Iron Man

Chapter 39: The Worst Day Ever

They came in on The Brigadier, the high-speed shuttle that was meant to be their prime transport. It moved through the sky soundlessly thanks to special anti-gravimetric engines retro-engineered from a confiscated space craft. The special cells on either side of the wing caught freefalling beta particles and converted them into energy that powered everything within. Reflective tiles along the ship's surface refracted the light that hit it, making it difficult to see with the naked eye. Special radar baffles made it even more difficult to discern it by technological means.

The man who steered the ship over the craggy cliffs of Willapa Bay was the oldest of the group in The Brigadier. He was edging into middle age, although his white hair and lines around his eyes and mouth made him look older. An old style aviator's helmet lay at his right, complete with goggles--which matched the cut of his green-and-white uniform.

His mind was on the man they were coming for, a man who had helped him recover from a severe nervous breakdown. The man could have had him arrested, but instead made sure he had the psychiatric help that stabilized him and brought him back to mental health.

And now he was hunting him down.

Behind him, his co-workers in The Light Brigade were suiting up. The thin, tall Indian woman code-named Mosquito helped Claymore run through the system checks on his armor. Claymore's helmet with its distinctive bladed crest and oversize gauntlets lay off to the side, and his craggy face was screwed up in concentration. In the back, Chav shadow-boxed, the hood on his black tunic brought up over his bald head. It always surprised him at how Chav looked like he barely fit in his clothes no matter how big the tailors made them.

And way in the back, secured with bands made of a titanium allow, Britannic was sedated.

He reflected on why these members had been chosen to head the team. MI-6 could have sent the Celtic Lightning God Leir, or the Silver Shadow--both would have given a much calmer hand to the mission. But it seemed like someone was sending a message to the subject, a rather violent message...

He didn't understand why Tony Stark needed to be driven to heel so badly. But Tom Wilkins, whether as himself or in his secret identity as Endotherm, wanted to get there first to help him properly.

"I'll give it a thorough analysis, Tony."

Tony nodded. "Good. I needed the formula cracked as soon as possible."

"Hey, it's a mystery. Nothing like a mystery to get a good scientist's juices flowing. Besides, it gets slow sometimes up here."

Tony allowed himself a small, tight smile. "I don't have to tell you that this is top secret, right? I've worked a little too hard to keep this operation under wraps until the exact moment."

"Only you and me until it's ready."

"Good. Keep me in the loop." There was a knock on the door. Tony added, "And thanks, Bill. Gotta go," and shut down the close circuit link.

He grabbed for his cane and called out, "What?"

Slowly, Bethany Cabe opened the door. Her eyes had a cast to it, one of uncertainty and confusion. "Tony...a minute?"

"Just," Tony responded tersely. "What do you want?"

She stepped inside, closed the door securely. "Everyone's panicking about the move. They're scared."

Tony's face betrayed no emotion. "It's not a choice. We were told to leave, remember?"

"But there are a lot of people here who will be out of a job, and--"

"I've already written letters of recommendations for those we can't take with us, Bethany, and when possible I've personally placed phone calls in their support. My name may be mud to the general public, but it does hold some weight in business circles. They'll find work quickly."

Bethany hesitated. "But Tony...these employees are going to be out on the street at the end of the week. They need some security--"

"The Mayor should have considered that when he told me to go." Tony shifty his cane from one hand to the other. "These are extraordinary circumstances, Bethany. I have to make arrangements to move an entire company out of a city immediately, my reputation is shot to Hell, and I can't be worried about the file clerks and the data entry personnel of the world at this time."

For a long moment, Bethany stood in front of him, the worry on her face slowly solidifying into something harder. Her green eyes flashed with darkness. "You used to, Tony. One of the reasons I was in love with you...that I thought..."

"Are we done?" Tony asked.

Bethany paused. "You're changing. You have to decide what you're changing into."

Tony turned from the tall redhead. "Could you send O'Doyle in here? I need to speak to him."

The door closed behind him loudly.

It had taken him three days to come out from under the bed. He spent those days with dust and mold and decay on his lips and on his skin.

It took another day for him to stand up--standing up after a number of attempts where he thought he heard the bells jingling, jangling in the back of his head. And even after he stood, it took another four hours to convince himself that the bells were just that--an auditory illusion stuck in his soul because of all that time spent under cold stone in another dimension. Frequently, he focused firmly on the way the roaches skittered across the walls; their movement had a hypnotic quality that served to drown out the bells.

It took two more days for Donnie to have the courage to turn on the television, to find out what happened in what seemed like an eternity of pain thanks to The Jester. Many were the times when he touched the knob--for this hotel was far too old, far too falling apart, for it to provide its residents with something as simple as a remote control--only to stare into the black screen and be reminded of the sheer oblivion that followed during that moment when Mark Scarlotti, his friend, cradled his body just as his life dissipated into the void.

Always the void...Donnie Gill knew now where people went when they died...and where they went was...

The television set was on only for four minutes before visions of what lay beyond prompted him to turn it off.

He forced himself to eat once he was able to move around his apartment, packages of chips and canned soup and cold cuts gone green around the edges that Donnie rolled up and devoured. The thought of contacting Tony and Clay and Brendan kept coming to him, but when the phone rang the bells jangled in his head again and he leapt back, running for the bathtub where he curled up inside the porcelain body until the jingling was over.

He truly wanted to talk to those people again, to rejoin his life. He felt the need to see Suzanne again--he wasn't sure, but he felt a connection with her. But if he put on the armor again, if he was encased in iron with only Clay's voice... wouldn't drown the jingling out...

When the desk clerk came to collect his rent, Donnie was confused. Didn't Tony pay his rent?

And then Donnie learned how Tony and Clay and Brendan and, yes, even Suzanne, had abandoned him.

And somehow it made the bells stop, permanently drowned out by something else. Something raw red and pulsing with the fuzzy pain of an infection.

Something that wasn't going to go away any time soon.

For the first time since returning to the real world, Donnie Gill left his hotel room.

Clay Wilson looked from Brendan O'Doyle to Tony Stark with increasing disbelief. "You can't be serious."

"I don't think we're gettin' a choice in the matter, lad," the burly redheaded man replied. He leaned against the docket with arms folded.

"Brendan was always designated to serve with the Avengers, allowing you time to train Donnie. Now that I've re-negotiated an invite into an Avengers team--"

Clay raised a hand. "No. I thought I made it very clear that I wasn't going to put on the armor--"

"But you did," Brendan pointed out. "back in China. And need I add, ye do have your own precious suit of armor.

"That was extenuating circumstances. I'm here as trainer and support, not as a super-hero." Clay pointed at the egg-shaped object. "This is the only thing I should be inside of...not a full set of armor. Get Rhodey, get Cabe. I'm not taking to the skies."

"You know as well as I do, Clay," Tony replied carefully. "That Rhodey does not want anything to do with armor anymore. If it was up to me, Bethany would have been in a suit long ago, but she prefers to rely on her own skills. I can go down the list of other possible candidates, but the fact remains that you're the most logical choice. You've worked with Brendan and Donnie enough with these new armors that you could probably get more out of them than either man--no offense."

"None taken," Brendan O'Doyle said with just a hint of sarcasm.

Clay sighed. "I don't want to go down that road."

"Well, the choices are limited, lad. If I'm bein' re-assigned to this 'Operation Ebon Knight'"

"--a reassignment that comes with a pardon for your past as The Mauler," Tony reminded Brendan.

"And Donnie is missing, it doesn't leave us much in the way of what we can do."

Tony hobbled forward. He looked directly into Clay Wilson's face, a face that had been altered through plastic surgery to give him a true chance at a law-abiding life after being the criminal Force for years. "And I need an Iron Man, Clay. I need his protection."

Clay refused to look away from his employer. "You could climb in again."

For a moment, something akin to longing crossed Tony's face. "Don't think I haven't thought of that...but I'm not ready yet."

"You better not be, Mr. Stark," Brendan said quietly. "I'm of a like mind to James Rhodes. Getting back into the armor is the worst thing for you."

Tony's eyes narrowed. "I didn't know you cared."

"You set me up in one of the most comfortable jobs a man of my skills could have, Stark," Brendan answered, pushing off the docket. "How could I not care about what's happening with my meal ticket? If my friend leaves because you're seeking to kill yourself in that tin can, don't be thinking I won't be far behind him."

Tony's face was hard. "I'll remember that."

"Which brings us back to who wears the suit, Mr. Stark. We need to find Donnie," Clay said.

"We'll do that," Tony told the two men coldly. "But until we do, you need to put on the suit or find someone to put it on soon."

Without waiting for an answer, Tony turned his back on the two men and walked away, his cane clicking against the floor of the office. They watched him in silence before Brendan added, "He best be tellin' the truth."

When the two men and one woman approached the front desk of Stark Solutions, Bambi Arborgast experienced a strong sense of deja vu. On the first day when, in the wake of The Stark destroying Tony Stark's home, the company moved to the mainland, Bambi had encountered a trio of men who turned out to be genetically altered monsters looking for Mr. Stark. Now, as she consulted with Pepper Potts about storing redundant equipment before their move, on their last day, another trio approached her.

The man taking the lead was familiar to Mrs. Arbogast--not because she had met him before, but because she had made it her business to know significant employees of what was then Stark International back in the day. The man with the square jaw, white hair and soft eyes was Tom Wilkins, former security chief of Stark International's London office. The strikingly tall dark-skinned woman in the black sleeveless, backless jumpsuit and the beefy bald man with the eyes like chips of mica in what appeared to be blue camo-pants, military boots and a stylized hooded jumpsuit were unfamiliar to her. They stood back from Wilkins, and Bambi got a sense of detached contempt from the woman and out-and-out anger from the man.

She managed a professional smile. "Mr. Wilkins, I believe. How may we help you?"

Tom Wilkins smiled. It was a crooked grin, not altogether without charm and not altogether convincing. "Hallo. I need to see Mr. Stark."

Bambi felt Pepper take a position besides her. The two women had a sort of strange rapport with each other--before she had signed on as Tony's personal assistant and manager, Pepper had had that honor...and it gave Bambi someone who she could talk to who thoroughly understood the peculiar stress of being the good right hand of a genius like Tony. "I'm sure Tony would be delighted to see you, Mr. Wilkins--"

"But you've caught us at a very bad time," continued Pepper, a bland smile on her lips. "We're in the process of preparing for a relocation to the East Coast and--"

"Ma'am," Tom said, trying his best to keep as calm a voice on as possible. Behind him, the bald man cracked his knuckles, a sound that reverberated off the now bare walls of the Stark 

Solutions reception area like a rifle shot. "I'm on official business with the British government. I consider Mr. Stark a friend, which is why I'm hoping we can do this without any inconvenience."

Bambi's smile slowly disappeared. She folded her arms in front of her. "That sounded like a threat."

The bald man leaned forward. "Damn right it's a--"

Tom raised his hand. "Madam, we are here for Mr. Stark. I would like to retrieve him without incident...but our superiors did specify that we use whatever means we can. Please--just let me talk to him, man to man and I'm sure this can happen without unpleasantness."

Bambi smirked. It was certainly deja vu. "Mr. Wilkins, you're welcome to make an appointment to see Mr. Stark once our relocation is finished. I'm sure he would be pleased to see you. But until then...well, I'm sorry."

The dark skinned woman raised one elegant eyebrow. She looked at Bambi with a chilly bemusement. "It's rather quaint to show such loyalty for a man so reviled."

Pepper nodded. "That's it. I'm calling Iron Man."

Tom Wilkins sighed. The bald man pushed past him and poked a stubby finger into Bambi's chest. "You call your Iron Man, and I'll toss him a beating he ain't gonna forget by half."

Bambi Arborgast continued smirking. She once again observed that most people only saw her as an overweight pencil pusher and not the military woman she was. In a flash, she took the bald man's wrist and twisted it in a way that used to make men twice her size cry like a baby...

Only it had no effect on the bald man, except to make him laugh. "Don't feel nothing short of a RGG at close range, slag."

"Chav, stand down," Tom Wilkins said with a voice tinged with sadness. "Mosquito, search for Stark. I'll let Claymore know to intercept."

A strange, flowery scent filled the air. In an instance, the Indian woman disappeared; for a moment Mrs. Arborgast thought she had turned invisible until she caught sight of a small object--obviously this Mosquito--flying through the crack of the door leading to the offices.

"I promise that we will do our best to keep inconvenience and damage to a minimum," Tom said earnestly.

"Pity, that," the bald man called Chav muttered under his breath.

Besides Bambi, Pepper Potts stared at the man with the prematurely grey hair. "You're making a serious mistake."

"I'm beginning to think that, madam," Tom replied, sadness creeping into his voice. "But it was never in my hands." He brought his wristband to his mouth. "Now, if you'll excuse me."

Dylan Cornwall had the utmost admiration for Tony Stark. When he had first been chosen to pilot the Claymore ordinance, he studied Stark's work--primarily Stark's bodyguard Iron Man. The young SAS operative found a grace and power in the Golden Avenger's armor and the way he used it. Throughout training, Dylan had hoped to be as good as the man in that suit.

So as he hovered outside the Stark Solution offices awaiting orders, he had secretly hoped that Endotherm's strategem would work. He knew that the man had a relationship with Stark; Dylan prayed that he could appeal to the man emotionally to go with them.

But then he heard Tom's voice over the commlink. "Claymore, we have to use a firmer hand. Try to minimize damage."

Dylan felt his heart sink. He glided forward toward the building, his eyes darting around to manipulate the HUD controls until the organic scanner came up. Dimming the lights inside the helmet as he moved closer, Dylan examined each heartbeat, cross-referencing what he learned in the debriefing.

There--Dylan amplified the lifescan until he confirmed that the target's heartbeat was muffled...a heartbeat that was distorted due to the special harness he now had to wear to stave off the Stark techno-virus. He brought his left arm up and activated the halogens that flooded the top floors. Dylan tripped the armaments in the oversized right gauntlet, not raising it but prepared to use it if forced.

"Tony Stark," Dylan's electronically distorted, amplified voice. "Under the auspices of the British Crown, we are asking you to turn yourself over before there is some unpleasantness."

"Already is some," came a voice as Iron Man burst through the wall to intercept Dylan and drive him away from the building.

Amari buzzed through the cubicles, eyes made sharp by the serum she imbided searching every employee. She knew Tom (Endotherm--she had to remember to use codenames in the field) wasn't comfortable sending her out into the field on her own. But he knew as well as she did that she was the fastest, her skills were the best fit for recon, and her size actually made it easier for her to evade attacks. And the faster she located Stark and secured him, the quicker she'd be home.

...and the quicker they were home, the less chance they'd have of using Britannic.

She flitted through the cubicles as fast as she could. In her head, she rehearsed the formal statement she was required to read to Mr. Stark, and went through the options if he chose not to comply.

Which was probably why she was blindsided when a someone slammed a trashcan over her.

She had to give her attacker credit; whoever it was pressed his or her attack so swiftly that Amari actually smacked into the circular wall hard. She fell to the part of the curvature under 

her, stunned, but shook her head to knock the cobwebs out. A rapid scan borne out of the serum that gave her reflexes appropriate to an insect showed that the wall the attacker was holding the can against was simple drywall.

So there was an escape.

She raised her gauntlets, ready to let fire with the high-impact flechettes when the attacker started smacking the transhcan with an explosive fierceness. Amari screamed, ears ringing with pain as the attacker began beating a rapid tattoo on the sides. Specially implanted muscles designed to help her manage her wings struggled to work, but the combination of the noise and the pain and the disorientation made it difficult to lift off the metal walls.

She was going to find out who came up with this strategy, and she was going to...

The wristband on Tom Wilkins' right arm chirruped in a distinctive pattern. The man glanced down at the metallic bracelet's display screen and swore.

"What?" asked Chav.

"Mosquito's gone offline," Tom told his teammate. "Have to assume--"

"I'll intercept. You right with keeping the ladies busy?"

Tom reached for a pistol that gleamed greyish-blue and sported a strange nozzle. He leveled it at Pepper and Mrs. Arborgast. "I'll manage. Go! And restrain yourself."

But the tall bald man had already gone through a wall into the main office area.

Smirking, Bethany Cabe lifted the trashcan away from the wall. A very tiny woman with dark skin fell heavily to the floor.

All those talks with Lang paid off, she thought to herself as the screams rose in the air. Bethany looked around and saw...well, a man with a shaved head, wearing urban camo, muscles rippling under--and out of--his sleeveless hoodie--was heading straight for her.

She sighed. "Always the big ones," she muttered under her breath.

"Oi, you gonna pay for what you did!" the bald man roared. He cocked one arm back as he closed distance, his fist splintering cubicle walls as he went past.

Bethany Cabe waited until the very last moment before falling backwards, one arm grabbed the man's sweatshirt. Before he could react, she had him in a judo throw, lifting him up and over into the bank of copy machines behind her. She rolled and got up, turning in preparation for the man's next move. She was vaguely aware of the way her heart was pounding, but there was time to take a breather later.

Out of the corner of her eye, Bethany caught a glimpse of red and gold making its way toward her. "Good," she muttered, "Backup."

The bald man pushed aside the debris of the copiers and roared. "You think your chinee tricks will stop me? Nothing short of an RGG can do that!"

"How about the equivalent?" came an electronically altered voice behind Bethany and to her left. She averted her eyes a split second before an arc of energy smacked into the bald man, driving him back further and further into--and through--the wall.

"Pulse bolt?" she asked the Iron Man who was stepping forward. He was wearing Donnie's armor--but it couldn't have been.

Donnie was gone.

The Iron Man continued his advance. "Yes. We need to get Tony out of here."

"I'm on it," Bethany replied before turning toward the executive offices. Behind her, she could already hear the sound of debris being pushed aside and the frustrated roar of the bald man.

Exactly what we need before leaving Seattle, she thought ruefully. Another group of capes wrecking the place.

In the Brigadier, support staff monitored the conditions of the on-field assailants. This was important on a mission where Britannic was in the core grouping; after all, he was not the preferred operative when engaging in sensitive missions given its...

Well, it was best if Britannic did not get mobilized.

The lead of the three man support crew, a balding, thickly bespectacled man by the name of Pennfield, was optimistic about not having to use the blunt object that was restrained and sedated in the hold. This was a retrieval, with only a single super-normal opponent to muck things up. Yes, there was the possibility that Iron Man could call in one of his Avenger friends, but the intel suggested a period of estrangement between the organization and its original patron.

But then a young black woman with her hair tied up in braids called Pennfield to her side. She pointed at the small row of monitors at the top of their workstation, a workstation that kept track of the health of the field agents.

Pennfield looked at what the monitors revealed, removed his glasses, wiped them with his jacket and put them back on again. He moved closer and looked harder.

"Jesus wept," Pennfield muttered to himself.

Mosquito was down. Chav's fatigue poisons were up and his adrenaline production was down--which meant he was soon to join his teammate.

His co-worker kept her eyes on the workstation. "What should I do, sir?"

Pennfield sighed. He knew Wilkins was going to have a screaming fit, but the orders issued from MI-6 were very clear. And even if they weren't, the fact that they insisted on Britannic coming with...

"Deploy him."

Tom Wilkins raised his arm after his wristband began sounding. He took in the sight of a second of what was once three lit symbols begin to flash.

Glancing once at Mrs. Arborgast, he pressed the flashing symbol and said, "Chav, report."

The operative who was meant to be the strong backbone of the Light Brigade was heard coughing. "It''s nothing."

"It sounds bloody well like something. I'm on my way."

Tom closed the link and unholstered his gun. Behind him, he heard the stout woman who manned the front desk say, "You know how Tony's like. He's not giving up."

"For his sake, I hope he does," Tom replied. He fired the gun, letting loose with a stream of energy that coated the floor leading into the main office space with ice. He took a moment to look back at Mrs. Arborgast and added, "I promised you there'd be a minimum of damage--"

"Well, that's shot to Hell," Mrs. Arborgast shot back.

A flicker of hurt came across Wilkins' face. He placed the old-style aviator's helmet on his head and slid off.

This was not how Dylan had expected a melee with Iron Man to go.

He had expected the battle to be fought primarily at long range, with the two of them weaving through buildings, exchanging fire from their energy weapons. He had expected the fight to be one of strategy, a fight that would be won by guile and cleverness.

But this...this was a barroom brawl thirty stories up. This Iron Man, his fists shimmering with an energy that intel had suggested were a magnetic field designed to amplify his strength, was bouncing Dylan from one side of the street to the other, keeping himself close. Dylan had managed to deploy the two blades from the bottom part of his gauntlet and was using them to deflect part of the impact, but the punches hurt. The internal monitoring system was going insane with warnings of eminent system shutdowns. He triggered a concentrated air blaster in one gauntlet that briefly drove Iron Man away into the nearest building, giving Dylan an even briefer moment to toggle through the offense protocols for a proper response-- But Iron Man was already on top of him again, hitting Dylan with a pulse bolt that shook him to his bones. Dylan spun, trying desperately not to lose him bearing and fired a minirocket in return. It burst across Iron Man's chest, and the Golden Avenger was closing in fast.

But then an inarticulate roar was heard from below, and Dylan's heart sank...

Because now the man he was battling, one professional to another, was slammed hard by the blue skinned lunatic in the red and white tights the W.H.O. boys had insisted that they bring along. Dylan wished he wasn't here; these people weren't criminals, and didn't deserve having a clinically insane clone of Brian Braddock thrust upon them. But that decision had been taken out of his hands.

Of course, neither Dylan, Iron Man or the feeble-minded Braddock took notice of the Shelby GT slowly approaching in midair.

The sounds of battle were still echoing behind Bethany as she scanned the increasingly unsafe offices of Stark Solutions for her boss. He hadn't been in his office, which made sense, even taking into account how bizarre Tony had been behaving. She knew she wouldn't want to be in the first place these nutjobs would look...

To her right, she was aware of what was going on outside the Stark Solutions' windows. Doyle was being pounded on by some blue-skinned blonde guy in a red outfit as another armored guy with a strange crested helmet was hovering around trying to break things up. Somewhere behind her, there came a crash that made her silently pray that whoever was in Donnie's armor was okay.

If this keeps up, Bethany thought, We are so losing our safety deposit.

Even with the chaos all around her, Bethany was taken aback by where she found Tony. There he was, casually standing behind one of the file cabinet engineers used to store blueprints, watching as Doyle blasted the blue-skinned man off of him while talking on his Treo. There was such a sense of...nonchalance to the way he was talking even with three super-powered combatants beating each other up outside the window.

"...most here? Perfect. And you have the paper? Thanks, Cas--"

Bethany grabbed Tony's wrist. "You're leaving now."

Tony resisted her pull and said, "I'll talk to you when you get here," into the smart phone before looking at her and asking, "What's wrong, Bethany?"

Bethany's mouth gaped open for a moment. "Wrong? You know there are a team of British super-agents looking to take you in for your misadventures in China."

"Really?" Tony put his Treo away. "Who's in charge?"

"An old employee of yours--Tom Wilkins?"

Tony nodded and adjusted his cane. "Endotherm. Good man."

Bethany watched as Tony started walking away from her, keeping up a quick pace in spite of the cane he was relying on.

Walking toward the field of battle.

Clay Wilson cursed under his breath as the goof with the shaved head burrowed his way out of the debris.

Why did he find himself in the suit again, even after telling Tony he wasn't going to? Yes, he could tell himself that there was an immediate danger to take care of, but he also had to admit there was something else going on. He raised his arms as the bald guy dusted himself off and grinned.

"I was hoping you'd show," the bald man said before lifting up a copier machine and hoisting it toward Clay. Clay, however, was ready, letting loose with a pair of repulsor blasts that sent the piece of office equipment flying off to one side. There was a cloud of toner and dust that rose from where the copier impacted with the walls. Clay moved forward, switching his sensors from visual to infrared and saw his assailant approaching rapidly.

He worked the chin toggle, switching the chest nodule from search light to uni-beam, but the bald man was far too fast. With a roar of defiance, he smashed Clay in the chin with an uppercut that sent him down on his ass. Clay rolled to his left, missing a boot from his opponent by mere seconds. Falling back onto his back while working to switch the ordnance, he fired his boot jets and aimed for the man's eyes. Clay's opponent clawed at his face, stepping back and giving him the time to fire his unibeam at the man. Since Clay was on his back, the blast lifted the bald man up through the ceiling. Clay rolled into a crouch and followed the man's trajectory at full speed, driving the man into three more ceilings and out onto the roof. Twisting in the air, he dumped the man onto the rooftop.

And the sight he saw was a little...disconcerting. There was the Doyle version of Iron Man duking it out with a blue-skinned, blonde man while another figure in armor hovered. There were cracks in Doyle's suit, and the blue man continued to pound him mercilessly. Clay looked down at his opponent and noticed the bald man was beginning to rouse himself. He worked the HUD to get the right ordnance and shot a trio of cryo-pellets at the man. Instantly, a thick coating of rime covered the man.

"Looks like something I would do," a voice came from below him. Clay looked down to see an trail of ice moving upward to meet him, and somewhere along said trail was a man dressed in a green-and-blue variation of an old RAF uniform, gliding up the trail...

on roller skates.

"This is just..." Clay muttered, just before he found his fellow Iron Man smashed against him. As one, the two armored heroes tumbled in the air before hitting the nearest skyscraper with enough force to embed them in the brickface.

"This is embarassin'," Clay heard Brendan mutter. Clay looked over the bulkier Iron Man's shoulder to see the third armored combatant--the one with the odd, blade-shaped helmet--fast approaching them, a thin glowing shaft emanating from a nodule on his right gauntlet. Directly behind him was the blue-skinned monster, and now Clay could see the Union Jack pattern apparently tatooed on his chest. The armored man had a hand on the blue man, as if he was holding his comrade back.

"Kill Yers! Fer Englund! Mudder Countrie!"

Clay pushed Brendan off of him. The bulkier Iron Man's right boot jet seemed to work in fits and starts, and brief crackles of energies popped from cracks in his chest plate. "Aye, you can try, lad," Brendan said weakly.

Out of the corner of his HUD, Clay could see the man in the pilot's uniform sliding along on the ice bridge he was creating with a gun of some sort. "This isn't how we want this. If you'll just release Mr. Stark to our custody, it'll all sort out."

"Thanks, but no thanks," Clay replied, activating the rail gun and raining a number of steel shots along the ice slide. The ice spiderwebbed and crackled before breaking apart, sending the man in the flight suit landing hard on the roof. Clay was about to turn to face Brendan when he felt someone slam into his side hard, hard enough that a sharp pain exploded across his ribs.

"I's duh Pertector uv der Railm! You die fer Mudder Countrie!" The blue man shoved his fist in Clay's face. Still wincing at the pain, Clay activated his uni-beam, pushing the blue man away. He just caught sight of Brendan exchanging repulsor fire with the armored man when a thick ring of ice surrounded his chest.

"Don't make me condense that ice, lad," the man in the flight suit called out. "Claymore, contain Britannic!"

"Easier said that done," the armored man shot back. He pushed past Brendan, his impact against the damaged Iron Man causing flakes of metal to scatter into the air. The blue man came at Clay again, screaming near incoherently, and smashing his fist against his chest plate. To Clay's alarm, the chest plate cracked deeply. A chuff exploded from one of the armored man's left gauntlet, releasing a net that wrapped around the blue man's neck. The armored man strained, but only succeeded in pulling the blue man back slightly. Already, Clay could hear the strands of the net start to snap...

Luckily, a beam came out of the sky, one that enveloped the blue man. For what seemed like forever, the crazed creature shuddered and shook like he was electrified before going limp. Clay looked up to see that the beam came from a car...not just any car, mind you, but a deep grey Shelby GT.

A deep grey Shelby GT that was flying on what appeared to be tires set on its side. The headlights irised open, flooding the area with near-bliding light. Clay toggled the helmet's lenses for polarization. The message boomed from hidden speakers.

"This is Casper Sitwell, fully authorized agent of SHIELD. All combatants are ordered to stand down immediately or be met with force."

"I'd pay attention if I were you," Clay heard from behind him.

Tony Stark was positively beaming as he told everyone this.

"So you've been cooperating with SHIELD?"

Tony nodded. "I'm sorry that nobody told you, Tom, but we've been keeping it quiet--for their protection."

"And we want to give MI-6 assurances that when a lead develops on Fu Manchu, we will share everything. Our intention is to make sure your organization and ours will be in on the capture of this criminal."

Tom Wilkins looked from Tony to Sitwell and back. "You know this looks suspicious, Tony, don't you?"

Tony shrugged, moved his cane from one hand to the other. "It doesn't matter, Tom...since part of this arrangement means that we can overlook how your group launched an attack on American soil without getting authorization."

Tom paused. "I'll let my superiors know."

"Good," Tony replied. "Nice seeing you again."

"And you."

As the two men watched Tom Wilkins leave, Casper said, "You do know you're stretching this arrangement you've made?"

Tony's smile hardened, but he did not say anything.

James Rhodes was waiting for Tony in his office. Before he could say anything, the man who was Tony's best friend, the man who was there to save him when he fled from Wong Chu, said, "You're playing a stupid game here, Tony. I don't know why, but you can't keep this to yourself all the time."

Tony keep his position at the doorway to his office. "I know what I'm doing."

"I'm not so sure anymore," Rhodey said. He locked eyes with his boss. "You've changed. It's subtler than when you climbed into the bottle, but it's there, and it's causing a lot of problems for everyone--"

"You have to trust me, James."

"I would have trusted you," Rhodey said firmly before Tony could go further, "before you went ahead and got us thrown out of Seattle, and before some deal for God knows what purpose with SHIELD--"

The sound of Tony's cane smashing down onto the floor reverberated. "I KNOW WHAT I'M DOING!"

"People are losing their livlihood for your game." James Rhodes rose slowly from his chair. He moved to Tony and nodded. "You're not responsible for The Stark. Get over it."

"I know what I'm doing," Tony Stark repeated, quieter this time.

"This talk ain't over."

Only when James left the office did Tony go to the desk. He reached under the edge to trip a hidden catch. A small drawer popped out. He felt around until he removed a small vial that glowed an ever-changing light from within.

He contemplated it for a long time before putting it back. The first priority was getting everyone moved, and getting the vial up to the station.

And then the game would truly begin.