Disclaimer: Purely for fun - and surprisingly I don't own the Marvel Universe.
Universe: A mix of the movie and comics (probably horrible bungled, but well...)
Warnings: Originally really dark and angsty - now still dark and angsty.
Of Walls and Emptiness
The feel of cold steel on his wrists as his hands were cuffed behind his back finally brought Tony out of his state of shock.
"What is going on here?" he snapped, turning to Coulson who was standing at the back of the group of SHIELD agents who had invaded the Stark mansion and had rushed and surrounded him. Heedless of the eight guns pointed at his head, he strained against the two agents' hold on his arms from behind.
"I must ask you to stop resisting, Mr. Stark," Coulson said, his voice inflectionless. "You are hereby arrested, and we have been cleared to use all necessary force."
That brought him up short. "Arrested?" Tony asked disbelievingly, his eyebrows rising. "Whatever for?"
Coulson gave him a hard stare. "Murder."
This was getting more and more grotesque. SHIELD was supposed to be on his side, he was a part of Shield for heaven's sake! His brain flat out refused to find a logical reason for what was going on, genius or not.
"Look here buddy," he started, trying to sound calmer than the situation warranted, "I know you don't like me, but I haven't killed anyone and you know it. Either you tell me what's going on right now, or you get the hell out of my house."
"I'm afraid that's not an option, Mr. Stark," Coulson replied smoothly, seeming not at all fazed by the threat. "Everything has been cleared from above. We are here to escort you to prison."
"Whoa, wait a second! I'm not just going to go to prison without knowing why! Jarvis, call Pepper and-"
He heard Coulson sigh, saw him move out of the corner of his eye, and then everything went white.
Tony woke to a blinding headache. Groaning, he wondered what the hell he had been drinking he night before to have this powerful a hangover. He opened his eyes. For a few seconds he stared at the bare white ceiling above him without comprehension, and then yesterday's (or was it today's?) events came crashing back. A quick cursory glance around the small room proofed his first suspicion. He was indeed in a prison cell. What he was not, was sure 1) how he had got there, 2) why exactly he was in there, and 3) what the hell was going on in general. He was fucking Tony Stark, Iron Man, he was supposed to put the bad guys in prison not get thrown in there himself and by the people he was working for no less - for no discernible reason. Outrage warred with anger, warred with a small, nagging fear that he was truly stuck here, in this tiny, bare cell. Where were Rhodey, Happy, and Pepper? Pepper. He buried his face in his hands with another groan. She was probably out of her mind with worry for him right now, though she probably knew more about his situation than he did. But there was nothing he could do to reassure her (there wasn't even anything he could do to reassure himself). He was powerless. Helpless.
He had waited, and waited, and waited, but no one had come. Finally, completely out of patience, he went over to the door banged on it as hard as he could, calling for a warden, for someone, anyone to hear him. After five minutes his hands were starting to get sore, but he had his result. A previously hidden panel on his eye level slid aside, revealing Agent Coulson's face.
"Yes, Mr. Stark?" he asked, faint exasperation lining his words.
"I want to know what is going on here," Tony demanded, refusing to let his relief at not being completely ignored show. "I want to have the phone call I'm entitled to and talk to my lawyer. And I want to know when exactly my trial is supposed to be."
For a second Tony thought he saw a glimmer of pity in the Agent's dark eyes, but it was gone as soon as it had come.
"Your trial was yesterday, Mr. Stark. Needless to say that you were found guilty."
He knew his shock must have registered on his face. "What? But I don't even-"
"Good day, Mr. Stark," Coulson interrupted him briskly, "Enjoy your accommodations."
The panel slid shut, leaving him alone again – no less confused, but a great deal more afraid.
His 'accommodations' under closer examination turned out to be this room, bare except for the cot he had woken up on, measuring exactly five square meters, and a miniature adjoining room with a toilet pot, two rolls of toilet paper and a sink (and for some reason a toothbrush). There was nothing else. Nothing to entertain him, nothing to take his mind off the fact that he seemed to be stuck in a prison cell for real. Alone.
For the first few days Tony still held out hope that everything was just one big misunderstanding and he would be released (or if not that, at least that Rhodey or some of his Avenger teammates would come and break him out).
After a week, he couldn't help but think if anyone had wanted to help him it would have happened already.
After two weeks he acknowledged that, no, it did not seem probable anyone was coming for him. (Also he started to get really annoyed at the beard growing unchecked on his face).
After four weeks he had given up hope completely.
After six weeks he admitted to himself that prison life was not treating him very well and he might end up dying in there anyway (the irony of managing to survive in a cave held captive by terrorists, but not necessarily doing the same in a nice, neat prison cell in his own country did not escape him). He was losing weight at an alarming rate (the 'food' that was thrown in once a day through the sliding panel hardly qualified as such in his book), and even though he did his best to keep in form and stay limber by moving around in his cell and doing numerous stretching and muscle-building exercises he was quickly losing muscle mass as well. Sometimes, when he lay on his cot staring blankly at the ceiling, he imagined feeling the weakness seeping into his flesh and bones bit by bit, rotting, infesting.
All these physical problems, however, paled in the face of his mental ones. A brain like his, always so busy, so brilliant, was not made for utter lack of stimulation, utter boredom. He did his best to engage in mental games with himself, to develop formulas or code in his head, to recall books he had read and songs he had heard, but it was not enough. So far he had exactly 213 ideas of how to upgrade his suit further, around fifty different programming additions for Jarvis (around five thousand lines of code he estimated), and numerous other technologically advancing notions, had discovered two new elements as far as the theoretical side went, and had written his own autobiography (and that had been quite the sobering experience) – yet there were still far too many periods during which his mental faculties were unengaged. During those periods the loneliness especially weighed heavily on his every thought. He had heard psychologists say that humans were not made to be alone long periods of time before (boy, did he prove them right right now). And sometimes, when he lay on his cot staring blankly at the ceiling, feeling weakness invading his body, he was sure of the insanity hovering at the edges of his consciousness, barely contained behind crumbling walls of will. And that, to his mind, was worse than the physical decay.
After eight weeks he had finally accepted the fact that everyone he cared about or had thought cared about him had abandoned him. (He also accepted that no, there was not anything he could do about the infernal beard).The feeling of intense betrayal was soon replaced by self-doubt, and in the end turned into yawning emptiness. In a way he welcomed the apathy overtaking his state of mind, as it proved that he still clung to sanity (or at least he thought hoped it did – were insane people not supposed to give in to their emotions instead of just not having ones (then again, mutating into a sociopath was not exactly what he had had in mind, either)?).
After nine weeks he lost count of how much time had passed. At some point they (whoever they were) started throwing in two meals a day (or at least that was what his barely functioning sense of time told him), but as his stomach rebelled at the very idea of eating more they usually went untouched.
After nine weeks and a day he started scratching mathematical formulas into the hardly malleable plastic of his cot, even managing some faint traces of relish at having something to do even though it broke his nails and made his fingers bleed.
After eleven weeks his mind started slipping into forgetfulness. Even the easiest line of code became too hard to remember. He would have been devastated if he had had enough energy to care.
When the door finally opened, his first reflex was to clap his hands over his ears and squeeze his eyes shut. Both actions did nothing to keep out the cacophony of sounds and colors. It was far too overwhelming to be real. Besides if he let himself believe it was real, and it turned out not to be the results would not be nice. Better safe than sorry.
He eyed the people standing in the doorway wearily. One of them – Pepper, the person he had cared most about in the world once upon a time, the part of his brain in charge of past things supplied – slowly walked into the cell, eyes wide in what might have been horror.
"Oh Tony," the red-head breathed. "What have they done to you?"
"Done?" he asked wryly, voice harsh and gravely from misuse. "They haven't done anything. Isn't it funny that having nothing done to you can make you talk to hallucinations after a few weeks?"
"I'm not a hallucination, Tony."
He was not convinced. She kicked him – hard.
"Ouch!" Rubbing his leg, he grimaced. "You know that my brain could have made me feel phantom pain just to sustain the hallucination in order to keep me sane?"
A pause. "Are you?"
"Sane, or insane? To both the answer is, quite possibly...as demonstrated by the fact that I'm still talking to a hallucination."
The first thing he asked for was a razor (he would be damned if he ran around with this mess on his face any longer). For some reason that made people tend to be even more edgy around him.
Nick Fury stopped by his second day of (supposed) freedom in the hospital. The first five minutes they just spent staring at each other in silence.
"I see you're recovering."
"Very observant." He glanced at the clock mounted on the nightstand aimlessly. "Three months – fitting, I suppose. At least someone has a sense of irony."
He turned his hard stare back on Fury. "Care to explain why I was treated to an exclusive trip down memory lane?"
One thing at least, could be said about Colonel Fury: he did not beat around the bush.
"Three months ago we received intel of a new threat, targeting the Avengers, but you in particular. A mind controller with telepathic abilities. Apparently he intended to use you to kill as many avengers as possible and then exterminate the rest himself. You know that there are several teammates you could probably take down with whom someone else would have problems."
Just a few months ago he would have preened at that comment, or at least felt smug. Now he just acknowledged the point with a curt nod.
"So we needed to get you out of the picture for a bit," Fury continued.
He raised a brow. "Why couldn't I just lay low at the base?"
"Telepathic mind-controller, remember? Neither Frost nor Xavier were available so we needed to move you somewhere shielded, without contact with other people who might be controlled. So we did. We just hadn't counted on needing three months to find and neutralize the bastard."
For a long moment he was silent, mulling over this new information that finally explained everything. He should have felt anger, or betrayal, but instead he found that the emptiness of any emotion persisted. "I see," he finally said, tone neutral. "Sacrificing one for the team. A sound strategy."
For the first time Fury looked really surprised for a moment, his one eye widening a fraction.
Before the Colonel had the chance to say anything, however, Tony added, nodding at the untouched bottle of scotch on his bedside table (he suspected Rhodey had left it there), "Besides it seems that I should thank you for curing my alcoholism. Apparently solitary confinement does wonders to your bad habits."
Fury twitched his shoulders in as close an imitation to an apologetic shrug he ever got.
"You're off active duty for at least another month, Stark. And until you're psychologically fully recovered you aren't going anywhere near you armor."
A curious mix between a pained laugh and a snort escaped his lips. "Oh, I don't think you need to worry about that happening any time soon, Fury."
Pepper hesitated. "I thought it was the right thing to do."
"No," he snapped, his eyes cold. "Fury thought it was the right thing. Everyone else just went along with him."
He turned away.
The plea in her voice was unmistakable. He kept walking.
"Please. I love you!"
His hand froze, millimeters from the touch pad at the door. He turned his head back to look at her, some unidentifiable emotion churning in his belly, warring with the emptiness that had constantly habituated that space ever since he had been locked away from life. Memories of happier times lurked somewhere beneath the surface of his mind - there, but not there.
"Yes," he said softly, "I think I did too."
The door shut out the sound of her heart breaking – and his mind shut out the pain she was still able to cause.
It took him two more days and a conversation with Natasha (or whatever her name was) to finally understand that the emptiness was the mind's and heart's way of protecting him from falling apart completely.
"There are ways to get out of it," his former assistant turned super-agent said in the softest voice he had ever heard her use. "It isn't a new phenomenon."
Deep in thought he missed her worried eyes on him and the faint, frustrated exclamation of, "I told them this would happen!" as she rose to leave.
Another day was spent mulling over that revelation. The temptation of just leaving himself in a state of emotional limbo was great, but in the end the urge to somehow feel human again and escape the cell that still dominated his thoughts won out.
"Sir, Captain America is approaching the kitchen," Jarvis informed him, just as he hit the start button on the coffee machine.
He turned around to find Cap standing in the doorway, looking more anxious and hesitant than ever.
He sighed wearily (he just did not have the energy or will to argue with Captain fucking perfect America right now). "Go away, Cap."
Unsurprisingly his veiled plea was ignored.
"We were wondering if you would come to the Avengers' mansion for a little get together…"
"No, thanks," was his short and to the point answer. The expected disappointment showed on Steve's face.
"Just a little thing, to say hello," Steve started, sounding just a little bit desperate (Tony mentally filled in the 'and to rest our consciousness'), "we are all sorry this had to happen-"
"It's too loud," he interrupted the erupting words, not wanting to hear more. And it was not even a lie – his ears still had not acclimated to the constant overwhelming noise that was life outside a solitary confinement cell.
This time it was the coffee machine which interrupted the protest with a loud beep, and Tony gratefully took the chance to turn away from his former teammate and busy himself with his beverage.
"Cap," he said, not turning back from the counter, "I'm not coming back to your team."
Raising his hand to forestall any protest that was bound to come, he continued, "This is not about like or dislike, it's not even about revenge or about making a point. It's about trust."
The implication was clear.
And with that he brushed past a shell shocked Captain America, clutching his hard-earned coffee in his hands like a life-line.
Of all his teammates only Thor actually surprised him. The god had not been there when this whole mess began and had apparently been furious when he found out about it (only not breaking him out himself because he had had no idea where Tony was). On the other hand, maybe he should not have been surprised – Thor had always been one for honor.
Tony was down in his workshop, tinkering with one of the iron man gauntlets, when heavy footsteps heralded the entrance of the tall avenger.
"Anthony, my friend, it gladdens my heart to see you on your feet again!" Thor boomed, smiling.
Besides himself he winced. His senses still had not quite acclimated to the sudden changes in volume and intensity. "Thank you, Thor. Would you mind speaking a little bit quieter please, though?"
"Of course, shield brother," the god acquiesced, his voice considerable lowered. Something in his tone made Tony look up from his work, meeting a disturbingly intense, searching stare. "Are you well?"
"Yeah, fine," he mumbled, looking back down at his work – not because he actually wanted to continue but just to evade that knowing gaze (sometimes living together with a god could be a major pain, too).
"It was not right of our allies to do that," Thor asserted, in a soft tone of voice one rarely heard from the huge man. "You are worth more than that."
Tony snorted, disbelievingly. "Right. And that's why everyone thought it was a great idea to lock me up for a few months."
Thor shrugged his broad shoulders. "You do them an injustice, my friend. They were worried about you." He laid a strangely comforting (had it really been that long since he had had any human contact?) hand on Tony's shoulder. "It is my sincerest wish that one day you will see your worth for yourself, Anthony Edward Stark."
Thor removed his hand to go, leaving a pang of missed warmth to shoot through him.
"I will be here if you need me, Anthony," he called from the door. For the first time in days a true smile found its way to his lips. It was good to know there was someone he could go to (especially since all the others seemed to be avoiding him – and even though he knew that was due to no small amount to his behavior, it still hurt).
Well, Thor had always been his favorite.
Tony was down in his workshop (not a huge surprise since he had hardly left it for the week he had been back) when the first distress call since he had left the cell reached headquarters.
His first instinct was to jump up and tell Jarvis suit him up, but then his brain caught up with his reflexes and he sank back into his chair, bitterness rising in his throat.
He ended up watching events via life feed on one of his many TVs – excluding the last few months, his time in Afghanistan and the one time Pepper had refused to talk to him for two weeks after one of his stunts it was the worst experience of his life. Seeing a huge scaly monster, which appeared to be pretty much impervious to injuries, attack his teammates without him there tore at him in a way that made clear that he had not been dealing with leaving the team forever as well as he had thought.
He winced every time someone was batted away by huge claws or cut by sharp scales. In the end Thor managed to slay the beast with the help of Mjollnir, but by that time Tony felt emotionally completely frayed and shaky (reminding him once again (as if he needed it) that he did not deal with helplessness very well).
The next day he left his refuge in the workshop for the inhabited spaces upstairs for the first time.
A month had passed (during which things had approached normalcy at the speed of a snail) before Jarvis reported the find of another illegal stockpile of Stark Industries weapons – this time in Russia. He did not think twice. He might not be an Avenger anymore, but he darn well could continue saving the world from his own misused inventions.
Five hours later Iron man stalked away from a burning warehouse with nothing more than a few bruises and a cracked rip to show for his trouble. Tony had not felt so alive in months.
When he reached the Avenger's mansion, he was surprised to find Thor waiting for him in the darkened workshop, waiting patiently as he unsuited.
In response to his questioning gaze the god only shrugged. "Your disembodied voice would not let anyone else in. They are waiting for you upstairs."
Tony lifted an eyebrow. "They are?"
Thor nodded. "It is time for you to face your fears, Anthony."
"Is Pepper…?" he asked, voice a little more unsteady than he wished it to be, still hesitating.
The asgardian god only smiled in answer.
Tony squared his shoulders. "Well, lets face the music then, shall we?"