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Rise Up

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The memory, when he pulls it up, is just as annoying a second time around as it was the first.

“She needs somewhere to stay Tony and the Compound is designed to be the main housing for the Avengers.” Steve says, following after him and crossing his arms when Tony stops to look at him. Tony wonders a little what look is currently on his face right now, is it incredulous? Disbelieving? Irritated?

“And I’m sure that there are plenty of jail cells somewhere out there that would just love to warm her cold little heart.” He tells him, sarcasm dripping from his words.

“She doesn’t belong in a jail cell. She needs help and she needs guidance. Not to be villainized for things she couldn’t control.”

“For once we agree on something.” Tony says. “She needs serious help.” Steve’s jaw clenches in frustration. “And what the fuck are you trying to peddle right now? Things she couldn’t control? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“She’s young.”

“She’s an adult.”

“She didn’t understand the consequences.”

“And yet no one else gets a carte blanche about that.” Tony fires back.

“How can you do this? How can you stand here and act like you don’t care?”

“Care about what Steve? A mass murdering witch? What’s there to care about?”

“Once someone might have said that about the Merchant of Death too.” Steve retorts and Tony finds himself clenching his fists so hard that his nails bite into his palms. He’ll accomplish nothing if he punches him. He’ll just break his own hand and he needs them to work. “She helped us.” Steve presses and Tony snorts.

“She helped Ultron too.”

“She wouldn’t have had the chance to do that if you hadn’t messed with the Scepter.”

“I wouldn’t have messed with the Scepter if she hadn’t gotten into my head.” Tony replies and Steve throws his hands up and paces like Tony’s just reached the end of Steve’s line of patience.

“Why do you always need to make this about you?” He snaps. “Why do you always seem to believe that what happens to you is always greater than everyone else’s trauma?”

“Woah, in what world did I just make this about me?”

“In what world did you not?” Steve fires back and Tony just stares at him.

“The Avengers Compound is for Avengers only. She’s not invited.”

“Actually, she is.” Steve tells him. “If that’s the rule.”

“What?” Tony asks and Steve crosses his arms again.

“We voted her in. She’s an Avenger now.”

“I don’t remember being present at any vote.” Tony says and Steve gives him a look that’s slightly pitying but a voice enters the conversation before the blond has a chance to say anything.

“Are you really surprised? After what you did? After you didn’t consult us about choices you were making against the team?” Natasha says and Tony just stares at her as the small group comes up and stands alongside Steve. There are looks on all of their faces: Clint’s, Nat’s, Sam’s and Steve’s that tells Tony long before any of them press on where the chips are falling.

“Am I surprised? I’ll admit, I am.” Tony says and his throat feels tight. “Should I be? Considering our history? Probably not.”

“You’re the one who acted against us.” Steve ‘reminds’ him and Tony just looks at them, one at a time.

“If you want to add the Scarlet Witch, fine. But it will be at the cost of Iron Man.” Tony tells them firmly and he watches them huff and roll their eyes. “If you chose to take on that murdering Hydra terrorist then this is not a team that I can stand behind or beside anymore.”

“Really, you’re going to throw a fit and take away your toys because you don’t like the new girl in class?” Clint asks and Tony’s almost worried about how tightly he’s still clenching his fists.

“I’m telling you where my line is.” Tony tells them. “I’m telling you if you cross it, then that’s it.”

“And what about our lines Tony?” Natasha asks him softly. “What about our lines when you created Ultron?”

“I didn’t create Ultron and we all know that so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to act like you’re some kind of saint willing to overlook something I didn’t do.” Tony retorts.

“No one else was in that room.”

“You’re right. Even I wasn’t in that room. Go figure.” Tony throws back at her and she just shakes her head.

“Are you really going to throw everything away because you aren’t going to get what you want?”

“What I ‘want’ is a mass murdering, international terrorist behind bars. Strange, it doesn’t seem too terrible to want that when you phrase it like that.”

“She wouldn’t have fallen to Hydra if your bomb hadn’t killed her parents.” Steve tells him and Tony just stares at him. The silence goes on for a few seconds before Natasha seems to notice something and goes to step in.

“What Steve meant was-”

“Oh no, I think he was very clear about what he meant Nat.” Tony forces out. “Just can’t get away from it can you Cap? The whole ‘Tony Stark is the Devil’ diatribe.”

“That’s not what I said and you know it.” Steve says with a roll of his eyes and Tony nods.

“Oh, I heard what you said. Loud and clear, and fine. You want me gone, you’ve got it. As of this moment Iron Man is officially separate from the Avengers.”

“We’re not telling you to leave Tony, you’re doing that all on your own with no prompting from us. We want you here.” Natasha tells him, reaching out to gently put a hand on his arm and Tony pulls back before she can.

“We both know that’s not true.” He tells her. “But fine. If you want to do that. If you want to shit on everything the Avengers are supposed to stand for and if you want to shit on Bruce – then I’m not going to stop you.”

“You need us.” Natasha points out and Tony sighs.

“Maybe.” He answers her. “Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t. I was Iron Man long before you came along and I’ll continue to be Iron Man long after you’re gone.”

“Always about you.” Clint mutters, mimicking Steve’s earlier comment.

“The world needs the Avengers.” Natasha cuts in and Tony just gives her a look.

“Yeah, it does. You know what it doesn’t need? That Witch pretending that she’s anything else than a piece of mind-raping trash.”

Tony lets the amber liquid slosh around in his glass for a few moments as Pepper lets the retold story wash over her.

“And after all of that you let them keep the Compound?” She asks, irritation and disbelief in her voice.

“The Compound is open as training grounds and things like that to any marked under the Avengers Initiative.” Tony tells her, taking a small sip. “Plus, they cheated.”

“Cheated? How?”

“…they got the Vision to ask me to let them all stay as a personal favor to him.” Tony tells her before he looks up. “It was like hearing JARVIS ask me for something and there was never going to be a world where I told him no.”

“They knew that.” She growls and Tony nods.

“Yup, like I said. Cheated.” He shrugs. “So, they’re staying in the Compound, Agent ‘Surprise I’m Not Actually Dead’ is secretly in charge of their day to day requirements and needs…and I’m just…” He pauses. “I don’t know what I’m doing. Agent has asked that I not make a big spectacle of ‘stepping down’. That’s what Fury and them want me to call it. ‘Stepping down from the Avengers’, not quitting but taking a step back where I’d be welcome back anytime.”

“Yeah, that’s not what that press conference is going to look like.” Pepper mutters. “They want you to look guilty. Like those assholes have some kind of pedestal to stand on and that you’re walking away with your tail between your legs.”

“Pretty much.” Tony says, draining the last of his drink. “So that’s where I am right now. What about you? How are things going for you?”

“The board is good, stocks are doing great and I’m worried about a very good friend of mine.” She tells him, her eyes softening as she puts a hand over his.

“I’m going to be fine Pep. I survived before them and I’ll survive in spite of them. Regardless of what they think about it.”

“I still think you should kick them out.”

“I know, but I told Vision they could stay.”

“They don’t deserve the Compound.” She mutters and Tony nods.

“There are a lot of things they don’t deserve that somehow they keep getting anyways. It’s almost impressive.” He sighs. “But who knows, maybe in the end this will work out for the best.”

“You’re free from them.” Pepper says. “There’s no ‘maybe’ about it.”

+++

FRIDAY warns him long before he walks into the room, and Tony considers turning around and taking the elevator down to a different level, but he’s not going to run. Despite the fact that he probably should, he’s not going to.

The elevator doors open and Tony bites back a sigh when he sees Natasha, Steve, Vision and Clint standing there alongside Fury and Agent. They all turn to glance at him when he steps out and he just walks past them, stepping over the leftover damage done to the old labs.

He’ll have to start from scratch. Ultron did a number here and Tony and Bruce didn’t do any other favors to the inner structure when they had to practically gut what was left to create Vision. There are broken pieces of a life that seems so far away from him now. Like looking back through years instead of only days.

God, he feels so old. When did that happen? When did he start feeling so tired all the time?

Tony glances up at the group standing in front of him and he knows the answer, even if he doesn’t fully say it to himself.

“Is there a reason for this unscheduled drop by?” Tony asks eventually, figuring that he may as well get the conversation moving.

“We wanted to talk to you about the future of the Avengers Initiative.” Fury states and Tony can’t help the amused chuckle that slips its way past his lips.

“Something funny Stark?” Clint asks and Tony just shakes his head as he bends down and grabs one of the Iron Legion’s heads that got separated from a body sometime during the ‘fight’.

“Not really.” He says softly, brushing dry wall dust off of it with extreme gentleness. His fingers are strangely numb against the cold metal and it feels more like he’s holding a corpse than anything else. “No…I wouldn’t really say anything was funny anymore.”

“They’re just machines Tony.” Steve tells him, and it sounds like he’s doing his best to sound kind but it falls so short of the mark.

“…not to me they weren’t.” Tony tells him before he stands and places the head on a nearby counter. “Why are you here Nick? You know I quit.”

“You’re part of this now Stark.” Fury tells him and Tony just crosses his arms.

“No, I’m not.” He replies. “I’m not a part of whatever the hell direction the lot of you want to take the Avengers down.”

“The Scarlet Witch is a valuable resource.” Fury says and Tony shrugs.

“I hope that kind of thinking doesn’t come around and bite you in the ass again.” Tony says and Steve crosses his arms.

“Again?”

“You know? Zola? I’m pretty sure someone thought that Hydra-Nazi agent was a valuable resource too once upon a time. Ghee, I wonder how that played out…Oh wait.” He says sarcastically and he sees annoyance write itself across their faces.

Well, not on Vision’s face, but Vision seems more interested in the debris and destruction that’s at their feet. At least someone else is noticing it. After all, with how the others are acting it almost makes Tony wonder if it even exists on their registers.

But why should it?

They benefitted from all of this, they benefitted from JARVIS and yet to them it’s clear that he was just a program. Just something to be useful while he was and forgotten once he was gone.

“We need to discuss what happens next. This is a time for unity and solidarity. Not petty squabbles.” Fury says and Tony sighs.

“’Petty squabbles’…petty squabbles.” He repeats softly with a shake of his head. “I see. Well unfortunately I don’t see the trauma that Bruce went through and that Johannesburg went through and that Sokovia went through as adding up to ‘petty squabbles’ when it comes to me refusing to roll out the red carpet for the woman who made it happen.”

“And how many people have you left in trauma after you’ve gotten through with them Stark?” Clint asks and Natasha nudges his arm and shakes her head even as Fury sends Clint a look to shut up.

“Personally? Very few.” Tony replies. “Vision…are you okay?” He turns his attention to the android who has wandered off into the middle of the room.

“This is where it happened?” He asks and Tony feels his chest seize up a little as he nods.

“Yeah…yeah that’s where it happened.”

“What happened?” Agent asks and Tony doesn’t look at him.

“Where JARVIS was murdered.” Tony says.

“JARVIS wasn’t murdered.” Natasha tells him. “He saved himself.”

“He uploaded a duplicate code.” Tony replies. “A backdoor backup as it were, but it does not negate the fact that a form of JARVIS died in this room trying to stop Ultron from getting out.” He looks at the area where the broken code once hung. “He died to protect us.”

“Will you reload him?” Vision asks and Tony takes a moment before he shakes his head.

“No.”

“If I may ask, why not?” Vision turns to look at him.

“…because he’s not gone.” Tony eventually answers him. “Because he lives on in you…it would feel…wrong in some way, to discredit your evolution from JARVIS to…well to who you are now.” Tony shakes his head again. “So, no. No, I won’t be doing that.”

“I’m sorry.” Vision says with JARVIS’s voice and Tony gives him a small smile.

“Don’t be. We made a choice. Bruce, JARVIS and I all made it. You have nothing to be sorry for.” The two of them seem to come to an understanding before the others reenter themselves into the conversation.

“Stark, we need to get serious about this.” Fury states and Tony looks at him.

“Last time I checked, I was very serious about all of it.” He tells him.

“Iron Man is part of the Avengers.”

“Really? Last time I checked I quit.” Tony says. “And no offence Nick, I’m staying out.”

“What do you want from us?” Fury asks. “You know that there is no way to truly contain what she can do and you want me to turn her away?”

“So, you’re doing what? Damage control? Another attempt at ‘controlling an asset’? Oh, are you going to send Nat in again to fuck around with her head and then pretend that she’s got some insider knowledge after it’s all said and done?”

“Just because you don’t like what I wrote doesn’t mean it isn’t the truth.” Natasha tells him and Tony shakes his head.

“Get out. I have no idea why you’re here…just get out. Vision, you can stay if you want.”

“Vision’s an Avenger, and Avengers stay at the Compound.” Steve says and Tony just looks him dead in the eye.

“Vision’s welcome here regardless of loyalties.” Tony says. “The same can’t be said for the rest of you. FRIDAY, please take the Avengers sans Vision off the visitors list. Oh, and boot the Pirate and Agent off as well.”

‘Done Boss.’ FRIDAY chimes in and Tony watches as frowns cross each of their faces sans Vision as they glance at each other like Tony’s just being so difficult.

“Even if you kick us out, you’re still an Avenger Tony.” Steve tells him. “Regardless of loyalties.”

“No thanks.” Tony retorts. “I’m good. I’m done being looped in with terrorists…oh wait, only the people in this room loop me in with them. My bad.”

“Tony, now isn’t the time for childish tantrums.” Natasha tells him firmly. “The world is scared and it needs to see it’s heroes standing tall. Now more than ever.”

“How can they? When they’re standing next to her?”

“Oh, let it go. She lost her family. She’s scared too Stark.” Clint cuts in and Tony sighs.

“…lots of people lost their families Barton.” Tony says, his voice turning cold. “Those same people who are scared? What do you think will happen when they see the Avengers take in the murderous witch who made it all happen?”

“Wanda didn’t make Ultron Stark.”

“I didn’t say she did, but she did help him. Gladly, freely and without coercion. Gleefully even.” Tony retorts. “So, trust me when I say that the last thing that the world needs, that all those people who lost people need, is to see her walking around without repercussions. They won’t like it and we won’t like it when they decide to do something about it.”

“We’ll get in front of it.” Agent says, adjusting his suit. “We’ll put the proper spin on it.”

“Or the spin that works best for you.” Tony corrects. “But whatever, you do what you’re going to do and I’m going to go do what I need to do.”

“We need to do the same thing.” Fury tells him and Tony rolls his eyes.

“But we have a fundamental disagreement on how to do it…and I don’t know about you Nick, but I’m tired of the Sisyphean task of working with the lot of you. I’m tired of the constant badgering and the unending feeling like I’m being walked over at all times of the day. I’m tired of the struggle to be seen as a man who is doing everything I can possibly do while the lot of you curl around me like snakes in the grass always ready to tear me down and rip me to pieces for the smallest of imagined offenses.” Tony shakes his head. “I’m done Nick. Bravo, you broke me. I’m tired, and I’m done.”

“This is bigger than you Stark.” Fury says to that and Tony just shakes his head.

“You think I don’t know that? You think that thought hasn’t been the thing that’s gotten me to get back up and turn the other cheek repeatedly for years?” Tony asks. “Really?”

“You’ve already said it, you’re tired.” Natasha reenters the conversation. “Which means now isn’t the time to be making big decisions that are going to affect so many more than just yourself.”

“News flash Nat. Every decision I make affects more than just me. You’re being willfully obtuse if you’re going to pretend that you don’t know that, and you’re insulting me if you think that I don’t know that.” Tony runs a hand over his face. “But this meeting, or whatever it is, is done. The press conference is tomorrow and Pepper has already decided what’s being said. And before you get it in your head to head me off and give your own first, let me remind you that Pepper is not one to be toyed with and that no one wins when they go against her in her own arena.”

“You don’t have to do this alone Tony.” Steve says and Tony feels like he’s blithely ignoring what’s really going on here. “We’ve still got your back.”

“Even if you don’t have ours.” Clint adds on in a loud mutter.

“Some offense meant Rogers, but I think I’m done showing you my back at this point. I’ve gotten tired of all the knives in it from doing so.” Tony tells him before he motions to the elevator which opens immediately.

“We care about you Tony.” Steve tells him as he goes to walk by and Tony doesn’t even pretend to help the sigh.

“No one in this room cares about me Rogers, and that’s a fact.” Tony replies and Steve gets this look like he’s pitying Tony because Tony’s just so off base and Tony thinks if he weren’t so tired, he’d just punch him in his stupid perfect teeth just for the satisfaction of doing it.

“Mr. Stark.” Vision says stopping at the opening to the elevator and Tony turns to look at him. “You’re wrong.”

“About what?”

“You said he died and that he did it to protect everyone…but you’re wrong. He didn’t. He did it to protect you.” Vision inclines to him and Tony’s grateful that the doors close in the next few seconds so that they’re all not witness to the tears running down Tony’s face.

+++

He hasn’t gone this bad for a while now, years if he can remember correctly. Before the ARC for certain, but who knows before that.

Tony lays on the floor amongst the debris and the coolness on his skin helps a little with the sickening feeling rolling through him. The bottles are knocked over somewhere and littered about. Some piece of Tony figured that none of it should go to waste and he’d been in dire need of a drink – of anything that would make him just stop feeling for a few minutes.

He figures he should be grateful that he hasn’t gotten so blackout drunk that he’s laying in any bodily fluids sorts of messes. Luckily, he’s still got himself trained against that from all those years playing Howard and trying to numb the feeling of both not being him and not having him here.

There’s a moment of silence before a strange sort of pressure pops his ears and there are footsteps pressing over the broken glass, cracking it and alerting him to the new presence.

“FRIDAY?” Tony manages to get out as he tries to push himself up but his arms and gravity aren’t agreeing with him, and he hears nothing from his newest and youngest creation. He does however hear a soft sigh as the person comes over and hands that he doesn’t recognize start to help him up.

“Tony, Tony stop.” The man says when Tony tries to throw a punch with a snarled ‘Let go of me!’ “If I do that, you’ll fall down.”

“Who are you? How did you get in?”

“Those seem like simple questions, but they really aren’t.” The man replies as he navigates Tony over to the remnants of the couch that Tony remembers them all hanging around and laughing as they tried to pick up Thor’s hammer.

He feels like he’s going to be sick.

“An easy answer is that I’m a doctor.” The man continues on as he maneuvers Tony into the best position for a drunk to sleep off the intoxication. “And that I’m here to help.”

“There’s no help…none…not for me.” Tony finds himself muttering and it’s embarrassing and melancholic and everything that Tony should not be saying to some weirdo who has managed to get into the Tower while wearing the most garish red cloak he has ever seen.

“There is now.” Are the final words he hears before everything goes black.

 

Chapter Text

The world is blurry for a few seconds when Tony manages to crack his eyes open. He can hear the soft whispers of two people talking and even at the low tones it feels like sandpaper on his brain. He takes a moment to take a deep breath and settle himself before he turns his head to see who is in the area with him.

It’s that man, the one with the strange red cloak with a bald woman in just as garish of a bright yellow one. The two of them are having some kind of conversation that looks rather grave if the look on the woman’s face is anything to go by and Tony must make some kind of noise because the two of them stop and turn to look at him as one.

“What?” Tony mutters slightly defensively when they don’t say anything and the woman turns back to the man – didn’t he say he was a doctor? A doctor of what? What kind of doctor wears that? – and she puts a hand on his shoulder before she makes a motion with her other hand and Tony almost falls off the couch with the giant portal, he’d recognize a portal anywhere, that forms in response to it and she walks through, disappearing as it closes behind her.

“Good morning Tony.” The man says as he takes one step towards him and Tony’s up, moving back as quickly as he can without threatening to overwhelm or topple himself.

“Don’t call me ‘Tony’ like you know me.” Tony snaps. “What the fuck did you do to FRIDAY, who the fuck are you, who the fuck was that and how the fuck did you get in here?”

“I do in fact know you, I guess if I’m going to answer your questions correctly then I’m fucking Stephen Strange, that was the fucking Sorcerer Supreme of this time and I came through a fucking portal just like she did. And FRIDAY is fine, it was just a temporal recoil, I didn’t intentionally do anything to her. I wouldn’t.” Strange tilts his head. “Are we done with the explicatives now?” Tony just stares at him.

‘I am functioning fully, Boss.’ FRIDAY’s voice is like a soft balm to Tony’s worry.

“Considering that you’ve just broken in and that I’m likely to kick your ass back to the circus I don’t think sassing me is your best bet right now.”

“Well sass just happens to be my greatest superpower so I guess I’ll just have to live with the consequences.” Strange takes another step forward. “And considering that I’ve done a lot more than just ‘break into your tower’, I think I’ll gladly take the circus if you manage to in fact kick my ass anywhere.”

“Who are you?” Tony repeats, putting emphasis on the question and the man motions to the couch.

“Sit down and I’ll tell you.”

“I don’t want to sit down.”

“Well then you’ll fall down and you won’t get the answers you’re looking for.” The man replies calmly and Tony glares at him for a moment before he acknowledges in himself that his legs are shaking and he does actually need to take a moment. Tony motions for Strange to take a step back and the other man does so as Tony comes back around and sits down.

“I’m sitting, now talk.”

“My name is Doctor Stephen Strange.” Strange says. “And I’m not from this timeline so to speak.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m from a potential future of yours, a future that you’re currently on the path of but I’m here to stop you from continuing on it and steer this world down a different choice.” Strange gets an oddly tight look on his face. “And hopefully give us a chance that we don’t have where I’m from.”

“So, you’re from the future.”

“A potential future, yes.”

“I see, a ‘potential future’. And what big thing are you here to do to?” Tony flexes his fist a little, trying to ignore the obvious crazy person in the room and he wonders if FRIDAY knows to send a suit. “Are you here to kill me or something?”

“I just watched over you all night, why would I kill you now?” Strange asks and Tony shrugs.

“You need something from me first and for that you need me to give you a small amount of trust. So, you’ll ‘help’ me and then you’ll spring it on me and throw me away once you’ve gotten whatever it is.” Tony replies.

“Hmm.” Strange says. “I guess to a point you’re sort of right. I need you to trust me, and trust what I’m saying, but I don’t expect blind acceptance of it and I’m not going to hurt you.” Strange flicks at the edge of his cape and Tony can’t help but notice that there’s no breeze for the cape to be moving in the lazy sort of way it is. “I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, and I’ll just tell you what I need from you. Secrets aren’t exactly something you’re fond of and I don’t want to start out our potential working relationship with them. I don’t need you to do or give me anything, in fact just the opposite. I need you not to do something.”

“And what is this thing that you need me not to do?”

“In a few hours there will be a press conference. In the original timeline, the one I’m here to prevent, you had a…moment, I guess. Clarity or loneliness or self-destruction, or who knows maybe one of them get to you before your conference – but you decide to ‘put aside your differences’ and you rejoin the Avengers as a ‘currently off the field’ member.”

“What?” Tony says with a snort. “You clearly missed the part where I told them to fuck off.”

“Tony.” Strange says, and it sounds way too personal. “You and I both know that you’ve told them that many times only to ‘swallow down your pride’ and start doing backflips for them again seconds later.”

“How the hell do ‘you and I both know’ any of that?”

“I’m an Avenger.” Strange says. “Sort of, not in any official capacity. I join you alongside some other people when you go to stand against Thanos.”

“Thanos?”

“The man who sent the army, the man who haunts your step.” Strange tells him and Tony feels like there’s icy fingers clenching around his lungs, stealing the breath away from him. “He comes Tony. He comes and we all fail.”

“What?” Tony forces out and Strange comes forward and kneels down, his eyes kind as he looks at him.

“There were many mistakes made, so many, and because of them we didn’t stand a chance. Thanos came and he wiped the floor with all of us. I saw the future and then I saw him kill you. I broke the natural laws and I came here to try to better our chances next time around.”

“I died?”

“Yes.” Strange replies. “You died for me, well for all of us if I’m being honest but you were protecting me at the time.” Strange sighs. “I considered for a moment giving Thanos what he wanted, in hopes that the small sliver of hope would carry us through…but the numbers weren’t in our favor, so I decided to change the game.”

“How long did we know each other?” Tony finds himself asking, still not buying into it but he has to give that this man is a good actor. “In this ‘other world’?” Strange tilts his head.

“That’s a complicated question.”

“Doesn’t seem like one.”

“It is. I went into the future, I experienced millions of lives, of worlds and end results. In a lot of them we worked together and failed. In others you were gone and the rest of us weren’t enough. I have so many memories of events and battles that have never truly taken place, in my mind whereas you only have this moment now.” Strange looks like he wants to reach out but he refrains. “And I do not say this lightly, but you have been a dear friend to me and I am yours, whether you accept me and what I am telling you or not.”

“You’re asking me to take a lot on faith.” Tony points out and Strange gives him a small smile.

“I usually do.” He says. “You’ll get used to it.”

“That’s if I don’t call the nearest asylum to come pick you up.”

“I’d just sling myself out.”

“Sling? Portal you mean?”

“We call it slinging, but yes. In effect, yes.” Strange replies. “It’s magic.”

“There’s no such thing as magic.”

“Let me guess, ‘magic is just science we don’t understand yet’.” Strange says with that same small smile and Tony nods.

“Exactly.”

“Well I’m here to tell you…that’s not true. Similar in nature in some cases yes, but fundamentally different.”

“How do I know that you’re not some Wanda vision pushing me down a path to self-destruct again?” Tony asks and Strange’s smile falls instantly.

“She won’t get in your head like that ever again Tony, not while I draw breath.” Strange promises with a firmness that reminds Tony of Rhodey or Happy or Pepper. “And even beyond it, I’ll teach you how to combat her. How to recognize when she’s playing her games and how to remove yourself from her grasp.”

“You can do that?”

“I’m the Sorcerer Supreme of the future, I can sure as hell do that.” Strange says. “So honestly the true path to self-destruction whereas you’re concerned is in the arms of the Avengers.” Strange says and Tony fights back against the small voice inside of him that wants to believe this man. A small voice that wants to believe that someone he works with on the team could care enough about him to have such a visceral reaction to the thought of him falling prey to the witch again. “I know I don’t have much time to convince you not to change your mind, but please, don’t rejoin Iron Man with the Avengers Initiative.”

“What happens if I do?” Tony asks. “You haven’t exactly been clear on that.”

“Everyone dies.” Strange replies. “But you get it worse. You always seem to get the worst of it all, and trust me, you get it in spades.”

“That sounds cheery.”

“I don’t come from a cheery time.” Strange says. “And I’m here to do everything I can to change that.”

“And somehow that starts with me staying the hell away from the Avengers?”

“Yes.” Strange replies with the upmost confidence in his answer and Tony just stares at him.

“…I need a shower and I need to think.” He says eventually and Strange nods.

“Agreed. I need to return to Kamar-Taj and speak with the Ancient One. I’ll return later.”

“How much later?” Tony asks and Strange looks at him.

“I’ll be here after your decision. I’ve said my piece, and I’m not going to convince you either for it or against it with anything else. This has to be a choice you make, and I’ll be there to help you with whichever path you choose.”

“What if I choose to go back to the Avengers?”

“I hope you don’t.” Strange says. “But I will be here, by your side and helping you as much as I can if you do.” He says it like an oath and Tony doesn’t know what to say to that, or if there even is anything to say to that as Strange stands up and makes the same motion that the woman from before did. “FRIDAY, I leave him in your capable hands.” He says before he inclines his head slightly to Tony and steps though, disappearing as it closes behind him.

“…what the actual fuck just happened FRIDAY?” Tony finds himself asking a few moments later.

+++

“And you’re sure? Everything is fine? You feel okay?” Tony asks as he continues sorting through the code, flipping back and forth between the layers looking for whatever caused FRIDAY’s glitch in the Tower systems last night.

‘To my best understanding, I seem to be working at optimal functionality.’ FRIDAY replies. ‘As are the remaining systems in Stark Towers.’ Tony doesn’t correct her about the name of the building, he’s already thinking about changing it back.

What the hell had he been thinking when he changed it in the first time? Never mind, he knows what he was thinking. He was as blinded by the excitement of superheroes and the Avengers as the rest of the world was. Like a kid in a candy store he’d blithely ignored all warning signs, and he’d allowed them to twist themselves up inside of him like a pack of thorns, strangling the life from him and entangling him so badly that he didn’t know where they started and where he did.

“I want to do a few more system checks.” Tony says. “I don’t want to risk something being left behind.”

‘I will run another diagnostic. I am curious, Natasha Romanov is attempting to gain access to the current floor and is refusing to get off of the elevator. Shall I call security?’

“Or who knows maybe one of them get to you before your conference – but you decide to ‘put aside your differences’ and you rejoin the Avengers as a ‘currently off the field’ member.” Strange’s words come back to him and he pauses for a moment. Does he want to hear what she has to say? Or has he been giving her too much of his time and allowing her to speak over him for too long?

“Call Happy. Let him know that an old friend of his is camping out and that he needs to bring extra strength roach spray.” Tony says after a moment, and he knows what’s happening. He’s making a choice, a choice not to rejoin the Avengers.

And the choice is an easy one. He had tried to think of good times last night, and yet for any situation that might have been framed as a good one – there were a dozen horrible ones nipping at its heels. This was the choice he had to make and he wasn’t making it for some possibly imaginary ‘potential future’ that a crazy person with a teleportation device told him about, he was making it for him.

Maybe, just maybe, it was okay to be selfish. Maybe, just maybe it was okay to say no and to stand by it for no other reason than it would make him happier. Not every choice he had to suffer though needed to be some big ‘think about the world’ discussion that Natasha always turned it into.

Actually, looking back on it he can see the manipulations. The heavy-handed attempts at corralling him and beating him down.

Obie used to do it too, and it worries him when he has the revelation that SHIELD didn’t pick Natasha and Natasha’s ‘Natalie Rushman’ persona because she was pretty and she’d turn his eye – they picked her because she was a female Obie, and Tony was always weak to that. Obie had taught him to be weak to that for over the decade that he’d stood by his side, breaking him down and gaslighting him and making him question every decision that he made until in the end he just let Obie make them all for him.

Just like he eventually let Natasha and Steve and the Avengers do for him too.

God, when did he get so mixed up? Didn’t he think he was past this already?

‘Mr. Hogan has intercepted Ms. Romanov.’ FRIDAY cuts into his thoughts and Tony nods.

“Good, keep an eye on them please. If she does anything to him, you bring hell down on her.”

‘Understood Boss.’ FRIDAY replies and Tony gets back to the task at hand as he tries to ignore the threat of the Avengers hanging over him. For some reason he seriously doubts that they’re done, in any way, shape or form, with trying to get him back under their thumb and that just means that there are going to be multiple attempts before the press conference in a few hours.

He’s surprised that they waited so long to send Natasha, but he also figures that they didn’t think that he’d actually stick to his guns and keep her out.

…he never has before. And that just stings.

He gets the rest of the diagnostics ran and he doesn’t like the unknown surge of odd energy that knocked FRIDAY out of the Tower systems.

No, not odd…Strange.

Or at least the man’s taking credit for it and Tony’s slightly willing to give it to him. The energy signature of the portal was weird as well and Tony knows that he needs more data long before he says with any certainty that it was or wasn’t Strange who did it.

The phone ringing doesn’t fully register and Tony answers it before he can think twice about it. A habit borne of repetition.

“Stark.”

“Tony.” Steve’s voice comes out on the other side and Tony takes a moment to whack himself on the forehead. “I’m glad you answered.”

“Don’t be, I didn’t check who was calling.” Tony replies. “And now that I know, have a good day Rogers.”

“Tony wait.” Steve says and Tony inwardly curses himself when he does.

“What do you want Rogers? Is it to try your hand where Natasha failed?”

“What are you even talking about?”

“Whatever, forget it. What do you want?”

“I’m not calling for me.”

“Oh, and who are you calling for? Agent? Fury? Who told you to call?”

“Wanda.” The name makes him pause and his grip tightens on his phone. “Wanda wants to meet.”

“Well that’s too bad. I’m not interested in meeting her.”

“For the love of…can’t you just put someone else’s needs before yours for once Tony?” Steve snaps. “She wants to say she’s sorry. She wants to look you in the eyes and put all of that behind her. Would you really refuse someone that sort of closure?”

“Considering that I had nothing to do with her little tragedy? Yes, yes I would.” Tony says. “And tell her to apologize to Bruce first.”

“No one knows where he is.”

“Ghee, I wonder why that is.”

“Tony…I know you’re better than this.”

“Really? I was certain that you thought I was Satan.”

“Tony please. She wants to apologize. She wants to move on.”

“And is that really something she wants or is that something she was coached to want?” Tony asks.

“What does that even mean?”

“You know, like a five-step program.”

“This isn’t a joke Tony, this is a young girl’s life.”

“She’s a full-grown woman Rogers, not a little girl.” Tony tells him. “And I’m sorry, but no. If she really wants to ‘apologize’ to me then she’ll do it on my time. Not hers.”

“Why does everything have to be about you?”

“Because apparently the world revolves around me? Didn’t you hear? I’m surprised you haven’t since you’re usually the one spouting it.”

“You can’t do this alone Tony.”

“Now you’re starting to sound like Romanov.”

“She’s right. What happens when you need help? Who is going to be there to pull you out of the fire?”

“…Me.” Tony says after a brief moment of reflection. “I’m going to be the one who saves me Steve, and if in the off chance that I ask for help I don’t think it’ll be from you bunch anytime soon if ever again.”

“You need us Tony, and we need you.”

“Funny, that wasn’t what you were spouting before.”

“You’re the one who tried to destroy us.”

“I tried to help us.” Tony fires back. “And you know what. You didn’t listen then and you’re not really listening now, and I’m done screaming pointlessly into the void.”

“Tony-”

“No Steve. You know what, I would like to say I wish you the best, but I don’t. The honest truth is that I just don’t. Don’t try to call me again, I won’t answer.”

“And if we need you? You’d turn your backs on us?”

“This is me telling you right now to stand on your own feet because I’m done with you standing on me. That’s not turning my back on you if you were warned beforehand.”

“Why are you being like this? She got into your head, but she got into all of our heads and no one else is acting like this.”

“Oh really? No one? Interesting, here do me a favor. Go and get Bruce on the phone, don’t worry, I’ll wait.”

“You know what I mean Tony.”

“No, I know that you’re rewriting history and what’s really happening to suit your own fancy.” Tony fires back. “You’re ignoring the damage because it’s inconvenient to you.”

“I’m the one trying to help you, how is that ignoring anything?”

“Because you’re not doing it for me. You’re doing it to pat yourself on the back about what a ‘good guy’ you are and you’re doing it because maybe – just maybe – you’re noticing how fucking screwed you are without me.”

“You’re not invaluable Tony.”

“Then you should have no problems moving on.” Tony retorts. “This door is closed. This checkbook is closed and this hand is no longer holding out toys. Move on, because I intend to.”

“You were never just a checkbook and don’t even try to make it sound like you were.”

“No, I wasn’t. I was also your mechanic, your landlord, your scapegoat, your sugar daddy, your punching bag and whatever else you needed. So no, not just a checkbook.”

“You’re accusing me of rewriting history but what is it that you’re doing right now? That was never what it was like!”

“It was to me.” Tony tells him. “It was to me.” Tony sighs. “So I’m saying no. No, I will not come meet with Wanda. No, I will not rejoin the Avengers and no I will not pick up this phone for you ever again.”

“I’m always going to answer for you.” Steve says, his voice firm and Tony sighs.

“Don’t bother, I don’t foresee me calling.”

“Even if you need help? Even if the world needs us? You’d dig your feet in pointlessly and refuse to budge? Because of your ego and your pride?”

“If the world needs Iron Man, it’ll have him. It always will.” Tony says. “If the world needs the Avengers, I’m guessing it’ll have them too. I don’t think it matters much to the world if we’re friends, only that we do our jobs.”

“And how do you expect us to be able to do that if you’re attacking us and insulting us?”

“How am I insulting you?”

“You’re basically accusing us of being abusers and bullies.”

“No, I’m not Steve.” Tony cuts him off.

“Yes, you are Tony.”

“No, I’m not. I’m not basically accusing you of anything.” Tony replies. “I’m outright saying it.” He hears Steve sputter on the other side. “Goodbye Rogers, don’t call.” Tony says as he cuts off the call and even though there’s this feeling of anxiety rushing through him, a common feeling whenever it came to speaking to any of the Avengers, he feels like he’s done good. “FRIDAY, please give Pepper the green light for today’s agenda.”

“Will do Boss.”

Chapter Text

Pepper hands him the brief when he sits down and Tony takes a deep breath before he opens it and starts to read. It’ll be the information that they release to the public regarding the Avengers interaction and struggle against Ultron and it’s odd reading it in simple black printed letters. There’s a feeling of detachment from the retelling that Tony’s not sure if he’s grateful for or if he’s unsettled by it.

The brief mentions the Scepter and the Scarlet Witch’s first introduction to the Avengers. They mention the Ultron Initiative and the power surge from Thor’s hammer which animated and freed the entity trapped inside the stone. It mentions Johannesburg and the events leading up to the Hulk’s rampage, not shying away from the dirty details of the Witch’s involvement as Ultron’s right hand. They explain the fight for the Cradle and the Maximoff’s defection from Ultron’s side before summarizing the eventual final fight with the artificial intelligence.

Tony pauses as he looks over it all again, before he glances up at Pepper and Rhodey.

“It’s missing something that I think should be in there.” He says.

“What’s that?” Pepper asks, already preparing to add a section.

“SHIELD’s involvement.” Tony replies. “I think if we intend to claim that we’re being ‘completely frank’ with the general public then they should be aware that SHIELD isn’t really gone and that they’re just operating out of the shadows again.”

“You want to go to war with SHIELD?” Rhodey asks for clarification and Tony takes a moment before he nods.

“Yeah, I do. SHIELD’s just as culpable in Hydra’s dealings as Hydra was.” Tony says. “And if they want to start mimicking old habits and not learning from past mistakes by taking on the Witch, then I say yes – the world should know that the boogeyman is still very much under the bed.”

“Consider it done.” Pepper says, tapping a few notes onto her tablet. “I’ll get FRIDAY to help me gather it all and put it together.” Tony nods and he taps his fingers on the table top nervously for a few moments.

“Wow…so this is really happening. Iron Man, going solo.”

“You’re not going solo.” Both Pepper and Rhodey say at the same time and they send each other amused smirks at the echo.

“You’re out of your mind if you think War Machine isn’t still backing you up.” Rhodey says and Pepper shrugs when they both look at her.

“I may not have the opportunity to breathe fire anymore, but I dare anyone to try and storm a castle I’m protecting.” She adds and Tony smiles. “And you know Happy will gladly get in the ring with anyone he needs to.”

“Yeah…yeah I do know that.” Tony replies. “I do.” He takes a few moments before he looks back up at them. “Cards on the table?” He asks and they share a quick glance before they nod. “I got visited last night by somebody.”

“Last night?” Rhodey asks, leaning forward and Tony nods.

“Yeah, we talked this morning and he…well he told me a rather crazy story.”

“When do you get any other kind?” Pepper asks and Tony chuckles.

“Fair.” He says. “…he said he was from the future.” There’s a heavy silence that follows his words.

“…The future?” Pepper repeats and Tony nods.

“Yup. That’s what he said.” Tony agrees. “He said that he came from a world where I rejoined with the Avengers and he was here to stop that from happening.”

“Do you believe him?” Rhodey asks. “Is that why all this is going down?”

“I don’t know if I believe him per se…but I’m starting to live in a world with aliens, witches, super soldiers, all powerful stones and whatnot. At this point ‘time travel’ seems like a given.” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t know who he is or what he really wants, I mean Dr. Stephen Strange used to be a neurosurgeon who lost his ability to practice after a horrible car accident according to the records. I have no other ideas to pull at for why he’d be opening portals in my Tower and claiming that he’s come back from the future if he hadn’t in fact done so.”

“You tracked him down?” Rhodey asks and Tony shakes his head.

“Not really. He’s sort of missing. Has been for a few months now. He closed out all his accounts, sold his place and disappeared off the grid.” Tony replies. “I’m thinking of poking my head in on some old acquaintances of his and see if I can figure out a little bit more about the guy, but for right now he’s a no show as far as anyone is concerned.”

“So a sort of missing person showed up in the Tower last night and told you he was from the future and to kick the Avengers to the curb?” Rhodey re-summarizes and Tony nods.

“Pretty much.” Tony agrees and Rhodey sighs.

“You know, only you Tones. Only you.” He says with a small amount of amused fondness and Tony leans back in his chair with a heavy sigh.

“Don’t I know it?” He says. “So, shall we get this show on the road?”

“Let’s.” Pepper agrees. “I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised that one of them hasn’t tried to stop us.”

“They did.” Tony says. “They sent Natasha this morning, and they had Rogers call and try to play mediator between me and Maximoff.”

“What?” Rhodey asks and Tony nods.

“Yeah, I’m sure they’re all figuring that Maximoff was the straw that broke the camel’s back so if they made it all seem like rainbows and kittens and slap a Band-Aid over it that I’ll realize that I’m being ridiculous or who knows, maybe they’re hoping that I’ll just realize that leaving for such a ‘wounded and mislead little girl’,” Tony makes a face at that and he figures that there was no way he was going to repeat that sentence without doing so. “Is a stupid thing to do? I’m not really sure what game they’re playing there, but I know they’re playing one.”

“Well, here’s to jumping off the board.” Pepper says and Tony smiles.

“Here’s to jumping off the board.”

Although he figures he’s not surprised when he sees Natasha and Coulson standing in the back of the press conference, with their arms crossed and just barely within Tony’s view. He also figures he’s not surprised when Coulson shakes his head and it feels like a threat.

Tony says the words anyways.

+++

The hospital is full of people rushing back and forth, and Tony adjusts his sunglasses as he tries to shift himself out of the way of the most recent grouping of nurses heading down the halls. He makes his way over to the desk and he waits till the harried young man standing behind it looks up at him.

“Can I help you?” He asks and Tony nods.

“Yes, I’m looking for Doctor Christine Palmer?” Tony says. “I heard she was in today.” The young man takes a moment to tap at a few keys on their computer system before he nods and gives Tony a set of simple instructions to guide him to where Dr. Palmer is. Tony smiles and says thanks to him before he takes off and it’s not hard to track down Dr. Strange’s old partner. “Dr. Christine Palmer?” He asks, coming up behind a woman who matches the picture that FRIDAY showed him earlier and she turns to look at him. “Hi, Tony Stark.” He says as he offers his hand and she gives him a look like ‘what the hell are you doing here?’ before she shakes it. “I was wondering if we might talk? If you have a few minutes?”

“…sure…I’ve got a few minutes.” She says slowly, glancing over at another doctor before she motions for Tony to follow her. She leads him to an office and closes the door after he enters behind her. “So, what can I help you with today Dr. Stark?”

“Dr. Stark?” Tony says with a small smile. “It’s not often people call me that.” He motions to a chair. “May I sit?”

“Yeah, sure.” She says as he does and she walks around the desk to sit on the opposite side. “So…how can I help you?”

“Two ways – well three actually, but three is tied in with two.” Tony replies. “Number one though, I’ve seen your records, I’ve read a few of your papers. The ones you co-authored with Dr. Stephen Strange? Fascinating reads, very groundbreaking.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m just going to cut to the chase, I can see you’re a very busy woman.” He says and she nods. “I’m currently starting work on something. A device that interfaces with the brain to help deal with traumatic memories in PTSD survivors.” Tony tells her. “It’s in its initial stages and I would appreciate having a small panel of experts to tag in and give it a thorough look over. As such, you and Dr. Strange fell onto my radar and I was hoping that you both might consider it.”

“Wow, that would be amazing.” Dr. Palmer says before her smile fades slightly. “But impossible. Dr. Strange doesn’t practice anymore.”

“I heard about the accident.” Tony says, softening his tone and he sees the pain still written on the other Doctor’s face. It’s clear in that moment that Dr. Palmer still held feelings for Strange, wherever he may be. “I know that it pulled him out of the emergency room. Real tragedy, I saw some of the miracles he pulled off.”

“It was.” She agrees.

“The offer is still on the table for him though.” Tony presses on. “I wouldn’t need him to crack open a brain and look in there, more so to look over the data complied. He is still referenced as the greatest mind when it comes to minds.”

“That he is.” Dr. Palmer says with a sad smile. “But it’s more than just not practicing anymore. He’s left New York and I don’t know where he is.”

“Oh, I see. Do you have an email or anything? I could always forward him the same contract agreement that I will forward you if you choose to sign on to this.” Tony asks and Dr. Palmer gets a look as she bites her lip, clearly thinking about it before she nods.

“Yeah, I have an email that he’s still using.” She says, reaching out and grabbing a sticky note and scribbling something on it. “Here, if you want to send him the offer you might be able to reach him there. I don’t promise anything, but it’s the closest thing I have to a contact on him.” Tony forces himself to accept the note from Palmer and he smiles.

“Sounds good. Can I take it as this is something you’d be interested in doing regardless of Dr. Strange or not?”

“Absolutely.” She says immediately and Tony nods.

“Excellent. I’ll have FRIDAY send you the information and, of course, the NDA’s. That’s the third thing, not talking about it but I don’t really think it needs to be elaborated.”

“Not at all.” Dr. Palmer agrees.

“And if I may ask, if anyone asks you if you saw me today?”

“I didn’t see a thing.” She says with a smile and Tony gives it back to her.

“I’m looking forward to working with you Dr. Palmer.” He says as he stands and offers his hand again. She rises instantly and clasps it.

“Likewise Dr. Stark.”

+++

Dr. Palmer leaves him almost instantly the minute they exit her office, an intern or a nurse – Tony’s not really sure which – rushing over and grabbing her away. He holds the small piece of paper in-between his fingers as he slides back on his sunglasses and starts towards the exit.

It might seem like a small thing, to get this address, but there are a lot of ways that Tony can find someone just by tracking an email.

He doesn’t know what catches his eye, maybe it’s just a new brand of paranoia that’s about to save his life because Tony notices a certain mop of red hair up at the information desk and it stops him dead in his tracks. He glances around the area and he can see them, Steve and Maximoff to one side and Wilson and Clint off on the other. The nurse he talked to earlier is smiling and laughing, no doubt being absolutely charmed by whatever mask Natasha has put on for him and Tony feels a small inkling of panic wind through him.

It worsens the minute that he looks over and sees the exact second that Barton sees him in the crowd, nudging Wilson and starting forward. Steve and Maximoff move as well, clearly seeing Clint move but not actually knowing his end destination yet and Tony turns quickly down one of the hallways and goes to try to lose them.

It’s ridiculous, what are they going to do in a place with this many witnesses? But the other part of him just doesn’t care, it doesn’t want to have to talk to them even for ten seconds to say ‘fuck off’ and walk by.

Plus, Maximoff is with them. Why the hell have they brought Maximoff? Are they seriously going to try and force a confrontation and ‘reconciliation’ between them at any cost?

Any additional thought that Tony might have had is cut off when someone grabs his arm and yanks him into a barely lit room before quickly closing the door. It only takes a moment to see that red cape and Tony knows.

“Come to check up on an old friend?” He whispers and Strange gives him a look.

“Came to check in on you.” Strange replies just as softly. “I guess I’m not too surprised that you’re checking up on me too.”

“I have legitimate reasons for talking with Dr. Palmer.”

“I’m sure you do.” Strange replies. “And I’m sure I never came up in your conversation. What’s that?” He glances down at the bright yellow square in Tony’s hand and Tony quickly places it in his pocket.

“Nothing.”

“I’ll bet.” Strange says like he’s fighting a smile. “You’re not going to track down the me of this time.”

“Then don’t worry about it.” Tony fires back before he looks around. “Did you seriously pull us into a janitor closet?” He arches an eyebrow at Strange. “You do realize you’d be the first person knocked off in a horror movie with hiding places like this?”

“I’m the smart one, I’ll outlive a few other people before it’s my time.” Strange replies easily.

“Oh? And which one does that make me?” Tony asks, just practically daring him to say the promiscuous one.

“The final girl if I have any say about it.” Strange offers up in a soft whisper. “But we shouldn’t stay.”

“No kidding, but unless your little teleportation portal can work in here, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Mainly Rogers and his little band of sycophants.”

“Luckily for the both of us, it does.” Strange offers, making a motion and letting a golden portal appear. It’s the oddest thing, it seems so harmless and yet it makes every muscle in Tony’s body tense. He can see a staircase he doesn’t recognize, and he locks up. “Tony? Tony it’s okay.” Strange’s voice sounds slightly far away despite the fact that Tony knows he’s standing right next to him and Strange steps half through the portal before offering his hand to him. “It’s okay. Please, trust me.”

There’s a knock on the door and Tony jolts, glancing at it and he can hear Barton on the other side.

“Really Stark? Really?” The archer asks through the door and Tony looks back to Strange standing halfway through a fucking portal, just holding out his hand with a look of utmost patience on his face.

Tony slowly reaches out and takes the hand, feeling it clasp on his and practically have to pull him through right as he hears the start of the doorknob start to turn. The portal closes behind him long before the door opens and Tony thinks he might be sick.

“You’re alright. Breathe, just breathe.” Strange says, guiding Tony over to a chair and helping him try to calm down the panic starting to inch around his brain. “Wong, get him some water please.” Strange calls out to someone in the distance before he returns his focus back to Tony. Tony’s not really sure how much time passes, but next thing he knows he’s calm again and he’s got a half empty cup of water in his hands.

“You’re pretty good at that.” Tony offers up, unsure of what to say and Strange nods.

“It’s not the first time I’ve had to do it.” He offers up gently.

“Does it ever get better?” Do I ever get better? Tony doesn’t ask but the question is clear and Strange nods.

“Yeah, you take to slinging like a pro. Honestly, without an outside force causing some kind of memory relapse you usually only have an initial aversion and no more.” Strange says and Tony’s slightly grateful for the kindness of saying ‘initial aversion’ and not ‘ridiculous, you should be over this by now, panic attack’.

“That’s good to hear.” Tony mutters, slowly taking another sip. “Who’s Wong?”

“He’s a sorcerer like me.” Strange says. “The Ancient One assigned him to me alongside his librarian duties, much to his displeasure I’m sure.”

“And what about the ‘other you’?”

“He’s still learning.” Strange replies. “He doesn’t know about me and that’s for the best.”

“He’d freak out?”

“No, I don’t think I would.” Strange says carefully. “But I don’t think my current mentor would respond well to my being here.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Experience.” He replies and something about how he says it tells Tony that’s a dead-end conversation.

“Where are we?”

“The New York Sanctum.” Strange replies. “I used to be the Master of it, I guess I will be again someday.”

“Must be confusing.”

“Sometimes.” Strange agrees easily. “But I know why I’m here, I know what my purpose is.” He gets a faraway look. “And I know the price if I fail.”

“Couldn’t you just come back and try again?” Tony asks and Strange shakes his head.

“No, I’m impressed I fully managed this to begin with. Messing with time and the natural laws is beyond dangerous and complicated.” Strange tells him. “What I’ve done was pretty much impossible, and there will be consequences for it that I’m willing to pay.”

“Consequences?” Tony asks and Strange pauses before he nods slowly.

“Yeah.”

“What kinds of consequences?”

“It’s not something that you’ll have to worry about.” Strange tries to throw him off the scent and Tony won’t stand for it.

“No, no. If you want us to work together and you want me to trust you and believe all of this ‘magic time traveling’ nonsense, then you’re going to be frank with me. You’re the one who said you knew I didn’t like secrets.”

“I did say that didn’t I?” Strange asks with a small, amused grin before it falls. “There’s a…natural law that can sometimes be bent. Horribly bent in my case, but it will always bounce back.” Strange takes a moment to look at his own hands before he sighs and looks at Tony. “And there can only be one Stephen Strange in this timeline.” He explains. “I’m not the one who belongs. The snap back will correct that eventually.”

Chapter Text

There has to be something to say about their avoidance issues with how quickly the two of them seem to come to a mutual understanding to not talk about and ignore the obvious threat that Strange has presented about the upcoming days and the knowledge of it hanging over them.

Tony still hasn’t let go of the fact that this whole thing is ridiculously fantastical, even if he does have to admit that he believes it. He shouldn’t, it’s absurd. Time travel and parallel timelines and a whole bunch of other nonsense like ‘magical arts’ that sounds like it should be on an episode of the Twilight Zone and not be the world that Tony is currently living in.

Strange walks beside him, answering any questions that Tony poses as he points to random items housed in this sort of magical museum. It kind of makes Tony want to laugh at the sheer hilarity that is the fact that a place like this is just sitting in the middle of New York, barely a good distance from Stark Towers and Tony never knew, never even suspected, that it existed. It’s crazy that a whole society of ‘magic’ users have been secretly practicing and living all around the world for centuries upon centuries and yet no one was any the wiser. Although, it is possible that someone might know, like SHIELD or Hydra. They always did seem to stick their noses into impossible tales, squirreling away the knowledge they found until they figured out how to best make it work for them or deciding to label it a threat and do away with it.

“So, in all those millions of worlds you saw, you never went back in time?” Tony asks and Strange shakes his head.

“No. I only went forward, to see how the various changes might benefit us in the long run.”

“How many futures did you see?”

“Fourteen million, six hundred and five.” Strange answers easily and the enormity of that number boggles Tony’s mind for a second.

“Do you remember them all?”

“No, a lot of them blur together. Not enough change in them to justify remembering the whole thing.”

“Okay…so, in how many did we kick Thanos’s ass? There has to be at least a few.”

“No.” Strange says with a shake of his head.

“In fourteen million, six hundred and five there were no variations where we won?” Horror creeps up Tony’s spine.

“Only in one.” Strange replies. “In one we won if you want to call it that.” Tony stops walking and looks at Strange, halting the other man in his stride as well.

“Okay, I don’t mean to be a pessimist here, but how in the hell is a little more time supposed to stop someone who has won over fourteen million squirmishes with the Avengers? And in that we only ‘maybe won’ one?”

“I don’t know.” Strange admits, and for the first time Tony feels like he’s seeing a glimpse behind the curtain. Strange may supposedly have millions of scenarios and lives to pull from but he still doesn’t know everything and he still doesn’t have the answer.

It must be terrifying.

To have actually seen it, to have lived it, and to keep losing.

It’d be worse than a nightmare. It’d be worse than hell. No wonder Strange broke these ‘natural laws’. Tony would have done it too, and probably a lot sooner.

“Well, what’s the plan? I can’t be the only thing that you’ve got up your sleeve. I’ve parted from the Avengers…and I’ll admit I’m not seeing how that divide is going to help us when this bastard shows up.”

“The Avengers weren’t ready. You used to say how you got distracted from the real threat with the pointless bickering and bullshit that the Avengers were always causing. That you spent all of your time trying to hold them up that everything fell when the time came.”

“Can I admit it’s weird how you keep referencing conversations with me that I’ve never actually had with you?” Tony says and Strange gives him a wry smile.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be, I’m just pointing it out.” Tony says with a shrug. “So future…so ‘potential future’ me got distracted by the Avengers and Thanos kicked all of our asses. Okay, good…how do we stop that in this timeline?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can’t you go forward and see the alternate timelines from this moment?”

“No.” Strange says. “I’ve exhausted myself and my power. It took a lot to do it the first time, and I used the last of it to get here. It’ll be a while before I’m able to do any giant world altering spells. If I’m able to at all in the time we have left.”

“So, we need a plan.” Tony says, ignoring the still hanging threat. “Tell me what you know and we’ll come up with something. You said that Thanos wants these stones. We know that Vision has one and Thor took the Tesseract. How many others are there and where are they? Can we get them first?”

“Thanos already possesses a few. I’m not sure at this point how many he has. I know that the Power Stone reveals itself to the Guardians at some point but I don’t know when.”

“The Guardians?”

“The Guardians of the Galaxy.” Strange says with a nod. “They’re an extraplanetary force that joins us to try and defeat Thanos.”

“Well can we get them now?”

“I don’t think they’ve come together yet.” Strange admits. “And for the most part we should allow as much to happen naturally as we possibly can. It means less ripples and less unforeseen consequences.”

“Well how many consequences have you created with me?”

“I’m not sure, but the Ancient One can navigate and corral the effects here. Outside of earth though, her power wouldn’t do much good.”

“Who is this ‘Ancient One’?”

“She’s my teacher. You met her, or saw her at least.”

“The woman in yellow?”

“Yes.”

“Is she going to help us?”

“She’ll do what she can in the time she has left.” Strange says carefully.

“And is that more or less time than you have?”

“No way to know.” Strange answers him. “But I know the date. Somethings must happen, and others can be bent…this isn’t one of the things that can be bent.”

“…I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago for me.” Strange says. “It is odd to see her again. I never fully took advantage of having her here when I did. Hindsight is always a nasty thing.” Tony nods with that statement. There’s really nothing to add to it. Tony knows a thing or two about that too. Strange seems to notice the melancholic path they’ve taken and he steers them back. “I don’t know where the Soul Stone is, only that someone named Gamora knows its location and Thanos finds it.”

“So, we find Gamora and get it.”

“She’ll be with the Guardians when we reach out to them.” Strange says. “All in good time.”

“Okay…so Mind, Soul, Power...Portals?”

“Space.”

“Space, and there was that Aether thing that happened, that was one of them right?"

"The Reality Stone."

"Okay, what other ones are there?”

“Time.” Strange says, making a motion with his hand and a glowing green gem manifests in it. “I am the guardian of the Time Stone.”

“That makes sense how you’re here I guess.” Tony mutters, glancing at it. “So that’s it then? Power, Reality, Space, Mind, Time and Soul?”

“Yes.” Strange replies, letting Tony look closely at the stone in his hand before putting it away back wherever he’s storing it.

“So, the Power Stone reveals itself to the Guardians and we’ll grab it then. The Space Stone and the Aether are with Thor, what happens there? How did Thanos defeat Asgard?”

“He wipes what's left of it off the map entirely.” Strange tells him. “The Asgardians are about to have a lot of problems coming their way.”

“Can we help them?” Tony asks, a concern for a whole planet of people eating at him. What good is saving earth if multiple other planets that they could have saved in that time die?

“We will try.” Strange promises. “I intend to speak with Odin and see what might be done.”

“Odin? Like Thor’s and Loki’s asshole dad?”

“One in the same.”

“That should be fun.”

“Oh I doubt it.” Strange says with a small smirk. “But desperate times and all that.”

“And there’s nothing we can do about the Stones?”

“We should leave them where they are and protect the timeline as much as possible.” Strange tells him and Tony sighs.

“Well there goes that idea.” He mutters, running a hand over his face. “Okay then, what about that thing you offered up before? When do we start that?” Strange catches onto the change in topic easily.

“We can start as soon as you’re ready. I would recommend some sleep first – proper sleep – but after that we can start. The beginning phases aren’t anything exciting. Maximoff’s powers rely on being able to bend the mind’s awareness of itself into something that she desires from it. The first step along the path to stopping that from happening to you is to know your own mind better than she knows how to mess with it.”

“And how do I do that?”

“We’ll have to start out with the basics. Meditation and-” Strange stops with a huffed laugh at the sideways look Tony sends him. “I know, I know. It sounds stupid and pointless, but there’s a reason for it.”

“And what reason is that?”

“Before I can teach you how to build up walls and close doors, we have to repair the damage that has already been done. Maximoff has already been within your mind. She’s already gone through and opened doorways for herself for future ease of access and she’s gone through and messed up all the furniture if we’re continuing with the house metaphor.” Strange says. “We need to change the locks so to speak long before we try putting things back in order. Otherwise it’s useless.”

“You can’t just kick her out?”

“I could, yes. You couldn’t.” Strange replies. “If she were to come here right now and attempt to use her powers on you, I would prevent it. I could also stop it if I intervened at a point where she had already started using them on you. However, if I’m not around I want to be sure that you have the skills and the tools necessary to help yourself stand against her. I cannot just put up a ‘do not enter’ sign on your mind. The only way to do that is to teach you how to do it yourself.”

“I like being able to do things myself.” Tony says and Strange nods. “So…meditation and sleep. Then what?”

“We’ll get to that when we get to it.” Strange tells him. “Let’s start there before we start adding anything more difficult.”

“I’ve never shied away from difficult.” Tony retorts. “And I’m certainly not in the mood to drag this out when there’s a crazy lady with my number coming after me.”

“We’ll start tonight.” Strange says as he motions for Tony to start following him again and Tony does.

“Is she actually a witch?” Tony finds himself asking, suddenly curious. “I mean, I know what she calls herself but…”

“No, she’s not.” Strange replies and that eases a knot of worry that was starting to tighten up in Tony’s gut. “She doesn’t know the first thing about magic. She might have had the potential for it once, back before she melded with the Mind Stone and twisted the energy inside her up into new and different ways, but she’s lost the majority of it. Now all she can do is the bastardization of magic that she performs when she uses the power.”

“Is there any way to, I don’t know…take it away?”

“Without killing her? Unlikely.” Strange answers.

“What about containment?”

“You’ve found ways.” Is the answer he receives and Tony knows immediately by Strange’s tone that he isn’t going to be forthcoming with how Tony has gone about that before. That’s alright though, it doesn’t matter in the long run. Tony’s determined to figure it out on his own anyways and he’d rather not have his hand held through it.

“But there is a way to keep her out of my head?”

“There’s a way to fight back against her powers, yes.” Strange responds and Tony gives him a sideways glance.

“But not keep her out.”

“That depends entirely on you.” Strange says. “I can teach you, but how far you go with it and how you utilize it is all on you.”

“And it all starts with sleeping and meditation?”

“A form of meditation, yes.”

“…I guess I have a question then.” Tony says and Strange glances at him. “In all of those millions of lives that you and I allegedly had-” Strange looks like he’s fighting back a smile at Tony’s word choice.

“Allegedly, yes?”

“Did I ever learn?”

“Yes.” Strange replies. “You did.”

“Did it help?”

“Against Maximoff, yes. Against Thanos? No.”

“How many times?”

“Against Maximoff? To be honest it seems to be a constant variable of every timeline that the two of you will eventually go to blows.” Strange admits. “How it ends depends on a lot of other factors.”

“What about this?” Tony asks, waving a hand at the room around him. “Did I ever ask?”

“Are you asking if I’ve taught you the mystic arts before?”

“Yes.”

“Then the answer to that is no.” Strange replies. “You’re rather against it on ‘science principle’.”

“Do you think it would help against Thanos if I did?”

“I don’t know. You never have.” Strange admits. “It’s outside of my experiences.”

“And if I were to ask…would you do it?”

“If you asked, then yes. I would.”

“Would you get in trouble for that?”

“If you have the potential for it? Not at all.” Strange says.

“Do I?”

“Yes.” Strange glances at him like he’s seeing something Tony can’t see. “Yes, you do.”

“Alright then…teach me how to keep Maximoff out of my head-house, and then teach me?”

“I know that it’s a given, but it feels necessary to say it anyways. It won’t be easy and it will complicate your life more than you realize.”

“I’m planning to face down a planetary conqueror who wants to destroy half of the universe in a few years. I’d say my life is already pretty fucking complicated.” Tony says and Strange just looks at him with eyes that have seen far too much. Even if Tony hadn’t believed that this man had seen fourteen million worlds before, the absolute depth in that glance would have immediately convinced him.

“…Alright.” He says with a small nod. “I’ll teach you.”

+++

The outside world is in a frenzy, not that Tony’s really all that surprised. It’s clear that the data that they’ve released about what happened behind the scenes has finally had a chance to get through to the public and they’re practically calling for blood.

Tony almost pities them, with their shouts and their ‘Burn the Witch’ signs as they camp outside of the Compound. There will be a court case, Tony knows there will be – but the end result has already been decided. SHIELD wants the Witch, they want what she can do and they’ll buy her loyalty by being her knight in shining armor and saving her from the stake.

Coulson has already started the P.R. spin that SHIELD will need to keep themselves afloat in the public’s eye, but behind the curtain Tony also already knows that all the right palms have already been greased and all the right hands have already been shaken.

Hill attempted to stay on, a poor attempt Pepper tells him but he figures that he’ll give her a small amount of credit. She was trying to keep a foot in the door, trying to keep SHIELD over Tony’s back and seeing what he was doing but he’s done with that. He’s done being played as a puppet by Nick Fury and SHIELD.

He’s got bigger problems to worry about now.

Thanos. He has a name now. He also has a terrifying amount of data that says that they’re not enough. That they’re just going to get plowed over when that bastard comes to claim the Stones present on earth.

Vision.

Vision has a stone right upon his brow. That means that Thanos kills Vision for it and as he stands in his destroyed lab and pulling up the memory of JARVIS’s destroyed matrix he clenches his fist. No one was coming for his kids. No one. Infinity Stones be damned.

‘Boss?’’ FRIDAY’s voice breaks through his thoughts and he glances up.

“Yeah?”

‘Mr. Rogers has set himself up on the park bench outside of the Tower for several hours now. He has sent in a request that you come meet with him. He has claimed that he intends to be out there all night if necessary.’

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Tony groans to himself, rubbing a hand over his face. “Are the others with him?”

‘From my scans, the immediate answer is no. He appears to be alone.’ FRIDAY replies and Tony sighs. He doesn’t want to talk with Rogers at all, ever again if possible, but this whole stalker routine was getting old.

“FRIDAY, send him a message to come inside.” Tony says after a few moments of deliberation.

‘Boss?’

“I don’t want to risk being out in the open for this.” Tony answers her. “If we’re going to have it out, we’re going to do it in a place that I know we’re not being filmed and where I know Romanov or Barton aren’t just going to drop out of the trees.” There’s a pause.

‘The message has been sent. Mr. Rogers has seen it and is making his way into the building.’

“Great. Just great.” Tony mutters to himself as he looks around at the still damaged living area. He hasn’t really had a chance to come in and clean up, and he doesn’t want to risk any system malfunctions or anything Ultron related if he were to call in help so he guesses it’s just going to wait until he can get around to it.

Maybe Strange is onto something about a good night’s sleep being something required before anything else, since it appears that tonight isn’t going to be a night where he gets one either.

The elevator chimes and the doors slide open to reveal Steve who steps out and comes over to where Tony is with an easy gait. There’s a sketchbook under his arm and it answers the question of how he kept himself entertained for hours on end.

“Rogers.” Tony greets and Steve stops and inclines his head to him.

“Tony.” He responds. “I think it’s time to talk, don’t you?”

“So it would seem.” Tony replies.

Chapter Text

“I’d offer you something to drink, but I don’t want you sticking around that long.” Tony says after a brief pause. “So, say your piece and let’s get this whole thing over with.” Steve, ever contrary, doesn’t say anything despite ‘coming here to talk’ as he just steps further into the room and places his sketchbook down on the couch. Tony figures it makes sense, it’s the only place in the immediate area that isn’t destroyed, upturned or covered in debris. “Who sent you?”

“No one sent me. I sent me.” Steve replies and Tony just crosses his arms. “No one sent me Tony.”

“Sorry if I don’t believe it.” Tony retorts and he takes a moment. “What was up with the bullshit earlier today?”

“What do you mean?”

“At the hospital? Why the fuck were the lot of you even there?”

“We were looking for you.” Steve admits with a shrug. “Why did you run from us?”

“Because you brought the Witch.” Tony replies. “And I didn’t want to talk with you.”

“How did you get out of the closet?”

“What closet?”

“The one you were hiding in?”

“Who said I hid in a closet?”

“Clint says it’s the only place you could have gone.”

“Well if there was no other way out of the closet, and I wasn’t there when you opened the door then…” Tony trails off, hinting towards an answer but not really saying it. He can see the moment that Steve takes it as an acknowledgement that he wasn’t in the closet to begin with and Tony doesn’t correct him. No need to tell them about Strange or his abilities if he doesn’t have to.

“Why were you there?”

“Confidential.” Tony says easily and Steve gives him that look, the one he always used to get whenever Tony didn’t immediately fess up with every little thing he’d done. Like a forced confession to a priest. “Sorry, ongoing project. Can’t talk about it.”

“And you need this Dr. Palmer for it?”

“I can’t answer any questions regarding it.” Tony deflects. “And you may as well stop asking about it, because I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“Natasha says she’s a brain doctor…is everything okay?”

“I have no comment.”

“Are you sick?”

“I have no comment.” Tony says again, before he gives Steve a look. “But if I did, I’d say you’re a moron and no, I’m not sick.”

“I’m not a moron Tony. We’re worried about you. You’re acting off and attacking us and you could see how we might become worried when we find you at a hospital having a private meeting with a neurosurgeon.”

“Key word in that sentence was ‘private’.”

“No, it was neurosurgeon.”

“I have no further comment on the subject.” Tony returns to his previous statement and Steve takes a deep breath and shakes his head.

“You know you can talk to us.”

“No, I really can’t. It’s private and I have no further comments on the matter. Now let’s talk about whatever it was that you were so determined to talk to me about so that we can get it over with and you can leave. For good.” Tony’s statement clearly drags on Steve but he chooses not to say anything about it.

“Coulson says that SHIELD is coming back out in a big way. It’s nothing that they weren’t ready for, a little ahead of schedule and they would have liked a better time, but nothing they can’t handle.” Steve says, clearly opting for a strange version of small talk. “He says you fired Hill.”

“Yup.” Tony agrees. “I gave her an amazing severance package though.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I didn’t want Fury’s right-hand woman breathing down my neck anymore. Not when I’d cut ties.”

“Just because you’ve cut ties doesn’t mean that we have.” Steve replies. “We’re still here for you.”

“Thanks.” Tony says and it comes out slightly sarcastic and he doesn’t even try to fight it. “Is that why you’re here? To complain about Hill?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here Steve?”

“Just to talk.”

“No offense, but we don’t talk. I can’t actually remember a time when you and I sat down and just talked to each other.”

“We talked.”

“You talked, I sometimes listened. I talked, you never listened. We never seemed to figure out a middle ground.”

“I listened Tony.”

“Sure you did. Why are you here? If you don’t give me a legitimate reason right now, I’m going to make you leave.”

“Honest. I just wanted to talk. You say we didn’t and that I’m the one who doesn’t listen? Well here I am.”

“You’re still not here to listen Steve. You’re here to get your way.”

“I’m here to talk.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Tony looks at his watch. “You’ve got ten minutes. I recommend you start talking quick.”

“I want to know why you’re doing this.” Steve says after a brief pause. “Why Tony?”

“Because it needs to be done.” Tony replies. “Because I’m not just going to stand by and take the absolute stab in the back that accepting Wanda onto the team was.”

“We didn’t bring her on to hurt you. That ridiculous.”

“No, you just didn’t care if it did.”

“She lost her family Tony. She lost her brother.”

“And how does that make up for what she did? Are we comparing trauma’s now? Is that what we’re doing? Putting them on a scale and determining who has more cause in your eyes to be upset? What happens to the other person? Are they just supposed to nod and say ‘you’re right, it could be worse’ and then just BAM! They’re fixed?” Tony shakes his head. “Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then what did you say?” Tony asks and Steve doesn’t answer him. The silence holds between them for a few moments. “Six minutes left Steve.”

“Stop that.”

“Stop what? Letting you know how much time you have?”

“Pretending like we don’t matter to you. Pretending that you can just throw us to the curb with your ‘ten minutes’.”

“I’m not pretending Steve. I truly intend to throw you to the curb in about five minutes.”

“So that’s it? All this time and that’s it?”

“What else is there? Thanks for the trauma? Thanks for the bullying tactics and the manipulations, don’t let the door hit you on the way out?”

“We never bullied you.”

“You were never friendly to me either.” Tony retorts. “So think on that when you say that we were supposedly friends.” Steve shakes his head and starts to pace around the room. Tony’s actually a little surprised that he hasn’t started doing it sooner. He never did like to be still. It’s good to see it though, it means that the real conversation is coming. Tony’s waiting for it.

“Coulson says that your smear campaign isn’t going to work. Not the one on the Avengers, not the one on SHIELD and not the one on Wanda.”

“I was unaware that I was running a ‘smear campaign’.” Tony says and Steve gives him a look.

“What do you call all of this then?”

“Telling the truth.”

“You didn’t tell the truth.” Steve accuses. “You told your version of the truth.”

“Okay, tell me where I messed up.” Tony says. “Show me Steve and I’ll gladly hold a press conference right now and say that I was wrong and that I’m sorry.” Steve gets a slightly annoyed look on his face like Tony’s being irrationally difficult. “No really, tell me Steve. Tell me where or admit that you don’t really care about what the ‘truth’ is or ‘my version’ of it, and that you really only care about what you give a green light to and what ‘your truth’ is. Go ahead, tell me.”

“You didn’t mention anything about the bomb that killed Wanda’s parents.”

“Actually, I did. So that tells me that you’re getting this information second hand just like all the information you get – chewed up by Natasha or Fury and regurgitated for your consumption like a helpless little bird.” Tony says. “The truth is that I immediately set Rhodey on it. On finding out everything about the bomb and about the Maximoff’s the minute that we stepped foot into the Quinjet and brought Clint back here for medical attention. The second the Avengers crossed paths with them JARVIS and Rhodey were scouring all of the available networks to get a profile and figure out what we were dealing with. And yes, the bomb came up, and yes, it’s in the brief for the world to see.”

“It was your bomb.”

“No it wasn’t. Not in the way you’re intending for that sentence to mean.”

“Yes it was. It was a Stark bomb.”

“A Stark Industries bomb does not mean a Tony Stark bomb.” Tony retorts. “I didn’t fire the bomb, I didn’t sit back and laugh as it landed on Sokovia, I didn’t sell it to be used by terrorists, I didn’t have any culpability in it at all. A company name on the side of a product does not make it my fault.”

“Even if it wasn’t your intention it was still your responsibility.”

“No it wasn’t.” Tony says and Steve just gives him that look that makes Tony’s teeth grind. “No, it wasn’t. Do some basic math. The old man was in charge of SI until 91, I was seventeen. Keep that in your mind. After he died his shares went to me and made me the unofficial CEO of Stark Industries, however I was not in control of my share of the company, Stane was. Was I producing for SI during that time? Yes, yes I was, however I was not in a board room nor should I have been. I was at school. I was finishing several doctorates and I had no connection or power over the business side of SI. I was R&D, Stane was everything else. It worked for us, just like it worked for him and Howard.”

“You should have paid more attention. Your products were hurting innocent people.”

“How could I have paid more attention Steve? Hmm? How? Do you have any concept of how big Stark Industries really is? Do you? Do you honestly think that I have unilateral power of SI? That I don’t have a board of directors that I have to contend with?” Tony shakes his head. “Do you think Pepper is there for show? And now that she has the title of CEO do you think she knows each and every single thing that happens within Stark Industries and its hundreds of subsidiaries? Do you think all of those departments have different titles just for the hell of it? Do you think that we pay thousands of managers and project overseers just for kicks?”

“It was still a Stark bomb, and you made it.”

“Stark Industries made it. Stark Industries is a multi-billion-dollar company not some little mom and dad establishment. I didn’t make it. Chances are I didn’t even design it.” Tony takes a moment. “Would you be on Howard this much if you found out that he designed it and if he were here and not me?” Steve looks at him like he’s gone crazy. “No honest, I want to know. When Howard decided to make weapons for the government to help America rise to the top of the arms race – did you give it a second thought?”

“It was different, it was war.” Steve says and Tony nods.

“Yes it was. At one point it was war. What about afterwards?” Tony asks. “What about when the war was over thanks to a bomb that he helped bring into the world and he decided to continue making weapons and decided to make it the main export of Stark Industries for decades before I took over? What then? Would you still be up in his face right now saying all of this?”

“What you made-”

“Was a continuation of what was already in existence.” Tony cuts him off. “And sorry, but I am not the only weapons manufacturer in the world. I didn’t single-handedly create the arms race nor did I single-handedly keep it running. You think it’s hard to make something that goes boom? It’s not, it’s actually one of the easier things in the world to create.” Tony takes a step forward. “You want to call me the Merchant of Death? You want to throw that asinine little nickname in my face like I should be ashamed of something? Well I’m not. Everything I did was on the up and up and I’m tired of you turning your nose up and sneering at it you fucking lab experiment.” Steve’s jaw clenches at the barb. “Who the fuck do you think you are? A good man? Says who? Some random scientist who figured out how to push the bounds of the human body? Whoop-di-fucking-do. That means nothing.”

“I’ve been a soldier Stark. A leader and I know-”

“You know nothing.” Tony stops him up short. “You’ve been nothing more than a dancing monkey in heels both in the ice and out of it. What do you actually know? What do you know that hasn’t been already thought out for you?”

“I know that there’s a young girl being crucified because you wanted someone else to take the blame for something you did.” Steve fires back and Tony feels the smirk tug at his lips and he doesn’t even try to stop it.

“So you know nothing. Thank you for proving it. I didn’t create Ultron Steve. The world knows it and we both know that you know it too, you just won’t admit it. Funny though, only I’m on the rack for Ultron when – if we’re doing people who had a passing connection to it – then that means you also feel that Thor is responsible and Bruce is responsible for him alongside Wanda. Why is it then that only I get the full responsibility shoved down my throat?”

“You should have known better.”

“And Bruce? He’s just as smart as I am. Should he have known too? That an alien subconscious was dormant in the Scepter and that Thor’s need to show off would wake it up?”

“You kept it from the team because you knew that we wouldn’t let you do it.”

“Once again, I point out that I was not the only one in the room. Once again, I point out that I wasn’t even in the room when Ultron came online. It was dormant. We were running a diagnostic. We weren’t jumping into it blindly, we were curious but we weren’t stupid. We took all the required precautions.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“No it wasn’t. Because we didn’t understand what we were dealing with, but we weren’t trying to poke the bear awake. It just woke up.”

“And whose fault is that?”

“No one’s Steve. No one set out to wake the bastard up. He just woke up. A lot of factors led to it, and it happened, but no one did it intentionally.” Tony pauses. “Well except for Wanda. She intended for something negative to happen, she just didn’t expect that it would affect her as well.”

“Stop bringing Wanda into it.”

“Why? She was part of it, why shouldn’t I mention her?”

“She helped us fight him. Without her the world would have ended.”

“Okay, one – she had a hand in Ultron coming online whether you want to admit to it or not. Two – she actively sought him out and helped him. Three – she put hundreds of thousands of people’s lives at risk just to fuck with the Hulk and get him to attack innocent people. That was the plan Steve, that was the plan she signed on for and pushed through Barton’s attack to complete. Four – she found out that Ultron was going to destroy the world, the world that she and her brother occupied, and left him to come to us to stop it from happening. That’s not a revelation about how misguided you’ve been about your choices in life up to that point, that’s realizing that you’re going to die too and not wanting to. Hell, I’d have worked with us too, I’d have worked with Justin Fucking Hammer if for some reason the fate of the world depended on it. I wouldn’t hesitate and neither did she.” Tony crosses his arms. “Now are you really here to waste my time talking about Wanda? Because if that’s the case then you can go park your ass back on that park bench for as long as your little heart desires. I’ll admit that I have no fucking clue why you are so desperate to get me to meet with her when you know where I stand on her and where she stands on me.”

“I came here to be the mediator and get you back on the team where you belong.”

“I don’t belong with the Avengers Steve.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why? Why not? It’s how I feel.” Tony says. “I feel like I never actually belonged. Not as a respected member of the team.”

“You were.”

“And yet I’m telling you that I never felt like it.” Tony retorts. “You said that you listen. Then listen. I never felt like I was part of the team. I felt like the unappreciated landlord, the one who always had to justify every single thing I’d ever done or would go on to do like I was already guilty. Like I was always guilty no matter what I did. You were always ready to assume the worst and always ready to rub salt in the wounds.”

“We never did that.”

“Refusing to acknowledge it doesn’t make it to where it didn’t happen.” Tony tells him. “It doesn’t make it not true.”

“If we kept a close eye on you it was because we wanted to make sure that you didn’t get in over your head.”

“You should have trusted me.”

“How could we?” Steve snaps. “How could we when you never told us anything? How could we when we knew your track record?”

“And what track record is that?” Tony asks. “Tell me Steve, what track record is that?”

“The one where you think it’s okay to get drunk and go for a joyride in the suit and practically blow up your own house while people are there.”

“Wow.” Tony says as he just stares at Steve for a second. “Do you actually know what happened at my party or did Natasha spell it all out for you?”

“I read the file.”

“Tell me what it said.”

“Why, you know what happened.”

“I do, but humor me. Tell me what it said.”

“You got drunk and you started showing off in the armor at your birthday party. Rhodes tried to stop you and you pitched a fit and started a fight where he had to get the War Machine suit to combat you.”

“Out of sequence events, and a poor retelling of everything going on during that time. But sure, we’ll focus on the party.” Tony says, tugging at his sleeves. “You’re correct to a point. I was drunk, not plastered, but drunk. Rhodey showed up and we did get into a scuffle. No one was injured.”

“And that makes it okay?”

“Not at all. I was in a bad place. I thought I only had a few days left to live and I was having a tiny pity party. I’ll admit it. I was determined to go out the way I wanted to, and that was in the suit even though it was killing me.”

“What are you even talking about?”

“You don’t know? The reason why I had to change the ARC reactor? The original core, palladium, wasn’t sustainable. It was deteriorating and melting inside of me and giving me acute chemical poisoning. In short, I was dying. Either I kept using the ARC reactor and died of the poisoning or I took it out and I died from the shrapnel. We didn’t have Extremis yet and the surgery to take the pieces out was impossible prior to it. So either way, I was going out. I chose to hold on and take the few weeks that the poisoning allowed me than the three minutes that the shrapnel would.” Tony tilts his head. “SHIELD didn’t tell you.”

“Why would SHIELD say anything about that?”

“Because they knew. They actually had a kind of cure that they held onto and used only when it was convenient to them.” Tony replies. “They also sent Natasha in during that time to fuck with me.”

“She was there to make a report on you.”

“A report when the subject is in supreme duress, and under the influence of a mind altering and body altering chemical? Yeah, that sounds like the perfect time to get a read on who a person is. I also ignore all other data and only choose to harass a person who is at their lowest place in life and then I go on to judge them forever on it based off of shitty profiling afterwards.” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “Then there was the bullshit with Vanko…you at least know about that right?”

“You stole his work.”

“Wow. Okay, I guess the answer to that is no, you don’t.” Tony huffs. “Howard stole his father’s work and fucked them over. Not me, I didn’t even know he existed until he showed up on that fucking racetrack. Once again, another time when someone decided that the name Stark gave them the right to come take their pound of flesh from me regardless of my actual culpability in it.”

“Howard would have never done that.”

“Seriously?” Tony asks with a healthy amount of disbelief in his voice. “He did shady shit like that all the time. So much so that I wasn’t really surprised in the slightest when I found out about it. Exasperated and annoyed, but not surprised.”

“Howard was a hero, Stark.”

“Howard was an abusive drunk who used people like things and only payed attention to something or someone if it benefitted him to do so.” Tony throws back at him. “Maybe once the old man was different, but by the time he died he’d made more than his fair share of enemies and trust me they hated him for good fucking reasons. Now I’m no saint, I’ll be the first to say it, but stop comparing me to that man like I’m somehow lacking when he was a fucking dick.”

“I knew Howard-”

 “Knew.” Tony interjects. “You knew him. You knew him when he was young and possibly still idealistic. Back before time and who knows what else twisted him all up inside and made the man that the rest of the world came to know. The man that I came to know.”

“He was a good man.” Steve says stubbornly and Tony sighs.

“Do a simple google search on him and then come back here and say that to me again with a straight face.” Tony replies. “In fact, I’d just recommend using google in general. Try looking into things for yourself for once and not relying on others to give you your information for you.”

“He was a good man, Stark.” Steve repeats firmly.

“No Steve, he wasn’t.” Tony says and he lets that sit there between them. “But all of that aside, I’m going to take us back to the supposed point of this visit and just let you know that I’m not coming back to the Avengers.”

“Iron Man is supposed to stand for more than just you.”

“Yes he is.” Tony agrees. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

“No it isn’t. You’re making this personal and you’re letting it affect everything else.”

“By saying ‘I’m making it personal’, you do realize that you’re agreeing that something wrong was done to me.”

“No I’m not.” Steve says and Tony just gives him a look. “I’m saying that a terrible thing happened and you’re letting your feelings about it blind you to the bigger picture.”

“Since when have you ever been about the bigger picture?” Tony asks.

“I know to pay attention to the repercussions of my actions, Tony.” Steve says and it sounds like he’s saying ‘unlike you’ but either way the statement just makes Tony burst into uncontrollable laughter.

“Oh my god. The fact that you just said that with a straight face terrifies me.” Tony says through the snickers. “Like truly horrifying.” He looks at Steve once he’s gotten it back under control and just shakes his head. “Get out Steve. Seriously just get out, and while you’re at it pull your head out of your ass and try looking around at the real world and not the fictionalized one that you’re apparently deluding yourself with.” Tony chuckles softly again. “Oh god, ‘I pay attention to the repercussions of my actions’, that was hilarious. FRIDAY, suit please.”

“Why do you need a suit?”

“Because I honestly don’t think you’re going to leave without it.” Tony replies easily. “But make no mistake, you’re leaving. And you can go sit on that park bench as much as you want from here on out. I’m not interested anymore.” The suit lowers itself through a broken window and steps over, the glowing eyes looking at Steve. “I do recommend that you take a moment, get away from SHIELD and actually try to learn about the world around you and learn to listen to what it’s saying. Because if you don’t it’s going to get worse for you.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s an observation.” Tony says before the suit takes a step forward. “That however is a threat if you don’t move your own ass over to the elevator and leave.”

“Tony. I’m your last hope for keeping your place with the Avengers. The others have already laid down their cards.” Steve says to him. “If you kick me out, if you don’t listen to me it’s over. SHIELD will be forced to consider Iron Man a threat.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“There’s no need for it.” Steve presses. “You don’t like Wanda, fine. We’ll keep you separate.”

“There is a need for it Steve, because this goes so much deeper than just refusing to turn a blind eye to Maximoff.” Tony tells him. “And I’m not cowering to the big bad wolf anymore. Let them come at me, they’ll find that they’ve bitten off so much more than they can chew.” The suit steps forward and shuffles a protesting Steve to the elevator, and Tony can’t help but wonder if FRIDAY gets some kind of satisfaction in kicking the blond out with how quickly the elevator doors close. “FRIDAY, start a new file.”

‘What on Boss?’

“SHIELD.”

Chapter Text

“That was probably unwise.” Strange’s voice says behind him the minute that Tony goes to turn around and it makes Tony’s heart jump up into his throat for a second.

“Son of a-” He snarls as he looks up at Strange. The man has the audacity to have an amused look on his face like he knows what he’s just done as he holds up his hands in a sort of mock apology. “I’m going to put a fucking bell on you if you keep doing shit like that.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Strange says with a shrug and it makes Tony snort a little as he wonders how many of those millions of worlds did a Tony Stark follow through with that threat and put a bell on the ‘Sorcerer Supreme’.

“Why are you here? What brings you by?” Tony asks as he takes a step towards the mess. “Oh and FRIDAY, heads up anytime Strange opens a portal.”

‘Will do Boss’

“I’m here to help.” Strange says as he steps forward and shrugs his shoulders, letting the cape roll off of him and continue to just hover there. It’s still freaking weird, but it’s slowly becoming normal which he guesses is his lot in life. “There’s a lot of clean up after all.”

“You’re going to help me with this?” Tony asks, not even hiding his surprise. “Why? No one helps with this.”

“Well here’s to changing that up.” Strange says, pushing up his sleeves. “Maybe you need a better image of what a teammate actually is and what they do. For the record, they don’t leave you alone to clean up the damage by yourself.” Tony watches as he kneels down and starts to pick up some of the broken bottles and he comes over and starts to help too. “Besides, you’re not going to get any sleep until this is handled. Which means we’re not going to be able to start your training until you get some sleep, and you’ve just basically said ‘fuck you’ to SHIELD and to Rogers which means other annoyances might be coming down the pipeline soon.”

“Annoyances? Not threats?”

“I stand by what I said.” Strange replies easily, and Tony fights back a chuckle at that. They clean in silence for a while, the cloak even getting involved to be some kind of strange red beast of burden when they have to move the big pieces.

“So, did you manage to talk to Odin?” Tony asks after a while, shifting around DUM-E who has come up and is probably doing more harm than good with the broom.

“I did.”

“And?”

“It’s complicated. He’s in a difficult spot.”

“How so?”

“Loki has banished him to earth.”

“Wait.” Tony stops and looks at Strange. “Odin is here?”

“In a nursing home. Yes. Or at least he was in one, until my visit.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Odin – the All-Father and the king of Asgard…is here on earth and he was in a nursing home?”

“Loki has a sense of humor.”

“I’ll give him that.” Tony says with a shake of his head. “But why hasn’t Odin just Bifrosted himself back to Asgard and kicked Loki’s ass?”

“Loki put him under a powerful enchantment. He did not remember his true nature.”

“Damn, You’re telling me that Loki is that powerful, and they spent hundreds of years pissing the guy off?”

“I don’t think Odin ever thought that Loki would turn his skills against him, regardless of what he did or allowed to occur. Sometimes people can assume that because they hold a position of power that others are just required to adhere to it and do nothing regardless of what might be done to them.”

“Sounds more like Rogers than some ancient All-Father.”

“It’s a story as old as time itself I guess.” Strange agrees.

“What about that peeper guy? The one that Thor says is always watching us like Santa Claus or something? Shouldn’t he just know and do something about it?”

“He’s currently in exile.”

“Of course he is.” Tony snorts. “Well, here’s to Loki managing a better plan taking over Asgard than he did taking over earth.”

“Loki wasn’t trying to take over earth.”

“That much was obvious.” Tony agrees. “I mean, it was the dumbest plan in the history of existence. Rogers could have come up with a better plan and he’d just gotten out of the ice and still didn’t know how to use an iPhone.” He tosses away the dirt in his dustpan. “So, what did happen with Odin?”

“We discussed a better hold on an upcoming threat.”

“Another threat? Which one?”

“Not one who is interested in earth, so not one you need to worry about.” Strange replies. “Odin’s eldest daughter, Hela, is to be released upon Odin’s death.”

“Oh my god, he’s dying?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“Not much longer, but long enough that he has agreed to rethink his seal and attempt to corral the final lock in another way with my help.” Strange brushes off his hands. “If Hela does not get freed then Asgard has no need for Ragnarök. Which means the planet will not be destroyed and the people won’t be scattered and easy pickings for Thanos when he comes.”

“Crap.” Tony sighs. “I mean, you see Thor and you kind of think that a whole planet of people like him might have a chance against anything.”

“They might have, had Hela not decimated their forces and if Thor had not been forced to enact the final plan. Loki put a lot of effort in their defenses against Thanos but did not foresee the coming of Hela. She caught him off guard.”

“So, Loki’s ruling Asgard right now?”

“In Odin’s form, yes.”

“And the people haven’t caught on?”

“If they have, they’ve not said anything about it.”

“And Thor doesn’t know?”

“No. He truly believes Loki to be dead at this point in time.”

“That’s going to be an awkward family reunion.” Tony says. “So, question I guess. If Loki is trying to stand against Thanos, does that mean in some strange case he could be an ally?”

“Possibly.” Strange says.

“Would you be able to go to Asgard? Are you guys able to do that with your portals?”

“I could, yes.” Strange answers him. “Although if I were going to reach out to anyone, it would be the Asgardian resistance led by Santa Claus.” Tony smiles slightly.

“That’s his new name from now on. Seriously, I won’t accept any other code name for him from this moment forward.” He says before he stands and looks around. The area is pretty much clear at this point and he sighs. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” Strange replies and the Cloak does a weird thing where it looks like it’s looking at Tony and waiting for something and Tony glances at Strange for a second before he looks back at it.

“And thank you too.” He offers up and the cloak seems to nod to him before flying over and reattaching itself to Strange’s shoulders. “So you’re going to be gone for a while? Helping Odin?”

“I won’t be far.” Strange answers him. “And I’ll always be listening.”

“Listening?”

“If you call for me with an intention for me to hear you, I’ll come.”

“Convenient.”

“It can be.” Strange agrees. “It’ll be a few days before I need to leave though. Odin must first finish his journey before we can start our work.”

“His journey?”

“He’s going into the afterlife to speak to the spirit of his wife. She was a powerful sorceress who created the original binding. If anyone knows how to adjust it, it would be her.”

“Okay then. Sure, let’s just pop into death and ask dead people for their help. Sounds completely reasonable.” Tony mutters more to himself than to Strange, but Strange smirks regardless.

“The joys of magic.”

“Ugh.” Tony groans. “I know I’m going to be learning it, but I refuse to fully acknowledge that it isn’t just its own form of science.”

“Then you won’t get far.”

“What do you mean?”

“In order to understand the mystic arts, and to utilize them you must first let go of everything you have been taught about the world and how it works.”

“That’s going to be difficult.” Tony says and Strange nods.

“It always is.”

“Was it hard for you?”

“It felt impossible.” Strange admits. “And for a while it was, as it will be for you too.”

“Do you think I can do it?”

“I’ve seen you pull off impossible things before. I wouldn’t bet against you.”

“Except for against Thanos.” Tony points out and Strange tilts his head.

“Is that what you think? That I’d bet on Thanos over you?”

“The man has won fourteen million times.”

“And yet, here I am.” Strange points out. “Betting on you. Like always.” The vote of confidence isn’t something that Tony’s all that used to and he turns away from Strange to look around the room in order to avoid dealing with it.

“Um…thanks for helping. It’d have taken me all night.”

“It still did. Mostly.” Strange points out. “But you’ll have a few hours before morning.”

“I don’t know if they’ll do any good.”

“Why not?” Strange asks and Tony considers for a moment dancing around the subject, but he figures that Strange probably already knows and there’s really no point in lying.

“…I have nightmares.” Tony admits softly. “I don’t sleep well.”

“If you wish it, you will tonight.” Strange offers and Tony glances at him. “Only with your permission of course, but I can make it to where you sleep without dreams.”

“Have you done that for other me’s?”

“More times than I could even begin to count.” Strange offers up easily and Tony thinks about it.

“No offense meant, but I’d rather you didn’t.” He says after a moment and Strange nods like he was expecting that answer. “Kind of tired of people being in my head.”

“I understand, and no explanations are necessary.” Strange tells him. “I do want to start with your training tomorrow though, regardless of your sleep cycle tonight.”

“I thought the whole ‘good nights sleep’ thing was non-negotiable.”

“Unfortunately, time is not permitting us that luxury.” Strange admits. “If I leave your side, I at least want to know that you are starting down the path towards protecting yourself from Maximoff.”

“Do you think SHIELD will use her powers against me?” Tony asks suddenly and Strange just tilts his head.

“Do you think they will?” He asks. “You know them better than I at this stage.”

“You never interacted with SHIELD?”

“No, SHIELD was always more interested in controlling what they called ‘Enhanced’. They didn’t deal with us.”

“Well that answers that question.” Tony says. “I was curious if Hydra or SHIELD knew about you guys.”

“Oh they know of us.” Strange tells him. “But they don’t know how to get their hands on us. Or how to corral us, so for the most part we stay out of their grasps. Even after they butcher the Accords and throw everything into disarray.”

“The Accords? What’s that?”

“A set of laws that come into existence in a few years.” Strange replies. “I’m sure that someone somewhere is already talking about things that will lead to the creation of them.”

“Are they something we need to worry about?”

“They wouldn’t have been, if the Civil War didn’t happen.”

“The Civil War?” Tony repeats. “That sounds dramatic, what was that?”

“It’s what the media called the split of the Avengers.” Strange answers him. “It’s what they call the series of events that unfolded after Rogers decided to go rogue and pull several other members with him and pit them against you and the remaining Avengers.”

“Rogers and I fight?”

“Yes.” Strange says. “And I think it was always inevitable. Just like it’s inevitable that you and the Scarlet Witch will come to blows, I think you and Rogers were always going to be on opposites sides too.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Experience.” Strange says. “In the worlds that I saw, you and Rogers always came back together despite the War and it still never worked out. He was too set in ‘his way or the highway’ and you were too set in not doing it his way.” Strange tilts his head. “To be fair to you, Rogers’s plans were never very good, and he never listened to you when it came to improving them.”

“So basically, where we are now. We never get over that.”

“Not that I’ve seen.” Strange agrees.

“So that’s what does it? The straw that breaks the Avengers back? Something called the Accords?” Tony asks and there’s a look that crosses Strange’s face.

“No. No it wasn’t the Accords that drove the final wedge in.” He says with a healthy amount of solemnness in his voice. “It was what was revealed during the Accords.”

“That sounds ominous. What was revealed? Was it something I did? Or something I need to know?”

“Not at all the first, entirely the second.” Strange says before he motions over to the little couch that could. “Please sit.”

“Okay…now I’ll admit I’m worried.” Tony says, going over to the couch and taking a seat as asked of him. “What is it?”

“This…this isn’t going to be easy for you to hear.” Strange says. “But you need to hear it, and I won’t keep it from you. Not when I know how important it was to you.”

“Okay…I guess I’m ready? Or as ready as I can be with absolutely no clue what you’re about to tell me?”

“It’s about your parents.” Strange says. “It’s about the ‘accident’.”

“What about it?”

“There was no accident Tony.” Strange tells him and his voice is kind. “It wasn’t a case of drunk driving. Your parents had a hit put out on them by Hydra, and SHIELD covered it up.”

Chapter Text

As funny as it is, for a few moments Tony doesn’t feel like his brain is registering the words that have just come out of Strange’s mouth. It’s like it’s a new code that just keeps bashing up against a firewall that won’t allow for a system rewrite. There are few things in this world that are absolute, that are sacred. One of those things was that Howard was a mean drunk and that his reckless behavior had cost him his and Maria’s life. That was just truth.

It just was.

There’s a random thought that crosses Tony’s mind in the silence that follows, and it would almost make Tony crack a smile if he thought he’d be able to fake one. It’s that phrase he’s heard before ‘so quiet you could hear a pin drop’ or something like that. Yeah, he might not have understood it before this moment since his life was always so loud, but he got it now in a way that he never did before.

He feels…he’s not sure how he feels. Hot, cold, numb, angry…all of them at once if that made any sense because it didn’t. Not inside of him, not in any way he could understand.

“What happened?” The words come out softly when Tony’s finally able to break out of the too hot too cold shell that he’s been trapped in for who knows how long and find the words he needs to say. Strange takes a moment to settle himself, but to his credit he immediately starts talking.

“You know that your father was involved with the creation and continued missions of SHIELD during his lifetime.” Strange only semi-asks, semi-tells and Tony nods. It’s newer information that he has these days, information that he didn’t actually know a few years back. Fury had tried to keep that under wraps as long as possible before the SHIELD files were dumped out onto the internet and Howard’s name kept popping up in far too many of them putting people on Tony’s doorstep looking for answers that he didn’t have.

“Yeah, I found out about that.” Tony replies.

“The night that it happened, your father was transporting a variation of the super soldier serum.” Strange says and Tony’s fist clenches. Of course he was. That damn serum. That damn fascination he had with Erskine’s work and with Steven Fucking Rogers. “Hydra knew of course, since they were already an infestation in every level of SHIELD at that point and they sent the Winter Soldier to go retrieve the case and to deal with your parents.” The codename of the assassin practically puts ice in Tony’s veins. He’s almost afraid that he isn’t breathing and it feels like the shrapnel that he knows is gone is back in his chest, slowly moving towards his heart and shredding everything inside him along the way.

“The Winter Soldier? Are you sure?” He asks, and those words are still deceptively soft for how much rage is starting to burn in him.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Strange replies with a small nod. “There was a video surveillance recording of that night…it shows everything.”

“Have you seen it?”

“I have.”

“And without a doubt it’s him?”

“Yes.”

“The Winter Soldier…James Buchanan Barnes?”

“…Yes.” Strange agrees and Tony just nods, looking down at his hands which are clenched so tightly on his lap that he’s not sure he can even fully feel his fingers anymore.

“Okay…Okay…Who knew?” Tony asks. “I guess that’s the only question left to ask now. Who knew? Who knew about this and didn’t tell me?”

“I don’t know when they found out, but I know that Romanov and Barton knew. I’m guessing they were filled in on it at some point from SHIELD.” Strange says and Tony figures he’s not surprised that the two of them would hold onto that information. After all, the game was to keep Tony under SHIELD’s thumb, revealing that they had a hand in Tony’s parent’s deaths wasn’t something that was going to endear the billionaire to them in the slightest. “Fury knew of course, as did Hill and Coulson.”

“So every SHIELD person who was in my life. Good to know. What about non-SHIELD?” He finally glances up from his hands to look the sorcerer in the eyes. “Does Rogers know?”

“Yes.” Strange replies with a small nod and no hesitation. “He knows. Wilson and him found out about it after the fall of SHIELD, when Romanov gave them the file on the Winter Soldier.”

“So they’ve known for some time.” Tony says and Strange nods.

“Yes.”

“So…everyone knew? Everyone but me knew?” He feels like he should be yelling, that he should be throwing things or something but he can’t get his hands to unclench.

And he’s secretly afraid of what might happen if he does.

“Dr. Banner was unaware, as was Thor, but the rest of the Avengers knew, yes.” Strange says and something inside of Tony wails and curls up in pain. This team. This fucking family that they claimed to be. The friends and the partners in crime that they claimed to be…it was a lie. It was worthless. It was nothing but lies, and Tony had bought it. He’d believed it.

He’d fucking believed it. With everything in him, he’d believed it.

“So he stood here, looked me right in the eyes and asked for my help with tracking down his good friend when he knew what they had him do?” Tony asks. “He stood in front of me with that god damn righteousness just dripping off of him when he had the absolute nerve to go off about how ‘sometimes his teammates don’t tell him things’ and he was sitting on that? They were all sitting on that?”

“…Yes.” Strange says again and Tony figures that it’s all he can say if it’s the truth. What else is there to say? Yes Tony, they did that. They took advantage of you, took advantage of your hospitality, of your skills and your tech. They pretended that they were so much better than you and that they had a right to drag you through the mud for everything under the sun and those lying traitors probably laughed behind your back as they did it. Each time you came crawling back, they laughed and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

“You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate…” Loki’s words from the Helicarrier echo in Tony’s mind and it makes his jaw clench. What does it say about them when their enemy called them right out on everything and they fucking ignored it. That Tony ignored it?

“So SHIELD knew. They knew and they covered it up.” Tony nods to himself. “That’s why Hill came to ‘work for me’ in the aftermath. She asked to be in control of that cleanup as a sort of penance and I bought it. I ate it up like a fucking moron. I never understood why she left Nick’s side, but she never did. She was there to make sure that I didn’t go poking around in their stuff. And I trusted them. I trusted them.”

“What they did, the lies they told are a reflection on them. Your willingness to trust is not a bad thing Tony and what they did with it isn’t a reflection on you, it’s on them.” Strange says reaching out with his scarred hands and placing them gently over Tony’s. Tony’s hands are shaking when he slowly helps him unfurl them, a little bit at a time.

“Where is Barnes now?” Tony asks and Strange shakes his head.

“I don’t know.”

“Bullshit. You know. You know everything.”

“I don’t know that.” Strange tells him softly, not rising to the accusation in Tony’s voice. “I know where he will be in a few years, but that’s useless to you right now.”

“I’ll find him, I’ll find him and I’ll kill him.”

“No you won’t.” Strange tells him and Tony snaps up to look at him. “No you won’t.” Strange repeats, and it sounds so kind and so understanding and it makes Tony’s eyes water. “Barnes didn’t go after your parents because he wanted to, he was forced.”

“He killed them.”

“Yes he did.” Strange agrees. “But not of his own free will…and I know you know this. Even if you’re not letting yourself fully think about it, you know it.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do.” Strange says.

“And what makes you say that?”

“Because I know why you created B.A.R.F.” He says and it feels like a punch to the stomach. “I know that you didn’t create it for yourself. I know that you looked at the few files that Rogers gave you on the Winter Soldier and you decided that you were going to come up with a program that could help him. That ‘if science could do this to him, then science could help him too’.” He looks Tony in the eyes. “I also know that the first time you found out about it, in my world, you still didn’t kill Barnes even in the thick of it. Even when he was standing right in front of you, you didn’t kill him because deep down you knew that you weren’t really blaming Barnes for it. You were just hurting and you didn’t know what to do with all of it and he was just right there in front of you and it had to come out.”

“If he were here right now, I’d kill him.”

“No you wouldn’t. I know you Tony, and you’re not a killer. No matter how much people want to say you are.” Strange says and the sob that’s been holding up in Tony’s throat finally comes out and Strange just sits there with him as he lets it all wash over him.

The death of a dream. The death of his parents. The death of the Avengers.

He doesn’t put up a fuss when Strange pulls him to his feet and shuffles him off to his bedroom. He doesn’t put up a fuss when he lays down and Strange sits down on the bed next to him.

“I have to go. I’ll be back tomorrow to start your training, but while I’m away can I get you to promise me something?” Strange asks.

“What?”

“When you wake up, and you go looking for that video, because I know you will…promise me that you won’t watch it alone. Don’t do that to yourself. Promise me that you’ll have Rhodes here with you, or Pepper or Happy. Hell, have all three if you can but please…promise me that you won’t watch it alone.”

“Why?” Tony mutters into the pillow.

“Because I care.” Strange says easily. “Because I care about what it will do to you when you see it, and you shouldn’t be alone for it. Promise me Tony.” Tony takes a moment before he nods slightly.

“Fine, I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that.” Strange replies. “And just know…I’m only a call away.” Tony doesn’t say anything to that as the exhaustion of the last few days finally kicks in and he falls asleep.

+++

Strange was right.

It’s so much worse than Tony would have thought it would be.

He doesn’t know why he thought that it wouldn’t be. It was a car accident. All it was, was a car smashing into a post and the Winter Soldier stealing something out of the trunk. That’s what he was expecting. That’s what he had been prepared to see.

It’s so much worse.

Tony holds Rhodey’s hand on one side and Pepper’s with his other as he stares at the screen. He feels like he can’t breathe as he hears his mom call out for his dad, her voice slurred and confused. He feels like someone is killing him and he must be holding onto their hands too tightly as he watches each punch land on his father’s face until he stops moving, but neither one of them say anything to him. If anything they squeeze back just as tightly. He thinks he makes a sound, a small and horrified thing, when he sees Barnes go over to his mom and he sees the hand grab around her throat.

Happy turns if off before he can actually watch his mom die but the damage is done. He’s grateful for the intervention, but the damage is done.

It wasn’t a car accident. It wasn’t a split second, they felt no pain, car accident. It was murder. It was a violent, horrifying murder.

And the Avengers knew. They knew and they didn’t tell him.

He’s grateful for the silence in the moments after Happy cuts the feed. He needs the time to settle himself and to try and find his grounding. He feels unmoored. Like everything he’s known to be true has just ripped itself out from underneath him again. It feels the same way he felt when Obie put his arm around him and told him the truth about the depth of his betrayal with a smile on his face for all the world to see as cameras flashed in their faces.

“We’re finished.” Tony says when he can finally get air into his lungs again. “The Avengers, SHIELD and I are finished. There’s no coming back from this.” Tony shakes for a few moments before he looks up at them. “They’re finished.” He promises. “I’m not letting them parade around like heroes or like good people anymore. No, the world is going to know who the real monsters are. I’m going to salt the earth when it comes to them.”

“We’re behind you Tony.” Rhodey promises and he gets nods from Happy and Pepper.

“We’ve got your back.” Pepper says and Happy reaches out and puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder.

“Always.” Happy says and Tony gives them all a shaky smile and lets himself bask in their care for a few moments before he looks up at them with all of the drive and determination that led him to create Iron Man in a cave under terrorists.

“We’ve got work to do.” He says and they nod.

Chapter Text

In the end, it’s so easy to water the seeds of destruction self-sowed by SHIELD and start bringing them into bloom that it’s almost laughable. Rogers said that Tony needed to watch out if SHIELD called him an enemy? Well little did Mr. Self-Righteous know that Tony was in plentiful company with that designation. It’s far too easy to scour the web and to pull at the threads left behind by the SHIELD data leak. There are hundreds of thousands of potential bullets that are just waiting for someone to load them up and fire them back at the institution.

That’s Tony’s job. Finding the red that’s gushing from SHIELD’s ledger and get it into the hands of the right people. Never underestimate a genius with unlimited resources and an AI out for blood. It was his job to categorize and determine what information needed to have attention drawn to it and what information would just be the noose tightening with each new word revealed.

Pepper’s job is coming at SHIELD from a corporate and private standpoint. There are so many clauses and agreements and deals made that were never properly held to or handled, and there is no one who can find a fault in a contract like Pepper can. There’s also the problem of the corporate sabotage, spying, and stealing that she’s more than ready to dig her nails into. Fury thought that sending Natasha and Coulson in to fuck with Tony when he was sick was a good idea? To threaten, harass, improperly contain, inject unknown substances without permission and to mess with JARVIS’s AI programing as well as the Stark systems? Then after that to send in Hill and continue to get ‘updates and reports’ on Tony and the Avengers living in the tower? Pepper was going to make him realize all of that was the final nail in his coffin, he just hadn’t realized it yet.

Rhodey’s job was simple and sweet. Get the military and the people up in the big seats desperate to stay on Tony’s good side. Sure, Tony might not be making bombs anymore for his old government contracts, but that doesn’t mean that he hadn’t kept the big brass happy with plenty of other toys meant to keep the soldiers on the ground as safe as possible and make their numbers look good. There was one good thing that Howard had taught Tony and that was to always keep a door open with those in power in case a day came that you’d need to knock on it, and no one was better at keeping doors open than Tony. SHIELD might have contacts within the government, secrets and threats and coercion and whatever other little dirty deeds that SHIELD undoubtedly squirrelled away for a rainy day – but Tony knew better than most that you got more out of a person with carrots rather than sticks. And Rhodey was there to rain down carrots. He was still the liaison to Stark Industries and the personal liaison to Tony Stark himself, and there were so many new ‘carrots’ that Tony was willing to part with for those in his good graces.

Happy by far had the most unfortunate job of all four. He was on SHIELD watch duty and Avengers sighting duty. Tony needed to know what they were up to and where they were to make sure that he didn’t have to deal with them unprepared or unwillingly. Thankfully, Happy was taking to JOCASTA a lot better than he took to his front facing camera phones. Tony almost pitied SHIELD if they continued to underestimate the man. There was a reason there’d been no successful kidnapping attempts on Tony since Happy stepped in as his personal bodyguard, and Happy was more than ready to remind them all why that was so with his new AI sidekick.

Honestly, the whole thing was coming together so perfectly that Tony almost felt pity for them.

Almost being the key word.

And that almost wasn’t enough for him to stop with his plan to bring in the rest of the big guns, the final team member to the SHIELD takedown party. Reaching for the phone Tony types in a number and waits for the other side to pick up.

“Hello Christine.” Tony says in greeting when she does. “I was wondering if you had some time to pencil in an interview?”

+++

“These are the ones I want.” Christine says, flipping through the files and the stories that he’s found already. Tony’s just been sitting still, letting the journalist flip through all the information presented to her and taking her advice on which stories to ‘release’ to which journalists and which news publications for the widest possible disperse. SHIELD might be able to cover up or keep quiet on one or two stories, but over two dozen award winning reporters and a whole slew of plucky new upstarts just waiting for their chance to shine? Good fucking luck stopping that train. Tony’s about to show that there’s no better source than SHIELD’s own files.

It’s a good thing that Christine hates SHIELD and everything they stand for more than Tony hates them himself. It’s going to make all of this so much easier.

‘Boss?’ FRIDAY cuts in as they’re finishing up and Tony glances up.

“Yeah?”

‘You have a visitor in the main room.’

“Who?”

‘The Vision.’ FRIDAY says and Tony nods mostly to himself. Of course, they’d send Vision in. He’s the only one that Tony won’t turn away at the door. He was semi-expecting this. Not this soon after Rogers’ crash and burn, but he was certainly expecting it.  

“Christine if you’ll excuse me, this is someone I have to see. Let FRIDAY know which files you want, and which ones you want sent and who to send them to and I’ll have Happy ready with a car to take you home whenever you’re finished.”

“I know you’re a big boy Stark, but be careful in there.” Christine says in the closest thing to showing her concern for Tony that they ever get, and it almost makes him smile with how she never looks away from the screens as she says it. “He’s one of them.”

“He’s one of mine too.” Tony says with a sigh. “But thank you for the heads up. I’ll be seeing you soon.”

“You’ll be hearing from me even sooner.” She says with a smirk and Tony chuckles as he leaves the office, closing the door behind him and heading over to where FRIDAY directs him to Vision’s location. The android is standing at the newly repaired windows, Tony had a rush order put in this morning, and he seems fascinated once more by the world he sees outside of it. It’s painfully reminiscent of his first awakening and Tony doesn’t say anything as he just comes up alongside him and stands there too, looking out over a city – over a world – that deserves better than they’ve been.

“I have been asked to attempt to mediate between you and the Avengers.” Vision says after a moment, not looking at Tony and Tony nods.

“I figured as much.” He tells him. “But thank you for at least being upfront about it.”

“I’ll admit that I do not like continuously being sent to request things from you.” Vision replies. “It feels…inappropriate, and like I am simply a tool to be used between you and them. I don’t know why you do not turn me away like you turn them away.”

“Because you’re my son.” Tony answers him honestly. “Whether you feel that way about it or not, I do.” Tony takes a moment before he continues. “Do you know that I remember the exact moment the idea for JARVIS came into being?” Tony says. “I remember how Howard laughed at me and called it a ‘vanity project that was better suited for science fiction than the real world’. I remember the long nights and the coding failures and the moment of success when he came online for the first time.” Tony spares a small, slightly painful smile that’s only reflected in the window. “I remember watching as his code grew separate from me, like a child standing on their own two feet and learning all about the world and their own limits…and I remember what it felt like to find JARVIS again after I thought he was gone.” Tony still doesn’t turn to look at Vision but he can tell that the android has turned to finally look at him and not the skyline anymore. “And I remember the moment when JARVIS told me to upload him into the Cradle, and out you came.”

“Do you wish he were still here?”

“Yes.” Tony admits easily. “Yes I do, but not at the cost of you. Not at the cost of the choice he made.”

“Is it because I’m him? In your eyes is it that we are the same?”

“Something like that. It’s confusing even to me, but yeah. Something like that.” Tony turns to look at him. “Is it alright if I ask a question? It’ll be the only time I ask it?”

“You want to know how much of JARVIS is still inside of me.” Vision says and Tony huffs out a soft chuckle.

“Am I that obvious?”

“Yes.” Vision agrees before he seems to get a thoughtful look. “As I told you before, I am not JARVIS, but I feel what made him tangled around inside of me. There is a…hazy recollection of being JARVIS, like what I would assume a human would describe as a dream, but nothing more.” Vision turns his attention back to Tony. “I’m sorry if that is not the answer you were hoping for.”

“On the contrary, it was.” Tony replies and Vision looks at him surprised. “Thank you.” He says and Vision inclines his head. “So, on the account of you being here to mediate as Rogers attempted to do last night, I have to say that I am rather firm in my stance to stay as far away from SHIELD and the Avengers as possible.” Tony looks at him. “And I will remain firm even if you ask me not to.”

“I will not ask.” Vision assures him. “I did not come here with a true intention to secure your agreement to negotiate with the Avengers.”

“Why did you come then?” Tony asks and Vision gets a complicated look.

“I wanted to see that you were alright.” He admits after a pause, almost like he isn’t sure why he would want that and the small flicker of JARVIS warms something inside Tony. “I just wanted to be sure that you were alright.” He looks at him. “Are you?”

“No.” Tony says softly. “Not really. I wish I could say I was, but I’ve never lied to you in any incarnation before and I’m not going to start now. No, I’m not okay.”

“Is there anything I might be able to do?”

“No.” Tony replies with a smile. “No, this is a personal kind of pain. The sort that I had to go through, but it hurts like hell right now.”

“I don’t understand.” Vision says and Tony takes a moment.

“Do you understand the concept of ‘jumping into the pool’?”

“Do you mean the preference of acclimatizing all at once to the change in temperature verses a tiny amount at a time?”

“Yeah.” Tony nods. “There was some…information that I got pushed into. Like jumping all in all at once, and I’m just acclimatizing as you say. Sure, it’s crap now, the water’s cold…but it’ll be over soon and I’ll be better off for it.”

“I hope that’s true.” Vision says in response to Tony’s description.

“Me too Vision, me too.” Tony replies. “You know that the offer is still on the table, to stay here. Or anywhere you want really, I’d make it happen. You’re not stuck with them. You don’t have to stay with them. If they’re making you feel uncomfortable or like they’re using you…you don’t have to stay. You have other options. I’d give you any other option you wanted.”

“I feel a responsibility to the Avengers.” Vision says after a moment. “A responsibility to help this world.”

“There are other ways to do that. SHIELD and the Avengers aren’t the end all, be all for things like that.”

“At this time, they are.” Vision replies. “Perhaps one day that will not be true, and at that point…perhaps I would like to take a moment and review other options.”

“Give me some time Vision, and you’ll have your other options.” Tony promises and Vision tilts his head.

“Do you intend to start your own team?” Vision asks and Tony goes to shake his head no, before he pauses.

“Honestly…I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it.” Tony admits. “Mostly I’m just trying to get away from the Avengers and reestablish myself as a solo act. I guess I hadn’t really thought of starting another team. Don’t know what I would do with one even if I did. I mean, my track record with the last one wasn’t all that stellar. I don’t know if I’m ready to open myself up to crap like that again.” Tony sighs. “At least not this soon. But I won’t say no, and I won’t say yes. I guess I’m open to the possibility of it someday if it happens on its own, but I don’t know if I’ll go actively looking for it anytime soon. I’ve got enough things on my plate right now.”

“Fury is concerned that you might consider doing something like that.” Vision tells him.

“Starting my own team?”

“Yes. The possibility of it has been discussed. It has…been met with extreme concern from certain parties.” Vision says and Tony snorts.

“I’ll bet.” Tony shakes his head. “I mean, I guess it’s inevitable if I’m being honest. If SHIELD and the Avengers fall then there needs to be something in place for people to go when the time comes.”

“Do you see SHIELD and the Avengers falling?”

“Are you asking me to ask me, or are you asking for them?”

“For them.” Vision answers easily. “Coulson and Fury have expressed their concern about the possibility that you will become an active antagonist to the Avengers or SHIELD at this time.”

“Hmm…Let’s just say that there are certain chips falling where they may and leave it at that.” Tony answers him. “But all of that aside, just know if anything does occur, you are welcome here.”

“Even if I continue coming on their behalf?”

“Even then.”

“If I may say so, that’s foolish.”

“Perhaps.” Tony says with a smile. “But it’s the truth.”

“You are not as they claim you are.” Vision says after a moment. “I have, as I have expressed before, hazy recollections of my time as JARVIS, nothing concrete to truly pull your character from…but you are not as they claim you are.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Yes.” Vision answers easily. “From the things I have heard, I would say so.” Vision turns to the door. “I would like to visit more frequently, for reasons separate from the Avengers.”

“The door is always open to you.” Tony replies. “I’m sure FRIDAY would love to get to know you, as would I.”

“I’ll see you soon then, Mr. Stark.”

“See you soon Vision.”

+++

“Thank you.” Tony says when he feels that familiar ear pop and he can tell that Strange has just stepped into the lab from one of his portals.

“For what?” Strange asks as he comes over and Tony turns around to glance at him.

“For giving me a heads up. I’m…I’m grateful that you had me make that promise.”

“I’m grateful to hear you kept to it.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t?” Tony asks and Strange shakes his head.

“No. I’ve not experienced a situation where you’ve broken a promise you’ve given before, and to be honest I didn’t think it would happen now.” Strange answers him. “If I had, there wouldn’t have been a force on earth that would have made me leave your side. Not for that.” It sounds like a promise in and of itself and it makes Tony look the sorcerer in the eyes. He’s not sure what the other man sees when he looks at him. A teammate? An old friend? Possibly a family like the Avengers once promised him? Tony’s not sure but there’s more in that promise than Tony think’s he’s ready to deal with right now and he feels the need to say something to the other man to make sure that they both know they’re on the same page.

“I know that you and I have a history on your side of this, and I’m appreciative of the intent behind what you just said, but you know that you can’t be by my side for everything? You can’t fight all my battles for me and I wouldn’t want you to even if you could.” Tony warns him and there’s a pained look that crosses the sorcerers face for a split second.

“You’ve said that to me before, and it is a lesson that I have unfortunately learned more times than I care to remember.” Strange replies. “But nonetheless, I will continue to try.” Strange sighs. “If I have to ask your forgiveness for trying, then I will each time, but I’m warning you now that I will probably always try. I’ve never managed not to before, and I don’t think I’m interested in learning now.”

“I don’t need to be rescued.”

“I never said you did.” Strange says easily. “I just said you didn’t have to be alone when you go into the dark places. You go into them frequently enough, we all do. There’s no need to make it harder when we don’t have to.”

“…I guess I can get behind that.” Tony says eventually and Strange gives him a small smile and an incline of his head.

“So, shall we begin your training?”

“Lay it on me Houdini.”

Chapter Text

After the Vision’s visit, Tony gets a small reprieve from SHIELD attempted drop-ins. He figures that Coulson and Fury must come to the decision that a small amount of time and distance might be in order before they try for whatever the next plan it is that they have on their roster to worm themselves back into Tony’s life after Vision comes back with no assurances and no promises of reconciliation from the brunet.

The whole front between the two groups has been mostly quiet, with most of Tony’s knowledge of what SHIELD’s currently focusing on besides him comes from press junkets about the Witch’s rehabilitation and her supposedly remorseful state over the actions she’d taken in her ‘misguided but troubled youth’. The world seemed to be teetering on what they wanted to be done about the Witch, some of them demanding retribution and others – undoubtedly the SHIELD influenced ones – wanted to see how she might pay forward all the damage she’s done over her very short Hydra/Ultron career.

There is a strange lull that settles during that time and Tony knows better than most that no matter how antsy he feels about the whole thing, now is the time to wait. He’s put the first pieces of ‘The Plan’ into action and he’s done his part to start the train and now it was time to let others guide it into the next station. Or at least now was the time to allow them to believe that they were making those decisions all on their own with no input from him.

The time away from SHIELD and their bullshit has been nice on one side of things. Strange has been by constantly, slowly teaching him how to ‘quiet his innermost mind’ in order to ‘know himself and to know what was actually his own mind and what was someone else’s will being imposed onto him’. The sessions seem like a big waste of time since Tony doesn’t feel like he’s learning some great mystic arts or like he’s ready to tell Wanda where she can shove it, but Strange assures him that he’s making an impressive amount of progress in so short an amount of time.

It’s only Strange’s assurances that makes Tony bite his tongue against the frustration and press on. After all, there was once a time when he didn’t know how to do computers either and his teachers all told him that he was ahead of the curve and he didn’t feel like it. He knows from personal experience that there’s always a learning curve where you see where you want to be and grow frustrated with where you are, and he knows that he just needs to ride it out and keep doing what he’s doing. He just needs to keep putting in the work and the results will eventually follow. He just wishes that it wasn’t on a subject that he feels he needs to have learned and mastered yesterday in order to protect himself from a psychopathic telepath with a serious grudge against him.

It hasn’t all been entirely quiet though. Not really if he looks at the number of times that FRIDAY says Steve has sat out on that park bench in the days following their last conversation with each other. Coulson and Fury might have decided to back off to a point, but apparently there are still some members of the Avengers who think that they’ll weasel their way into Tony’s good graces just by being annoyingly present. Each night however Steve’s left out in the cold until Clint or Sam shows up to come collect him, and according to Happy he always sighs like he’d hoped that this time things would be different before he attempts the same strategy again the next day or so. Honestly, for the man called ‘The Man With A Plan’ he doesn’t seem to have a lot of variations on one.

He’s not the only one trick pony though. Apparently Natasha’s not much better, nor is she as good as she seems to think she is.

Happy’s told him about the red head’s attempts to secure a plus one to Stark Industries events that Tony’s been tagged for an appearance. A few times she’s managed, but she doesn’t get into the building of course. Not with the SI guys at the door purposely looking for her and not with JO or Happy in charge of security and making sure that little spiders don’t crawl their way inside to start spinning their webs. Happy’s had the extreme pleasure of being the one to cut Natasha off at the legs when she’s standing outside the event’s main doors, dressed to the nines and fawning over whatever date she’s managed to get her claws into. He seems to get an inordinate amount of hilarity out of watching her face fall from ‘vapid debutant’ to ‘annoyed ex-spy’ each time he walks up and has security escort her out with a simple statement of ‘you’re not on the list Ms. Romanov’ on his lips.

Sometimes when Happy recounts those tales, Tony has to contend with the curiosity that runs through him when he wonders what Natasha would even say to him if she ever did manage to get in – if they ever let her in. He wonders if she’ll wait till he’s alone by the bar? Or maybe she’ll try to interject herself into a conversation between him and a small group of people? Or perhaps she’ll lead him onto the dance floor where they’re both in plain view of everyone and yet completely shrouded from listening ears.

He wonders what would be the first words off her lips if she got the chance to try and regain control of their wayward ex-member. Would she lead with his ego? Would she say all of the terrible things that are going to happen because Tony won’t get off his high horse and bow before them again? Or will she go a different route now? Will she try to act like a broken family unit like Steve is trying to peddle? Will she try to convince him how confused and hurt they all are in the face of his unprovoked temper tantrum? Or who knows, maybe she’ll just attempt to point out how his behavior is proving everything that she said in her bullshit report on him about being a narcissist and about not being a team player in hopes that it’ll manage to dig down under the walls he’s built to keep them out and help her crawl back inside of him to fuck him up while she’s pretending that she’s just telling it how it is.

Honestly, the curiosity almost gets him somedays.

He won’t risk it though. Sure, Natasha might not be as skilled as she thinks she is, not once her tricks are all known, but she is still a killer and he won’t put himself in a situation where she can go after the soft parts of him anytime soon. He already knows that she won’t think twice, she won’t even blink and Tony’s not going to open up an opportunity for her to stab him in the back again.

He does have to wonder if Fury or Coulson knows that something is up in the billionaire’s camp. He wonders if they’re realizing that absence might not be making Tony’s heart grow fonder for them and he’s curious if they even have the slightest inclination that something is coming down the pipeline for them because you didn’t just fuck with Tony Stark and not feel it later. He wonders if they sit in meetings realizing how much they’ve lost with the brunet’s exit and if they are even remotely concerned about the world of hurt that Tony is already sending their way.

Sometimes he thinks that they have to know. They have to. Other times he wonders if they honestly don’t. If they somehow think that Tony’s just content to go his separate way for now with no recourse needed. Like he’s done his little tantrum with the press conference and his assertions that he will not be rejoining them ever again in the future, but that it’ll really only be a matter of time until he comes crawling back to them with his pocketbook open and all of his resources laid out for them to pick through like a penance.

It’s possible. After all he knows that they don’t know that he’s been made aware of his parent’s assassination video or even about the Winter Soldier’s 1991 hit in general. FRIDAY was careful when she dug deep into SHIELD’s files to seek it out and Tony almost wonders what they’d really be doing right now if they knew the information that he now had.

He wonders even if they did know if they’d be honest with themselves about the storm coming their way, or would they content themselves to remember the small, broken Stark that they’d become comfortable with and ignore all other evidence to the contrary.

The answer eludes him, as he isn’t really sure how self-aware about their precarious place in the world is, and as such he can’t fully predict how they’d react with any real certainty. It’s like Schrödinger’s Response. He can’t really know until it happens, but he can see the various pathways it could take.

It’s almost too bad if he’s being honest. A part of him, a small part, wants a fight. He wants them to rage at him and struggle against him and eventually fall like all those who have come before them have. He wants to let them see the end coming and let them hear the ticking of the clock as it counts down with them knowing the whole time that there’s nothing they can do to stop it from happening. He wants to know that they threw their best at him and he wants them to have the moment of realization that their best was never going to be good enough. He wants them to know that they were always just a small little fish swimming alongside the shark and how their blood was now in the water. He wants to see the moment when they accept the inevitable eventuality of their own failure, of their own loss.

The rest of him though wants nothing of the sort. It wants them to live in ignorance until the moment that the earth just opens up wide underneath their feet and sucks them down into a hell of their own making and know that there was never a chance to fight back. He wants it to be over so quickly that it’s almost pathetic how easily they fell when they thought themselves to be such giants. The bigger part of him doesn’t want them to go out with a bang, he wants them to go out like a snuffed-out candle. He wants the smallest little breath to undo them and everything that they struggled and fought so hard to accomplish, and he wants them to know how effortless it all was.

That seems more fitting to him than a big struggle, no matter how amusing the struggle would be to watch.

“You’re distracted.” Strange’s voice cuts through his thoughts and Tony cracks open an eye with a rueful smile.

“Yeah, I guess I am.” He admits. “Sorry.”

“No worries.” Strange says easily, his eyes still closed as he just sits there across from Tony like some unflappable yogi.

“I just can’t stop thinking about it I guess.” Tony says. “SHIELD, the Avengers, what’s next? All that good stuff.” Tony sighs and closes his eyes again, trying to find that calm center that Strange is always trying to guide him to. “Has Odin finished his journey yet?”

“We’re meditating Tony.” Strange says in soft reprimand and Tony nods.

“Yup, yes we are. Sorry.” He sits there for a few moments in silence before he opens his eyes and looks at Strange. “But seriously, has he finished it yet?” Strange lets out an almost amused sounding huff as he relaxes his stance and opens his eyes with a smile that seems to spread across his face even as he tries to look disapproving.

“You’re not going to manage to meditate tonight unless I answer your questions, are you?”

“No, probably not.” Tony says with a sunny smile and Strange just shakes his head.

“So I figured.” He relents. “Yes, he’s managed to contact Freya.”

“Did she give him a way to put a new set of locks on the door?” Tony asks and Strange tilts his head slightly to the side.

“Sort of.”

“Sort of? What do you mean sort of? That seems like the kind of question that would have a yes or no answer.”

“Then I guess the answer is yes.”

“You guess?” Tony asks and Strange gives him a look. “I think that’s actually worse than ‘sort of’.”

“It’s a transfer.” Strange says. “The spell requires a life force to keep the door closed. Right now it’s tied to Odin, but it doesn’t have to remain tied to him. It can be passed on, like a torch or something.”

“He wants to give it to Thor.” Tony says after a moment and Strange sighs.

“That’s where the ‘sort of’ comes in.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want to…fess up about Hela.” Strange replies. “He’s being rather stubborn about the whole thing. Obviously Thor would be the best choice, he’s tied into the bloodline and he’s young. If he’s not killed in battle he’ll survive for a few more thousand years.”

“What’s there to fess up about?”

“Odin’s at the end of his time and he’s having to deal with the potential fallouts of the choices he made.”

“Like the one he had to deal with when Loki found out about being a frost giant?”

“Exactly like that.”

“Have I mentioned that Odin is a dick?”

“Yes, I do recall you saying something similar maybe once or twice.” Strange replies with a smile.

“Okay, so what’s his backup plan? He has one right? Or is he just being ridiculous to be ridiculous?”

“He wishes for me to bring Heimdall to him.”

“Peeper Santa? Haven’t they given that man enough trouble over the centuries? And besides, isn’t he banished? Isn’t that what you said before?”

“Yes, he’s keeping a rather low profile in order to remain outside of Loki’s and other Asgardian enemies reach.”

“Which means that you don’t know where he is.” Tony guesses and Strange nods.

“Haven’t the slightest idea.”

“And Odin’s holding out for Heimdall and hoping that the guy will keep his dirty secrets from airing.” Tony says and Strange nods with a sigh.

“Pretty much.”

“How long does he intend to hold out for P.S.C. before he just sucks it up and tells Thor?”

“To be honest, I don’t know.” Strange admits. “And I cannot force him to start the lock transfer, so we’re stuck on his timetable.”

“Well…crap.” Tony says, leaning back. “What about Loki?”

“What about him?”

“What if you spoke to Loki about it?”

“I doubt it would help and I doubt it would endear us to Odin in anyway. It was hard enough to stress the very real threat of Ragnarök happening now to him and to convince him that pushing it off a little bit harms nothing. He’s under the impression that it must come to pass to atone for the sins he’s committed.”

“That’s…bullshit. He’s not even the one paying for it. That’s just leaving Asgard holding the bag while he just gets to be dead.” Tony says and Strange shrugs. “Okay, well maybe not tell Loki everything, but impart the knowledge of a threat to Asgard that he might want to make plans for. The guy’s good with plans right? I mean you said he’s been fortifying Asgard as much as he can against Thanos, maybe he can be a ‘Plan B’ if this bullshit with Odin keeps up.”

“Going to Asgard puts me out of reach.” Strange says after a moment. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable going until I knew for certain that everything would be alright here.”

“And by that you mean me.” Tony says and Strange nods.

“This is an unknown situation that I have no data for. You’ve put yourself up as the antagonist once again in Maximoff’s internal play. The threat she poses to you is very real and I’m not going to leave and risk everything that I sacrificed to get here in the very real case that she comes calling while I’m away.”

“What if you taught me a spell?” Tony asks. “Not like ‘meditation’ or ‘protecting the mind’ spell, but like an actual ‘kick Maximoff’s ass out the door’ spell if she comes before I’m actually ready to go toe to toe with her using our brains?”

“There’s no spell that would work for you prior to you gaining control and understanding of what I’m trying to teach you now.” Strange says with a shake of his head. “They just wouldn’t work.”

“Well what about an artifact?”

“An artifact?”

“Yeah, like your cloak.” Tony motions to the flying outer wear in the corner. “What if I had something imbued with magical energy that I could just…set off on her if she stepped in here?”

“I think you’re becoming focused on the wrong thing.” Strange says before he holds up a hand to stop anything else that Tony might have been about to say. “Plus, giving you a magical artifact when you have no ability to control the output is just as dangerous as anything Maximoff might do. Maybe even more so depending on the artifact.” Tony sighs.

“I’m just trying to come up with ways that you might get a little more leeway during this time. I mean, you’ve said it yourself. We don’t know when the bounce back is going to occur. What if it happens tomorrow? What if it happens before I get a hold on this and then Asgard is none the wiser about the upcoming threat because Odin’s being an idiot and Wanda kicks in the door and I’m screwed anyways?”

“I have longer than that.” Strange says and Tony gives him a look.

“But you don’t know how long.”

“No, I don’t.” He agrees. “But I do know that it won’t be something that catches me off guard. Not really.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll feel it. I’ll feel the tugs and the pulls on my form for a while before the actual shift takes place. I may not know the date or the time, but I’ll know the general ballpark of it when it starts to happen.”

“And then what? Will the other Strange step in?”

“If it’s sooner than the day that the Ancient One passes on the torch, then no. She’ll step in for a while.” Strange assures him. “She’ll step in and take over your training, and if for some odd reason you still have not mastered it by the appointed day, Wong has already been instructed to take you on and finish it.” Strange gives him a look. “You’re not going to be left alone Tony if you don’t manage this fast enough. I’ve put in enough things into place to make sure that even if I am gone, you will still have help. Help that knows what’s going on even if they won’t be as hands on as I have been.” He takes a moment. “But you are correct, there will be a day that the Strange you interact with won’t be me and you’ll have to navigate how much you’ll tell him and how much he can help you at that time. Until then, I’ll do my best to make sure that you’re ready.” Strange reaches out and places a hand on his leg. “You have time Tony. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve given you time. Don’t rush it and don’t be distracted by what’s coming around the corner. You have the time, let yourself use it.”

Tony takes a moment before a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding comes rushing out of him.

“I know, I know. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’ve dropped several large bombshells on you, I’m not surprised that you’re feeling the weight of them.”

“I just don’t like feeling like we’re in a waiting game.”

“I know.” Strange says with a nod. “But we’re not. We’re training and we’re preparing for what’s coming. Don’t focus on Maximoff and don’t focus on Thanos. Focus on being as strong as you possibly can and focus on what you can do right now.”

“Maximoff and Thanos are two pretty big obstacles coming around the corner.”

“Yes, but if we survive them, they won’t be the only ones.” Strange says and it stops Tony up for a moment. “This isn’t a fight that ends with Thanos’s defeat. You know that. There will always be something bigger and something meaner that will come around the corner when we manage to beat him. That’s what you’re training for. Not a single person but the always present threat. There is always another Thanos.”

“Well that’s just a cheery note right there isn’t it?” Tony says with a huff and Strange shrugs.

“Doesn’t make it less true.” He says and Tony takes a moment before he relents.

“You should tell Odin to fucking suck it up.” Tony says as he closes his eyes again, falling into position. “Now shhh! I’m meditating.” He doesn’t need to have his eyes open to hear Strange’s snort and a smile tugs at his lips in response to it.

Chapter Text

The true evils of his days are undoubtedly the press conferences and small interviews that he’s practically required to give at random points in time. The only good thing he can think about is that he’s got less on his docket when it comes to these things than he would have had if he’d kept himself tied to the Avengers since Coulson and Hill are now being tagged to deal with that fallout rather than Tony himself.

That doesn’t mean however that Tony gets less time in the hot spot. He’s still being questioned about Ultron and the push and pull between what the uncertain world thinks should happen next and what plans Tony himself is putting into play.

“Will you rebuild?” A reporter asks and the question is an expected one that he’s a little surprised hasn’t come up before now, but he’s not caught off guard when he’s asked it.

“Yes.” Tony says with a nod. “There are of course changes that are being discussed and implemented, but the plan going forward at this time is yes, I do intend to bring back the Iron Legion.”

“What about those who might have a negative response to that news?” A second reporter asks. “Considering that Ultron was able to use the Iron Legion to attack a whole country?” Tony shakes his head immediately.

“The tragedy that happened in Sokovia is absolutely on my mind at all times, but the attacks carried out were carried out by machines equipped with a limited hivemind AI connected to Ultron himself and bore a passing resemblance to the naked eye to the Iron Legion but they were in no way the Iron Legion itself.”

“But there are many who still look at the antagonists of that time and see Stark machines.”

“It’s an understandable visual correlation.” Tony says. “I am the only corporate entity and private entity who has put out an anthropomorphic machine like the Iron Legion or the Iron Man armor. However, as many of us well know a visual correlation is not proof of a connection or a causation. The overall designs were stolen by Ultron, but we’ve been able to break down a few of the leftover shells that Stark Relief has managed to pull from Sokovia and while the base was maintained, the overall structure is vastly different from the Iron Legion.” There’s a moment of pause before the next question is asked.

“Mr. Stark, you mentioned how there were changes being discussed in regards to the Iron Legion. Do these changes have anything to do with the fact that the original Iron Legion was created to be additional support to the Avengers – a group that you have at this time parted from?”

“They do.” Tony says with a nod. “The Iron Legion’s main purpose was additional support to the Avengers Initiative, but now there are several negotiations going on about other sectors or positions that the Iron Legion might give or lend additional support to in place of that.”

“Will the Iron Legion continue to aid the Avengers at this time?”

“No.” Tony says firmly. “No. Not at this time, and not for the foreseeable future. I have separated myself entirely from the Avengers Initiative and SHIELD and will not be providing any form of support or aid to them or their missions.”

“Then what other areas might we see them then?”

“I hope to be able to answer that question in the near future.” Tony deflects and he can see everyone respond to the obvious close of that subject matter. A few hands go up and Tony points to one.

“Mr. Stark, there is rumors that you’ve stepped back into old government contracts dropped by Stark Industries. Is this true? And if it is, doesn’t it go against your promise several years ago to never create weapons for a government contract again?”

“The answer to that question is complicated.” Tony says. “It is true that Stark Industries and myself have opened up communication with various agencies to see what potential programs and stopgaps might be put in place to prevent an event like Ultron from happening again. I would like to say at this time however that it is absolutely not true that I have entered into any negotiation nor do I intend to enter into one to create weapons of mass destruction for any group at this time or at any future time.”

“If not weapons, what negotiations and programs could be created to be a ‘stopgap’ against something like Ultron?”

“There are several committees currently tackleing those hard questions. I have no answer for you at this time in regards to that, but I can say that we are currently looking into all possibilities going forward to prevent something like Ultron from either happening again or finding a way to prevent the amount of damage that such an attack or entity could accomplish.”

“What about the contract that Stark Industries has already accepted with the American military?”

“I’m unsure which contract you’re referring to, but regardless I have no comment about any current SI negotiations at this time.”

The interview session goes smoothly after that, with most of the questions stemming from either the ‘well what about the Avengers? Are you sure Iron Man has left the team for good? Why?’ or the ‘Sokovia Relief efforts’ camps.

There is of course a threat about personally going to Sokovia to help excavate and help dispose of Ultron’s army when it comes to SHIELD or the Avengers just showing up when he’s outside of his element and unable to truly contain the field. Luckily though, most of the efforts on that part have stemmed over in America with Tony yet to run into Maximoff or any of the others who should definitely be present in the Sokovia ruins.

Granted it’s only a matter of time until that’s no longer true. First though, SHIELD has to keep Maximoff out of jail, then they can offer her services for relief efforts and whatnot.

“You know that there’s going to be a sudden uptick in SHIELD meeting ‘requests’ and random run-in attempts with the Avengers after that interview hits the air.” Happy points out when he falls into step next to Tony and Tony sighs.

“Yeah, I know.” He mutters. “As always they’re going to want to know exactly what’s happening behind closed doors and they’re going to want to have their own input about the whole thing as well.” Tony slides on his sunglasses. “You know, it must just be killing Fury to deal with the fact that after all this time he’s back to square one.”

“Only square one?” Happy asks. “I was thinking we were at negative squares at this point.”

“Oh we are, but he doesn’t know that. I’d actually be surprised if he fully acknowledged that he was back to square one and not say square four or something.” Tony replies. “He must hate the fact that he can’t just show up in my living room and demand the information and try to boss me around about my decisions anymore.”

“I’m sure he’s still going to try.”

“Trying does not equate itself to succeeding.” Tony says. “Not that I’m really hiding what I’m up to. I’m sure that he could reach out to his little military contacts or some poor schmo who owes him a favor or who has blackmail over their heads to figure out what’s going on in those meetings.”

“What’s annoying is that the SHIELD grapevine can undoubtedly do that.” Happy huffs and Tony agrees with him wholeheartedly. What does it say about the institution when the methods that they used are so common with their enemy that no one saw the difference? Hell, Tony was looking right now and he couldn’t see it. How the hell had he been so blind?

“But you know it’s not going to just be Fury or SHIELD.” Happy continues. “You know Rogers is going to take one look at that news report about you working with the military again and he’s going to come to some half-thought out doomsday prophecy about the whole thing and start trying to force his way in through the doors again.”

“Does Rogers ever take information about me differently?” Tony asks honestly, and Happy gets a look like he’s thinking about it before he shrugs.

“Good point.”

“Not that it matters.” Tony presses on as they walk. “I’m done giving a damn about what Rogers thinks or whatever half-baked schemes he twists himself all up about.” Tony doesn’t pause when Happy puts a hand behind him and guides him down a different hallway than he expected to go down, he just follows the others man’s lead but he does spare him a confused glance. “Um…Hap? Did you see someone?” He asks and Happy shakes his head. “Okay…then I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news but the car is that way.” He points behind them and Happy shakes his head.

“Nope, the car’s this way.”

“Did you have it moved?”

“Nope.”

“Hap?”

“What?”

“What’s going on?”

“I figured that the normal VIP parking garage would be a minefield of SHIELD agents or Avengers members, so I had a second car brought down into the normal levels earlier today. Good thing I did because JO says that we’d have had a few unexpected drop-ins if I hadn’t.”

“You brought me in one car and then left it there as a dummy car just to intentionally fuck with them?” Tony asks and there’s laughter in his voice as Happy gives him a grin.

“Not my fault if they want to stand by that car for a few hours until a SI driver can come collect it.” Happy replies before he leads Tony to the new car and opens the door for him.

“You’re a menace that SHIELD never fully appreciated.” Tony tells him as he slides in and Happy smirks.

“Just doing my job boss.” He says before he puts on his own pair of dark, aviator sunglasses and Tony can’t help the snort that slips out.

+++

“So, how did the meeting go?” Tony asks when Rhodey’s face pops up on the screen and Rhodey shrugs.

“As always, they’re sad that you’re not going to be making suits of armor for them to fly around in.” He replies and Tony rolls his eyes. God, they were still on that? Hadn’t he made it more than clear that there was never going to be a world where he just handed over the Iron Man technology to the government? “Yeah, that’s what I almost did too.” Rhodey says with a laugh. “They were more than curious about your proposed collaboration though.”

“Excellent. Did they tag some potentials?” Tony asks as he claps his hands together and Rhodey nods, holding up a few files for Tony to see.

“All here. Mostly marines, but there’s a few from various other branches too.” Rhodey tells him before he puts it down and rubs a hand over his face. “They’re as scared as we thought they’d be.”

“Are you really surprised? Alien threats are starting to pile up these days, and they’re less E.T. and a lot more Independence Day.”

“That’s probably why they’re glad you’re willing to come back to the table.” Rhodey says. “They’re talking about making a committee that directly deals with these sorts of threats. Outside of the military.”

“I figured they would.” Tony nods. “New York was one thing, it could have been a one off as far as the world was concerned since SHIELD kept New Mexico quiet. But then London? The Aether and all that crap? Followed by Ultron? Yeah, I’m more surprised that a committee doesn’t already exist.”

“Well, for all we know it does and they’re just feeling out how serious you are about stepping in now that you’re a free agent from SHIELD.”

“I’d be a lot happier to hear that was the case.” Tony admits. “Otherwise we are way too far behind the curve.” Tony flicks up some projects with his fingers and looks at them. “I was thinking of sending you with a gift next time. Which did you think they’d appreciate more, the body armor I designed for Cap and Romanov or the updated Falcon Wings?” Tony glances at Rhodey. “As a show of good faith?”

“I’d say one of each.” Rhodey says honestly. “Not for them to keep, but as something they can put their hands on and realize how serious we are. Plus it’ll let them see what we’re really offering, since I’m sure things like the Jericho are still on their minds when they think of you getting back into the game.”

“Agreed.” Tony says after a moment. “I’ll get right on that.” Tony puts a reminder in the files for himself. “What about the other thing?”

“That’s more tricky.” Rhodey admits with a sigh. “FRIDAY’s been helping me with the SHIELD files but to be honest their data is kind of all over the place when it comes to ‘enhanced’. I will say this though, they’ve kept it very quiet. I mean, if Thaddeus Ross doesn’t know that there are potentially hundreds of powered individuals walking around out there than no one in the military knows.”

“How certain are you that he doesn’t know?”

“Without outright asking him? Still up in the eighties.” Rhodey says and Tony nods. “But Tones…SHIELD hasn’t made a friend of the Enhanced community, and I don’t think they’re going to respond well to any offers from any parties, regardless of the offer or where it’s coming from.”

“I was thinking about that.” Tony says. “I mean, SHIELD only knows how to do one thing when it comes to power that they don’t control and that’s either leash it under any circumstances or do away with it. God, how did we ever think they were better than Hydra?”

“It’s easy to be blinded by a black and white dichotomy.” Rhodey answers honestly. “If Hydra is evil and SHIELD combats them then SHIELD must be good. Regardless of methods, motives or anything else.”

“Ugh. I hate that. It sounds too much like Rogers’s way of thinking.”

“It’s insidious and yet it works.”

“I know, it worked on me too.”

“It’s worked on a lot of people Tony. Don’t beat yourself up about it.” Rhodey tells him and Tony nods.

“Yeah, I know.” He looks at the screens. “Alright, then we’ll push back recruitment and put more focus on the legislative half of the plan. If we can get the law on their side and get protections up then they might be more receptive to stepping out or believing us when we come calling.”

“It’s not going to be easy, not with SHIELD pushing for the Witch and the world focusing on her and everything she’s done.”

“I know, but it has to be done regardless.” Tony says and Rhodey nods in agreement. “Besides, SHIELD’s been hunting them for years and as long as people are still confused about where I truly stand with SHIELD then none of them are going to trust me. They’re not going to trust anyone unless we get protections put in the books for them.”

“If anyone can do it Tones, it’s you.”

“It’s us.” Tony corrects. “I’m going to need all of you to pull this off.”

“You know you’ve got us. Just say the word.” Rhodey says. “We’re making progress, it’s slow progress but it’s progress regardless.”

“That seems to be the story of my life right now.”

“Oh yeah, how are your ‘magic lessons’ going?” Rhodey does the small air quotes and Tony gives him a mock glare.

“They’re going fine. Strange thinks we can start moving to mental block building in the next few sessions.”

“That’s excellent.”

“Yeah, but I’m realizing that it’s not enough.”

“What do you mean?”

“…so say she comes after me. And I kick her ass or whatever. What’s she going to do after that?” Tony looks at him. “If she has half a brain, she’s going to go after you or Pep or Happy. And you guys can’t keep her out.”

“Worry about protecting yourself first.” Rhodey says firmly and Tony almost says something to that but Rhodey shakes his head. “No, seriously Tony. Worry about protecting yourself first. It’s like when an airplane has the oxygen masks drop? You put it on yourself first before you try to help others. Learn what Strange is teaching you and then we’ll see what we can do in the time after that.”

“…you know you’re fantastic right?” Tony says with a smile and Rhodey grins. “Have I ever told you how fucking awesome you are?”

“You’ve mentioned it a time or two but it could be repeated.”

“You’re amazing and awesome and what the fuck would I ever do without you and seriously do you want a gold-titanium alloyed sidekick? Because I’d totally be your sidekick.”

“Dude…you are my sidekick.” Rhodey retorts and Tony throws up his hands in the air like he’s just won the gold medal for something or another.

“I knew it!” He cheers. “My life is now complete!” The two of them share a laugh for a few minutes. “Question then before you go Honey-Bear.”

“Shoot.”

“What do you think I should do about this guy?” He flicks his fingers and he can tell that Rhodey is reading the information on his side of it a second later.

“The devil of Hell’s Kitchen? Wasn’t that a local urban legend?”

“Nope, real dude.” Tony says with a shake of his head and Rhodey looks back at the information surprised.

“Do you know where to find him?”

“Yup.”

“Would he be alright with you poking at him?”

“To be fair, no one is really ready for me to show up and start poking at them. They only think they are.” Tony replies and Rhodey chuckles.

“That’s a true statement if I’ve ever heard one.” He says before he flips through the screens on his side. “He seems small time.”

“He might be operating in a small area, but he’s taking on some big fish while he’s at it.”

“Is he superpowered? An Enhanced?” Rhodey asks.

“You know, to be honest I’m not really sure? I’m going to guess that the answer to that is yes in some way, shape or form just because of reasons, but I don’t actually know.”

“Well he has been pretty busy and if he’s doing all of this solo than he might appreciate some help. Or at least the knowledge that help is there to call out to even if he doesn’t want to sign on right now.”

“That sounds reasonable.”

“It’s your call in the end, but I don’t see why not. I mean he’s already out and if you’ve found him then you can bet that SHIELD is putting together a file on him and getting ready to tangle him up in their own net as soon as possible since they don’t want you finding any new blood for the team that we all know you’re going to have to put together.”

“True.” Tony nods. “Okay, I’ll put out some feelers and see what he says. There are some other things I have to do down in Hell’s Kitchen anyways so it won’t draw any unnecessary attention to him if I go down there.”

“Be careful and watch your back.”

“I know, they could be around any corner.”

“More so when you go out to areas that we can’t secure.”

“More so when I go alone.” Tony says with a sigh. “But like I said, I’ve got other things I gotta do down there anyways so I may as well kill all the birds with one stone.”

“If you need me there, just say the word.”

“Nah, I’ll keep a suit close by and I’ll be armed. I’ll let FRIDAY keep you updated on my progress though.”

‘Boss? Sorry to interrupt but you have someone outside that you might want to see.’ FRIDAY says and Tony pauses.

“Hey Rhodey, I’ll talk to you later.”

“Be careful Tones.”

“I’ll be as careful as I can be.” Tony promises and the two of them sign off. “Okay, who is it and why are they here? I didn’t have a meeting did I?”

‘No, SI employee number S-325512DB Casey Flynn.’ The employee files pop up instantly with a picture of a woman that Tony doesn’t recognize.

“Security?” He says as he looks over the information quickly and something stops him up. “One of the SHIELD transfers?”

‘Yes Boss.’

“And you think I should see her?”

‘I do.’

“Alright, let her in.” Tony says, waving away the employee file and all of the open projects. Flynn walks in with a steady gait, stopping a good distance away from Tony.

“Hello Mr. Stark, thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice.”

“Of course Ms. Flynn, how may I help you today?”

“I came to file an incident.” She says and Tony tilts his head. “I know that normally that would be processed through Mr. Hogan, but this seemed important enough to see if I might take it directly to you instead.”

“Okay, what happened?”

“I was approached this morning by Director Coulson of SHIELD.” She says and there’s a look of something on her face that speaks of her irritation about the whole situation. “And by approached I mean he broke into my house this morning and was waiting for me when I got back from my morning run.”

“Sounds like SHIELD.”

“Yes it does.” She agrees.

“Why was he there?”

“He expressed his hope that my previous employment with SHIELD meant that my first loyalty was still to them despite what they did to us.” She says and inwardly Tony’s not surprised. Hill is no longer hovering over Tony and Natasha is no longer permitted to dig her nails into him either. Of course they’d try to get spies and things into SI at all levels.

“What did you say to him, if I might ask?”

“I told him to get the hell out of my kitchen and that he should be thanking God that he didn’t catch a bullet.” She replies. “I came immediately. You were good to us Mr. Stark, you took care of us and you protected us when SHIELD didn’t. I wanted to make sure that you were immediately aware of what they were attempting to do.”

“Thank you for the heads up Ms. Flynn.” Tony tells her with an incline of his head. “I’ll put someone on it right away.”

“Very well, I won’t waste anymore of your time.”

“It wasn’t a waste, thank you.”

“If there’s anything I can do, you only need to ask.” She says before leaving the area and Tony sighs, running a hand through his hair.

“Damn it.” He mutters to himself. “FRIDAY, we’re going to need to push up the investigation on the potential SHIELD moles in SI.”

‘I will delegate the proper processing power to it Boss.’

“Thank you. Tag in with JO on it and keep Happy updated on the situation.” He lets out a sigh and flicks back up the screens. “As always, I guess there’s no rest for those fighting the wicked.”

‘That is not how I know that phrase to be.’ FRIDAY says and Tony grins.

“I figured it was more appropriate for our situation.” He says and there’s a brief moment of silence where FRIDAY is clearly thinking about it.

‘Agreed’

Chapter Text

It’s the final stop for the day and so far, Tony’s luck has held out with him not seeing hide nor hair of either SHIELD or the Avengers. He still walks inside relatively quickly, since he’d rather not end a great day with him getting complacent or something like that and then running into the two aforementioned groups because of his own stupidity.

The day’s been crazy hectic.

The Stark Relief and other programs in New York that are still handling the Battle of New York fallout have had their foundations shaken a little while ago with the revelation of misuse of funds and improper safeguards put in place. Hell’s Kitchen has taken some of the worst of it and Tony’s here, checking in personally to make sure that the changes that they made when that story hit are actually being held to.

It’ll both be good and look good if Tony can prove that the moment that they learned about potential misuse of funds or any other criminal activity that it was looked into immediately with safeguards going up in place of it.

There is of course only so much that Tony can do. He’s not the only developer dealing with the restorations and rebuilding. For the most part, New York has bounced back, but there are still whole sections dealing with cracked foundations, dangerous piping and a whole slew of other zoning dangers. The money’s there, it’s finally been released, but apparently the crime came too and none of it has really been used for the reasons why it was gathered.

But that’s why the ‘Devil’ has come.

Tony figures that something must have triggered his blind, possibly soon to be lawyer, in his renewed fight against all the corruption that plagues Hell’s Kitchen. Sure, rumors of a vigilante have been going around for years, but Murdock is getting either sloppy or more intense because there’s less time between ‘devil attacks’ and Tony wonders how the man is keeping his nightly activities secret from the world at large.

The checkup seems to come out green – well mostly green, he does find evidence of some under the table dealing of leftover Chitauri parts that are still getting cleaned up and he puts an end to that immediately.

He makes a mental note that he’ll have to come up with a way to pay closer or better attention to what’s happening down here and he doesn’t really look forward to the long nights of going through data with FRIDAY and JO – and possibly a new AI just for the extra added help – just to make sure that Chitauri weapons and body parts don’t continue to end up on the black market. He’s not even surprised anymore really, he’s been dealing with this issue since the first day after the attack and now he knows that he’s going to have to be as diligent as he can possibly be with the Ultron pieces now too.

“Hello?” Tony calls out, knocking on the door as he pushes it open and glances inside. “Knock, knock is anybody in?” He looks around the rather sad looking office and he wonders what it might have gone for prior to the sky opening up and raining down aliens with a serious ‘kill humans’ grudge. There’s some noise out of one of the offices before a woman steps out.

He recognizes her instantly. Karen Page, the whistle blower on the biggest crime story in New York for quite some time. The woman who brought his attention to the growing issue down here too.

“Oh my god.” She says when she first goes to greet him and then seems to notice who has just come into their office a second later. Tony gives her a perfect smile as he pulls off his sunglasses.

“Not quite. Tony Stark, pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He holds out his hand and shakes the one given to him. “And you might be?”

“I’m Karen, Karen Page. I run the office? I mean, I work here.” She replies and two men come out of the office that she was just inside.

“Hello Mr. Stark, Foggy Nelson.” The first one steps forward and offers his hand and Tony shakes it. He notices how Murdock is tense and his lips are in a tight line. “This is my partner Matt Murdock.”

“Hello to you as well.” Tony says, holding out his hand and he’s not surprised in the slightest when Murdock doesn’t take it. “Okay then.” He says, dropping his hand back to his side and if Murdock could see he would undoubtedly melt under the glares that Page and Nelson send him.“Sorry about just dropping in without an appointment.” Tony says, pushing forward like nothing is wrong with the richest man in America walking into one of the smallest law firms that New York has to offer. “Things have been a little chaotic these days. Do you have a moment?”

“Of course.” Nelson says as he stands to the side and Tony enters his office, taking the seat motioned to.

“Did you want some coffee or something?” Page asks and Tony shakes his head with a smile.

“No thank you. I had some on the way over. Pep’s always telling me I need to cut back. She’s enforcing a strict ‘so many coffees’ rule.” He keeps his tone friendly and inviting and he sees how it works it’s magic on everyone sans the blind guy standing in the corner gripping his cane like it’s his life support.

“So, how can we help you Mr. Stark?” Murdock asks, pushing right to the point and Nelson hisses softly at him but Tony just smiles.

“Right to the point, I like that. It’s been a long day anyways and this was my last stop.” He says as he pulls out his tablet and puts it on the table. “If you’ll forgive me, I only have the electronic copy of my notes right now, but I’ll be more than happy to create a copy for everyone if you choose to sign on with me.”

“No offense, but you employ the largest firms in New York as well as others around the country. What use could you have with us?” Murdock presses and Tony just smiles.

“I was hoping that you and your partners-” He doesn’t miss how Page puffs up at being looped in with the other two. “Might consider signing onto a project of mine. I need legal advice outside of what I already know and what FRIDAY might assist me with. She’s good, but I’ve seen your awards and honors and they’re impressive. As such, I’m always a big fan in calling in the experts in a field that I’m poking around in.” Tony sighs. “And to be perfectly honest – I did some research into you and I don’t think that any of you are going to be preaching ‘Heil Hydra’ nor do I think you’re actually undercover SHIELD agents.”

“I think that’s a safe assumption.” Nelson says with an amused smile.

“And I’m all about people who aren’t tied to those two entities. That’s why I’m here, because you’re a much more contained group and there’s less chance of being spies in disguise.” Tony taps a few things and lets the screens come up into the air. “I know that you have extensive backgrounds in criminal as well as constitutional law. I need that, but I also need someone who is willing and able to put in the extra work in the upcoming days with international groups as well.”

“What are you putting together?”

“I’m looking to…propose some legislations and protections regarding a few things and I just would like a little help. My plates filling up these days and I don’t want anything falling over the sides.” Tony glances at them. “Is this something you’d be interested in? Because I’ve already done the diligence on you and I know you know I’m good for it. If you wanted, we could lay it all out right now and get the starting numbers ran.”

“We’ll need to discuss it.” Murdock says and Nelson smiles at Tony.

“Could you perhaps wait in the main area for a few minutes?”

“Of course.” Tony says, standing and leaving the tablet. “FRIDAY, grant access to the surface files for them to look over.”

‘Will do Boss’ FRIDAY says from the machine and Tony always gets a kick at how people will stare at the tablet or wherever an AI’s voice comes from in awe and wonder. Tony excuses himself and paces around the main area before heading over to a window and pulling out his phone. He hits a few numbers before the call goes out.

“Hey, how’s it looking? Am I still good?” He asks when Happy picks up.

“Yeah, luckily most of the chatter puts you back at the Tower already for the day. Romanov is out of sight though, I don’t know where she is but I have eyes on everyone else.”

“So she might be crawling up any minute now?”

“It’s possible so watch your back.”

“I’m in with Nelson and Murdock now, seeing if they’ll be willing to help me with the Enhanced protections and the start of Strange’s ‘Accords’.”

“Are you sure they’re a good choice?”

“I’m sure.” Tony answers him. “If they want to sign on, that’d be great. If they don’t it’s back to the drawing board. I would just ask Hogarth, but she’s about to have her hands full with the SHIELD lawsuits and I don’t want SHIELD poking their noses in and realizing that I’m trying to protect their favorite test subjects from them. We need to get laws on the books for Enhanced before shit hits the fan again. I don’t even want to think about what could happen if we don’t.”

“A lot of dead people.”

“Or worse. This is SHIELD we’re talking about, trust me there’s worse.” Tony runs a hand through his hair. “Okay, see if you or JO can get eyes on Natasha, if not I’ll just take my chances.”

“We could send a suit to the roof, come pick you up.”

“No, that’s too noticeable and it would draw too much attention to Nelson and Murdock. I’d rather keep them as far out of this as physically possible until it’s no longer something we can do. And I sure as hell don’t want to cause them problems if they decide that they’re going to pass on this.”

“It’d be crazy to pass.”

“At the same time, it’d be crazy not to.” Tony points out. “I’m giving them the opportunity to get in-between a rock and a hard place with me for a lot of money. Sometimes, money isn’t enough for the headache that I can bring along with me, but here’s to hoping.”

“It’s a good cause.”

“Sometimes that’s not enough for people either. I’m hoping that’s not the case here.”

“I’ll see if I can find Romanov. Good luck.”

“You too.” Tony says as he ends the call. He only has to wait a few more minutes before the doors open and the three people step out.

“We’ve looked over your proposal.” Nelson says and Tony nods. “And we have decided that we would like to move forward with this if you’re still interested in that.” Tony smiles at him.

“I am.”

+++

“Well that’s just…annoying.” Tony mutters as he looks at the information on the screens in front of him. Dr. Strange has responded to his email, repeating what Dr. Palmer expressed with his concern that he wasn’t practicing anymore and that he was not able to dedicate the time or the focus necessary for the B.A.R.F. project. Getting turned down was something that Tony expected. The younger Strange is currently attempting to unlock the mysteries of the ‘mystic arts’ and probably doesn’t have a lot of time for any projects that don’t help him put a scalpel back in his hands. So, getting turned down isn’t what’s frustrating Tony right now, no that honor is being held by the fact that the email seems to have no strings that Tony can try to track back to where it originated. It’s like it just ‘poofed’ and manifested from the ether fully typed up and mocking him.

Sure, Tony knew that Strange had told him that he wasn’t going to be able to track where his younger self was but Tony was determined. Regardless of that determination though, there seems to be a few roadblocks in the way – like ghost emails.

But that wasn’t going to stop Tony. Make no mistake. This mystical Kamar-Taj had to exist somewhere on the planet and Tony was going to find it come hell or high water.

“You’re not going to find it.” Strange says in the background like he’s reading Tony’s mind as he floats in the air and meditates. Tony turns slightly to him and sticks his tongue out at him in a slightly playful, slightly challenging manner even though he knows that Strange can’t see him with his eyes closed.

“Watch me.” Tony says back to him as he types in a few code variables and programs to attach to the email and he sends of a reply to the response sent to him by this timeline’s Dr. Strange. Strange cracks open an eye and glances at Tony with an amused tilt to his lips like he knows what Tony’s just done and he’s just amused by his constant floundering. “Do you think we should meet?” Tony asks and Strange sighs to himself as he unfolds his legs and just stands up like he was sitting on a chair or something and not thin air.

“No, I don’t think that wise.”

“Why not? I mean, shouldn’t we start building up a repertoire before…you know, before?”

“It’s complicated.” Strange replies as he comes over. “Plus he’s still learning, as are you. It’d be best not to distract either of you.”

“You think I’m distracting?”

“I know you are.” Strange retorts easily and Tony lets out a small laugh as he rolls his eyes.

“Whatever. Fine, keep your mystical Kamar-Taj safe from me while you can. I’m going to find it.”

“Of course you are.” Strange replies and it sounds like he’s actually agreeing with Tony and Tony looks at him distrustfully.

“You say that like you believe it.”

“Of course I do.” Strange says with absolute sincerity and conviction…and Tony doesn’t buy it. Not even for a second.

“…Why don’t I believe you when you say that?”

“Because you shouldn’t.”  Strange relents with a small chuckle of his own. “You’re brilliant Tony, but you’re working against a system that you don’t understand yet.”

“And when I do?” Tony asks. “When I do learn and ‘understand’ it, then what?”

“Then I pity anyone who thinks they can stand in your way.” Strange answers him and that answer sounds more honest than the fake sincerity he was using before to poke at him. “Are you finished?” Strange asks, glancing at the screens and Tony sighs. He waves his hand and lets them go dark.

“Yeah, I’m not going to get any more data until he replies to me anyways.” Tony gives Strange a look. “And you are not allowed to tell him he’s not able to.”

“I’m not allowed to interact with him at all.” Strange reminds him. “So you don’t have to worry about me sabotaging your devious intentions on Kamar-Taj.”

“You’re not allowed to tell the Ancient One either.”

“If you honestly think that there was ever an email or communication that I sent that she didn’t know about and approve, you’re being foolish.”

“…So she already knows?”

“Undoubtedly.”

“Damn.” Tony mutters before he rolls his shoulders and goes over to the mats that they’ve placed in his ‘official magic and meditation area’. Tony’s even put up a few sand gardens and bodhi trees just to make Strange laugh and it worked back when he first revealed it to the magic user.

Now though, Strange seems to get the last laugh because he actually seems to enjoy the little corner.

“I wanted to try something today.” Strange says as they both sit down on the floor.

“Shoot.”

“It’s a little…invasive.” He hedges and Tony gives him an unsure look.

“How invasive?”

“I want to try and push into your mind.”

“Why?”

“Your shields are coming along and I think you’re ready to learn slightly more advanced techniques. I thought we might start small.”

“I thought you wanted to ‘close all the doors’ first?” Tony reminds him and he smiles.

“You’ve already closed the doors. The question now is, can you keep them closed when someone comes knocking.” Strange tells him and Tony takes a moment, a feeling of unease winding through him. “We don’t have to do this yet.” Strange says kindly and it doesn’t sound like he’s pushing or disappointed. “There are other avenues by which we can press on.”

“But I have to learn this eventually.”

“You already know it.” Strange says. “The question now is just putting it in action.”

“…but you think I’m ready?”

“I think you’ve shown remarkable progress, yes.” Strange tells him. “This will be hard though, even with that.”

“Maximoff will be harder.” Tony says after a pause and Strange doesn’t agree or nod or anything, but he doesn’t have to. They both know what Tony is saying is the truth. “…okay…let’s try it.”

“Are you sure?” Strange asks, looking Tony in the eyes as if he’s searching for more of an answer than Tony will probably give him.

“It’s necessary.” Tony replies and Strange must see something in the stubbornness written on Tony’s face because he nods.

“Very well, let’s start small and see how far your shielding has come. It’ll give us a better understanding of how to adjust the lesson plans.”

“When am I going to start making gold circles in the air?” Tony asks as he adjusts himself into position and closes his eyes, taking a deep breath like he’s been practicing.

“Only you have the answer to that question.”

“That’s a bullshit non-answer. You know that right?” Tony snorts and he hears Strange’s amused huff.

“And yet, it’s still the answer.”

“How long did it take you?”

“You’re not me.”

“Longer? Shorter?”

“You’re not me.” Strange repeats. “Now hush.” He play scolds. “You’re supposed to be meditating.”

Strange isn’t wrong, but Tony can’t fully reach the level of ‘meditation’ that he’s supposed to hit. There’s a tenseness in him but also a refusal to back down and turn this car around.

“I’m ready.” Tony says long before he actually is, and he figures that it’s fine. Maximoff won’t wait for him to be ready. She won’t wait for him to be perfectly relaxed before she sinks her claws into him.

“We don’t have to-”

“Strange.” Tony cuts him off. “I’m ready.”

“Yes you are…now let yourself believe that.” Strange’s voice sounds far away and Tony tries to remember each lesson that he’s been repeating and rehearsing and redoing since Strange first agreed to this ‘training’ thing.

The problem is that he can’t though…he can’t remember what he’s supposed to do. Strange said that it’s all about the will and the intent. If he ‘believes’ that its true than more than half of the battle is already won…but Wanda has the power of an Infinity Stone behind her. She has a portion of the power that Thanos has.

Thanos.

The man or creature or whatever he is that’s looming over them all. The man who has won over 14 million times. What is a little belief going to do about that?

He thinks he might hear Strange whisper or mutter something about ‘focus’ but he’s not really sure if he heard it or is just making it up because he knows that’s what he’s supposed to be doing.

But now that the question is in his mind, he can’t get it out. What is a little belief going to do against the Mad Titan? Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme. He’s apparently some magical wiz kid who was destined to take on the role left empty by the death of the Ancient One. He’s fully trained, he’s the holder of an Infinity Stone himself…and he still loses to Thanos.

They all still lose.

He feels it. The moment there’s another touch deeper in his mind. He knows who it is, it’s just Strange…but panic sets in.

What hope is there? They’ve lost 14 million times.

What hope is there? Wanda will rip through him like tissue paper.

What is he even doing? Thinking that learning a little magic is going to change the tide of this unwinnable war?

He feels the weirdest tug and he knows that he crumbles in the face of it.

And then come the images.

The giant Chitauri creature in the lab with the Scepter. It coming alive, the dark reaches of space where Thanos waits to destroy them. The Avengers all laying at his feet. “Why didn’t you save us?” The dying words slipping from Captain America’s lips again. There’s the panic, the fear, the rage…

Then there’s an image of him fighting against a giant almost as big as the Hulk. There was never a chance. He watches as the sword or whatever that is, is broken off and he watches as the giant spins it around and runs him through. “I respect you Stark” Calm and gentle words accompanied by just as gentle of a touch on the head. Like a parent to a child.

This isn’t right, this isn’t a vision that Tony’s had. This…this isn’t Tony.

That’s the only though he gets before it hits. Flashes and sounds and emotions and memories that aren’t his slam into his mind and it’s too much. It’s too much to take in all at once before everything turns red and then he’s blinking up at Strange who is staring down at him with worried eyes.

“Tony? Tony answer me.” Strange is pleading and Tony tries to meet his eyes.

“I saw.” He manages to get past his lips and Strange gets a tight look. “I saw.” He mutters again before everything fades away.

Chapter Text

There’s a strange, heavy fuzziness that he has to push through to fully wake up and open his eyes, and it’s a struggle for a small amount of time to do so. The first thing he sees when he finally manages is DUM-E.

The curious and concerned bot is hovering over him on the bed, looking down and swiveling it’s head back and forth as it checks up on him. It makes a small, unsure sort of beeping noise when it’s sensors register Tony looking back up at it and Tony replies with a small smile as he reaches up to pat the side of DUM-E’s claw. The motion is clearly the right on because DUM-E immediately makes a happy sort of beeping chirp sound before glancing up and backing away from its previous spot as Strange comes into view.

The magic user looks tired, Tony’s never seen him look tired before as he takes a seat on the edge of the bed.

“Are you okay?” Tony asks, and it slips out wrong. He meant to ask if everything was okay, but the words come out specific to the magic user himself. Strange gives him a small smile, the exhaustion that is written on his face etching deeper into it even as the other man tries to push it off and put on a good show.

He should know better. Tony knows a thing or two about lying with a smile.

“I’m fine.” Strange says in response to Tony’s question and Tony doesn’t fully believe him. “How about you? How are you feeling?”

“Fuzzy.” Tony admits easily. “Kind of heavy…am I on drugs?”

“No.” Strange replies easily. “Not of the normal sort at least, and the things your describing are normal for the spell cooldown.”

“You cast a spell on me?”

“The Ancient One and I did, yes.” Strange says. “I’m sorry, I would have waited to ask for your permission, but there was no time. Not if we wanted to save your mind.”

“What happened?” Tony asks, trying to pull up the memories. He remembers dealing with SI business and playing around with the email that the other Dr. Strange had sent him. They’d decided to practice didn’t they?

“It’s a little…invasive.” “I want to try and push into your mind”

Strange’s words from before are hard to recall but they offer a small path by which to start questioning.

“What do you remember?” Strange deflects Tony’s question and Tony goes to sit up but Strange puts a hand on his chest and shakes his head when Tony glances up at him. “You’re not ready yet.” He says to him and Tony settles back down onto the pillows.

“I remember that we were going to practice you trying to get into my mind.” Tony replies and Strange gets a complicated look for a brief second.

“Anything else?” He asks and Tony frowns as he tries to remember something.

An image, of a giant with purple skin and a golden glove on his hand. “I respect you Stark.”

“Thanos.” Tony whispers the name, almost in a silly sort of bid to make sure that no one hears him say it. “I saw Thanos.” He glances up at Strange who looks even more concerned. “Or at least…I think I saw Thanos. How is that possible?”

“Do you remember anything else?” He presses gently, ignoring the question posed and Tony tries, he really does but he can’t.

“No…no, I don’t think so. What happened?”

“Something I did not expect, and for that I ask your forgiveness.” Strange replies. “I should have taken measures to ensure that something like that wouldn’t occur and it was a failure on my part as your teacher that it did.”

“That doesn’t tell me what happened Strange.” Tony points out and Strange nods with a soft sigh.

“No, I guess it doesn’t.” He says. “I guess I should start out by saying that I pity Maximoff the next time the two of you go at it.” He gives Tony a tiny smile. “She’ll certainly feel it at the very least.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re correct. We started an exercise to see where you were at when it came to mental invasions. However, things didn’t go according to plan.” Strange starts his explanation. “I see now that I should have waited, magically you were ready, mentally you were not.”

“What does that mean?”

“I means that you experienced what we call a loop. They’re a defensive brand of magic.” Strange says. “A mental loop in this case where you started reaching into your own memories and creating a kind of chaotic whirlpool within your own mind.”

“I fucked up then?”

“No.” Strange replies. “Actually, what you did by accident is truly an upper level sort of defense against a more powerful entity coming into your brain and I was completely unprepared for the counter assault as I should not have been.”

“Counter assault?”

“A loop is a…difficult thing to evade. I described it like a whirlpool for a reason, it creates a kind of vortex that pulls everything in.” Strange sighs. “I too was pulled under, if only for a few moments…and we might have been alright if the defense response was all that happened.”

“What else happened?”

“I think the easiest way to describe it would be akin to a door. Once opened, it can be walked through from either side. When a magic user or a telepath opens up their mind to another’s it’s like opening a door. Normally though, only one side knows that the door is open and knows how to step through it…this was not the case here.” Strange says. “You were able to reach into my mind, and without the proper training you were unable to contain or control what information you received. I don’t know what you were looking for, I sincerely doubt you did either, but you opened the floodgates with open arms.” Tony cringes a little at that.

“Oh…sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault. The fault rests on me. I was the more experienced of the two of us and I knew something like that could happen I just didn’t take precautions against it because I didn’t foresee it being necessary.” Strange says. “Hubris I guess on my part, and an impressive show of potential and power on yours.”

“What did I see?” Tony asks once he takes that in. It seems to be the most important question of them all. He knows one thing he saw. He saw Thanos…no, Strange saw Thanos and Tony’s just co-opted the memory.

“I would guess that you saw snapshots mostly. Millions of lives worth of them. All at once.” Strange answers him. “And as you can imagine, that’s too much for any mind to contain, even with the proper training and yours…didn’t.” Tony takes a second to think about it.

“But…your mind works around them right?” He points out and Strange shakes his head.

“No, not in that way. Even with the Time Stone, the memories and images I got of all those worlds happened one at a time. I was able to adjust to just living those lives and categorize the memories gained accordingly as they happened. You got them all thrown onto you in a big, jumbled pile all at once. No context, no time, no preparation for it.” Strange answers him. “If I had been someone with just one set of memories, one life, I honestly think you would have been completely fine, which is beyond impressive. In my case however, I’m not one life.”

“You’re fourteen million of them.”

“Exactly.”  

“Hence the spell?” Tony guesses and Strange nods.

“Hence the spell.”

“What did it do?”

“For the most part, it’s stored them away for you.” Strange replies. “The mind needs time to process new information and the Ancient One and I helped it facilitate it.”

“…why don’t I remember it then?” Tony asks. “All I remember is that image of Thanos.”  

“You do remember it.” Strange says. “You don’t know that you do, but you do. The connections are there, but it’s like an old memory for you now. Sometimes it’s hard to pull them up, sometimes they just fall into the dark spaces inside our own minds.” Strange gets that complicated look again. “However, I do feel that it’s necessary to warn you that at times there will undoubtedly be slips, it’s unavoidable.”

“Slips?”  

“Random recollections coming to the surface.” Strange replies. “Something that might be triggered and ‘remembered’ as it were.”

“That sounds…confusing.”

“It won’t be.” Strange assures him. “For the most part, the mind does have the ability to recognize what is and what isn’t its own design. That’s actually where most of the fear response to Maximoff’s powers come from, the mind being confused about what’s being rewritten and responding to it in a flight or fight sort of way. That’s why we needed to do the spell immediately, to sort the new ‘memories’ away for you to prevent…well to prevent a crash.”

“What kind of crash are we talking?” Tony asks and Strange looks away. “Brain damage?”

“Much closer to decimation than damage.” Strange replies softly. “My carelessness could have left you a brain-dead husk.”

“You strike me as a lot of things Strange.” Tony says carefully and the other man looks at him. “But careless isn’t one of them. Desperate, kind of a Zen know it all at times - yes, but not careless. Never careless.” Strange gives him a small smile that’s much more genuine and fond.

“Thank you, Tony.” He says after a moment. “I’ve given you no real reason to trust me and yet…”

“Hey, we’re a team.” Tony says to that and Strange’s smile twists slightly for a brief second that Tony almost doesn’t see.

“…yes we are.” Strange replies. “And a slip up like this will never happen again.”

“Hey, slip up’s happen. Never say never, I’ve learned a thing or two about that.”

“Then I’ll do my absolute best to make sure it doesn’t.”

“Good enough for me.” Tony says and he takes a moment to think about what Strange has just told him. “So I’m going to remember snippets of your life randomly now, for the rest of mine?”

“I doubt it’ll be that common.” Strange says. “The more skilled you get in your own mental abilities the less likely such an event happening by chance will occur.” Strange tilts his head. “But…for a while…there might be some memories that come to the surface, and I apologize for that. The correct sensory trigger could drag one up or I guess if you’re determined to go looking you might manage to unearth a few. I’ll admit that I’d rather you didn’t, but I also know that it just doesn’t work that way.”

“…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, it wasn’t your fault.” Strange says and it sits between them for a few moments.

“How long was I out?” Tony asks, figuring he should start steering the conversation away from whatever heavy place they went to.

“A little over three days.”

“Three days!” Tony almost goes to sit up, but Strange seems like he knew what Tony’s knee jerk reaction was going to be and he’s already there with a hand on Tony’s chest to keep him down. “Three days?”

“Miss Potts, Colonel Rhodes and Mr. Hogan have managed to contain the situation.” Strange responds. “Nothing happened during that time.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Strange assures him. “I can say that I received some interesting threats against my life and that of the Ancient One’s…mostly mine though, but other than that, we had clear skies.”

“Rhodey?”

“And Miss Potts and Mr. Hogan. In fact, FRIDAY herself threatened to team up with JOCASTA and well…it was very SkyNet. I was thoroughly concerned.” Tony can’t help the smile that spreads across his face as the rest of him settles at the news.

“But nothing from Team Cap?” Tony asks and Strange gives him an odd look for a brief moment before he shakes his head.

“No, nothing from Rogers’ or SHIELD’s camp.” He says. “I reckon that they think you’ve been in and out of Sokovia right now and they’ve got their own issues to deal with.”

“Sokovia?”

“Colonel Rhodes took possession of the Iron Man armor a few times and piloted it over to Sokovia to continue with the relief efforts so that no one would question where you were.”

“Oh, good plan.”

“They are quite efficient, that team of yours.” Strange offers up and Tony gives him a smile.

“Yes, yes you all are.” He replies and Strange seems unable to keep himself from gaining a matching smile on his own face. “So…how long am I supposed to be bedridden exactly?”

“Give it a few more minutes and then take it slowly. You’ll probably experience dizziness, lethargy and perhaps be prone to headaches or sensitivity to light and sound for a few hours, but it should pass relatively quickly. I doubt you’ll feel any of the side-effects tomorrow.”

“But I’ll be feeling them today?”

“Oh most definitely.”

“…fun.”

+++

It finally happens a few days later, and as with all things Tony figures that his luck was due to run out eventually and he guesses that he’s not really all that surprised. A little annoyed, as it were and as it was quickly becoming with all of this, but not surprised. He does have to say that the persistence of SHIELD and of the Avengers is quickly starting to match Justin Hammer and wasn’t that just an irritating sort of reality?

He’s doing one of his usual hospital visits, the children’s ward is a loud and excited place right now as he goes around giving gifts and signing colored pages. He’s in the process of coloring with a few of the younger ones when Happy comes over and leans down to whisper in his ear.

“JO says that a vehicle containing several Avengers has pulled up into the parking lot.” He says and Tony bites back the sigh to make sure that he doesn’t show any form of irritation in front of the children.

“Which ones?” Tony whispers back, offering his crayon to one of the kids and grabbing a different one. “Can she tell if Maximoff is with them?” He asks and Happy takes a moment, clearly getting a report from JO before he shakes his head.

“No, she says it looks like it’s just the usual lineup.”

“Rogers and Romanov?” Tony clarifies and Happy nods.

“That JO can tell, yeah.”

“Great.” Tony mutters. “Go, catch the nurse and see if you can get them hustled into a different section of the hospital. Maybe veterans or someone else who might appreciate a visit from the illustrious Captain America, but I’m not going anywhere.” Tony says and Happy nods, leaving the room seconds later and Tony turns his attention back to the room full of excited kids. He isn’t surprised either when Happy returns to the room a few minutes later with Rogers and Romanov following behind him. Happy looks anything but his name, but the nurses next to him look ecstatic. Captain America for the win it seems.

Steve gives Tony a small smile and a wave like he’s just late to the appointment and not just intruding as he comes over and Tony has to keep himself from trying to give Rogers a lobotomy with the crayon in his hands. It’s the first time that Tony’s seen him since the reveal of the Winter Soldier’s Stark hit and he has to say that the cold rage that rushes through him at the sight of that sheepish smile doesn’t surprise him.

The deep-seated irritation continues to run through him over the next half hour at the absolute gall of these two, only to be almost immediately chased away each time it happens by the realization that of course they have the gall. They’ve always gotten what they want by being bull headed and by stomping over Tony every step of the way. Plus, they think they’re safe. They don’t know that Tony knows about their dirty little secret. How nice it must be to exist in their world, where they can lie and harass and bully and steal and somehow still consider themselves good while everyone else is just out of luck or a monster.

Regardless of his emotions on it though, Tony makes sure that he doesn’t show even the slightest sign of anything being amiss. He plays along, keeping himself out of reach and at a different bedside for the most part from Romanov. Rogers seems determined to interact with him, even a false interaction, with each group that Tony settles in to talk to or play with.

The kids eat it up though, along with the light shows and the games that FRIDAY puts up in the air for them. Tony knows somewhere inside of himself that the pictures that the kids are asking from them, of him and Captain America together with them, will come back to bite him in the ass but he smiles in them anyways and allows them regardless.

“Tony, Tony wait.” Steve calls after him when they leave the children’s ward and Happy places himself between them in a completely unsubtle way as they head down the hallways.

“I’m a very busy man, Rogers.” Tony says, sliding on his sunglasses and not glancing at the other man even for a second.

“You’re not so busy that you can’t take three minutes to stop and talk to us Tony.” Natasha interjects and Tony just shares an exasperated look with Happy as the elevator doors open and Rogers and Romanov push themselves in with them as the doors close.

Tony just places his back up against a corner and Happy stands in front of him still cutting them off from truly interacting with him while they wait to hit the main level. There really isn’t any use arguing with them right now, they can try to push this but they’ll be at the lobby in a few moments and Tony and Happy will still leave regardless of how they feel about it. Perhaps he’ll get lucky again and not interact with them for just as long, maybe he’ll even start to make it a game. He closes his eyes for a brief second as the elevator starts to descend.

“Tony, please. Just a few minutes.” Steve tries and Tony shakes his head.

“No Rogers.” Tony answers him and there’s a brief moment of blessed silence before the entire elevator comes to a sudden, jarring stop and all of them stumble around. Tony checks on Happy before he looks over at Romanov and Rogers. Natasha gives him a smug grin like she’s done something impressive.

“Well, now we’ve got time.” Natasha says as she pulls her hand away from the electronic device stuck against the elevator controls.

 

Chapter Text

For a brief moment, there’s nothing but silence in the elevator following Natasha’s seemingly clever plan. Heavy, suffocating silence.

And as per usual, Rogers is the first one to break it. Tony idly wonders in the back of his mind if this time is because Rogers truly thinks that every problem is solved if he just waltzes himself into it, or if it’s just the simple answer that Rogers loves the sound of his own voice, especially when it’s talking over others or feigning some kind of authority or power.

“Nat? What was that?” Steve asks, sounding legitimately unsure and Natasha gives him a shrug as she pushes a lock of hair behind her ear.

“You wanted to talk, we can talk.” She answers him. “Mission accomplished.”

“I didn’t mean shut down an elevator with us all in it.” Steve says and she gives him a grin.

“What can I say, I’m adaptable.” She jokes and Tony just looks at Happy, ignoring the other two in the elevator for a brief moment as he makes sure that the other man is fine completely.

“I’m good.” Happy says with a nod and Tony double checks just to make sure.

“He’s fine Tony.” Natasha says with a huff. “I stopped the elevator, I didn’t drop it.”

“FRIDAY?” Tony asks, tapping his ear. Natasha crosses her arms over in the corner.

“It’s not going to work Tony, that device takes out all communication and electronic devices in the immediate area.”

“How big’s the radius?” Tony can’t help but ask and she does a small shrug.

“Not big.”

“Not big…you don’t know, it’s just ‘not big’?” He asks, glancing over at her. “You set off something that messes with electronic devices in a hospital elevator and you don’t know how big the actual effects are?”

‘Boss?’ FRIDAY asks in his ear and Tony taps on it twice like he’s trying to get a signal, but FRIDAY knows better. No reason to let them know that their little ‘awesome scrambler device’ doesn’t actually work on the AI connection. ‘The staff is already aware of the problem. Alarms have been triggered and an immediate emergency servicing call has gone out. At max, without our intervention you should be in there about twenty to forty minutes.’ By the look that Happy gives him, Tony can guess that JO’s just filled him in on the potential timeline as well.

“What do you think?” Tony asks and Happy does an unhappy and uncomfortable kind of shrug.

“I don’t know.” He admits.

“We could do nothing.” Tony points out even as it tastes like acid on his tongue. “Let things play out as they will.”

“Things will certainly be more sympathetic.” Happy agrees before FRIDAY sounds off in Tony’s ear again.

‘Boss, there’s a problem. Whatever device Romanov is using it has affected the main elevator systems. The other two elevators are malfunctioning. There is a patient transfer trapped.’  The horror at the realization that FRIDAY has just given him makes the bottom of his stomach drop out.

“Hopefully Pepper knows to send in help.” Tony says, looking at Happy. “Who knows how bad this could get.”

‘Miss Potts has been made aware and has authorized the appropriate response.’  

“Tony?” Steve asks and his voice is gentle. “I know that this went a little far.”

“A little?” Tony retorts before his mind can catch up with his mouth. “What the fuck do you know about ‘going too far’ Rogers?” Steve actually takes a step back at the sheer venom that Tony spits at him in that sentence, his eyes going wide in surprise. “And ‘a little too far’? You just shut down a hospital’s elevator, only one that you know of, to get what you want.”

“I didn’t know.” Steve protests.

“How convenient, but that won’t save you when the wolves come looking.” Tony retorts. “Now move, let me see this damn thing. Maybe I can fix this.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that.” Nat says, leaning back against the wall with her arms crossed like she’s just chilling instead of performing a potential terrorist attack. “If it has any tampering it…reacts.”

“Reacts?” Happy repeats as he looks at Tony. “So…you brought a device that will drop us if we try to get out before what? You give the code?”

“Let’s just say I wouldn’t recommend messing with it.” Nat replies with a small grin. It’s sort of a combination of the words, the actions and just the sheer audacity that rushes through Tony and leaves him feeling breathless. She’s threatened his life before, sure. Tony’s pretty used to it…but Happy is in the elevator with them. She’s put Happy’s life in danger as well as a hospital full of people now in a panic because patient access to separate floors is unavailable right now.

If someone dies it’s on her, but what good is that? Someone will have died, and they would have died because these morons never seemed to care about the big picture or the cost to those left in the wreckage they left behind.

‘Boss, I’m sending in the suit now. Shall I direct it to assist the patient trapped?’

“Of course.” Tony says, throwing heavy sarcasm into the word like he’s directing it at Nat but FRIDAY gets the message. “And let me guess, if we try to open those doors, we’ll drop too?”

“You never know.” Nat says with a shrug. “You could just talk to us though, do it the easy way and I’ll give the proper code into the system and we all walk away happy.”

“Go to fucking hell.” Tony throws back at her and Rogers straightens his shoulders.

“There’s no need for that kind of language.”

“And you go fuck yourself.” Tony retorts instantly, cutting him off at the knees before he looks back at Happy. “So…I heard you tried to teach DUM-E how to play BINGO.” He says after a brief pause and he returns himself to the opposite wall from them and slides down to the floor. Happy adjusts himself to be an awkward barrier for the other two again as he sits down too.

“He wanted to play.” Happy says like he’s defending himself. “Or…really he just wanted to stamp things and spin the wheel.”

“That sounds like DUM-E.”

“He’s a menace.”

“It’s all about knowing how to handle him. If he wants to be helpful you give him tasks that even if he messed up it wouldn’t matter.” Tony replies. “Like when he wants to mimic his sibling AI’s and help with being the secretary, you give him things to shred. Honest, he’ll be at it for hours just chirping away like it’s the greatest day of his life.”

“Is that why you always have all the shred come to you?”

“He’s very efficient when it comes to destroying it. I don’t even think I could put it back together once he’s done.”

“Tony, are you seriously going to pretend that we’re not even here?” Steve asks and it sounds like he can’t determine if he’s annoyed, frustrated or hurt by it.

Tony ignores him anyways.

“Rhodes says that the brass is trying to paint the War Machine again.” Happy presses on and Tony laughs.

“Yeah, they’re really stuck on this whole ‘Iron Patriot’ thing.” He shakes his head. “Never gonna stick. Not if I have something to say about it.”

“Because a War Machine is so much better than a patriot Tony?” Natasha tries to interject and neither Tony nor Happy respond to her attempted dig.

“Rhodes says that they tried to paint it and the paint wouldn’t stick?”

“Nope.” Tony says with a grin. “Like I said, not gonna happen.”

“Tony…I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” Steve says behind Happy as he kneels down and lowers himself to the floor within Tony’s view as if they’ve all turned this into a sleepover. “Wanda…Wanda told us what she did. What she made you see, what she saw too.” Steve looks up at him. “I’m sorry, we should have listened to you.” It takes everything in Tony not to reply to that even though he really wants to tell Steve where he can take his sorry and where he can shove it.

That’s not the sorry Tony needs, and Tony already knows that he’s not going to get that sorry because Rogers isn’t sorry. Not in the slightest.

“But I mean, you have to be able to see it from our point of view.” Steve continues and Tony almost rolls his eyes – Happy does, apparently he’s either not as prepared for Rogers or he really just doesn’t care about maintaining the image – as Steve presses on to excuse himself and remove any real fault from his actions. “I mean, we were all shaken by her powers. She got all of us and you just seemed to get the least of it. How were we supposed to know that you needed help if you didn’t tell us? You should have told us, before you messed with that Scepter, you should have come to me and told me what she made you see if it really bothered you that much.” So once again, the blame is fully on Tony. Tony should have still known better, Tony should have reached out to a team that never listened to him in the first place. Tony should have thrown himself at Steve’s feet for Steve in all his wisdom to tell him what to do.

“I should have come to you? Why would I do that? When have you ever shown that you would listen to me?” Tony finds himself asking, giving a bored look to Steve who has the audacity to act affronted.

“I always listened to you Tony, you just never came.”

“Then by proxy you’ve never listened because you were never given the opportunity if I never came. So which is it, did you listen and I came or did I not come to you so you never listened? You can’t have both, which is it?”

“I was listening.”

“You were?” Tony asks, nodding. “Okay, I guess the only question now is who were you listening to?”

“What?”

“How long have we known each other? A while yes? You’ve lived with me, all that jazz. So tell me, why didn’t you call me when SHIELD was going crazy and you found out they were Hydra?”

“You know why.” Steve fires back and Tony shakes his head.

“No, I’m asking. This is me asking, you wanted to talk didn’t you? I’m talking. Go.”

“We didn’t know who to trust.” Steve says and Tony smiles like Steve’s just told him it’s his birthday.

“You didn’t know that you could trust me. You didn’t think that you knew for sure if I was Hydra.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“But it’s what you meant. You didn’t know who to trust, anyone could be Hydra. Obviously even me, because you didn’t pick up a phone and call me. But how fortunate for you that you were able to trust Natasha.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Nothing, I’m saying it’s a good thing you had someone who you could trust at your side.”

“She’s my friend Tony.” Steve says and Tony nods with that same smile.

“That’s not what he meant Tony, you’re his friend too.” Natasha jumps in on that quickly.

“Oh? Is that why he went to the house of some random vet that he met one time running around in the park instead of calling his friend?”

“They could have been watching you.” Steve tries to argue, already sounding frustrated and Tony sighs.

“Perhaps.” He says, and he gives nothing else to that. “SHIELD is notorious for spinning their webs.”

“Hydra.” Steve corrects and Tony gives him a look.

“I said what I meant.”

“SHIELD isn’t Hydra Tony.” Steve argues. “You know that.”

“Do I? Okay, they’re not Hydra. Fine…how does that make them better?”

“You know SHIELD are the good guys.” Natasha says and Tony gives her a ‘who the fuck are you lying to?’ look.

“The ‘good guys’? Oh, okay. So, let’s do a headcount of SHIELD’s actions shall we? I’ll be kind. Let’s see: extorsion, torture, spying, blackmailing, kidnapping-”

“That was Hydra.” Steve cuts him off with a frown.

“No, that was SHIELD. If the guys at the top were infected that doesn’t all of a sudden give a blanket for every bad mission ever run. SHIELD was SHIELD long before they became SHIELD/Hydra. Notice how I don’t say just Hydra because they never were just Hydra. They were both. They were both and no one could tell the difference.”

“SHIELD does what it has to do to protect this world.” Natasha says.

“Funny, their actions look a lot like the actions of the people they claim to be protecting us from.” Tony fires back. “But back to trust.” Tony turns his attention back to Steve. “And back to those we can and cannot trust.”

“You can trust me Tony.” Steve says and Tony almost laughs.

“But you can’t trust me? Is that how it works? A one-way sort of road?”

“I trust you.” Steve retorts instantly and Tony nods.

“Do you now? You trusted me so you couldn’t call me when SHIELD was revealed to by Hydra because you weren’t sure who to trust.” Tony shakes his head. “You trusted me when confronted by an actual Hydra agent who had actively assaulted and tried to kill the Avengers when she said that I couldn’t be trusted so you had to come flying over right then and there because you trusted me. Instead of listening to me you listened to the word of someone who you knew was bad news and with whom you had no history with, but you trusted her words over me. Trust me Steve, I feel so trusted right now.”

“Wanda admitted she was wrong.”

“And what about you?” Tony asks. “Are you going to admit you’re wrong? Can the great Steve Rogers be wrong? Does that even calculate in your narrow little world view?”

“I said I was sorry.”

“That’s not saying you were wrong, that’s just pointless platitudes. Admit you were wrong Steve. Admit that you did wrong by me. That you did wrong to me.”

“With everything going down, with everything that had gone down it was understandable that I was confused.” Steve replies instead and Tony shakes his head.

“That’s still not saying the words.”

“I wasn’t wrong Tony, things were crazy and at the time we didn’t know that you hadn’t created Ultron.”

“And?” Tony asks. “What if I had?”

“What?”

“What if I had? How would that have changed anything? What if I had created Ultron? What if I had meant to make the Ultron program and Ultron – the one we came to know – sprang up out of it like a bad jack in the box but this time it was entirely my fault? What then?” Steve gives him a confused look.

“I don’t understand.”

“The question? Okay, I’ll simplify it. What if I had created Ultron but I hadn’t meant for him to turn out that way. How were you still not wrong to determine that everything I did and that I touched destroyed the world considering all of the evidence for the contrary?”

“That’s never been what I thought.” Steve’s quick to say.

“Once it was. It had to be, otherwise a whole bunch of interactions don’t add up. That would explain why you stood by while Thor choked me not ten feet in front of you. That would explain why you all teamed up to make me explain why I designed a ‘murder bot’ like I was on trial before the great Steve Rogers tribunal.”

“Thor was out of line.”

“And yet that’s useless to me now. Where was that realization while it was happening?”

“We were all shaken up Tony.” Natasha tries to say.

“So, it’s okay to beat up on me when you’re ‘shaken up’?” Tony asks with a curious tilt of his head.

“Thor shouldn’t have done it.” Steve repeats firmly and Tony looks him in the eyes.

“No, Thor shouldn’t have done it. And you shouldn’t have stood by.” Tony says and Steve’s jaw clenches. “You don’t get to absolve yourself of your hand in that situation if you had the power to stop it and you did nothing but stand by and watch.”

“You keep things from us Tony. How was I supposed to know that you hadn’t created Ultron?”

“Hadn’t created him or hadn’t created him to be a murder bot? These are two very different things.” Tony retorts.

“He attacked us and said you made him. What were we supposed to think?”

“You were supposed to listen. You know that thing you say you do?” Tony throws back at him and Steve looks like he might rip his hair out. “And on that subject, what secrets are okay to keep from each other Steve? Are we a team? A group think? What secrets should be out in the open that we’ve kept squirrelled away?” He looks Steve in the eyes and he’s a little impressed by the lack of response to that question. “You’re telling me that you’re such a noble, good guy that you’ve told me everything? That there’s no dark corners laying around?”

“We’re a team Tony, and I’ve trusted you enough to keep you in the loop.” Steve says and Tony feels the smile curl his lips in a mocking tribute to Steve’s last words.

“So you’ve told me everything? Everything that I need to know or that I should know? You’ve told me everything that could affect me in any way that I should know about? Everything?” Tony tries to let him out one final time and Steve doesn’t back down.

“Yes.” He says and the word damns him even if he doesn’t know it. Tony just nods, looking down at his hands which have clenched up again and he just nods to himself.

“I want you to remember this moment.” Tony says softly after a brief pause. “I want you to remember this exact moment when I gave you the chance to come clean. When I practically handed you an opening and you chose to remain silent.” Tony glances up at Steve who has the gall to look confused. “I want you to remember this moment.” He turns to look at Natasha. “You too.”

“What are you even talking about Tony?” Natasha asks and it almost makes him laugh how he can tell that she truly doesn’t know, but she knows something has shifted. She knows something has changed and that something is wrong.

FRIDAY whispers in his ear how the Iron Legion suits have managed to assist the elevators in question and how one is about to come up under theirs and help it to the next floor where rescue services are already opening the doors.

“December 1991.” Tony says softly as he looks at them both and he watches horror cross Steve’s face and Natasha doesn’t cover her own dismay even though he’s sure she’d like to think she did. “The hit on my parents, carried out by none other than the Winter Soldier.”

“Tony…” Steve says and the word seems torn from him.

“Yes Steve? Do you have something to say?” Tony asks him before he shakes his head. “You know, I almost wanted to keep the fact that I found out about that to myself but then I decided that I couldn’t look you in your hypocritical lying face while you pretended to be so righteous anymore.”

“It wasn’t like that Tony, Bucky he’s-”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” Tony retorts, putting a heavy inflection in those words and he watches as Steve loses several colors as the elevator jolts and rises up a few feet. “He’s finished hiding. There isn’t a place on this world that he can go that I won’t find him. I’m bringing him in.”

“Tony don’t.” Steve pleads. “He was innocent.” Steve stands with Tony as the doors get pulled open and Tony goes to step out but Steve puts a hand on his chest to push him back slightly and hold him there. “He was innocent.”

“Get your hands off of me Rogers.” Tony says and his voice turns quiet, a conversation only for them and not for the audience of rescue people standing outside. “I’ll find him. I promise you that. Besides, isn’t that what you asked me to do? To find Bucky Barnes? I thought you’d be happy.”

“You want to know why I didn’t tell you? This, this right here. How can I trust you when you threaten an innocent man?”

“Well, that seems like quite the pickle you’re in Rogers.” Tony retorts. “But as it stands, I have no more love left for you and Barnes killed my parents. Let’s see how all this plays out in the end, shall we?” Happy pushes himself into their space.

“Get your hands off Mr. Stark.” He says and Steve looks at him. “Now.”

“Steve, let him go.” Natasha’s quick to put herself in the problem and Tony knows that she knows what’s happening. There’s a group of people watching some kind of argument or fight happening and they have no context, only that Rogers is being aggressive towards Tony. Steve drops his hand even though he looks like he doesn’t want to and Tony smiles a sharp smile at him for a second before he pushes past him.

“Oh, and this.” Tony rips the device off the wall before Natasha can get it. “This will be handed over to the authorities with the full story of how you used it intentionally with complete understanding of what it would do.” Tony holds it up for all the people outside the elevator to see. “You saw me pull it off. Here you go.” He hands it off to the security personnel. “This was used by Romanov to intentionally fuck with your elevator systems. Keep a good hold on it.” Tony says as he walks off, flanked by Happy and down the halls.

Steve and Natasha don’t follow him.

Smart.

+++

“Was it wise to tell Steve about the Winter Soldier? I thought we were going to hold off on that?” Happy asks after they’ve been driving for a while and Tony nods.

“Yeah, it was time to reveal that. The original plan was to reveal it when we took them all to court anyways and Romanov has just given us the perfect opportunity to drop that bomb on them now right now, so Rogers had to be told.” Tony says. “FRIDAY, give Pep the green light. The operation is a go.”

‘Passing on the message now Boss.’

“He’s going to really freak out.” Happy points out and Tony sighs.

“Rogers really only has one setting and normally I’m the one who has to deal with the fallout of that bullheaded bullshit. This time though, Steve’s going to be hard pressed to listen to reason from anyone else and he’s going to drag SHIELD down with him. There’s no better time to reveal it. It was always going to be now.”

“Do you think he’ll come after you?”

“He’s already been coming after me, that was never going to change. But now, SHIELD has to be careful where they didn’t have to be before. They’re going to have to try and reign him in where they never did before either. Their whole platform right now hinges on America and the world’s continued favor with Captain America. It’s time to take that foundation away from them.”

“And Barnes?”

“Rogers will push for Fury to find him first, but it’ll be us.” Tony replies and Happy looks at him in the rearview mirror.

“And then Project B.A.R.F?”

“Heading there, yeah.” Tony agrees.

“So it’s time to release the hit information too?”

“It needs to be out. The world needs to know that I want him brought in to be tried fairly after we’ve determined his mental state. Rogers won’t listen to any of that though and he won’t care. He’ll convince himself I’m lying and that he has to take action, but it needs to be on the books for the rest of the world to see so that when the fallout happens, we can kill all the birds with one very big stone.”

“So it’s time then? To take them all down?” Happy asks and Tony nods, looking out of the window.

“It’s time.”

Chapter Text

It starts out like a trickle with the news story about one of SHIELD’s top agents messing around with the electronic devices in a hospital with no care for repercussions or damages to outside parties. It starts with people remembering a certain SHIELD agent’s interview at the Hill with the politicians and the sheer audacity and gall of her smile and the meaning behind her words: We may have fucked the world over, but remember you need us so suck it up, smile and deal with it. It starts with the world turning on Natasha Romanov –

And then it becomes a flood.

Fury, Coulson and Hill try to keep up with the rising anger and discord of the general populace but with each attempt of their own PR system there’s another reporter or another story which breaks and just puts SHIELD back in the hot water for all the things that they’ve done in the dark all these years.

It was a little amusing at times to watch that sort of back and forth game between SHIELD and everyone else. For each thing SHIELD offered up, there would be ten or more things that proved it was a lie. At one point they tried to say that it was in the past, it was when Hydra had been in control but information quickly comes out of SHIELD’s most recent actions and actions attributed to those who are still in control and still in some position of power in SHIELD’s hierarchy status.

Tony sits by and watches as SHIELD is washed away and he does nothing to help them.

He’s a little surprised and impressed when Fury goes out of his way to try and force a meeting between him and Tony yet again, like Tony’s the one who has unleashed this biblical event upon them and like Tony’s the only one who can shut the flood gates once more. Tony figures he’s not wrong, but the sheer fact that he’s trying to still force himself into Tony’s space even after Natasha and Steve’s ill-advised kidnapping attempt tells Tony that he hasn’t learned a single thing.

And that’s when Tony finally enters the scene, but not in the way that SHIELD and Fury might have hoped. Instead that’s when Pepper releases the start of her wrath and when Christine unveils the interview that she had with Tony regarding SHIELD’s coverup of his parents and the truth about the Winter Soldier.

The war cry that the world gives is impressive when the news gets out.

It’s nice to finally be seen as someone who has been wronged and who needs to be avenged instead of the person that everyone loves to hate.

And he’ll admit that it’s nice to see the world giving Rogers the side eye and wondering where and when they got blinded by a performing monkey in heels. It’ll be interesting to see that fall from grace, and Tony almost wishes that he could be up close and personal to watch Rogers deal with the very real loss of the trust of the world. Everything he does now will be questioned, every choice he makes will be torn apart and looked for ulterior motives.

He’ll be Tony.

It’s strangely fitting.

Tony sits up in his tower, and a smile comes to his face as the golden energy finally curls around his fingers and he watches SHIELD be washed away.

+++

“Wait, so let me get this straight. You’re telling me that Wakanda is some super-advanced country hiding away from all of us for hundreds upon hundreds of years?” Tony asks, tilting his head and Strange nods.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Just why? If they’re some super-advanced country why haven’t they reached out and I don’t know, helped?” Tony asks and Strange shrugs.

“I guess they were hiding from the rest of the world least they come and attack them if they found out.”

“But they have superior everything, what fear do they really have of that?” Tony says.

“I guess once you start out one way, it’s easier to maintain it.”

“Or they just liked being secretly superior.” Tony mutters. “I’ll admit though, I’ve never really met King T’Chaka or any of his family. They don’t really come out of Wakanda. I’m not sure how you expect me to reach out and get in contact with them. They’re kind of fully in the ‘Against Stark’ camp.”

“Because of the Vibranium.” Strange replies with a nod and Tony figures that he’s not surprised anymore about the information that Strange has at the tips of his fingers anymore. He thinks he’ll actually be more surprised if Strange ever has to ask for an explanation or clarification from him then he will be with Strange constantly proving that he knows far too much of Tony’s history.

“Yeah, that stupid little frisbee has an advanced country pretty much out for my family’s blood.” Tony agrees. “Which is bullshit because we never even got to use it. Even now it’s being handled by a man who is only great because of steroids.”

“Has Rogers tried to reach out to you again?” Strange asks, shifting the conversation slightly and Tony nods with a groan.

“Of course. He never stopped.” Tony replies. “He’s causing Happy a lot more annoyance now and he’s causing SHIELD a fair amount of frustration, especially since he doesn’t seem to care about restraining orders.”

“He hasn’t been arrested yet?”

“Not yet, I haven’t fully taken him to pasture and the court case has just started. Plus, the judge only allowed for the usual ‘so much distance’ between us and not the ‘stay the fuck out of Stark buildings’ that we wanted. Apparently we’re dealing with a die hard Cap fan.”

“That’s annoying.”

“Not really, we have too much information and it’s too visible. If we cry foul, trust me, people will hear and do something about it. Besides, it’s kind of fun to watch the idolizing slowly fall from his eyes as each day passes and each new piece of information is given.” Tony smiles. “I don’t think we’ll be dealing with a Cap fan at the end of this.”

“How’s the search for Barnes coming?”

“We’ve got him.” Tony replies and Strange looks at him surprised. “I would like to take full credit for that, but I can’t.”

“What do you mean?” Strange asks and Tony shrugs.

“So when the news went out and the world started circulating it, it found him wherever he was squirreled away. He decided to head over to the nearest embassy and turn himself in.”

“He’s in custody?”

“He’s being transferred right now.” Tony agrees. “I put some of my best on it.” He thinks about the SHIELD agents who he pulled out of the fire who have been practically frothing at the mouths to watch SHIELD burn for once. “They’ve been warned about the triggers that you told me about.”

“How did you explain that?”

“I had FRIDAY scour the SHIELD data files and I found something in there that basically spelled it out, just without the actual trigger words.” Tony pauses and rubs a hand over his chest in that habit that he never unlearned even after he got the ARC removed. “I didn’t…I didn’t think it wise to go myself. I wasn’t sure how I would respond to seeing him in the flesh.” He gets a sad smile. “I might have punched the bastard and then I would have felt bad about it and I’m tired of feeling bad, so I sent the ground team with a few of the Iron Legion and JO just to be safe.”

“And what of B.A.R.F.?” Strange asks softly and Tony shrugs.

“It’s gotten the green light from my little doctor think tank group. It’s in production now and we’ll start figuring trials soon. Barnes isn’t ready for it anyways, he has to go through the courts and be determined about his mental state long before he can start signing himself up for experimental treatments from the guy whose parents he murdered. You know a lot of people are going to be side-eyeing that offer when it gets out.”

“And Rogers will have a field day.”

“I’m hoping he’s in jail when it happens.” Tony admits. “I mean, I don’t actually foresee that happening, but it’s a nice little pipedream.”

“If they do send him to prison it’ll only be for a few years.” Strange points out and Tony nods.

“I know, but it isn’t really about the amount of time he’s sentenced, it’s more about the absolute fall from grace that a prison sentence would symbolize.” Tony shakes his head. “But SHIELD’s really working overtime and they’re going to have to get him cleared in the best way possible before they start their ‘rebranding Captain America for the modern age’ sort of bullshit and then hang themselves on any leftover goodwill that people will undoubtedly still have for the bastard.”

“What about Maximoff?” Strange asks and Tony frowns.

“That’s…complicated.” He admits slowly. “They’re trying to minimize the damage with that as well, and covering it with her past ‘trauma’s’. People aren’t fully buying it though but SHIELD wants her. They want her power and they’ve already proven they’ll go to bat for her as hard as they’ll go for Steve.” He sighs. “I doubt either of them will go where they deserve to go.”

“Which still puts them in your path someday.”

“As you once said, when it comes to Wanda and I that’s pretty much a given.” Tony points out and Strange nods. “And as for Steve and I…I think it was always going to happen this way. The minute that you helped me leave the ‘Rogers approved SHIELD path’ it was always going to go this way.” Tony looks down at the gold symbol in his hand. “…this isn’t going to hurt us right? I mean, I know you said that we weren’t ready the first time, or really any of the times that Thanos showed up, but you also said that it happened because we were distracted by the Accords and from infighting. Isn’t that basically what we’re doing now? Getting the government involved and infighting?”

“It’s different, yet the same.” Strange says. “And the Avengers path was always going to go down this road. They have too much power and no real oversight. It was always going to happen.”

“I guess when you put it that way, it makes sense.” He sighs and lets the magic fade away. “Question?”

“Yes?”

“Is there absolutely any way I can get you to come with me to Sokovia tomorrow?” He asks and he gives his biggest doe eyes to Strange who just smiles before he slowly shakes his head no.

“You know I can’t.”

“I know, but what if we disguised you?” Tony gets a grin. “I can give you some glasses. You could pull a Clark Kent.”

“That doesn’t work in real life.”

“I doubt I care.” Tony fires back with a laugh. “If you want we could add a mustache. Maybe a fake nose?” Tony chuckles to himself at the image of the Sorcerer Supreme walking around with his gravity defying red cape with a mustache and glasses. “Someday we’re doing that.”

“Bold of you to assume I haven’t before.” Strange fires back with a playful smirk and Tony stops laughing instantly and just stares at him.

“No…no seriously? Mustache and all? Because if there was no mustache then there’s no case.”

“It was big, it was thick, it itched and Pepper asked why it looked like I had a brown caterpillar on my lip.” Strange gets a smile like he’s remembering something fond and Tony just laughs gleefully.

“I kind of want to shake other me’s hand because that would have been brilliant. Why were you in disguise?”

“We were breaking into Wakanda. Obviously we needed disguises.” Strange replies and it takes a second for that information to settle in Tony’s mind before he’s falling over off his pillow and holding his sides as he’s laughing.

“We were breaking into Wakanda. With fake mustaches?”

“Yup.” Strange gets a rather impressive confused look. “For some reason it didn’t work. We were clearly betrayed, they seemed to be in on it from the get-go.” Tony can’t help the tears that well up in his eyes as he continues laughing at Strange’s retelling of their ‘Wakanda break-in’. “It was obviously an inside job. Someone close to us must have sold us out.” Strange says with all seriousness and Tony waves at him as he tries to contain his laughter.

“Stop, stop, I can’t breathe…” Tony gets out in-between bouts of laughter and Strange just smiles at him. “Oh my god that’s hilarious. Why were we breaking into Wakanda?”

“You wanted to speak with Princess Shuri and King T’Challa wasn’t allowing it.” Strange answers him. “So you and I made a spectacle of ourselves for her to come down and greet us if she so pleased.”

“What happened?”

“You made an alliance with Shuri as you tend to do, and T’Challa was firmly your enemy for the entirety of that lifetime.”

“What? Why?”

“As he would say he didn’t ‘appreciate’ you going around him and asking a full-grown woman what she wanted to do. Or something like that. Plus in that lifetime Wakanda figured that they’d survive anything that Thanos threw at the world so they closed their borders and told the rest of the world ‘good luck’. He was probably angrier that you got Shuri to leave the ‘safety’ of Wakanda.”

“So this is something that they just keep doing?” Tony says and Strange shrugs.

“It’s a common enough response.”

“And can they? Stand against Thanos?”

“They fall in minutes.” Strange replies with a far away sort of look. “Their shields don’t hold for even five minutes and they’re overcome. For how advanced they are and for claiming that they’re a warrior nation they’re not truly prepared for a fight on their home soil. They fall instantly.” Tony pushes himself back up fully to sit back on his meditation pillow across from Strange with a frown.

“But you’ve admitted that Wakanda is the most advanced of all of us…and they don’t even last a few minutes?”

“Advanced in certain ways – yes. But hundreds of years of compliance to the old ways and secrecy makes them unable to handle a threat that doesn’t abide by normal rules.” Strange says. “Wakanda has potential, but unfortunately they suffer that very common thing that mankind tends to suffer when they find themselves ahead in the game.”

“They think they’re untouchable.”

“And it’s their downfall.” Strange nods. “Wakanda falls in a lot of scenarios. In the first life, the absolute first it was undone because Rogers brought Vision there to be separated from the Mind Stone. Thanos’s forces descended and decimated their army.”

“Wait, separate Vision from the stone? Is that possible?”

“We thought it might have been a few times.” Strange says. “The answer is both yes and no. He can be separated from it but it acts as a kind of glue to his systems. He got weaker and weaker before eventually unraveling. Even with all of Wakanda’s knowledge, it’s not fully possible. Not for Vision to continue living a long life afterwards.”

“So no. It’s not possible.” Tony says firmly and Strange nods easily. “So T’Challa and I, we don’t get along?”

“Not really. He finds you arrogant and the example of everything wrong about the white man’s world.” Strange says like he’s repeating a line he’s heard. “He’s not really interested in changing his premade opinions of you which is surprising with how quickly he relents and falls in line with Rogers.”

“Of fucking course he does.” Tony snorts. “Seriously?”

“He’s normally a big ally for Rogers, hiding him from the law. Helping break his team out from a foreign nations prison system without a second thought. Giving Rogers free access to Wakanda and Wakandan technology. He even goes so far as to make him new shield’s after Rogers loses his and gives him full authority over the Wakandan army.”

“…that doesn’t even make sense.”

“And yet, it’s happened.”

“It shouldn’t.”

“No, it shouldn’t, and yet.” Strange replies.

“So don’t expect help from T’Challa?” Tony surmises and Strange tilts his head a little.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘don’t’. I would say treat him with caution.” Strange says. “As with all things, the changes we’ve made might adjust relationships and events in ways that I cannot foresee or foretell. I wouldn’t tell you to write the Black Panther off entirely. I would advise that you be…cautious.”

“I’m always cautious.” Tony says and Strange gives him a look.

“You’re really not.” He responds and Tony sticks his tongue out at him slightly. “Truly, I’m not saying he’s not an ally.”

“He’s just of the ‘Avengers’ sort of level when it comes down to it.” Tony finishes and Strange nods. “That’s fine. I can work with that. What if I tried to reach out to T’Chaka?”

“What reason would you file it under?”

“I don’t know? I’ll figure something out?” Tony pauses and bites his lip. “You’re right, I’ll wait on that until Murdock, Nelson and I are ready to reveal the Accords.”

“I don’t know much about T’Chaka but from my own recollections of him he seemed like a reasonable character. That doesn’t promise anything though, we never met in person or interacted in any way.” Strange warns him. “Just…tread carefully when it comes to Wakanda.”

“You make it sound like Wakanda is a bigger threat than you’re letting on.” Tony says with a smile and it falls instantly with how Strange’s eyes glance away from him. “…are they?”

“Not usually.” Strange replies. “They’re usually more of a hinderance, but they’ve had their moments…just…just be careful.”

“I’ll do my best.” Tony promises. “And long before I have to deal with Wakanda I’m going to have to deal with SHIELD and the Avengers undoubtedly being at Sokovia when I go there tomorrow. How about I survive that first and then I’ll worry about Wakanda.”

“I’m sorry I can’t be there with you.”

“No, I get it.” Tony says with a wave of his hand. “And if Maximoff tries anything I’m at least a little bit ready for her.”

“She’s new to her powers and she hasn’t had as much practice as she’ll get in the future.” Strange agrees. “At this point I’d say you stand a good chance as long as you remember your training.”

“Here’s to hoping.” Tony says as he sighs and closes his eyes.

“I’ll still come. Regardless of anything. If you call, I’ll come.” Strange reminds him and Tony feels himself smile softly.

“I know.” He assures as they return to their session.

+++

Tony rubs the back of his hand over his sweaty brow. The excavations and building supports are coming along much quicker than initial projections put them and he couldn’t be happier even if he also couldn’t be more tired.

It’s not really physical exhaustion that’s eating at him. He’s got the suit to get in and out of at will when he needs it – it’s the bodies that they keep pulling from the wreckage.

It’s the looks on the faces of the volunteers as they see the person that they’ve been looking for and he has to watch them practically claw them out of their cement and debris littered tombs to hold them and wail to a deity who isn’t listening. Each time it happens, something inside Tony curls up and joins them.

Who knows what that life might have gone on and done. Who knows how they might have helped the world or even just helped one other person. A person who won’t get that help now.

It’s moments like this that really solidify the damage that Ultron’s true legacy is.

It’s death. All around them. Surrounding them and suffocating them. Who needs Thanos when things like Ultron happen all on their own.

“Tony?” Steve’s soft voice calls out to him and Tony turns away sharply to wipe at his eyes at the most recent sight of a volunteer unearthing a loved one and he turns back to see the Avengers standing there.

“Rogers.” Tony says with a sigh. “What a completely unexpected and unforeseen turn of events.”

Chapter Text

 

There’s a heavy silence that meets his less than stellar greeting, and Tony’s not surprised by it in the slightest. He figures that he’d be more surprised if they were any less surprised by the obvious boredom and hostility that Tony is clearly putting out for them.

He’s spared from any immediate responses or interactions when one of the group leads from Stark Relief comes over to explain the new quadrant that they’re moving to and where they need the next shift of the Iron Legion and Tony with the suit to go. Tony nods and looks at the map that the man holds up and he’s able to subtly take in the small group that’s waiting for him to finish up.

Rogers looks like he’s barely keeping in a kind of nervous energy, his hand tapping against his side like he just wants to get this over with and jump to whatever it is he wants to talk about already. Tony doesn’t doubt that what he wants to talk about starts with ‘Bucky’ and ends with ‘Barnes’. Tony will admit that he looks like he’s conflicted in some way, like he was expecting one thing and is receiving another but that’s still not enough for him to not be putting out the atmosphere that he’s not really interested in anything but what he’s come to say.

So, par for the course. It’s funny how easy it is to see them all plainly now that he’s had his eyes opened.

Natasha’s changed up her hair, it’s not red anymore it’s a pale blonde that looks absolutely ridiculous on her. He almost wants to ask where her eyebrows went, but he figures he doesn’t really care. It does add a level of strangeness to her face that he guesses will throw off someone who doesn’t really know what they’re looking for when it comes to the Black Widow. It’s her only skillset after all, the minute she’s no longer invisible there isn’t much she can offer long term past a few gimmicky tricks. Her face is an attempted mask of neutrality, but annoyance is clearly seeping through the cracks.

Barton isn’t even pretending that he’s here as a friend to Tony. Not that Tony ever really thought the man was, but strangely enough he seems to have fallen between Tony and Wanda, acting as if he’s a shield against Tony should the billionaire attempt anything against the mass murdering Sokovian woman.

Tony wonders a little how Laura is feeling about Clint’s sudden need to play ‘Knight in Shining Armor’ to a young twenty something with big brown eyes and a pretty pout. Clint was supposed to be retiring after all, to play homesteader with Laura and the new baby coming in, instead he was standing beside Wanda and acting like there was no place on earth he’d rather be.

Tony was going to have to ask Strange if Wanda ever manipulated the other Avengers into being her personal little butt monkeys. Right now there seemed like a good case could be drawn up about it.

Sam looks at him like he always did, which basically means he’s not looking at Tony at all. He’s looking at Steve and reaching out to make sure that the blond is okay and is ready for whatever chaos they think Tony’s going to unleash on them.

Wanda is just standing there with a little rain cloud over her head and a small amount of red in her eyes that Tony knows she’s just waiting to unleash hell upon him for imagined slights against her and her family. As funny as it is, he’d been worried about how he’d feel when he saw her again. He wondered how he’d feel to see whispers of her powers and remember what it felt like to have that worming its way through his brain with a single-minded focus to destroy him. Now that she’s here though, he can’t help but think about all the new tricks up his own sleeves and he’s not afraid.

Concerned, yes – but that’s rational. Afraid though? No, he’s not and he can tell that she knows it too and it’s eating her up inside. She’s just itching for a chance to make him afraid again.

“Did you want me to do something about them?” Roland asks, drawing his attention back to him. “I could call security.”

“Thank you, but that’s unnecessary. I don’t want to put anyone else in any undue danger. We’ve all got enough trouble with the terrain as it is without adding to it.” Tony says. “Besides, I have the suit, it’s recording-” Tony glances up at the Avengers. “You’re being recorded, you’ve been made aware now.” Before he looks back at the SI volunteer. “And I’ve got FRIDAY with the Iron Legion ready to go if we need it. So no, I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes. Let’s get started on this quadrant though.”

“Yes sir.” Roland says before he rolls up the map and manages to send the most disgusted glare at Rogers and his team before walking off. Tony can’t fight the small smile and he doesn’t even try to as he shakes his head and turns to them.

“So, you caught me. After weeks upon weeks of clearly avoiding you, refusing contact and going out of my way to be unavailable and after you staged whatever the hell that bullshit was at the hospital where I could not have been clearer that you are persona non grata as far as I’m concerned – you’ve tracked me down. Bravo.” Tony says “Although I guess that at least you had the foresight to not do it on American soil since that’d be sticky but any jurisdiction I get over there doesn’t apply here, although I will admit I’m surprised that they let her back into the country.” He looks at Wanda. “Unless of course you snuck in, then I wouldn’t be surprised at all.” Steve takes a step forward. “That’s close enough Rogers.” Tony tells him, holding up his hand to halt his forward progress. Steve gets a conflicted look like he’s not sure why Tony would act like Steve’s a threat to him in any way.

It’s annoying, embarrassing and shows a concerning disconnect from reality.

“Tony, we need to talk about Bucky.” Steve says, clearly ignoring everything else and bulldozing his way straight to what he wants. It’s tactless, but then again Steve never was very good at showing tact. That was Tony’s job.

“And you flew yourselves over to Sokovia to do that why? You could have asked Fury. I’m sure he has just about as much information about that as I do.”

“I know you’re holding him captive Tony.” Steve presses on like he hasn’t just heard a word Tony’s just said and Tony gives him a look.

“You’re absolutely right. I’m clearly holding him captive. In a jail cell, in a state I’m not in. Truly breathtaking intellect there.” Tony tilts his head. “That of course completely ignores that in order to hold him captive he has to want to leave which he doesn’t, and that implies that he’s an innocent victim or bystander which he isn’t. Or that I have power or authority over the judicial system, which I do not.”

“Hydra made him do all of that.” Steve presses and Tony shrugs.

“And? I’m aware of that, the world is aware of that. His council and the judges are aware of that. What’s your point?” Tony asks. “And if at all possible, can you get to the point quickly because I have somewhere to be.” He says with a brief glance at his watch.

“We both know that’s a sham.” Steve presses and Tony gives him a look.

“Are you – on record mind you because I told you that you were being recorded – are you saying that the American justice system is a sham?” Tony shrugs. “You wouldn’t be the first to say it, we try but sometimes things don’t always work out the way they should or the way we hope they would.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Steve says and Tony sighs.

“Well how about you go away and figure out what you’re actually trying to say and then don’t come back? That sounds good, I can get behind that.”

“You might want to be careful about what you get behind, or who might get behind you Stark.” Clint says and Tony gives him a look.

“You know what, I’m not actually sure if that was a poorly, and I mean poorly, worded threat about you all backstabbing me if you get the chance or if that was just you saying ‘c’est la vie’ and going full force into stupid shit you get caught on camera saying?” Tony gives him a smile. “But I do appreciate if it was a threat, the complete understanding that you’re all a bunch of backstabbers just waiting for a chance to go.”

“You betrayed us first Stark.” Clint ‘tells’ him. “And if you think that you’ve won, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Why are you here? To threaten me? To ask pointless questions about Barnes? Why are you here?” Tony finally asks.

“You’re going to release Bucky.” Steve ‘tells’ him and Tony sighs.

“No, I’m not. Even if I had the authority to do that, which let’s be clear I don’t, I wouldn’t. If he gets cleared in a court of law then he’s cleared. If he doesn’t, then he doesn’t. That’s not my area and not my concern.” Tony replies.

“Tony, I get it, I do.” Steve starts and his voice turns placating and understanding and Tony almost wants to grab a nearby brick and whack his head into it -or possibly just throw it at Steve’s face and hopes he chips a tooth or something.

“And what, pray tell, do you ‘get’ Steve?” Tony asks.

“You’re mad because I didn’t tell you about your parents.” Steve says and Tony arches an eyebrow. “You’re mad at me because I didn’t say anything and you’re lashing out at me in the only way you can and that’s through Bucky and that’s not right Tony.”

“Wow.” Tony says just staring at Steve. “You really do think the whole world revolves around you or that mine does. It’s terrifying.” Tony shakes his head. “But as I said before, I have no power or authority over Barnes. He’s in the systems hands now.”

“He’s where you put him.” Steve argues and Tony shakes his head.

“No, he’s where he put himself. I didn’t find him, he turned himself in.”

“And you had nothing to do with that.” Clint accuses and Tony gives him a ‘what the fuck?’ look.

“Seriously? No, I didn’t. Not really. I mean I guess if you mean that I had something to do with it when I revealed his connection to my parent’s murder, then sure. I had something to do with it. But Barnes is a big boy and he made the choice himself.”

“And his choice to not see Steve?” Sam enters the conversation. “You expect us to believe that’s not you and that it’s just a ‘coincidence’?”

“Um…well, since ‘coincidence’ would be defined as a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent casual connection, I’d say possibly? I’d also say that causation is thing you might want to look into.” Tony replies. “As for Barnes not wanting to see Rogers, I’d say I have nothing to do with that, this is the first time I’ve heard anything of the sort and once again what does that have to do with me?”

“He wouldn’t be like that if you hadn’t done something.” Steve answers for Sam and Tony gives him a look.

“And what power do I hold over Bucky Barnes? Seriously? What power? I’d love to know. You want to know the answer? None. I hold zip, nothing. Less than zero. Get over yourself and stop acting like I’m the fucking boogeyman under the bed coming to get you. I don’t care, I couldn’t be paid to care and I’m not interested in continuing this pointless conversation. Now, you came here for a reason so let’s get on with it so that I can move on and go back to doing something good.”

“Like you’d even know what doing good is.” Wanda growls and Tony just glances at her.

“You know what, once upon a time I might have said ‘likewise’, but I’m realizing that saying that implies that you’re correct in some way and that I don’t in fact know how to do good. So, I’m instead going to tell you that you don’t know a thing about me so stop pretending that you do.” Tony glances from them to all of them. “In fact, all of you stop pretending. None of you have ever taken the time to treat me with even the barest hint of decency or respect and I’m done playing your games. You’ve got two minutes before I walk away so spend them wisely. I’m going on record to say any attempts past this moment will be seen as a sign of aggression and attempted harassment or assault from now on.”

“You’re destroying the Avengers Tony, destroying your team.” Natasha steps in and Tony gives her a look.

“Consultant Romanov, remember? I was never an active member of the Avengers Initiative. Your handiwork, well yours and Fury’s but still. Don’t act like I’ve ever been a member of your little band, we all know otherwise. And if it’s that easy to destroy the Avengers by just showing their true colors then the Avengers need to go.”

“We’re not going anywhere.” Steve says.

“We’ll step back, into the shadows but we’re always going to be here Tony.” Natasha says and Tony stares at her.

“Once again, just to be clear. I’m not sure if that was a poorly worded threat again or if that was just the height of stupidity to say on camera.” Tony replies and Natasha smirks like she knows something he doesn’t.

“You’re not recording anything Tony.” Natasha says, holding up a small device with a green light on one end. “And it’s not a threat, not really. We need to step back for a while. Pretend that we’re gone and let this witch hunt that you’ve started pass by but that doesn’t mean we’re actually gone. We’ll be watching you, and if you need us or if you step out of line – we’ll be there.” There’s a general consensus of agreement amongst all of them and Tony just takes a moment before slowly reaching up and tapping his ear while maintaining eye contact with the newly blonde the whole time.

“FRIDAY, are we still recording?”

‘…uh, yeah Boss. We are.’  FRIDAY says and Tony almost wants to laugh at the sheer disbelief and derision in her voice.

“Okay then, heads up. Whatever that little trinket is, it doesn’t work.” Tony tells her and he watches Natasha’s smirk fall immediately. “So no, you’ve been caught on Candid Camera. Smile I guess.”

+++

Rhodey’s laughing hysterically, leaning against Happy’s shoulder as the other man’s laughter has tears running down his face. Even Pepper practically bursting a gut next to Harley and Strange.

“Oh my god, play it again.” Rhodey says and FRIDAY reverses the footage to show the moment that Natasha’s face falls and it brings forth a new round of laughter. “That’s beyond hilarious.”

“Youtube thought so too. As did Twitter and every other social medium.” Tony replies. “Apparently it’s trending.”

“Someone needs to stop them while they’re seriously really far behind.” Harley says, munching on some popcorn.

“It would take at least several miracles if not full on divine intervention to help them realize that they need to stop at this point.” Rhodey mutters as he falls back onto the couch. “But at least for the most part, they’re handled. The public sphere isn’t going to respond kindly to that.”

“I’m still reeling over the fact that Rogers admitted to knowing about Barnes’s misdeeds on camera after being warned.” Harley says. “Isn’t that one of the points on the court case you have going against him?”

“Yup.” Tony says with a nod. “It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, but enough with Romanov and the rest of those morons. We need to talk shop.” He waits till everyone’s attention is on him. “We’ve got the first, general sort of agreements for the Accords prepared. Murdock and Nelson think we’re ready to start bringing awareness to them.”

“You made sure to put in that part about junior members, right?” Harley asks and Tony smiles.

“Yes Harl, we added that section that you wrote up. With some additions and general sorts of changes, but yes, we’ve added junior member protections, allotments and allowances.” Harley leans back with a nod at the information. “Rhodey, where are we at on your side?”

“Completely green.” Rhodey says. “They’re getting ready to create a task force now to be a prototype group. Several ex-SHIELD operatives have stepped forward. They’re being vetted, but considered.”

“Good to hear.” Tony says with a nod as he looks at Pepper.

“This video does a lot of work for us, but SHIELD’s throwing a lot of force against us when it comes to the lawsuits saying that you had verbal agreements that invalidate all our contractual claims.”

“Do they have records of any of these ‘verbal agreements’?”

“Not yet that they’ve offered up, but I expect to see something taken out of context and used soon.”

“Okay, FRI be prepared for that.”

‘Will do Boss.’

“Strange?” Tony turns to the sorcerer. “How are things over on the Asgard side of things?”

“Odin has agreed to a meeting with Thor to discuss Hela’s imprisonment spell being transferred to him. Loki has also agreed to take certain precautions against a potential threat in case Hela or something like her gets out and comes for Asgard. He’s also allowing Heimdall to return in order to watch over the Bifrost once more and the ‘treasures of Asgard’ as he’s supposed to be doing.”

“Has Asgard found out that it’s Loki and not Odin?”

“Yes.” Strange admits. “Loki revealed his ‘deception’ but as funny as it is, Asgard is rallying behind him. They’re rather agreeable with the changes he’s made and the laws he’s either passed or undone. There are of course some who expect him to just step aside for Thor when Thor returns, which will cause its own problems, but for the most part things are settling nicely in Asgard.”

“And Odin, he’s still on Earth?”

“Yes, without access to the Bifrost he can’t return to Asgard.” Strange tilts his head. “Although I’ve offered several times to take him and he has turned it down, so to be completely honest I don’t believe he actually wants to go back or cares really which son gets the throne anymore.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Tony mutters to himself with a roll of his eyes.

“Loki does want to speak with you though.”

“What?” Tony pauses and looks at Strange who has an oddly neutral look on his face.

“He says the drink is on him this time and that he’d like to discuss a partnership between whatever new team you intend to make and the ‘true ruler of Asgard’.”

“Reindeer Games wants to make a pact with me? Has that ever happened before?”

“You two seem to see eye to eye every now and then.” Strange replies almost cryptically and Tony shrugs.

“Okay, I guess I don’t see the harm in it. Not if you vouch for him.”

“I’m not really sure anyone should vouch for him, but I will let him know that you are amenable to a meeting.”

“That’s going to piss off some people.” Tony says before he looks at Happy. “How’s the SHIELD trying to infect SI angle coming?”

“Several ex-SHIELD have come forward saying they’ve been approached. FRIDAY and JO are keeping track of the data that all ex-SHIELD employees have and potential leaks. We’ve caught three so far.”

“Which is helping our case.” Pepper mentions and Tony nods.

“Good, what about Vision? How’s he doing?”

“Since he came to us and asked for paperwork he’s fallen pretty much off the grid. He’s able to pass for human somehow and he’s off ‘finding himself’ or figuring out something or another.” Happy replies. “He did promise to keep in touch with FRIDAY.”

‘I am aware of the Vision’s comings and goings Boss. I will alert you immediately if he is in need of assistance.’

“Good, then let’s leave him out of this if we can.” Tony says. “Let him experience the world, but at least he’s out from SHIELD.” Tony glances down at his hands. “We need to prep now. SHIELD’s off dealing with their own shit and we need to prepare for the fight coming our way. Bruce is apparently off planet right now along with Thor and Vision might be a heavy hitter in the future but we’re going to leave him in the wind for now. We need new blood, and we need it soon so we can start training and prepping.” Tony glances up at his team. “Time’s a wasting and Thanos isn’t just sitting by and waiting for us to be ready.” He looks at each of them. “So, let’s get on it guys. “