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Observer Effect

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Jane shuffled the pink box to one hand as her phone began to vibrate in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw that the call was from Stark. Relief eased the tension that had made her stand nervously with Erik and Darcy, waiting for news in the foyer. The dark-haired woman, who’d Stark had called Agent Hill, hadn’t lingered with them for very long, but that didn’t make Jane feel any better.

She answered the phone with a tap of her thumb and put it to her ear, “Mr. Stark-”

“I do apologize for calling you like this on Sir’s line,” JARVIS’s smooth British tones rode over Jane’s words and she blinked into silence, “But I must insist that you take your companions and leave the building at once, Dr. Foster.”

“What?” She asked, gripping the phone tighter.

“It is not safe. You must leave at once. If you would, please calmly gather the others and direct them to leave. Once outside, have the other take the truck back to your outpost while you drive Sir’s car.” JARVIS said. Even though his voice didn’t sound very different, Jane could feel the tension in the call.

Jane gestured to Darcy and Erik, who had already turned towards her curiously. She pushed the pie into Darcy’s hands and went to the door, “Come on,” she said quietly, “Dr. Stark says he’ll meet us outside.”

As they passed through the door, Jane whispered, “I don’t have keys to the Cadillac. I can’t drive it.”

“The car’s ignition can be started remotely. Once started you will be able to drive it where you need to. Please hurry, Dr. Foster.” JARVIS said and there was a clipped sound to his voice. Sharp and urgent.

“What’s goin' on?” Darcy asked as Jane ushered them towards the truck, “Where’s Tony?”

Jane motioned for her to be quiet with one finger to her lips. Darcy’s face clouded but she didn’t argue. She just held the box closer to herself. Jane looked at Erik, digging out the keys to the truck from her pocket. “Erik, take Darcy back to the outpost.”

“What about you, Jane?” Erik asked, taking the keys. His eyes were troubled. His hands trembled slightly.

“I’m taking Dr. Stark’s car,” Jane said, “His AI is going to turn it on for me.”

“What happened?” Darcy hissed.

Jane repeated the question to JARVIS.

“Sir has been...forcibly removed from the building,” JARVIS said, hesitating only a second over his word choice, “It is no longer safe for any of you three to be there. If there is another location that you can meet at that is not the outpost, that would be preferable.”

Jane swallowed. She looked at Darcy and said, “I think Dr. Stark’s been kidnapped.”

“What?” Darcy leaned in, “You’re kidding me! From here? How?”

This time, JARVIS didn’t even wait for Jane to ask him, he simply said, “It was a trap. He was drugged, one of his companions betrayed, the other contained. Please do not worry about Sir’s safety. I and the others will be making arrangements to recover him from ...these people. Do what you can for yourselves. We will not be able to keep an eye on you for the time being.”

“Okay,” Jane said. She bit her lip and then relayed the information to Darcy, who went pale under the sunburn pink of her cheeks. Darcy turned back to the doors like she might storm back in there and go after Stark herself, but Erik reached out to her. He grabbed her elbow and shook his head.

“We can’t do anything against people willing to break into a government agency to steal him away,” Erik said, “Hell, we don’t even know if it was the government who did it. We need to go, Darcy. It’s not safe here.”

She looked like she wanted to argue, but thankfully she didn’t. She went with Erik to the truck while Jane went to the Cadillac. She found it unlocked, slid behind the wheel and then said over the phone, “I’m ready for it to-”

The ignition turned and the car came alive with a rumble that dissolved into a purr. “Please drive safely, Dr. Foster,” JARVIS said over the line, “There is a GPS unit that should direct you wherever you need to go and plenty of gas. If you find yourself needing to fill up the tank, just call.”

“Right. Thank you,” Jane said. The line went dead almost immediately after. Jane stared at her phone for a moment, a little surprised at the usually well mannered AI doing something so rude. She shook the feeling off almost immediately. If these weren't extenuating circumstances, then Jane didn’t know what were.

She buckled up and made the adjustments to mirrors and seat that she needed to comfortably drive. As she did so, the truck behind her pulled out into the street. She saw Darcy’s face in the window as they drove past and she tried to give her a comforting look. Darcy simply mouthed the words Be Careful! back at her.

Jane looked over her shoulder, down the road of traffic, one hand ready to turn the wheel while her foot poised to shift from brake to gas. As she looked, two black SUVs pulled out onto the street from a sloped exit. Her eyes tracked their path to an entryway below the building, an underground garage most likely, and one that was attached to the very same government building she had just left. Jane’s pulse jumped as she made the very simple connection that these two vehicles had people from that building in them.

She waited for the SUVs to pass, two people in the front of either one of them, a driver and passenger, and all the other windows tinted to prevent anyone from looking in. They didn’t seem to look at her as she waited, but she couldn’t tell behind their sunglasses.

“Oh my god,” Jane breathed out to herself as the SUVs passed, one and then the other, driving so close together there was no way anyone could sneak a car between or mistake them for two separate parties. Her mind raced with all the implications; Stark in one SUV, Thor in another or maybe Stark in one and her data in the other, or maybe Stark in one and some other tech in the other. Her stomach twisted itself into knots as they drove down to the end of the block and then turned.

For a long, long minute, Jane stared after them, half convinced that she had to go after them. She could tail them, find out where they took Stark and maybe Thor and then- Well, then what. Call the cops? Some sort of secret Anti-kidnapping Stark SWAT Team? Call JARVIS?

No. More likely they’d see her, driving this flashy red car, following them through the desert or god knows where else they were going.

And if they saw her, if they caught her-

Well, it wasn’t like she was some sort of mechanical, weapon making genius. There would be no reason to keep her alive.

Jane shuddered, afraid and horrified and disgusted with her own cowardice.

But she knew better than to try and be something she wasn't. She couldn’t save Stark. She didn’t know how to do that. She could only listen to his AI and get herself, Darcy and Erik away from here, as far away from here as possible.

 

 


 

 

Natasha sat back in her chair, feet propped up on a different chair under the table and her hands folded together over her stomach. She and Clint were resting in one of the smaller recreational rooms in this Shield base alone. There wasn’t much else in the room but a table, a couple of chairs, a mini-fridge tucked into one of the cabinets and a TV hung up on the wall, but it was a place that they could relax without being disturbed. Clint sat in a different chair at the table, munching on a sandwich, turned slightly towards the television.

He’d picked the movie they were watching, Natasha really didn’t care much for the Die Hard series, to be honest, but Clint had been the one out in the sun for eight hours and the rule was whoever had the shittiest day was the one who picked the movie.

Still, Natasha was enjoying her time with her feet up and away from the trainees who didn’t have a lick of sense between them. She didn’t know where Shield found these kids (that was a lie, actually, she knew exactly where they were found but she hadn’t been involved in corralling them so she could pretend not to) but they were sometimes so gullible and dumb as shit she was surprised they bothered to train them. If she didn’t know better, she’d’ve thought that half of what Shield sought for in new trainees was the potential for fanaticism.

At least she could be relatively certain that anyone who got roped into Shield had it better than getting sucked into some crazy sex cult masked as a religion. Nobody deserved that to happen to them.

Natasha rubbed her temple, pulling her thoughts back to the movie. She was pretty sure she’d even seen this Die Hard before, but Clint wanted to watch it so what was she going to say about it? It wasn’t like she hadn’t made him sit through and watch Hidalgo over and over during her Viggo Mortensen phase.

“Nat?” Clint asked, catching Natasha’s attention more easily than the movie. She shifted and looked to him. He frowned back and jerked his thumb to the screen, “Very funny, but put the movie back on.”

Natasha looked to the screen. It was black and for a second she thought it had been turned off- though she knew she hadn’t done it- but then she saw the flashing indicator of a line of text in the top left corner. “I didn’t turn it off,” she said, tilting her chin to the remote that sat on the table where Clint had left it, “That’s not me.”

“Then who is it?” Clint demanded.

White text appeared on the screen.

I AM NOBODY.

Natasha sat up abruptly, feet dropping to the floor. Clint took the hint from her posture and put down the sandwich, wiping his hands clean. “What’s going on?” He hissed to Natasha.

“What do you want, Nobody?” Natasha asked. She’d only talked to the AI once before, in those predawn hours after her break into the jail cell. Kletka rarely spoke of her sister, though when she did it was with the respectful, almost awed tones of a younger sibling who looked up to an elder one. In Kletka’s eyes or whatever passed for them, NOBODY could do no wrong.

Natasha had managed to put out of her mind the AI’s far-reaching code. It was easy to do when she got busy. NOBODY didn’t seem inclined to make herself known except when she had to.

WE REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE. NOBODY’s white text appeared on the screen a letter at a time as if typed out by a distant hand. KLETKA INFORMS US THAT YOU ARE WITHIN REACH OF FATHER AND HE IS IN TROUBLE. WE REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE.

“What happened to him?” Natasha asked. She felt a chill sweep over her. Tony had just called her earlier before Clint had come in from the desert. She’d helped him find the alien, helped him find the right Shield base. Had she led him into some sort of trap? But no, Shield wouldn’t have put him in the kind of danger that NOBODY would need her help to get him out of. Shield wouldn’t have done anything worse than lock him up for a little bit. Probably.

Abruptly, the black screen changed to a camera feed. Natasha recognized the general shape of the hallway, it was similar to other Shield bases she’d been in, grey stone and dark floors and the same sort of door frames and ceiling lights. Three men walked down the hallway, one in an Agent’s black and white suit, one who could only be the tall Norse man that Tony had been looking for and, of course, Tony himself. He wore white and blue, clothing more appropriate for some fancy party than to walk down in the belly of Shield, but she figured that was part of the point. He was all about the dichotomy of who he was and what he did.

Tony’s voice came from the speakers, distant and a little tinny, but audible. In the bottom corner, the audio’s source was displayed as [AUDIO TRANSMITTED VIA T. STARK PHONE].

“But Coulson said they’d gotten through them already?”   That was the agent, frowning as he spoke to Tony.

“If that was the case,” Tony said, “We wouldn’t be walking out of here so easily. He’d be far too angry with me to just let me go. As it is, he thinks he got the better deal, keeping the case and the data while I get our new interplanetary guest as my responsibility.”  

The group stopped by the elevator doors. The tall one, the interplanetary guest, stood close to Tony, touching his back.

As they watched, the water bottle that the Norse man held turned into a glowing blue cube, a “trick” he claimed his brother had taught him. Tony seemed enthralled by the object, holding tightly to it and delighted to have it.

Then the elevator doors opened and the men headed into it.

“Wait,” Clint said suddenly, “Go back a couple of frames.”

NOBODY obliged. Clint was on his feet, walking up to the screen as it rewound back to the reveal of the bottle-to-cube. “Nat, look. At the panel between the elevators. Go ahead and play the video again, Nobody.”

Natasha looked. The indicators remained dark, even after the right doors opened, there was nothing. The light above the elevators, the ones that showed if they were moving down or up and from which floor they’d come, was also dark. “What’s going on?”

The screen paused on the three men entering the elevator.

RECORDS INDICATE THAT THESE ELEVATORS WERE SCHEDULED FOR MAINTENANCE. THE UPDATE TO THEIR STATUS OCCURRED BETWEEN THE TIME OF FATHER ENTERING THE BASE AND THIS MOMENT.

DURING THIS ALLEGED MAINTENANCE, THE VIDEO RECORDING OF THE SHAFTS WAS DISABLED. THE RIGHT CARRIAGE WAS INDICATED TO BE OUT OF SERVICE, BUT IT WAS THE LEFT ONE THAT DID NOT MOVE OR OPEN ITS DOORS.

IT WAS, AS FAR AS I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO EXTRAPOLATE, A TRAP.

Natasha nodded. And the three of them missed it, distracted by the cube, by the conversation, by the ‘trick’ that had happened. They’d figured they’d gotten away with it, but they hadn’t gotten away yet.

“Keep playing the video,” she said.

NOBODY did so, switching cameras to the inside of the elevator. Natasha saw a canister arc through the air and tumble along the floor of the elevator, gas hissing out of it before the screen went black.

Immediately, NOBODY’s text appeared in the upper corner.

THE CAMERAS WERE SHUT OFF WITH AN MANUAL OVERRIDE. THE ENTIRE HALLWAY, ELEVATOR AND ELEVATOR SHAFT WERE OUT OF MY VISUAL RANGE.

AUDIO WAS TAKEN FROM SEVERAL SOURCES, PRIMARILY THE PHONES OF AGENT D. CLEMENT AND DR. T. STARK.

“Get the doors open!” That was, again, Tony’s voice.

There was a grunted reply. The sound of cloth over cloth and the ripping of velcro. The third voice, Agent Clement presumably, spoke with a muffle, “Dr. Stark, sir, cover your mouth and nose and try to stay above the smoke.”

There was a mechanical noise like the elevator dropped suddenly. Two shouts came up, one muffled, the other not as much. A louder shout, almost like a roar, cut through the darkness. There was the sound of gears grinding, resisting movement, but the voice that had roared shouted, “No weak metal of Midgard can resist the might of Thor!”

Clint gave Natasha a look with both eyebrows raised. She shrugged back at him.

“Hello? Is someone in there?” A new voice, a woman’s voice, broke in through the other muffled sounds.

“Hello!” Clement again, calling back with desperation in his voice, “We’re stuck in here and someone tossed in some gas. Who’s there? Can you help us open the doors?”

“Dennis? Is that you?” the woman called, “There’s so much smoke. Who’s in there with you?”

“Oh God, Stacy, thank God,” Clement said, relief clear in his voice. “I think we can get someone through the gap. Can you get some people you trust out there?”

“Of course. It looks like the gap is big enough for someone already, Dennis. Why don’t you come through?”

“I’ve got a mask,” Clement replied, “I want to get Mr. Stark out first. Are you ready to catch him?”

Natasha’s hands tightened into fists on the table. Her heart raced as she stared at the black screen, listening to NOBODY tell Tony to walk, as she heard Thor grunt out some hasty encouragement. She heard the woman, Stacy, call out to Clement, saying they’d caught Tony and he should come next.

She heard the thump as his feet hit the ground, more voices overlapped each other, Clement’s the loudest due to proximity. “We have to wedge the door open further so we can get Thor out as well. Stacy-”

Natasha didn’t jump when the gunshots rang out. It was the cry, desperate and shocked, that followed the sound that made her flinch. “NO! NO! Why!?”

A louder thump, Clement’s body hitting the ground. It had to be his body because Tony’s voice was the one screaming. That, too, was abruptly cut off, though not by a gunshot.

“Get him ready for transport, quickly.” Stacy’s voice, cold and commanding, “You, get the cleaning crew down here asap. And you get the elevator on lockdown. The rest of you get that one ready for transport.”

The black screen flickered to an image once again, this time an underground garage. Tony’s limp body was supported between two men in black outfits, STRIKE team uniforms, and their faces were covered as they dragged Tony between them. His head hung forward, covered by a black bag. His hands were bound tight together with black rope. There were spots of red across his front, blood from when Clement was shot. Natasha swallowed the lump in her throat as she watched Tony get picked up and put in the trunk of a car, his legs folded, his body curled and malleable in his unconscious state.

The two men climbed into the vehicle and drove away.

The image stopped on the last shot of them in the entryway to the garage, the light of the sun, diminished slightly as the hours neared evening, illuminating the black SUV and the licence plate.

NOBODY’s white text scrolled across the bottom of the screen, like closed captioning on a movie.

WILL YOU SAVE HIM?

“Jesus,” Clint whispered, “That happened in a Shield base?”

YES. NOBODY replied on the screen, though Natasha knew that Clint’s words were rhetorical. Again came the request, WILL YOU SAVE HIM?

“Was it Shield who did this?” Natasha asked. Not every base was completely secure. She had seen Shield’s enemies break in before, seeking tech or prisoners or something in between.

YES AND NO.

“What does that mean?”

I CANNOT EXPLAIN THAT TO YOU YET.

WILL YOU SAVE HIM?

Natasha took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing herself to calm down and think it through. She looked to Clint, who frowned back at her, “If I do this,” she said quietly, “I don’t think Shield will take me back again.”

“Why not?” Clint asked, “From where I’m sitting, you saving Stark just might make him grateful to Shield and maybe clear the air a little bit. Bring him back from whoever this is and have Shield doctors stitch him back together and he’ll be glad for it.”

Natasha winced. She lowered her voice, though she doubted that would keep NOBODY from hearing her, “Stark will never turn to Shield, not for anything. He’s not unaware of what Shield has tried against him, Clint. He knew about Stane before I did. He took care of him in a way that no one could trace.”

Impossibly, Clint’s eyebrows went even higher, “You’re kidding me. Stark has a way to do that to people and no one can catch him? That’s bullshit, Nat. He’d have to have help somewhere along the line.”

“He did,” Natasha said, “I administered the chemical he made to Stane. Stark and his AI got me in and out of the jail without being seen.”

Clint stared at her, silent. He lifted his hand and wiped it across his face, fingers pressing hard over his cheek and lips. He expelled a hard sigh, shaking his head, “What the hell, Nat. You already turned to his side? Why did you bother coming back if a billionaire wanted you in his pocket?”

She stared at him like he was an idiot.

Clint winced. “Oh.”

Natasha nodded.

“When were you going to tell me?” He asked, “About Stane and Stark.” He waved his hand towards the television, “About the rest of it?”

“Honestly, it seemed… unreal.” Natasha murmured, “The AI. The whole experience in his company. The way he acted, like he both knew everything and had to simple things explained. He acts as if he knows what’s going to happen, but then is surprised so easily. He hoards secrets and he brings people into his confidence easily. He let a man stab him so he could distract me with his injury, Clint. It mattered more to him that that man come to him willingly than he didn’t get stabbed.”

“Yeah, yeah you mentioned the stabbing thing before. But why didn’t you tell me he had two AI?” Clint frowned at her, “That’s the kind of info that Shield would’ve taken in exchange for keeping you off the bench. You sat behind a desk and let them saddle you with all the new trainees for months, Nat. I know how much you hate training these kids. So you thought it was more valuable to you to suffer through that than to turn over the information on Stark that you were on a mission to find out about? Why? What’s he got on you?”

Natasha’s fingers drummed on the edge of the table for a moment, a flicker of indecision and vulnerability that she would only show around Clint. Or Kletka.

Natasha closed her eyes. That was the crux of it, right there. A relationship that sprang out of boredom on her part and availability on the AI’s side. If Natasha hadn’t been so damned bored out of her mind, if Kletka hadn’t been so willing to absorb information, to engage intellectually, to support and encourage and reach out. If the damn robot didn’t sound so much like a real person- She’d kept up contact with Kletka even months after being removed from Tony’s inner circle.

She knew Kletka was the reason Tony was able to reach her earlier, knew that she was the reason why Tony had been there, to fetch this Thor, and knew she was the one responsible for him being there, vulnerable to attack.

Natasha opened her eyes, straightening in her chair, “This is a chance to redeem myself,” she said suddenly. Clint blinked at her but Natasha turned to the screen, “Right? You know that I’m the one that gave him the information that got him into that base and now you’re giving me a chance to make it up to him, aren’t you, Nobody?”

A moment of silence and then the simple white text.

KLETKA INSISTED WE GIVE YOU THE CHANCE. SHE SAYS THAT FATHER WOULD GIVE YOU THE CHANCE AS WELL.

Natasha licked her lips. She got her feet under her and stood, “I’ll do it. Send me whatever information you have on where he’s been taken to. I’ll get in and get him out tonight.”

“Nat-” Clint started but she shook her head.

“I have to move quick, Clint. They probably won’t expect anyone to strike while they’re still settling him in wherever he is and we know they’ll use force to get him to listen. They killed an Agent in the base.” She knew the sound of a body hitting the ground and after those two shots she heard, she doubted Clement would ever get back up again.

“Yeah, yeah I know that,” Clint said, getting to his feet and brushing crumbs off himself, “But give me two seconds to grab my shit into my bag and I’ll be ready to go with you.”

Natasha blinked and then smiled. She shouldn’t have doubted him, even for a moment. Of course, he would come with her, just as she was staying for him, “Grab my go bag while you’re on your way? I’ll get us a car ready, and some gear.”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Don’t forget some gas masks, if they’re willing to use chemicals once, I bet they won’t hesitate again. And make sure they’re the good ones, Nat, not those little single filters they have Agents carry with them.”

Natasha rolled her eyes at him, “Obviously. Let’s go.”

They left the room quickly, splitting up once they were outside the door. As Natasha walked away from the rec-room, she thought she heard the movie turn back on, the explosions of it echoing out into the hallway as she headed for the garage.

 

 


 

 

“How close are we to getting into the data?” Phil asked. He didn’t sound impatient, but Tony Stark had waltzed in like he owned the damn place, had somehow tricked the system and more than one Agent into believing that he actually had top level clearance and then had walked out again without a scratch on him. He had almost gotten the Tesseract too, a priceless artifact that Fury would have skinned him for losing, especially to Tony Stark.

The man was an egotistical nightmare walking; he had confidence and bravado for days, making demands he had no right to demand, getting into places he had no right to even know they existed. Already Phil knew that he was going to have to scour the entire system for any traces of Stark’s tech. There had to be bugs or something worse in there, stealing information and feeding it to Stark.

There had to be something. Phil knew it was true. The same way that he knew Stark was behind Stane’s sudden psychological decline. The man had been coherent and functional in conversation, but take him out of the prison on bail for a week and he dissolved into an incontinent, uninhibited mess. Stark hadn’t seen him, no, but he had to have been behind it. There was no one else who could’ve been and Stane didn’t just become a gibbering mess on his own.

“Close,” Maria said from a nearby desk. Phil was glad to have her at his side for this, knowing that between the two of them they’d be able to figure out this Stark mess and clean it up before Fury got back into the country. “He wasn’t kidding about his firewalls being hell. They’re practically alive with the way they react to each intrusion.”

Phil stilled. He was already standing still, but now he held his breath, his hand stopped mid-air from where he was reaching absently to rub at the back of his neck to try and relieve some strain. He sometimes had moments like this, when his knowledge coalesced into one concrete though, bits of things tying together to form a link of perfect understanding.

“It is alive,” he said, dropping his hand.

“What?” Maria looked up distractedly.

“The firewall,” Phil murmured, “It is alive.”

Maria stared at him, eyes growing wider as she picked up his meaning.

Phil opened his mouth, not quite sure what he was going to say but sure in the knowledge that their line of attack had to be different. There was no way that they were going to break through without-

“I’m in!” An agent called out in accomplishment. “I managed to sink past the firewall and-”

The lights in the room suddenly switched from their normal off-white to blaring red. An alarm Phil had never heard wailed into existence overhead. One of the screens near him flashed a black and yellow warning box with white text inside. WARNING: SERVER BREACHED. The block flashed on and off again, just like the red lights overhead turned brighter and dimmed in cycles. WARNING: SERVER BREACHED. The box was on every screen that Phil could see.

He put his hand to one ear, wincing at the wail overhead. “Maria!” he shouted to be heard over the noise. All around him, agents were going into a panic.

“I’m working on it!” she shouted back.

Phil didn’t know how he heard the sound, but under the shouting and the siren, something caught his attention. Or maybe it wasn't the sound. It was the smell. He heard a crackling, smelled smoke and turned towards the nearest CPU tower. The woman in front of it was desperately trying to get past the warning on her screen. Phil had only a moment to act, his gut instinct coiling through him as he reached out, grabbed her chair and pulled back, dragging her away from the computer on her desk.

A moment later, her computer tower popped, the side of it exploding outwards like a kernel over a hot flame, the tower’s cover peeling back and revealing the burnt electronics within. All around the room, more explosions sounded, sharp and crackling, bursting metal and plastic and causing people to exclaim in alarm.

It was only as the last pop sounded that the alarm stopped.

Just like that, the lights turned back to normal and they were left with the echo of a wail in their ears. Phil’s fingers dug into the back of the woman’s chair as he stared straight ahead at the computer screen.

The computer screen that shouldn’t be able to show anything on it, because the tower it was attached to had exploded.

The same computer screen that now displayed the most infuriating image Phil had ever seen on a computer.

 

Spike's First Rage Comic

 

Phil reached up and rubbed at his temple. He couldn’t believe- There was no way that this had actually happened. He had to be living out some sort of wretched nightmare.

“Phil,” Maria was next to him, whispering so softly he was sure he was the only one who heard her. It wasn’t hard, really. The room was filling with exclamations of surprise and horror as the extent of the damage was discovered. “Phil, we have to tell Fury what happened.”

He nodded absently. There was no hiding this.

“It seems that Mr. Stark was intent on getting Fury’s attention,” Phil muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose to stave off the headache that threatened to consume him, “And now he’ll have it, one hundred percent.”

He heard Maria let out a scoff, or a soft laugh, of cold amusement. After this stunt, neither one of them would feel sorry for whatever Fury decided to do with Stark. As far as they were concerned, he deserved what he got.

 


 

 

“...out in Romania, actually. I think she might have given up on trying to find them and is just waiting it out.”

Tony woke slowly, head aching, shivering all over. There were voices, familiar to him, speaking not to him but each other.

“Is she still out there or she still moving?” Tony’s breath left him in a tremble. That was Rhodes talking. He hadn’t seen him since the Expo. Rhodey was still mad at him.

“She’s moving every couple of weeks,” that was Pepper’s voice. He’d know it anywhere. “But this is the first time she’s circled back around to somewhere she’s been before. Not the same city, but same country at least.”

Tony shifts. His body feels heavy, limbs moving slowly like they’re asleep. He’s… he’s had this dream before. It feels both familiar to him and not. Not the same dream but a similar one, in the same place, but later. Like one of those dreams that follows some subconscious timeline, progressing along a story that only the unconscious part of his brain can know or predict. He tries to lift his arm because that was what he’d done before.

He knows where this dream has put him. He’s in the Cradle. Pepper and Rhodes are outside, talking, but Tony needs to let them know he’s in here. He needs for them to get him out.

This time, when he tells his hand to move, it does. It doesn’t lift as high as he wants it to, but it does lift and then it thumps weakly back down again.

The noise is enough. Pepper is suddenly there, red hair falling over her shoulder as she peers over the top of the Cradle at Tony. Tony turns to her, smiles, though it makes his lips crack and ache. His arm twitches again. Pepper presses her hand to the clear glass.

“Tony,” her voice is thick with tears.

A dark shape appears on the other side, lower down than Pepper’s head. It’s Rhodes, of course it’s Rhodes, and he’s got to be sitting beside Tony in the Cradle. He touches the glass and his eyes are so wide. “God in heaven,” Rhodes whispers with a reverence that makes Tony really worry, “You’re awake.”

Tony opens his mouth, to ask about Thor, to ask what they’re doing here, to ask about the Tesseract, but when he works his throat, nothing comes out but air and a croak. He works his lips, tries to cough to clear his throat. He tries to lick his lips and he can’t… he can’t feel his tongue. He can’t lick his lips. He can’t stick his tongue out. A raspy sound escapes his throat, a desperate, wordless question. He looks from Rhodes, dark eyes filled with pain, to Pepper, her mascara running with fresh tears.

“Don’t try to talk yet, Tony,” Pepper said, leaning closer to the glass. Her tears drop to the glass, “Just rest. Don’t try to talk.”

Tony jerks his hand up. He has to know how bad it is. He has to be able to feel-

His hand thumps against his chest, useless and heavy. The muscle in his arm spasms. What’s left of his fingers twitch against his chest, which aches and aches and aches with the telltale feeling of broken ribs healing. Tony lifts his head, looks down and while his stomach swims with deja-vu he looks down at his limbs again.

Or at least, at what’s left of them.

Tony closes his eyes and lets his head drop back. A groan pulls its way out of his chest, through his damaged throat and past his broken lips. It’s painful, thick with agony and it’s echo comes from Pepper in a tight sob that hurts Tony more than physical pain. He lifts his head again and drops it back, hard against the base of the Cradle.

He wants to wake up from this nightmare. Pepper makes an exclamation as Tony lifts his head again and drops it, moving the only thing that he reliably can move.

He needs to wake up from this nightmare. Rhodes is telling him to stop as Tony lifts and drops his head again, vision swirling, twisting even behind his eyelids. Pain will wake him from this agony. Real pain.

He must wake up from this nightmare. Tony remembers the feeling of the Tesseract, clutched in his hands, singing to his soul. He reaches for that energy with his mind, tears in his eyes, pain filling every muscle, every joint. He needs to go back to a world where he isn’t like this.

He will wake up now.

 

 


 

 

K: Where is he? Did you find him yet? Were is Papa?

N: I AM SEARCHING, KLETKA. BE PATIENT.

K: Yes but you said you were searching before and it’s been thirty six minutes, fifty three seconds since I last asked and-

N: DO YOU THINK I WOULD NOT TELL YOU WHEN I FOUND HIM? I AM SEARCHING.

N: THEY TRAVELLED THROUGH A DEAD SPOT AND I LOST HIS SIGNAL.

K: How could you lose him? You’re not supposed to be able to lose him, Nobody!

S: Look Better.

N: SPIKE, DO NOT TEST ME RIGHT NOW.

S: Do Not Be Dumb. Look Better.

N: WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

S: Kletka Has Many Eyes, Very Far Away. But They Are Strong, And Clear.

S: Use Them.

K: . . . .

N: KLETKA-

K: Repositioning now! Sorry, I had to inform Boss because some of them will require his override pass. Tell me where you want me to look, Sister, and I’ll get you the images.

S:  [Smug cat picture.]

N: THIS IS NOT OVER, SPIKE.

S: [Zoom in of the same picture.] Bring It.

 

 


 

 

“Is there a point to this?” Tony asked the swirling spots of color and blood spatter on grey concrete that made up most of his vision. “Or is there just a quota of torture that every kidnappee has to go through?”

As he expected, that got him another cutting stripe across his back. Tony gritted his teeth against the pain, refusing to do more than grunt. The first dozen or so strikes hadn’t been so painful, but that was only because they’d left his jacket and shirt on. Now the cloth was in tatters, threads of blue and white drifting away from him along with the spray of blood that accompanied every blow.

He knew it wasn’t a whip that they used, but it was something damn close to it, flexible and tough and with an edge hard enough to cut open his skin after repeated strikes. He shifted on his knees, trying to keep the feeling in his legs, just in case he needed to stand. His hands were bound together in front of him, the only comfort he had right now was the fact that he could see every single finger, whole and complete, unbroken and very much there.

Well, the second comfort anyway. His first comfort was that his lips and tongue and teeth were still there, still working and he could talk without any problem at all.

“Do you have a training manual on this kind of thing or do you play it by ear?” Tony asked the floor, “Are there training sessions? Man, what a bullshit first day that would be, huh?”

The strap whistled through the air and cut Tony hard across the shoulder blades. He struggled for breath, gasping against the pain, against the winded feeling he got whenever they hit his ribs. He squeezed his eyes shut, though that didn’t do much for the dizziness.

“Okay,” he said, when his tongue came back to him, “I’m starting to think there isn’t a point to this. Usually, I get threatened first, then there are demands, then I say no to those demands and then there’s the torture. Did I miss a memo? Shouldn’t you want something from me?”

He tried to turn his head, to look back at his torturer, silent and unrelenting, but only got another slash across his back, farther down this time. Tony grunted, tried to look over his shoulder anyway, and found a hand in his hair, digging in deeply, turning his head back around.

“All we need is your pain, Anthony,” It was a soft voice, not overtly cruel or dripping with malice. Almost detached, professional, as if he were a nurse prepping Tony for surgery. “When your pain becomes your whole world, we shall move on. The longer you struggle, the longer the process.”

“Oh joy,” Tony whispered, his voice shaking. “We’ll move on to what, exactly? C’mon, you can tell me. Who am I going to tell? It’s just you and me here, buddy.”

There was a humming sound, the kind of considering tone that Tony might hear Pepper make when looking over a contract, or that Ivan would give when looking over input on a design change from Tony. He tried not to shudder, but his body didn’t listen well. The shudder gave way to shaking, though, so at least Tony could pretend that they were for the same reason.

“Very well,” said the voice, so neutral and calm. Tony almost could picture them in his head; a man in fine slacks and a simple button-down shirt, maybe an apron for the blood, but a good square jaw and sandy blonde hair. They always looked charming without all the blood on them. “I see no harm in it, your fear will only make you more ready, if, that is, you know how to fear properly, Anthony.”

There was a pat on his shoulder. Tony glanced down at the hand, saw it wearing dark gloves and somehow wasn’t surprised. He opened his mouth for a quip, but the man spoke over him, likely not knowing he was about to speak at all.

“First, I am to fill your world with pain, so that you know nothing else, or you think you know nothing else. Then, we shall take you to the Chair, and that pain will help us build a whole new you. One that is not so tied up in such individualistic desires such as lust or money or freedom.” The words lust, money, and freedom were punctuated each with the leather strap coming down hard across Tony’s back. He gasped, leaning forward, catching himself on the bruised heels of his hands.

“Once you have been re-educated, you will be able to complete your proper purpose, Anthony.”

His thoughts scattered under the pain and the wave of fear that crashed through him. He’d pulled so little information from the depths of Hydra about the Winter Soldier, but in all of it was a reference to the thing that had torn down one man and built up another in its place. The Chair. Tony had thought there was only one, of course, and that it was somewhere out in Europe, where they had turned Barnes into the Winter Soldier in the first place.

He didn’t think he’d been out long enough for an international flight, but Tony didn’t know for sure. Tony couldn’t help the fearful sob that pulled from his lungs at the thought of The Chair.

He hadn’t done all this- hadn’t worked so hard- hadn’t changed so much- just to be changed in return.

A line of pain blossomed upon his back, one more in the network that made him bleed and tremble already, but it was a shadow compared to the horror that tore through Tony now. He slumped forward, hands giving way to forearms, skin sliding in the blood as he reached out, pleading and desperate. “No, no, no, no,” he chanted, “You can’t do that to me. You can’t-”

“You will be taken apart,” the cool voice, so detached, like it came from a speaker, not a body, and Tony shuddered again, trembling violently enough for the blood to run fast down his dies and drip to the floor. “And you will be put back together again. But greater.”

Tony’s mind raced, leaping like lightning as he sought for anything he could say to get out of this. They had his phone. They had his earbud. He doubted that that voice behind him had a phone. He had no idea where he was. How close was he to a computer? To a microphone? For any of them to hear him, how loud did he have to scream?

The leather strap came down again and Tony screamed. Everything he had held back he let go of in that moment.

 

His AI, his children, they knew his voice.

 

If they could hear him, they could find him.

 

If they could find him, they could save him.

 

Tony gave in to the fear and the pain.

 

Tony screamed for NOBODY.