"Wow," Tony commented. "The whole gang's here. Is there another apocalypse in the works?"
He had only popped in the communal floor to grab the coffee maker before going back in the lab to work on Ultron. But it seemed like everyone had agreed to meet there: There were the OG Avengers, with Thor in attendance as well, sitting on the sofa and the couches. The twins were on the settee and JARVIS was standing by the door. Fury and Hill had taken the chairs at the breakfast table nearby. Tony wondered how they had roped JARVIS into this. They seemed to be waiting for him, after all. Was this an intervention?
"Stark," Fury started. "We'd appreciate an explanation now that you have come out of your funk."
Stark grinned. It was the type of green that meant everything but cheer. He stared at Hill for a moment. It was a pity that Fury had talked his way out of being fired. He liked Hill's no-nonsense attitude much more. It was easier to subvert the rules, if there were rules to subvert.
"And you have all been waiting for little old me?" he said, even as he grabbed a chair from the kitchen and joined them. He didn't think he could get out of this, and some part of him didn't want to. There were a lot of questions to be answered, and Tony wasn't the only one who should be interrogated.
Rogers frowned. "Please take this seriously, Stark."
Tony sat down. "Oh, no worries about that Cap. You should start worrying once I run away from an active crime scene with my assassin boyfriend."
"Bucky is not—!" Rogers argued.
"We'll get to that." Hill interrupted, sending the supersoldier a glare. "Let's cover the immediate issues first." she said, before addressing the room at large. "Ultron. Is he still a threat?"
Tony had refuted at the same time as Romanov answered in affirmative. He stared at the redhead. "No." he repeated.
"Don't be ridiculous, Stark." she said, meeting his eyes. "Even if he is dead, we still don't know even half of what he has done behind the scenes."
"Two things," Tony said. "First, Ultron is not dead. Second, regardless of what we don't know, Ultron is not our enemy."
"Wait a moment," Barton chimed in. "Ultron is not dead? We saw him die as he destroyed the Stone."
"He destroyed an Infinity Stone?" Thor asked suddenly, looking shocked.
God, they were such a mess. No one was on the same page.
Hill took the chance to recap events, as they knew them, while Tony drank his coffee.
"Impossible." Thor said afterwards. "Infinity Stones cannot be destroyed. They are a representation of the fundamental forces in the universe."
"So the suicide was fake?" Banner asked.
Thor shook his head. "I cannot say, as I was not there. However, if what Lady Maria says is true, the Mind Stone might have lost its form."
"What the hell does that mean?" Tony asked. He can't believe he had never questioned whether Ultron's sacrifice had been for nothing.
"I do not have the right words for this." the Asgardian frowned, as he thought. "The Stones are not so much gems as they are… concepts, given physical form. Destroying a Stone, only destroys its form. The concept continues until it acquires a new form."
"Are you saying," Banner asked, "that a new Mind Stone is regenerating in Sokovia as we speak?"
Thor showed a rare look of embarrassment. "I… do not know."
"How can you not know?" Banner continued, incredulous.
"Knowledge such as this was of much more interest to my brother than I." He said, grief weighing in his eyes.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Tony saw a strange realization cover JARVIS' face before he smoothed his features to a placid mask again. He would have to ask the android what that was about. After he went back to normal speaking terms with him. He dreaded that conversation already.
"So, we do not know how the Mind Stone regenerates, whether it already has or it will need a thousand years to do so, whether it is or will be in a church in Sokovia, the center location of the Big Bang, or in some random place in space?" Tony asked.
Fury rubbed his face. "Hill, send a science team to Novi Grad. Some people who know not to touch anything, without at least a dozen of our best security watching."
She nodded, her phone already in hand, and excused herself from the room to have that conversation.
"We have gone off track." Fury said. "Stark, what do you mean that Ultron is not dead? Everyone in this team, including you, reported so a week ago."
Reported? Tony had just nodded to what everyone said before he holed up in the lab.
However, as far as he knew, Ultron was dead. What he had said about some part of him surviving… was mere speculation. Not that he was about to say that.
"One thing we all learned about Ultron is that he likes backup plans. A lot." he said. "He was prepared to die, but… none of my AIs are the sort of idiots to not think of storing their code on a safe server just in case. Destroying the gem, may have destroyed him, or it may have destroyed the surface level mind control. I only need to find that stored program."
And that was a bunch of bullshit. What Tony planned to do was… fucking resurrection, —he can't believe he was actually thinking those words— more than anything else. He certainly hadn't spent a week searching for a damn server.
JARVIS let out a small snort. Everyone stared in surprise, including JARVIS himself. The reaction was indeed strange, as the android didn't react like a human that often. Maybe having a body was helping him learn faster and easier. What worried Tony was on whether JARVIS had seen through his BS and had accidentally exposed him.
"My apologies," JARVIS said. "I was surprised at how unaware Mr. Stark is of his own hypocrisy regarding suicidal plans."
First, JARVIS was a cheeky brat and no, Tony did not ever make suicidal plans. The New York nuke was a well-thought measure, and he came out alive.
Second, had JARVIS just lied? JARVIS, who couldn't lie for shit? Tony's thoughts flew to the fight they had had last time. Maybe JARVIS could lie, if he cared enough about it. Tony just hadn't been attentive enough to notice. Fuck. It always came back to that, didn't it? First, Ultron and now, JARVIS and FRIDAY.
"I resent that, J." Tony said, pushing away any thoughts of how JARVIS had kept his distance and not initiated a conversation with him ever since the fight.
"Tony," Banner started. "We built Ultron based on the gem. Cutting the gem off, would cut off what made Ultron who he was."
"Ultron, as our resident alien prince said, has a soul. His own soul, not one made of blue cosmic magic because JARVIS and FRIDAY also have their own souls. Maybe losing the gem will mean that he will lose his memories of anything he learned under the gem's control. Maybe something else. But there is a good chance," A very small chance, "that I can get him back. That I can save him."
Banner was the one he was most worried about convincing. He was the only one with any good amount of scientific knowledge, after all, so Tony couldn't just throw four syllable words at him and call it a day. Fortunately, the man seemed to have felt guilty ever since he learned about the soul thing from Romanov and Thor. Luckily, his guess was right, and Banner gave up on trying to convince him. Or worse, ask him further questions and discover Tony's lies.
"You want to get him back?" Fury asked. "Ultron? The murdering AI?"
"Ultron was under the control of the Mind Stone, which was under the control of an insane alien who casually commits genocide." Tony said. Regardless of what he thought about the mind control thing and Ultron's own psychological issues, that story was all the truth this team needed to know. He knew what their reactions would be if Tony so much as hinted at anything else.
"We have no evidence to prove that." Fury said.
"Thor said his father knew this Mad Titan, or whatever, last week! What more do you need to know before realizing that Earth is in danger, and we are all fucked?!" Tony shouted, standing up.
"This is not about the danger headed to Earth." Fury said. "This is about whether Ultron is someone we can trust. And don't think I have forgotten that you have known about this threat for years, Stark."
"It was dreams! The one time I mentioned it, you suggested I get a psychologist to get treated for PTSD!"
"The one time, Stark! The one time!" Fury shouted back. "Do us a favor, and next time you see the future, punch me in the face if needed, and describe what the hell you have actually seen beyond just saying you have a gut feeling!"
Tony didn't say anything in return because he had asked himself the same thing. He had never truly described his nightmares to anyone other than Pepper. Even he had thought that he had gone insane.
"Boys," Romanov interrupted the odd silence. "The past is the past. Let us focus on what we can do now."
Tony sat again, feeling defeated.
"Tony," Rogers said. "How do you know that we can trust Ultron? How did you know before what he was doing?"
"Because it is what I would have done in his place." Tony said. "Ultron was created to protect this planet from threats like the Chitauri and the galactic warlord that apparently sent them here. The way he spoke, the choices he made and the things he did… they were all in preparation for that in spite of the Mind Stone. The aliens that controlled him wanted to twist that drive, and Ultron knew, so he resisted until… he couldn't resist anymore."
"But how did you know? How could you be sure?" Barton asked. "I don't remember anything from when I was mind-controlled. I sure as hell didn't resist or anything like that."
"Clint," Romanov said. "We don't know if you did. We don't know how it works on different people."
"Because we would all be dead." Tony said. The group stared at him. "If Ultron wanted to kill us, none of us would be here now." Thor looked offended for a moment. "Expect for Point Break. No idea about that, since Thor is an alien, and he wasn't even there most of the time." With that, the Asgardian nodded.
"We fought with Ultron. We wouldn't have—," Rogers disagreed.
"Stark is right, Steve." Romanov interrupted.
Tony looked at her surprised. He hadn't expected support.
"If Ultron had wanted to, he could have killed all of us at any time."
"You weren't there." she continued. "But we couldn't even move, Steve. Once he used the Stone, it was over."
Barton nodded with her words. "It made no difference whether you were human, an android or wearing a suit of armor. The pressure from the Stone's energy made you feel like… you were paralyzed. If you even thought to move, you would feel it tighten around you."
Tony stared at the spies, a bit surprised. He hadn't been able to move and had tried to, but… it hadn't been as freaky as that. It had been his armor that was stuck, not him. Their experience seemed infinitely worse.
He gazed back at Rogers. The man obviously wanted to argue even more on the issue. Probably, the whole 'together we can fight anything' spiel. But their point had been valid. Ultron could have used the Stone any time he wanted, but didn't. As for why not, wasn't it reasonable to think that he didn't really want to hurt them but was being forced to?
A sudden question popped up in Tony's mind. What about Loki? He had had the scepter with the Mind Stone. As Thor said, he obviously knew what the gem was and its powers. If he could have stopped their movement as Ultron did, the Battle of New York would have gone very differently.
No. It couldn't be. Loki was the bastard who killed so many people with an alien army that they almost nuked Manhattan to stop him.
Alien army. The Chitauri. The same army he saw in his nightmares. The same army on the other side of the portal where Loki and the scepter had come from. The scepter that was controlled by a genocidal alien.
Oh, fuck no.
Tony stared at Thor. The man didn't seem to realize it. Maybe because he wasn't thinking of that battle at all. If someone mentioned it… he probably would.
He could be wrong. Loki could have been a willing servant. Ok, that was a stupid thought. That arrogant bastard hadn't seemed like the kind who could follow orders. Still, maybe Loki was involved as an ally, rather than a servant.
Dammit. Should he mention it? Hadn't Thor said something about how Loki had died protecting Asgard?
Another thought came to mind, and he turned to JARVIS. Was this what the android had realized earlier?
Doesn't matter now. He put those thoughts aside. He will think on what to say to Thor later. First, he has to make sure that they don't throw Ultron in a cell if he— when he revives.
Tony blinked as Fury addressed him.
"Rogers has a point. Why didn't you share your theory about the mind control with anyone?"
Ok, he had to be careful here.
"I needed time."
"Time for what?"
"Time to find out a way to free Ultron without killing him in the process."
"And you couldn't tell us that?" Rogers asked.
Tony remained silent for a moment as guilt rushed at him.
"He didn't trust us." Romanov said, reading his thoughts or whatever the spy-equivalent of that was. "He couldn't trust us."
"Stark—," Rogers started, sounding both hurt and disappointed.
Tony wasn't about to hear the end of that. "How could I tell you? It's been years and none of you has ever treated JARVIS as anything more than a machine with a speech function. Ultron was an AI child who fucking screamed right in front of us, and the first thing any of you did was accuse me of creating a murder robot. When JARVIS gained a body, you called him a monster, until he fucking had to show his worth through alien hammer magic. I'm pretty sure that none of you has even thought about the fact that my AIs have souls as anything more than some extraneous detail."
JARVIS was looking at him surprised. That look hurt more than he could have imagined. How much had he fucked up things with his AIs for JARVIS to look at him like that now? He should have known this. There shouldn't have been any surprise.
"They are people." Tony continued, more subdued. "JARVIS, Ultron, FRIDAY. They are people."
"Tony," Rogers said. "If you had told us, we could have—."
"You could have done nothing."
"We could have waited." he continued, tone challenging.
Tony stayed silent. He hadn't expected that.
"We could have waited." Rogers repeated. "For you to find proof or a solution or something. We could have done that."
"Not after Johannesburg." he said in the end. "A machine, even a person, but especially a machine, would have been an insignificant sacrifice for all of you to ensure there wouldn't be another Johannesburg."
Rogers said nothing to that because they all knew the answer to be true.
"And before?" he asked.
Tony clenched his jaw and looked away.
"Because he didn't know." Romanov said, inferring the answer once more. "He wasn't sure whether Ultron was truly mind-controlled, and… he didn't know how to save him. Didn't want to risk telling us without finding a way to free him first."
"And you never did find a way." Banner whispered, right on the money.
Yeah, Tony wanted to say, but his throat closed up. He still couldn't think of a way to save Ultron and the anxiety, the 'what ifs' were eating him alive.
"Was Johannesburg a mistake then?" Barton asked. "If he had been resisting, why would he—?"
A loud shattering sound interrupted him. They all turned to look at the source, finding the Maximoff girl shocked, staring at her glowing red hands and the now-broken bottle between them. Iced tea and glass pooled on her knees.
"Wanda?" Rogers softly asked, standing up.
The girl stared back at him as if surprised to find herself the center of attention. She got up and ran away from the room, her brother shouting something in Sokovian as he followed.