Author's Note: All of my stories can be read as standalones, but if you like this one then please check out my other Avengers fanfics. I've written a couple others, and I plan to write more after this one!

It'd also be great if you let me know what you think. I read every review, and I'd really appreciate your honest feedback!

Chapter One

Alone Against the World

"Hey! I'm talking to you, Stark!"

"Speak up a little, will ya?" Tony said. He walked through his workshop, searching his cluttered tabletops for the repulsor unit that he had set aside. "Now where did I put that?"

"The least you can do is turn around and look at me."

Tony spun around and smiled at the big monitor mounted on the wall. Agent Maria Hill wasn't smiling back. "And what's the most I can do?"

"Well for starters, you can act like you care about stopping an alien invasion."

"Another one? Huh. I don't think I got that memo." Tony pretended to rub his chin in thought. "Maybe it's in my spam folder."

Hill sighed. "I didn't say we were under attack. I'm saying that we could be. It's a scary universe out there, and we're sitting here blind."

"I did build that new sensor system for you."

"The sensors you wanted to install yourself?" Hill asked. "You told us to wait for you. It's been a whole week."

"Things came up." Tony turned away again as he saw the repulsor unit in the corner of his eye. "I had a scheduling conflict."

"You mean you were playing with yourself in your garage?"

"So you came to watch me play with myself?" Tony grinned, amused at how Hill had walked into that one.

Hill looked down and groaned. "Really, Stark?"

"Well, I haven't really been playing...by myself," Tony said. "I've got JARVIS with me."

"That is correct, sir," JARVIS said.

The computer system was supposed to calm people with its refined English accent, but its disembodied voice had the opposite effect on Agent Hill. "Hey," she said as she jerked her head from side-to-side. "Who's there?"

"Sorry. JARVIS has a tendency to sneak up on people like that." Tony waited as Hill looked around the room in confusion. "You're not gonna find him," he finally said. Hill stopped searching and looked him in the eye. "Computer program."

"Right again, sir," JARVIS said. "Agent Hill, I can assure you that Mr. Stark has been diligently repairing the damage to his Mark VII battle armor."

"Yes, I can see he's distracted," Hill said. "Pretty easy to get bored when you're only working on planetary defense."

"Working?" Tony asked. "I thought I was consulting."

"Then consult," Hill replied.

"I'm sensing a lot of hostility from you, Maria," Tony said. His mind wandered back to the battered suit of armor lying on the table behind him. Stepping around piles of supplies and broken parts, he reached for the welder that he needed. "Can I call you Maria?"


Tony stopped and looked around again. "Okay, now where are those power couplings?" he whispered to himself. He turned toward the table where he had neatly arranged his most delicate components. His heart jumped as he saw his clumsy robot assistant trying to pick one up for him. "Hey, back off, Dummy!"

"Excuse me?" Hill said.

"No, not you," Tony said. He turned back to the monitor as he threw his arm up to point at the faulty robot. "This guy over here."

Dummy's motors buzzed softly as it lowered its mechanical arm in shame.

"Its flaw is in its artificial intelligence, or lack thereof," Tony said. "I don't know where I went wrong with this one."

"Dummy, huh?" Hill said. Her eyes shifted to the side as something fell and shattered on the floor just offscreen.

A female assistant stumbled by with several large boxes in her arms. "Oh, shoot!" she yelled as she almost tripped and fell. The girl wobbled, before she regained her balance and proceeded across the screen.

"I've got one of my own," Hill said.

Tony picked up the power coupling and turned it over in his hands, looking for any signs of damage. To his relief, he couldn't find any. Tony looked at Dummy and shook his finger at it, before he walked over to where he had laid out the rest of his Mark VII armor.

"I had a Ferrari like this once," he said as began the tedious process of reconnecting the suit's internal systems. "Wrecked it after one test drive. Of course, I was able to just buy another one of those."

"Look, I know you have a lot of things on your hands," Hill said. "I do as well."

Tony put down his tools and turned back to her again. "Am I the only one bothered by the fact that SHIELD is so reliant on me?"

"Trust me, you're not."

"I have to admit, it kind of makes it hard to sleep at night. You guys sure you know what you're doing?"

"Our people are fully qualified to do their jobs," Hill replied.

Her bumbling assistant suddenly tripped and fell against her. "Oh God, I am so sorry!" the girl said.

"Darcy, I am trying to have a video conference with Tony Stark!"

"Did you say –" The girl's mouth fell open as she turned toward the camera. She was young and pretty, with glasses and long brown hair. "Oh, hi Mr. Stark." Darcy smiled as she awkwardly raised her hand and waved at him.

Tony smiled back at her. He liked the attention, even though he didn't intend to take things any further with her.

Agent Hill turned and glared at Darcy. "Get back to work, Ms. Lewis."

"Okay, okay." Darcy gave Tony one last look before she rushed offscreen again.

"Now that you've mentioned it," Tony said, "we do have some other things on our plate."

"You mean studying Loki's scepter?" Hill asked.

"The scepter was scheduled to arrive at Stark Industries' main laboratory three hours ago," JARVIS said. "The delivery has yet to be completed."

"Thanks, JARVIS," Tony said, before he turned back to Agent Hill. "So I guess SHIELD had a...scheduling conflict?"

"Yes, well...the Helicarrier had to make an unexpected intervention. All of our Quinjets were tied up."

"What kind of intervention?" Tony asked.

"That's classified," Hill said. "Just know that SHIELD has things under control. The scepter will arrive in the next couple of days."

"At my lab, right?" Tony asked.

"Of course. Is there a reason why you insist on keeping it there?"

"Hey, you've got to know how to separate work..." Tony said, as he motioned toward his armor. "...from..." He looked around at the walls of the garage that now served only as a workshop and armory. "...home."

Tony shrugged, before he came up with a better reason. "Besides, I'd rather not have your agents hanging out at my house. Well, except for Agent Romanoff. She was tolerable. For a while. Hey, why isn't she the one talking to me?"

"What, are you lonely for her company?"

"It's just that it's kind of hard to connect with someone through a TV screen."

"We are not connecting."

"That's what I just said," Tony replied. "You know, when Agent Romanoff wants something, she comes and sees you herself." He smiled as he saw the irritation on Hill's face. Was it resentment, jealousy, or something else? Whatever it was, she needed to lighten up.

"I am not Agent Romanoff."

"By the way, where is she right now? Or Captain Steve? I haven't seen them since -"

"Their current location is classified," Hill said.

"That gonna be your go-to answer for all of my questions?"

"It depends on what you're asking."

"Okay, one more," Tony said. "Why are you giving the scepter to me? Why not Dr. Selvig?"

"Dr. Selvig was brainwashed by that thing," Hill said. "You don't come out something like that without a few scars."

"No..." Tony said as he thought back to the recent crisis. He had no snappy comments to add this time. "You don't."

"Thought I'd give him some time to recover..."

"They're wrong about you, Hill," Tony said as he forced himself to sound more upbeat. "You're not entirely heartless."

She responded with the closest thing she had to a smile. "Thanks for reminding me."

"Sir, there is a situation at Stark Industries," JARVIS suddenly said.

"What was that?" Tony asked.

"Please direct your attention to the television," JARVIS said. The big flat screen next to the conferencing monitor suddenly turned on and switched to CNN. "It appears that your main laboratory has been overrun by terrorists."

Tony stood in stunned silence as he watched his own lab building appear on TV. A man dressed in black leaned out from a window and sprayed his assault rifle at the security forces lined up outside of the building. As the guards fled, another man leaned out to fire a rocket-propelled grenade into the ground behind them.

"Nearly thirty employees have been taken as hostages," the news anchor said. "The intruders have yet to state any demands. All we know is that they are heavily armed, and more than willing to hold their ground."

"Looks like another scheduling conflict," Hill said.

"Good thing you were late with that delivery." Tony set down his tools before he walked over to a black tiled area in the middle of his garage.

He stood still as robotic arms emerged from the floor to encase him in his Mark IV armor. Tony straightened his posture and held his arms out to make things easier for them. The robots literally had to screw him into the armor. He hated the suit's lack of portability, and the way it tied him down and made him dependent on those machines. A crisis could happen at any time, whether he was at home or not.

The process was obsolete, and he had thought that he would never have to bother with it again. Not after all of the time he had spent developing the Mark VII's faster, more sophisticated autonomous application capability. Unfortunately, the Mark VI and VII were still inoperable after his battles with Loki and the Chitauri. He would have to make do with older technology for the time being.

"You can install those sensors without me," Tony said. "I'll fly over sometime to see how bad you guys screwed up."

"Go kick some ass already," Hill said.

Tony gave her a confident smile as the robots assembled the helmet around his head. He waited until the faceplate flipped down in front of him before he allowed himself to exhale.

As soon as he left the tunnel leading out from his garage, Tony pulled up and began climbing toward the sky. He could already notice the limitations of his armor.

His suits weren't just inventions to him. They were works of art. And as the artist, he was far more aware of the flaws and shortcomings of his work. Details that most people failed to notice were clear and apparent to him.

The Mark IV carried fewer weapons than the Mark VII did, and it lacked the newer model's secondary repulsors. It had less thrust, and therefore less speed and acceleration. Maneuverability was inferior as well.

Most importantly though was the fact that it had been designed for use with an outdated palladium energy source. Because of that, it was unable to tap into the full output of his current arc reactor. Everything the suit did had to be slower and more measured than what he had grown accustomed to.

Perhaps he was being far too hard on it. After all, the Mark IV was the suit that he had used to bring about world peace in the months after he had come out as Iron Man. It was just a little over two years old, and it was still far better than what many of his enemies could throw at him. In most realistic scenarios, its limits wouldn't even be tested.

Still, Tony couldn't shake the nagging thought that he was stuck using suboptimal equipment. While the Mark IV's disadvantages went over the heads of the awestruck citizens on the street, even a small deficit in capability could mean the difference between life and death.

"Tell me what you've got, JARVIS." Tony lowered his head as he began his final descent toward Stark Industries. A clear visual of his buildings was still more than a minute away. However, his suit's sensors were already scanning the area around them.

"Sensors are detecting six armored vehicles near the main entrance of the laboratory."

Tony's holographic HUD, or heads-up display, lit up with rotating images of the vehicles along with an abundance of information about them.

"Hmm," Tony said as he looked over the pictures. The vehicles were equipped with a variety of machine guns, cannons, and missiles, but they all shared the same basic hull. They looked like a bunch of smaller, flatter battle tanks. "Those aren't the Army's, are they?"

"They're yours, sir."

"Uh, you sure about that?"

"Quite so," JARVIS said. "These unmanned vehicles belong to a product line you purchased from the now-defunct Horgan Defense Corporation."

"When was this?"

"Right before your trip to Afghanistan. Shortly before you ceased all involvement in the defense industry."

"So you're saying I bought these things and forgot about them?" Tony asked.

"Precisely," JARVIS replied. "These vehicles have been in storage for the last two years. The terrorists seem to have taken control of them."

"And I was afraid this was gonna be too easy." Tony slowed as the laboratory and the vehicles came into view.

"I strongly recommend that you maintain airspeed for a strafing run."

"Lighten up, JARVIS. Let's see if the investment was worth my money." He stopped and hovered thirty feet above the drone vehicles. Surely, his Mark IV armor was enough to handle something like this. He had to see that it could.

The drones' turrets quickly swiveled in his direction. Automatic fire erupted from their cannons, filling the air with a series of deafening cracks.

"Targeting could use some work," Tony said. He weaved through streams of thirty-millimeter rounds, twisting and turning as he powered up the repulsor in his right hand.

Tony opened his palm and fired into the nearest drone. The shot punched right through the top of the vehicle, which exploded in a brilliant fireball that sent its turret flipping into the air. "Top armor's pretty thin as well. I spent money on this stuff?"

"Do take this more seriously, sir," JARVIS said.

The armor's warning system suddenly beeped. Behind him, the air defense drone had unleashed eight missiles in quick succession.

"Climb!" Tony yelled. "Climb!"

The repulsors in his boots roared as they jolted him into the sky. "Faster, JARVIS," Tony said. "Full power to thrusters!"

"I did tell you to maintain airspeed."

"Alright already! Spare me the lecture!" Tony's eyes darted to the threat display on the lower left of his HUD. The nearest missiles were almost close enough detonate. Had he been in one of his newer armors, he could have easily outmaneuvered those missiles and left them in his dust. But he wasn't, and those damn things were gaining on him fast.

"Flares!" he cried out. Circular flare dispensers in his hips popped out and sprayed a trail of white-hot decoys behind him. The two nearest missiles flew directly into the streaking fire and detonated prematurely. The other six kept coming though.

Tony released more decoys as he banked and turned. The missiles swerved with him as if the flares weren't even there. "It's not working!"

"These missiles use advanced imaging infrared seekers. Only a series of flares deployed at the proper range and angles will break their locks."

"Any more surprises?" Tony asked.

"Not at the moment, sir."

Tony cut his main thrusters for a second as he fired his hand repulsors to reverse direction. The missiles overshot him, but they immediately adjusted their course to continue pursuit.

"Good," Tony said. "Because I've got one of my own."

He straightened himself to cut air resistance as he power-dived back down toward the drones. "These missiles are fast. But let's see how they take a hit."

"This course of action is ill advised," JARVIS said.

"Got anything better?!" Tony clenched his teeth as he saw the drones fire on him again with their cannons. One round struck him in the shoulder and sent him into an awkward spin. "Ah!" he yelled as he fought to regain control. He stabilized himself after several dizzying seconds and pressed on.

His armor was too strong for those cannons to stop him just like that. The same couldn't be said of those missiles. One of them exploded behind him, a victim of friendly fire.

The vehicles, and the ground, were approaching with frightening speed. "Make sure the filtration system's working," Tony said. "I might need it in a few seconds."

Angling his hand repulsors, he pulled up a split-second before he would have hit the ground. The missiles followed his lead, as he turned hard and fast around the drones. He flew so near the vehicles that he nicked his leg on one before he smashed through the cannon of another. Similar closeness to the vehicles triggered the missiles' proximity fuzes. One-by-one, they exploded behind him.

"Wooh!" Tony yelled as he pulled up after the fourth explosion. He spun in celebration as he rose into the air. Though the battle wasn't over yet, he couldn't help but smile underneath his helmet.

"Sir, there is still one more missile left."


The missile exploded behind him before he could say another word. Tony felt his limbs drag as his torso was thrust forward by the force of the blast. His HUD flickered as he fell. He couldn't see or feel it, but he heard the sound of glass shattering around him.

Tony hit the ground hard and skipped several times before he came to a sliding stop. He got up and staggered, as his HUD came back online.

"It seems we are in the lobby of your laboratory," JARVIS said.

Bullets suddenly rained down from all sides. Tony flinched from the initial shock, but he quickly gathered himself and looked up. Red circles appeared on his HUD to highlight more than twenty enemies, many of whom were firing on him from the second floor.

"You would do well to return fire, sir."

"Yeah, JARVIS! I know!" He fired repulsor blasts at the two nearest gunmen, before he swung around to look for bigger threats.

He had done so just in time to see a pair of RPGs leave their launch tubes. "Whoa!" Tony yelled as he leaped to his right. He narrowly avoided the explosions, which sent up a shower of floor fragments around him. Tony rolled back up and shot the terrorists before they could load any more rockets.

"Someone's behind you," JARVIS said.

"Let him come," Tony said as he kept firing away at the men above. He had them on the run. The men who weren't shot began to scatter in confusion, as each repulsor blast struck with the force of a grenade.

"You might want to pay attention to this. He's powering up some type of device."

Tony turned around, but the only thing he saw was the blinding white light that washed over him. "Ah!" he yelled as he closed his eyes and raised his hands to his face. He could already feel the temperature inside of his suit rise significantly. The light must have been extremely hot in order to do that through his armor's heat shielding and insulation.

"It's some kind of energy weapon, sir."

It didn't let up either. Instead, the light narrowed into a more intense beam that began to melt away the outer layers of his chest plate. Tony positioned his arms to take some of the heat, for what little good it would do. He stumbled and fell to the floor, before the beam thankfully stopped.

A sense of dread came over him as he looked down at his left hand. The surface of his gauntlet had liquefied, and the metal ran like blood down his fingers and onto the floor.

The energy weapon fired again before he could check his chest plate and the life sustaining arc reactor that it housed. Tony braced himself as he raised his arms again in feeble defense. He saw sparks fly as his suit's electrical connections severed. The armor hadn't been breached yet, but the temperature inside had become unbearable.

"Weapons check," Tony said. He had to say something to keep from falling into panic, even though he doubted that he could even shoot back at this point.

"Repulsors down," JARVIS said. "Missiles down. Micro-munitions launchers, down."

"Flares!" Tony said in desperation.

"Flare dispensers operational. Unfortunately sir, you are out of flares."

Sparks erupted from his chest piece. Tony fell to his knees and screamed as he felt something break inside his body. His HUD flickered and died, shrouding him in the darkness of his helmet.

"Your arc reactor has taken damage," JARVIS said. "Power systems failing. Switching to emergency power reserves. Losing network connection. I'm sorry, sir. I can't stay here with yooouuu..." JARVIS's voice dragged out for several seconds before it stopped altogether.

It was so hot inside the armor that Tony was afraid that he'd faint. He reached up and pressed a button on the side of his helmet, which popped open his faceplate. The hot air rushed out, and it became easier for him to breathe. His chest began to hurt though...

Tony stayed on his hands and knees, gasping. Everything around him had become so quiet and still. Besides his own tortured breaths, all he could hear were the footsteps of a lone man walking up to him. That man began to laugh in a very satisfied way.

"Not so smart now, are ya?"

Tony looked up and saw a burly, middle-aged man standing in front of him. It was his old rival Bruno Horgan.

The former billionaire had swapped his business attire for a green jumpsuit. He was also wearing an Army helmet and a sand-colored Kevlar vest, along with matching gloves and combat boots. The getup wasn't fooling anyone. Horgan looked like an old guy trying to play soldier.

More intimidating was the circular device strapped to his chest. A thick power conduit connected that device to his belt, which carried a control unit and multiple power cells.

"These guys aren't mine," Horgan said. "They had their own reasons for coming here. But when they offered me a shot at you, I just had to come along and take it."

"It's been a while, Bruno," Tony said as he tried to get up. "How's the wife?" The last he had heard, she had run off with a reality TV star.

"You're a funny guy, Stark." Horgan gave Tony a big boot to the face that sent him sprawling on his back. "Always good for a laugh."

Tony rubbed his face as he tried to crawl away. He was scared, but he knew that he had to stay cool and keep Horgan talking. He had no other options but to try to buy some time.

"You sound stressed out, Bruno. But really, don't you think this anger is just a little bit unhealthy?"

"Not as unhealthy as you're about to be."

"Trust me, I know someone who really lets this stuff build. It's not good to bottle it up."

"That's why I'm gonna let it all out on you," Horgan said. "You ruined my company, Stark. Put me outta business."

"It was competition," Tony said. "You try your best, I try my best, it's all we can do, ya know?"

"You got together with Justin Hammer, didn't you? He bought me out and then you swooped in to grab the rest. Because you always need to have more."

"That's not entirely accurate," Tony said. Looking around, he saw that the only other people there were on Horgan's side. There were no indications that help was on the way. The police and his security guards had probably decided to stand by and let Iron Man handle it all. "And I don't know if you've heard, but I don't work the industry anymore."

"Yeah, you had the gall to quit after climbing over me to the top. Like you did it all out of spite."

"Really Bruno, it wasn't about you."

Horgan scowled as he tapped the device on his chest. Looking at it again, Tony got the impression that it had been strapped there as a mockery of his own chest piece. "I call this little baby the Melter," Horgan said. "Designed it for door breaching and anti-vehicle work. The wide beam mode made it perfect for urban pacification though."

"Don't remember seeing that in the field," Tony said.

"Nah, a bunch of sissies in Washington thought it might violate 'human rights' or something." He paused as his face contorted with rage. "Admit it. All of you were out to get me."

"You really believe that," Tony said. He looked up at Horgan and recognized someone who felt alone in the world. By misfortune or his own hand, he had lost everything of value in his life. "I get it though. It's pretty easy to believe."

"Please, elaborate."

"You feel pressure from every side. You've got no one to turn to, so you turn to yourself. But it's not enough, because it seems like the whole world is out to get you. I know what that's like."

Horgan stood there and looked at him for several seconds before he responded. "Hmm. You almost sound genuine." His mouth suddenly widened into a wicked grin. "It doesn't change a thing though." Tony heard the Melter charging up as Horgan turned one of the dials on his belt all the way.

"They say that revenge is a dish best served cold," Horgan said. "I disagree."

To be continued in Chapter 2: Dangerous Unknowns