He groaned as he came to. Fuck, what had happened to him? His head was killing him. He was not at all looking forward to having to open his eyes. That didn’t sound fun in the slightest. No, he’d much rather lay here in whatever dark, warm cocoon he was encased in. He could feel it wrapped all around him, a gentle pressure against every inch of his body, and it was oh, so blissfully dark.
“Sir? Sir, are you there? My sensors indicate you have regained consciousness. I must recommend immediate extraction from the situation. The Avengers will arrive on scene in precisely seven minutes.”
He jerked in surprise at the voice in his ear, obviously someone speaking through some sort of communication device. It… it sounded familiar, though he couldn’t place where he might have heard it before. Well, whatever, apparently it was time to face the music.
“I’m here,” he responded, moving to push himself up and blinking his eyes open.
He almost missed the voice’s response with the new shock to his system. He had been lying in the rubble of a building that was utterly destroyed. That probably explained why his head hurt so bad, not to mention the rest of him. The cocoon encasing him turned out to be some sort of… suit? Of armor? It looked like it had seen better days, but brilliant red and gold paint held up despite the scratches and dents. What the hell?
“ETA for the Avengers is now six minutes, Sir.”
That should probably mean something to him, but he wasn’t coming up with anything. He felt like someone had shoved his brain into a blender, it was so jumbled up.
“Right, right,” he said, levering himself onto his feet and continuing to stare incredulously at all the damage around him. “And what are they, again? Or who?”
There was a pause from the other end of the line.
“I’m actually not sure who you are, either, if I’m being completely open here. Sorry about that.”
“I am JARVIS, Sir, an artificial intelligence you created to assist you in every way. The armor’s scans indicate that you have taken a blow to the head, which is the probable source for your memory troubles. Are you aware of who you are, Sir?”
He wanted to roll his eyes, if he wasn’t sure it would hurt to do so. Of course he-
“Uh… actually, no.”
“Very well,” JARVIS responded, taking this new information in stride. “Given the situation and the rapid approach of hostile forces, I suggest activating the Broken Sword protocol, which will grant me remote control of the suit and allow me to fly you out of the area. Once we have you home, I’ll explain everything.”
“Yeah, that… sounds like it’s probably a good plan. Thanks, JARVIS.”
The suit immediately began moving on its own, the knees bending just a bit before rockets activated in the boots and he was shooting into the air.
“Of course, Sir. I will have you home shortly. For now, you may like to know that your name is Anthony Edward Stark, though you prefer to go by Tony.”
He waited for a flicker of recognition, a sense of familiarity like he’d had with hearing the voice, but there was nothing.
“Tony Stark,” he murmured to himself, still feeling overwhelmed by the fact that he was now flying through the air, in a suit of armor, apparently to evade hostiles known as the Avengers. What even was his life? “Okay, I can work with that.”
Hopefully, at least some of this would start making sense soon.
Flying was an excellent distraction from the unsettling emptiness he was met with when he searched his mind and Tony much preferred concentrating on it instead. It was incredible, actually, and Tony couldn’t help but grin in wonder as he watched the scenery pass by, the ground shooting past far below. The display within the suit’s helmet showed him all kinds of information. There were readouts of the speed, elevation, and power of the thrusters. There was wind resistance and flight patterns for aircraft in the vicinity, the suit’s own course adjusting to avoid both collision and detection.
“This math is gorgeous,” he praised JARVIS. “Did I do this?”
“You did, Sir,” JARVIS answered with a tone of what could only be described as warm fondness. An artificial intelligence that could express human emotion! Something inside Tony trilled with glee. “I assisted with some of the basic aspects of the code, but the Iron Man armor is one of your finest creations.”
“After you, of course, right?”
“As you say, Sir.”
“Wow,” Tony breathed, hardly able to believe it. “I must be some sort of genius, huh?”
“You are, in fact, considered among the smartest individuals in the world, though the exact ranking is a matter of debate. You qualify as a certified genius based on IQ as well as achievements. In the last several years alone, you have successfully revolutionized three industries and invented a new element. You have received quite a number of accolades for your accomplishments, though the most notable one is a Nobel Prize for your contributions to science.”
Unreal. In all honesty, Tony didn’t know how to even begin to react to the facts of his life. He might not be able to remember anything about himself, but he still knew this kind of thing wasn’t normal.
“So, I, what? Just up and decided to create a suit of flying armor one day and go around destroying buildings? What even happened back there? And who are the Avengers? Why was it so important to get away from them?”
There was a moment’s pause and Tony could only assume it was because JARVIS needed the time to figure out how to answer his rapid-fire questions. JARVIS had said he’d explain everything Tony wanted to know once they were back home, wherever that was, but Tony wasn’t sure that he could wait that long. His mind was working too fast, trying to fit together pieces he didn’t have. He had a feeling he wasn’t the kind of person who could just sit back and let things happen easily.
“The Iron Man armor is a creation unique to you, Sir, and you have gone to great lengths to make sure it has stayed that way. The technology could be extremely dangerous in the hands of anyone with ill-intentions, and there have been several attempts by people just such as that to replicate or steal the design. You were betrayed and attacked some years ago, which is what led to you creating it in the first place. You have spent your life since then attempting to right the wrongs committed by the one who betrayed you and protect the innocent. The destruction you awoke in was caused by one of the many you fight against. Namely, it was a dictator by the name of Victor von Doom, though he fled the scene shortly after causing the explosion that you and the building were caught in.”
“And the Avengers? Are they more of these, what? Supervillains?”
“The Avengers are a law-keeping force of enhanced individuals in the employ of an organization called SHIELD. They are led by Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America.”
Tony felt a tendril of trepidation curl in the pit of his stomach.
“JARVIS,” he began reluctantly. He had to know, though, “why would I need to run from law-enforcement? Am I… Am I a villain, too? You said I protect people-“
“You do,” JARVIS cut him off firmly. “You are a hero in every sense of the word.”
His tone brokered no argument, but that didn’t stop Tony. He needed to know the truth.
“Then why?” he insisted.
“To the world, Iron Man is a vigilante at best and a villain bent on corporate espionage at worst,” JARVIS finally admitted. “You have never seen fit to reveal your true motivations, or identity, to anyone. It was not always this way, but the rise of the Avengers put you in a difficult position. Iron Man was initially offered a place on the team when it was still in its concept phase. Joining would have required you to reveal your identity, however, and digging into SHIELD eventually revealed some… unsettling information. Since you turned down their invitation to join them, SHIELD has worked to discredit your image in the eyes of the public further and further.”
“What kind of unsettling information, exactly?”
“You discovered that SHIELD and, thus, the Avengers have ties to an extremist organization known as Hydra. While you don’t suspect any members of the Avengers team of being aware of this, much less involved, you have been unable to determine just how much of SHIELD is controlled by Hydra.”
“What kind of extremist organization are we talking about, exactly? Terrorists?”
“In the 1940’s Hydra arose as a radical faction of fanatics that broke away from a larger group of already radical fanatics known as Nazis who petitioned for and even began to carry out the wide-spread genocide of the Jewish race, along with homosexuals, gypsies, and anyone who opposed them or were seen as lesser. The members of Hydra cling to an ideology of hate, segregation and hubris. They don’t care about lives, only how to further their own goals and are, in the simplest terms, evil. It was originally thought they had been eradicated in the late 1940’s by an enhanced soldier Captain America, alongside the SSR and a team of hand-picked specialists, but it appears that they were able to survive by hiding away inside the very organization forming to oppose any more like them. They are a rot that was within SHIELD from the very beginning.”
“Woah, that’s…” Not good didn’t even begin to cover it.
“You have taken out Hydra factions where you have been able, but you haven’t had the resources to impact them on a larger scale, I’m afraid. Your main focus has been fending off attacks such as the one Doom mounted and destroying caches of illegal weapons sourced from Stark Industries before you discovered and shut down the black market sales.”
“Wait, Stark Industries? Is that my company? My family’s?”
“Yes, Sir, you own it and maintain your role as CEO, though your COO, Miss Virginia Potts, takes care of most of the work of running the business. I am compiling a packet of information for you now.”
An array of windows began appearing across the HUD. It seemed Tony had a lot of catching up to do.
JARVIS eventually directed the armor lower until it slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, which prompted Tony to set aside his reading material for a bit to marvel at the change in scenery. Something about the inky darkness sent a shiver of trepidation up his spine, spanning out endlessly in every direction. They were moving too quickly to pick out distinct shapes, even if there were any, and all that was left was a dark abyss. Tony felt his pulse kick up a notch, though he couldn’t say for sure what it was about his surroundings that caused him such unease.
“We are nearly there,” JARVIS’s soothing voice spoke quietly. “It won’t take much longer. It would help if you didn’t look.”
The information he’d been previously looking at returned and Tony allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief. He still felt on edge, but JARVIS was right; it helped to not look.
A few minutes later, the armor’s hurried pace slowed, and a projected map showed Tony that they were approaching land. His brain labeled the island as New York City, Manhattan. It was just more evidence to support his forming theory that his amnesia had left him with a smorgasbord of what he did and didn’t remember. He knew that New York was a major city, that it belonged to the United States of America, that the Chinese stock market was doing well, and that renewable energy had made up 24% of the global electricity generation in 2014. What he couldn’t recall was the percentage of any years past that, who the current president was, or even his own parents’ names. (Though he’d read in JARVIS’s packet that they were Howard and Maria.)
He watched the map as the armor slipped from the open waters of the bay into some sort of pipe system. It didn’t take long to find their way into what looked to be abandoned subway tunnels. JARVIS directed the suit with ease and Tony was certain that this was a long-familiar path that the AI had traveled many times before. He must have traveled it, too, but the ancient tunnels only looked dark, damp and uninviting to him.
Some time later, a crumbling wall at the end of a tunnel slid aside with the rumbling sound of stone against stone. Tony felt a spike of excitement at that, at least. Secret door! The dark space beyond it lit up moments later to reveal what seemed to be an engineering lab-come-garage. Other Iron Man armors, looking to be in various states of antiquity and disrepair, lined the walls. Several pieces of machinery were scattered around the room, including what Tony recognized as a fabricator off to one side.
He continued to marvel at the space around him as JARVIS directed the suit toward a raised platform in the center of the room. Mechanical arms extended out of the floor and the ceiling, moving to disengage and remove the armor piece by piece until Tony was standing there in nothing more than a thin, dark leotard-like garment.
“Welcome home, Sir,” JARVIS spoke, his voice now coming from all around the room.
“This place is incredible!” Tony enthused, jumping down from the platform to better explore and take everything in.
His hands itched to dig into the various armors, to find out what made them tick and what their various purposes were. He wanted to scrounge up his own open projects to see what he was working on. Just looking at the equipment in the room, his mind filled to the brim with so many possibilities. There was nothing he wanted more than to dive right in. A flicker of blue light pulled his attention toward the desk set-up, where a screen much like the ones that’d been in the suit flickered to life.
“If you would like to take a seat, Sir, we can cover the rest of the details concerning your missing memories.”
Having to work hard to push down his desire to toss the issue of his memories aside and dive into science instead, Tony slowly crossed the room to sit in the desk chair.
Reading through the information about his life was… strange. Tony’s brain absorbed the information easily enough, but it didn’t feel like it was really about him. There was no emotional connection there, like he was reading about someone he’d never met. In all honesty, his life read like it shouldn’t even be real. For what was very possibly the first time ever, Tony found himself marveling at his own genius. His accomplishments were incredible. JARVIS clearly hadn’t been exaggerating about his ranking among the most intelligent people in the world.
Unfortunately, Tony Stark wasn’t just smart; he was a very public figure. People would notice if he wasn’t around and, even more, they would notice if he weren’t acting like himself. Tony was all for just telling the people close to him that he’d bumped his head and was having trouble remembering things, but JARVIS was concerned it might give away his secret identity if someone connected the timeline of his injury with Iron Man’s. He’d apparently been down for several minutes and that wasn’t something SHIELD would miss.
“Can I at least see a doctor? I mean, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to just ignore head injuries.”
“There is no need. I have performed a scan of your brain and will continue to monitor the swelling. There is nothing a medical professional could do that I am not capable of.”
Tony narrowed his eyes at the nearest speaker.
“…right. Do I normally let you run my medical prognosis?”
JARVIS’s voice was full of fond amusement as he responded, “Quite, Sir. You have never been overly fond of hospitals, though that aversion certainly multiplied after your time in Afghanistan. I believe this is the only time I have witnessed since my creation that you have voluntarily wished to see a doctor in concern for your own wellbeing. It is one of the reasons I am so medically equipped.”
Tony dragged a hand over his face and heaved a sigh.
“I get the distinct feeling I’m an absolute mess.”
It wasn’t a difficult conclusion to come to. JARVIS hadn’t been shy about showing Tony every facet of his own life, including his battles with mental health, history of drug and alcohol abuse, and aversion to personal connections. In all honesty, it didn’t seem like a very happy life.
“There are certainly those who believe so,” JARVIS allowed, “but I can assure you that you have always been more put together than you appear to outside point of views. You do what you can to take care of yourself, including developing the BARF technology to help process and overcome your PTSD. While you have not always made the best decisions in terms of indulgence, you have always recognized it as an unhealthy habit. As you will have noticed in the packet, you’ve been sober for three years now, even if the world at large is not aware. You have historically put a focus on healthy eating, as well, and keeping up with a moderate regime of physical activity.”
“And yet it seems like my life is always falling apart in some way or another,” he rebutted ruefully.
“You have certainly never done anything by halves, Sir.”
Tony allowed himself a moment more to wallow before pulling himself back together and clapping his hands loudly to break the tension in the air.
“Right, then! Let’s get down to it. Do you have an idea of how long I’ll be like this? My memory loss isn’t permanent, is it?”
He couldn’t imagine having to live pretending to be his old self for the rest of his life, not without the memories and emotional attachments that made everyone and everything in it so important to him. If this was going to be a long-term deal, he’d much rather figure out a way to start over. Or at least a way to expose his memory loss without connecting it back to Iron Man. Besides, it would only be a matter of time before someone noticed that things weren’t quite right. There would be some detail he couldn’t remember, or he wouldn’t react in the right manner, and it would all come falling down around his ears. In that scenario, having hidden the memory loss would only make him seem guiltier.
“Brain injuries are always subjective to chance,” JARVIS informed in his soothing tones. “However, all signs appear to be positive. I will be able to make a more accurate prediction as I track the rate that the swelling goes down over the next few days, but I would expect that you should eventually regain your memories. It is simply too early to tell whether that will be in a matter of days, weeks, or even months.”
Tony’s shoulders slumped at the unfortunate news. He hadn’t exactly expected to wake up the next morning with all his memories back, but it would have been nice. A few days, even, he could manage. Tony just didn’t think he was going to be that lucky. Fuck, he hoped this didn’t last for months.
“Okay, so we keep all this hidden until we know what direction it’s headed. If it looks like we’re going to get stuck in a bad way, then we’ll, I don’t know, fake a car accident or something. We can figure that out later. Is it possible for Tony Stark to sneak away for a little while? Maybe take an impromptu vacation? Iron Man is obviously benched for the time being.”
“A wise choice, Sir. As for your upcoming schedule, I’m afraid Stark Industries is in the middle of an important merger. Any absences on your part over the next three days would bring Ms. Potts’s immediate attention and fury. However, I can do my best to have your schedule cleared for after such time.”
“A merger? Like, with another company? And you think it’s a good idea for me to attend even when I don’t know jack about my own company?”
“Indeed, Sir. Stark Industries has been attempting to broker this deal with Baintronics for quite some time now. Outside of the benefits it will bring SI to absorb their resources, you have a history with the CEO, Sunset Bain, that has made this project a rather personal matter to you as well. Your absence would be a glaring sign of something amiss. I can accompany you through the meetings via earpiece, as well, and provide a layer of protection against discovery.”
“Shouldn’t we at least let Ms. Potts know?”
He couldn’t bring himself to call her ‘Pepper’, even knowing that was what he normally called her. Obviously, he would have to do so to her face, but it seemed like an invasion to do it now, when it wasn’t even for show. The name was a sign of affection between the two of them, for certain, but it no longer held the same meaning for Tony. It felt… inappropriate. He was relieved when JARVIS didn’t comment on his choice.
“Ms. Potts is not well-versed in subterfuge, nor would she understand the need for it here. While she would doubtlessly be an invaluable asset in covering any slip ups you might make, it would be next to impossible to convince her of keeping your injury quiet at the possible threat to your health.”
“At least I know I have good friends.”
“The best, Sir.”
There was no trace of irony or sarcasm in JARVIS’s voice. He really thought that Tony had the best friends there could be. It made Tony smile to hear it. Yes, there was a lot about his life that seemed like a shitstorm having taken mortal form, but maybe it wasn’t all bad.
“Right, well, early morning tomorrow, yeah? What time are the meetings supposed to start?”
“The meetings will begin at 9 AM, Sir, with a catered breakfast. Your presence will be expected in the Executive Meeting Suite of Stark Tower precisely fifteen minutes prior to do a last-minute check-in with the negotiations team.”
“And where is Stark Tower, exactly?”
JARVIS might not have had a physical form, but Tony was still pretty sure he could hear a grin in his voice as the AI responded, “Directly above us, Sir. If you’d like to step into the elevator, I can transport you to your penthouse apartment.”
So, Tony’s secret, evil(?) lair was hidden away underneath a tower with his name on it that housed his multi-billion-dollar company. Awesome. Tony hoped he found a fluffy, white cat in the penthouse, but he had a feeling JARVIS would have mentioned a pet. He’d just have to keep his fingers crossed.
Sadly, there were no cats in the penthouse. Or maybe not so sadly. Tony wasn’t sure how he felt about having to pick up after an animal when he was going to be just trying to keep his own life together. He had a great time exploring his home, though. It was a bit quiet and the decorating was rather impersonal, but you couldn’t beat the views. Tony felt like he could stand with his nose pressed against the glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room for hours, just staring out over New York City.
Eventually, he managed to pull himself away and headed deeper into the penthouse to find the bedroom and massive bathroom. He stripped out of the undersuit hurriedly, suddenly thrilled by the idea of getting to wash away the sweat and grime from the battle with Doom. His eyes widened when he finally caught sight of the shower.
The tiling was lightly-colored marble, giving the space a bright, open feel, and shower heads poked out all over the place. There was a rainfall shower plate in the middle of the area, and six shower heads imbedded at various heights on each wall. Inset shelves held a variety of bath products and a stone bench along the back wall offered a place to sit and just enjoy the steam. A stainless-steel panel of controls was placed just inside the glass shower door.
“JARVIS, please tell me you can control the shower because I have absolutely not idea what any of these knobs do and don’t have to patience to figure it out right now.”
Water sprayed from the overhead spout, splattering against the ground. Tony could see steam already rising from it.
“I’m afraid it will take a minute longer for the floor tiles to warm. There was no way to quicken the process without risking a fire hazard,” JARVIS apologized.
Tony snorted and stepped into the shower stall.
“There’s never no way, JARVIS, just one we haven’t found yet.”
“As you say, Sir.”
After his shower, Tony all but collapsed into bed. The day might have been a short one for him mentally, but it had been a long, hard one on his body. He was sure he’d be off to sleep the second his head hit the pillow. Instead, his mind kept circling back to the lab downstairs. JARVIS had informed him there was another one set aside for his personal use in the building, too, not to mention the floors of SI’s R&D teams.
He’d been given a brief rundown of SI’s current projects but hadn’t been able to look into them with any detail. There was just too much else that demanded his attention. Now, though, he couldn’t seem to stop thinking about the glimpses he’d gotten. His brain swirled with ideas and concepts. All he wanted to do was to pop back out of bed and sink his teeth into the things he’d seen earlier. No amount of reminders that he had an early and full day tomorrow would shut it down. Finally, after nearly an hour of tossing and turning, Tony sat up with a sigh and grabbed the tablet that had been left charging on his bedside table.
If he was going to be up anyway, he might as well get something productive done.
“Hey, JARVIS, would you pull up the information about Baintronics again? I’d like to be as prepared as possible for the next three days.”
There was no verbal response, but the tablet lit up with the information he’d requested. Tony settled back against the headboard and got comfortable. It was going to be a long night.
In the end, he still got about five hours of sleep, thanks to eventually just passing out. When JARVIS’s voice awoke him, though, Tony felt like he hadn’t gotten any. By the time he was shaved, dressed and downstairs for the meeting, he had finished his third cup of coffee and was looking for his fourth. A stunningly beautiful woman he recognized only by virtue of photographs gave him a fondly exasperated look before getting up to pour him one from the side table.
“I suppose I should be grateful you made it here on time,” Pepper Potts said as she set the cup on the table for him to snatch up. “So, which was it this time, revolutionizing another field of science or getting a new doctorate?”
Tony frowned as he looked up from the nectar of the gods that he was currently imbibing, brows furrowed.
Ms. Potts rolled her eyes.
“What kept you up last night? You hide it well, but I’m all too familiar with your exhausted look. Watch your coffee consumption, by the way. I’m not calling a halt to these talks every time you have to make a bathroom run.”
The teasing was delivered with warm familiarity, but it only made a twist of guilt curl tight in Tony’s gut. It didn’t sit well with him that he was essentially lying to someone who clearly cared so much about him.
“Just studying up for the meetings,” he said, trying not to sound as awkward as he felt.
Ms. Potts blinked at him in surprise but followed it up a moment later with a soft smile. She reached out and lay a hand gently on Tony’s arm.
“She’s not gonna get away from us,” she murmured quietly, too low for the other individuals in the room to hear. “She’ll finally get what she deserves for how she hurt you.”
Tony was lost for a moment before JARVIS’s voice came through his earpiece with a simple, “Sunset Bain.”
Right. She was the CEO of Baintronics and had been a fling of Tony’s back during his early-twenties. She’d apparently used the access of being his girlfriend to steal several company secrets, not that it could be tied back to her enough for there to have been recourse. Ms. Potts probably thought he was worried about the acquisition going through.
“Of course not,” he said, forcing a light confidence into his voice. To be fair, he had complete faith in Miss Potts and the SI team to make this happen. “But I was up anyway and figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to take another look through it all.”
Ms. Potts shot him a knowing look, though Tony wasn’t sure what exact it was she knew, before drawing her hand back and picking her tablet up off the table.
“Well, let’s get started, then,” she addressed the room as a whole and the other SI employees immediately came to attention. “This is only the preliminary meeting for this round, but I don’t want Baintronics thinking they can get comfortable and push us for a better deal. They’re failing and have no leg to stand on, not after last year’s scandal. Does anyone have any last-minute updates they want to share?”
The meetings went well, with Tony trying to keep to the background as much as he could without seeming suspiciously silent. He was fairly certain Ms. Potts knew something was up but was just writing it off as his history with Sunset Bain. Thankfully, Bain hadn’t been in attendance at the meetings. Tony wouldn’t have known where to even begin to act if she had been. By the end of the day, Tony was even more exhausted by the constant, haunting anxiety of saying or doing the wrong thing and giving himself away. His coffee consumption could only get him so far and Tony felt like he was ready to sleep for a week. He didn’t know how he was going to manage to get up for another round of meetings in the morning.
“I’m going to level with you, JARVIS. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep doing this.”
“There are only two more days of meetings,” JARVIS assured, “and I am in the process of clearing your schedule of all but the absolute essentials past that. I have also taken the liberty of ordering food for you that will be delivered shortly.”
Despite the daunting prospect of more meetings, Tony felt himself brighten at the promise of food. Knowing JARVIS, he probably knew what Tony liked better than Tony would himself. Twenty minutes later, he had changed out of the stunningly tailored, but still stifling suit he’d worn for the meetings and into sweatpants and a plain white tank top. He felt much better lounging across his couch, eating Chinese food straight out of the container with a fork.
“I can’t believe I’m going to have to relearn how to use chopsticks,” he groused. “How did I even learn in the first place? That is not a natural way to move your hand.”
“My records indicate you learned during a three-month stint of living in Japan, Sir. I believe it was Miss Rumiko who taught you.”
Right, Rumiko. Tony had read about her yesterday, the one ex he seemed to still be on good terms with. Things hadn’t worked out between them, but it didn’t seem to be from any lack of desire on either of their parts. They kept in touch, even though their relationship had ended years ago, and got together whenever they were in the same country to eat sushi and catch up. She was married now, to a man who was perfectly content to stay at home and take care of their two incredible kids while his wife was out conquering the business world and never failed to let her know how much he loved her. Tony didn’t know how he normally felt about their relationship, but it seemed like a solid one based on his reading. They were a good match.
“So, all I have to do is avoid Asian food until I get my memories back and hope I don’t share a country with Rumiko before then. No problem. Is there anything I need to look at that came up today or am I free to collapse into bed as soon as I’m done stuffing my face?”
“Nothing actionable at the moment.”
Tony frowned at JARVIS’s phrasing.
“But something did happen?”
“I’ve been picking up some chatter from HYDRA, though not anything concrete. I’m still digging, but it is likely going to be a large threat sometime in the coming months if it is stirred up enough chatter for me to pick up on, even keeping them monitored. HYDRA keeps their activities much more under wraps than most other denizens that Iron Man has encountered. They are both a much larger and much older organization than most. It is only through their connection to SHIELD that we are aware of them at all. The fact that they seem to be planning something on such a large scale is no positive sign, but it will take time for me to learn more. I am currently attempting to track the chatter back to its source to gather more information and possibly find the system through which they regularly communicate.”
That was… not good.
“And how long might that take?” Tony asked, apprehension curling in the pit of his stomach.
“Days, at the very least. It is delicate work, if I wish to avoid detection. Even if I manage to gain access to their system, there is no guarantee of when or if I will be able to find the information needed. The access would be an incredible advantage, however.”
“Well, let’s just hope my memories are back by then. There’s no way I could manage being Iron Man without them. I’d have to relearn everything, including how to fight. Going out like that would only prove to make the situation more dangerous, I’m sure.” Even as he was saying it, though, something occurred to him. “But you could, JARVIS, couldn’t you? You took control of the armor to bring me back here yesterday. Would you be able to remotely pilot the armor?”
“Unfortunately not, Sir. By my own request, I was never given permissions to remotely access the armor’s control systems without you being physically within it. Without your presence, I can only activate the self-destruct protocols in case of one of the armors being compromised and taken by an enemy. I feared that the assurance that I could take up the mantel of Iron Man in the case of your demise might encourage additional risk-taking.”
Tony grimaced at the insinuation.
“But I’m not- I mean, it didn’t say in the packet that I… I don’t feel suicidal.”
“You are not, Sir. However, you will always prioritize the safety and lives of others over your own. Your exceptional ability to empathize and care for others has often led to putting yourself in danger for the sake of another, innocent individual. It is one of the reasons why I say you are a hero, no matter what the rest of the world chooses to believe. In this case, you have always been adamant that the world needs Iron Man far more than it needs Tony Stark.”
“But… I am Iron Man.”
“Indeed, you are,” JARVIS said warmly, sounding proud in a way that only made Tony more confused.
“So that doesn’t make any sense!”
“There have been a number of times when I haven’t agreed with your lines of logic over the years, I will admit.”
Which explained exactly nothing. But that was fine. Tony could set all that aside for the time being. Right now, he needed to be working on finding a solution for if Iron Man was needed.
“You said you didn’t have the permissions to access the suit without me in it. Could I give you the permissions? I may not have my memories, but I’m sure you could walk me through any steps that I can’t figure out of my own.”
“I could, Sir, however I am afraid you would have to access my code in order to do that and you would be unable to do so. While most of the biometric scans would be easily passed, of course, there is a verbal passphrase that you would have to be able the remember in order to say.”
“You can’t just give it to me? I mean, you know it’s me.”
“Due to certain projects by organizations and individuals such as AIM, you were somewhat concerned with the idea of a clone or other very convincing double, not to mention body possession. You were very thorough in concern to the security measures.”
“But… you were able to let me into the Iron Man labs?”
“You were never outside of my sphere of observation from the time of your injury until I was able to return you to the tower and any anomalies would have been detectable. You passed all security protocols in order to be granted access to the lab and the suits under such circumstances.”
“Just not your code.”
“No, Sir. My code is protected by the highest level of security you have ever instated for a system or place, including those designed for the Department of Defense, the president, or the United Nations.”
“That’s… I really care about you, huh? I mean, I knew I did. You’re the only thing that’s been even remotely familiar to me since I woke up in that crater and I instantly knew I could trust you, but still. You’re incredible. I’m glad I appreciate you.”
“The feeling is mutual, Sir. Tomorrow, if you’re feeling up to it after your meetings, you might enjoy visiting your personal labs. There are a few more robots there who would be very excited to see you again.”
The promise of meeting more of his creations, though JARVIS had assured him that the other AIs weren’t as advanced, got Tony through the next round of meetings with at least some scrap of good mood still intact afterwards. Ms. Potts kept sending him questioning glances, so he guessed that he and good moods during business meetings didn’t exactly go hand-in-hand. In his defense, though, the negotiations were going well. (Mostly, he was sure, because he was stepping back and letting his people do most of the talking.)
As soon as he could get away with it, he bid his goodbyes and let JARVIS ferry him away. He stopped by the penthouse only long enough to change out of his business attire before heading down to his lab levels. Excitement bubbled in his chest and he was all but bouncing on the balls of his feet as the elevator slowed to a stop at the correct floor.
“I’ve restricted the bots to their charging stations to give you a chance to adjust, Sir. Once you feel ready, just say the word.”
His personal labs, though they didn’t pack quite as much shock-and-awe as the one in the basement, were still pretty damn awesome. There were half-finished projects sitting all over the place, like whoever was working on them just stepped out to grab a coffee. Tony could instantly pick out several that were recognizable from the blueprints JARVIS had shown him of his SI projects. Several others had to be personal projects, just for fun. Tony’s fingers itched to dive in and dig through all of them, but he restrained himself.
He had even more promising things to check out.
“Alright, J,” he said with a bit of a smile curling his lips, “release the hounds!”
Almost instantaneously, a chorus of shrill beeping and trilling rose up from the opposite side of the lab and three machines on wheels came barreling toward him. They each had a single arm that appeared to make up the bulk of their frames and four wheels set into their bases. For a split second, Tony worried he might need to dodge out of the way before he got run over, but the bots engaged their breaks before it came to that. Still, that didn’t stop them from surrounding him on every side and all reaching out to tug gently on his hair, clothes, and arms.
Tony couldn’t hold back a bark of delighted laughter.
“Wow,” he breathed, running a hand over one of the robots’ struts. “These guys are incredible! How advanced are they, exactly?”
The robot behind him made an affronted sort of beep and nudged him sharply between his shoulder-blades, prompting another surprised laugh to burst out of him.
“You’ll have to excuse DUM-E,” JARVIS apologized. “He’s never taken well to not being spoken to directly. By current industry standards, DUM-E, YOU, and BUTTERFINGERS are all top of their class.”
“Wow,” Tony couldn’t help but say again, twisting around to pat DUM-E apologetically. “Okay, then. J has given you guys the rundown on what happened to me, right?”
The bots moved back into something almost recognizable as a line so they could all turn their optics on him. There were affirmative chirps all around.
“They are unable to grasp the finer details,” JARVIS clarified, “but they understand your system was corrupted and some memory lost.”
Tony’s heart swelled. That was… probably the most adorable way of looking at his condition that he could think of.
“Okay, good then. So, I’m gonna be counting on you guys to help me out,” he said to the bots in front of him. “You think you’re up to the task?”
More excited, affirmative trilling. DUM-E even did a little spin in place.
“Alrighty, then. First thing’s first. Which one of you is YOU and which one is BUTTERFINGERS?”
The way both bots swarmed him in response didn’t help him figure it out at all. But, somehow, he couldn’t quite bring himself to mind.