To those of you who are hanging in there after the last chapter, my deepest thanks. I'm generally a no-warnings person personally, but I do respect those of you who want them. I swear, I actually have a plan in here somewhere. :)
Maria stood outside the room at Stark Medical, peering through the small, frosted window. She could make out the shapes within – and the door didn't block sound. Maria winced. Phil had often called her "the toughest of the tough," but she was still human. Hearing Pepper's heartbroken sobs – almost a keening at this point – as she refused to leave Tony's side...well, it got to Maria. Not just as a human, but as a woman who had been there. Mostly. She hadn't gotten the chance to see Phil's body – too much had been going on, and she knew why now. But that didn't change how it had felt in the moment. SHIELD generally cremated its operatives quickly, in order to avoid enemies who had the means to do terrible things with the bodies and brains. Nothing at the time had raised red flags for Maria; she'd been too lost in her grief. The man she loved was gone and that was all she could see once the battle had been won. She'd finished her duty, retreated to her quarters, and completely fallen apart.
Maria knocked gently on the door. Normally, she'd have left Pepper to her privacy – they didn't know each other that well, after all – but she was led to intervene.
"Come in," Pepper called, her voice rough and choked with tears.
Maria stepped in, closing the door behind her, registering Pepper's surprise. "I'm sorry."
Pepper nodded sadly. "So am I." She looked nothing like the powerful woman she was; she was lost, broken, and Maria hated to see it. But she understood.
"I can't say I know exactly how you feel," Maria told her, "but I feel for you." Before she could let her instincts about revealing personal information kick in, she pressed forward. "I lost a man I loved, too."
Pepper cocked her head, surprised, and her wary posture relaxed a bit. She looked down at the floor. Tears were still flowing freely down her cheeks, but she'd regained some of her composure. "I guess it's not surprising, in your line of work. I'm sorry." After a moment, she looked back up, meeting Maria's eyes. "How did you get through it?"
Maria put a hand on Pepper's shoulder, cautiously at first, but tightened her grip when Pepper welcomed it. "I cried for days. Whenever I wasn't working. I made sure he had justice. And then...I started to put my life back together." She wished she could tell Pepper the end of the story, but she wouldn't offer false hope. And she had been okay, even before Phil had come back. She'd missed him desperately, but she'd learned to make it without him. "But you have something I didn't." Technically, she knew she shouldn't know this, but no one would suspect anything when she said Phil told her.
Pepper put her hand on top of Maria's, her eyes fixed on Tony's face. "What's that?"
"His child." Maria knelt so that she was at Pepper's eye level. "All I had was vengeance. You've got so much more." Admittedly, she wasn't ready for motherhood in the least, but if she'd had Phil's child, back in those dark days...it would have been a beacon of hope.
Pepper almost smiled, but she didn't quite make it. "Yeah." She reached out tentatively, and Maria allowed Pepper to pull her into a hug. "Thank you."
Maria blinked furiously as her eyes began to sting. She didn't cry in front of anyone. Ever. Except Phil. Once. But this hit her where she lived. She hadn't been all that fond of Tony Stark – mostly because she always seemed to be left to clean up his messes after Phil was gone – but he was still a fallen comrade. And while his childhood hadn't been as spectacularly horrible as hers, he'd had it rough. He'd never been a soldier, not like most of them, who knew what to expect. He'd been a civilian who survived something terrible and wanted to keep it from happening to anyone else. That, Maria could respect. She didn't murmur comforting nothings to Pepper – it felt unnatural to her – but Maria could hold her. It wasn't much, but it was all Maria had to offer.
Phil and Maria had been on their way back to New York via Quinjet when they'd heard the news. There wasn't time to mourn; there was work to do. Arrangements to make. Steve and Sharon had to be recalled – technically, they could have finished the mission, but the team was going to need their captain. And he would need to be with them. There was intelligence to gather about the assassin. The autopsy had to be set up – the cause of death was known, but it was standard procedure, and Tony had specified before his death that he wanted others to be able to study the setup that had kept him alive, so it might someday be applied to those with similar injuries.
Maria had gone to see if she could offer any support to Pepper; Phil would go by to check in later. He felt Maria would be more effective, not just as a woman's touch, but as someone with a similar story. Phil and Maria had been in some tough spots before, but he'd never lost her, and he prayed he'd never know what that felt like. He collapsed onto the couch in his New York apartment as Maria let herself in – they had a collection of keys to each others' various residences. She quickly moved to the couch and curled up beside him. He could tell she was emotionally exhausted.
"How'd it go?" Phil asked.
Maria shook her head, reaching up to let her hair down. It spilled over Phil's shoulder and he ran his fingers through it, comforting himself with her presence. "Natasha was finally able to talk Pepper into going home."
"Good." Phil rested his cheek against the top of Maria's head. "She needs to rest. At least she got to shoot the bastard who did it."
"Any intel yet?" Maria asked.
Phil sighed. "Early info suggests he might be affiliated with Ten Rings, but nothing confirmed. We're still going through a dozen aliases with different leads."
"Lovely," she muttered.
Phil agreed. Tracing terrorists to specific cells could be like searching for needles in a haystack. Only the stupid ones left a direct path back to their masters. "Yeah."
"What about the rest of the team?" Maria asked.
Phil shook his head. "They're doing the best they can. Thor arrived in from Asgard an hour or two ago. He's arranging some ritual for fallen warriors." That reunion had been quick but bittersweet. "I didn't get all the details. It's pretty complicated." He sighed. "Sharon's with the captain. I think he's pretty shaken, but he's keeping it together. The others...they're coping in their own ways." Natasha and Clint had barricaded themselves in their adjoined living quarters and were refusing to answer anyone. The last Phil had seen Bruce, he was raging in his reinforced workout space, and Phil had let him be. He tried not to meddle in the affairs of rage monsters, especially not when they had multiple valid reasons to be angry. "This really throws things for a loop."
"Yeah," Maria agreed. "We could probably move Colonel Rhodes onto the team in time; they already know him."
It might have sounded callous from anyone else, thinking already of how to replace Tony's spot on the team. But that was the way Maria's mind worked, and Phil knew she worked around her emotions by focusing on practicalities. "Might not be a bad idea. But they're going to be out of commission for awhile, unless something really messy pops up." He trusted the Avengers would act if they were needed, but keeping them occupied with smaller issues wasn't the right idea. Even Fury had agreed to that much, in the brief time Phil had spoken with him. The discussion they'd planned to have with Fury would have to come another day. No one would forget it entirely, but the time wasn't right.
"So what now?" Maria asked, snuggling closer.
Phil wrapped his arms around her. "We regroup. We heal. Then we find out who was behind this and kick their asses so hard their great-grandchildren will feel it."
It had been a long and terrible trip home. Coulson had broken the news to them via video conference, as New York was already abuzz with the news and Coulson didn't want them to hear about it that way. Steve couldn't get his head around it. Tony Stark, dead. Tony had long ago stopped being "Howard's son" in Steve's mind, but that connection tugged at Steve's heart as well. Tony might have been a loudmouth, a pain in the butt who left books with titles like All My Friends are Dead lying out in the open for Steve to find. Captain America action figures in the ice bin. But he was there when the chips were down. Steve's heart ached, and he paced the jet, since there was nothing else he could do to unleash the tension.
Sharon was holding up better than Steve had thought. She'd cried briefly, but then pulled it together and become all business, taking what little information they had on Tony's killer and following the leads. She allowed Steve to touch and attempt to comfort her – and she was all his if she thought he needed it. But she was on a mission, and Steve was happy to support her vendetta. She knew how to make technology work for her and he let her, as long as he got in on the action when SHIELD struck back.
When Steve got back home, his first priority was to check on his team. Thor embraced him warmly, trying to explain a detailed Asgard ritual he would be performing at dawn. Steve assured Thor he'd be there and he would spread the word to the rest of the team. Steve didn't understand much of it, but anything to honor Tony's memory would be nice. Clint and Natasha were refusing all contact, but they were together, and Steve knew they would support each other.
Steve went to look in on Pepper next, having gotten the news of her pregnancy only moments before learning Tony was gone. He knew Pepper would never have to worry about raising that child alone, but he was worried for her. Fortunately, she was asleep, so Steve let her rest. It would do her more good than he could.
Bruce was asleep on the floor of the Hulk-proof gym, splayed in an awkward position. Steve winced; that couldn't be comfortable. He'd seen this once before, when Bruce was so worked up he exhausted even the Hulk. As soon as he stopped to rest, he transformed back and slept where he fell. Steve roused him gently and guided him to bed.
As he got Bruce settled, Bruce unexpectedly snagged Steve with one arm, pulling him closer – to the point Steve was forced to sit down beside Bruce in order to avoid standing in an awkward position. Even in his sleep, even as himself, Bruce was remarkably strong. Steve could have pulled free – he still had the physical advantage – but he would have had to wake Bruce to do it. And Bruce was not a person who asked for help often. And, frankly, Steve didn't want to be alone either. He laid down next to Bruce, who relaxed into a deeper sleep. Steve was too worked up to sleep, but he was more than happy to keep watch.
Pepper woke in the middle of the night and automatically reached to the empty side of the bed. For a moment, she could almost pretend Tony was working late in the lab again. But then she was fully awake and she knew. She climbed out of bed, noticing belatedly someone must have talked her into changing clothes. All the better; she certainly didn't need a blood-stained dress to remind her what happened. It was pretty vividly etched into her memory – along with everything else. Maria Hill's visit...surprising, but deeply touching. Natasha coaxing her away from Tony. That was when she'd changed; she remembered it now. Pepper rubbed her stomach absentmindedly; she'd been okay in theory with being a single mother, but not like this.
She didn't even really think about where she was going; she just had to get out of their shared bedroom for the moment. But Pepper ended up at the main lab, and she went in despite the voice in her head that warned it would do her no good. She sat down in one of the computer chairs, picking up an empty glass beaker. Pepper hurled it against the wall, finding it surprisingly satisfying as it shattered upon impact. A rack of unused test tubes was the next to go. And that unleashed the storm. Anything breakable that was of no great value went flying, the shards crashing to the floor. It was a great metaphor for the shards of her heart. Pepper was careful to avoid cutting herself on any of the broken pieces, and as soon as it was safe, Dummy scurried out to sweep them away.
Finding nothing more she could risk breaking, Pepper sank back into the chair. She wanted to cry, but all her tears were gone for the moment. She screamed in frustration, grabbing her hair in her hands, but the physical pain did nothing to relieve her emotional agony. She had always been fairly ambivalent regarding religion, but now she knew the resentment Tony had always expressed. No, Virginia, there is no God. At least not a just one. Perhaps Steve could convince her otherwise someday, but not today.
A line from a song popped into her head, and it felt apt. But there's murder in my heart and there's nothing I can do. Her mind knew what it was doing. Pepper had the song on a playlist, just because she liked the tune, but now it had become her life. She would do anything to avenge Tony. She should have felt something about killing a man, but she couldn't, at least not now. It only felt just. Whoever he was, whoever he was affiliated with, that man had murdered Tony. And Pepper would have killed him all over again, taking longer, making him suffer.
Pepper moved to the kitchen; she wasn't hungry, but she felt she owed it to the baby to choke something down. That was the only reason she had to take care of herself, at least now, when the raw grief was strongest. Maybe she would start to care again someday. When Tony had disappeared in Afghanistan, she'd had hope. When he'd been dying of palladium poisoning, she hadn't known. When he'd flown a nuclear bomb into a portal, she hadn't had time to react. This...this was like nothing she'd experience. When her mother had died, she'd at least had the assurance her mother was out of pain, free from a body that had stopped working. Tony had too much to live for. Everything had been going right for him for a change. There was no justice in the world.
Pepper managed to eat half an apple; it was all she could do for now. She had at least made an effort. She headed back to bed, feeling like the three-minute trip took hours. Dummy had beat her back to the bedroom, and he made a bumbling attempt to tuck her in. Pepper wondered where he had learned that. She shooed him off gently, pulling the duvet up to her shoulders and sinking into the pillows.
Tomorrow, she would start learning how to command Rescue, at least as much as the baby's safety allowed. She wouldn't allow Tony's final gift to her to go to waste.
It was kind of amazing, actually. People who pretended not to speak English still managed to get incredibly annoyed when someone started working their way through every bizarre English-language song they could remember. "Exquisite dead guy...rotating in his display case..."
A dark and dirty basement was still preferable to a desert cave, and it was kind of pathetic that he'd been held hostage enough times to develop preferences. He sang louder as another man entered, armed to the teeth like all of the others.
"Keep it up and you will be exquisitely dead," the man warned. "Everyone already thinks you are and if you do not cooperate, you are of no use to me."
Tony rubbed his neck, which was still sore from whatever he'd been injected with. "I knew one of you assholes spoke English. Who are you, General Butt-Naked?" He thought it was a rather clever historical reference, if twisted, but he doubted it would be appreciated.
The man slapped Tony roughly across the face. "Who I am is of no consequence to you."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Really, do you all memorize the same 'evil overlord' speech? You want me to build weapons? I think we've established before I'm not gonna do it. Iron Man suit? Still mine, still has safeguards. So...what this time?"
"Nothing." The leader – Tony had figured that much out from the way the others were deferring to him – smirked. "You have destroyed our plants, ended our contracts, ruined our plans. We want nothing but to make you pay. Slowly, until your body can take no more. We would have started already, but I wanted to make sure you were fully aware."
Oh, great. More torture. Tony didn't let his trepidation show. "You realize the Earth's best aren't going to just let you have me, right?"
The guy had even studied the "evil chuckle," it seemed. "Oh, but they will." He pulled out a smartphone – interesting to note, wherever they were, it had cell service – and turned the screen so Tony could see. The headline certainly got Tony's attention. Billionaire Tony Stark Dead in Attack, Terrorism Suspected. The article's print was too small for Tony to read from a distance, but the picture accompanying it both disheartened and enraged him. There was a photo of him, naturally, but another from the scene. Bruce was holding Pepper, his face stone. She was clearly crying, and Tony snarled. "You bastards."
The leader tapped his fingers against one another. "Yes, it was a significant investment on our part, to steal the materials, to develop a copy of your reactor, to allow the process to complete. We had hoped to replace you, but unfortunately, your mind could not be replicated properly. Plus, killing you strikes a deeper blow. I think it worked out better all around."
Tony struggled against the restraints binding him. He'd chew through them if he had to. "They'll know it's not me. I'm kind of hard to duplicate. You can't just pop a reactor in a body an expect them to believe it."
Tony's captor snorted. "We are not as simple as you think. We have records of Dr. Yinsen's work." He said the name with such distaste that Tony reactively tried to lunge forward again. It didn't work that time either. "Every piece replicated, down to the last bit of shrapnel. Your DNA, duplicated."
Tony put the pieces together. "DNA, then. A clone." There had been more than enough opportunities to collect DNA during his first imprisonment. A horrified thought occurred to him. "Are you telling me you developed a clone – accelerated growth, obviously, probably nanites – just to mutilate it?" Tony couldn't call it "him." If the clone was to last for even a minute after he was taken, it had to be self-aware. Even if it couldn't duplicate his mind, it could feel pain. He had to divorce himself from the thought and the panicky feeling of PTSD-related memories that taunted his conscious mind. That was no doubt exactly what they wanted. "That takes a special kind of sick mind, you know that?"
The smile the man flashed at Tony was positively twisted. "Thank you."
"It wasn't a compliment," Tony muttered. He was going to get out of this. He'd done it before. He would get out, then he'd come back and destroy the place. No big deal. Nothing stops Tony Stark, right? It was about the only time he fully believed his self-hype, when he had something larger riding on it. Like getting home to Pepper.
The full autopsy report wouldn't be back for a few weeks, which was typical, but Bruce had managed to sneak a copy of the SHIELD medical examiner's initial notes. Technically, he'd had JARVIS use his backdoor to get them, but the methods didn't matter. They weren't heavily encrypted and Bruce wouldn't have cared if they were. It wasn't going to do his nerves any good to read the report, but he had to. He needed to know everything.
Most of it was standard. Organ weight, descriptions; things that might have disturbed an average individual were nothing to Bruce. Cause of death: laceration of the aorta, caused by shrapnel injuries. Not surprising. DNA was a confirmed match for Anthony Stark; there was an anomaly in one sample that was undergoing further testing. Nanites found in the tissues consistent with samples from the Extremis project. And that was when Bruce shoved away from his work table, hacking into Tony's personal laptop with practiced ease. He and Tony were both aware that they both had the knowledge to crack each other's encryption; they just usually didn't out of courtesy.
"JARVIS, give me everything you've got on Extremis. Everything." Bruce knew about Extremis. SHIELD had broached the idea and Tony had started to play with it – a way to integrate man and machine, to make armor sets like Iron Man and War Machine one with their owners. It was based on nanite technology and was theoretically possible, but it needed a lot of work. Bruce was almost positive Tony hadn't started real-world tests yet. He fed SHIELD an occasional report, but he had expressed his doubts to Bruce about the advisability of the project. Nanites were not always reliable, even when they came from Stark technology.
As Bruce had suspected, Tony's private notes indicated he was not yet ready for a test run. Nanites were difficult to distinguish from one another; it took great skill and the proper equipment to dissect them to determine their missions. And, through General Ross, Bruce had seen enough other applications of nanite technology, most of it pretty shady.
Bruce flew back to his computer to reread the report, his resolve growing. The heart had been lacerated by shrapnel, a pacemaker had been found and recovered, but the heart tissue's strength was described as within normal limits. Bruce laughed out loud; Tony kept his own secrets from SHIELD, and one of the more sobering ones was that his heart was significantly weakened. He wasn't facing heart failure yet, but it was a possibility that loomed in time. Identifying features noted several scars, all accounted for, but that didn't satisfy Bruce at all. Scars were easy to manufacture. A SHIELD GPS tracker had been identified and Bruce made a joyful noise upon reading its specifications. It was damaged, not working, but definitely the latest generation. Too new to be real. Bruce turned from the lab and bolted for the kitchen, where most of the group had gathered after Thor's ceremony. It had been nice, but Bruce had headed for the lab immediately after; dealing with everyone else's emotions on top of his own had been too taxing.
"Hell?" Steve was asking, looking disturbed. "I know he wasn't exactly religious, but-"
"Hel," Clint clarified, shaking his head. "One l." He shrugged when Thor, Steve, and Natasha looked at him in surprise. Pepper barely seemed to notice. "What? I had to study this crap after Thor showed up in New Mexico."
"So she's another Asgardian," Steve said slowly, as if taking it in.
"Yes," Thor confirmed. "Hel is Loki's daughter, queen of the departed-"
Bruce took his opening. Never let it be said I have no sense of style. "Yeah, and unless she hops across the Rainbow Bridge for a visit, Tony's not meeting her anytime soon." Though, from what he knew of Norse mythology, that could have been pretty amusing to watch. "He's not dead."
Pepper looked at Bruce suspiciously. Steve's expression was more worried and pitying, as if Bruce were delusional. "I know it's hard to process," Steve began, "but-"
"No!" Bruce waved the tablet he'd copied the autopsy report to triumphantly. "The GPS chip was latest generation. His heart muscle had average elasticity." He laughed, caught up in the relief and delight. "There were nanites in his system, and he hadn't initiated Extremis experiments yet."
"English?" Steve requested, though hope was beginning to dawn on his face.
"Forget Extremis; I'll explain later." Bruce shook his head, putting the tablet on the table as he sat down. "Whoever that was – or whatever, I'd suspect – it wasn't Tony. His heart is weakened, as we all know. And he has the prototype GPS tracker. If that doesn't set off alarm bells when someone above the average idiot at SHIELD reads the report, I don't know what will."
Pepper was openly staring at Bruce, but that look said she had nothing that would refute his claims. "Are we sure this isn't SHIELD bullshit, or maybe some mistake? I mean, their doctors don't know those chips like their tech people, right?" She wanted to believe and Bruce could understand why she couldn't let herself do it right away. But he would never offer her such hope and snatch it away.
"Without Extremis, nanites mean accelerated cloning technology," Bruce explained. There were other applications, but none that had achieved stability as of yet. "They could duplicate anything about Tony. They could damage a body, but...the heart muscle; I bet they didn't think of that! And there are only two of the original trackers in existence and they're in Sharon and Tony!"
Steve was still playing the devil's advocate, but Bruce didn't mind. It helped him strengthen his case. "But wouldn't SHIELD have looked for the tracker? I mean, even just to make sure it was accounted for?"
"Sure." Bruce shrugged. "But the one they found was damaged and it wasn't broadcasting. And they're good, but they're not perfect. Lead shielding, deep layers of ground or concrete, the right technology – those signals can be blocked."
"So you're sure." Pepper met Bruce's eyes, her jaw setting firmly.
"I wouldn't have brought it up if I wasn't," Bruce promised her. "I don't know where Tony is. I can't promise he's alive. But whoever died yesterday wasn't him."
Steve rose from the table, as if anticipating where Pepper was going. The others followed. They weren't always of a like mind, but there were exceptions, and most of them involved one of their own. "Then I'd say we have a mission."
Bruce grinned. "Damn right."
Do you forgive me now? I would have waited on this chapter, but I'm not trying to torture you, and the muse was cooperating. :-D More to come! The Avengers on a mission! (If you have the Avengers soundtrack, please turn to Track 18. :-P) Also, my apologies for typos. I've read this through several times, but I never catch them all and FF. Net is being stupid and not letting me replace anything past Chapter 19 without completely deleting and reloading.