Author: By tsukinofaerii
Betas: cursor_mundi & dieewigenacht
Fandom: Marvel; Iron Man 616. End of Dark Reign
Character: Tony Stark.
Warnings: Amnesia, Slash, painting the fourth wall, spoilers.
Summary: Open file TS_762-b.ims... Sometimes, when a drive is completely broken, the only thing to do is wipe it clean and start over. When he wakes up, Tony has no idea who he is, or what he did to end up where he is. Depending on who he talks to, he was a villain or a hero, a genius or a degenerate. What he is now is still up for debate, but it doesn't look like he's going to have much time to figure it out. With a computer in his head screwing up and a country falling to pieces, options are getting limited.
Notes: Canon fudged for sake of sanity; you should be able to tell what was changed. Huge love to revengedog. Isn't the art gorgeous? (flail)
Link to Art
Disclaimer: This story is a work of transformative fiction, such being defined as a work which incorporates characters and situations which have been created by other authors/artists. No infringement of copyright is intended and no profit is being made from the creation or dissemination of this work. Marvel was created and is owned by... by... *sniff* DISNEY. It is used with respect and admiration for the work.
Formatting C drive......
Installing backup file stark_ae_0133.....
"If you're hearing this, things are about to get really confusing. It means that they saved you for some reason. Heroes, huh? Can't live with 'em and you can't just up and die.
"Your—our? Man this is weird. Our name is Anthony Stark. Tony. We're a genius and a recovering alcoholic who happens to run around in battle armor. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. There's also a computer in my head, but that should be limited now, so don't worry about it unless it goes sentient. We're also probably the most hated man in the world right now, and that's pretty much all my fault. Sorry about that.
"I'm not going to tell you how you wound up like this. There's a few billion people who will be glad to fill you in, and you can always look it up online later. Knowing us, you will anyway, no matter what I say. You'll make your own judgment call there and trust me, you'll probably end up hating me too.
"What I want you to know is this:
"What we did—what I did was right. I believe that, and I'll stand by it. Don't apologize for me, because I'm not sorry that I gave it my all. The world still went to Hell, but at least I stood my ground and tried to hold the gates closed for a little while longer. I picked the lesser evil. It doesn't make it not evil, but at least it's lesser. Things happened that I didn't anticipate, and I lost everything because of it, but that's life. I accepted that. But you're not saddled down with my mistakes. I made sure of it.
"You've got a new slate, a refurbished model with a clean hard drive. Another second chance. Don't blow it the way I blew mine."
Darkness. Sweet, easy darkness. It 's easy to stay sunk in it and just float, where the world can't disturb me. The faint shift of a mattress or the occasional sound of people comes through, but it's distant, ignorable. No one needs to tell me that waking up is a bad idea. It's much better to stay like I am, where the headache lurking just behind my eyes can't reach and nothing can go wrong.
Then the voices start, and I don't have a chance in hell of escaping them. They're everywhere—on all sides, above me. Why won't they just shut up?
"Is he waking up?"
"Elevated pulse, other vital signs normal. It looks like it."
"Stop hovering, Rogers. I swear, you're going to start clucking."
"Listen here, Hill—"
The voices blur together, mixing with the steady beep of a machine until it throbs behind my eyelids in one giant pulse. Physical sensation intrudes on the comfortable darkness. Crisp sheets that slide under my finger tips, tubes that shift with every breath, cold air against my toes. Light burns through my eyelids, no matter how tightly I shut them. And the noise levels keep rising.
Light registers, too bright, sending jabs of pain through my skull. Closing my eyes doesn't work. All I can manage is to lift my hand a few inches before it falls, too weak to finish. I can't move well enough to smother myself with a pillow, but that probably wouldn't work either.
"Will you guys just be quiet!" one of the voices—masculine, attractive, just a little bit pissed—snaps, right next to my ear. "He's waking up! Tony, come on man, open your eyes."
I try to say "no", but it comes out in a garbled jumble of syllables that sound nothing like any language
The people leaning over me are just blurs of different skin tones, from dark to so pale they blend with the white ceiling like some weird post-modern art. Blinking clears grit and tears from my eyes, and the faces gain a little clarity, which at least makes me feel less helpless. I hate feeling helpless.
Less helpless right until I actually can see their expressions, at least. Some of the faces are downright hostile. Forget hostile, they're righteously murderous. The best ones are just neutral, which is actually more worrying. I've got the weirdest feeling that they've already passed judgment. I'm just hanging around for the sentencing.
Even though I'm objectively terrified, it's a distant buzz instead of the limb-freezing panic it should be. Maybe they'd dosed me with something?
Just thinking the question gives me an answer. Data scrolls past my mind's eye in a precise, perfect flow of information, a punch straight to the frontal lobe. Morphine, delivered by injection in the left arm, three hours prior. Dismissing it is as easy as thought, and it shuffles to the back obediently, a constant stream of information about my vital signs that only tug at me when something strange ticks by.
"Welcome back, hot shot."
"Speak for yourself,"
Whatever answer I might have made—something about bitter harpies isn't as good an idea as it seems, maybe a little suicidal, no matter how tempting—vanishes into a coughing fit the second I try to speak. Vision blurs again as my eyes water, and the data feeds flash respiratory convulsions uselessly. The coughs turn into an all-body ratcheting spasm, lungs burning as they try to get air.
Oxygen levels low.
Fuck you very much. Tell me something I don't know.
The mattress cradles me as I roll over, choking and curling inward helplessly until someone puts an arm under my shoulders. A glass touches my lips—water, cool on my throat, easing the dryness.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a sip of water and try not to choke. Process data: fluoride, dish soap: brand unknown, mint: crushed, fresh. Breathe in, breathe out.
Water helps, enough that I can lean against my savior and focus on something other than hacking up a lung. One of the men—
Good ol' lieutenant colonel. Bless him.
Breathe in, breathe out. My throat doesn't feel as rough anymore, so I try to speak again. Hell, why not? The worst that can happen is that the hot lieutenant gives me more water. "Thank you." It hurts, and the words are thick, but I don't start coughing again. Damn. "Where am I?"
"Long story," the colonel replies. "Had a hell of a time getting you out of HAMMER custody, but you're safe. Osborn can't find us."
The little conversations that had been going on in the background stop with the suddenness of a guillotine dropping. Even the ones in back who had been pointedly not looking at me—
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .00187 minutes.
—and the two in American colors—go silent.
Shit. What did I say?
A pen clicks. The doctor props me up against some pillows and reaches for his clipboard, poised to take notes. "Norman Osborn," he prompts. His voice is weird, soft, like I'm going to bite. His chin's got a scattering of hair, as if he couldn't be bothered to shave earlier. It seems odd, worth remembering, when everything else in the room is so neat. "The director of HAMMER. You were in custody after the battle, in a persistent vegetative state from the deletion process."
His tone of voice hits me directly in the heart with
Everyone waits for me to finish thinking. Expectantly. Maybe the guillotine analogy was apt. They're just waiting for a chance to slice me up. Are they one ones I'm not supposed to apologize to? I can see why.
There's not much to think over, just a few hints and a strange dream that aren't useful at all. For all I know it could have been just a product of head trauma from the battle they'd mentioned. A hallucination. Or the deletion process? I don't think I want to know what that means.
I wish it were that easy.
It's time to man up and face the news. "Tell me what happened. Please."
Pandemonium explodes like a damn volcano. Red hair flies as the redhead turns and runs from the room, hand over her mouth. The shorter woman's hot on her heels. Maybe they're lovers? That's kind of a hot thought.
Both costumed men and the lieutenant are yelling, their voices trading back and forth so fast I can't follow any of them. In the mix of it, the doctor is like the eye of the storm, calm and composed and looking so cool that I wish he'd come stand by my bed and take some of the edge off. But he just sucks it up and waits for the screaming to stop.
Just when I'm about ready to join the yelling, Doc seemed to realize that nothing's going to get done until the capes get it together. He taps his cane and
The capes shut up though.
That's one hell of a trick cane.
"That's enough," the doctor announces, voice soft. "Tony, what do you remember?"
"A dream. Waking up." I shrug. "Nothing before that. Believe me, I'm trying."
"It didn't work?"
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .098 minutes.
The tallest one—another blond, with the kind of jaw that can cut stone—runs his fingers through his hair. He looks like he wants to run out of the room with the women, but he barely gets his back turned before he stops. "What's going on, Don? What the hell are you playing at, Tony?"
The doctor, at least, seems willing to take everything at face value, bless him. "You said you had a dream?" he asks, eyebrows raises. "What about?"
Is a bedside manner something that can be bottled? It's got to be worth a fortune or two.
Dutifully, I repeat what the dream said, starting with our name. There's no reason to keep it a secret, and I don't think these people will trust me if I keep back anything. Going by the looks they're shooting at me, they probably don't anyway, but I want them to. There's no one else. The thought of being turned out to face the world without even knowing my middle name terrifies me, so much that it feels like a piece of my breastbone was sawed out. Bandages wrap tight around my chest, doing almost nothing to support what I'll bet money are cracked ribs.
The morphine must be wearing off. Good. Being drugged
When I finish no one seems like they wanted to speak, or even look at me. The doctor had taken notes, and is still taking notes, and the other three are obviously in shock. At least the lieutenant colonel is sitting in one of the small plastic chairs that are lined up against the wall, cradling his head in his hands. The two red-white-and-blue boys aren't even pretending to be casual when they don't meet my eyes.
What the fuck did I do to them?
The shorter costumed one laughs. It's a cold sound,
"Shut up, Bucky."
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0015 minutes.
Clear blue eyes meet mine. Azure the data feeds insist. I kind of have to agree.
What does he want from me? Whoops, sorry, I remember it all now. Ha ha, just kidding? "Sorry."
"Not as much as I am." His face twists in a grimace. "We need to have a meeting. This changes everything. Don?"
"I'll watch him," the doctor—he has to be Don, he looks like a Don—nods. "I don't think the big guy needs to be in on this right now. He'll have plenty to say later."
No one even says goodbye when they trail out of the room. At least the lieutenant clasps me on the shoulder in passing as he goes. It's something.
Alone with just a doctor who doesn't seem like he wants to talk, my own empty thoughts and the data behind my eyelids. Peachy. The pillows fluff around me when I fall back, sending a sharp stab when the movement jars my chest. Whatever happened to that had to be brutal, for as much morphine as I've been dosed with.
Hopefully, someone will tell me about it. I won't hold my breath.
After a few minutes of staring up at the ceiling, just me and Don. With him so quiet he might as well not be there, I find out a new detail about myself: I really, really hate being alone.
Could have done without knowing that one.
Apparently my silent, half-dozing presence is so grating that even the doctor can't stand to be around me. As soon as
ERROR. System stability fatally compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0061 minutes.
one of the others—the big blond Adonis—comes back a few hours later, he grabs his cane and limps from the room at full speed. After the way they'd all reacted when I woke up, I'm not surprised, but they could at least pretend to like me a little better than the average nuclear meltdown
Am I that bad at small talk?
I keep coming back to the question of what I did to them. Murder their families? I don't feel evil, but what would evil feel like? If they ever leave me alone, maybe I should give cackling a try. If it's easy, I'm probably
Watching him frown like his puppy just died is too much. I should probably feel guilty—I'm the most likely puppy-killer around, it seems—but I can't feel bad for what I don't remember. "So, Doc, give it to me straight. Is it syphilis?"
Blondie frowns. It's a fantastic frown, with inflections that suggest everything from put the cookie jar down to I'm thinking of spitting your carcass over a barbeque. It makes him even more sexy, if that's even possible. "How can you make jokes with everything that's happened?"
"Because I don't know anything that's happened, and it's easier to joke than sit around being glared at." Shrugging hurts, so I have settle for a quick grimace. "Of course, someone could enlighten me?"
"I don't know what to tell you," Blondie admits, looking guilty. Guilty is definitely an expression he doesn't do well. It must be the jaw. That sort of jaw was made for righteous expressions and biting. "It's a long story, and I wasn't here for most of it."
"Start with your name?" He blinks, and good God, he actually does have eyelashes. They're so blond that that they're almost invisible. "No, really, I've been thinking of you as Blondie. I'm pretty sure that's not the right one."
He stares at me like I've grown another head. "You really don't remember anything, do you? You sound like yourself, mostly."
"I don't remember a thing. Sorry."
Hesitation is another strange thing to see on him, but he answers anyway. "It's
ERROR. System stability compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .0164 minutes.
ERROR. System stability comprororororororo—
A problem has been detected and Extremis has been shut down to prevent damage to your system.
The problem seems to be caused by the following file: extr_rewrite.exe
"Hey! Tony?" Someone shakes me, so hard that my head snaps. Blue, blue eyes stare into mine worriedly. His stubble is like his eyelashes, definitely there, but almost invisible.
"Stop that. Are you okay? You just—spaced out. God, don't do that to me again, okay?"
"No, I'm fine. Really. I don't know what happened." I try to grin at him, but my stomach is flopping around like a dying fish and all I really want to do is fall into him and let those rock-hard pectorals bludgeon me into unconsciousness with the force of my landing. He's even more gorgeous up close, and that name... Steve. It's one of those words that roll easily around the mouth and off the tongue, like it's meant to be said with strength—with force. With his build, maybe it is. "So you're a Steve, huh? It fits you."
Awkward again. I'm really starting to think that I did kill their puppies. The dream said everyone hates me, but I hadn't thought it was going to be so literal. "So you're Steve, and I'm Tony. Good. It's a start. How did we meet?"
"You were there when I woke up from the ice."
The answer is so immediate and straightforwardly said that I nod along for an entire three-point-seven-four-two seconds before reality kicks in and I laugh, revising my opinion of Steve on the spot. More than a porn star, it seems. Ice. Did he really think I'd buy that? "No, really, how did we meet?"
Ten-point-four-eight-one seconds of expectant silence meets the question,
Shit. "You're not joking, are you?"
He shakes his head. "I was frozen in the Arctic Ocean for sixty years before you and the other Avengers found me."
What the hell am I supposed to say to that? "That's impossible."
"How do you know? You're the one with amnesia." He's so earnest, like a puppy bringing home a dead squirrel for me. It doesn't make taking him seriously any easier. I keep wanting to look behind him, in case I see a tail wagging. I should. It would probably get me killed, but the view's got to be worth a little death.
But the data is already scrolling across my eyes,
Well, they say you're not dead until you're warm and dead, but I don't think this situation counts.
Maybe I should have stood on my head. It might have made him stare less. "How do you know that?"
Good question. "I just do. The..." What do I call it? It's not really a memory. It's just there. "The data streams tell me. Right here." I trace where the line flows across my vision. Surprisingly, it pauses and then reverses, following my finger across the air. Huh. That's new. And it's kind of cool.
"Amnesia doesn't work like that."
Tell me something I don't know. "Looks like this kind does." He was frozen like a bucket of shrimp for six decades, and my memory loss is the strange thing?
Steve stares at me mournfully, like I took away his dead squirrel. The imaginary tail stops wagging. I should give him a belly rub, maybe that would help. "Yes, you did."
Both of our attention turns to the blanket covering my legs. It's easier than looking each other in the eye, I guess and the blanket's sort of pretty. It's all simple, earth-toned geometric designs, with some green for accent. Not too bad.
The seconds tick away. After a full sixty, I dismiss the countdown to the back of the feeds where it won't annoy me so much. Maybe I'd been driven crazy by information overload and that was why I did this to myself. Counting seconds of uncomfortable silence—who does that? Villains and crackpots, that's who. Or anal-retentive bastards without a functional set of social skills, but that probably counts as a villain. It shouldn't surprise me that they all hate me. They'd obviously be better off if they'd left me.
"What?" Steve's head comes up to stare at me. "No!"
Shit, did I say that aloud? I should stop asking dumb questions. "Look, I might not have any idea what's going on, but I can read the cues. None of you are happy to have me here. Are you?" It says something when he doesn't have anything to say to that. "Don can only stand to look at me when he's checking my pulse. The girls ran out—" probably not for hot lesbian sex "—and your costume-twin obviously would rather see me skewered than breathing. That leaves the Lieutenant Colonel and you, and I have to say, neither one of you seem really pleased about any of this either. You should have left me however I was."
"Why am I here, Steve?"
He fidgets. Every twist makes the chair squeak like this time it's going to break, but it never happens. Steve stares down at his laced fingers, clenching and unclenching his hands like it helps him think. Maybe it does, I don't know.
"You're a good man, Tony," he finally says. There's question mark in his voice that I'm pretty sure I don't want to know about. "I don't always get you, but you've got a good heart."
"So? What happened, then?"
A shrug makes the blue scales of his costume jingle. It really is scale mail,
He has to be kidding me. All this hoopla for an argument? Weirder things have happened, such as spending a few decades on ice, but really? Is anything ever that simple? "What? Did we break up and fight over who keeps the dog?"
"Did I cheat on you?" And then all of our friends took sides? Is that why everyone hates me? Then why did I do this to myself? An elaborate suicide? But it doesn't really line up with the gates of Hell bullshit in the dream. Maybe I'm just a melodramatic ass. "I cheated on you, didn't I? Or I left you."
"What?" Steve looks like he might choke. His fair skin turns red
Making a pass at
Shit. Did he stop breathing? Target respiration at ten percent. "Steve? Are you okay?" How do you
He inhales deeply, shaking his head and pulling away before I can shake him. Which is good—I don't think I could shake him. He's so big. What if he fell on me?
That's actually a pretty nice thought.
Steve shakes his head again and looks up. Now I'm the one with problems breathing. I keep forgetting how blue his eyes are. "I'm fine. That just— Surprised, but I'm really fine. Dandy."
"Did you just say dandy?" Ooh, that's not a happy glare. "Okay, you're dandy. Now will you tell me what I've forgotten?"
I wish I were surprised when he shakes his head. There's still a strip of pink across his cheeks. He'd probably punch me if I pinched them. "Look, it's complicated, and I'm not the person to explain it."
"Why not?" This is getting frustrating beyond measure. What the hell did I do, that no one wants to even tell me what I'm guilty of? "Look, I'm the one who can't remember his middle name, and I obviously hurt you and everyone else in this building. Who else is going to tell me if not you?"
"Pepper." He says it with the firmness that
That doesn't tell me much, other than that no one wants to help me. "Great. When can I meet her?"
"I..." Sore subject, again? I just keep stepping into them.
Maybe. Uh-oh. "What did I do to her?"
He grins, tentatively, as if he's not sure he wants to, and my stomach decides to go back to being a flopping, rolling mess again. What kind of asshole am I? Not interested in men, ha! "Let's just say that you were Tony Stark all over."
A high heel scuffs against the carpet, breaking the monotony of the medical machines and dragging me out of my thoughts. Not like they were going anywhere. With nothing to remember, it's kind of hard to think.
It's the red-haired woman again, in a sedate black skirt that's mini enough to show off exactly how nice her legs are. And they're very nice legs. She's leaning on the door, clutching her ribs like they ache under her tailored blouse. At her feet, a plain black brief case is propped up against the door. It looks like a laptop case.
How long has it been since Steve left? Eighteen hours, seventeen minutes, twenty-one seconds. It doesn't feel that long. Did I fall asleep, or is it just the drugs making me fuzzy? Morphine. I hate being drugged.
"I don't know what to say to you." She sniffs. Her eyes are bright—tears?
Why would she be crying? No one else is. Pushing myself to sit up is almost impossible with only the dregs of morphine to dull the edges of the pain, but I manage it enough to look her in the eye. It feels like a victory. "You're Pepper, right? Steve said he'd talk to you." He'd also said she'd be angry, but she doesn't seem very mad. Just sad.
She nods, smiling faintly. The redness around her eyes makes them even greener, and she's so pale her freckles stand out
"What's 'all of this'?"
Manicured fingers tap her chest. The thin cloth of her blouse shifts enough to flash bandages. "The story of our lives. I can give you the basics, but there's too much for one sitting, so I brought a laptop. It'll keep you busy while you recover from the beating Osborn gave you."
Learning the bare bones of the story and a way to look up the rest—that seems like a pretty good offer. It's better than anything Steve gave me. "Thank you."
The bed creaks as she eases in and sits at the foot. Standing tall and stately against her thigh, the laptop cases perches between us like a chaperone. We probably need one. "Where do you want me to begin?"
That's a loaded question. When you don't know anything, where to start learning everything? "At the beginning? Who were my parents? My birthday?" I can't do anything but shrug when she looks at me questioningly. "I don't know any of it."
Pepper's eyes close for a moment. "The beginning. Right." When she opens them, they're shining again, but she looks a little less depressed. Maybe it's not so bad. "Your full name is Anthony Edward Stark. Your father was Howard and your mother was Maria. Howard founded Stark Enterprises, a weapons manufacturing company. Your birthday is..."
Her voice is hypnotic, rising and falling in the cadence of a professional storyteller, or maybe someone used to telling bedtime tales. It's a beautiful rhythm, and I catch myself following the flow of her tone more than the words. I'm not really worried about missing any details. The little pieces of information slot into place like a puzzle piece, as if my head already has places prepared for it all. In a way, it does.
"And then came Registration. And 'all of this'."
It's enough to jar me out of my half-attentive doze. Blinking at her, I do my best to sit up a bit straighter. She does too—she'd started to curl forward while she sat. What do those bandages hide? "Registration?"
"It pretty much ended the world as we all knew it. You supported the act. You kept saying it was 'inevitable', and comparing superpowers to weapons." She's not even looking at me while she speaks any more. This is obviously the big stuff. "It's called the Super Human Registration Act."
Pain. Vision blacks out as something jumps and whirls in my head, data flows picking up speed. It knots and smoothes, settling into place. Information about Registration seemed to be one of things that came pre-packaged with the amnesia. Details of the law—exact wording, supporters, detractors, dates all click into place, filling out a little corner of the jigsaw puzzle in my head. There are still holes in the story, massive details missing, but the general idea is there.
"Tony!" Smooth hands press against my cheeks. Pepper peers at me from close up, eyes wide with worry. "Are you okay?"
I keep scaring them. Gotta stop doing that. "Sorry. I just— something came back. SHRA. I got it now."
Furrows appear on her forehead, little lines of worry suddenly making her seem at least a decade older. Did I put them there? She doesn't look old enough for them to be that deep. "Don said that you wouldn't get anything back. Your brain was deleted."
"I remember how to talk." Why do I keep having to point this out? "Maybe there's other things I just haven't remembered yet. What do you mean, my brain was deleted?"
"No one told you?"
"You and Steve are the only people who will talk to me." Don doesn't count. Take a deep breath isn't conversation. "I kind of get the feeling I burned down a puppy orphanage with Molotov cocktails made out of kittens."
It feels good to hear her laugh. Soothing, almost. I wonder if she has children—she'd probably make an excellent mother. The bed dips as she sits down as she takes a seat, this time without the case between us. "Not quite like that, but I'm not the person to ask. I was on your side."
"That's what the laptop is for." She perches the briefcase on her lap and presses a button. With a hiss of escaping air, it pops open and starts to unfold. A touchboard folds out, with
I'm such a bastard. "But what about this deletion thing?"
Pepper bows her head and closes her eyes. Little curls of hair fall around her face, trailing free from the twist she's pulled her hair into.
Without thinking about it, I tuck them behind her ear. "Please. I need to know, and I have a feeling those articles aren't going to tell me."
"Don't do that." Her hand smacks mine. She looks a heartbeat away from walking out.
Okay, no touching. Obediently, I put my hands in my lap. "Please?"
Her eyes slide away from me, but she relaxes again. "At the end of the Skrull War, you were discredited and Norman Osborn end up in power at SHIELD—HAMMER, he called it." Asking about the Skrull War is just going to slow her down, so I toss a note about it into the data feeds. Pepper keeps talking, voice quiet, like someone speaking at a funeral. "He's a madman. Completely insane. To keep him from getting his hands on the list of registered heroes, you deleted every copy. Including the one in your head."
How do you delete your own head?
EXTREMIS: Sys 18.104.22.168.0
Function: Erases drives, maintaining maximum functionality and life support systems as erasure processes.
Task Status: 100% complete
Ow. Okay, so that's how. Good to know. "Oh. If I deleted myself, then why am I here—"
EXTREMIS: Sys 22.214.171.124.0
Function: Writes over and erases system files marked by EXTR_WIPE.exe while system functions at maximum capacity. Maintains system integrity by blocking contradictory data. Protects data vital to system cohesion and functionality. Replaces marked files with new data as recorded by running system.
Task Status: 5.9% complete.
"Stop that!" The heel of my hand slams into my temple in a completely useless effort to cut the aching flow of data.
"Tony!" Pepper grabs my wrists, holding them steady and, incidentally, keeping me from hitting myself again. "What are you doing? Stop what?"
"The information!" My head is still ringing, but the information's vanished back to the lowest level of my thoughts again. It hovers back there like a threat. If I ask too many questions, it'll be back, but at least it's gone for now. "This— thing. In my head. Extremis? It's trying to be helpful, I think. Telling me things."
"Is it supposed to do that?" From up close, her eyes are even brighter green than I'd thought. Or maybe that's the red rims.
"You're asking me?"
"Good point." Her hands linger on my wrist, like I might smack myself again, but slowly ease off their hold as she sits back down. The laptop is on the floor, folded back into a neat little case. It must be automatic. I bet there's shock absorbers built into that thing. If I'd made it, that's what I'd do, and it looks like I did make it. At least, my name's on it.
A deep breath helps clear my head. I'm pretty sure I'm long out of morphine, but I don't want to admit it. My chest only hurts a lot, and the floating sensation of the drugs is worse than anything my body
The dark, short-haired woman from when I woke up bursts into the room. She glares at me, then grabs Pepper's wrist and yanks her off the bed. "You've got to see this! Osborn's on TV."
"What— what?" That guy who made me delete myself? War? Sharp jabs wrack through my me, but I manage to get my feet on the floor. "Osborn? Wait! I'm coming too."
The look the woman gives me could cut glass. Ouch, again. "You stay here, Stark." Pepper's stopped trying to pull away. Together, they dash out the door of my little sick room, leaving me all alone, without anyone to help me follow.
Like that's going to stop me.
Let's see, what do I have to work with? Lowered bedrails, a table on wheels—no help there—and a lot of floor. It'll have to do.
Every motion jarring my chest, I ease myself off the bed. It takes rolling over and pushing upwards like a toddler to stand. Embarrassing. Balance while upright is harder. Nothing in the room looks like something I can lean on, and putting weight on my arms feels like I'm breaking myself in two.
Carefully, then. Right. I can do that.
One step at a time, I ease myself towards the door. Soft, squishy carpet makes it even harder to keep my feet. Losing a half-inch surprises me the first time I take a step forward. My arms snap out, grabbing the rolling tray for support. It, predictably, rolls out from under my weight.
I hit the floor hard, jarring what I'm starting to think are broken ribs. A few other hurts make themselves known on impact, especially the back of my skull. Agony slams through me, locking me up so that all I can do is gasp and wait.
I can't wait for it to stop hurting. They'll be back soon, and I'll just be jammed back into bed. No one's going to tell me what's going on. They probably wouldn't tell me if the villagers were at the gate, demanding my head on a pike.
The pale brown rug twists under my hands as I push up to my knees. Lurching, one foot slides under me, then the other. Muscle by aching muscle, I drag myself upwards, using the bedrails to pull, until I'm back on my feet again.
Carpet is soft. Okay, check. Gotta remember that.
Now that I know to watch my feet, walking is easier. The first step doesn't down me. Neither does the second. Pain is— not negligible,
There's no visible sign as to where the women went. Lucky me, I don't need that. A voice speaking in righteous, determined tones comes from an open door at the far end of the hall. Might as well head that way. It's the most obvious choice.
Left foot. Right foot. Don't forget to breathe. This would be a lot easier if I were still hopped up, but I know better than to wish I was. It wouldn't surprise me if the thing in my head has a trick leaning that way too, and I don't want something I don't understand messing with me more than I can help. When I figure out what it is and how it got there, that's when I'll trust it.
"—superhuman menace. They refuse the laws of the country that they call home. They laugh at the lives they cost with their petty vendettas and quarrels—"
The end of the hall doesn't come a second too soon. I'm covered in sweat, my shorts and loose shirt clinging to me like I'd been dumped in a pool. The room at the end of the hall is
If I didn't know better, I'd swear he's wearing some sort of armor. Is that something else I've forgotten? Iron formal wear? It doesn't feel like it.
"—kidnapping of Anthony Stark, better known as Iron Man, from HAMMER custody has left us little choice. It is now clear that the anti-registration forces are gathering, with intent to attack the very foundations of the laws they reject. They stand against everything America holds dear—democracy, free speech, the right to walk the streets in safety, without worry that your children may be caught in the crossfire of someone else's fight.
"And so, effective immediately, HAMMER has annulled the US citizenship of all unregistered superhumans found to be on American soil, and declared them to be enemy combatants." His gaze meets the camera, and goosebumps rise over my skin. Okay, he's crazy. How can anyone look him in the eye and not see that? If there's a shred of thought in his head that's not broken,
The television switches off.
"What does Osborn have to gain by this?" someone asks loudly from by the far wall. I'm pretty sure he's the man who was wearing a costume like Steve's before, but he's in all black now, so I can't be sure. "We're already on the run. What does revoking our citizenship do?"
"Lethal force." The woman who'd snatched Pepper away looks comfortable, leaning back against a wall with her arms crossed. Like James, she's wearing black from head to toe, but looser, more casual than his tight leather ensemble. Her face is a mask of storm clouds, which takes away from the easy air of her posture. "It means they shoot to kill, James, and no one asks if we were posing a threat at the time the trigger was pulled."
From the back it's hard to tell, but something about the set of James' shoulders says he's sneering. "You'd know about that, wouldn't you Hill?"
"Listen to me you maggot." Next to her, Pepper makes a distressed noise and grabs for her wrist, but Hill doesn't seem like she wants to listen. "I was doing what I had to do, and if your precious—"
"That's enough." Steve steps in like a referee, or maybe a kindergarten teacher. Blue leather creaks with every move. Does he ever take that stuff off? Even to sleep? "Save the fight for Osborn. We're going to have plenty of it."
"Don't." Every face in the room turns my way, before I even realize I'd said anything. Is talking out of turn something I do often? "Don't fight him. That's what he wants."
"And how do you know that?" At least the lieutenant colonel isn't ready to dismiss me out of hand. I kind of wish he'd kept his uniform on, though. It was hot. The jeans and button-up aren't a bad change, though. "Do you know something we don't?"
No, but yes, and that's going to take a while to figure out. "He wants you to fight him," I say. The doorway is nice and steady under my hands, holding me up when my legs wobble. Damn, I'm exhausted. Gotta keep going. If I stop, I'll fall. "Declaring people enemy combatants doesn't do him any good unless you're actually combatants."
"Tony." Warm and soothing, Steve's voice by itself almost makes me stumble again. I think I could fall asleep listening to him talk. Damn, my eyes are already closing. "Tony," he repeats, "you've done this futurist thing before. It doesn't work. Your way doesn't work."
I have? "What futurist thing?"
"Projecting future events using probability and logic, based on set parameters and known patterns of behavior." Pepper's jaw sets stubbornly when Steve turns an incredulous stare on her. "Tony explained it to me a few times. Anyway, he was right about everything except the Red Skull, and no one could have predicted that with the information we had."
In a corner, almost hidden by a stack of file cabinets, someone moves. A massive blond man with metal wings on his head and a hammer bigger than my head grumbles loudly. How the hell did I miss seeing him? He's the size of a house!
"Much as I doth hate to heed of the words of a traitor," he intones, "they do have merit. The Green Goblin would not lay such an open challenge before us and expect it to go unmet."
"We have to do something!" James snaps. He slaps the face of
"And if we get ourselves killed, it still goes to hell!" Hill snarls. "That's a big risk to take just because you've got some cabin fever, kiddo."
Bickering starts popping back and forth, like children. No wonder the SHRA thing apparently went over like an uninflated lead balloon, if this is how they handled it. "I have a plan."
And I do. It's crazy, crouching in the back of my mind like a gargoyle on a steeple. But I can feel the edges of it. If I just stretch a little, I know I'll be able to explain it, even when I don't really get it myself. That makes sense, in a macabre sort of way. By all accounts, my pre-deletion self wasn't big on being caught with his pants down, and he left me the SHRA information, didn't he?
Futurist, ha. What a crock.
Pepper, at least, seems to listen, even if everyone else is busy glaring at each other or, like Steve, running interference. "How can you have a plan?" she asks, voice soft and tired. "You just found out about all of this."
"Up here." A tap my temple, the grab for the door when my balance starts to slide. "I think I had this covered. Before the—memory thing. I planned for this."
That gets Steve's attention. He looks up from telling Hill and James to behave. With the sunlight shining through the curtains, he looks like a weary deity, someone who's been holding the world together without help for far too long. "Don't."
"No." The force of the word makes Pepper and even James wince, but I manage to keep my hold on the door. "This isn't your fight anymore. You bowed out of it when you erased yourself."
"No I didn't!" Like an exhibit at the zoo, everyone watches us. Or like children when mom and dad argue. "I'm still here. If I'd meant to bow out, I would have just put a bullet in my head."
Steve blanches. What did I say? "Go get some rest," he replies firmly. Everything about him, from his voice to his body language says that he thinks he's being kind. But he's sidelining me before I even have a chance to find out what fight he thinks I bowed out of. I thought it was important enough that I didn't delete it. That means I have to help
ERROR. System stability compromised. Reconfiguring data.
Time Lapse: .037 minutes.
"I can help," I insist. "Let me."
"Pepper, Maria, take him back to his room." Steve looks away from me, and as nice as the rear view is, it doesn't make the fact that he's kicking me out any easier. "Then get back here. I'll need your help strategizing. You both know the current situation better than I do."
Together, the two women hook their arms around me and drag me backwards out of the office. Literally drag me, that is. My entire torso aches, and digging in my heels only leaves me with rug burns on them, but I put up a protest all the way down the hall. Of course, they ignore me.
Once in my sick room, they collectively dump me on the bed. By the time they get me there Pepper is disheveled and sweaty, making her thin white blouse stick to her skin in fascinating ways. More of the bandages around her chest are showing, leaking a pale blue glow where they've slipped, but she takes time to tuck blankets around me. Then she gives me a hard look from behind fallen red wisps of hair.
"Stay put this time, Tony."
Hill—Maria, that's what Steve called her—dumps the laptop in my lap. Unfortunately, she's not nearly as out of breath as Pepper. There's a lack of heaving bosom. —She doesn't really seem like the type to have a heaving bosom anyway. "Do yourself a favor and research why you're not in there," she suggests. "Maybe learn a lesson or two."
"Maria," Pepper hisses, confirming the name. "He doesn't remember. Leave it alone."
"Just because you have a bleeding heart doesn't mean I do, Potts." With a final, scornful sniff, Hill turns around and stalks out.
Pepper mutters something under her breath—are ladies supposed to know those words?—and taps the button that changes the case into something usable. Before it's even unfolded, she rushes after Hill, closing the door behind her
I glare at the laptop and its cheery blue swoosh of a logo. If I had the energy, I'd go after them, but when I push myself upright even a few inches, the world drops out from under my stomach and then tilts. Pillows cradle me as I sag backwards and close my eyes, waiting to open them again until my equilibrium comes back.
Okay, moving is a bad idea. I'm having all sorts of bad ideas today. Going by the way I'm being treated, it's a running trend.
The laptop gives a bright little chime. Cracking my eyes shows that it's finished loading. The Stark swoosh is on the background of the desktop, and the colors are done in the same pattern. At least it seems to make sense, though. Buttons, folders, icons—
Might as well follow good advice and figure out why it's a trend then. Can't hurt to try.