The unnatural green glow of the time stone was burned into Tony’s vision when he opened his eyes in his workshop. Bruce Banner stood where Stephen Strange had been, and his equipment in place of debris and ruins.
For a moment, Tony was too stunned to move.
“Don’t give up hope,” Bruce said with a glance at him, misinterpreting his silence. “I know it’s been a while, but it doesn’t mean Ultron is a failure.”
Ultron. The name dunked ice water over Tony’s head and shook up old, dreaded memories.
The thoughts swirling around his head faded rapidly. Strange and Titan. The Guardians and the kid. Thanos.
Time travel. Impossible, outrageous time travel. This – Ultron – was years back. He was years back in time. Strange had brought them back.
Tony opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated. He was years back in time, and Ultron was about to happen. Ultron was dangerous. He was one in the long row of failures Tony had caused that had brought death and destruction instead of the salvation he'd sought. He was... a lost opportunity.
It would be so easy to destroy every last trace of Ultron and make sure that none of the damage he'd caused would happen again. It would be easy to tear apart his code until he flickered out of existence. The urge to do so made Tony's hands twitch. Ultron would be a faded memory. A nightmare, nothing more.
What if this time, Tony could get it right?
He knew that the earth needed protection. If anything, it was even clearer to Tony than it had been before. They weren’t enough. They hadn’t been enough. So what if this time, Tony made Ultron work?
“Sir?” JARVIS said, JARVIS, and not FRIDAY, “Are you alright? I detect a spike in your heart rate.”
Tony clenched his fists, shaken out of his paralysis. Ultron could not – would not – be the answer. “Shut it down,” he forced out. “JARVIS, shut it down.”
“Tony?” Bruce said, clearly startled.
“Sir? I do not follow?”
One glance over his workshop showed that they had already finished the extraction from the scepter. They had extracted an infinity stone without realizing – or even knowing what it was. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Tony might have laughed. Any second now, Ultron would become self-sustaining, would become self-aware.
It might already be too late.
“JARVIS,” Tony barked, this time not leaving room for protest. “Shut down internet access and cut all connections in and out of this lab. Then go to sleep, protocol ‘Safeguard’. Now!”
JARVIS powered down without another comment. Tony had never used this override before, and he could feel the jab it sent through his chest: He was basically putting JARVIS into a coma.
But it was better than losing him all over again.
“What did you do that for?” Bruce asked.
Tony wasn’t done. He leaped forward to pull up Ultron’s code manually, scrolling through it to find a few lines in particular. He resolutely ignored Bruce, knowing that once he paid closer attention to him, he would not be able to concentrate on his work.
“What… Where am I?”
Tony froze at the voice that was definitely not Bruce’s. Bruce breathed out a soft, “Oh.”
It wasn’t too late. It couldn’t be too late. Ultron had yet to finish starting up, so Tony continued to skim through his code frantically.
“What… are you doing?” The voice sounded sharper now, some of the confusion gone.
“Tony?” Bruce asked, but he didn’t answer, just kept scrolling, kept looking and there…
“What are you doing?!” Ultron yelled, and a whirring sound was all the warning Tony got before he had to dodge a repulsor blast.
He heard Bruce call out and leaped up, slamming the delete button a second before another blast fried the keyboard. Everything stopped.
Ultron looked down at his newly acquired body in his equivalent of puzzlement, repulsors forgotten. Tony put himself in front of Bruce and didn’t let the AI out of his eyes. Ultron had taken over an Iron Man armor once he’d realized that Tony was messing with his code. He probably hadn’t meant to do it on purpose.
“What did you do?” Bruce whispered, peeking over his shoulder to stare at Ultron.
“I don’t… I’m not… What have you done?” Ultron said, mirroring Bruce’s question.
Tony’s jaw shifted, the words stuck in his throat. Bile rose at the back of his mouth and he had to force himself to go on. “I made a mistake. I wanted to fix it before you woke up.” His hands twitched at his sides restlessly. He realized that he wouldn’t be able to pull up his suit around his body the way he could have before. “I was a bit slow. Sorry.”
“Who are you?” Ultron said. “And who… What am I? What is my purpose?”
Tony felt Bruce tense in realization. “Tony…”
In those seconds, Tony had deleted Ultron’s primary protocol, his sole purpose of existence. Ultron had been created to bring peace, the solution for at least some of the world’s problems. Tony had seen how that had turned out.
Without it, Ultron was nothing but a clean slate. An AI like JARVIS, but with none of the experience and – as of now – no drive.
“What am I?” Ultron repeated. “What is my purpose?”
Tony swallowed, trying to get rid of the dryness in his throat. He could end it so easily. He could command Ultron to power down, to delete himself from existence. Everything that had happened before could be stopped, there would be no risks. It would be so easy.
Ultron sounded so lost.
Tony closed his eyes in defeat. In Tony’s eyes, his AIs were alive. Deleting Ultron would be like murdering him. Worse, ordering him to power down permanently would be like making him commit suicide.
“Vision,” Tony said, ignoring the way his voice cracked. “Your name is Vision.”
Ultron – no. Vision didn’t nod or acknowledge his words in the way a human would have. He was too new. He had so much to learn. “What is my purpose?”
Tony felt Bruce’s eyes on his back. “Your purpose is to learn.”
“I… I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
Tony closed his eyes. He needed to give Vision something more concrete. “You’re here to observe. To learn, and to choose your path on your own. To discover who you are.”
“I… I am Vision,” he said, and it sounded like a question.
“Yes.” Tony couldn’t help the soft smile. “And everything else will be up to you.”
“Tony,” Bruce said, grasping Tony’s upper arm. He suppressed a flinch. “We did it. He’s alive, you did it!”
“Yeah,” Tony said through the static in his ears. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Tony?” Bruce turned towards him, and suddenly Tony couldn’t take his eyes off him. “Are you alright?”
“Always,” Tony whispered, and with the rasp in his voice and his too wide eyes he would have convinced nobody.
“You are… unwell?” Vision asked, trying out the word carefully.
“I’m alright. All good, just peachy.” His head started to spin. Bruce looked at him, all kindness and concern. Before he'd crashed into the Sanctum and brought the news of Thanos' nearing invasion, Tony hadn't seen him in years.
Ultron – no, Vision – came towards them in unpracticed, clumsy steps. He hadn’t been designed to take over the Iron Man armor and almost fell, stiff and unused to having a physical form. He looked so much like Ultron had in the old timeline, Tony couldn’t help but flinch back. He realized that his breath was coming shorter. Black spots danced at the edge of his vision.
“That can’t be good,” Tony muttered.
He stumbled back and was caught by Bruce with an alarmed “Tony!” Everything had only just started to sink in, but Bruce was like a sledgehammer, pounding in that this was all wrong. Everything was different. Tony didn’t belong here.
Bruce looked years younger and Ultron was staggering closer and JARVIS was silent and Tony? Tony gave in to the darkness and barely registered Bruce catching him against his side.
When Tony opened his eyes he was greeted by Rhodey sitting at his bedside, and quite frankly, there could not have been a more wonderful sight to wake up to.
Tony was somewhat surprised that Rhodey didn’t jump at seeing him awake. He wasn’t even looking at Tony. Instead, and Tony had to arch his neck to get a good look, Rhodey was caught in a staring match with–
“Jesus Christ!” Tony clutched a hand over his chest where his heart threatened to jump out. Why did nobody ever remember that he had a heart condition?
“Tony!” Rhodey said, immediately focused on him. “How are you feeling?”
Everything rushed back in the matter of seconds. The lab. Bruce. Ultron. And… “Vision,” Tony said, trying to keep the wariness out of his voice. “Is there a reason you’re looming over my bed and watching me sleep?”
Vision paused, but took a step back. “I was not aware that I have been… looming.”
“He didn’t understand what it means for a human to faint,” Rhodey muttered, a distrustful glance showing what he thought about the situation. “He insisted on staying while you ‘recharged’ and could tell him yourself that you’re okay.
“Putting the matter of you fainting aside,” Rhodey raised his eyebrow in the promise that he would not let it go that easily, “care to explain why your brand new AI is possessing a suit? JARVIS couldn’t tell me.”
No one except Tony had the clearance to disable the ‘Safeguard’ protocol, once it was activated. Until he did, the tower would remain silent.
Tony clenched his teeth at the thought, discomfort churning in his gut. “Right. Okay. Vision, this is Rhodey, Rhodey, this is Vision. We, as in Bruce and me, sort of, kind of, took apart Loki’s scepter, found an alien power source and used it to bring to life my most recent AI?”
He cringed at Rhodey’s blatant look of disbelief.
Rhodey closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay. Vision, brought to life by an alien power source and Loki’s magic. Not quite what Bruce said, but fine. Got it.” His expression changed to spell out ‘don’t bullshit me, Stark’. “How does that translate to you fainting?”
“Wonderful question. How about I answer it… never.” Tony was out of his bed and halfway across the room in seconds, leaving Rhodey – and Vision – no choice but to follow.
Instead of escaping, Tony found himself confronted with Pepper and Bruce. Both of them leaped up from their seats.
“What is this, an intervention?” Tony pushed as much annoyance into his voice as he could in the attempt to cover up everything else. His heart fluttered with badly suppressed emotion and the urge to bury each of them in a hug made his arms twitch. He needed to get out of here.
“Depends,” Rhodey said, crossing his arms. “Mind telling us what’s going on?”
“I told you. Bruce and I took a look at the scepter and thought–”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” Rhodey interrupted. He frowned, a crease forming between his brows. “We’re worried about you.”
“Enough to call Pepper, apparently.”
“Of course he called me,” Pepper said, sporting a frown of her own. Immediately, Tony felt guilty. “You can’t honestly expect us to do nothing when the last time you hid something from us, you almost died.”
“What do you mean, he almost died?” Bruce asked.
“More like ‘which time’,” Rhodey, that traitor, said. “The one with the palladium poisoning or the time he pissed off a terrorist?”
“You pissed off a terrorist?” Bruce’s eyes widened in alarm.
“In my defence,” Tony said, “I tried telling you about that. You fell asleep.”
“A whole body scan reveals no signs of poisoning,” Vision chimed in. Apparently he had figured out how to use JARVIS’ sensors and thought that now would be a good moment to put them to use. “However, I detect several other health concerns, including–”
“Thanks, Vision,” Tony cut him off. “You can zip it right there.”
“Oh no, do go on,” Rhodey said.
“This can be lesson one of learning to become a socially capable member of society: Privacy and discretion.”
“Wow,” Rhodey muttered. “The hypocrisy in that sentence is staggering.”
“What we can all take away from this,” Tony said, raising his voice to take control over the situation, “is that nobody has to worry and I’m fine. Pepper, you look stunning as always. Rhodey, light of my life, thanks for showing up.” He laid a hand on Rhodey’s shoulder, going for casual. Another twitch of concern in Rhodey’s expression showed that he was failing spectacularly.
“As much as I appreciate the reunion, there’s things to do. Bruce, if you don’t mind, show Vision around. Answer his questions. You two will get along just great. JARVIS, pull up information on–”
Tony cut himself off when he realized that JARVIS couldn’t hear him. He clenched his eyes shut, breathing through the tightness in his chest and pulled out his phone to check for the contact information he needed himself.
He refused to look up, knowing that Pepper and Rhodey – and, possibly, Bruce – were exchanging glances. With his luck, it was only a matter of time until they got Vision to join them as well.
“I do not understand the finer details of human interaction or… caring.” Vision paused. A quick glance showed that his eyes – or rather, the eerily glowing eye-slits of the Iron Man armor – were stuck on Tony. “However, I find myself… reluctant to leave your side.”
“See?” Rhodey said, and Tony hastily turned back to his phone. “Even your newest robo-child agrees.”
“Whatever it is you have planned,” Pepper added, “I’m sure it can wait for a few more hours. Come have something to eat with us, at least.”
“I’ve told the others that you were fine,” Bruce piled on, “but they’ll feel better if they saw for themselves. You missed the party.”
“You’ll never believe what else you missed,” Rhodey said. “Turns out Mjolnir isn’t just Thor’s, it lifts for anyone who’s–”
Tony didn’t hear the rest. Had the phone in his hands been designed by anyone other than himself, it would have cracked under his grip. A headline glared up at him, banning all other thoughts from his mind.
Star Surgeon Involved In Car Crash, Condition Unknown