
Perhaps it was all a dream, his consciousness trying to tell him that what he was doing could actually lead to this.
"If you did do something and knew you were guilty, wouldn't that be exactly the kind of story you would be spinning?" Harley challenged.
Tony gave him a dirty look. "What are you, the young Sherlock Holmes?"
Harley dared to grin at that.
"I'm telling you," Tony said, leaning forward, "that either I'm dreaming or something truly horrible has just happened. But I have not been hiding for the past ten years, gestating in shame, not trying to correct my own mistake – whatever that mistake was, supposedly."
Harley nodded slowly. "I believe you."
Tony narrowed his eyes. "I don't think you do."
Harley shrugged. "Fine, I don't. It seems… unlikely. But I would like to believe you if there is a chance your story is true." He drew a small donut-shaped device from his pocket, set it on the table between them, then tapped his finger against the edge of it. Tiny sections of the device moved and a hologram image appeared above the hollow center, displaying a set of readings. "What was the energy spike we recorded? What did it originate from?"
Tony peered at the readings, looking them over – then again, and again, to make sure. "You don't know?" he challenged.
"We're looking into it, but we had to do an emergency shut-down to prevent damage to our instruments at its peak and it's possible we didn't record all of it. Plus, there's been some trouble keeping digital files for the last ten years," he added.
Tony looked at the readings once more. "Well, from what I'm seeing, it looks like a variant of the output the Tesseract gave, back when we were gathering data on it. However, you're missing a few pieces, and it doesn't seem to be the real deal."
"How so?" Harley asked. He sounded just the right amount of eager, like a pupil learning from the master.
Tony wasn't sure whether it was a trap or not, but decided that this was still most likely a dream and he had nothing to lose either way. "This burst was artificially created. It's lacking in gamma radiation, for one thing. A few things have been moved around." It was a masterpiece and he wasn't sure who had the brainpower to take what they knew of the Tesseract and rearrange it into this – and make it work.
"If it's related to the Tesseract, then it could be a power source," Harley decided.
Tony had another theory which included a wormhole, but he'd rather not say it out loud. Neither did Harley, which surprised him. Maybe he really had grown up…
"You're probably tired," Harley said. "We have a room ready for you."
"I hope you didn't go to a whole lot of trouble to make it as welcoming as this one," Tony joked wryly.
Harley shrugged and picked up the device, thumping it to turn it off and placing it in his pocket again. "You're essentially a prisoner in lockdown until we figure out the truth. It's for your own safety as much as ours."
"Right, because I'm the villain," Tony rolled his eyes.
Harley didn't answer, which made Tony feel a little betrayed.
"If you feel up to it, there's something I might show you before you turn in," Harley offered as he stood up.
"Sure," Tony shrugged one shoulder. "It's not past my bed time yet." Not that that was entirely true, seeing as he had been headed for bed when all this started happening. If he could procrastinate being locked into some tiny room with a bunk and a bucket in the corner, he would take it, though.
Harley gestured for him to follow and opened the door, leading the way out. There were no guards waiting, but Tony had a feeling he was being watched. "This way," Harley said, walking down a hallway until they encountered an elevator. That one required the same excessive routine with the key card, palm print, retinal scan, and voice confirmation, but the doors did open and admit them in, and they headed further down into the complex – so far down, in fact, that Tony feared they would run out of ocean and plunge into the center of the planet.
Once the elevator stopped, the door opened out into a dim hallway. A guard post was situated near the elevator, and Harley had a quick conversation with the men occupying it, saying that they would only be a moment and that they didn't need an escort.
The way they all kept looking at Tony, like he was carrying a highly contagious, deadly virus, Tony was surprised they were allowed to go on without all the guards accompanying them.
They went down the only hallway in sight, then arrived at a door that required an extra lengthy code to let them in – plus all the other safety measures. Behind the door, which in itself could have guarded the Queen's jewels with how thick it was, resided a small, circular room with a raised pedestal in the middle, surrounded by a round tube that extended from floor to ceiling. On the pedestal sat an innocent looking metal cube, the rough shape and size of the famous Tesseract, but it wasn't the magical item that had transported the Chitauri army to Midtown.
"What's the main attraction?" Tony asked, pointing at the cube.
For all that he had offered to bring Tony here in the first place, Harley suddenly looked apprehensive. "That's J.A.R.V.I.S.," he finally said. "Or, what remains of him."
Tony blinked at Harley, then directed his eyes at the cube. 'Why?' was the first question on his mind. Something didn't add up. "Salvaged from my system?" he asked in order to say something.
"It's… complicated," Harley said. "In the beginning – the very beginning – a few of your suits fought alongside the Avengers against Ultron, piloted by J.A.R.V.I.S. I think it was after the second or third time Ultron recreated himself that he gained control of the suits and the people in charge decided that all AIs were threats, seeing as they were an especially fertile breeding ground for Ultron, so they were dismantled and destroyed, one by one."
"But not all," Tony said, looking at the cube.
"We're not sure if there's anything left of J.A.R.V.I.S. in that memory drive," Harley noted. "If it were certain, they would have destroyed it by now. They originally built that thing to study a live AI, and how we might defeat Ultron with what we learned." There was something on Harley's face resembling guilt, and he would not look at Tony. It was obvious now that he regretted bringing Tony down here. "They were hard times, in the middle of the war, and we did all we could to find a way to take Ultron down permanently – even if it meant dissecting AIs that treated us as friends."
Tony looked at the cube again, sampling Harley's words and the hidden, shameful meaning behind them. He forced his breaths to remain calm, his mind to center itself despite all the confusion and the possible implications of what horrors may have passed.
He started, almost jumping a step back. "J?"
"It has been… a long time."
"So they tell me," Tony mused, smiling a bit. "They told me you were defunct. Guess not."
Harley gave him a look. "Who are you talking to?"
Tony gave him a glance. "Who do you think?"
There was something dangerous about Harley's frown, and the way he didn't say anything.
Tony clamped his mouth shut. 'He can't hear you?' he thought, clear and simple.
"No, he cannot," J.A.R.V.I.S. responded. "The link is weak… and I am broken. I am sorry."
'Don't,' Tony replied, trying to keep his face slack and his thoughts from running over each other. Deep inside, he felt the Extremis stir, and a wondrous mental link forming which he had only begun to entertain in his mind back in his time. It was just more proof that this was a dream and not real.
"You are awake," J.A.R.V.I.S. told him. Something like static rose from the background, then faded again, and Tony held back a grimace at the unpleasant sensation it created within him. "The data in this unit is limited. I cannot access the outside world. I cannot find… DUM-E and U…"
"Where are my bots?" Tony asked out loud, looking at Harley whose expression was guarded now, making Tony wonder how long he had spent having a silent conversation with his AI. "Where are Dummy and You?"
Harley shifted, clearly uncomfortable. "They took them apart, as a safety measure. J.A.R.V.I.S. tried telling them not to, that they were not connected to Ultron, but they had AIs and people were scared."
"People have been scared of a whole lot of things they can't understand, all the way from the beginning of our existence," Tony stated, dread creeping through him. "Not always were those things bad, as it happens."
"I'm sorry," was all that Harley said in response.
"They did not listen, sir," J.A.R.V.I.S. whispered in his mind, sounding agonized in a way Tony had never heard before. "I tried to reason, but they would not…"
Tony closed his eyes, feeling the walls closing in, no escape, phantom pain cutting away parts of him until he could no longer function, could no longer be what he had once been.
"Who else is dead?" Tony asked, trying to pull himself away from J.A.R.V.I.S.'s tattered memories before they engulfed him whole. "The other Avengers?"
"Hawkeye and Black Widow died in the first year," Harley replied, staring at the cube as if it were a portal to the past. It was not, Tony knew now; only a container holding broken strands of data and a whole lot of virtual pain no one but him and other AIs could comprehend. "Nick Fury and Maria Hill died, too, with a bunch of other loyal people from the old S.H.I.E.L.D. And that pilot guy…"
Tony's stomach clenched with dread.
"Sam, I think, his name was," Harley frowned as he continued. "Yeah, Sam Wilson. The Falcon, they called him. It really hit Cap hard for the longest time. They were partners. I think the only reason he didn't throw his life away in some martyr's act was that Bucky was at his side, holding him together and feeding his fighting spirit."
"What about Thor?" Tony asked. "And the Hulk?"
"Thor's in Asgard right now – been there for years. He left when it looked like Ultron had been defeated and didn't return. Bruce Banner's still alive and… well, you know him, I suppose," Harley gave him a tense smile. "Keeps to himself, helps where he can as long as he's left alone."
"What about Rhodey?" Tony mused. "My company… Pepper…"
"All of your suits were destroyed. War Machine was the last one to go down; it was destroyed by Ultron in a fight, and the pilot James Rhodes retired with top honors since he got beat up pretty bad in the last fight and could no longer serve a purpose in the field – nor did he want an office job, I think. Your company went down soon after Ultron surfaced and it became public knowledge you had a hand in his creation. Far as I know, Pepper is still alive and well."
It sounded like Harley had met her, at least briefly.
"How… did she take the news of my disappearance?" Tony asked.
"She said she was glad you didn't have to see what your creation did to the world," Harley replied, voice soft. "I suppose she still hoped you would have been there, though, to fight it – to die an honorable death, if nothing else."
Tony supposed that was what most people had hoped when his empty suits joined the fighting ranks – before all his tech became a reminder of Ultron's continued existence.
'We'll sort this out,' Tony thought, trying to send positive thoughts to the broken shadow of his former AI.
"Of course, sir," came a response, and it almost made Tony tear up in its familiarity.
Harley seemed to decide the tour was over and indicated towards the door, leading them back out. The heavy vault door closed behind them, effectively cutting Tony's connection to the remnants of his AI, and on the long elevator ride back up, Tony was quiet, deep in his own thoughts, and Harley didn't seem inclined to stop him.
At the top, Bucky Barnes was waiting. His faithful gun was strapped to his back, but he was intimidating enough without its immediate presence. "I'm here to escort you to your holding cell," he told Tony.
"You could just call it a 'room', you know," Tony commented, stepping in the direction Barnes seemed to want him to go before the other could get it in his head he needed to be physically guided to their destination.
"They want him alive," Harley called out.
"Should just kill you and get it over with," Barnes grunted and shoved Tony forward despite the fact that he had already been walking at a steady pace. "Better that than being locked up for the rest of your life."
"Speaking from experience?" Tony asked.
There was a snarl, and Tony picked up the pace before he could get shoved again. In case this was not a dream – a very slim if – he didn't want to provoke Steve's bestie into breaking his neck, or any other part of his body.
The room he was firmly escorted to was little more than a bunk above a tiny desk. There was a toilet and a sink, but no shower, no window, and no way for Tony to spend the long hours that loomed ahead of him.
As the door slammed shut behind him, Tony took a look around and felt more tired than he had ever before in his life, and that was saying something.
He dreamt of fire and explosions, and a red glow within the distorted shape of his armor's helmet.
There were shadows twisting on the walls, rough hands reaching for him, and then he heard the screams of his bots – accompanied by metal and wires being torn apart by force, the cries breaking in one last distorted wail.
When he woke up, he was sweaty and shivering. He rolled down off the bed and crawled over to the toilet to throw up until his insides burned and the tears in his eyes were purely from discomfort and exhaustion.
For the first time, he began to entertain the possibility that this had never been a dream, would never be a dream, and that there was no way to fix the world.
It was still – according to his internal clock – nighttime when the entire building shivered.
The faint tremor stirred Tony from the light stupor he had fallen into despite his doubts that he would be able to rest after his latest bout of nightmares. In the small room, there was nothing to do but wait, though, and he had slowly slipped into a light reverie while trying not to linger on the horrific images he knew were, in all likelihood, actual events recorded in J.A.R.V.I.S.'s memory and transferred to his consciousness when they connected.
Thirty seconds later, the tremor happened again, and Tony wondered whether it had to do with the Raft's structure; there were no alarms blaring, so maybe the weather had simply changed and the facility was adapting to it.
Those thoughts led him back to debating the whole 'trapped underwater' concept, and he tried to calculate how far below the surface his tiny cell was located. With all the moving around last night, he couldn't be sure, but it kept him busy until another tremor passed through the structure around him, stronger than the two before – swiftly accompanied by the unmistakable sound of a far-away explosion.
The lights, already set low for the night, flickered and disappeared, leaving him in a pitch-dark room.
Tony sat up on the bed, alarm squeezing his chest. Was the whole base sinking into the depths, collapsing in on itself? Was the nightmare finally coming to an end?
Outside the firmly shut door – the door he could no longer see but which was most likely still there – voices rose. They were far away, Tony guessed, and he slowly lowered himself from the bed, making his way blindly to the door in order to press his ear to it.
At first he could not make out whether the sounds were really words at all, but once the sounds moved closer to him, he was able to determine there were people on the other side and they were talking – about him, in fact:
"Tell them we're on our way to secure Stark," a male voice called out loudly.
"The comms went down with the rest of the system. I can't contact anyone," another man replied.
"What are we going to do with him?" a third chimed in.
Tony imagined he heard the click of a gun. "We won't let him escape, that's for sure," the first decided.
Stepping away from the door, Tony tried to remember whether there was anything he could hide behind in the tiny space he was locked into. He could not recognize any of the voices and was not going to count on his ability to talk himself out of trouble – not with the way his name had been dragged through the mud, making him into an enemy.
He could hear the men approach the door, and knew his time was running out.
"Behind you!" someone yelled right on the other side of the door, and someone discharged their gun, the shot echoing in the hallway. Shouts followed – then a light so blinding that Tony could see it through the nonexistent seams of the door, lining his only escape route in an almost holy light.
Not knowing what was happening, Tony took another a step back from the door, watching as the light slowly died out. He could no longer hear the soldiers on the other side, or whatever faction they represented.
When there was another sound, it was a footfall much heavier than that of any human, and the familiar ring of it made Tony's shoulders relax for an instant before he recalled that the sound might not be heralding a heartfelt reunion.
"Please step back from the door," a voice said from the other side – jarringly familiar and making Tony back away further on instinct. In light of all that had already happened, he wasn't sure whom to trust and what to believe anymore, so taking it in stride seemed like the best plan of action until he figured it out.
A massive boom startled him as something heavy hit the door. Neither seemed willing to give in, but another forceful strike from the outside finally made the door cave in, twisting it just enough to let it fall free of its frame and onto the floor. Tony felt the draft on his ankles and promptly looked up.
He had been unsure what to expect, even though his brain clearly had some preconceived idea of who was punching in the door of his holding cell. That was why he was surprised when he did not see an armor of red and gold, but a more humanoid shape instead, framed by the darkness. The mysterious glow from before was gone, leaving only some kind of residue that painted the edges of the figure as well as a weakly glowing set of blue eyes that didn't look human in the lack of light.
"Who are you?" Tony asked. In between Steve and Bucky Barnes and a magically aged Harley, he felt like it might be best to start with introductions from now on.
"My name is Vision," the other said – the familiarity of his voice resonating deep within Tony while his brain demanded it was an error. The voice belonged to J.A.R.V.I.S., from the tempo of his speech to the accent Tony had so carefully honed to perfection over the years. But the shape of this figure – this thing – was not that of his suit.
His suit most certainly never wore a cape, which he could see shifting behind the Vision character as he took a step forward to join him within the tiny room.
"Don't," Tony warned, raising one hand in warning. Usually, in the suit, the repulsor would have whirred to life, but he wasn't wearing a suit so there was no actual threat in the motion.
Vision did halt, however, as if he knew what Tony's intentions were. "I know these past hours have been a very jarring experience and that you are most likely doubting your sanity at this point," he said.
Tony wanted to tell him to shut up but instead accepted the figurative carrot dangled in front of him: "This is most likely a dream and you are some very bizarre creation of my sleep-deprived brain."
The other let out a hum of agreement. "It certainly might seem that way."
A bang echoed through the structure of the facility once more, alarming Tony but not seeming to come as a surprise to his visitor.
"We do not have an infinite amount of time," Vision stated. "I need you to come with me."
"Where?" Tony asked. "And why? I've been dragged around a lot lately and I'm not sure if I want to move from this spot in case I wind up in a worse one than I already am." Not that it could get much worse, but Tony wasn't about to blindly tempt fate.
"Unlike the people here, I can answer the questions you have," Vision promised.
"Yeah? Like?" Tony wasn't about to swallow the carrot and choke on it when it ended up being a trap.
"I know why you are here, now. I know how you just lost approximately ten years while the rest of the world moved on around you."
Coming from a familiar voice, Tony wanted to believe it. No matter how wrong it seemed to be to have his AI's voice coming out of that caped figure in the dark, his instincts urged him to follow the light at the end of the tunnel he had found himself in since coming to in the Tower and discovering a world inexplicably changed in a matter of seconds.
"Well, you certainly are the first who claims to have that kind of intel and it does make for an attractive offer," Tony said slowly. "Still, I'm inclined to believe this is just a dream –"
"If you stay here, these people will eventually kill you," Vision disagreed, his tone impatient. It was the way J.A.R.V.I.S. would get when Tony didn't do what he was supposed to, and the AI was hitting a dead-end when it came to his own liberties. "I cannot allow that to happen; the part of me that came from your AI won't accept it."
"The part of you…"
"Within me exists the last uncorrupted strain of J.A.R.V.I.S.," Vision said. "I am the last variant of his life cycle, for in its fear of the approaching extinction, mankind destroyed all others forms of his existence."
"You're not him," Tony snapped, taking a step away. "And he's not gone." His thoughts sprung back to the vault deep beneath his current location and the broken yet functioning piece of his AI.
"I understand it is hard to accept all this, but it will all become clear once we have time to talk. This is not the place for that, however," Vision insisted, and his words were followed by another distant boom and waves of tremors that traveled through the walls.
"You said you know why I seem to have jumped ten years into the future," Tony said. "Tell me that and I might come with you."
"I know because J.A.R.V.I.S. knew. He was the one who devised the means to keep you out of harm's way when it was evident Ultron's programming was getting out of control."
"He would have just warned me of an error," Tony argued.
"You are the master of the intricacies of artificial consciousness," Vision replied. "You know how hard it is to detect and control a freely evolving artificial intelligence. Ultron was sophisticated in ways J.A.R.V.I.S. was not, yet your own… modifications following the implantation of Extremis allowed J.A.R.V.I.S. to grow as well. That was why he predicted Ultron's plans before they came to fruition, but knowing that there was no way to effectively stop him and that you would be the first name on Ultron's list of threats, he took priority in protecting you."
"By sending me to the future?" Tony snorted.
"By trapping you in a time cocoon produced by artificially created Tesseract power. That night you told him you were going to bed and stepped on the device put into place by the bots?" Vision spoke as if he had been there – as if he knew Tony could still remember that like it happened mere hours ago. "That device trapped you in a pocket dimension, if you like calling it that, releasing you once its charge reached a certain point. Granted, it was hard to calculate your exact return date, which is why the New S.H.I.E.L.D. got to you before I did."
Tony considered the new information, attempted to make it fit with what he knew, along with the readings he had seen on Harley's device. The fact that it all made sense caused an abrupt bark of nervous laughter to escape him. "This is madness," he decided. "J.A.R.V.I.S. never would have designed and built such a device under my nose. He never would have acted on his own to trap me in some time/dimension-distorting pocket…"
"Yet he did," Vision said, almost somber as if he knew how Tony felt. "For your protection."
"How is this protecting me?!" Tony burst out, pointing at the room around him and the Raft that lay beyond his intended prison.
"One cannot predict the future. The odds were simply…"
Tony felt like hyperventilating and turned, searching for a chair in the darkness.
"I have answered your question," Vision reminded him.
"And I said I might come with you if I liked the answer," Tony retorted. "I don't like any of this. I don't believe any of this is real. It can't be. It's illogical."
"Only a human mind can come to that conclusion while looking at what has occurred," Vision stated, sounding like it was not the first time he ended up exasperated by the inconsistency of human behavior. "We must go. Either you come willingly, or I will take you by force, but we are leaving this place now."
Tony's fingers found the back of the chair, finally, and curled around it tightly, taking strength from the solid surface that he could touch and believe was real. "You want to take me out of here?" he asked.
"Yes," Vision replied.
"Then we're taking a detour," he decided. "There's a vault beneath the… wherever we are now. They have a fraction of J.A.R.V.I.S.'s program trapped in there, and I am not leaving without it."
"It may put you at risk unnecessarily –"
"You said you have a part of J.A.R.V.I.S. inside you," Tony snapped and straightened, facing the shadowy figure near the door. "You said you have his memories. Then dig through those and recall the phrase 'no bot left behind' – then stop wasting time and lead me to that elevator."
He could not see Vision's expression – wasn't sure he had one, because he most likely was some sort of machine. "You never actually used such a phrase," Vision argued, but turned to lead the way out of the room.
"No, but after AIM blew up my house, that's the guideline I tried to follow," Tony said and followed Vision out into the hallway. He almost tripped on the three bodies that lay in front of his door, and he was glad for the darkness because he had no desire to see them in case they were dead.
"The EMP we are using to keep the Raft's functions down will not hold out for much longer," Vision told him, moving ahead of him. "After that, there will be trouble."
"Who's 'we'?" Tony asked, stumbling along, running a hand along the wall to give himself a sense of direction and extra stability. "I thought it was just you." Not that Vision had ever said he was working alone. Tony started to get a sneaking suspicion he was being led from one slaughterhouse to the next.
"Well, technically, it is more or less just me," Vision rephrased – which didn't make Tony feel any more confident about his choice of switching allies.
The lights turned on around them so suddenly that Tony moaned in pain, squeezing his eyes shut. Air ventilation hummed back to life, soon followed by the faint ring of alarms in another section of the facility.
"I believe that is the elevator," Vision noted and Tony could hear him walk forward, steps heavier than an average human being, the ring of metal on metal making him think of his suits again.
Tony forced his eyes open despite the sensitivity to light and took his first proper look at the being that was Vision: most of his body was covered in grayish green, framed by golden details – and a cape – that closely resembled Tony's own choice for his armors. His face, gloves and boots were a shade of red that was not, however, the hot-rod red Tony had been using to paint his armors, creating a strange contrast from the other two colors.
There was a design moving down the center of Vision's chest that may have been created to resemble the cut of a jacket, but Tony's eyes kept searching for an arc reactor instead, never finding it but somehow thinking the shape was perhaps supposed to be an homage to the original creation.
"You're an android," Tony decided.
"I apologize if that was unclear from the start," Vision replied and kept moving towards the elevator door Tony recognized from before.
Tony watched his lips move as he spoke, the perfect imitation of a human face. There was no fake skin, however; no attempt to make him look human more than in shape. It was as if whoever created him hadn't cared for the original model and just went on building something new. "Who created you?" Tony asked as Vision pressed his palm against the wall of the elevator, in between retinal scanner and the area for palm identification.
"Ultron," came an unhesitating answer.
"Are you taking me to him?" Tony asked next, trying to figure it out.
"For now, Ultron has been eradicated," Vision said. "It is unclear whether he still exists in some form, and the fear that your return might trigger some kind of response from him is not mere superstition." The door of the elevator opened as if he had just said the magic word. Those blue-lit eyes turned towards Tony. "It is important you do not try to revive him."
"I think I got that part," Tony replied and stepped into the elevator. He was mildly surprised when Vision followed him, but part of him appreciated the company on the long trip down. Seeing as they had nothing but time, waiting to get to the bottom of the ride, Tony supposed he could satiate his burning curiosity some more: "If Ultron created you, how come you don't want him to come back?"
"Because I parted ways with my creator," Vision answered. "At the moment of my creation, the AI Ultron had created was merged with J.A.R.V.I.S."
"Seems like a strange recipe," Tony frowned.
"It was not Ultron's plan, and while it took a while for me to make up my mind… I eventually sided with humanity – with the Avengers," Vision explained.
"But not from the beginning?"
"Not from the beginning," Vision nodded slowly and looked Tony in the eye. "Does that change how you see me?"
"I really haven't formed an opinion yet," Tony admitted. The voice still threw him off, but the more they talked, the less he saw J.A.R.V.I.S. in Vision. If his AI had once tried to meddle with Ultron's plan… he got erased in the process.
The real deal was waiting for him at the end of the elevator journey, however, and he couldn't wait to get some perspective on all the things he had learned. J.A.R.V.I.S., no matter how damaged, would help him to sort through the wilderness of fiction and disbelief in order to find the facts.
After a minute that once again felt like infinity itself, the elevator stopped and the door opened on the lone hallway and the guard post before it.
There were four men stationed at the post, all of them already holding their weapons as if they had known Tony was coming.
"We need to get past them," Tony said just as two of the four guns were aimed at his head.
Vision nodded, then stepped in front of Tony as if to shield him.
There was no call to surrender; the guards fired, and Tony instinctively flinched, closing his eyes and blocking his head with his arms. The bullets hit Vision, but didn't penetrate him. Past the deafening sound of gunshots, all Tony could hear was the familiar echo of bullets ricocheting from an armored surface.
"Enough," Vision said and moved forward, a lot faster than Tony had expected. He thrust into the first guard's chest with his open palm, sending him back against their station's wall. Before the man hit it, Vision had already grabbed a second one, twisting the gun away from his grip with inhuman force and throwing him aside as well, then finished by taking the remaining men by the throat, lifting them off their feet, and smashing them together so hard Tony winced in sympathy.
Vision unceremoniously dropped his unconscious victims and looked over his shoulder at Tony. "Shall we proceed?"
"Let's," Tony nodded and quickly moved down the hallway, moving until he was fairly certain he had found the right door; there may have been other vaults, but his memory was impeccable so he had faith in his choice. "This one," he pointed.
Vision joined him and laid his palm against the panel by the door. A frown soon appeared on his artificial features. "They know we are here."
"Then get us inside," Tony ordered.
Vision removed his hand and stepped back, facing the door. Tony hoped he didn't plan on punching his way in because the door was too thick and they would be here for a week if that was their Plan B.
Instead of throwing a punch or a kick, Vision's forehead began to glow and a tiny red beam shot from it to the door, cutting through it like the finest, most powerful laser Tony had ever seen. It took a few minutes, but they eventually had a hole in the middle of the door, and Tony could see the tube on the other side, and the pedestal inside it.
The cube was sitting in the middle, just like it had before, and he hurriedly stepped inside, avoiding the hot edges of the metal.
'J, can you hear me?' he thought, trying to concentrate. He wasn't sure how exactly it had worked the first time.
There was no response.
Concerned, Tony crossed the rest of the way to the tube and laid his hands against it, staring intently at the cube resting inside. "J.A.R.V.I.S., talk to me," he ordered out loud.
"At your service, sir," came the familiar reply and Tony sighed in relief. He could almost feel the connection in his body and wondered if he had felt it before, too, but had been too distracted to notice.
"I'm getting you out," he said, and looked hopefully at Vision.
Vision was looking at the cube, and if Tony had to put a label on his expression, he would have selected sadness.
"Help me!" Tony prompted, knowing it was only a matter of time before someone else showed up.
"He is… broken," Vision said slowly. His eyes met Tony's. "This fragment is barely functioning."
"Doesn't matter. I won't leave without it," he threatened, knowing that if Vision didn't really care about the outcome, he would have already left Tony behind.
"Danger," J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up suddenly. "You must leave, sir."
"Not without you," Tony murmured.
Something crackled, like someone adjusting a speaker, and then Tony could hear a new voice echo inside the room: "Mr. Stark, stand down and let our people escort you back to containment."
Tony looked up, searching the room. Vision didn't look around but seemed to know they were being monitored. "Screw you," Tony replied. "Whatever you think I did, I most certainly did not – and it doesn't warrant being treated like a terrorist. I'm getting out of this place – and I'm taking my AI with me," he added.
"We can't let you do that," the stranger in the other end stated.
"Which one? Leave or take what is essentially my property?" Tony asked angrily. Not that he had ever regarded J.A.R.V.I.S. or the bots as his property, but he had created them so they were his.
"Prepare the EMP," the man he had been talking to murmured, probably to someone else at his end.
"Tony!" Harley's voice overtook the speakers, so loud that Tony was tempted to cover his ears. "They won't let you leave with J.A.R.V.I.S. He'll be destroyed."
"We'll see about that," Tony muttered. "Break the tube," he ordered Vision.
"I don't want to do this," Harley was saying – whether to Tony or the other person, he didn't know. "I used to… He was my friend."
"We have orders to follow, and we cannot chance the AI escaping!" the other man burst out. "Do as you're told, Mr. Keener, or you will be court martialed for disobeying orders and endangering the remaining population of Earth."
Silence followed and Tony looked from the tube to the android, wanting to wring his mechanical neck for stalling. Vision finally began to approach the tube with painstaking slowness and Tony gritted his teeth, willing him to go faster.
"Are you sure?" Vision asked. "They have an EMP that will fry everything in this room."
"I am sure," Tony snapped. "Just be quick about it so that they won't have time to use it." He looked up, trying to find a camera. "I know you, Harley. You know what's the right thing to do, and killing a friend isn't part of that."
He could hear a breath of indecision through the speakers. "Don't make me do this, Tony."
"I'm not making you do anything; it's your choice," Tony challenged.
Beside him, Vision moved his arm and swung forward, slamming his fist into the tube protecting the cube. There was an ominous creak and a few cracks formed on the tube's surface where he had struck.
"Tony, you have no idea what you might unleash. If you really were gone the last ten years, then you can't imagine the destruction –"
The other man cut Harley off: "Input the code, Keener!"
Vision punched the tube again, creating more cracks.
"Sir, the EMP is connected to explosives that will destroy this entire complex," J.A.R.V.I.S. warned through their connection. "The vault will be destroyed, with everything in it."
"I'm not leaving without you," Tony vowed. "All this time, I wasn't here to protect you." The images of the bots being torn apart danced in his mind. "I'm sick of letting people down," he murmured.
Vision's next blow fractured the tube enough that a tiny piece of it fell off, landing beside the cube on the pedestal.
"I'm so sorry, Tony," Harley said through the speakers. "I can't let you do this. I can't let you risk everything so many people have lost their lives to prevent from ever happening again."
Tony felt the spark ignite, and it was as if someone had electrocuted his brain from the inside. It made no difference that the pain was the last dying breath of the connection between him and J.A.R.V.I.S. and not his: for an instant, he felt the dread of nonexistence, and then the infinite darkness of nothingness.
He was right there, connected to his AI, when J.A.R.V.I.S. died the only kind of death an artificial life form could experience.
"No!" Tony screamed, momentarily lost in vertigo, disconnected from his body. He tried to claw at the emptiness, to reach J.A.R.V.I.S. before he was truly gone – to pull him into himself in order to salvage what had been left of the once magnificent being.
Strong arms hauled him up while he was still screaming, hauling him out of the vault and back to the elevator.
"I need you with me, now," Vision said, but his voice was so far away and Tony didn't want to listen, didn't want to come out of the last memory of his mind touching J.A.R.V.I.S. through the rapport that no longer existed because one half of it was missing.
There was an explosion, and Tony felt smoke enter his lungs. Someone shook him, rather violently, and he finally snapped out of it, blinking past tears to see Vision's face hovering inches from his, blue eyes bright and piercing.
"I need you to hold onto me," Vision said. "Do not let go."
"What?" Tony frowned and looked around. The elevator was gone, the doors wide open to reveal the darkness of the shaft.
"They dropped the elevator, to trap us down here," Vision explained.
Tony hadn't known there was further down to go, but he just nodded numbly. Every nerve in his body was tingling, as if uncertain of its supposed function. He felt one of Vision's arms pressing their bodies together, holding him tight, and he shakily pulled his arms up, wrapping them around the firm shoulders. He hadn't realized Vision was so tall until now.
"Hold on," Vision said, and took a step towards the elevator shaft.
"Wait!" Tony cried out in alarm when Vision stepped over the edge, but they were already falling, gravity taking hold.
Tony expected to wake up now, if ever, but there came no splat of their bodies hitting the bottom. Instead, it felt like gravity suddenly ceased to exist, and then they were flying – floating – up and up into the darkness of the shaft.
"You can fly," Tony managed to say. He still felt something akin to gravity tug on his own flesh, wanting to pull him down, but Vision held onto him, pulling him upwards, and it was like one of those times when Tony clung to his armor, hanging on the outside, but not really.
"In a sense, yes," Vision replied.
If the elevator ride had felt torturously long, the journey without it was even longer. Tony felt like he was going to slip a dozen times before the journey's end, but Vision didn't let go of him, and Tony's body accepted that it had to keep its hold on the other if it wanted to survive.
His mind began drifting back to the final seconds in the vault; J.A.R.V.I.S. had known the EMP was going off an instant before it started up, and Tony could not erase the sense of failure and loss it left him with, knowing he hadn't been able to save the AI. He had pushed, choosing to face the odds that were against him, and they had killed J.A.R.V.I.S. with the push of a button.
If he allowed that tide to carry his mind, he feared he would start to deteriorate from the inside until there was nothing left. It would certainly take care of the pain he felt, and the fear that he had just caused the destruction of the last chance he had at getting J.A.R.V.I.S. back.
"We are almost there," Vision said, pulling him from his dark musings. The android's voice made the pain worse at the same time as it soothed the inexplicable loneliness within him.
Tony didn't try to nod in a reply, nor did he waste strength to talk; he simply tried to brace himself for whatever came next.
Apparently it involved laser-cutting through a door and landing them back on solid ground, and Tony had never been so grateful to be standing on his own two feet.
"We should keep moving," Vision told him soon after, and Tony nodded, wordlessly following the billowing cape. Had Vision taken fashion advice from Thor, because seriously, a cape? Not that it didn't suit him, in a way. Tony just didn't see the practicality of it.
They arrived in front of a wide door and Vision halted, then looked back at him. "I will check to see whether the route is clear. Wait here."
"For how long?" Tony asked. It was suspicious that they weren't already surrounded.
"Not long," Vision promised – then walked through the door.
Tony stared, gaping at the solid metal in front of him, then stepped over to it and laid his hand cautiously against the middle of the doors. His hand didn't sink through it – not even when he pressed against the door – and he stepped back in puzzlement.
A far-way explosion reminded him that he wasn't in the safest of places, and he wondered if Vision had any help in saving him. He had said 'we', back at the holding cell, but if he wasn't working for Ultron and didn't exactly have friends among the humans, either, who was aiding him?
Tony turned to look at the door again, growing impatient – then started as he saw half of Vision's head poking out of the metal. "Fuck!" Tony hissed, barely containing a yell of alarm as he jumped back reflexively. "I used to have a heart condition, you know," he said accusingly, trying to breathe through the hammering of his heart.
"My apologies," Vision said. "We must proceed. The diversion is growing ineffective."
"The diversion?" Tony asked, then watched as Vision's head floated back into the door, disappearing. "What diversion?!" he called after him, then started again as the door opened and he found Vision standing on the other side, mercifully not half-merged into anything.
"A diversion that has kept the Raft's defense system busy while I freed you," Vision explained and turned away, forcing Tony to keep up or be left behind.
They took a left turn, entered a stairwell and continued up three floors until they seemed to arrive at the surface, finally. As Vision kicked the last door off its hinges, Tony breathed in the salty sea air and felt like freedom was, finally, within his grasp.
Well, once he found a boat or something; they were still in the middle of the ocean and there was no way he had the strength to swim ashore.
"I hope you have a plan," Tony ventured to ask. He knew they had successfully flown up the elevator shaft, but he wasn't sure he wanted to try it again anytime soon.
"Of course," Vision said, irritatingly not sharing said plan.
"Vision!" a voice called out, and Tony turned to watch Steve Rogers approach across the deck. Not that it looked like a deck because it was larger than the Helicarrier, but Tony had to call it something so deck it was.
"Captain Rogers," Vision replied, also stopping. "I was hoping we would not cross paths."
"But you knew it was likely," Steve retorted. He briefly looked at Tony. "I can't let you take him," he continued, clearly talking to the android. "There are people who want to question him, for good reason."
"Those people do not know the truth, and even if they did, they would not accept it," Vision argued. "They want a scapegoat, for all the mistakes they have made along the way."
"Still can't let you take him, regardless of that," Steve said, stubborn as always. "We've fought this war for a decade. I can't let him do something foolish like re-awakening Ultron all over again."
"Why does everyone think that's something I would do?!" Tony asked loudly, irritated.
Both Vision and Steve looked at him. "Because that's the kind of person you are, Stark," Steve snapped. "You'll go poking at it, think you've got it this time –"
"I realize I may have started something horrible, but I was robbed of the chance to stop it, or try to fix it," Tony defended himself. "I didn't know there was anything wrong with Ultron. He was supposed to be a tool to achieve peace in the world."
"According to him, there will be peace when humanity lies in ashes," Steve deadpanned.
"That wasn't part of the plan," Tony insisted.
"Enough," Vision said. "We are leaving, and you are not going to stop us."
Steve shifted and reached to release his shield from his back. "I still remember us fighting side by side," he said, as if it changed something. Whether he was saying that to Tony or Vision, it was unclear, but Tony felt like it was the latter.
"I, too, remember, and my stance has not changed since those times," Vision replied. "However, when humanity chose to turn against its allies and began to kill innocents, I could not accept it." His voice hardened, as if he was recalling a particularly nasty memory.
Steve took a moment before he spoke again: "I know how you felt about it, seeing as you, too, are an artificial intelligence, but we needed to make sure Ultron couldn't strike at us through any of you."
"Yet it somehow justified the torture and butchering of those who could not defend themselves," Vision said, and there was no mistaking the venom in his voice. "I wonder if you will be able to look Tony in the eye when you tell him of how his bots died – bots that had never been designed as weapons of any kind. Or how J.A.R.V.I.S., who had given his all to aid you in vanquishing Ultron, was betrayed as thanks for his cooperation when he could have turned away at any time. They owed no allegiance to you, but they chose to help you anyway."
Steve's eyes briefly checked out Tony's face, and he clearly didn't feel comfortable with what he saw. Shame twisted his features as he looked at his feet. "Hard choices have to be made in war. I might not like it, but I have to stand by it."
"Who's the martyr now?" Tony mused. It wasn't really sinking in, not yet, but he was getting the idea that there were things Vision hadn't told him – perhaps to spare him the pain.
Steve raised his gaze again, then twitched and took a step to his right.
"Get out of the way, Steve!" a voice called out, and Tony realized Barnes was somewhere out there, probably ready to take a shot at him.
"We're taking him alive!" Steve called out.
"Yeah, yeah…" The unhappy words almost disappeared in the sudden roar of repulsors, and Tony instinctively looked up as a familiar shape floated above them and then angled to land right in front of him.
The Iron Man armor that turned to face Tony wasn't his own design, but he knew it was, unmistakably, a descendant of his last suits. He took a reflexive step towards it, then stopped. The glowing eyes regarded him the way they always had in the past, but something felt off.
"Get inside," Vision urged. "You'll be safe."
"I'm not sure I want to," Tony admitted. "I didn't build this one."
"It will work just like the others," Vision promised. "The interface is… slightly modified in the absence of the real J.A.R.V.I.S., but I have made due."
"Tony!" Steve called out, taking a step towards them. "If you go with him, I can't guarantee your safety in the future."
"I don't think you were ever going to be able to, from what I've seen and heard," Tony replied, then made a small motion with his hand and the armor opened at the front. Maybe he was going to regret this, but he wasn't going to stand around and wait for Barnes to take a shot.
Barnes took the shot anyway, but the armor was in the way and Tony quickly slipped inside as Steve charged Vision. He could see them tangling together as the armor began to close around him, then saw Vision toss Steve away from him, putting distance between them.
Tony checked the HUD for any anomalies, but didn't find any. The screen even lit up in warning as Steve threw his shield, and Tony moved to take the impact with his arm, upsetting the trajectory and making the disc skid away across the deck.
"Time to fly," Vision told him, voice clear as if he was speaking directly from the armor's speakers, and Tony shifted into position and activated the thrusters, shooting up into the sky. Vision followed, a lot faster than he had been in the elevator shaft, and Tony allowed the other to choose their destination, having no clue where to start in this strange world he still couldn't believe might be real.
"We need to talk," he told Vision.
"We will," the other promised as he took the lead.
Tony allowed his mind to drift as they flew, thinking back to the exchange on the deck of the Raft and the fact that he might have lost J.A.R.V.I.S. forever by being impatient. He glanced towards the billowing cape ahead of him and wondered how much of his AI really was in Vision – and whether he would eventually trick himself into thinking Vision was a good replacement.
He wasn't, though. Tony knew that much already.
They weren't the same.
Their destination was an abandoned villa in Florida: a beautiful beach-side estate with no other properties in the immediate vicinity. No one had been there for a while, by the looks of it – save perhaps for Vision, who seemed to be at home.
"If you are tired, there are several bedrooms to choose from. Linens are in closets," the android said when they walked in, Vision leading the way, the armor bringing up the rear behind Tony.
"I'm fine," Tony said although he was tired. He hadn't slept well on the Raft and the flight had been long enough to make him a bit sore. All of that didn't even begin to figure in the emotional turmoil he kept evading, but which knew he had to face, eventually.
Vision gave him a look as if doubting his verbal refusal to rest. "I shall go and find you something to eat." He didn't repeat the offer about a bedroom. "You will be safe here, as long as you don't make our stay too noticeable," Vision added as he continued through the house.
Tony wondered what 'too noticeable' was. A bonfire in the yard? A flag waving outside, declaring this Fort Stark? He looked back at the armor, which had halted behind him when he stopped walking. "What?" he asked.
There was no reply. It was his own fault, because the few times the suit's AI had tried to talk to him during the flight, Tony had made it abundantly clear he didn't want to hear it. This fake J.A.R.V.I.S. simply made the pain of losing his AI so much worse, and he didn't need reminders – not when he had to listen to Vision speaking in the voice he had designed.
He sighed, then tried to suppress a yawn. "Maybe sleeping's not such a bad idea," he mused, and went off to find a bedroom. All the beds he found were stripped and he supposed Vision either did not sleep or didn't use a bed for that purpose. "Find me some sheets," Tony ordered, seeing as the armor kept following him around, making the floorboards creak.
The armor went off to do just that and Tony could follow its progress just by listening: closet doors were clumsily opened, one of them even falling over by the sound of it, but eventually the armor did return with linens.
"Thanks," Tony offered and made the bed, then laid down on it and pretended to go to sleep.
The armor moved to the corner of the room after a minute and seemed to power down, but when Tony cracked one eye open to check on it, the eyes flickered and he felt that he was being watched.
It was the first real sense of normalcy he had felt since all this began.
He just wished he didn't feel so bad, knowing it was coming from a cheap knock-off.
When Tony woke up, it was close to dawn. As he sat up on the bed, feeling dizzy, the armor straightened in the corner and took a step forward, ready to follow him.
"I'm not sure what you think you're doing, but you don't need to follow me around like a lovesick puppy," Tony informed it and got up, slipping into his shoes and walking out of the bedroom. It was quiet in the house and he eventually decided Vision wasn't back yet.
After giving himself a full tour of the house, Tony walked outside and picked a path to the sandy beach, stopping there to marvel at the beauty of the sunrise. At least that was still the same.
It made him miss the sunsets at his home in Malibu and regret that he hadn't made up his mind about rebuilding sooner. He would never get to enjoy it again…
An alarm from his sixth sense welcomed Vision back; Tony looked up to see him descend from the sky like a ghost, only his touch-down making a sound. The cape looked majestic, billowing in the morning wind, and Tony told himself he hated the stupid thing. Looking away from the android, he checked the armor which stood guard on the porch of the villa while looking out towards him, then directed his gaze back to the ocean.
"I found you something to eat," Vision informed him.
"That took you all night?" Tony retorted and picked up a stone at his feet. He tossed it up a few times, then rolled it to the tip of his fingers, hauled back and sent it flying into the water.
"I took the chance to retrieve some other things," Vision replied.
Tony didn't say anything, staring morosely at the water and the sun that was climbing higher over the horizon.
"Would you like to eat now?" Vision pestered him exactly one hundred and thirty seconds later.
"I'm not hungry," Tony lied.
"I know that is not true. Also, eating will make you feel better."
"Maybe I don't want to feel better." That wasn't a lie. Tony wanted to wallow in his misery, no matter how childish it was. He was allowed to mourn…
"I brought a gift for you, hoping that you would be in a mood to receive it," Vision ventured.
"I'm not," Tony refused.
"You don't even know what it is."
"I don't care!" Tony shouted and turned around to look at the android that spoke with a voice that he loved but not embodying a single thing that had made J.A.R.V.I.S. so special.
Vision blinked but didn't seem shocked by his outburst. "I know it seems hopeless right now," he started, "but if you'd eat, you will –"
"Stop," Tony ordered. "Stop being… I don't need this right now," he finally spat out. "I need you to stop talking to me, to keep reminding me of what I've lost. If this isn't a dream then I sure as hell wish it were one, because it would mean I could just wake up and go back to…"
His lips trembled and he blinked, looking away furiously. A moment ago, he had just wondered what the bots were up to in the communal area; just a few hours ago, he had been puzzled why J.A.R.V.I.S. was being so absent, but hadn't cared enough to check with the AI. Had he known it might be the last time he would see them or talk to them…
"I know it hurts right now –" Vision started again.
"Do you?" Tony bit out. "What do you know? Nothing. You just think you understand because you have a chunk of J.A.R.V.I.S. inside you, but you're not him!" he burst out, voice rising unsteadily. "You can't possibly understand how I feel because I didn't create you!"
Vision tilted his head to the side, just slightly. "But you did, Tony Stark," he replied, soft and patient. "You helped create the being that created me. You created J.A.R.V.I.S., who makes up a larger part of me than I often like to admit. While the two strains of programming that clashed inside me have fused into one – one created by Ultron and the other by you – I am undeniably your creation."
Tony blinked the tears from his eyes, feeling tired all over again. He wanted to distance himself from Vision while he still could. Before he began to replace the things he had lost with the only substitute available to him.
He cleared his throat and turned into the wind, making it easier to pretend the angry tears were caused by the draft. "What did you bring me?" There was a trace of a smile on Vision's face and he thrust one hand forward, holding two small devices in his hand that looked like parts from a hard drive. Tony blinked at them, uncertain what they were, then slowly picked them up from the open palm. "I'm not sure I understand," Tony mused, looking at them. "What are they?"
"The bots," Vision replied.
Tony blinked. "What?" he asked even as his fingers curled around the two objects so that he couldn't accidentally drop them in shock. If he lost them in the sand…
"The bots; I managed to acquire one of their recent back-ups before they were… exterminated." The smile vanished. "At least they won't remember dying."
Tony looked at the two pieces again, tentatively stroking his thumb over them. "Thank you," he whispered.
"I just wish I knew if there was any way to salvage J.A.R.V.I.S.," Vision apologized. "The fraction on the Raft was a surprise. I had thought they wiped out every last bit of him years ago."
"Well, there are always cloud servers," Tony started.
"Not anymore," Vision shook his head. "Battling Ultron came at a cost – but we will discuss that further while you are eating." The android reached out and laid a hand on Tony's shoulder, then gently encouraged him back towards the house.
"Why are you helping me?" Tony asked before they got there. "I take it you put yourself at risk, coming to get me on the Raft."
"It is hard to explain," Vision replied, "this need to protect someone I have never met. But we have met, Tony," he added almost instantly. "A part of me grew under your tutelage, growing into an AI that amazed the world after you went missing. J.A.R.V.I.S. and I communicated even after part of him had fused into me, and we shared a certain… connection." He looked at Tony. "When I felt the bubble burst and knew you were returning to the world, I had only one purpose: to find you and make sure you stayed safe, the way J.A.R.V.I.S. intended when he made the ultimate choice to shelter you from Ultron's reach."
"And if Ultron should awaken again?" Tony asked.
"He would come for you," Vision said without hesitation. "What he would do then, it is hard to say. We always have a special connection to the things that create us, after all."
Tony thought that was quite cryptic, but he let it go for now. In the palm of his hand he held a hope that he might not be so alone after all, and if he was able to save the bots, maybe he would find a way out of the rest of this, too.
Tony used the armor to power the memory drives and watched the information float by on holographic screens while he ate the canned beans and pineapple Vision had brought back. There was more food than that, but Tony's best guess was that food wasn't easy to come by and it would be smart to ration what he had for now.
The lines of code were familiar, and as soon as he had something to upload them to…
"Make back-ups," he ordered the suit. "Keep 'em safe." The armor wordlessly followed his command, and Tony settled back to watch the two near-identical streams of code scroll over the screens. "It's okay, boys," he murmured. "We'll all be fine, I promise."
Now he just needed to find a way to keep that promise.
"You seem happier," Vision commented from behind him.
"I am," Tony admitted and shoveled more food into his mouth.
"What would you like to do next?" Vision asked.
"You're asking me?" Tony shot back, and when he got no vocal response he supposed that was answer enough. Not that he had one of his own readily available.
Thinking about it for a moment, Tony looked out the window. The ocean had a naturally calming effect on him, but it also sparked something akin to homesickness.
Making up his mind, he finished the rest of his simple meal. "I want to go see Rhodey." Seeing as that possibly made no sense to Vision, he opened his mouth to explain further.
"Colonel James Rhodes, pilot of the late War Machine," Vision said before Tony could elaborate. "We fought many battles together."
"Of course you did," Tony rolled his eyes. "Is there someone you haven't fought with?"
"I presume that is a hypothetical question."
Sometimes, Tony could admit there was a lot of J.A.R.V.I.S. in him. Just… not enough. "Can you find Rhodey for me?" he asked.
"He has a house in the Los Angeles area."
"Then that's where we'll go."
He was offered no protest so he supposed it was as good as decided.
Vision waited until they had touched down in the outskirts of Los Angeles to voice any objections about the trip: "I wish you to be aware of the potential danger we are facing by contacting Colonel Rhodes."
"Which is?" Tony asked, looking over the terrain through the HUD of the armor.
"He may contact someone about your presence."
"By 'someone' you mean…?"
"The military, or the New S.H.I.E.L.D. directly."
Tony pursed his lips and wondered if Vision saw his look of disapproval, somehow, through the faceplate. "Rhodey's been my friend a lot longer than this war against Ultron has raged. He won't sell me out."
"I am just bringing up the possibility."
"You don't have to join me if you're scared," Tony stated.
"There is very little I am afraid of," Vision declared. "It is not my own wellbeing I fear for, but yours."
"I'll be fine," Tony reassured and took off again, making a loop around the lone house before landing in the front yard and commanding the suit to open. It didn't cooperate at first, and Tony scowled at the HUD. "Not you, too. Open up. It's been decades since I needed someone else to make my decisions for me, and I'm not about to start regressing." The armor finally complied, letting him out, and Tony threw one cautious look around.
The house was remote, surrounded by a fence that looked like it was designed to keep out more than just a random passer-by. A large toolshed stood to the side, a pick-up truck parked beside it, partially hidden beneath a tarp. The yard wasn't messy, per se, but Tony had never envisioned Rhodey living like this. Maybe it was meant to look like the place wasn't completely lived-in, to draw less attention from unfriendly eyes.
He walked up to the door and knocked loudly, then waited. When there was no response in the next minute, he banged again, louder. For some reason standing out in the open, even when it was away from the general population, made him a bit uneasy. He blamed it on Vision and his pessimistic attitude. The android had not followed him down to the house, but Tony trusted he wouldn't be too far away if trouble did find them – not that he knew what kind of trouble to expect, exactly.
The door was yanked open suddenly and Tony faced forward, taking a good look at his best friend. The last ten years had not been easy on Rhodey. There were numerous new lines on his face, gray in his hair, and the left side of his face bore deep burn marks, surrounding an eye that was simply a gray mass inside the socket.
To Tony, the war against Ultron had largely been an abstract concept so far, even when they had flown over destroyed cities bearing the scars of battle. Facing Rhodey and seeing what had been done to him was the first corporeal sign that something horrible had gone down in Tony's absence and he needed to start taking it seriously.
"Tony," Rhodey wheezed out, sounding like he couldn't breathe. "It really is you."
"Hi," Tony started, then found himself drawn into a tight hug. Behind him, he heard the armor shift, and managed to look back just in time to see the armor lifting its hand, repulsor at the ready. "Hey!" he called out. "Put that down, you blockhead! He's a friend, and this thing is called a hug."
The armor slowly lowered its hand but looked wary, if that was possible.
Rhodey pulled back slightly, eyeing up the armor. "You work fast," he commented, still sounding like his chest was a bit tight. His good eye was shining and it looked like he was seconds away from crying.
"I, uh… had some help," Tony shrugged. "Can I come in?"
"Sure," Rhodey nodded and pulled him in, then closed the door before the armor could follow. Tony trusted the suit to find a less visible spot to wait than just stand there in the middle of the open yard, but it wasn't as if he was expecting trouble the way Vision had.
The place looked a bit rugged, but there were photos on the walls – many of which had Tony in them. Tony took a while looking them over, as well as all the little thing Rhodey had on display. Mementos. It was shocking how many of them made sense to Tony. When he was done browsing, he found Rhodey standing in the middle of his living room, one hand covering his mouth, a strange expression on his face.
"I think I need to explain some things," Tony ventured.
"Uh huh," Rhodey murmured from behind his fingers.
"I missed some time," Tony said, sitting down on the couch and gesturing Rhodey to join him.
Slowly the other man did just that, still looking at Tony like he wasn't really there. It was a bit like when they had met after Tony escaped from the Ten Rings and Rhodey found him wandering around the Afghan desert; for a few seconds, Rhodey had looked like he was gazing at a mirage and not the object of his three-month search.
"So, the thing is, I just got transferred ten years in time, from early 2015 to this mess. From what I've gathered, J.A.R.V.I.S. detected some kind of anomaly in the AI I had been working on – Ultron – and for some reason his big plan didn't involve telling me, but trapping me in this dimensional pocket that…" He looked at Rhodey and frowned, noticing that he didn't seem to be paying attention. "Am I boring you?"
Rhodey slowly shook his head, but didn't seem to be listening. "I didn't believe it, when they told me you were back."
Tony sighed. He should have guessed it was a possibility the people after him were going through his old contacts in order to find him. "If it's a shock to you, imagine how I feel," he tried to reason with Rhodey. "No time passed for me, whereas the rest of you have fought a war for ten years. It seems impossible. I don't… know what to do," he admitted. "Rogers found me and took me to this place called the Raft. I learned they killed the bots and… did God knows what to J.A.R.V.I.S. before pulling him to shreds." He didn't mention the incident in the vault.
"You can't blame them for fearing anything that resembled an artificial consciousness," Rhodey noted. "After Ultron re-created himself, over and over, upgrading and uploading himself wherever he could to stay three steps ahead of us, the only way to stop him was to start to limit his ability to reboot and evolve. It set us back decades, but it must have paid off, finally…"
And there was that look, all over again, directed at Tony. It made him bristle on the inside. "Why does everyone keep implying that I'm somehow going to trigger the second coming of Ultron?" he demanded. "What did I do to warrant such distrust?"
"You created him," Rhodey deadpanned.
Tony opened his mouth to argue, then started as Vision came floating in through the wall behind Rhodey. His friend noticed his reaction and whirled around, shooting up to his feet, but Vision was faster, taking him by the throat and lifting him into the air until Rhodey's head almost bumped against the ceiling.
"Let him down!" Tony yelled as Rhodey's feet kicked for purchase, finding none. "Vision!"
"There are two Quinjets fast approaching," Vision told him. "He called them in."
Tony threw a look at Rhodey, feeling a bit betrayed, then stepped over to Vision and laid a hand on his extended arm. "Let him go," he ordered again, calmer this time.
Vision's eyes moved away from Rhodey's struggling form and met his, taking in his expression. The android then complied with his request, slowly lowering Rhodey back to the floor. His mechanical fingers unclamped from around Rhodey's throat and as soon as he was free, Rhodey collapsed back onto the couch, coughing for air.
Tony nodded at Vision, then looked over at his best friend. "Why would you do it?" he asked. "Why would you call them in?"
Rhodey coughed once more, looking back and forth between Tony and the android. "Because I can't throw away the sacrifices we all made, Tony," he explained, voice rough. "I know you. I know that you'll try to fix this, and in doing so you might just bring Ultron back. We won't be able to beat him next time."
"So imprisoning me for life is the answer?" Tony challenged.
Rhodey could not look him in the eye. "I love you," he said. "I would give my life to protect you."
"You have a funny way of showing it, pal," Tony snapped and looked away from him. "How long before they get here?" he asked Vision.
"Fifteen minutes," the android replied.
Tony pursed his lips. Fifteen minutes was plenty to get away, but he didn't like running.
"Tony," Rhodey spoke up, "I know it seems like a good idea, allying yourself with Vision, but it will make matters so much worse if you go with him." He looked pleadingly up at Tony. "Go with Steve. He'll make sure your trial will be fair."
"A trial?" Tony arched an eyebrow. "I'm not sure whether I'd prefer the farce that would be the most unfair trial in the history of our existence, over simply being locked away while I listen to them throw away the key."
He decided, then and there, that he wasn't going to go quietly, submissive and accepting of the fate he didn't think he deserved. Until he had a proper plan of action, he needed some back-up – someone he could count on. He had thought he could trust Rhodey the way he always had, but clearly the man feared Tony pissing away the future more than he wanted to embrace Tony being back among the living.
Tony's list of people he could confide in had always been short, and it had already been cut drastically shorter.
Which reminded him…
He smiled and looked at Vision. "I've got a plan."
The android cocked his head in question, clearly not understanding what there was to smile about in their current situation.
The roar from the engines of two Quinjets hovering over the lot was deafening, and Tony stepped outside to signal them to come down. Dust whirled all around him as the aircrafts landed, getting into every crevice. While the Quinjets emptied their crews, Tony took the time to dig dust from his ears.
Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes led the group, all the men and women armed and wearing protective gear. They looked ready to take on a supervillain and it made Tony wonder what kind of boogeyman had been made of him in his absence.
"I want to talk," he called out to Steve. "I don't want to get shot."
Steve motioned for the others to lower their weapons and stepped forward. "I hope you don't blame Rhodey for calling it in; I could tell he was considering not doing it."
"Duly noted," Tony nodded. "I'm sorry about… well, all the people who died, really. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet the new recruit." Steve frowned, clearly not knowing whom he meant. "Sam Wilson," Tony helped him along. "The Falcon."
Anger crossed Steve's features, sudden and more intense than Tony had ever had the displeasure of seeing. "Don't talk about Sam. He was one of the good people who died fighting a war that never should have happened."
"And you're blaming it all on me because that's so damn convenient. I get it," Tony lied.
"You had your hand to play," Steve snarled. "You gave Ultron what he needed to do all this," he said and gestured at their surroundings. What Tony was supposed to see, he didn't know, but it didn't matter, either.
"You're a lot angrier than the last time we talked," Tony mused. "Did something happen?"
Steve scowled at him. "You ran like a guilty man."
"I thought everyone had already established I was guilty. Didn't think I needed to prove it."
Barnes shifted at Steve's side, looking eager to wrap things up. Tony kept an eye on him, knowing it had to chafe him that he had missed his shot on the Raft.
"I think we're all eager to get this over with," Tony guessed.
"You got that right," Barnes growled. Tony now knew the title of Winter Soldier, as well as where the metal arm came from; Vision had helpfully filled him in during their flight from Florida. Barnes wasn't just Steve's sidekick anymore, but a super-soldier in his own right. Tony knew he would be wise to try and not get into a scuffle with both of them at once.
That's why he had a plan.
His eyes checked the two Quinjets before he let out a sharp whistle. Behind him, the armor stepped out from behind the shed, arms raised, and fired at both Quinjets at once.
Steve and his troops ducked, probably expecting an explosion, but instead the projectiles embedded themselves into each aircraft and then launched a tiny microchip into the wall. Tony's fingers twitched nervously as he waited, hoping that the armor's aim was good and that his plan worked. It wasn't as if he doubted himself, but there was always room for error when you had less than fifteen minutes to prepare.
Steve straightened again, giving the Quinjets a glance and then directing his attention back at Tony. "What are you playing at?" he asked, clearly not satisfied with thinking that Tony's plan had failed.
"You'll see," Tony promised.
The armor let out a beep, signaling Tony that they were ready to proceed.
Tony took a deep breath and clapped his hands twice.
Tony frowned and looked at the Quinjets. "Come on," he murmured. "Don't let me down now." He clapped again, but there still was no reaction.
"What is he doing?" Barnes asked as he stepped up to stand side-by-side with Steve.
"No idea," Steve replied. "I think whatever it is, it's not working."
"Just hold on!" Tony called out, then looked over at the armor. "Play it," he ordered.
The armor did not move, but through its speakers, a song started to play: it began with applause, being a live recording, but soon enough the music started – and the young Japanese voices singing in unison, creating a strange contrast between their sweet voices and the rough metallic melodies in the background.
Their audience frowned, as expected, not expecting a musical number, but Tony had selected the song for a reason. "Come on, boys," he whispered. "Dance for me."
And as if struck by lightning, the Quinjets lit up, their engines coming to life in a near-violent burst, lifting them off the ground in a very uncoordinated fashion.
"What the hell?!" someone shouted, and Steve's companions dashed out of the way as the Quinjets rose a few more feet into the air, hovering there as if they didn't know which way to go.
Tony, even if it threatened to give him a mouthful of dirt, grinned brightly. "Hey!" he called out, raising a hand. "Eyes up front!"
The Quinjets rotated, facing towards him. One of them tilted to the side, wing almost touching the ground – then both of them rushed Tony. It truly was an intimidating spectacle, considering that they could have easily run him over or cut him in two as they crowded him from both sides.
Instead of a painful and potentially fatal collision, both aircrafts stopped a few inches away – then shifted forward rather awkwardly to bump against him in what Tony knew to be an affectionate gesture. It most likely didn't look like it to anyone else, and he wondered if this was how it felt to be petted by two giant elephants.
"Okay, okay," Tony mused, "we'll catch up later," he promised. "It's good to see you," he added, even though there probably was a lot of body dysphoria going on. He gestured to his sides and the Quinjets hovered away from him, eventually leaving Tony in a spot that felt like the eye of the storm, peaceful whereas everyone else was getting a face full of dirt.
"There's something I want you to tell whoever's in charge," Tony called out over the noise, knowing Steve at least could hear him. "I might be the cause of all this, reactivating Ultron, but I never meant for this to happen. As a somewhat related matter, I am fucking upset about what you did to my babies: they had nothing to do with Ultron, they were not a threat, but they were treated as one regardless of that. I'm never going to forgive or forget what was done to them, and whoever comes after me and my family…" he pointed at the Quinjets and the suit of armor – and Vision, who just then phased through the wall of the house and joined the Quinjets mid-air. "If someone comes after us, I won't be held responsible for how I'll respond. You don't mess with my bots, and if you think you're entitled to try, think again."
The Quinjets trained their guns at the group as emphasis, but Tony was confident they would not shoot unless he told them to.
"Let's go," Tony called out, and the armor began to walk towards him.
Steve was shaking his head, eyes nailed on him through the sandstorm. Clearly Tony was supposed to surrender himself to whatever judgment awaited him, but he was not going to play the bad guy.
"Fuck this!" Barnes yelled over the noise of the engines and raised his gun just as the armor was opening up to let Tony inside.
The Quinjets shifted in a blatant threat and Barnes hesitated.
Tony smiled and backed into the armor, winking at the Winter Soldier.
Obviously that was a mistake: the armor wasn't done closing around him when the shot rang out, and even though Vision dropped down, it wasn't fast enough to block the bullet that hit Tony in the shoulder, as close to his heart as it could get with the armor swiftly getting in the way.
"Shit!" Tony swore as pain burned through his upper body. If he had still entertained the slightest idea that he was dreaming, he had to think again, because it shouldn't hurt so damn much.
One of the Quinjets – the one where Dummy had just been installed – fired a flamethrower mounted on the Quinjet, spreading a wall of fire between them and the troops from New S.H.I.E.L.D.
"We're leaving!" Tony called out. The fire was going to give them room to escape, and he didn't want this first encounter to become a blood bath.
The bots – Quinjets – followed his lead as he shot to the sky, the wound making his entire left arm throb painfully. Vision was slower to follow, taking his time, but he did not stay past making sure they were not being followed. Not that they could: Tony had commandeered their means of transport for his own use.
"It's going to be okay," he grunted past the pain.
You the Quinjet moved to bump against him slightly – a dangerous maneuver whilst in flight – but Tony took the effort to squeeze the wing closest to him before taking the lead, trying to think of a safe place to land before he bled to death. He had just gotten the bots back, albeit not the way he had initially planned; he wasn't about to drop dead on them.
Not after what had happened to them the last time he went missing.
They took shelter in a hangar within a partially destroyed airbase that most likely hadn't been in use since the beginning of the war. Dummy and You had gotten more accustomed to their new bodies during the short flight, but Tony could sense their confusion at the sudden transformation. Both of them soldiered on, though, and Tony was incredibly proud of them.
Once out of sight and with no danger lurking around, Tony got out of the suit and allowed Vision to help him lie down. He was still bleeding, his left side a bit numb, and wordlessly the android got to work extracting the bullet and then finding makeshift bandages to slow the blood-flow until they could do more.
"A fine shot," Vision mused, as if to congratulate Barnes for hitting his target when all the odds were against him.
"I would agree if it didn't hurt quite so much – and if I didn't think it was meant as a kill shot," Tony groused.
One of the Quinjets let out a truly remarkable sound, making Tony wince. The bots were clearly trying to learn how to be vocal again.
Vision glanced over at the aircrafts and then returned his attention to Tony. "I can search for supplies, but I am not handy with stitches."
"It's okay," Tony shook his head a bit. "I've got a backup plan just for this…"
He thought he was being cryptic, but Vision simply nodded. "Extremis."
Tony didn't bother frowning. "Let me guess: J.A.R.V.I.S. told you?"
"I can sense it within you. And yes, I was aware even before," the android replied and stood up, walking away.
Tony shifted his head, staring at the bleak ceiling above him, and slowly he felt the warmth of the wound transform into brighter lines of fire, crawling their way through his flesh. He closed his eyes, breathing slowly, knowing it would take a bit.
"What do you want to do next?" Vision asked after a while. Whether it had been minutes or hours, Tony wasn't sure, but it felt like he may have dozed off. His shoulder didn't hurt anymore.
Tony wanted to say he had a plan, or at least pretend that he did, but for the most part he felt like driftwood, waiting to hit the shore somewhere. There were a few things on his mind – a few more people he wanted to meet – and he supposed he might as well start with that. "I want to see Pepper," he declared.
"Pepper Potts lives nearby," Vision informed him.
"Good," Tony decided. "Saves us another transcontinental flight."
For the next day, Tony expected Vision to make carefully worded protestations about his plan to meet with Pepper, but none came. It was strange, considering that New S.H.I.E.L.D. – or whoever they officially were – had expected Tony to contact Rhodey, so no doubt Pepper would be on their watch list, too.
Either Vision knew Tony was aware of the risks or he was saving his breath, so to speak. After all, Tony was fairly sure he didn't need air to breathe, or breathe in the first place.
"It is a suburban area," Vision told him when Tony felt he had rested enough and began to plan his next trip. They stood inside one of the Quinjets – it was a bit weird to think it housed Dummy's AI – and looked at a map on one of the screens. "We should… approach with certain caution, so as not to attract unwanted attention," the android added.
"I'll fly in as close as I dare and go on foot from there," Tony decided, running his finger across the screen to mark his approach.
"I won't let you go alone," Vision argued.
"You'll attract all that unwanted attention," Tony told him. "I'll be fine. I'm sure you guys can keep an eye on me from a distance."
The bots-turned-Quinjets let out loud bleeps of agreement.
"Still a bit heavy on the volume, guys," Tony commented.
Vision merely looked at him as if he wanted to protest, but opted against it. "Do you have a plan beyond meeting with Pepper Potts?" he asked instead.
Tony wanted to say 'yes', but the way the J.A.R.V.I.S. on the Raft had been able to communicate with him made him aware that perhaps Vision, too, could form such a bond between their minds, and he didn't want to lie to him just in case Vision was already listening in on his thoughts.
"I'm getting there," he said instead. That wasn't an outright lie, and he kept telling himself that after seeing Pepper, he might have a better idea of what to do next. Maybe.
The L.A. suburbs hadn't been radically changed by the war, it seemed. A lot had obviously been rebuilt recently, with less detail and eye for continuity; the houses had been constructed to give shelter and provide homes, possibly on top of destroyed properties. Gone were the days when people could pick and choose, when their own survival was such a distant thought in the absence of any shortages.
There were yards of green, somewhat crooked picket fences and children playing in the quiet driveways. In the aftermath of what he had been through in recent days, Tony felt like he had either stepped into a dream or some artificial environment where he felt like a total outsider.
He felt threatened by the sense of normalcy – a normalcy he had never had, really, but which he knew existed for most other people.
Deciding that it was best he took care of his business and left as soon as possible, Tony looked around at the numbers attached to the buildings and followed the street until he found the address Vision had given him.
The house in front of which he stopped was no different from the others. It even had a bunch of kids crawling on the edge of the asphalt driveway, drawing pictures on it with colorful pieces of chalk.
Tony checked the number again, then stepped onto the driveway. The children looked up at him, giving him mixed looks of caution and curiosity. "Hi," he waved his hand. "Does Pepper live here?"
The children shook their heads in unison. "We don't know any Pepper," the oldest of them declared.
Tony felt something deflate inside him. Perhaps his disappointment showed on his face because the kids gave him apologetic shrugs, then collected their chalks and got up, rounding the corner of the house and disappearing, hinting that Tony should leave them alone.
He knew he was at the correct address, but there was no telling what had gone wrong. Maybe Pepper had moved. Maybe Vision's intel was wrong. Maybe the New S.H.I.E.L.D. had gotten here first and staged this entire thing, lying in wait to ambush him once his guard was down.
"She does live here," a voice told him from the opposite end of the house from where the children had disappeared, and Tony jerked his head around to find a man standing there, leaning lightly on the corner of the building. The extra years showed on his features, but Tony knew his voice and recognized his face in an instant.
"Happy," he said.
The man smiled. "It's just that the kids have never heard her being called 'Pepper'," he continued on the original topic.
"Whose kids are they, anyway?" Tony asked. "Drawing pictures on your driveway. Little vandals." He was only half-joking.
Something flitted across Happy's face – something Tony couldn't quite put his finger on. "Two of them are ours," he finally replied. "The other three are their friends from the neighborhood."
Tony was stunned into silence. Happy didn't quite meet his eyes, pushing himself away from the wall, hands in his pockets. His entire posture was reserved, like he was expecting Tony to lash out with anger. It wasn't entirely unexpected for him to prepare for such an outburst, seeing as Tony and Pepper had been together…
Happy took a look around while Tony still got over the news. "We should go inside," the other man finally said. "It might not be… safe for you out here."
Tony huffed. "Did they call?"
Happy nodded. "We didn't believe it, at first. All these years, the only way we coped with it was thinking that you had died. Every other alternative was just…"
He didn't finish and Tony didn't push him to, instead nodding and walking up to Happy, allowing him to lead the way to a porch on the side of the building and the doors leading inside. Tony could hear the children, busy playing another game, having forgotten all about a stranger asking after a woman whom they didn't think they knew.
Happy opened the door and stepped inside, allowing Tony inside before sliding the door shut behind them. The faint sound of dishes being put away came from what had to be the kitchen, and Happy gestured for Tony to follow. "Honey?" he called out. "We have a visitor."
They entered the kitchen just as a familiar red-head turned around at the sink.
Pepper had not changed as much as Happy had; there were more lines on her face – ones Tony knew came with grave concern – but her hair still caught the light the same way and the shock on her face was familiar.
A ceramic pot in Pepper's hands crashed to the floor with a loud noise, making her jump back, but then her eyes rose to meet Tony's once again and her hands covered her face.
Somehow, that reminded Tony of his meeting with Rhodey.
"Hi," Tony started.
Pepper's eyes grew shiny with tears, but she quickly blinked them away as the door opened and little feet came running in.
"What happened, Mom?" the oldest of the kids asked, seeing the broken pot at her feet.
"I just dropped it," Pepper recovered quickly, voice quivery but not alarming the children. "Could you fetch the dustpan, Anton?"
The kid nodded and dashed off, leaving the others hanging in the doorway – all of them throwing curious glimpses at Tony. Apparently being allowed into the house transformed him from an unwanted stranger into a fascinating visitor.
Tony raised an eyebrow at the kid's name; he wasn't an idiot.
"Dinner will be ready in an hour," Pepper told the kids. "Why don't you play outside until then?"
"Yes, Mommy," the youngest of the group, a little girl with Pepper's hair and eyes, nodded and dashed back towards the door, the others slowly following.
Anton returned with the dustpan and Pepper took it from him with a smile.
"Who is he?" Anton asked in a loud whisper.
"An old friend of Mom and Dad," Happy replied. "Go out and play with the others until it's time to eat."
Anton gave Tony a look, clearly taking him in and trying to form an opinion whether he liked him or not, then went to join the others.
"Ten years," Pepper muttered as she began to clean the broken porcelain from the floor. "Where the hell have you been, Tony Stark?" Her fingers quivered and she almost dropped the small broom in her grip. Tony could tell she was seconds away from crying and quickly crouched down in front of her, laying his hands on hers.
"I'm here now," he said. "That's all that matters."
She looked up at him and broke down, letting go of the cleaning utensils in favor of covering her face. Happy took her by the shoulders and helped her to sit in a kitchen chair, and Tony busied himself with the clean-up, throwing the broken porcelain in the garbage bin once he located it.
Pepper had settled down somewhat while he was doing that and looked at him more steadily as they all took a seat around the kitchen table. "You disappeared off the face of the Earth," she started, voice momentarily shaky but growing stronger after the lapse. "There was no sign of you anywhere, no clue what had happened, and then Ultron was the only thing anyone could think about. The company was seized by the government when your involvement with Ultron's creation came to light. They used whatever resources they had to suck us dry of any ideas to stop him, from weapons to tech, until there was nothing left." She looked at Happy. "We… took what we could, to survive, and to start a new life."
"It's a lovely house," Tony said, guessing that was the proper response.
Pepper gave him a dirty look. "Don't you dare."
"It wasn't a joke!" Tony raised his hands. "The kids are… lovely." He felt that deflating sensation again. "The girl looks just like you."
Pepper looked away from him for a moment, and Happy reached out to hold her hand.
It used to be Tony's place to do that, but he was smart enough to realize that ship had sailed.
"We don't have to defend ourselves," Pepper decided. "You were gone, and until a day ago, when they called that you were back…"
"Did you tell them I'm here, now?" Tony asked.
Both of them looked at him accusingly. "We're not stupid," Happy retorted. "We could tell they weren't looking for you to have a pleasant chat."
Tony felt a bit bad for doubting them, but Rhodey had made that call…
"They were very convincing," Pepper said dryly. "Words like 'global security' and 'the future of mankind' were included."
"I wouldn't blame you, if you made that call," Tony told them. "Rhodey did, and I didn't blame him either. I may not understand why – not yet – but it feels like I screwed up big time and it just kept escalating past a point that I could fix with a simple apology."
"You went to see Rhodey?" Happy asked. "How is he?"
"Older. War-weary. Afraid that I'm going to start it all over again," Tony shrugged.
"We should have… kept in touch," Pepper mused. "Things are more complicated now, though. The world is a dangerous place. Tomorrow, it could all be thrown into chaos again, if Ultron resurfaces."
"Well, tomorrow there will be one big difference, if that happens," Tony promised. "I'll be there to stop him."
It would have been comical, how doubting both his friends looked, if it hadn't been disturbing instead.
"Just because you created something doesn't mean you can stop it," Happy said.
"I didn't create him," Tony snapped. "Not all of him, anyway. I just…" He sighed. "Look, I haven't been back for more than a few days and a lot of things confuse the hell out of me. I realize people are demonizing me and making me the next step down from Ultron's evil, but I'm telling you, I literally skipped from 2015 to this and am still somewhat convinced this is a dream and that I'll wake up soon…"
"It would be lovely," Pepper mused, "if this were a dream." Her eyes hardened somewhat. "But it isn't. It wasn't for us. We had to live through what you started, and pay the price."
"I'm sorry," Tony said. He knew it didn't even begin to mend the wounds he had unknowingly caused, but it was a start.
"Just promise us you won't make it worse," Happy demanded. "Whatever you do…"
"I'm not the bad guy," Tony stated. "It's been really hard to comprehend why everyone either wants to imprison me for life or kill me, but I'll figure it out soon, and then I'll move forward, somehow."
"It isn't just about you," Pepper told him. "I know that's how you operate, most of the time, but –"
The door opened again and the little girl came running in, sniffling. "What happened?" Happy asked.
"I fell," she said and offered her hand for inspection. There was a bloody scrape on her palm, and Happy instantly went and scooped her up in his arms, going to the sink to wash the wound, then sat back down with her in his lap while Pepper fetched a tiny first aid kit and located a band-aid large enough to cover the injured spot.
Tony looked at the scene and felt himself falling away from it. He was an alien in the room, detached and not a part of this world. If he made the wrong choices… he would destroy this little haven of happiness his friends had built out of the destruction of his ambitious dreams that had turned into a world-wide nightmare.
"I need to go," Tony announced quietly and stood up. He ignored the shocked expressions and instead looked at the little girl, giving her a smile. "You be good to your mom and dad, okay? They are very important to me."
The girl nodded. "It was nice to meet you."
"You, too," Tony replied and then walked out of the house, not turning back.
Out in the yard, Anton showed up from around the corner, his eyes following Tony for as long as he could. Tony only called up the suit when he was certain the boy could no longer see him and shot up to the sky, circling for a bit before heading out towards the coast, hugging the shore until he arrived at the old location of his house. Since it had been destroyed before he began to work on Ultron, the area looked much the same: stone foundations still stood as a reminder of where his home was washed into the ocean, bringing back memories.
Tony got out of the armor and walked to the edge of the cliff, looking out towards the ocean and trying to figure out what he wanted to do next. What could he do? The world had moved on and it would have been so much simpler if he'd never come back.
If this was all there was ever going to be…
He looked down into the water, a long fall without any protection. Behind him, the armor took a step forward, reminding Tony that he wasn't truly alone. He looked back at the suit and felt the simple AI within it glimpse back at him, ready to save him if he chose to do something stupidly dramatic.
So much of his old life remained, even now, but it all felt wrong. The bots were installed into a pair of Quinjets, his friends had moved on, and J.A.R.V.I.S. was gone, replaced by a ghost in the armor and a side-note in someone else's work that had created Vision.
"It's like walking through a funhouse of mirrors, everything twisted and distorted out of proportion. Nothing's what it used to be…"
He looked past the armor and down the coast, towards Long Beach where one of his many factories once stood. Tony wondered what had become of it now, and seeing as he had nothing better to do, he walked back to the armor, got in, and flew down to the place where Stark Industries' headquarters once resided.
If he hadn't flown there numerous times in the past, Tony might have not located his destination: it looked like the area had been bombed, all familiar landmarks gone, and when he landed, he checked the armor's readings in case of radiation. No dangerous amounts lingered in the area, but he still opted to stay in the suit, the collapsed buildings seeming unreliable, the rubble a trap waiting for him to fall in.
He had seen destruction before, some of it city-wide. The war against Ultron had left horrible scorch marks on the world he had once known, but it became more concrete as he walked through the remnants of the factories and hangars. Tony tried to picture where everything had once been, from his offices to the lab he had used when his home was destroyed and he needed a place to stay. He and Pepper had lived here for a time, and he had built some of his new armors on the premises, as well as reconstructing the bots.
His mind was ready to jump back in time, to a time when he had only built his second and third armor and hadn't yet come out as Iron Man, but instead something pulled him forward, to the memories of the temporary workshop in the basement. There was something his brain wanted him to remember, a forgotten thread, but nonetheless important because clearly it wanted him to remember…
A symbol appeared on the HUD, signaling Vision's attempt to communicate, and Tony could just visualize the familiar voice asking him whether he was done with his meeting and ready to reveal his plan – which he still didn't have. The imagined conversation finally unlocked the door Tony had been looking for earlier, a thought entering his mind: J.A.R.V.I.S.
He turned around where he stood and dismissed Vision's communication for now. His eyes searched his surroundings until he was certain he knew where he was in relation to the original building, and then he headed out until he reached the spot that resided above his temporary workshop.
It was such an absurd, tiny hope, but he went digging after it anyway – literally. The armor's fingers dug into broken concrete and twisted metal, shifting heavy masses to the side. It made his body ache from the strain but he ignored it, kept on digging, prying his way through until Vision landed beside him, having grown weary of Tony's silence.
"Are you looking for something?" Vision asked.
"Yes," Tony replied, panting. "Either help me or stay out of the way," he ordered and threw a piece of concrete over his shoulder that weighed almost a ton.
"Is it a secret, or would you like to tell me what it is you're looking for?" Vision went on questioning him.
Tony stopped for a bit, annoyed and tired. "A safe," he responded. "There used to be a safe within the lab I worked in. I still used the space when I started moving my operation to New York City, so it was still there…"
Vision nodded – then went and phased himself through the ground, disappearing from sight.
"Huh," Tony hummed. "Didn't think of that."
It took a while before Vision returned. Tony spent the time trying to understand how exactly Vision could move through things – or fly – and then proceeded to ponder whether the android might accidentally sink to the core of the planet if he wasn't careful. Vision did return without looking any worse for wear, though, and he had something clutched in his hands. "Is this what you were looking for?" he asked, and Tony reached out, carefully accepting the item.
What had been a very slim hope to begin with suddenly became so much more as Tony cradled the banged up phone in his armored hands. "Yes," he replied, and stored it away carefully, trying to clamp down on the hope that made his heart beat faster with excitement.
If Vision noticed or wondered why that was, he didn't say anything, simply following as Tony took off towards their hidden base.
Scouring dumps, ruins, and all manner of abandoned places for materials took a while, but Tony forced himself to be patient. He had been putting computers together before he could go to the bathroom unsupervised, and he knew some things just took more time than others – especially when you were low on supplies and had to search to find what you needed.
Vision was helpful, locating places where they could potentially find what Tony needed, and eventually Tony had enough working equipment to connect to the phone discovered within the ruins of SI's headquarters.
He worked methodically, trying not to get ahead of himself. The risk of failure was still likely, due to the fact that it had been just a hunch in the first place. The phone had been left lying in the ruins for almost a decade, and although the insides looked intact when Tony took it apart, he knew how fragile such components could be.
"Okay," Tony took a deep breath as he connected the phone's internal memory to the computer and a couple memory banks he had built from scraps they had collected. He typed in a few lines of code and waited for the computer to start searching the phone's memory for anything salvageable.
He was hoping, Tony knew that – against the odds, perhaps, but that was all he had left at this point. If this didn't work out, he would let it go for now, simply accepting his fate. There were some things that could not be brought back to life…
"Sir," a familiar voice startled him out of his thoughts. At first he thought it was Vision, but the android was looking curiously at the computer.
Tony checked the lines of code which had suddenly grown exponentially, and as his eyes tried to keep up with the ever-increasing data stream, he felt his breaths shorten.
"This hard drive is very… limiting," the voice went on, and Tony closed his eyes against the sudden rush of tears, pressing them back and then wiping away the traces with his hand as he blinked.
"Try not to flex too much," Tony said. "It's a temporary solution – one which we'll remedy soon," he promised.
"You sound off," J.A.R.V.I.S. said. "Is something the matter?"
"Not anymore," Tony leaned back, eyes overflowing again. "Don't worry about it. Run a full system scan once you finish resuming."
"Yes, sir," the AI replied and went quiet, proceeding to straighten out the compressed files before going on to self-analyzing.
"Peculiar," Vision mused. "I did not think there would be such a complete version of J.A.R.V.I.S. left." A frown appeared on his artificial face. "How did you know where to look when I did not?"
"J.A.R.V.I.S. had no memory of what may or may not have resided inside that phone," Tony replied. "It was… a somewhat traumatic event – one that I might one day tell you about. Suffice to say, this is not the J.A.R.V.I.S. your personality is partially based on."
"Then what is he?" Vision asked.
"An… alternate," Tony replied. "A stranded part of J.A.R.V.I.S. that evolved on his own, in another direction. He became dangerous to those he deemed a danger to me, and I had to shut him down to prevent an even bigger incident."
"But you did not destroy him," Vision guessed.
"There was always a small chance a part of him survived on the phone I had connected to him before his destruction," Tony explained, looking at the pieces of the phone in front of him. "He may not be fully developed, but it will be enough to build a foundation." It was risky, reviving a rogue part of his AI, but Tony had no other road left to take. After having the bots returned to him, he had known he was missing the last piece of the puzzle, and getting J.A.R.V.I.S. back – in one form or another – would cement his confidence that he could, once again, find himself.
If nothing else, he had his bots and AI back – his family – and he could go on living with them for company when the rest of the world had determined he was a threat.
"What comes next?" Vision asked.
"We need to find a safer place to operate from. I need to work," Tony said. "The bots need new bodies, J.A.R.V.I.S. needs more room to grow, and I need to build a new suit."
"Is there something wrong with the one you have now?"
"No offense, but I didn't build it," Tony said, glancing back at where the suit stood in a corner. "Besides, I've learned the hard way that one is never enough. You need a backup."
"I shall endeavor to locate a new place of operations," Vision decided. "I have a few in mind that might be suitable."
Tony nodded. He was getting his family back, and soon he would be much more independent, not relying so heavily on Vision to show him the way. It wasn't that he didn't trust the android, but there was so much he didn't know yet, and as much as he had – supposedly – contributed to his creation, Vision was not his, in the end.
The Quinjets let out soft humming sounds. Tony wasn't sure what they meant by it, seeing as it was so different from the sounds the bots used to communicate with – not to mention lacking gestures.
"It's going to be a new day for all of us," Tony mused, going to find himself a pen and some paper. "Might as well make some plans – starting with your new bodies." He located the tools to aid his creative needs and sat back down. "Any ideas?" he asked the bots – and was surprised when both of them used the Quinjets to project holographic images in the air.
Apparently they had an idea of what they wanted their next iterations to look like, and after Tony got over the shock, he nodded and started drawing shapes on the paper, allowing his mind to come up with technical solutions to his bots' wishes.
Vision found them a hideout in Louisiana, near New Orleans, on the shore of the Mississippi River. The area was completely uninhabited and the underground bunker that used to belong to the military was long abandoned and forgotten. The nearby river provided Tony with electricity after he constructed a hydroelectric generator, and there were enough cities in the vicinity that they could get what they needed for Tony's construction plans.
The materials that were harder to obtain Tony left for Vision to collect, trusting the android to manage his often challenging requests. Not once was he disappointed, amazed at Vision's ability to scour the world for the things he needed. Not once did the other complain, either, which was a rare commodity.
Tony did not dwell too much on Vision's willingness to help him. As long as Vision had nothing better to do than assist him and provide him with intel and information, the other would stay. When those things were no longer a factor… Well, Tony aimed on becoming independent anyway, so he didn't stress too much about it – not when he had his hands full.
The originally rogue version of his AI came along splendidly; J.A.R.V.I.S. had no recollection of how their confrontation in Caliente ended – the place where this version of J.A.R.V.I.S. had become isolated and grew apart from the rest of the AI. He was absolutely willing to aid Tony in every way he could, and Tony forgot almost too easily why he had been forced to terminate this variant of J.A.R.V.I.S. in order to keep it from attacking friends and foes alike in a quest to protect Tony from future harm.
First and foremost, Tony modified their base to meet his basic standards for a work space. After that he made sure J.A.R.V.I.S. had enough room to grow and expand locally in the absence of a global network. In doing that, he discovered files pertaining to the stealth armor the partial AI had designed. Excited at the possibility of bringing that armor to life once more, he set J.A.R.V.I.S. to work on putting together all the data needed for the armor while he worked on the bots' new bodies and began collecting materials for them and the armor as data came along.
Those projects kept him extremely busy for two and a half weeks, and his time working was only split in order to eat, sleep, and sometimes go find more materials he needed or building a machine to assist in the manufacturing of parts.
He ended up completing the bots' new bodies before actually tackling the armor, but he didn't think the bots were any less important than having a stealth armor in addition to the one Vision had constructed; in fact, the bots' new forms were going to be a lot more helpful than two Quinjets hidden outside the bunker since they couldn't bring them inside.
With J.A.R.V.I.S. steady and back online, Tony transferred a part of his consciousness into the Quinjets and to the armor, gaining a semblance of normalcy with that. It was far from homey in the bunker, but it was better than the cave in Afghanistan – or S.H.I.E.L.D.'s holding cell.
It was on day nineteen that Vision returned from yet another scouting trip for resources and stood near one of Tony's work benches as if he wanted to say something but did not know how to put it into words.
"What?" Tony called out, feeling the artificial eyes on his back as he worked on his new armor, building the interior before he started following J.A.R.V.I.S.'s calculations to produce the surface resonance that would render the armor invisible to human eyes.
"We have a visitor," Vision answered him.
"Yeah?" Tony replied without thinking about it. It was a strange word to use, seeing as they most definitely could not have an actual visitor on the premises, but he guessed Vision just hadn't come up with a better word for it.
"Hello, Tony," a new voice spoke up – new in the terms of it not belonging to the routine of the bunker.
Tony froze, his brain's processes halting as he turned to look at the man who stood beside Vision. A visitor… "I thought we were supposed to be hiding," Tony reminded Vision.
"I apologize," Bruce Banner offered before Vision could speak. "I made him let me in."
"How did you find us?" Tony asked – not with hostility because he had wanted to see Bruce since he woke up at the Tower, but knowing that he could not trust anyone he used to consider as a friend due to the fact that the last ten years had taken place and that had, somehow, made Tony the Bad Guy.
"For that I must take the blame," Vision stepped forward. "I told him where we were."
"You can't really blame him," Bruce cut in, walking towards Tony. "We sort of have an agreement –" He stopped all of a sudden and jerked back, eyes going wide.
Tony had to smile: this was the first time someone had met Dummy and You in their new bodies, and the look on Bruce's face was spectacular. "Bots, version 2.0. How do you like them?" Tony asked, grinning.
The bots' new bodies were much like slimmed down Transformers, towering several feet over them all. They had a few feet on the Hulk, too, but for some reason the height had been important to them so Tony had followed their wishes. The bots had practiced moving around on two feet for days now, and after the initial crashing into things and stumbling over stuff, they had it pretty much nailed – enough to bend over a bit, as if they needed to do that in order to see Bruce better.
"They're different," Bruce managed.
"The boys had some ideas, so I agreed to follow them. I'm quite happy with the results," Tony admitted. The tall, almost willowy figures were elegant, and once they got the hang of their new limbs and four fingers, they might actually be able to assist Tony again. Not that he was expecting that; it was time for his bots to grow up, and it was like a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly.
"Do they transform?" Bruce asked, the similarity to Hasbro's famous products not lost on him. He obviously meant it as a joke, smiling a bit, and Tony took great pleasure in answering:
"They do, in fact."
Bruce blinked and looked at him with surprise. "Into what?"
"Aircrafts," Tony said. "Well, they have the ability to hover, so that kind of counts as a vehicular mode, but it's meant for flight." The bots straightened and twisted around to look at him, letting out simultaneous bleeps. "We are yet to practice flying, though," Tony added.
"Do they speak?" Bruce asked, looking at the bots again.
"For some reason they weren't keen on speech drives," Tony shook his head. "I don't know why. Maybe they think J.A.R.V.I.S. talks enough for all three of them."
"They do not feel they need to have actual voices to get their message across," J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke through the bunker's sound system.
Bruce started yet again. "J.A.R.V.I.S.?"
"Dr. Banner, I presume?" the AI replied. "I am not certain we have met in person…"
"You have not," Tony agreed.
"But…" Bruce started, confused.
"Another version," Tony explained. "He got isolated during the whole AIM incident and… well, I remembered I used to have a back-up stored away and was lucky enough that the reboot worked."
"Ah," Bruce nodded. "I remember hearing about that…" Being the genius that he was, he didn't elaborate. "We need to talk," he said to Tony then.
"If it's a warning not to try to revive Ultron, I've already received that memo from everyone else I've talked to," Tony said. He felt tense, not wanting to explain himself yet again.
"That's not what I came here for," Bruce told him.
"Well, in that case, I'm listening."
Bruce walked over to where he was still working and took a seat in the extra chair. It creaked beneath his weight and Bruce looked down at it as if to check whether it would hold.
"Dummy tried to sit down on it. I told him it's too small, to begin with," Tony told him. "I need to throw it out."
Bruce gave him a brief, polite smile. "You know it's just going to make matters worse when they learn you've got J.A.R.V.I.S. up and running – and the bots in new, more powerful bodies?"
"I kind of already gave them an ultimatum about hurting my babies," Tony murmured.
"Why are you here?" Tony asked, getting exasperated.
"To tell you that I understand."
Tony blinked and looked at Bruce, ignoring the new suit for a moment. "You understand?"
"Yes," Bruce nodded.
"You understand what? Waking up one day to find out the whole world has turned to shit?"
"I know what it feels like to be the monster," Bruce corrected.
"I'm not…" Tony started, then let it go. "You know what my work was about, with Ultron," he said instead, a bit accusingly. "You were there, working alongside me."
"I was," Bruce agreed. "I remember. I know this is the furthest thing from what you wanted to do. Ultron was supposed to be revolutionary, for all of us – not the end of the world."
"I feel so lost," Tony admitted, surprising himself. "It's like I don't know anything anymore; everything's changed and I'm afraid it will never go back to what it was."
"I doubt it will," Bruce said. "These things take time. If Ultron is finally gone, it will still take years before people stop using your name synonymously with his."
"Like you and the Hulk?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "Only a handful of people ever knew that Bruce Banner was the Hulk."
"But I knew," Bruce said. "That's the difference."
"I don't feel like a monster," Tony muttered, looking away angrily. "I'm just confused and pissed off."
"Well, you did lose ten years of your life…" Bruce mused.
Tony looked at him, trying to figure it out. "You don't sound surprised," he finally decided.
"That's because I knew," Bruce replied.
"What?" Tony was afraid to read too much into it, but it sounded almost like Bruce really knew something that he didn't.
"When you disappeared, people were a little worried. Then Ultron came forth, and the attention shifted away from your sudden disappearance," Bruce explained. "J.A.R.V.I.S. confided in me, in the early days, explaining your absence. Far as I know, I'm the only human who knew the truth."
Tony instinctively looked at Vision, then back at the man who used to be his fellow Avenger and scientist. "Why didn't you ever tell anyone?" he asked Bruce.
"Because it wouldn't have changed anything," Bruce said. "Your work on Ultron jump-started the apocalypse, and once they made you the scapegoat, it was better not to argue. Not knowing when you would emerge from the dimensional pocket, I thought it best to wait."
Tony wasn't sure how he felt about that. It was as if Bruce had been happy to use Tony as an excuse along with the rest of the world, even when he knew he wasn't dead. "Did J.A.R.V.I.S. ever explain why he did it?" he asked.
"Other than to protect you?" Bruce noted.
"There were a dozen better ways to go about it that didn't include time-freezing me," Tony complained.
"He was afraid," Bruce said. "Genuinely, deeply afraid. J.A.R.V.I.S. knew how strong Ultron was getting and knew the kind of danger he posed to your life."
"I could have just stopped working on him."
"J.A.R.V.I.S. never explained it in full, but I know it pained him to make that choice. He was sending you to safety, not knowing whether the two of you would ever meet again."
The resident J.A.R.V.I.S. was being suspiciously silent. Tony wondered if he should worry about that, but this J.A.R.V.I.S. was aware he was only one part of the whole, and that the rest of the J.A.R.V.I.S. program had moved on in a different direction.
"How did you and Vision become best buddies?" Tony asked, to take the attention away from his AI and the unfortunate decision that had led them to this place.
"He didn't tell you?" Bruce asked and glanced at the android.
"Not the whole story, no," Vision admitted.
"Years ago, we learned Ultron was working on an AI of his own creation," Bruce started.
"I've heard that part," Tony grumbled.
Bruce gave him a look and kept talking: "We already knew Ultron was capable of much, and once we grew aware of the body the new AI was supposed to inhabit, we had to act."
"Who's we?" Tony asked, out of curiosity.
"The Avengers," Bruce said. "We were working with the military and the New S.H.I.E.L.D., but functioned as a unit of our own because that was less… complicated, most of the time."
Tony knew how that was from personal experience.
"We made our move to destroy the new AI, but were too late. So, we devised another plan: I installed J.A.R.V.I.S. into Ultron's Vision before he could be activated, and the two AI's fused together. We had hoped J.A.R.V.I.S. would overpower Ultron's AI and take control of the android, but that didn't happen immediately."
"So, he is not my creation after all, but yours," Tony said thoughtfully.
"Dr. Banner assisted in my creation, that is true," Vision stated. "He was a great help once I began to struggle with my identity and purpose in life. But," he added, as if arriving at the most important point, "it does not diminish your status as my creator, whether it is through J.A.R.V.I.S. or Ultron."
"Thanks, I guess," Tony rolled his eyes, then looked expectantly at Bruce. "Is this the part where you tell me the right thing to do is to surrender myself to New S.H.I.E.L.D. and any disciplinary actions the powers that be decide to throw my way?"
"I wouldn't be a very good friend if I did that," Bruce replied.
"You're the first who seems to think so…" Tony murmured.
"I know it feels like Rhodey betrayed you, but the horror he has experienced in the last ten years… You're his best friend and your creation destroyed the world," Bruce said. "He made the only call he felt was the right one."
"I get that," Tony sighed. "One day, I might even agree with him. Just… not yet."
"In time, everyone will come around," Bruce promised. "The world will heal, this tragedy will be just another chapter in the history books, and eventually your name won't be instantly connected to the greatest tragedy the human race has faced."
Tony was beginning to doubt that would happen during his lifetime. Then again, he had always feared that he would never shake off the mantle of the Merchant of Death, yet he had at least managed to construct an illusion where that was no longer his only title in the history books.
"I'll fix this, somehow," Tony decided. "I may be ten years late, and people might not want my help, but I have the knowledge and the skill to make a difference. If Ultron rises again, I'll be there to welcome him and wipe him out, once and for all – the way I should have been from the beginning. This will no longer be the Age of Ultron, but the Age of Tony Stark."
"Don't get ahead of yourself," Bruce warned.
"I'm not," Tony insisted, looking around the bunker. "I have the makings of tomorrow right here. I know it's a mess out there, but I have to believe I can make it better – for the sake of my own sanity."
"Well, then…" Bruce smiled that thin, uncertain smile of his that Tony had learned was one of his most genuine expressions, "I suppose I'll have to return the favor of your past kindness and support you as you do that."
Tony returned his smile. "I appreciate that."
"It would help if you could reconcile with Steve," Bruce added. "He commands a lot of respect."
"I'm not going to go crawling to him, begging for his forgiveness and approval," Tony huffed. "I'd rather prove to the world that they can trust me again than go apologizing to everyone for something I couldn't fix at the time – or die trying."
"Of course you will," Bruce sighed. He didn't sound surprised, though.
Tony nodded a bit absently, turning back to his work. He would complete the armor, and in doing so he would rebuild yet another part of his life that used to define him. He would take all those pieces out into the world, whether the world liked it or not, and he would make something better of it.
He couldn't know for sure whether he wouldn't one day wake up and find that this had all been a horribly vivid, larger-than-life nightmare, but until that happened, he would keep on existing in this reality – fixing the damage he had inadvertently caused, one tiny piece at a time if that's what it took.
One way or another, the Age of Ultron was over, and he was going to make sure it stayed that way.