The Dark Horse
Chapter Five: Prayer of the Refugee
Beyond the shattered restaurant entrance, he saw a squad of officers surround the Iron Man, barrels of loaded weapons pointed at it as though they truly believed bullets would not just ping off its impenetrable hide.
He distantly heard Carlita scream and yell a string of angry Italian curses at them for destroying her family's restaurant. Guilt settled like a stone in his gut.
The SWAT teams remained aggressive and threatening all around him, buttstocks of high-powered, semi-automatic assault rifles set deep into broad shoulders, their muzzles trained on him in a way which assured no cross-fire. His quick mind rapidly counted twenty-seven of them.
Steve and Clint were a strong presence behind him, standing on either side of him and although he couldn't see them, he certainly felt more secure than he would've had he been ambushed alone.
And Tony was an anxious mess in the middle of it all. Hands shook and he clenched them into fists at his sides, something he knew he probably shouldn't do when under such intense scrutiny. But he definitely did not want them all to see how absolutely terrified he was. Regardless of the situation, he had a public image to uphold.
"Officer, what specific charges am I being detained for?" he asked, voice cool, mellow, low and expressing everything he was currently feeling the opposite of. Standing there with his brow furrowed and his jaw set, Tony looked quite fierce. Inside, he was a cowering little bunny.
"Committing cyber terrorism by means of accessing classified military data systems with malicious intent, and blatantly threatening a public official," the officer standing directly in front of him elaborated sternly. "I'm going to ask you one more time to place your hands behind your head. Don't make this difficult, Mr. Stark."
Of course. The Pentagon. His visit with Stone. Tony wanted to smack himself for his own stupidity.
Every muscle in his body tensed up at the sight of a pair of handcuffs, extracted from a small pouch on the officer's pistol belt, and every primal instinct he possessed told him to flee. His eyes darted to the suit and back in a microscopic flicker. It would be too easy to initiate a debilitating flash, blinding everyone in the general vicinity momentarily, and permitting time for Tony to escape. It would be too easy. But then again, with civilians present...
"Tony," Steve whispered next to him, and Tony jerked a little, turning his head toward the voice only slightly to maintain sight of the sea of rifles, "don't do anything stupid."
"You're kidding me, right? It would be stupid to allow myself to be arrested." Tony snapped under his breath. "You and I both know what this is."
"I know, but- Tony, just look at the TV." Tony shot a glance over towards the television and was graced with a close up of himself, standing in the middle of all that chaos. He turned back to regard the news crews, which lingered outside a good distance away from the action like expectant vultures waiting for their prey to die, with intense hatred. "America's watching," Steve clarified his position on the matter and Tony's heart sank. Of course he couldn't run. Obviously, America thought Tony to be a dangerous criminal… and obviously, an arrest is what they wanted. "Just go for now, we'll figure something out, okay?"
"I don't like this, Cap," Clint chimed in on Tony's other side, his hushed voice sounding wary. "Terrorism charges are no fucking joke."
Tony knew this. Shit, every American who'd been alive for more than a few minutes knew this. Legitimate arrest warrant or not, Tony understood exactly what awaited him should he go quietly. But he also understood what life had in store should he not. And on top of that, what was currently at stake.
Tony was an Avenger. It was stated pretty specifically in his job description that he had a duty to uphold the safety of civilians, despite the amount of bodily harm that could potentially befall him. A frenzied shootout in a tiny Pizzeria would put his team mates, and more importantly, Carlita in danger. And he would never forgive himself if anyone was injured because of him. It was an unacceptable outcome. He knew what he had to do and so did his team. Tony was cornered and he had to make the sacrifice play.
"Cap's right," Tony relented, expression softening into something resembling surrender. Or maybe even hopelessness. He could practically feel Clint's shocked, wide eyes burning a hole into the back of his head. "Steve, go back to the tower immediately and tell JARVIS to initiate phase one of Protocol Four-Two-Seven. You know the one."
"I've got you, Tony," Steve whispered back, and reached up to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly. Tony nearly flinched at the unexpected contact in his discomfort and dread. "Hang in there. We're going to try and figure this out as fast as possible."
"Right," Tony said dejectedly, "hope you know what you're doing, team leader."
"Fuck," Clint cursed furiously, "goddammit, Tony, don't-" Tony felt the slightest brush of skin against his arm.
"Clint, let's go," Steve said, tone sharp and commanding, and after a few more muttered curses, Tony heard them step back from him and walk away. There were heated whispers of protest as they tried to convince Carlita to go with them, but she eventually gave in, and they all left through the kitchen. He nodded to himself, satisfied for only a fleeting moment, before nerves twisted relentlessly in his gut, and a vicious disquiet dominated all other emotion.
Heart pounding, saliva catching on the anxious lump in his throat as he swallowed, Tony slowly raised his hands and interlaced his fingers on the back of his head. He nodded to the officer. "I hope arresting an Avenger gives you a nice, pretty bullet on your evaluation this year, Sergeant," he said coldly.
The officer sighed as he slung his weapon across his back and approached Tony. "Mr. Stark, I'm just following orders," he said, moving behind Tony and gripping his index fingers tightly to perpetuate the illusion of total control.
"Yeah. That's what the Nazis said at the Nuremberg Trials." This statement caused the officer to pause. In that breathless minute, Tony had the irrational thought that perhaps this sergeant would let him go, maybe even grow a conscious and realize that what he was doing was wrong in every aspect of the word. But no such luck, Tony realized, when a strong hand on his shoulder forced him roughly to his knees, and then to the floor, grunting when his face was slammed unceremoniously into the tile.
Unnecessary police brutality. How terribly cliché.
A knee settled into the small of his back, pressing painfully against just barely healed ribs, and Tony groaned. "Hey, lay off, Tonto," he ground out, but the officer ignored him, and the knee remained a steady, crushing pressure. One wrist was cuffed, pulled behind his back, and then connected with the other. And Tony took a second to reflect on how far out of the norm his life was.
Seriously, how did he manage get himself into situations like this? How was it that his life was now so bogged down with odd occurrences that sudden normalcy and quiet seemed out of place? Given everything he'd been through, one would think he'd be just about used to gods falling from the sky, portals to different dimensions opening above his home, and wonton arrests by roving SWAT teams. Although he had to admit, being labeled a terrorist was a new personal achievement for him.
"You got any weapons on you?" the sergeant asked gruffly as fingers rifled through the pockets of Tony's jeans, withdrawing his phone and wallet and laying them off to the side.
"No, but there's a big one standing in the space, there," Tony said, lifting his head and nodding toward the suit, around which a crowd of officers had congregated, clearly finding it more interesting than Tony himself. "Although I wouldn't suggest touching it. It's got a few defensive mechanisms in place to prevent unauthorized poking and prodding."
The officer ignored him, continuing his pat down and making Tony terribly uncomfortable in his prone, defenseless position as hands slid across his body without reservation. It was enough to make his skin crawl. "What about that thing in your chest?" he asked with no emotional inflection whatsoever.
"Not a weapon, unless you try to take it from me," Tony said, and thought momentarily that he should probably clarify that answer- before something else came to him; "Aren't you supposed to read me my Miranda rights or something along those lines?" he inquired, grunting as he was lifted to his knees and allowed to sit cross legged on the ground, quite an uncomfortable position while he was in handcuffs. He glared up at the officer.
"No rights are afforded to those accused of terrorist activity under the National Defense Authorization Act and in conjunction with the Patriot Act," the officer said, unslinging his weapon and holding it at the low-ready. Standing guard over his prisoner.
Tony raised his eyebrows at him. "Wow. That sucks," he said, voice shaking slightly, because, although he'd been vaguely familiar with the two pieces of legislation mentioned, he certainly hadn't known such dubious language existed within them. What a horrifying prospect. An American citizen with no rights to speak of. "Not at all something that could be abused, eh Sergeant?"
"That's above my pay-grade to decide," he grumbled.
Tony chuckled nervously at the typical politically correct answer. "Sure it is," he said, shrugging in solidarity with his guard's uncaring attitude. "So, is this the part where I sit here awkwardly for like, a year while you guys decide what to do with lil' ole me?"
"You know, you do still have the right to remain silent," the officer snapped back, shifting his weapon in his hands, possibly intending to be threatening, but the action proved unsuccessful in rattling Tony any more than he already was.
Tony offered a smirk and shook his head. "The right, but not the ability, I'm afraid," he said with mock forlorn and grinned when the officer sighed deeply. It was his fault, really. At times of great stress, there was nothing Tony did better than run his mouth, and the Sergeant happened to be a source of great stress for him at that moment. Therefore, he was also the unfortunate target of Tony's incessant, anxious babbling.
"Hey JARVIS, go ahead and send the suit home before those people get themselves hurt," Tony called through the shattered windows.
The SWAT teams were crowding the suit just a little too closely for Tony's comfort. It possessed a plethora of relatively harmless defensive abilities, but he doubted the officers would take too kindly to being zapped or gassed, and he knew JARVIS would not hesitate to deploy them against his creator's captors. Not to mention the assembly of curious bystanders which had accumulated around the front of the restaurant, held at bay only by a tentative police line. However humorous it would be, he didn't need additional charges on top of the ones they were already accusing him of.
"Right away, sir," JARVIS' voice replied from within the suit, startling the curious gaggle, and they all raised their weapons as they backed away. Tony almost laughed at the shear futility of their actions. "Do try not to antagonize too much." There was sad apprehension in JARVIS' voice. He didn't want to leave Tony, but he also trusted that Tony knew what was for the best.
Tony smiled and watched with concealed despair as his good friend, and only hope of escape, engaged its thrusters and flew away into the setting sun, soon to be hidden and disassembled under Protocol Four-Two-Seven. It physically hurt to think about the amount of drastic, unalterable fail-safes this particular contingency plan would put into action, and all the work that would be undone because of it.
"You know, that carries an additional charge of obstructing justice." The Sergeant said stoically, hauling Tony to his feet with a hand beneath his arm, and leading him forward. Tony didn't respond. He couldn't care any less about such a petty charge, especially now, as things were becoming far too real for him to pay mind to trivialities.
Broken glass crunched beneath Tony's shoes, the sharp sound muffled by the blood that pounded in his ears, an ominous tune in sync with his racing heart. He stumbled through the shattered frame of what was once the entrance to the little Pizzeria, in which he had been enjoying a celebratory dinner with his two good friends, not even twenty minutes before.
It really was incredible, how quickly things could turn to shit.
The careless façade Tony displayed was beginning to melt away at the sight of the innards of the enormous riot vehicle he was led to. This was it. And the handcuffs were just tight enough to be painful. No escape. He felt as though he was being kidnapped again and he suddenly found himself short of breath in his panic. Fuck. He hoped he didn't have some sort of freak out in the back of that MRAP.
And he hoped his last resort was still intact after the rough arrest.
Because god only knew what awaited him on the other side. He avoided looking at the whispering crowd, which grew steadily as minutes passed. Fear was not something he wished the citizens of New York to see glinting in his eyes.
Tony was shaking subtly as three officers stepped in before him and quickly occupied the benches within. The step into the vehicle was three feet tall and achieving such a height was difficult with his hands cuffed behind him, but he managed with a grunt and a bit of help from the officer who'd arrested him. They directed him to sit and he did, between two burly men clad in gray and black armor, helmets obscuring their faces, depersonalizing their presence. The arresting officer slammed the doors shut, leaving them in total darkness.
"We've acquired the package. Now proceeding en-route to designated drop off point," he heard someone say. And just what the fuck was that about?
Wide, frantic eyes searched the dark for faces as the vehicle jolted into motion. Tony definitely was not a fan of sensory deprivation. "So, I guess bribery's out of the question," he said, fishing for a voice, any voice, and encountered stern silence in response. He ran a thumb lightly over the inside of his left wrist and was relieved to find that what he was looking for was still there. A tiny, flesh-colored packet of various powdered metals. The last resort.
Tony was also not a fan of handcuffs and he'd learned a thing or two since he was last in them. And no, it wasn't paranoia, dammit, it was proper planning, a means of mitigation developed through unfortunate experience. If he lived through this, he was going to give Steve the biggest 'I told you so'…
The ride persisted like that for about an hour, all of them maintaining tense silence, broken only by the wail of the vehicles sirens, and his eyes never did adapt properly to the darkness. It was almost artificial in its stifling consistency, thick and powerful, and he was sure if he spent too long in there, he'd lose his otherworldly control and lash out at the first thing within reach.
Finally, the vehicle stopped, and Tony's heart leapt into his mouth. He forced it vehemently back down behind the arc reactor with a ragged swallow.
Someone opened the doors, and thankfully is was dark out already, because he was absolutely certain he would've been blinded by any sudden influx of light after spending so much time in relentless blackness. Cool, October air caressed his face, a relieving, soothing touch against sweaty skin. An officer grabbed him by his bicep and forced him to stand, leading him to the open doors and the damn cliff he had to jump off to exit the vehicle.
"This doesn't look like downtown, boys," he commented warily as he righted himself following his jump, and glanced around, two officers appearing on either side of him to hold his biceps prisoner in identical iron grips. They'd parked on the edge of an empty wheat field, and in the distance, he could see the looming shadows of trees outlining the border of a dense forest. To his left, a series of headlights flashed on, and Tony hissed and clenched his eyes shut against the onslaught of unexpected brightness.
He didn't like this at all.
Finally able to open his eyes to a squint, Tony shot a furious, glare over toward the source of his pain. There were three other vehicles parked there, seemed to have been sitting there long before Tony arrived, black SUVs not unlike the ones Happy used to drive him around in.
Then Tony nearly seized with shock when he saw Tiberius Stone exit the passenger side of one of them, a smug toothy grin on his handsome, batshit crazy face.
Oh, hell no. Stone making a personal appearance as Tony was being arrested was the absolute last straw in this bundle of multi-colored crazy straws Tony called his life. There was no further question in his mind regarding the true purpose behind such a gutsy move.
Tony immediately pressed the packet of metals on his wrist, wincing when he felt the spark and the resulting burn of the magnesium fuse igniting, even through the fire retardant substance he'd painted beneath it. It would take a minute to work, he knew. Hopefully he had a minute.
"Ah, Stark." Stone said, shaking his head as he walked up to Tony, who squared his shoulders and stood as tall as possible with his wrists confined as they were. "I gotta say, I labored for a long time over how I could take you out of the game and make it believable, but you did my work for me." He stopped mere inches from Tony's face.
Tony scowled at him.
"This isn't a goddamn game," he said, not really caring to continue the conversation, but wishing to drag it out long enough for his little contingency plan to take effect, "this is real life, and these are real people you've got all this undeserved power over." He could feel the molten fingers of liquid fire traveling down the cuff, devouring everything on its way to the chain, burning his inner wrist, and making him sweat with the effort of not reacting to it. "I'm just gonna be honest with you. You'd probably serve a better purpose scraping shit out of porta-pottys, if you need a way to justify your pitiful existence, that is."
Then, Stone slapped him. Like, actually slapped him, the back of his hand striking Tony's face surprisingly hard and whipping his head to the side with the force of it. Tony released a breathy, unamused laugh before spitting out a mouthful of fresh blood, and turning to face his antagonist with an incredulous smile. So, he wanted to go down this road, huh? Tony could take this road.
Stone's face was expressionless. Tony would be the first to admit that the absolute lack of any emotion whatsoever on Stone's face startled him a little. The man wasn't angry, in fact, he almost looked like he was engaged in an activity that bored him. Inside his eyes though, Tony could see something sinister glinting. "If only you knew where you were going, Stark, you wouldn't even think of disrespecting me," he said, voice even and controlled.
Tony grunted out a single chuckle. "I may not know where I'm going, but I'll make sure to continuously remind you that you're about as useful as a white crayon. Your mind is about as put together as a soup sandwich. You make as much sense as a football bat and you're as hopelessly lost as a bastard on father's day-"
The next blow was harder, and Tony stumbled a little, allowing the officers to right him. Perhaps the one-liner about father's day was a low blow, but it had tumbled from his mouth before he even knew what he was saying. Then again, who gave a shit about this maniac's feelings?
"Sir…," he heard one of the officers say with a hint of warning. Apparently, smacking a prisoner around was still a no-no, regardless of terrorist status. But Stone, buffered by the appearance of his own two goons, didn't seem to hear him, or didn't want to hear him, and he smacked Tony again, pulling a grunt from deep within his throat and Tony promised himself that it was the only sound Stone was going to get from him.
Tony's smile disappeared, replaced by a deep, hateful scowl and he spat at Stone's feet, a glob of blood from his busted lip landing square on his shoe.
Now Stone was angry, and he lifted his leg to regard his sullied shoe with disgust, the expensive leather, previously so prim and polished, now coated in Tony's blood and saliva. There was a certain amount of satisfaction there that Tony felt he deserved to enjoy.
With a furious growl, Stone pulled his flattened hand back for another blow, and Tony just smirked at him, because the chemical reaction occurring behind him, the one he counted on with every fiber in his being, was almost complete. Almost.
"Secretary Stone," the officer to Tony's right said sharply, and Stone paused, his hand still resting up by his face, poised to strike Tony hard as he could, "I can't allow you to abuse this prisoner, and should it continue, I'm required by law to revoke your custodial privileges."
Stone scoffed, lowering his hand, and frowning like he wished to redirect his attack towards the intervening officer. Tony couldn't help but admire the courage it must have taken for that officer to stand up to the goddamn Secretary of Homeland Security, no matter how much of a sham he may be. He almost felt bad for what he was about to do to him.
"You don't possess the authority to make a call like that, Officer," Stone said, with mocking emphasis on the word 'officer', and glaring daggers at the man. "It would take an act of congress to revoke-"
"Sir," the officer interrupted, displaying a commendable amount of respectful patience as he spoke, "I've read the document, I know what it says, and you don't have proper authority to-"
"You want authority?" Stone spat, becoming dangerously irate, face contorting with his rage, and Tony wanted nothing more than to just get out of the fucking way. "How about, I have the authority to pull your badge, and I wouldn't even bat a goddamn eyelash as I sign-"
The officer interrupted again, slinging regulations and doctrine at Stone like verbal arrows, but Tony didn't have senses for anything other than his wrists. With one small tug, the weakened chain between the cuffs snapped, and they fell to the grass, soon to become nothing more than a molten lump.
A wave of anxiety and excitement nearly drowned him. His world grayed out and he stood there with his arms behind him for just one fearful moment, wondering if this was the route he wanted to take, debating whether it would make more sense just to go with Stone, and wait for Cap, and a small army of lawyers to sort this shit storm out.
But that could take months. He'd be dead by then.
And the country would be held like a bug in the tyrannical fist of Tiberius Stone.
The grip on his right bicep loosened as the officer holding it fought a verbal battle against Stone's insanity, and Tony's awareness blurred back into existence with the physical stimulus. It was now or never.
With one smooth motion, Tony kicked the officer to his left in the leg, breaking it at the knee, and when the man let go of his arm with a ragged scream, Tony whipped around, taking the other officer's arm in both hands and hyperextending it at the elbow. It was necessary brutality, and the increased chances of escape that came with rendering them incapacitated, were more than worth it.
As the two officers clutched at their injuries, yelling and screaming a series of vulgarities, a very important moment of confusion descended on the rest of them, and Tony used it to his advantage. "Thermite," he said with a smirk, a quick response to Stone's shocked sputtering, before springing forward and landing a vicious blow to his jaw, "incendiary reaction, eats through metal." Tony watched Stone crumple to the ground with a cry somewhere between outrage, pain and unabashed bewilderment.
And that was when fire tore through is right shoulder.
Tony had mere seconds to register that he'd just been shot, and even less time to find out who had fired. Furious eyes darted around the scene and he located the perpetrator, a body guard ten feet directly in front of him, aiming a nine millimeter pistol at his torso. Fuck!
Another shot rang out, shattering the otherwise peaceful night, and Tony ducked, rolling just in time to avoid the potentially fatal bullet, and he took off as fast as his damaged heart would allow, sprinting toward the trees, body and mind focused on one thing; get the fuck away from there.
"Don't shoot!" he heard Stone screaming from behind him and for once, Tony agreed. For the love of god, please don't shoot. "Go after him, you morons, I need him alive!"
That instantly put a pep in Tony's step. His heart threatening to burst in his chest became a negligible consequence, and he tore through the swaying wheat, willing his current momentum to last until he at least reached the trees. Gasping with a potent mixture of terror and physical exertion, Tony noted the thumping of boots far behind him as the other officers and bodyguards gave chase, and the two-hundred meters remaining between him and the forest suddenly felt so much further. Like a canyon existed there, and he had to jump it.
Another gunshot and a round exploded into the ground to his left, a tactic meant to disorient and unbalance him, and dirt shot upward in a large plume, a miniature mushroom cloud. Tony cried out in surprise, stumbled briefly but righted himself. And when he finally hit the forest, and the safety blanket of darkness and cover it provided, he didn't dare slow down.
Tony ran for what seemed like hours, skirting around trees, tripping over roots and downed branches. The voices following him faded, and with the realization that they had probably lost him in the darkness, he sought out a tall, dense pine and scrambled up it. He found a thick branch near the middle and settled there, lungs burning for oxygen, chest heaving to provide it and shoved a trembling fist into his mouth to stifle his gasping. His other hand covered the arc reactor, blotting out the light.
If they were to find him there, then he could do nothing about it. Please, god, let this work.
Panic wrung the very life out of his overworked heart when he heard the crunching of twigs and leaves beneath heavy boots below and he bit into his hand so hard, he broke skin. Jesus, they were right underneath him and the galloping footsteps sounded like war drums. But by some miracle, they missed him.
Tony only allowed himself to breathe once they had all run by, their thunderous steps disappearing into the night, following the presumed path of a non-existent man.
Tony waited ten minutes before daring to remove his fist from between his teeth. The process of slowing his heart rate through means of deep breathing was a moot endeavor. He found it funny that kissing death in his suit was a much more palatable experience than doing so outside it. And man, was he going to be sore tomorrow.
With a quiet groan, Tony let his head tilt back, meaning to rest it on the massive trunk of the tree that had just saved his life, when searing agony shot down his arm. Transforming his loud cry quickly into a low, low moan was the work of gods.
Now he remembers. He must have blocked out the pain as he'd ran. Gunshot wound. Just fucking peachy.
Blood was soaking through his shirt, and he didn't truly realize how badly he actually was bleeding until he felt wetness all along his shirt sleeve, and before he could stop it, a few crimson droplets collected at his elbow and fell to the forest floor.
"Shit," he cursed quietly, frustrated that his temporary hiding spot had been compromised in such short a time. They knew Tony had been shot and they would be looking for a trail of blood, would be sniffing it out, maybe even bring dogs out here to scour the area.
There was no time to take comfort into account.
Hoping that the thick needles of the pine would provide him adequate concealment, Tony bit his lip, and groaned softly through the painful process of removing his shirt. He spared the wound a glance, taking note of the small hole just beneath his collar bone, surrounded by angry, red shredded flesh. In the light of the arc reactor, he could see that it was not a through-and-through, and a small, fairly consistent rivulet of blood seeped out from around the torturous, molded lead embedded in his shoulder.
Watching the small descent of blood down his chest made him feel ill, so he shook himself from his morbidly curious stupor, and ripped half of the dry sleeve off his shirt. Removing the bullet here was out of the question, and he had very little time in which to act, so there was only one thing to do.
Tony took a deep breath. This was gonna suck.
Packing the fabric into the wound was so painful, he nearly passed out. Breathing through the pain was not enough, and he had to take breaks periodically to keep himself from falling right out of the damn tree. Tears sprang to his eyes, unbidden and certainly unwelcome, but dammit, this hurt. It burned in a way he'd never experienced before, and the feeling of the round shifting inside him was a unique type of agony.
A relieved groan escaped him when the flow of blood was finally staunched, and he leaned back against the rough surface of the tree trunk, panting, sweating and shivering in the suddenly too cool air. He knew he had to leave, he knew those men were out there looking for him, but… just a minute… just a minute… Glossy eyes slipped shut, exhaustion overcoming rational thought. He was so tired.
But they snapped back open just as quickly. Fuck, there was no time for this.
Unwilling to negligently waste another precious second, Tony pulled his ragged shirt back on, dulling the glow of the arc reactor once more, and began his slow, careful descent down the tree. When he reached the forest floor, he buried the blood he'd let drip from him, before taking no more than thirty seconds to orient himself. Persevering through agony, exhaustion, and creeping dehydration, Tony took a deep breath, molded the pained lines in his face into ones of fierce determination and began heading south through the black of that chilly October night.
He needed to get to the highway.
A/N: So sorry for the long wait for this chapter! Been very busy with things. Hope it's long enough to make up for it. Many thanks to those who reviewed, you guys are my drug.
Oh, and in case anyone's wondering, all the chapter titles are relevant songs by the very awesome Rise Against, who may or may not have been a contributing factor in this story's plot...