The Negative Zone.
Reed Richards' Project 42 Prison for Errant Metahumans.
Of course it's Tony Stark. It's not the gold and red armor that gives him away--I'm a little smarter than that--it's not even the smell of cheap booze I tell myself I smell on him—even through the forcefield of the cell, or so my mind would have me think.
It's the way he carries himself. A slight hunch, and an overcompensation.
After so many years of wearing that armor, his bones are probably wickedly deformed.
Though if you ask me, his bones aren't the ugliest thing about him. It's the way he looks at you, on the rare occassion he takes off that mask. His armor just separates you and him, makes him feel safe. Like he doesn't even have to look at you.
But he is looking at me. I can tell these things. He's standing in front of this force-field looking at me. Like a predator figuring its way out of a death-trap, or into one. Or maybe he's wondering how I ended up here. Me, of all people.
They call me Wiccan these days. And I'm a Young Avenger.
Or…I was, until someone decided to blow up Stamford Connecticut and get Gestapo on everyone who ever wore a costume and bet up bad guys. Honestly? I was more surprised when people were beating me up for being gay than when people were beating me up for being a superhero.
And when we faced jail time or joining Captain America's Secret Avengers—when we traded up security and warm beds for principles and ideas—I lost something.
Call it citizenship, if you want. Credibility, even.
All I remember is going on a sting—if you even want to call it that—with Cap and the rest. And then Cable shouts something that sounds like 'trap!' Then there's nothing.
I find myself awake in here, wearing one of those ugly as hell hospital gowns. Being ordered to delouse by some smarmy GI Joe-Master Chief type. And the whole way to the delousing center, the whole time they paraded me out there with the rest of the captured heroes, the whole time I was on display for Stark and Reed Richards and the other social scientists—the ones who wondered what the hell a "kid" was doing in the company of heroes…
I thought about Teddy.
I miss him. Always will.
I love him.
And I can't even write him a letter from here. I didn't even get my phone call. And—
"I know my god-damn rights, Tony!" I pick up a chair next to me and huck it at the force field. The containment field ripples from the impact. When it calms, Stark takes off his helmet. The speakers in the cell walls hiss for a second.
"Calm down, Billy."
"Like hell. I can't even call my parents from here. Don't you worry what'll happen when they find out where I am?"
"The Negative Zone is outside U.S. jurisdiction. Not subject to its laws. Not even close. And your parents understand why you're here."
"Thanks to your friends in SHIELD…"
"That's irrelevant," Tony says.
"You're keeping us all in here so you can get away with it! You don't give a damn what happens to me. That's why you tried to shut down the Young Avengers before and that's why I'm in prison now. Isn't it?"
He shuts up and puts his helmet back on.
My legs wobble and I sink to the floor. I think about Teddy. What he would've done if he were here.
Teddy. Hulkling. Hulkling, Hulk—
Stark crosses his arms. "What, Billy?"
"This all started because of the Hulk didn't it? That's why he hasn't been around. Because you were having problems with him and wanted to make him someone else's problem?"
"Like you're making sure the rest of us aren't anyone's problem. You're making sure we're all stuck here for life. Tell me the truth, Tony."
Even through his armor, I think I see him twitching. The angry twitch of an angry drunk.
Jesus, listen to yourself, Billy. You're not this man. This is not your beautiful house; this is not your beautiful Teddy. You're not an angry person.
But I am. I think so anyway. This registration crap's changing….everything.
I walk up to the force field and put my hands flat against it. It's…cold.
"Tell me the truth, Tony. So that when I get out of here, I can sue you for everything you have. Just like Speedball will."
He stiffens when I mention Speedball. If it weren't for the armor covering his face, I'd say he was giving me the look of death.
"The Negative Zone is a big place. And if you think you're going anywhere anytime soon…you're wrong."
He turns and walks away. Boom. Just like that.
You're not an angry person, Billy. You don't have a reason to be.
"I think I do."
They beat you up in school. For no good reason.
And Tony Stark, with his money and his armor and no concept of reality isn't any better than them.
Tony Stark doesn't give a damn about you.
Remember those self-help books. You have to give a damn about yourself before you can change anything. Do you even know who you are?
You're the son of the Scarlet Witch. That's got to count for something, doesn't it?
It means you could go home. You could fix this. You have the power to make this all better. Remember the books. All you have to do...is want it.
The Baxter Building.
Reed Richards and Tony Stark.
"That's the first and last time I interact with the inmates, Reed."
"So you've said."
"Wiccan was particularly troublesome. Said he'd sue me."
Reed jerks away from his microscope for only a second, shooting Stark a quizzical look.
"Sorry," Stark says and bows his head. "She hasn't called?"
"No," Reed says and returns to his microscope. "I dont suppose she will, either."
"You want to talk about it?"
"No. Look," Reed says. "I've run into something unexpected with the prison."
"Negative emotions. It's a byproduct of the Zone itself, one I knew about and somehow left out of the projections."
"Is it dire?" Iron Man asks.
"Just something to watch. The largest problem I think we'll see is discontent among the inmates, and that's no different from any other prison. Fortunately, I think, that's our only problem. Aside from the obvious, ah, eminent domain issue."
Iron Man looks away for a moment. "What about the other residents of the Zone? Annihilus, for example."
One of Reed's eyebrows arches. "He's…occupied."
"Tony, if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's this. Annihilus has his own problems right now. Just like the rest of us."