Sorry this took so long. The next chapter will be up a lot sooner.
A/N: I make the stupidest errors sometimes. Fixed a few I noticed. You know, I even have a beta now, butI guess no one can catch 'em all. (except Ash... wow I just made a pokemon joke...)
Ch. 21 – Friends, Foes, and…
Miami Beach – Thursday, 10:00 AM
It had been two days since Toni had last contacted him. Johnny Storm had already shown up; the two of had gotten along as well as Steve had expected, and neither of them made any progress towards finding the Mandarin's base in the Sunshine State.
The sun was streaming through the window, brightly as it always seemed to in Florida. It was also humid, eighty degrees outside, and Steve had decided that Florida really wasn't his cup of tea. Having Johnny Storm around just made everything that much more vexing.
By the time Storm—or, the Human Torch, as Johnny insisted that was his superhero name—rolled out of bed, Steve had already finished his morning run, shower, and was cleaning up breakfast. He'd made breakfast for Johnny yesterday, but Storm preferred room service over eggs and toast. (As long as it was on Toni's dime, though).
As Steve hand-washed his dishes in the hotel suite's kitchenette, Johnny muddled his way to the room service menu.
"Hey, I thought you said you'd make the coffee?" Johnny complained, noticing the unused machine. He shot Steve an (unfounded) accusatory look.
Steve frowned. "I never said I'd make coffee for you."
"For us, bro!" Johnny corrected him, looking wounded.
I'm not your bro, Steve thought vehemently, but held his tongue. "I don't drink coffee," Steve reminded Johnny instead, frustrated. "I told you that yesterday, remember?"
The Human Torch mimicked Steve's frown. God, that's weirder than anything I've seen in this century. Steve imagined Toni hearing him say that, and the smirk she'd grace him with after finding something weirder than Johnny Storm.
"Yeah, I remember you telling me that you get up at the ass-crack of dawn, and I kindly suggested that you start the coffee if you're going to be up that early."
Who knew I could miss a smirk so much?
He grit his teeth, and looked at Johnny in exasperation. "If you'd paid attention, you'd know that I told you I don't drink coffee, and I didn't know how to work the coffeemaker."
His doppelganger gave him a look of utmost surprise. "Whoa, hold on, Captain. You can't work a coffeemaker?" Johnny snorted in laughter. Steve looked away swiftly, searching for something to preoccupy himself with.
While Johnny fiddled with some coffee grinds, Steve turned on the laptop that JARVIS lived in. Or rather, existed in. Inhabited…? Steve took a moment to contemplate how a man-made consciousness operated, before JARVIS greeted him with his familiar British voice.
~ Good morning, Captain. I assume that Mr. Storm is in the kitchen, utilizing the coffeemaker at this moment? ~
Johnny's head popped up around the corner, giving the computer a suspicious look. "How does he always know?" he demanded. "It's like Eagle Eye or something."
~ Ms. Stark has created laws to avoid my consciousness from becoming infinite or incontrollable. You have nothing to worry about, Mr. Storm, I merely recalled your conversation with the Captain last night ending without any definitive agreement. ~
Somehow, JARVIS managed to sound patronizing every time he spoke to Johnny. It pleased Steve unlike anything else he'd been subjected to for the past few days. Johnny noticed the tone, and narrowed his eyes in dismay as he slinked back into the penthouse suite's kitchen.
"Sure, take his side," Johnny grumbled, "Can't work a coffeemaker, but he's best buds with a computer…"
"Jarvis, were you able to track the last broadcast?" Steve asked, resolutely ignoring Johnny's voice. As Toni had expected, the Mandarin had hacked into the news channel the day after the attack in Malibu. But none of them had expected the Mandarin to speak directly to the president, threaten a representative from Roxxon Oil, and then execute him on live television.
~ I'm afraid not, sir. Without Ms. Stark's help, it is difficult for me to trace such a heavily encrypted broadcast in such a short time span. ~
"Hey Jarv," Johnny asked from the kitchen, "Has Toni called yet? I thought she'd be angrier at this point, or at least have found out more about this Chinese dude by now."
For a moment, Jarvis did not respond. Steve frowned, wondering why, until the AI finally answered in a stiff, tense voice.
~ Kindly refrain from ever referring to me as 'Jarv' again, Mr. Storm. ~ Jarvis said calmly. Steve actually did a double take, and looked at the computer screen futilely searching for a sign of life. He really had to hand it to Toni—her technology was truly astounding, more so than any flying car or Vibranium shield that Howard had invented. Jarvis was more life-like than half of the SHIELD agents he knew.
~ I have just received an encrypted message from Rose Hill, Tennessee, through Ms. Stark's private server. I am decrypting it now. It seems to have been set to delay for thirty-six hours, and was therefore written at ten-thirteen, Tuesday night. ~
Jarvis set a timer on the monitor to estimate how long it would take to decode Toni's message. Steve frowned; it would take ten minutes. It wasn't a long time to wait for, but Steve was very aware that Jarvis worked faster than anything he was used to—it must've taken a lot of effort to code the message so thoroughly… And why would she wait so long before sending it?
There was a knock on the door, and Steve stood to answer it—then his cell phone rang as well. He glanced at the number on the way to the hotel room door, and saw that it was the same payphone number that Toni had used two days ago. "Johnny, could you get the door?" Steve asked, frowning at his phone.
They were staying in a penthouse suite at the Fontainebleau—Toni and Jarvis had organized everything, and Steve knew that it was probably that Logan fella at the door, but something about his phone had him concerned; why would Toni go through the trouble of encrypting a message to contact them, only to call them at the time it arrived? He glanced at the laptop—he still had to wait four minutes and thirty seconds to read that message.
Johnny went to the door, and Steve answered his phone.
"Toni?" he meant to state it, but it came out more like an unusually hopeful question. And then, just to spite him further, the voice that answered him was definitely not Toni.
"Uh, no… Can I speak with Steve Rogers, please?" It sounded like a kid. Steve was immensely confused.
"Speaking," He answered slowly. "Who is this?"
"Harley Keener. Hey, are you really Captain America?"
Steve frowned. He had been under the impression that the general public didn't know his identity. "How did you know that? And how did you get this number?"
"Doesn't matter. Toni said to call you. It's an emergency."
Steve felt his stomach drop. Toni was in trouble. "What happened?" He turned to the laptop on the coffee table, but Jarvis still needed another minute.
"It happened Tuesday night. I would've called sooner, but we had to be sure they'd really gone."
"Harley," Steve asked again, "What happened to Toni? Where is she?"
Harley exhaled slowly. "Well… she was… kidnapped. But, there's more—"
"Kidnapped?" Steve repeated, disbelievingly. "By who? Did you see their faces?"
But before Harley could respond, Steve realized that answer was right in front of him. Jarvis had finished decoding Toni's message. There was also a video clip, but it was her five words that captured his attention:
IT'S AIM. GET RHODES OUT.
"Rhodes?" Steve said aloud, forgetting his phone. He remembered that AIM was the new weapons manufacturer for the military. It was the same company that had rebranded War Machine as the Iron Patriot… he could still recall Toni's affronted look when she talked about it.
"Harley, I've gotta go," he said hurriedly.
"Wait, what about—"
"Thank you for calling, Harley, you don't have to do anything more," he assured the boy.
"She's my friend," Harley said sternly. "And the people that took her were glowing. Orange. Is she going to be okay?"
I don't know, Steve thought, but he ignored that vulnerable truth. "I'm her friend too," he said instead, though he was unsure if that's actually where he stood with Toni Stark. "I won't let anything happen to her." That much, Steve knew was the truth.
Harley sighed. "Okay. You better, 'cause she's really cool. Oh, and there was this other thing about those people—"
"CAP!" Johnny exclaimed, and Steve missed the rest of Harley's sentence. Steve gave Johnny a warning look, not interested in exchanging formalities with 'Logan' at the moment, but Johnny just pointed to the TV he'd turned on.
The phone slipped from Steve's hand. President Ellis was boarding a plane in DC, and Iron Patriot had just arrived to accompany him. The faceplate was never lifted, but Ellis paused for a few photographs beside the armored suit. The news channel labelled him as Colonel James Rhodes, but…
"That's not the Colonel, is it?" a gruff voice guessed. Steve glanced back, and quickly realized that the unshaven man sitting in front of the laptop had to be Logan. The man looked over the message Toni had sent, and then looked up at Steve and the TV.
Struck with the oddest feeling that he knew this man, Steve stared at Logan. He looks exactly like…No. Steve pushed the thought aside. He could dwell on that later. "It's one of the Mandarin's men in there," Steve said confidently. "And I think he's going to kidnap the president."
Logan glanced back at the TV as Air Force One departed. They would be passing over Florida within a couple of hours. Steve wondered how they'd be able to get to Ellis in time. He glanced at Johnny—Logan seemed to come to the same conclusion, and gave Steve a doubtful look.
"I just met this guy, and I still know that's a bad idea," Logan said.
But they had no choice. Steve needed to focus on finding Toni and Rhodes. "It's the only idea I've got," Steve replied tersely. Logan scowled deeply and then grunted in agreement.
He has to be Jimmy, or I'm going senile.
"What's going on?" Johnny cut in, looking between Steve and Logan. "I heard 'kidnap the President'?" He noticed the message on the computer, and his expression turned to one of concern.
Steve sighed, and rubbed his eyes. "Johnny, you're up."
He began to fill Johnny in on what had just occurred, trying to do so without reprimanding the surprised man-child for not paying more attention. But Steve couldn't help but feel just as surprised by the turn of events—after all, Toni had just spoken to him two days ago. And now she was in hands of terrorists; ones that possibly held a grudge against her.
How did this happen?
Tuesday, 10:00 AM
Harley was a good kid; that much Toni could tell. Beyond that, she did not want know about him. She still had the Mandarin to track down, and those bombs to figure out. Toni was entirely uninterested in examining the life of ten-year-old from Tennessee.
Naturally, Harley told her anyway. He had a six year old sister named Taylor, his father had worked with motorcycles (hence his name), and his mother made terrible grilled cheese sandwiches. Toni found that last bit out herself, actually. Harley "forgot" to warn her.
Toni grimaced at the taste in her mouth. "I never knew someone could make a bad sandwich out of cheese and bread," she commented, almost impressed by how horrible it was. Maybe it's moldy? She surreptitiously peeked between the crispy slices of bread.
No mold. It must be a translucent additive, is he trying to kill me? Why couldn't he have used something tasteless and grant me a peaceful death?
Harley shrugged. "We don't have any tuna. I got you a digital watch, though." He tossed a tiny orange thing at her.
At first she thought it was Dora the Explorer, but the cartoon face was male. "What's this?" she asked, stumped for the first time.
"Go Diego, Go. It's my sister's."
Toni looked at Harley quizzically, but let it go. "And this is the only watch you could find?" Toni asked in exasperation.
"It's limited edition," Harley added defensively. Toni just sighed, and nodded in strained thanks as she bit into her noxious sandwich.
"You wanted to see the memorial, right?" Harley asked her. Toni paused, working through her sandwich with a painful expression on her face. He stole his mother's clothing and food for you, don't insult his mom, Toni reminded herself.
She swallowed down the bite bravely, and glanced at her new watch. "Don't you have school or something? It's Monday, isn't it?"
Harley rolled his eyes, like the answer was obvious. "I have the week off for Thanksgiving. And, it's Tuesday. Do you want to see it or what?"
She gestured for him to lead. He obliged, wearing a wide grin.
They were lucky it was such a boring, isolated town; Toni could walk down the street in broad daylight, and not be noticed, simply because nobody recognized her. Then again, she was wearing some horribly tasteless flannel shirt and corduroy—corduroy!—pants, and that was enough to render any celebrity anonymous.
Still, Toni took the time to outline a few plans for herself—and Harley—in case anything happened. Nothing too random, like the Z Protocol, which involved protecting the CDC during a zombie apocalypse. She also had the Jaegar Protocol, which would work quite beautifully if something gigantic and reptilian ever burst from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. I should stop watching movies, Toni mused, as she wrote up directions for Harley and JARVIS.
If word got out that she was still alive, she'd have to leave immediately… Toni wrote down instructions for Harley to destroy all evidence of her stuff in the shed. If the Mandarin was alerted to Toni's investigation – same thing. If Toni is attacked…
Toni paused; Harley walked a bit further before noticing. He turned back to her quizzically. "Uh, Ton—"
"You still have that fla—piñata, right?" she asked quickly. Harley nodded, his eyes bright with curiosity as always. "Don't go anywhere without it."
"Uh, okay. Why are you breathing like that?"
The question was left unanswered in the wind, going right over the genius's head. Feeling a little agitated at the thought of an impending attack, Toni scanned the sparsely-populated street with care and bated breath. Harley was saying something, but she didn't hear—her gaze zeroed in on an anomaly.
Oh, wait, that's the memorial. Toni exhaled noisily, and quickened her pace. Harley was now jogging to keep up, but didn't speak a word of complaint. But when she stood at the edge of the concrete, where the smooth ground gave way to the scorched, broken earth of a perfect crater… Toni could hardly speak a word herself.
They stood in silence. Toni sunk to her knees, which smacked against the unyieldingly cold ground but didn't draw a wince from her. It was just so quiet here. What little murmur that Rose Hill had in the daytime was all but silenced here, in this out of the way, morbid cenotaph.
And it was dark too. The crater was deep and black, yet unlike anything Toni had ever seen. The blast had burned six people alive, with a fire hot enough that shadows of each figure were left on the remaining walls. The only nice thing about that kind of death is that it's quick. The senses are overwhelmed, shocked into unfeeling. And death came before the mind could make sense of the pain. So really, it was like feeling nothing at all.
Toni felt sick. Feeling nothing—why'd I have to go and make some macabre correlation to my time in outer space? Toni asked herself ruefully. She gasped, and shoved her hands into a clump of snow. Cold. It was cold, it wasn't nothing and it wasn't dark and she could still breathe—with a stifled moan, Toni pressed the greyish ice onto her face.
"Are you having a panic attack?" Harley asked suddenly.
"No, why would you think that?" Toni grit out, before she caught another look at the crater. She groaned loudly, and turned away. "This is perfectly normal, you're the one in trouble."
Harley followed, trying to face her. "Well, you're breathing like Mrs. Fredrickson was when she broke her water. You're not having a baby, are you?"
"A baby?!" Toni laughed in between her sobs. Or was it just melting ice? She couldn't tell. "Not anytime soon, kid!"
Harley offered her more ice—it looked cleaner than what Toni had used, and she took it greedily. "Oh, I get it now. It's the crater. It reminds me of that wormhole too. The one in New York. Wow, that must've been—"
She hurled the rest of the snow at his head. "Kid, if you don't shut your mouth right now I'll punch you in the throat," Toni promised.
He went dead silent, and regarded Toni with big blue eyes. Toni didn't think he looked very innocent though—in fact, she could tell that he wasn't taking her threat seriously. She pushed herself to her feet, and walked around the crater without really looking at it. "Happy thoughts, Toni… ménage à trois with Johnny and Steve. The sex tape with Christine I sent to Vanity Fair. Organizing Pepper's future bachelorette party." Toni frowned to herself, wondering why her happy thoughts all included sex. Hormones, she confirmed.
After a three minute pace around the crater, Toni was confident that she'd reeled in the crazy.
"Harley, you giving me a tour or what?" Toni asked briskly. Harley gazed at her for another moment, before he walked over to her, grabbed her hand and dragged her to the farthest shadow.
"Mr. Taggert came back from war, and a few months later, he went crazy and blew up a bunch of people." Harley walked slowly, watching his footsteps as he spoke—he was trying to walk her through the events, literally. "There were five victims."
The kid pointed to each shadow in turn, and gestured in various directions to indicate where each of them had been headed at the time of the blast. Toni had the feeling that Harley might've been on-sight when it happened, but didn't mention it.
Three of them had been running towards Taggert, likely having seen something odd, from what the town rumor mill posited and Harley relayed to Toni.
"But there were six victims," Toni disagreed. "Taggert died; if he had the bomb, he would've had the biggest shadow if he was on top of it, or if it was strapped to him…" She tried imagining how Taggert was positioned as to not gain a 'shadow', but could find no way to do so.
Harley shrugged. "People say that the shadows represent the people that went to heaven. Mr. Taggert was bad, so he doesn't get one."
The explanation was so childish that it threw Toni off—Harley was far more intelligent than that. As he spoke, Harley stared down at the crater, not meeting her eyes. "Is that what you believe, kid?" Toni didn't just doubt it—she fully believed that Harley didn't believe what everyone else did.
Harley shrugged again. Toni sighed, and sat on the edge of the crater with him. It took only a second for her to realize that somehow, she was unafraid of it now.
"It's just what people say," he replied noncommittally.
"Well, people are wrong," said Toni. "They're wrong almost all the time… Taggert's body was never found, was it?"
"Neither was the bomb stuff," Harley agreed.
She sighed. "Nothing to examine, you mean. Were there any witnesses? No—they wouldn't have known what was happening. Taggert. Taggert came back from the army." Toni paused, recalling Taggert's age. "He was twenty-four." She imagined Rhodey at twenty-four, still bright-eyed and eager to serve his country.
"He was sent home," she realized. "Because he was declared insane? No, that came later. So why…?"
"He lost his leg," Harley answered succinctly. "I saw him when he first came home, but after that, not too much."
Crippled. Toni looked back at the crater, revising her mental image of the moments before the blast to accommodate for a cane, or pair of crutches. Then she eradicated that thought, because there were no crutches at all at the crime scene. No, there was just the explosion—large, spontaneous, hot…
I saw something like that, once.
Crutches. A bright hot ficus, bursting into flames uncontrollably. It was hard to forget a night like that, especially when your bodyguard tackles you to the ground post-detonation. Even then, it had been such a long time since she'd thought about it.
I laughed, Toni remembered, Killian didn't think it was funny. And then… I persuaded Happy to go chat up some hotel employee so Killian and I… didn't he have crutches back then? And meet Maya the next morning?
"Oh no," Toni muttered. She stepped away from the memorial, into the empty street. "It's… no."
"What?" Harley asked. "What'd you figure out?"
"Nothing." Toni said. "Not yet. I need to be sure, it's so unlikely…" Even as Toni said it, she could taste the lie on her tongue. Aldrich Killian had seen Maya Hansen's work first-hand. And he looked so different now, something had obviously changed. And hadn't Maya try to ask Toni about… But why the hell was she in Toni's house when it was attacked?
"I need proof. I need a secure server. Where's your school, kid?"
The kid pointed down a road. "A few miles that way. It's closed. We have a library, you know."
Pepper called Steve right after the attack, as distraught as expected. Toni recalled the article about her death—Maya Hansen hadn't commented, she'd been unharmed, she'd gone straight back to work.
Toni snorted. "I'm beginning to think you're not the only one that knows I'm alive, kid. There's got to be a woodworks class in the high school, right? And a chemistry lab? And a tech lab, too?"
Harley nodded, his blues eyes wide with curiosity again. This kid was kind of adorable. It reminded her of Steve. Toni's hand twitched as she considered slapping herself. The ten-year-old was completely unaware of her irritation.
"Yeah, I think so. What are you gonna do? Is somebody gonna come after you?"
Toni snagged her baseball cap from the pavement—it had fallen off sometime during her frantic pacing—and fitted it snuggly on her head. "Well I'm going to fight 'em, duh. Oh, here—" She tore off her page of directions, and folded it into a neat square.
"What's this?" Harley took the paper promptly, and Toni knocked his hand away when he tried to open it.
"It's for later, brat. Tomorrow, you read it, and follow whatever instructions seems to apply to the situation best. Right now, I need you to hide Johanna and anything else in your shed that I've been messing with." Toni attempted and failed to hide her pained expression. "You… you can take apart the suit, okay? Spread out the pieces. Imagine it's your room, and you're hiding the ammo for you potato gun from your mom 'cause she wants to use it for a casserole."
"Why would she use potato in a casserole?" queried Harley.
"You don't use potato in casseroles?" Harley shook his head, like it was obvious. Toni rolled her eyes. "She's trying to make potato curry," she amended. "And not only will you get grounded if you're found out, but you're the one that gets to test her first try at Indian cooking. Also—"
He grabbed Toni's hand suddenly, and tugged until she was forced to stop walking. "Toni, breathe. You're getting anxious. Do you want more snow?"
Toni let out a lungful of air, and shut her eyes. "No, I'll—I'll be okay. It's just..." I can't believe Killian would do all this, Toni confessed to herself. He was the good guy. He was kind and smart and Toni had honestly kind of liked him. And then I left, because he wanted to treat me like an adult and I wasn't prepared for that.
"I made a mistake," she said quietly.
Something must've changed Killian after that night. His company didn't take off until a few months later. Toni knew exactly why she hadn't given Aldrich Killian a second thought since that party—she'd ignored him out of (admittedly unwarranted) spite. Toni hated hindsight.
"What are you talking about?" asked Harley.
She looked at the kid blankly. "I made a mistake, I overlooked something, and I think it's too late to stop it." Toni was feeling kind of nauseous. It took her a good minute to realize it was guilt knotting her stomach and making her thoughts flutter about disjointedly.
"Hey," Harley said softly, "Whatever's happened, you can handle it. Maybe you can't stop it, but… I think you're smart enough to fix it, right?" He nudged her side in a playful way that only a kid could. The tension in her body ebbed away a little. "Aren't you a mechanic?"
Fix it. Right. She could do that. Toni nodded to herself. A smile edged its way onto her face as Toni wrapped her head around the simple notion. "You're pretty mature for a ten-year-old." She ruffled Harley's dark blond hair, and quickly dodged the automatic swipe he made to knock her hand away. "Ooh, better work on those reflexes, kid."
Harley scoffed. "I'm fast, you've just got a height advantage. And that'll go away soon, you're not that tall." He peered over the top of her head. "You're what—five foot three?"
Toni halted. "Five foot four, you little smart-ass. There's nothing wrong in being sho—you know what? We are not having this conversation."
"Because you don't like being short?"
"Because," Toni enunciated crossly, "I think you have someplace to be, and something very important to do right now. Involving highly advanced technologies and keeping them out of the wrong hands. This ringing any bells? Are you detecting the sense of urgency in my voice?"
Sighing dramatically, Harley nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going. But I'll meet you at the high school tonight, after I eat dinner. We're having mac and cheese, I'll bring you some."
Toni didn't quite understand why the Keener family had so much dairy in their diets, or how mac and cheese could be considered a meal on its own, but now wasn't the time to dwell on such questions. "Sure, fine, whatever. Wait—what? You're not meeting me later, no."
He regarded her with his wide blue eyes again, and this time, Toni could clearly see innocence in his thoughts. "Well… you're gonna skip lunch, and if you're planning on fighting bad guys, then you should eat something, so… I'll come by with some food later, okay?"
Toni frowned. Harley just waited, patiently, until she accepted his logic and relented. "Fine, you little brat. I'll see you at nine." He grinned, and darted away just as Toni began to rethink his innocent words and naïve eyes.
But she couldn't do anything to stop him now; Harley was a precocious boy. Instead, Toni turned in the direction he'd pointed, and walked determinedly to the empty school.
For the next several hours, Toni did not do any research. Instead, she spent her time in Rose Hill High School's woodshop and chemistry labs, putting together small weapons and devices. She'd initially intended to reuse some of the weaponry from the Mark 64, but it would put her at a disadvantage should she need to use the suit later. Still, she was beginning to regret allowing the kid near Johanna, judging by their last encounter.
Toni leaned her elbows on the lab bench, having finished her latest project—flashbangs, cleverly hidden in hollow, fake fruits that the school had on display in a cornucopia. She inspected them for an unnecessarily long time, resolutely ignoring the next task on her mental list for as long as possible: investigating AIM.
It wouldn't have become so much of a problem if Toni had just pushed aside her distress and turned on a computer as soon as she'd broken into the school. Yet, she didn't do that, and spent the next few hours with the thought of AIM and Aldrich Killian brewing in the back of her mind until it left a bitter taste in her mouth.
She hadn't given Killian much thought for the past eight years. Toni had no reason to—they departed on bad terms, and she'd dwelled on that for long enough to dismiss whatever had happened between them the night before. So, Toni had never truly forgotten the guy she'd known for one night, and nor had she remembered him as clearly as she did now.
Aldrich Killian, or at least the Killian she'd known that night, was good. He was high on her list of decent people, right up there with Happy Hogan and Clint Barton and Elton John. The more she remembered his words, their conversations, and everything in between… the less Toni felt inclined to search for answers that would, inexorably, besmirch her memory of him.
She had been sixteen, and drunk. She wasn't ashamed to admit it: she had and would always be a flirt and a smart-ass (though in recent months she'd dialed down the sex and alcohol). Toni had come across him late in the evening, and dragged him up to Dr. Bitchy's hotel room. She'd expected sex, and it did not work out.
Killian—she'd only call him Allen in the morning, just to hurt his feelings and further emphasize to him that she was an asshole—had been twenty-four. He was smart and funny, like her, but also mature and self-conscious and absurdly nice. In the end he had refused to sleep with her, and in the morning, he tried talking to her again about his burgeoning think tank and… and…
I really did mess that up, didn't I? Toni pushed off of the lab bench and made her way to the nearest computer. In minutes, she was accessing files from AIM that no one outside of the company had access to, and scanning down a list of people she didn't recognize. Taggert was there, along with dozens of other former military personnel. It was easy to figure out what they had in common: they were young, and every one of them had been sent home after a serious injury. Left physically disabled, or an amputee, they all volunteered for the humans trials of a serum called Extremis.
It worked like a super-soldier serum. And like almost every other super-soldier serum ever attempted, it had very dangerous side effects. In this case, if the subject's body couldn't regulate its internal temperature with the introduction of the chemicals, they exploded quite spectacularly. She wondered why so many people wanted to make super-soldiers.
Then, Toni thought of Steve and conceded that there were a lot of pros to having an actual super-soldier around.
There was no mention of a bomb, or any indication that Extremis was meant to be used for suicide bombers. At least I was right about one thing, Toni thought lamely, there's no bomb.
"It's a misfire," she breathed.
But then that left the Mandarin. What the hell was that about? Someone is using the Ten Rings and the Mandarin… But it wasn't a diversion. AIM was exploiting the faults in Extremis to generate their own threats. The Mandarin gave the DoD a target to go after.
She clicked open another video—and had her answer.
The video was of Dr. Maya Hansen and Killian conducting one of the first trials, but Toni could see that Killian looked distinctly healthier. Guess he regulated, she thought, feeling a horrible sense of responsibility creep into her throat.
Toni wished she could turn that guilt into something useful, like the indignation she felt when Happy had been injured. But all she had was remorse. And confusion. She didn't want to confront Killian. Even now, she couldn't face the reality that she'd affected him enough to turn him and Maya to—well, terrorism.
Unlike Obadiah Stane, whose war profiteering could never be considered an effect of her actions, Aldrich Killian had no such tendencies before he met Toni. She was certain of that.
She sighed. They would need to work fast. Toni was about 97% sure that AIM—or rather, the Mandarin—would make their move on Thursday night. Toni cringed at the thought of the stupid allusion the Mandarin was sure to make on Thanksgiving to mock American culture. She was 89% sure that the entire terrorist organization was completely fake, and their threats nonsensical.
That didn't make their actions any less real, though. AIM was in a powerful position because of their contract with the army. The company's control would only grow once the US was forced to declare war.
And then there was Rhodey. War Machine. AIM had redesigned the armor, and Rhodey was off in Pakistan on a wild goose chase.
Toni tried contacting him, but all she got was radio silence. Apparently, AIM had a decent engineering department, because she couldn't get control of the Iron Patriot armor remotely. All she could do was hope Killian didn't need Rhodey's suit for the grand finale of his terror campaign. Killian didn't actively hate her, there was no need to ridicule her by manipulating her tech… But the Iron Patriot's radio silence was telling.
At 8:54 there was a tapping on the window; Toni looked up and was greeted by the sight of a familiar ten-year-old's inquisitive face. He held a slightly crumpled brown paper bag in one hand, while the other tapped an incessant, erratic rhythm on the glass. Toni cringed with every hit, and thought of her Malibu home's surround sound wistfully.
Shooting Harley an annoyed look when he continued his knocking, Toni unlatched the window casually. There was no risk of setting off the alarms; not only was the school's security system dismally reduced to arming only the main entrances, but Toni had disabled everything within a matter of minutes in broad daylight. Luckily there was an easy fix for revamping the school security system for the entirety of Toni's stay…
Harley thrust the bag at Toni and clambered, doggedly, through the window without assistance. He shucked off his winter coat in an unusually dignified sort of way for a child, and looked at Toni expectantly.
"Well? What did you find out?"
Pursing her lips, Toni postponed her response for a few moments by probing the container of mac and cheese. It was still warm, and looked a thousand times more appetizing than her last meal. "Jack Taggert didn't kill himself and those people. It was an accident." She shoveled some macaroni into her mouth, and confirmed her suspicions—Harley had to have made the grilled cheese sandwich, because his mother had made this dish, and it was heavenly.
"He didn't?" Harley reaffirmed. Toni nodded. "Wow. D'you think we could go tell Mrs. Taggert that? I know it would make her feel better."
Her fourth forkful of macaroni hovered over her mouth. "Mrs. Taggert?" she repeated. "He's got family here? Why didn't you tell me that sooner?"
Harley shrugged, and edged his way towards the computer. "You never asked me. Hey, what's this?"
Toni didn't hear him. She chewed thoughtfully, wondering if she should pay a visit to Taggert's mother (or sister, or wife, but mother was the most likely). What good would it do? She would gain no more intel from Mrs. Taggert, though maybe it was worth it to give the poor woman some peace of mind. From what Toni had gathered, the trials had been kept very secret.
"Why do they glow?" asked Harley, unabashedly. Toni hastily paused the video the kid was watching before he could witness the explosion. "Hey-"
"You're ten, kid. No watching people explode." Toni chided him. "They're glowing because that serum causes enough chemical reactions within their body to generate a critical heat spike." She cracked a smile. "That's how I knew to come here. Steve saw that Taggert's suicide bombing was over three thousand degrees."
"It was an anomaly?" Harley guessed eagerly. Toni gave him a smile, but caught herself before she verbally complimented him. No need to let the kid think she appreciated him or anything. She turned back to the computer, and started setting up a few time-delayed messages. "Who's Steve, by the way?"
"What?" Toni was startled, but Harley looked innocently expectant. "Did I say Steve?" she asked, knowing the answer well before Harley nodded. Toni unconsciously bit her lip, aware that this was the second time she'd mentioned Steve for absolutely no reason. She had no illusions about why she thought about the captain so often. He was an attractive guy.
What concerned Toni was that she had little to no control over it. Whatever 'it' was that she had with Steve.
I have nothing with Steve, she tried to remind herself, but all that Toni felt was a stupid-ass sensation of sheer desire at the thought of starting something. I hate hormones. Toni wondered what day it was, and if she had a legitimate excuse for her thoughts or not.
"So? Who is he?"
Toni rolled her eyes at Harley's insistent tone. "He's a friend of mine," she explained, though the words felt odd on her tongue. Toni hated that. It wasn't the first time she'd wanted more from a friend. And like the first time, the repercussions would be crappy for her.
"Oh," Harley said in understanding. "Is… is he a superhero too?"
Her eyes narrowed at the kid's strangely innocuous voice. "Yeah, he is," she conceded, eyeing the boy carefully. Harley just nodded, and looked away, politely choosing not to ask any more questions. She grinned. "He was in New York," Toni continued flippantly, not missing the way Harley's head popped up to listen.
But she didn't say anything further. There was no need: Harley cracked within fifteen seconds.
"He's an Avenger, then, isn't he? Which one? Do superheroes hang out when they're not saving the world?"
She laughed at that, and shook her head. "Nah, we went our separate ways." Toni thought of the rest of the team, and grinned widely. "Maybe when the Tower's fixed up, I'll invite Bruce for a slumber party."
"So. Bruce and Steve—they're both superheroes, then?" Harley caught on quickly. "Which ones? Is Bruce the one with the hammer?"
"No, Bruce is—oh, and kid, do me a favor and never speak of this to anyone—Bruce is the green one, and Steve is our captain." Toni watched the kid's face as she explained, and was somewhat uplifted by his awestruck expression.
"You're friends with the Hulk and Captain America?" Harley repeated, enthralled. "That's amazing!"
She was a little amused, and mostly insulted by his exuberance over Hulk and Cap. "Uh, hello, I thought we already established who I am—why are you so surprised?"
"Who else do you know?" Harley ignored her question. "Are you friends with the Fantastic Four too?"
Feeling slighted, Toni huffed and focused on her work. As of late, she had been feeling incredibly vulnerable in this damn town; since finding out that school was out for the week, Toni had begun to take over the empty building for her own purposes. Like her ruined mansion back in California, this building would need some better security than a couple of deadbolts and alarmed doors.
It didn't take long for Toni to improvise some defensive weaponry—now, she was just looking over the schematics in the comfort of the computer lab, but it was important enough that Toni felt it prudent to ignore the ten-year-old harping on about the Fantastic Four.
"Well, yeah, I know them, but it's not like they've done all that much." Toni didn't look up from her scrap paper, but was well aware of the revolted expression she wore. "And they didn't earn their titles, they were just exposed to freaky sun rays, but Iron Man—"
"I think the Human Torch is the coolest."
You've just been demoted from Possible Ally to Ignorant Hick.
Toni's lips pulled down into a grimace. "Technically speaking, that's entirely incorrect."
Harley caught to joke, and just shook his head. "Well, okay, but he can combust into flames, first off, and he can fly—"
She couldn't let that slide. "Iron Man can fly too! And—and so can Thor, I think, and some of the X-Men." Toni pointed out. Johnny wasn't even half as cool as she was. Right?
"Yeah, but the 'Fantastic Four' is a better name than the 'Avengers'." Harley explained candidly. "It's an aliter… alliteration, right? It sounds nicer."
Toni scowled. "I didn't get a say in when they decided on a team name. Personally, I thought it made more sense to be considered the Guardians of the Galaxy, or something like that."
Harley considered it. "But… you're protecting Earth, not the entire galaxy."
Toni smirked. "Not true. Sure, there's the small-time heroes that protect specific cities, like Spider-Man in the Five Boroughs—yes, I know him too, and he's cooler than the Human Torch—but the Avengers have Thor, who's an alien. If he was having problems on his home world, he has every right to ask the team for help. So—yeah. Galaxy."
Toni leaned back in her swivel chair, satisfied by Harley's rapt attention.
Until she saw the dark figures moving outside the school, headed towards the front entrance. Her smile faded, and though she hardly spared him a glance, she knew Harley's had vanished as well because he stepped closer to her and turned to the window without a word.
Like Harley had said, it was Thanksgiving break. There shouldn't be anyone in the school, especially not at this hour. At least it was decent sized school—it would take their guests a while to find them, if indeed they were looking for Toni. How the hell would anyone find her here, though?
She looked back at her computer screen swiftly. Shit. Someone at AIM had finally noticed her virus breaching their firewall. Toni allowed herself a second to give proper commendation to AIM's IT department, because they worked a hell of a lot faster than SHIELD's. Ugh, if this turned out the way she thought it would, she'd need more help. Toni grimaced at the thought of contacting—she couldn't even think it without feeling upset.
"Kid, I need you to get out of here. There's a garage that the custodians use down that hallway, metal door on the right," She ushered the boy towards the far side of the room. "Go home, and stay there, and remember my directions—"
Harley tore his arm out of her grasp. "I read the directions already." He looked at her with reproach.
"Of course you did," Toni said in a flat voice. "Is it really that hard to resist reading a piece of paper?"
"Why can't I get help now?" he demanded in a quiet voice. Toni saw the recalcitrance in his eyes, and chewed on her bottom lip. "You know what they can do!"
She'd instructed him to wait until Thursday before contacting anyone that knew she was alive. It was because the Mandarin wouldn't be out in the open until his final action—if Steve tried attacking before Thursday, AIM could easily cover their tracks. She had no doubt that Killian could get rid of anything incriminating his company, if given the time to do it.
Of course, this was all just conjecture, but Toni was pretty confident in her understanding of the situation at this point—more so, now that she was certain of AIM's intentions, even if the cause still alluded her.
"The help's not for me, it's for taking down this—terrorist. Would you just go already? I have a few assholes to deal with." Harley walked to the door slowly, throwing Toni a last look of concern. She shooed him away. "Oh, for crying out loud, I'll see you later, okay?"
Harley gave her a disbelieving look in return, before slipping out into the hallway and sneaking away.
Toni sighed in relief, and then practically lunged for the computer. She wouldn't be available for several hours (if this ended as she predicted it would), and there were still a few loose ends to tie.
Tuesday, 10:14 PM
He left the school when Toni asked him to, but he didn't go home right away. Harley Keener stood, crouched beside dark bushes on the edge of the campus, feeling a little tired but willing his eyes to stay focused on the dimly lit high school. Soon, the school wasn't dimly lit anymore; Toni Stark had tampered with the utilities. Half of the school was lit, the other half dark as the sky. He caught a glimpse of bright orange eyes, and almost fell over in shock.
It was one thing to see that kind of crazy stuff on a screen, and another thing entirely to know that it was real. Harley stared harder, remembering that there was a connection between the glowing people and the Mandarin. Harley had seen that new message, the one with the man from an oil company. If the Mandarin is willing to do that in public, who knows what these people will do here, where no one can see?
There had been a man on TV, and the Mandarin asked the President to call him, or else the man would die. Harley had been sitting next to Toni, watching it on his laptop in his shed just this morning. When the cell phone had started ringing, Toni had tried persuading Harley to fetch her a pack of ice. But Harley wasn't that ignorant, he knew what was going to happen, and though he hadn't looked, he still heard the gunshot and Toni's loud swear that followed.
There was a loud bang from the second floor of the school, accompanied by a white flash and a cry of surprise. Harley smiled a little. On the first floor, he could make out Toni—she was holding her hand up, and it was glowing blue the way Iron Man's hand would, so it had to be Toni—blasting someone into another classroom. The person disappeared from view for a few minutes, and in that time, Toni did too.
Then the figure emerged. It was a guy, from what Harley could see; an orange-glowing humanoid. The lights were abruptly turned back on. Toni was in the doorway with a fire extinguisher. He couldn't see her expression, but imagined it similar to Taylor's face when she was playing soccer in the mud: grim and gleeful.
But his smile faded when he noticed a second orange glow, creeping closer to the other two from a dark part of the school. It looked smaller than the other bad guy. This person's hands were glowing even brighter. Harley frowned. It was much like Iron Man's repulsors, when they were powering up…
Toni was still distracted. She was preoccupied with the man, she wasn't going to see the woman—Harley had to do something. That woman was forcing her way through doors, disappearing behind the stone walls of the school, only to turn up in places that Harley knew she couldn't get to.
She was going through the walls. Toni hadn't thought to booby-trap the walls, only the doorways and hallways.
"No!" he whispered, only remembering not to shout at the last moment.
Harley stood, trying to judge the distance between himself and the school. The woman had already been blinded once by Toni's traps. He felt the cylindrical device in his pocket—it was definitely a flashbang, it would work even better on that woman it she was already impaired…
Just as Harley made the decision to sprint back to the school, someone seized him by the arm and hauled him backwards. "Hey!" he grunted, and twisted around the large arm. It wasn't working. "Let me go!"
"Hey, hey, relax!" the man said quietly, though his grip didn't ease on Harley in the slightest. "You're just gonna hurt yourse—"
Harley's free hand dove into his pocket, and he screwed his eyes shut before pressing the button on top of his bully-discourager. The man shouted, loosened his grip, and Harley wrenched himself free.
He made it halfway to the school before the man caught him, this time knocking the weapon away and carrying Harley over his shoulder. Harley wanted to punch his suit-covered back, but the man had both of the ten-year-old's arms pinned. "Let me go! You're one of them, aren't you? I'm not going to tell you anything." He writhed in the man's grip. "PUT—ME—DOWN!"
"Mister Keener," the man said in a grim, authoritative voice, "I'm sorry to start off on the wrong foot, but—" The man lowered Harley into the backseat of a convertible-Harley couldn't make out the color of it, it was too dark. "—I would highly recommend leaving before those sorry excuses for agents notice us."
Harley stared up at the man, dumbfounded by him. The man was not what he had expected at all. He was a little surprised the man had been able to lift him in the first place. The ten-year-old's suspicions increased tenfold, and he glared at the unassuming Man in Black as he was strapped into the passenger seat.
"Who are you? How… how do you know my name?" he asked slowly, realizing that this man was not another Extremis subject.
The older man started the engine, not turning on the headlights. Harley didn't miss the pristine dashboard, or its unusually high-tech additions. The man gave Harley a small, controlled smile.
"I'm Phil Coulson. It's my job to know these things."
Go ahead and squeal, it's ok. Phil Coulson doesn't mind. Leave a review on your way out :)