Fandom: MCU/Guardians of the Galaxy
Rating: General (some language, some violence, some creepy stuff)
Wordcount: This part, 3683
Summary: Everyone wants to get out of Stark Tower if they know what's good for them.
Disclaimer: The matter of who actually owns these characters and this world is getting pretty complicated, but I can say with confidence that it's not me.
Bruce heard the frantic call from the SHIELD team while he was alone in the room, but his attention was already so divided that it took him a few seconds to register that he should answer. The most maddening thing about the puzzle that Rocket had left them was that neither he nor Tony could even affirm if it was possible to solve without going through layers and layers of programming and manually adjusting at every level.
“What is it?” he asked the receiver, but Tony burst back into the control room before he heard them respond.
Tony had sacrificed a few precious minutes to dash upstairs and suit up, partially for easier communication with Jarvis and partially, he had admitted, because he was no longer certain that he wasn’t going to be trapped in here as the walls collapsed around him. Now he returned as Iron Man, but instead of getting back to work at Bruce’s side, he opened his faceplate and started yelling back at the transmission coming in from the Arc Reactor lab. “Yes! I’m taking that into consideration!”
“What’s going on?” demanded Bruce, finally pulling his eyes away from the display table.
Tony spun around to face him. “Are you deaf? The big noise is in eighteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds, we can’t take the long way home.”
Bruce’s mind automatically shuffled a hundred calculations he had been working on, trying to compensate for the new deadline, but it was the Other Guy’s reaction he felt the most. He was going to do his damnedest to fix this with science, but if that didn’t work out, there was part of him that knew, with utmost clarity, that the chaos at the end of the countdown was going to be a lot more fun than crunching numbers with Tony ever was.
He resolved to ignore it. “We’ve got to get those kids out of here.”
“Yeah,” said Tony, though his tone suggested it was the first time it had occurred to him. “You hear that, Wonder Twins? Vamoose.”
Agent Simmons’ voice rang out through the speakers, loud and urgent. “Our transport needs another eight minutes to land and board. There are seats for you and Dr. Banner as well.”
“He’ll take both,” Tony replied, using the scanners built into his armor to examine the circuit board. “There has to be a workaround for this. I could find it in my sleep if I knew where that vermin had diverted the system access permission codes. He must have taken a piece of hardware with him.”
There was the muted buzz of conversation on her end, and then her voice addressing them again. “Quill says that Rocket was empty-handed when he left here.”
Bruce flinched as Tony began channeling his own Other Guy. “I don’t give a fuck about what Quill says! If the implosion doesn’t take him out I swear I’ll toss him off the roof myself!” He abruptly turned and ripped the tabletop off of the central island, which would have been more alarming if Bruce hadn’t known that he was deliberately exposing the circuitry housed inside to make it easier to work with. “Can it, Jarvis,” Tony snapped as he continued dismantling the power bank. “I’m not gonna leave you holding the stick of dynamite while I save my own ass.”
Unable to take his eyes away from the numerical figures zipping by on the monitor for long enough to look at a clock, Bruce raised his voice so that Simmons could hear him too, and said, “Jarvis can still be rebuilt sans memory if you lose his processors. Not so much the rest of us.”
“Then go,” said Tony shortly. With barely a change to his pitch, he went right back to talking to Jarvis: “You still can’t fix it by yourself. Yeah, I know you’re an artificial intelligence system with no sense of self-interest. Tough taters. Isaac Asimov isn’t your boss, I am.”
Simmons’ voice came in again, sounding frantic to the point of tears. “Dr. Banner, Mr. Stark, we have twelve minutes and forty-nine seconds remaining. Agent Fitz and I strongly advise you to leave the premises with us.”
Tony, who had been on one knee picking carefully at a knot of wires, suddenly jumped to his feet. “What did you say?”
“It’s time to--”
“Not you,” Tony cut in. “Jarvis, what did you - again? The same wall? You’ve got to be kidding me…”
Bruce didn’t have to ask what wall he was talking about, although at this point, there wasn’t much wall left on the side of the room that encased the internal mechanics of the primary control panel. Tony had taken it down, leaving a gap from ceiling to floor with nothing but pipes and cables inside. Beyond the borders of the room, there were narrow passages in every direction, which, as Bruce understood it, was how Rocket had entered the tower in the first place.
Comprehension dawned on him just as he heard the scrabbling sound coming from beneath them. “I thought you sealed it up!” he yelled at Tony.
Both men froze and stared at the gap, where the unfamiliar voice had just emerged. A few seconds ticked by, and the speaker showed himself. There was no doubt that this was the same augmented raccoon that had escaped with Quill so recently, but in addition to his new ability to speak, there were a few key changes since they had last seen him. He was fully dressed now, his fur was damp with rain, and most importantly, he was holding a handgun in both paws and pointing it at Bruce. “He nailed in a steel plate over the opening,” he continued in an accent that sounded freakishly local. “Don’t think his heart was in it, though, since a couple a’ bullets was all it took to get it off.”
“We’ve got nine minutes left, Rocket,” said Tony carefully. “I could not be more sincere when I say we don’t have time for this.”
“Then you better do like I say so’s we don’t get caught in the blast while we’re debatin’ the point,” Rocket countered.
“We’re listening,” said Bruce. He had never been held at gunpoint by a raccoon before, but he assumed the usual rules applied, so he kept his hands where Rocket could see them. “What do you want?”
Rocket took a few mincing steps away from the wall and looked around the room. “Where’s Quill?”
Tony gestured at the monitor, which showed a clear view of Fitz, Simmons, and Quill in the Arc Reactor Room. “Do you want to talk to him?” he offered, his hand hovering at the speaker controls.
“No!” Rocket cried, swinging to point the gun at Tony’s heart even though he had to know that it would be useless against his armor. Bruce began to notice that there was a chord of fear in his voice along with the fury. “Don’t let him know I’m here. Don’t you dare let him know.”
Bruce and Tony both started to speak at once, but as usual, Tony was both faster and louder: “Cancel the self-destruct.”
Rocket bared his teeth. “I ain’t gonna cancel a thing until Quill walks, and not as a prisoner. And don’t think you can get around this by takin’ me outta the game, ‘cause if I drop, your deathtrap palace comes with me.”
Tony’s armor made it difficult to read any subtle cues of body language, but his shoulders seemed to sag a little. “Jarvis backs that up,” he informed Bruce. “We’re at the critter’s mercy.”
“Quill can go with Simmons and Fitz,” said Bruce. Tony nodded and hit a few controls near the monitor, and they all looked to the screen and saw the handcuffs slide off of Quill’s arms. Though they couldn’t hear what he was saying, and he couldn’t see them, the way he flexed and pointed toward the exit made it clear that he was only too glad to accompany the agents in their plane.
But Rocket wasn’t satisfied. “Give him his stuff back,” he demanded, speaking to Tony but keeping the gun trained on Bruce. The first shiver of rage ran down Bruce’s spine.
“Seven and a half minutes left to go, tanuki suit,” Tony snapped. “If we’re saving your friend at all, he’ll have to fly economy.”
The speakers were still set for transmissions from the Arc Reactor lab to be audible to all, so they all jumped a little when Simmons spoke again, fully unaware of the standoff that she was interrupting. “Mr. Stark, this mission has failed. We can’t save the tower. If you come now, you’ll be able to reach the aircraft in time to board with us.”
“Good to know,” said Rocket smugly. “Then you got enough time to drop off Quill’s stuff and tell them you’re flyin’ solo. Soon as you’re all off my back, I reverse the self-destruct sequence. We clear?”
“Hell no,” said Tony. “If we leave you here alone, you’ll jump back down your rabbit hole and let my house burn down and my staff die.”
“How do we know you even can reverse it?” added Bruce.
Rocket shrugged. “Hangin’ around in here is gonna be a lousy way to find out.”
Bruce and Tony started talking at the same time again, but this time the only words they had to overlap each other were a string of curses. Bruce recovered first and said, “If you let this happen -- I transform, Iron Man flies away, the only one in here who dies is you.”
“I’m a talking raccoon with a gun. How much faith you wanna put in my sanity?”
Bruce clenched the nearest countertop, wishing that Rocket hadn’t brought up questions of sanity. The Other Guy was pounding at his prison walls. Tony, for once, seemed to be at a complete loss for words. What the countdown had reached now, Bruce didn’t know, but if they didn’t make a decision fast, the worst possible outcome awaited them.
“I’ll stay,” he said to Tony with sudden clarity. “Go give Quill his boots, whatever. I’ll make sure Rocket doesn’t leave before we’re back to factory settings.”
Tony hesitated; he had to know that there was no time for deliberation, but leaving the site at this juncture was going to be hard on him. Bruce had expected no less, and held his tongue until Tony managed to swallow his misgivings and concede, “Alright. Make sure he doesn’t leave. Period.” He used his receiver to project to the Arc Reactor lab: “Agent Simmons, hold. I’m coming up.”
They all twitched again when a woman’s voice rose above their own and filled the room. It wasn’t Simmons. It was the generic tones of an operating system, one that apparently had nothing to do with Jarvis. “Initializing special command protocol.”
Before anyone could state the obvious, Tony lowered his face guard and disappeared out the door. Bruce didn’t know how effectively he could fly inside the tower, but he was sure that there was some function of the armor that would allow Tony to complete his errand in a flash.
“Your turn,” Bruce said to Rocket.
Rocket nodded and put down his gun on the floor, then jogged over to the equipment that Tony had been eviscerating in the middle of the room. “Relax, the initialization takes ages,” he informed Bruce conversationally as he sorted through the wires until he found the ones he wanted. “In the meantime….” He swiftly connected a few loose ends. “...Pause.” The automated voice stopped in the middle of repeating her sentence.
When he saw the way Rocket was looking up at the monitor, Bruce didn’t need to ask what they were waiting for. It only took a few more seconds for Tony to appear in the frame with an armload of Quill’s possessions, which he thrust at him in a manner that suggested that the items dropped to the floor in the process were not wholly accidental. The two men argued briefly, and then Tony argued with Simmons and Fitz as well, and then everyone exchanged a few calmer words and rushed for the exit together.
Bruce didn’t make any effort to fix the audio to hear what they were saying, and Rocket didn’t ask him to. Only when the Arc Reactor lab was vacant did Rocket tear his eyes away from it and ask if there was a camera outside so that they could see the follow-up to this act. There was, and Bruce had anticipated the request, so in barely a moment they had a new sight on the monitor: a sleek black VTOL jet on the landing pad, with Simmons entering it, followed by Fitz, followed by Quill. Iron Man watched the aircraft’s vertical ascent, then launched himself, a shining red comet following in the jet’s wake.
As they departed, Rocket turned away, his posture slouched in what could be either relief or defeat. Without speaking, he returned to the power center and began to organize the wires.
“You’re fixing it?” Bruce asked, unable to keep the note of surprise from his voice.
“Deal’s a deal,” said Rocket flatly.
Bruce stayed where he was and watched, now less interested in the solution than he was in Rocket himself. He had seen the x-rays and knew that the cyborg had a fully organic brain, though it had been unnaturally enlarged and enhanced. Whether he was truly a raccoon or some identical alien species, Bruce was certain that he had begun life as an animal, which meant that his intelligence and everything that followed was, in some measure, artificial. There was nothing on Earth to compare him to. What grudges and loyalties existed in such a mind?
“If I hadn’t stayed,” Bruce said slowly, “would you have still spared the tower?”
“Yeah,” Rocket replied without hesitation. “Peter came back here to put things right, I didn’t want to screw him over again. He’s -- what do you call it -- decent.”
“In any case,” said Bruce, “thank you.”
Rocket looked up over his shoulder in surprise, then shrugged as if uncomfortable with the words of gratitude and focused on his work. In a moment, though, he spoke again. “So what happens if a building does fall down on your head? You transform into a what now?”
Instead of answering, Bruce went to one of the computers and opened a file containing footage of the Hulk during the Battle of New York. He set it to play on the same screen that had shown them the others’ departure, and pointed to it wordlessly.
Rocket gave a low whistle which his lips didn’t seem to be designed for. “Now that I respect,” he announced. “Who made you into that?”
Rocket kept his attention on the wires, but his eyes narrowed and his ears lay flat against his skull, revealing how he felt about that information. Bruce couldn’t blame him; even humans with ordinary backgrounds were often horrified to hear that he had conducted experiments on his own body. Rocket didn’t seem to want to pursue it any further, though. He had finished configuring the wires and was now headed to another part of the room, where he found a collection of devices and tools easily enough that he had probably left them there himself.
As Bruce watched, aghast, he stripped off his shirt and fastened a pair of clamps to the metal studs on his back, then, gritting his teeth, jammed a metal pin into his own neck. The cable attached to it buzzed and released a few sparks, and Rocket emitted a brief but terrible sound of pain. Bruce took a few hurried steps toward him, but was stopped in his tracks by a fierce expression of warning in his eyes. Rocket moved swiftly to the adjacent console, typing away and casting frequent glances at the dual screens in front of him.
“Tony said you took a piece of hardware with you,” said Bruce. “But you didn’t, did you?”
“Manner a’ speakin’. I am the piece of hardware.”
Bruce took a deep breath. In spite of everything, he still wanted to communicate with Rocket, and not only out of scientific curiosity. “I know it’s too little too late,” he began, “but we didn’t intend to cause you any harm. When it comes to the people you care about, you can’t afford to take any chances. I think that’s something you understand.”
“Take a chance with silence, ‘doctor’. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to chat when we’re done here.” Rocket’s voice was terse, but the light from the screen reflecting on his eyes gave him a ghostly appearance, as if he was not only attached to the console but a mobile extension of it.
“I’m just trying to tell you we’re not monsters. And now we know who you really are, what you can do.”
Rocket snorted. “Yeah, that’s gonna do me a lot a’ good.”
“You came back,” Bruce plowed on. “That helps your case more than you know. You could have let us die--”
The screen flashed with a code that meant nothing to Bruce, and Rocket turned to face him, yanking the cable from his neck in the same motion. “I came back,” he snarled, “for Quill. Not for you, not for me. He’s the one who decided we don’t kill. He had the bright idea of making friends so we could all fight the real enemy together. I don’t care if this tower, this city, this whole d’ast planet burns up, long as Peter and the others ain’t on it. I’m saving you. For him.”
“And I thought you were afraid of him,” Bruce mused. Rocket looked quizzical, so he continued, “I showed you those slides when you were in the cage. When you saw we had Quill in the same building, your heart rate spiked and I thought you were running from him. And all along, you were just worried on his behalf.”
“You can take the blame for that one,” Rocket muttered.
“I do,” Bruce said instantly. “I’m a scientist. That’s how we learn, trial and error.”
Unplugged from the console, some of the light had gone from Rocket’s eyes, leaving them with a kind of lifelessness as he removed the clamps and typed in a few last commands. “I know what you are,” he said, with just enough volume to be heard. “I know how you learn.”
Much as he sympathized with Rocket for whatever he had endured, Bruce was mindful to not voice an apology, knowing how easily it could be construed the wrong way. Instead he noted, “At least you can see now that we didn’t hurt Quill. He walked in and gave himself up right away, did you know that? Just so he could warn us about our imminent demise. That’s some heroism. If he’s your inspiration, you’re on the right track.”
Rocket tugged his shirt back on and went back to the center of the room to rearrange the wiring again. His voice sounded softer now, almost meek. “I still don’t get it,” he confessed. “Why would he risk his life for strangers? Why should we let this place keep standing? I knew what he’s like, what kind of craziness he’ll pull to save someone, but up ‘til now it was always people worth saving. We knew who the bad guys were.” He gestured up at the monitor, where the Hulk was still rampaging. “If you can do that to yourself, what should we hope you’ll do to us?”
There was an electronic chime, coming simultaneously from several different machines across the room, and underneath it Bruce thought he could hear some internal mechanisms locking back into their proper places.
“Done,” said Rocket with finality. He heaved a sigh, turning in a full circle before facing Bruce again. “Guess you wanna check my work?”
It didn’t take Bruce long to scan the data and verify that there was no longer a special command waiting to engage. He kept one eye on Rocket, half-expecting him to make a break for the wall or go for the gun again, which had been placed up high but still wasn’t necessarily beyond his reach. But Rocket remained standing still, arms crossed, waiting for Bruce’s conclusion.
“Okay,” Bruce confirmed. “We’re good. What now?”
“I ain’t in the position to decide.”
“I thought you’d have some kind of plan up your sleeve. Some trick for a last-minute escape we would never predict.”
Rocket shook his head. “This is the plan. You won the day. Toss me back in the cage.” He squeezed his eyes shut, shuddered, then opened his eyes and went on in a harder tone, “But don’t think you’re ever gonna have an easy time with it. I know this game inside out. See how much you can learn from an experiment who’s got the chops to make your life a livin’ hell.”
“I hear that,” answered Bruce, stepping over to the primary computer to turn off the footage of the Hulk and open up another function. Tony had sealed the room using the linked system in his suit, but Bruce knew his programming style well enough to find the commands to reverse it. In less than a minute, the machinery in the infrastructure shifted again, and Bruce flicked a hand to point at the torn-down wall.
Rocket peered back and forth between Bruce and the escape route, suspicion etched clearly into his face. “Why?” he asked.
“We were wrong about you, Rocket. I’ve been trying to show you were wrong about us too, but I think this is the only thing that will convince you.”
Without another word or a nod or anything but one long unreadable look, Rocket backed slowly away, then turned and slipped between the walls. Bruce sat down, sighed deeply, and listened to his footfall descending through Stark Tower.