Chapter 17: Chapter 17
Summary: The rouge Avengers are pardoned under the influence of King T’Challa and it is up to Tony to ‘welcome’ them back. But as he and his new team are at the private airport, an unexpected fight breaks loose and the fate of the whole universe is changed when a wizard places himself as Tony Stark’s protector.
Stephen at first didn’t understand what was going on. Everything was suddenly active and whirring to life, working on something. There were dozens of holograms all over the place, showing SI files, the leaked SHIELD files, Avengers, old, new and Young, files, files on the Fantastic Four, these Defenders, the X-men and other mutants, the Inhumans, Howard and Maria Stark’s files, SI’s R&D files, Iron Man armor files, Avengers equipment files, a file on Wakanda, Vision, Shuri, files on villains, old and current, politicians, the Accords, all sort of files. Stephen couldn’t even follow all of them as they whirled around.
There were two big orbs floating in the center of the room, one orange and one a purplish pink. JARVIS and FRIDAY. Concentrated constructions of code. JARVIS was bigger with more layers, more complex. To be expected, twenty something years of experience is bound to do that. Even though they weren’t saying anything out loud, the holographic projection of the two AIs were obviously exchanging information, since tiny pieces of what must be code was going back and fort. The other machines had come to life, sparking, moving, beeping and so on and so fort.
If Tony’s workshop had been a thing of wonder before, it was a field of magic now. Mechanical, scientific magic, one that anyone with a few degrees could eventually understand, but magic none the less.
At first, Stephen didn’t understand. Why would Tony show him this? Then it occurred to him that Tony hadn’t said anything or made any gestures to signal FRIDAY or JARVIS to put up this display. That was the confusing bit. Because how had he activated all of these machines without moving a muscle? And then he looked back at resigned glowing blue eyes and he felt the breath punched out of him by the half realization he made.
He didn’t know how or why it was possible, but it was obvious to him that Tony had done something to himself. Something he knew Stephen wouldn’t exactly be overly supportive of, judging by how he was bracing himself for his reaction, so it was either dangerous to himself or to others. Knowing Tony as he did now, after the futures he’d seen, after what he’d seen of the man himself in person, Stephen felt dread as he knew it was the former.
"Tony,” he implored almost desperately. “What have you done?”
“I injected myself with Extremis, or at least a form of it.” A holographic screen flickered to life in front of Stephen but he couldn’t look away from Tony’s eyes. Now that he was studying them so closely, he could see millions of strings of code flashing across the usually brown eyes, which was why the eyes appeared to be glowing blue. Like Tony’s computer screens. “I’ve been improving it over the years, ever since that first stable version I gave to Pepper. That one just kind of canceled out all the effects of the first Extremis, but I then got thinking how it could be used for the greater good. Not much luck there, though.”
“What do you mean? How dangerous is it?” The doctor in him finally gave up not looking at the data so freely offered and he felt all breath leave his body as he read what the first Extremis was like, then scientific curiosity got the better of him and he started scrolling down with one hand, reading about the changes Stark had made for Pepper. He’d never seen something like this before. For a second, he thought it was a way to cure the shaking of his hands, even though he knew he would never return to the operating room now that he knew Tony and the Earth, the universe, needed him. But he continued reading and he was glad he hadn’t really started hoping.
In order to receive the version of Extremis that healed Ms Potts of the first virus, to gain those powers and that healing ability, you’d have to get injected with the unstable virus version, first. But the original Extremis might just kill you before you can get that second injection. And every other version Tony worked on was too taxing on the body to handle, since it directly attacked the brain, forcing it to recode everything it knew about the body and change it forcefully.
“Why would you do this to yourself?” Stephen asked, even as he continued reading. He finally came to the version of Extremis that Tony had used and paused. The data was extraordinary. What’s more, it was obvious Tony had found a way to make the Extremis stable and usable. But the cost for that was as dangerous as for every other version. You had to have metal particles in your blood in order to safely use Extremis, kind of like wires, not to mention a stable, constant power source. Only Tony Stark had the Arc Reactor in his chest and wasn’t likely to start giving away that technology. And the only reason he could do this to himself was because he had once had a sever case of heavy metal poisoning. Palladium from the Arc Reactor, a link told him when he searched into it.
“Because we need it.” Tony’s reply drew Stephen’s attention back to his companion, whose face he was still cradling in one hand. “I ... I need it. To fight. To never let Siberia or the Mandarin incident happen again. Or ... New York.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I can make a space worthy suit but I’d lose contact with JARVIS and FRIDAY if I ever got too far out of the orbit. I don’t need the Internet, but I need them.” Tony’s eyes were once again their normal brown, not that they were any less captivating, either way. “I can pilot the suit just fine on my own, but there are functions of it that I need help with, which is why I installed JARVIS in the suit as my co-pilot in the first place. There are aspects of flight and our fighting that I would need coding to do and J and FRI are there for that, bless them. To fight at my 200%, I need my co-pilot and my baby girl. Especially for my newest suit.”
“And how will this help with that?” Stephen so wanted to continue reading the offered data but he couldn’t look away from Tony now. Not when that determination was sparking in his eyes.
“Sir is now connected to the web the same as me and FRIDAY are.” JARVIS answered instead of his creator, startling Stephen for a second as he had kind of forgotten that, although there were no humans present, that didn’t mean they were alone. “Sir is now a living, breathing, biological super computer and is in almost constant contact with us or the web.”
“Kind of like those science fiction technopaths, only Boss is the real deal.” FRIDAY added, sounding both chipper and angry. Sending a glance at the data offered, it showed Stephen that she had noted it down that she had suggested further testing. “It is perfectly safe but tasking on a human brain, even one as brilliant as Boss’. He needs us to filter through most of the information, still, and to protect him from any viruses hiding in the deep web or anywhere, for that matter.”
“And you’re doing one hell of a job, although you really shouldn’t have electrocuted Wakanda’s princess.” At the flat look Stephen gave him, Tony chuckled uneasily.
Both AIs huffed. “She was trying to hack you, Sir. We were just defending your brain.”
“Didn’t mean you had to go all Hal-9000 on her.”
“She tried to hack you, Boss. Not a computer. We don’t allow that.”
“Shuri didn’t know that. Still doesn’t,” he added, seemingly for Stephen’s sake. “But she knows not to do it again.”
“Are you prone to being hacked now?” That’s a worrying thought. Stephen didn’t want to think about it but if Tony was essentially a computer now, it was a very real possibility. Luckily, Tony joined his AIs in their huff, obviously insulted.
“I’m the best damn programmer in the world. I created the best firewalls that no one had managed to hack, ever.” The engineer said confidently and proudly. “I can stop a hack in its tracks, no matter how skillful or discreet. Besides, I have J and FRI to do it if I am sleeping or otherwise indisposed.” He shrugged. “I was always more comfortable around machines than humans. With the exception of Ultron, but that right there was some serious mind/matrix/coding-whammy done by the Mind Stone.”
“I’m afraid to ask.” Besides, he thought he had demanded too much of Tony’s privacy already while giving nothing of his own. That didn’t sit well with him. But the only thing that matched the levels of vulnerability Tony was displaying to him were his hands and they shook just at the thought of talking about them. “Are you sure this won’t harm you?”
“It makes me feel better. I can rest at night because I can hear JARVIS and FRIDAY and I know I’m not alone, in some Afghani cave or in Siberia.” Both of which had been vague topics of his talks with Stark in the future. His free hand, scrolling through the information, tightened in a fist that made his shaking even more obvious due to the effort. He ignored the pain that came with that exertion but he couldn’t ignore how Stark’s eyes flew to his hands, a frown crossing his face. He flicked his gaze back to Stephen before lowering his eyes. Stephen was a bit surprised when calloused hands gently touched both of his. “May I?”
Well, this was his opportunity to make the scales even, for them to stand on equal ground. He took a shuddering breath and nodded, letting Tony take both of his hands. Scanners from somewhere must have examined his hands and were sharing the images and data with Tony because his eyes were once again glowing blue as he ran careful, gentle fingers along the scars left by the surgery in which eleven stainless steel pins had been put inside his bones to enable any sort of movement. Christine and Dr West really had done their best but Stephen was still convinced he could have done better, done more.
But then he wouldn’t have been here, wouldn’t have ever met Tony. Earth would have probably lost her greatest defender long before he was most needed. The universe knew what it was doing and it wasn’t letting him regret it. He couldn’t regret it. Knowing Tony Stark like he did now ... He wouldn’t give that up, for anything, not even his old career back.
“Are you sure it has no negative effects? Because you are starting something beautiful, something significant here, Stark, uniting the superpowered groups and individuals in the world under a single all abiding law that protects us.” He looks up from where Tony is still examining his hands. The short man stops for a moment, blinks his glowing blue eyes back to their beautiful brown color, looking almost confused. “I need to know if there can be any sort of relapse to watch out for. I’d rather not find out a friend has did himself in in such a way.” After all, the files on the Extremis show that the thing could be downright explosive and quite literally, at that.
“I’m fine.” Tony immediately says but it doesn’t sound like a deflection or a meaningless reassurance. He sounds sincere and sure in his words. “I’m a little more than fine, actually. I haven’t felt this good in years. I think I even look younger.”
“I couldn’t tell.” Stephen goes for the usual sarcasm instead of actually being truthful that he really couldn’t. Obviously, despite the Extremis and its new healing ability that he got, lack of sleep and proper nutrition could still make a man look haggard. “So, does this make you enhanced or a mutant? Because I’m pretty sure you’ll have to address that soon enough, especially with the Accords in power and the UN Council just waiting for someone to make a mistake so they can troll us all.”
“Technically, Boss is still a baseline human, Dr Strange.” The female AI decided to answer instead of her creator. “He does not fulfill any of the ‘requirements’ to be labeled as either enhanced or mutant and Inhumans are a whole different category.”
“But I saw here that the Extremis does have enhancements. In strength, healing and some fire-breathing powers.” Although that last one was more regarding the original virus. Tony had nearly stripped Extremis of all enhancements of the serum, instead replacing them with the ability to connect with machines. Technopathy and better healing abilities, that’s what Tony had modestly settled for. “Not to mention the technopathy. I never heard of it, even among mutants, outside of movies, books and comics. How does that even work?”
“Well, the Extremis is actually nerve-recoding nanobots transfered in a liquid environment.” Tony explained. “Technically speaking, it’s not even me who is connected to the Internet and the like. It’s the nanobots that have practically merged with my brain. Does that sound weird to you? Because being said out loud does. I just never noticed it before. J, is it weird?”
“On more levels than you may know, Sir.” Came the snarky retort from the AI and Stephen just shook his head.
“Nice.” Came the equally snarky reply from said AI’s creator. “Anyway, I’m not a mutant since mutants’ genetic mutations occurred because of radiation and mutagenic materials and factors that they come into contact with in every day life. Or rather, their parents. And mutant powers awaken when they reach teen years or early twenties. I’m well past that.”
“And the possibility of you being listed as an enhanced?” The doctor asked, going back to the reading material Tony was willing to offer him. He had to make sure nothing could harm Tony or hinder their further planning. It had been going great, so far. But this Extremis seemed ... Dangerous was one word for it. A miracle was another.
“I don’t have superstrength or anything like that. I did for the first week plus some hours, but that faded after the worst of all of my injuries healed. Thank god for that because my left hand had almost gone to shit after the Civil War.” Tony shuddered just at the mention of the fight and Stephen frowned. He knew most of what happened in Siberia, what really happened, anyway, but Tony had never actually gone into detail about it. For one, Stephen didn’t remember Tony ever telling him his left hand had been injured. “I’m really just a baseline human who can use his brain’s electric waves to command nanobots, who in turn can connect to, well, anything. But I’m still just plain ol’ Tony Stark. I’m just good with tech.” The doctor shook his head, both at the smirk the other was wearing and the ‘plain old’ part because there was nothing plain or old on Stark. Tony was the future and always new.
“Is this dangerous to you?” Strange finally asked that which really interested him. He needed to know so he can act now. Or as soon as possible. “In any way? You said you can’t get hacked because FRIDAY and JARVIS are watching your back. But can an EMP shut off the nanobots? Did you have any complications when you applied the serum?”
“It’s not dangerous to me but it would be a slow and painful death sentence to anyone else. Sorry it can’t help your ... You know.” They both pointedly didn’t look at Stephen’s hands. It didn’t bother him nearly as much as it used to but it still bothered him. Especially the chronic pain. He just didn’t like looking at them, watching them shiver and tremble and rainy or snowy days were a bitch. “And no. I ... After what happened with the Iron Monger, using that EMP blast to fry the impostor suit ... I updated everything Iron Man related to isolate any EMP attacks. My Arc Reactor was, obviously, the first that got that treatment but even my nanobots have it. So no worries there. And J and FRI can tell you all about my procedure since they will either way, the little traitors.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“I have no regrets.”
Tony snorted and shook his head minutely, seemingly in no rush to disengage Stephen’s hand that still cradled his face. And wasn’t that awkward? Yet it somehow wasn’t. It should be but it wasn’t. Weird. “Isn’t it troublesome when your own kids turn on you?”
“What? The Cloak never pulled a prank on you?”
“Wha-? Of course it had. It loves messing with me on quiet days. What does that have to do with anything?” Tony just chuckled at him for that, shaking his head again and finally taking a step back, within arm’s distance but still out of reach of Stephen’s hand where it had previously been touching the genius. Stephen fought the impulse to pull him back in, to hold him and never let go.
“I swear, for someone so damn smart you sure are oblivious.” The sorcerer frowned at that, sending Tony a mild glare that disappeared a second later, replaced by confusion at Tony’s next question. “How are you taking this so well? Most people would be freaking out or choking me by now.”
“Why would I freak out?” He didn’t comment on the choking part for fear of going after Thor, Loki and the rouges right here and now. He’d be tempted to introduce them all to Dormammu and wouldn’t regret it for a second.
“Well, because I have the power to access any computer in the world in a blink and I’m, well ... I’m me.”
“You say that as though it hadn’t been a possibility before.” Stephen snorted, crossing his arms and finally dismissing the data on Extremis. He will trust Tony on his word that he is fine and he can always check on it with the Time Stone. “You can just do it quicker.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?” Stark sounded both cautious and shocked.
“Yes.” There was a raw, naked honesty in his voice and in his eyes that really made the temptation to introduce Dormammu to his new roommates too much to resist. Stephen has become a patient man since he started learning the Mystic arts but even he damn well had his limits and just the thought of how the rouges treated Tony was pushing those limits almost beyond breaking point.
“Well, it doesn’t. I trust you to do the right thing with your new power and since you haven’t toppled any of the world governments as of yet, I know that the power over the digital world is in the right hands.” His declaration seemed to stun the genius and Stephen smiled sadly at his ... Well. “You’re probably one of the few friends I have, Tony. I don’t trust easy but I trust you. Can’t that be answer enough?” He replied to the question unvoiced but so clear in Tony’s eyes.
The brunet looked away for a moment before a shy but brilliant smile settled on his lips. “You know me probably better than you’re letting on so I guess it will have to be enough. I won’t disappoint you, Doc.”
And just like that, Stephen was sure that their story had finally started.