Part two of my MCU/AVAC crossover - you can find part one here.
Mind the cut!
It was like moving through marshmallows on a glass floor. Tony kept a monitor on the air quality as he pushed through the center of the channel where the fog was the thinnest, and regretted not insisting that everyone wore oxygen masks. The air was thick with water and light on oxygen, but Tony had picked the shortest path based on all the drones that had gone through. He could hear Peter’s heavy breathing close to his helmet – struggling, but not panicked. It was difficult to maintain a steady pace when he wanted to rush them through the fog as quickly as he could run, but it would be more dangerous to move too quickly to adjust for the slight movements of the tunnel.
Tony broke through the fog so abruptly that he stumbled. The ground under his feet turned from smooth as glass to the dirt floor of the strange forest they’d seen through the drone transmissions. Natasha bumped into his side with a soft oath and immediately doubled over coughing. Without being told, Peter sprang off Tony’s back and tugged on the webbing between Natasha and Hope, pulling her through the last few feet. With a twist of his fingers, Peter started snapping webbing.
Grabbing Natasha under her arms, Tony pulled her away from the fog and leaned her against a tree trunk. As soon as he was sure she would stay upright, he helped Hope over to the same place, and then hurried over to help Peter pull the rest of their people through the fog. Scott came through with Sam half leaning over his shoulders, and Steve stumbling blindly afterward. All three of them went down when Scott stumbled, landing in a pile of flailing limbs and coughs. Steve landed half in the fog and rolled away from the portal. Tony got his hands around Steve’s knees and twisted him out of the fog before they got a chance to figure out where matter went once it passed into the bank.
Tony flipped up his faceplate. “Everyone alright?”
The coughing had mostly subsided, and they were already starting to get back to their feet. Tony got a shoulder under Sam’s arm to help get upright, and tapped him on chest once he was sure Sam was steady on his feet.
“Man, I’d love to not have to do that again,” Sam said, bumping a fist on his chest. He pulled his goggles off so he could rub at his eyes.
Next to him, Scott opened his helmet and looked around at the others. “Well, that was fun,” he said with a broad smile. Hope threw a rock that hit him between the shoulder blades. He ducked too late, covering the back of his head and looking at her under his arm. “What was that for?”
Climbing back to her feet, Hope tossed another piece of gravel at him and stretched backwards with one hand pressed to her stomach. She turned a slow circle, and said, “Freaky.”
Assured that everyone was going to survive the trek through the fog, Tony followed her gaze to the trees around them. They were spindly things with smooth dark bark, and bright puffs of yellow foliage on the end of the branches. Tony snapped the faceplate closed and examined them again. He didn’t have a connection to Friday anymore, but he’d loaded Tadashi into the suit before leaving.
“Heya, Tony,” Tadashi greeted, coming online. “Where the heck are we?”
“No idea, buddy. You tell me.”
There was a moment of silence and then Tadashi said, “GPS is nonfunctional. I think you made a mistake installing me, big guy. These trees are weirdly similar.” Several of the nearby trees were outlined in blue, and then rotated and stacked on top of each other. They matched almost branch-for-branch. “Strange pruning. Are we sure these are real trees and not just set pieces?”
Tony stepped up to one of the alien things and flicked his wrist to peel the gauntlet back. He put his bare hand on the trunk. It felt real, solid and slightly cool to the touch. He used one repulsor to gently slough away the bark and drill into the body of the tree. Nearly opaque greenish-yellow sap leaked out.
“Looks real,” he decided, and brushed his fingers over the tree in a silent apology. The wind rattled through the branches as though it were protesting the damage. Tony stepped away quickly just in case it actually was trying to decide on whether or not to go Whomping Willow on him. “Everyone keep an eye out for local wildlife,” he said, scanning through the trees himself.
Natasha, Sam, Rhodey, and Steve had already spread out to form a perimeter. True to his word, Peter crouch less than a foot from Steve’s side, looking curiously up at the trees. Tony made a private bet with himself that Peter’s promise to stick to Steve’s side like glue would be forgotten as soon as he found something interesting in the trees to chase after. He should have been call Catman with how attracted he was to moving objects.
Steve cast a glance at the sky. “It’s still daylight,” he said quietly. He turned his wrist to check his watch and asked, “Has it ever been dark when the probe came through?”
“No,” Tony answered after a moment’s thought. “Some kind of universe of perpetual daylight?” he wondered aloud. In the shade cast by the trees, it was mix of twilight on the ground with bolts of clear sunlight spearing through the leaves and lighting on the equally strange undergrowth. Tony popped the faceplate open one more and shaded his eyes with his bare hand. He flicked the gauntlet closed once more. “That’s going to get old in a hurry.”
“We can’t just stay here and sunbathe,” Rhodey pointed out. He gestured through the trees. “Split into twos to scout?”
Before anyone could respond, there was a flash of red, and Peter was up in the trees. Tony snorted and checked the clock in the bottom corner of his HUD. Less than five minutes – he’d overestimated Peter’s attention span.
Steve looked up into the tree and pointed sharply at the ground. “Get down here!” he hissed.
“I’m just looking,” Peter called back down. He scrambled up among the branches and disappeared between the leaves. Yellow dust rained down after him, forcing Steve to cover his eyes with a forearm and step back.
Tony stepped up to Steve’s side. “Let him look. Better him fighting with the alien tree than one of us old geezers.”
Steve’s lips twitched upwards. “Speak for yourself, old man.”
“Do you need me to say it a little louder, gramps?”
Steve laughed faintly. His hand dropped to his hip and he shook his head faintly, but he didn’t say anything else as they waited for Peter to climb back down. After a minute, Peter dropped upside-down, clinging to his web with his knees tucked up nearly to his shoulders and his wrists below the line of his ankles.
Concealed behind his faceplate, Tony’s right eye twitched in mild jealousy over Peter’s ludicrous flexibility. He didn’t think he’d been that flexible even at sixteen. He laughed quietly to himself, a twitch of his fingers keeping the external speakers off. He’d finally arrived at the day of openly envying the young, though hopefully he could keep himself from becoming the old man that hated them for it.
“There’s buildings over that way,” Peter said, twisting around like a worm on a hook to get his bearings and flinging an arm out behind him.
“Get down from there,” Steve said, flicking his fingers toward the soil again.
Peter obligingly let go of the web and flipped nimbly back to his feet, scattering yellow dust and crunching into the carpet of dead leaves on the ground. He stayed there, crouched with his heels together and his fingertips resting lightly between his toes. Rhodey joined them, pushing the faceplate up so his helmet retracted. He was in the heaviest of the War Machine armors, and had a good five inches on Tony, even in the Iron Man armor. He was a walking tank with enough of an arsenal to lay siege to a small nation. Tony had made it more streamlined, more maneuverable, and painted the armor bright silver with black embellishments and the tiniest hits of blue to distance it from the War Monger armor, but there were still moments when Tony caught it out of the corner of his eye and felt a tingle of fear flash through him before he saw Rhodey’s face and it was all made better.
“What’s the plan?” Rhodey asked. His arms hung down at his sides, and Tony started running scans on the armor, wondering if Rhodey would tell him if it were too heavy for comfort. He’d tested it himself, tuned the servos so the suit supported itself and responded to every twitch of muscle like an extension of the body. Tony knew from experience that even the small muscle twitches added up, especially in the shoulders and chest – there was only so much even Tony could do to combat gravity.
“I think you had it right,” Steve answered after a brief pause of staring off in the direction Peter had indicated. “Split into groups, stay on comms, and approach from different sides, see what we can see. Take Natasha and circle around east…” he looked down at his compass, and huffed out an annoyed voice when he realized it was spinning uselessly. “Go left anyway, five hundred yards. You’re not exactly quiet in the suit, so mind your steps. I’ll take Spiderman and Sam to the right. Iron Man, go straight through with Scott and Hope. I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone to stay away from the fog, but stay away from the fog. If your path is blocked or the ground starts looking even a little bit misty, turn around and come back. We’ll set this as rendezvous if anyone gets in trouble, we’ll meet back here. Sound good?”
He looked at Rhodey first, waited for a nod, and then turned his attention to Tony. His forehead was concealed under his cowl, but Tony could tell by the pull on his cheekbone that Steve had an eyebrow hiked up.
Tony nodded as well, but gestured at Peter. “Might want to keep Wonder-Under here in the trees.”
Steve nodded after a brief hesitation where Tony thought he was hearing the message, ‘it’s probably safer up there,’ and then looked down at Peter and warned, “Stay out of sight.”
Peter tossed him a jaunty salute, and was gone in an instant, vanishing back into the foliage in a cloud of yellow dust.
Part way through the forest, it transitioned from repeating alien trees into leafy deciduous trees that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Central Park, but they were just as alien, just as unsettling because they were all identical. Tadashi alerted him to a flash of movement in the underbrush, and Tony immediately dropped to one knee and held out a repulsor. Hope and Scott were mounted on their flying ants and clinging to his armor. Even Tony’s sensors were not sensitive enough to pick them out where they sat on his shoulder, so he just hoped they were holding on tight.
“What was it?”
“Not sure,” Tadashi answered. “Something small. An animal, probably, unless there are toddlers running about out here.”
“Or giant alien spiders,” Tony pointed out. He locked the suit joints so no unintentional creak of armor gave him in case what he imagined to be a tarantula the size of a corgi hadn’t spotted him yet.
“Yikes,” Tadashi said. “Jump right to the worst case scenario, why don’tcha.”
“Thank you, I will.” Tony moved the camera view with a twitch of his eyes, scanning behind him as well. Nothing moved by the air through squat, unnaturally well-groomed brushes and curling ferns.
“Taking a nap, Iron Man?” Scott asked after several minutes of silence.
Tony didn’t respond immediately, though he was starting to feel foolish kneeling on the ground and jumping at ghosts. Before he could decide whether to shift or not, the bush shuddered and a small black shape shot out from beneath the leaves, hissing and flapping stunted wings as it waddled through the carpet of dead vegetation.
“Tadashi?” Tony asked calmly, “Was that a penguin wearing a machine gun belt?”
“Um… Well, it would seem that way.”
Blinking after the retreating penguin, Tony nodded once. He pursed his lips. He nodded again. “Alright. We’ve seen stranger things.”
“Sure,” Tadashi agreed readily. “Which ones, exactly, were stranger than a penguin wearing a machine gun belt? I’m pretty sure it had an eye patch, too.”
“Well, the eye patch pushes it over the edge of strange,” Tony said, surprised at how reasonable he sounded, even to himself. “Alright. Keep an eye out for any more… warrior penguins. Heaven forbid the machine gun comes trolling out of the trees.”
Tadashi snickered. “Maybe earth is about to be invaded by a penguin army.”
“After the day we’re having,” Tony said, “I would not be surprised.”
“Come on. You’d be a little bit surprised,” Tadashi argued as Tony unlocked the joints and rose to his feet.
He caught a flash of one of the ants lifting off and then resettling themselves on his shoulder, and set out again, keeping a careful eye on the underbrush for other unexpected surprises. He’d seen enough strange in the last several years that he didn’t have a mantra of ‘you’re going crazy, this is crazy, you’re dreaming, and crazy. Or maybe dead,’ like he might have before Afghanistan – hell, before New York, even. He just forged through the forest of what looked like Lazy Programmer Only Designs Two Trees and Three Bushes in an otherwise perfectly rendered environment, and watched his feet in case there were militant squirrels running around. Just another Tuesday.
The trees thinned and Tony caught a glimpse of the backside of building just before Tadashi warned him to get down. He crouched down behind a tree as a young woman walked down the path staring at her phone and occasionally stopping to take selfies with statues and bushes. She was two hundred yards away, but Tadashi helpfully zoomed in so he could see her better. She was wearing bright yellow short shorts and a matching jacket with a black shirt underneath. Her fingerless gloves matches her green belt, and her hat and laced booties matched her jacket.
“Definitely less threatening than a machine-gun totting penguin,” Tony decided.
“Want Scott and me to go in and take a closer look?” Hope asked as the young woman passed around the building and out of sight.
Tony settled himself closer to the ground and did another sweep of what they could see from the tree line. From his limited vantage point, it looked like a college campus. The back of a towering statue of a man in a business suit was just visible if he leaned around the tree, and beyond that was a building with wide steps and Greek columns in the front.
“Take a look,” Tony decided, “But be careful. If whoever runs this place actually is controlling that fog, we have no idea what kind of technology or technology dampening abilities they might have on hand.”
“We’ll be careful,” she promised, but they were both already in the air and buzzing steadily toward the campus.
Tadashi tracked them until they turned the corner, and then continued to compile whatever data he could manage from their position, giving him a running list of distance between buildings, the height of the statue, a zoom of the columned building that confirmed it be an admin office, and the species of plants in the area that he could identify. Rhododendrons, yellow and red poppies, and green chrysanthemums were arranged in neat beds between identical walk ways, the grass was a uniform length without a single stalk out of place, and the buildings all looked as if they’d just been completed the day before, shiny and new.
“Iron Man checking in,” he said, activating the comm to his teammates. “I’ve made it to the edge of the forest. It looks like some kind of college campus.”
“We’re here too,” Steve reported a few breaths later. “I agree. I can see what looks like a library, and maybe some kind of lab. There’s a weird tower on top that’s sparking electricity. Rhodes, how about you?”
“Not quite there yet,” Rhodey said. Tony could hear the crunch and thump of his footfalls on the forest floor.
“Hey, did anyone else see an armed penguin on the way in?”
There was a brief moment of silence in response, and then Peter asked, “Like…a penguin with human arms?”
Tony twitched. “Did you see a penguin with human arms? Was it carrying a machine gun?” Considering the weirdness of the forest and campus, he wouldn’t have thought that anything could make him blink, but his attempts to picture a penguin with arms was sending shudders of wrong flying down his spine.
“Have you walked through any suspicious clouds of gas while we’ve been here, Tones? Stop to eat any local berries?”
“That was one time, Rhodey, and they were not even poisonous anyways.”
“I saw the penguin too,” Scott added helpfully. “It didn’t have human arms – which, by the way, is an image that will give me nightmares for the next year, thanks, kid – but it did have a machine gun belt and eye patch. Which is slightly less nightmarish than a human-armed penguin, but only very slightly.”
The resulting silence was clearly suspicious until Hope put in, “It’s true. Unfortunately.”
“Are we being invaded by a penguin army?” Peter asked immediately, and for some reason sounded excited by the prospect. “Was it at least cute?”
“It had a machine gun belt,” Tony stressed.
“Penguin with a machine gun belt could be cute. Hey, where was it? Maybe I can get a picture for my school newspaper, and my Twitter account. It would be like the mermaid thing all over again.”
“Alright, cut it out,” Steve broke in before the conversation could get any more surreal. “What do you see from up there?”
“Tony…?” Rhodey interrupted before Peter could answer. “Switch your screen to patch into my display.”
Tadashi obligingly interfaced with Bolo and patched Tony into Rhodey’s display. Rhodey was hunkered down behind a large hedge of bushes – not kneeling, because the tank didn’t kneel. At first, Tony’s attention was drawn to the massive golden dome to Rhodey’s left, but after a moment of gaping at the gaudy thing, he realized what Rhodey must have wanted him to see. A massive tower dominated the skyline in the distance with a clearly visible STARK logo curling around a familiarly-shaped balcony platform. Bolo zoomed in on the air above it, turning a tiny speck against the clouds into the clearly recognizable form of the Iron Man armor.