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23 April 2012 @ 12:32 am
by the light we see  
Title: by the light we see
Author: [personal profile] somehowunbroken
Artist: niki_chidon
Beta: [personal profile] shinysylver
Fandom: Avengers
Characters: Steve, Tony, Pepper, Rhodey
Word Count: 8.053
Rating: PG
Notes: Written for the 2012 cap_ironman reversebang. Thanks ever so much to niki_chidon for the lovely art, to [personal profile] shinysylver for tireless beta work and handholding, and to ariadne83 for cheerleading.
Link to art: here. Go check it out and let the artist know what a fantastic job she did!
Summary: It takes a little while for Steve to notice that something isn't right with Tony.



It starts on a Thursday that is, in every other way, completely normal.

“Tony,” Steve greets when he walks into the dining room. “Working on something interesting?”

“Of course,” Tony says, glancing up and grinning. “Everything I do is interesting. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.”

Steve laughs. “Interesting to someone who isn’t you, then,” he amends.

Tony shrugs and looks back down at his notepad. “Just something I can’t get out of my head,” he says. “I had an idea for upgrading the suit, but unless I can get these equations to balance out, it’s not going to do what I thought it would.”

“Just don’t blow anything up,” Steve advises, grabbing an apple out of the fruit bowl and heading for the door again. “Spar at three?”

Tony snorts. “Daily beating, check,” he replies. “I’ll see you in a few hours, Cap.”

-0-

Steve goes looking for Tony when three turns into a quarter after, then half past. He checks Tony’s lab first before looking in his bedroom. He’s not in either place, so Steve wanders towards the dining room, hoping Clint is there. He seems to know where everyone is at all times..

Tony is sitting in the same spot he’d been in that morning, still frowning down at his notepad.

“Have you moved from that seat since I left?” Steve asks, and Tony jumps.

“What?” He turns in his seat to look up at Steve. “Oh, hey. Sorry, I got a little lost in this.”

“I noticed,” Steve replies, amused. “Can you put it down for an hour and come to the gym, or is it something critical?”

Tony laughs and stands, flipping the notepad closed before he stretches. “Nah, I’m nowhere close to figuring out where the issue is,” he says. “Might as well get the crap kicked out of me for a while.”

Steve claps him on the back and grins as they walk. “That’s the spirit,” he says cheerfully. “Hey, you never know, today might be the day you surprise me.”

Tony snorts. “Right, and maybe afterwards, we’ll go have tea with Ultron, and Thor will tell us all about his relationship with Hank Pym.”

Steve manages to keep his laughter in as he widens his eyes. “Thor and Hank? Wow, that’s news.”

“Jerk,” Tony says, exasperated and fond, and Steve laughs as Tony swats him. “Come on, kick my ass so I can get back to figuring out how physics is failing me.”

They train for a bit, but Steve can tell that Tony’s mind isn’t quite in it. Steve holds a hand up the third time Tony throws the same punch without making the corrections that Steve had told him to do. “We can postpone this if the suit upgrades are that important.”

Tony makes a face. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” he says ruefully. “I mean, it’s not like these things don’t take time, but usually when I’m doing upgrades to the suit, the math works itself out pretty quickly.”

“It’s fine,” Steve says, grinning. “Go on, make math do your bidding. We’ll spar when you’ve got your head on straight.”

-0-

Steve doesn’t see Tony for five days.

-0-

“Hello?” Steve says into his phone.

“Captain Rogers,” Pepper says briskly. “Have you seen Tony around?”

Steve frowns. “Not recently, no. I know he was working on some upgrades for the suit, though.”

Pepper’s sigh crackles through the connection. “I’m not sure if my job was more difficult or less before he became Iron Man,” she says wryly, and Steve laughs. “Look, he’s skipped out on two meetings since Friday afternoon, and I need to know if he can be pried away from his tinkering for long enough to go to the shareholders’ meeting tomorrow, so I can start making excuses if he’s not going to show.” She takes a breath. “He’s ignoring my calls.”

“Let me see if I can find him for you,” Steve says, walking towards the stairs to the basement. He can see light shining up the staircase as soon as he turns the corner. “It looks like we might be in luck. The lights are on.”

“Good,” Pepper says. “Look, I know it’s not really fair of me to ask this, but please, make a judgment call here. If pulling him away is going to put him into a sulk, having him at the meeting will be worse than making excuses for him. And I know that you can tell by now-”

“Pepper,” Steve cuts in. He’s made it to the bottom of the staircase, and he can see into the lab beyond. He swallows hard at the sight that greets him. “I’m going to have to call you back.”

There’s a moment of silence before Pepper simply says, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” and hangs up the phone.

Tony is sitting on the floor in the lab, wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing the last time that Steve had seen him. He has the helmet and one of the gauntlets from the Iron Man suit on. The faceplate is lifted, and Tony is staring at the code flickering across the holographic screen in front of his face.

His eyes are glowing the same color as the light from the arc reactor, and the veins in his neck are shining a faint silver-blue through his skin.

Steve knows he’ll be glad for the help when Pepper arrives, but for now – he takes a deep breath and knocks on the glass.

Tony doesn’t move. His eyes continue to flick back and forth over the code. It’s as if he hadn’t heard Steve at all.

“JARVIS,” Steve says. There’s a part of him that’s panicking a little, but he shoves it to the back of his mind and slides into his command persona. “Can you open the lab door for me?”

“Indeed,” JARVIS replies, and there’s a click and a whir. Steve yanks the door open and walks inside.

“Tony,” he says, loudly and firmly. This time, Tony does jump. The screen in front of him disappears into nothing, and when he turns around, the light in his eyes is fading.

“Steve?” Tony sounds confused as he brings up his hand to rub at his face. He looks surprised when the metal fingers of the gauntlet hit his skin. “Wow, I really lost myself in it. Did I miss anything?”

“Two meetings at Stark Industries,” Steve says. “I don’t think Pepper’s pleased with you.”

Tony frowns. “Okay, I know I missed one on Friday, but I don’t have another until Monday afternoon,” he says. “Did I screw up my schedule again? This is why I shouldn’t be allowed to edit my own schedule. I can micromanage all of the components of circuitry and programming for the suit, but when it comes to figuring out which day is which, I’m completely screwed.”

Steve takes another step towards Tony. “Tony, it’s Tuesday.”

“I – what?”

The astonishment in his voice isn’t comforting at all. Steve feels his lips press together. “What day did you think it was?”

“Late Saturday night, early Sunday morning, somewhere in there,” Tony says absently, looking down at the gauntlet as he flexes his fingers. “Huh. No wonder I’m hungry.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. “Look, Tony, I think something weird is going on. You were kind of…” He trails off, not sure how to explain what he’d seen. “Glowing,” he says after a moment.

“Glowing,” Tony repeats, raising an eyebrow. “Given your tone, I’m going to assume you don’t mean ‘glowing with the joy of discovery’ or something like that.”

“No, I mean glowing, as in ‘could light up dark areas.’”

Tony is silent for a moment before pulling the helmet off and turning back to one of his monitors. “JARVIS, replay footage from fifteen minutes before Cap came into the lab. Focus on me.”

“Certainly,” JARVIS says, and then Steve watches as Tony looks at himself on the screen. He stares while his eyes and skin shine out of the monitor as he studies the code.

“Huh,” Tony repeats after a moment. “Well, that’s new and intriguing.” He reaches his bare hand towards the screen but snatches it back before making contact. “JARVIS, run whatever scans you can on my life signs during that period. I’m not sure if it’ll tell us anything, but it’s a place to start.” He stands up and stretches, wincing.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, moving in close enough that he’ll be able to catch Tony should his legs give out.

Tony just shrugs. “That remains to be seen,” he says, far more flippantly than Steve really wants to hear from him right now. “I could really use a snack, though, and a shower.” He starts heading for the stairs. “We’ll check on the data later.”

He doesn’t seem to notice that he’s still wearing the gauntlet.

-0-

Tony heads into his room after eating what seems like half the contents of the refrigerator. “Shower,” he says before Steve can ask. “I need a shower like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I’d believe it,” Steve says with a grin. “I’d recommend taking the gauntlet off first, though.”

“Right,” Tony replies, frowning down at his hand. “Shower, then sleep, then probably calling Pepper and-”

“Tony!” Pepper calls. Tony freezes, and his eyes dart towards the kitchen.

“Ah,” Steve says. “I probably should have mentioned that Pepper said she was coming by, right?”

Tony just sighs. “Hey, Pep,” he yells down the hallway. Pepper walks through the doorway a moment later.

“Tony,” she says again, stopping just beside Steve. “You don’t look so great.”

“Thanks,” he says, smiling brightly at her. “You, of course, look fantastic. Are those new shoes? Those look like new shoes.”

“Stop ignoring my calls,” she snaps, but she looks more worried than angry. She studies Tony for a moment before nodding. “Well, I’ll make your excuses at the shareholders’ meeting. You look like you’re about to pass out for at least the next twenty-four hours.”

“Oh, hell,” Tony groans, ruffling a hand through his hair. “I really need to be there, don’t I? I missed the last one, too, and if I miss two in a row Cousey will pitch a fit, and-”

“Okay, I guess that went over your head,” Pepper cuts in. “You’re going to walk into your room, step out of your shoes, and sleep until you look like a human being again. You do not get to decide when that is. In fact,” she says, turning to Steve, “I’m putting Captain Rogers in charge of that decision. Steve, if he comes out of that room before he stops looking like he hasn’t slept in a week, you have my full permission to throw him back in and lock the door.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve says dutifully, cracking a hint of a smile at Tony’s scowl. “You heard the lady, Tony. Better get to bed.”

Tony turns his scowl to Pepper. “Can I shower first, or is that against the rules?”

Pepper arches an eyebrow. “That depends. Are you going to make it through without falling asleep? For some reason, I don’t think anyone here wants Steve to have to drag your unconscious, naked self out of the shower stall.”

Steve huffs out a laugh, but Tony just grins. “Speak for yourself,” he drawls out, exaggerating a wink in Steve’s direction. “Seriously, Pepper, I’m sorry about the shareholders. Maybe schedule me something for next week to make up for it?”

“Have no fear,” she says sweetly, “you’ll be making it up to them, I’m sure.”

“Great,” Tony mutters, heading for his room again. “Goodnight, both of you.”

“Night,” Steve says, watching as Tony walks into his bedroom and pulls the door closed. He and Pepper stand in the hallway, listening until the sound of water starts up in Tony’s bathroom.

Pepper turns to Steve. “What happened when you found him?”

Steve grimaces and shakes his head. “I think I’d better show you.”

They make their way down to the lab. The door is still open, and Steve can see the screen on the nearest computer flashing an alert message. He and Pepper step into the lab, and JARVIS immediately calls, “Captain Rogers, Miss Potts. If I might direct your attention to the computer bank?”

“Did you find something?” Steve asks, moving towards the clashing computer. “Is Tony okay?”

There’s a definite hesitant pause. “Perhaps Miss Potts should see the footage,” JARVIS suggests, and then the screen starts playing the footage of Tony from before. Steve watches again as Tony stares at the screen, scanning line after line of the code running past, and his eyes and skin glow that eerie unearthly blue.

Pepper gasps and raises a hand to cover her mouth. Steve turns to look at her. “I have no idea how long he was like that before I got down here.”

“Four hours, twenty-seven minutes,” JARVIS replies. “I very much doubt that it’s a coincidence that these effects began almost immediately after he put on the gauntlet.” The footage blurs for a moment, and then Tony is settling in front of the screen. He’s wearing the helmet, but he’s holding the gauntlet, and he slips his hand into it as he sits. His eyes begin to shine instantly, almost like the gauntlet flipped some sort of switch. His skin takes a little longer, but it’s less than three minutes before the blue lines are clearly visible down his neck.

“What is it?” Pepper asks. When Steve glances over, he’s a little surprised and a lot relieved to find that she looks almost businesslike. He’s not sure what he would have done if she’d been visibly upset.

“I can’t be sure,” JARVIS replies. “I wasn’t running any special diagnostics while the situation was occurring, as Mr. Stark had set me to baseline parameters yesterday morning. I can only analyze the data that I automatically collect at baseline.”

“Baseline,” Steve asks. “What do you mean by baseline parameters?”

“Sleep mode,” Pepper supplies. “Basically, he made JARVIS take a nap. I’ve never actually seen him do that before.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have overridden the command,” JARVIS says. “Perhaps Mr. Stark would be willing to write a command that alerts someone else when he activates baseline protocol. It could help avoid future situations like this.”

“I’ll bring it up,” Pepper says grimly. Steve has the feeling that JARVIS will be getting that new command written sooner rather than later.

“So, back to my original question,” Steve asks. “Did you find anything, JARVIS?”

“No,” JARVIS replies. “His heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure remained at levels consistent with his activity and the strain on his body. It’s quite possible that there were irregularities in his brain wave patterns, but that’s not an analysis that I can run retroactively.”

“All that and no change,” Steve mutters.

Pepper narrows her eyes. “What do you mean, ‘strain on his body?’”

“Tony thought it was Saturday night when I came in,” Steve says quietly. “He was pretty surprised when I told him that today’s Tuesday. He lost days down here, Pepper, and I don’t know if he ate or slept or anything.”

“That’s unusual, but not unprecedented,” Pepper says, and Steve isn’t sure if she’s trying to convince herself that nothing is wrong, or if she’s just thinking out loud.

“Indeed not,” JARVIS says, bringing up a still shot of Tony, eyes and skin aglow. “I can find no precedent for this, however.”

Neither Steve nor Pepper has a response for that.

-0-

Steve lets Tony sleep for twelve full hours before knocking on his door. “Tony?”

There’s no response, and Steve takes time to consider what he might find when he opens the door – Tony asleep, Tony maybe in the bathroom where he can’t hear the knocking, Tony sitting up in his bed with his eyes and skin glowing…

He’s not prepared to step into Tony’s bedroom and find his friend crouched next to the wall, pencil in hand, furiously scribbling at an equation with more parts than Steve can see.

“Tony!” Steve says, loud and firm, and Tony turns around. The motion jerks at his arm, and he pulls the pencil through the equation on the wall. “What are you doing?”

“I just,” Tony says, blinking and looking at Steve, then looking back at the wall. “Inspiration struck me when I laid down, and I didn’t have my notebook nearby.” He shrugs. “I figured that I could always repaint, and I might not get the idea right if I didn’t write it down immediately.”

Steve turns to look at the wall. It’s not a simple equation. It takes up most of the wall, in fact, and even without knowing the advanced forms of mathematics that Tony apparently can do in his sleep, Steve can tell that there’s something off with what’s on the wall. “Did you get it?” he asks instead of pointing out what he sees.

Tony scrubs a hand across his face. “No.”

“Did you sleep at all?” Steve asks, as gentle as he can be.

“No,” Tony admits, dropping the pencil to the floor. “As soon as I laid down – it’s like my head just lit up. My body is exhausted, but my mind…”

“Is making mistakes,” Steve says firmly. “I don’t know what all of this is supposed to mean, but I’m pretty sure that three still doesn’t equal seven, no matter how far in the future I’ve been tossed.”

Tony blinks and looks up at the equation that Steve is gesturing to. “Oh, hell,” he says, sounding less frustrated and more bleak. “I based three sets of equations off of that. If it’s not right, I’ve wasted-”

“You need to sleep,” Steve breaks in. “You have to lay down and close your eyes and not get up for hours, Tony, because you’re no good to yourself or anyone else like this. You’re going to keep making mistakes until you get some rest, and if you make too many mistakes on this stuff, you’ll blow the suit up instead of making upgrades.”

“Yeah,” Tony replies, still staring at the equation. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“Bed,” Steve says, grabbing Tony’s shoulder and pulling him away from the wall. Tony blinks again and shakes his head, finally turning away from his work.

“Maybe,” Tony starts as Steve heads for the door. He turns back and sees Tony chewing on his lip. “Maybe you should stay for a little while. In case I try to get up again.”

There’s something there, something in the words and in Tony’s voice that makes Steve’s blood turn cold. He smiles, though, and walks back into the room, pulling out the desk chair and sitting down.

“Sleep,” he says. “I’ll keep watch.”

Tony nods and climbs into bed, and Steve – watches. He tosses and turns, and once even sits straight up in bed, but when he sees Steve still sitting there he visibly makes himself lie back down. It’s at least an hour before Steve calls softly, “JARVIS?”

“Captain,” JARVIS replies.

“Is he actually asleep?”

There’s a pause while JARVIS presumably does his best to check. “He is.”

Steve lets out a breath. “Can you keep an eye on him? Let me know when he gets up, or if he heads back to that wall,” he adds.

“Certainly,” JARVIS replies. “If you would keep your Avengers communicator with you, Captain, I can patch into that system should Mr. Stark wake before you check back in.”

“Thanks, JARVIS,” Steve replies as he rises and quietly makes his way into the hall.

He’s got some things to think about.

-0-

“How is he?” Pepper asks when Steve calls.

Steve sighs into his phone. “I found him scribbling equations on the walls in his room, Pepper. He hadn’t slept at all.”

“There’s something else,” Pepper says after a moment. “What is it?”

“I think,” Steve starts. He bites his lip, a nervous habit from his childhood that he still sometimes slips into when he’s not sure how to handle something. “I think something might be controlling him.”

“Controlling him,” Pepper repeats. “He seemed like himself when I was there before.”

“He asked me to stay in his room so he didn’t get out of bed again,” Steve counters. “He’s making mistakes in his math, he’s more obsessed with the suit’s upgrades than I’ve ever seen him, he was glowing-”

“Okay, points well taken,” Pepper says. “Do you think – could it be the suit?”

“I don’t know,” Steve says, frustrated. “I don’t know enough about the suit to be able to tell something like that, and other than Tony, I don’t know anyone who does know that kind of thing. Is there anyone at Stark Industries who could check?”

“Not really,” Pepper sighs. “Tony’s kind of proprietary with the design schematics. There’s nobody here who is familiar with the designs, and that’s how Tony always intended it.”

“The only other people I can think of are criminals,” Steve says. “Both Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo would be able to help, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to ask.”

Pepper hums. “You’re right. I’m pretty sure both of them would rather blow Tony up than actually lend a hand.”

There’s silence for a moment before Steve blows out a breath. “Is there anyone else?”

Pepper seems to hesitate. “What about Rhodey?”

“That could work,” Steve says after a moment. “I mean, the War Machine armor isn’t exactly the same as the Iron Man suit, but the systems are similar, and he is one of the only people on the planet who has experience with the suit other than Tony.”

“I’ll put a call in,” Pepper says, relief evident in her voice. “I’m not sure when he’ll be able to make the trip up, but hopefully it won’t be long.”

“That’s great,” Steve replies. “Please keep me informed.”

“Will do,” Pepper says.

Steve hangs up and wanders back upstairs to check on Tony. He’s still asleep, so Steve shuts the door and heads to his own room.

“JARVIS,” Steve says.

“Captain?”

“I’m going to get some rest myself,” he says. “If Tony manages eight full hours before he gets up, let him go, but if he wakes before that, please get me up.”

“Noted. And if he heads for the wall again?” JARVIS asks.

“I don’t care what time it is,” Steve replies firmly, “get me up for that.”

“Very well. Sleep well, Captain,” JARVIS says.

“I’ll settle for sleep of any kind at this point,” Steve says, closing his eyes and rolling onto his side.

-0-

Soft beeping pulls Steve out of sleep. He blinks and looks around his room. It’s dark outside, and it’s not his communicator beeping, which means-

Steve sits up in bed. Tony.

“JARVIS,” Steve says, already rolling out of bed. “What’s going on?”

“Mr. Stark awoke half an hour ago,” JARVIS says. “He got seven hours, forty-three minutes of sleep. I estimated this to be close enough to the given timeframe as to be sufficient and therefore didn’t wake you.”

“Thanks, fine, okay,” Steve says. He’s in the hallway by this point. “The beeping?”

“Two minutes ago, he put the gauntlet back on and headed for the wall,” JARVIS replies. “I attempted to divert Mr. Stark’s attention from the equations, but he ignored me entirely.”

“Right, got it,” Steve says, taking a deep breath and tapping on Tony’s door. “Tony? Can you hear me?” He counts to ten slowly in his head before pushing the door open. “Tony?”

Sure enough, he’s back at the wall. There are dark, heavy lines through the equation that Steve had pointed out yesterday, and more through the problems below that, the ones that Tony had said were based on that solution. Tony is standing in front of a repeat of the equation from yesterday, down to the very last wrong detail. He’s just starting to scrawl the start of the next equation beneath it when Steve grabs his wrist. “Tony.”

“Steve,” Tony says without looking away from the wall, “I need to-”

“It’s still wrong,” Steve says. Tony turns to him, frowning, and Steve taps the new equation. “It’s like you copied it stroke for stroke, Tony, mistakes and all.”

Tony looks at both equations, his eyes flicking back and forth, before turning to Steve again. “I should be able to do this in my sleep, Steve. This is basic stuff. Something – something’s wrong with my head.”

“We think it might be the suit,” Steve says after a minute, and Tony blinks at him.

“The suit is what’s wrong with my brain?” He shakes his head quickly. “I don’t think so, Steve. This is physics stuff. How could the suit change physics on me?” His laugh is frustrated.

“Tony,” Steve says. “Pepper and I think there might be something wrong with the suit, something that’s messing with your mind.”

“If I may,” JARVIS interrupts. “It is a possibility, Mr. Stark. The analyses that I performed yesterday revealed no abnormalities in your vital signs, but when I began scans during this session, I noticed some strange feedback when you put the gauntlet on.”

“Feedback,” Tony echoes, looking down at the gauntlet. “I – huh. I don’t actually remember putting the gauntlet on, now that you mention it.”

Steve reaches for Tony’s arm. “Let’s take it off, okay? In fact, I’d recommend not getting into the suit until we figure out what’s going on.”

“Or putting any parts of it on,” JARVIS adds.

“Right, that,” Steve agrees. “Tony?”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Tony says, still staring at the gauntlet as Steve pushes the release.

Nothing happens.

Steve frowns and pushes the release again. “Tony, did you change the configuration on these?”

“No,” Tony says, tugging his arms back and peering at the join of the release button. “You should just be able to-” He jabs at the button, then pushes it more forcefully before looking up at Steve. “I can’t get it off.”

“Okay, the button is broken,” Steve says, nodding. “Let’s get down to the lab and try to jimmy it open, okay? You can fix it later.”

“No,” Tony says, grabbing his arm back. “No, I think – I shouldn’t be in the lab right now. If – if it is the suit, it’s going to be stronger down there with the rest of it.” He takes a deep breath and narrows his eyes at the gauntlet. “I need a small Phillip’s head screwdriver, a welding torch, and a pry bar. JARVIS can help you find everything.”

Steve nods. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he promises, jogging for the door.

-0-

Tony is sitting on the floor with his back against the wall of equations when Steve comes back in. He’s visibly fighting with himself; every few seconds, his gauntleted hand jerks out, and he seems to have to strain to pull it back in.

“I got what you said to get,” Steve announces, dropping to the floor next to Tony and reaching for the gauntlet. “I’ll hold it while you work.”

“Okay,” Tony agrees, grabbing for the screwdriver. His face is flushed in concentration as he works. They sit in silence for a few minutes before Tony slowly, carefully pulls his hand back and sets the screwdriver down. “We’re going to have to go down to the lab.”

“I thought you said-”

“Yes, and I think you should get me out of there as soon as possible,” Tony interrupts. “But I’m having trouble with this. I can’t remember where the releases are.”

Steve’s stomach twists. “You can’t remember?”

“Working with your theory,” Tony says, “it’s probably the feedback from the gauntlet. If it was able to fuse itself onto my arm and make me cover my walls in bad math, there’s no reason why it couldn’t block parts of my memory.” He blinks. “We need to go to the lab so JARVIS can pull up the schematics, and then I’m going to hold very still while you follow the directions and get this thing off of me.”

Steve frowns. “If we’re looking at the blueprints, you can probably do it, right? You don’t think it’s affecting your ability to read, do you?”

“I have no idea,” Tony answers, “but I’m more worried about the suit making me put the screwdriver through my arm at this point.” His smile looks sick.

“Ah,” Steve replies. “Okay, let’s get down to the lab.”

The walk down is silent. Steve keeps an eye on Tony the whole way; the closer they get to the lab, the stiffer Tony seems to get. Tony grabs his arm before they walk into the lab itself. “JARVIS.”

“Yes, Mr. Stark,” JARVIS says.

“Can you put a firewall up between the suit’s neural components and my brain?” Tony asks, frowning.

JARVIS is silent for a moment. “Not in any sort of preventative capacity,” he finally says. “I can’t access the suit’s systems, and I can’t place the necessary programming in your head.”

“Right,” Tony says, twisting his face up. “Well, if there’s anything you can do to disrupt the signal once it starts, please feel free to do it.”

“Noted,” JARVIS says.

Tony takes a breath and walks into the lab. JARVIS has already pulled up the necessary diagrams, and Tony sits near them and puts his arm on the workbench. Steve takes a minute to study the blueprints before turning to Tony.

“Okay, just try to sit still,” he says, trying to sound as confident as he can. Tony just nods and shoots him a tight smile.

It’s a matter of minutes before the gauntlet is lying in pieces on the workbench and Tony is flexing his hand. “Steve,” he says, voice strained, and Steve pulls Tony’s arm over his shoulder and walks him bodily towards the door of the lab.

They end up in the kitchen, where Steve helps Tony slump into a chair before sitting down himself. “JARVIS,” Tony calls after a minute.

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS replies.

“Don’t let me into the lab,” Tony says. “Not until this whole thing is over. Not until you get confirmation from Steve that it’s over.”

“Understood, sir,” JARVIS says. “Shall I continue the monitoring programs that I’ve been running?”

“Please do,” Tony says. “Run as many as you can think of on me. And on the suit,” he adds. “I have no idea if it’s throwing off anything we can use, but it can’t hurt to check.”

“I’ll report to you and to Captain Rogers should I find something,” JARVIS replies. “Anything else, Mr. Stark?”

“That’s it for now,” Tony says, closing his eyes. “Hey, Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m exhausted,” he sighs. “I know I just got up, but for some reason I’m wiped out.”

“I can probably guess why,” Steve deadpans, and Tony cracks a smile. “I can sit with you while you lay down.”

“Just set an alarm on me,” Tony says, waving a hand. “JARVIS, let Steve know if my nap turns into more impromptu bad physics, okay?”

“I will,” JARVIS says, and with that, Tony waves half-heartedly at Steve and heads for the stairs.

-0-

Steve’s phone rings an hour after Tony goes to his room. Rhodey starts talking before Steve can even say hello. “Pepper says it’s urgent. I can be there in six hours.”

“That would be good,” Steve replies, and fills Rhodey in on the situation.

There’s a moment of silence when Steve finishes, and then Rhodey lets out a long, low whistle. “Well, damn.”

“Pretty much,” Steve agrees. “We’re hoping that you can figure out what’s gone wrong with the suit.”

Rhodey sighs. “I’m not Tony,” he warns. “The War Machine armor-”

“-is different. I know,” Steve interrupts, “but you’d be more likely to notice something wrong that I would, Rhodes.”

There’s no hesitation before Rhodey responds. “I’m getting on a plane in twenty minutes. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Thank you,” Steve says with feeling. “We’ll see you soon.”

-0-

JARVIS beeps gently at Steve about an hour before Rhodey is set to arrive. “Mr. Stark is awake, Captain, and he’s standing at the wall.”

“Thanks,” Steve says, already running for the stairs. He doesn’t bother knocking on the door when he arrives. He doubts Tony would hear him at this point, anyway.

Sure enough, Tony is standing at the wall, pencil in hand. He doesn’t respond at all when Steve walks up and stands next to him.

“Tony,” Steve says gently, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder, “can you do me a favor?”

“Sure, sure,” Tony replies, not looking away from the equation. His eyes are flicking back and forth over the numbers and letters that he’s scrawled across the wall. From time to time, he raises his pencil as if to write something else, but he always lets it fall back to his side without changing anything.

“Sit down,” Steve says. It makes Tony blink and turn his head. He looks confused, like he’s not sure why Steve would want him to stop.

“In a minute,” Tony says, turning back to the equation. “I just need to fix this.”

“Tony,” Steve says more firmly. “Let’s go watch a movie. I still haven’t seen the last Blade title. Didn’t you say that I should see that?”

Tony frowns vaguely at the wall. “Blade?”

Steve hasn’t actually seen any of the movies, and he’s not even sure how many there are. Clint talks about them in a voice that’s half-amused and half-awed, so Steve figures they’ll be full of fight scenes and bad dialogue. Tony loves mocking that kind of thing.

“Yeah, Blade,” Steve says, nodding. “I saw the DVD in the living room. Let’s go watch it.” He grabs Tony’s wrist and tugs him gently away from the wall, only stopping to take the pencil from his hand. Steve tucks it into his own pocket and pulls Tony out of the room.

-0-

The movie has barely started when there’s a sound from the entranceway. Tony is staring at the television without focusing, and his hand is tapping rhythmically on his knee. Steve is pretty sure he’s doing math in his head. Steve sighs and stands, heading for the door.

Rhodey nods at him as soon as Steve turns the corner. “Rogers.”

“Rhodes,” Steve greets. “We should probably call Pepper, so there’s someone to stay with Tony and someone to stay with you.”

“Called her on the way over,” Rhodey says shortly. “She said she’d be here in a few minutes.” There’s a knock on the door as Rhodey finishes, and he flashes a grin. “I’d think she waited out there to time that entrance, but the situation is probably a little too dire for that.”

Steve smiles as Pepper walks in. She nods and moves for the living room. He’s in there?” she tosses back over her shoulder.

“He is,” Steve confirms. Pepper pauses in the doorway, turning back to Steve.

“Steve, show him the footage,” she directs. “Rhodey, see if you can figure out what the hell is going on with the suit.

Rhodey nods, and Pepper disappears into the living room.

Steve turns to the stairs and tilts his head. “Let’s see what we can figure out.”

Rhodey nods again and heads for the lab. Steve follows him down, and when they walk into the lab, the footage is already up on one of the computers. “Captain Rogers, Colonel Rhodes,” JARVIS says. “I’ve set the footage to play from the point that Mr. Stark put the gauntlet on.”

“Good thinking,” Steve says. “We’re ready.”

The footage starts and plays for a few minutes. Tony slides the gauntlet on, his eyes shine, and his skin starts to glow, and then the footage freezes again, Tony staring almost sightlessly at the code flying in front of him as he glows and glows.

“Well, Jesus,” Rhodey says blankly. “That’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in combat.”

“Agreed,” Steve says with meaning.

Rhodey motions to the screen. “So who’s to say I’m not going to light up like that when I put the armor on?”

“The chances of that are less than zero-point-five percent,” JARVIS says before Steve can reply. “As far as I can tell from Mr. Stark’s experiences wearing both the helmet and the gauntlet over the past few days, the armor is attuned to his mind and his mind only. For it to have the same affect on you, Colonel, the armor would have to reprogram itself, and I doubt its capability to do so before you would notice and get yourself out.”

Rhodey grins. “You do that math yourself, JARVIS, or is that Tony talking?”

“Mr. Stark has been making computational errors in basic formulae,” JARVIS nearly sniffs. “This is my own doing.”

“Works for me,” Rhodey mutters. He looks at Steve. “I’m thinking I’ll start with the helmet, see what I can see from there. That’s where the neural interfaces are, so I should be able to access whatever’s going on without getting into the whole suit.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Steve agrees. “Tony hasn’t been in the suit since this whole thing started. For all we know, it would lock out your commands and try to go on some sort of rampage with you locked inside.”

Rhodey looks somewhat alarmed. “I was more concerned about fitting my body into Tony’s tiny suit, but now that you mention it, yeah. Let’s avoid that.”

Steve snorts and leans over to pick up the helmet. “Ready when you are, Rhodes.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” Rhodey says, grinning as he pulls the helmet on.

Steve tries to wait patiently, but it’s not easy. It doesn’t look like Rhodey’s doing anything – he’s just leaning back against the computer console, arms crossed over his chest, helmet on his head. Steve is about to ask JARVIS if he can tell what’s going on when Rhodey suddenly jerks. “The hell?”

“What?” Steve asks, instantly on alert. “Did you find something?”

“Yeah, I think,” Rhodey says distractedly. “Pencil, paper. The suit keeps flashing something in the display, and it just shut down the screen I was trying to access and put the thing front and center.” Rhodey takes the pencil and paper when Steve presses them into his hands and scribbles something down. He raises the faceplate when he’s finished and studies what he’s written, nodding before showing it to Steve. “Does this mean anything to you?”

Steve sucks in a breath, sharp and clear, as he stares at what Rhodey has written down.

“Yeah,” he manages to choke out. “Yeah, I’ve seen it before.”

It’s the same equation that’s scrawled all over the walls of Tony’s bedroom, bad math and all.

-0-

“Huh,” Tony says, staring down at the equation that Rhodey had written out. He blinks at it for a minute before looking up at Steve. “It’s still wrong.”

“Maybe that’s the point,” Pepper ventures. When Steve looks at her, she’s frowning down at the paper, too. “Rhodey, you said that the suit was flashing something at you, and then it just popped this up?”

“Yeah,” Rhodey confirms. “There was something flashing, but I ignored it because I figured if something was wrong with the suit itself, whatever warning it was trying to give me might be faulty.” He shrugs. “But when I tried to access a diagnostic for the flight system, the suit closed me out and popped that up pretty insistently.”

“The flight system,” Tony repeats, frowning at the equation. “You’re sure it was the flight system?”

“Pretty sure,” Rhodey says. “Positive, in fact.”

“That’s-” Tony stops, frowning. He looks at the equation again before looking up. “I need my datapad. JARVIS, can you download the code upgrades I did last week to my datapad, and then disconnect it from the mainframe?”

“Done,” JARVIS says. “Might I suggest that someone else retrieve it from the lab?”

“Back in a minute,” Rhodey says, standing and jogging back towards the lab.

Steve looks at Tony. “Do you think you know what’s going on?”

Tony frowns. “I – it’s possible that I made a mistake.”

“What kind of mistake?” Pepper asks after a moment.

“A mistake that looks a lot like this,” Tony says, tapping the equation. “Let me take a look at the code before I explain, okay, because if I’m right I’m going to feel like an idiot, but if I’m wrong then I’ll have embarrassed myself for absolutely no reason.”

“Fair enough,” Steve says as Rhodey comes back in, datapad in hand. He slides it across the table to Tony, who starts tapping at the screen immediately, a frown of concentration on his face. He sighs a few minutes later, looking up and glancing around the table as he pushes the datapad away.

“I made a mistake,” he says, making a face at the code. “I did most of this coding in one sitting, and apparently that’s not a good idea, because I made a dumb mistake in one of the equations and had the error cascade through the rest of the code sequence.” He pushes a hand through his hair. “This is why I need to listen when JARVIS tells me to sleep on the code before implementing it.”

“Agreed, sir,” JARVIS says mildly.

“So, wait, this is all because of a coding mistake?” Rhodey asks.

“And a failsafe that’s apparently more fail than safe,” Tony says, taking the datapad back and tapping a few more times. “There’s a system in the suit’s code designed to alert me when routine system checks turn up an issue.” He grimaces. “The suit’s internal AI has a limited degree of autonomy without the intelligence necessary to back it up. Apparently its way of notifying me of a problem involves linking into my head and flashing the problem at my subconscious.”

“Uh,” Rhodey says after a minute. “Let me just clear this up. The suit found a problem in its own code, so it took over your brain in a misguided attempt to get you to fix it?”

Tony frowns. “That is a gross oversimplification, Rhodey.”

“But an accurate one,” Rhodey persists. Tony glares for another few seconds before shrugging and nodding.

“Can you fix it without the suit putting the bad math in your head again?” Pepper asks, looking at the datapad. “And if not, who can?”

“I can do it,” Tony says, already typing new code into the datapad. “I’m actually feeling better right now than I have in days. I think that the suit recognizes that I’m working on the problem, so it’s letting me do it.”

Steve frowns. “Does the suit always have this link to your brain?”

“Not usually,” Tony replies absently, dragging figures over the screen of the datapad. “On a normal day, the only thing in my head is me.”

“Will you be able to get it out again?” Steve asks.

Tony stops, fingers hovering over the screen. “I – probably?”

“That’s not encouraging,” Rhodey says, and Steve nods. “Man, you can’t walk around with an unintentionally almost-homicidal robot suit in your brain.”

“The suit didn’t kill me,” Tony protests, glancing down at the code. “In fact, it sort of saved my life. If I had tried to fly with this code-”

“The suit would never have taken off,” JARVIS interjects. “Your mistake is in the combustion sector, Mr. Stark. The boots would have fizzled out before liftoff.”

“Well, yeah,” Tony says, flapping a hand at the ceiling. “But this mistake means that I wouldn’t have been getting enough juice to take off. If the mistake had been too much instead of too little and the suit hadn’t intervened, I would have exploded before liftoff.”

There’s a distinct pause before Pepper says, “Excuse me, did you just say exploded?”

This time Tony waves his hand at her. “Hence the failsafe that kept me from taking off when the code was bad.”

“Okay, here’s a thought,” Steve says, cutting in before Pepper can deliver what’s probably a well-deserved smack to Tony’s head. “Can you make the suit just shut itself off and send you an email or something?”

Tony cocks his head to the side. “That’s probably more efficient.”

“And it gets the suit out of your head,” Rhodey adds. “I’m for it.”

“Let me just,” Tony says, diving back into his coding.

They sit around for a few minutes, but once it becomes clear that Tony is settled into fixing the code, Pepper stands up and nods at the door to the living room. Rhodey and Steve follow her out of the room, though Steve stands in the doorway to keep an eye on Tony.

“Do you think this will fix it?” Pepper asks quietly.

Rhodey shrugs. “Once he uploads the new code, I’ll stick the helmet back on and check things out before we let him near the suit.”

Steve nods. “Sounds like a good plan.”

“Works for me,” Tony calls, and when Steve glances back, he’s waving the datapad in their general direction. “Whenever you’re ready, in fact. Someone take this from me so JARVIS can upload the new code, and we’ll see what happens from there.”

-0-

In the end, it’s exactly as simple – and as complicated – as Tony had made it sound. He’d made a coding mistake, and once JARVIS puts the new code into place, Tony is fine. Steve watches as he recodes the failsafe in the suit’s systems, and when that code is also uploaded, Steve finally tells JARVIS that it’s okay to let Tony back into the lab.

Tony walks in and stops when his eyes fall on the suit. He doesn’t say anything for a long time – long enough that Steve wonders if he should say something, instead.

“I almost killed myself,” Tony says flatly, just as Steve opens his mouth to break the silence. “I almost got myself killed with a safety measure. Do you know how ironic that is?”

“I’m aware,” Steve replies. “Tony-”

“Life was easier before I was Iron Man,” Tony says bluntly. “Worse, sure, but easier.”

Steve coughs, unsure of how to respond. “But-”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn the suit in and go back to mass-producing bombs,” Tony says, a trace of a smile on his face. “And I don’t wish that I never became Iron Man. It’s just that I wouldn’t have done something like this if I’d never been in the suit.”

“I wouldn’t have almost gotten shot in France if I hadn’t gotten the serum,” Steve points out. “I wouldn’t trade that, either.”

They sit in silence for a little while before Tony speaks again. “Thanks for noticing something was wrong.”

“I wish I’d noticed sooner,” Steve says instantly. “I mean, you were down here for days, Tony.”

Tony waves a hand at him. “That’s not uncommon.”

“That’s what Pepper said,” Steve says ruefully, quirking a smile. “Still, though. Maybe if we’d gotten to it sooner-”

Tony shrugs. “Maybe I wouldn’t have had to repaint my bedroom,” he says lightly. “It didn’t actually hurt me, Steve.”

“It kept you from sleeping,” Steve points out. “You didn’t eat while you were down here, either.”

“Also not uncommon,” Tony says. “If it makes you feel better, I can have JARVIS notify you if I’m down here for more than a day without taking a break.”

“Twelve hours,” Steve says firmly. “JARVIS?”

“Twelve hours,” JARVIS replies. “If you’re not in the house, Captain, I’ll send a message to your phone.”

“My AI and my best friend are ganging up on me,” Tony grumbles, trying and mostly failing to hide a grin. “What is the world coming to?”

“At least I no longer serve both of those roles,” JARVIS says in the driest tone Steve has ever heard, and Tony bursts out laughing.

“This is true,” he says after a minute, still grinning widely. “At least I can now grab a burger with my best friend instead of just eating takeout near you, JARVIS.”

“A pity,” JARVIS sighs. “I did enjoy the play of light on the grease in your pizza, sir.”

“Shut it,” Tony retorts, standing and smiling at Steve. “So, about that burger.”

“Lead the way,” Steve says, matching Tony’s grin and following him out of the lab.

This was originally posted at http://somehowunbroken.dreamwidth.org/191343.html, where it has comment count unavailable comments. Comment here or there.
 
 
 
Merrov: text Pepperpadfootthegrim on April 23rd, 2012 03:25 pm (UTC)
LOL! I love bantering! JARVIS :P

The whole psychological effect in the suit is freaky. Thank goodness Tony has a support network now!

Great fic, and the art is awesome! I can totally see why you chose it. :D gonna have to go back over there and leave a comment on the art now.

♥ !
Kisomehowunbroken on April 24th, 2012 04:26 am (UTC)
Hee! JARVIS is awesome, no lie.

I think the possibility of the suit doing something like this is kind of high. A sort of similar thing happened in the comics, but it turned out to be a mind control through the suit type of thing. This... I don't know, it seems freaky to me, lol. Too much AI is not good!

Thanks :D :D ♥
Cherry-chan: Yuukosnoozing_kitten on April 23rd, 2012 04:52 pm (UTC)
The plot-line was new and fascinating! Your voices for all of them are fantastic!

Great job. Also, super cute.
Kisomehowunbroken on April 24th, 2012 04:27 am (UTC)
Thanks so much! :)