“And what can I do for the next technological overlord?” Tony asks, as soon as the video is connected.
A warm laugh greets him, as Shuri settles in her chair. “Are you accepting my intellectual genius?”
There’s a teasing note to Shuri’s voice that has Tony rolling his eyes fondly.
“Well, it is the truth.” He replies, smiling at the screen. “I’m more than positive you’ll be teaching this old dog, new tricks.”
“I thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks.” She laughs.
“So much sass.” He waggles a finger at her. “You give that much sass to your brother, Kiddo?”
Tony gets a cheeky smile in return. “Of course.” The smile disappears as soon as it appeared though and Tony knows she’s thinking about her brother. “But I’m not calling for banter, Doctor Stark.”
“I thought as much, Your Highness.” Tony replies, following suit. “What can I do to help you and Wakanda?”
Shuri sighs and in that moment, she looks incredibly young and way out of her depth.
Tony’s heart aches for her.
“I don’t know the entire story of what happened between you and Captain Rogers, Doctor Stark, I know enough that I don’t approve of Captain Rogers’ actions, but since my brother’s death, I have been the one to receive the messages from the Accords Council.”
Tony clenches his jaw once before nodding. “And you know of the demand to bring Rogers and his merry band of misfits back Stateside.”
Shuri nods, though her face is pinched. “To be frank, Doctor Stark, a lie nearly tore my brother and my country apart. I saw the reveal of said lie, first hand, and though the effects never physically touched me, it did leave a mental impression. I understand your hesitance in allowing them into your Tower again.”
“I’ll house them, Your Highness,” Tony tells her. “I have no choice, but even if I did, I would. We need to work together against Thanos, or else he wins. Everything else is just relative.”
“Not when it left you so broken.” Shuri says softly.
Tony closes his eyes against the understanding look he’s receiving from the newly crowned Queen.
She had been the one to suggest he make the arc reactor out of vibranium, even going as far to supply him the right amount of the metal too. Why, Tony doesn’t know, and not for a lack of trying.
“You returned the Shield, with much regret and trepidation. Not at us, but yourself and your father.” Shuri had said, the day the Shield had been scheduled for delivery. “I’d like to know why.”
King T’Challa stood behind his sister in the video call, ready to step in at any moment if need be, but stayed silent.
“My father stole that vibranium, it was only right it returned back to its rightful owner.” Tony replied, shifting warily in the hospital bed. “I apologise it took this long, especially after its well documented campaign throughout the years. The insult said campaign would have caused is unforgivable, despite my returning it with the utmost sincere apologies.”
Shuri had smiled at him, a bright thing that had reminded Tony of Peter, and somehow just seeing it, made his aching body throb less.
Even T’Challa’s blank expression had softened a little around the edges. Tony wasn’t above preening at the thought of redeeming his surname with the country of Wakanda, even if it was only a small amount.
Shuri — and subsequently her brother — must have liked his response, because the next time they spoke, a confirmation that the Shield had returned, Shuri had specs of a mock arc reactor up and was firing off questions, before Tony had sat his ass in his chair.
In that time where Shuri had worked side by side with Tony, because one didn’t just deny a gift from royalty, especially if they were smart as Shuri, Peter had ended up in the room most times than not, and they hit it off like a house on fire.
It had been more than nice, walking in on Peter talking to and laughing with Shuri, MJ and Ned sometimes there and sometimes not.
Felt a little like home.
“I understand your concern, Shuri.” Tony says, softly. “But if you’re going to take over the world, we need to save it, first.”
That gets him the same bright smile from before. It’s slow to appear at first, but once it’s there, it’s in full force.
Tony’s chest ached at the reminder of Peter.
“If you need anything from Wakanda, you only have to ask, Doctor Stark.” She says, with a nod.
“Likewise, Your Highness.”
“Do we really have to?”
Tony honestly couldn’t stop the grin pulling at his mouth, even if he wanted to.
Rhodey, for all his stature and years as an active officer, sounded like a petulant, moody teenager.
Tony has the sudden urge to send Rhodey to bed without supper.
Glancing at the clock in the kitchen, he thinks, maybe without lunch.
“You did before.” Tony tells him, eyebrows raised. “You let Steve back into the Tower, with a very clear ‘fuck you’ to General Ross. I seen the footage.”
“Working with the lesser evil, Tones.” Rhodey says, waving his hand in the air. “Besides, that didn’t mean I didn’t want to break his kneecaps. He’s lucky I didn’t sic Pep onto him.”
“Wow, such violence.” Tony teases, sipping at his coffee.
“For you, yeah.” Rhodey tells him honestly. Blasé as if he’s talking about the weather.
At the confession, Tony swallows quickly before he chokes on coffee.
Tony knows he’s hit the jackpot when it came to best friends, but it still shocks him at how Rhodey is still in his corner, after all these years.
From when he found a scrawny fourteen year old Tony in MIT, through all the drunken, drug induced stunts and media scandals, Rhodey has always been there.
A constant safety net and his second shadow.
Tony doesn’t know who blessed him with the gift of one James Rhodes, but he’s thankful.
“Look, I know that we need Rogers and his team, I’m not denying it.” Rhodey says, cupping his arm and squeezing once. “But what happened in Siberia? I’ll never forgive or forget. After all is said and done, Rogers better clear out of here, because he’s either got to face me, Pep, Happy, Nebula or FRIDAY, and to be honest, I’m the least likely to actually kill him.”
“Hey now, come on, sugar plum — “
“Tones,” Rhodey sighs, looking at him, eyes suddenly a little wet. “Don’t play down what happened in that bunker. I know you. I know your tech. If you wanted them dead, you’d have made it happen, as easy as breathing. Regardless of who threw the first punch, Steve made sure he made his the last.”
Tony, for a lack of words, just nods.
“What Pep and I watched you go through, how I listened to you wheeze during the nights you managed to sleep, how I held onto Pep when she thought she was gonna lose you, I never wanna feel like I did at that moment, again. Ever.” He whispers, reaching out and squeezing his hand tightly. “If I have to go up against a super solider to make sure it never happens, well, I’m selfish enough to do it.”
Tony, still lost in what to say, just leans his head on Rhodey’s shoulder and tries not to let his own tears fall.
“We can’t have any air support in the one location, though.” Rhodey frowns, glancing at the holograms of the world’s plane fighters that are set up before them, over the conference table. “Worldwide or even here. It’s just too much of a risk that they’ll be in the wrong spot and miles away from where the actual fight begins.”
Tony nods his head in agreement. “Even if they were on round the clock alert, it’s still gonna cost casualties before they arrive.”
They’re all thinking it, Tony knows, he can see it on their faces. A few sacrificed for the greater good.
It makes Tony sick in the stomach that that could be an option.
“Even more so if you stretch them too thin.” Nebula adds, sitting in a chair with her feet propped up on the table. “Thanos’ army is vast. They’d tear through a small cluster of your flyers’ defences like it was nothing. At least as a whole, they’d hold them back for a few moments.”
The silence that takes over is heavy. Nebula’s words aren’t all that encouraging.
“Boss, Colonel Rhodes, Miss Nebula,” FRIDAY says. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have an unknown craft asking for permission to land.”
No one mentions the fact that there’s a sarcastic lilt to the word ‘unknown.’ Like FRIDAY, they know exactly who is asking to land. They had been notified by Queen Shuri, half a day ago.
Rhodey glances at him. “Are you gonna be okay?”
He goes to nod before deciding against it, and shrugs instead. “Probably not, but I can fake it like the best of them.”
“No harm will come to you, Tony.” Nebula chimes in, while using the toe of her boot to spin one of the holograms around lazily. “You’re my friend, remember?”
When Tony glances at her and finds she’s grinning sharply, a blade he hadn’t seen until now, held with deft fingers.
He thinks of their conversation as they entered Earth’s orbit days ago. His promise that no one was going to touch Nebula or take liberties they had no right to, when it came to her.
Then he thinks of Nebula’s promise in return, that Steve would have to go through her first to get to Tony, but it didn’t matter because he wouldn’t succeed, that she wouldn’t let him.
It settles some of the nerves that are currently panicked and screeching inside of him.
“Thank you.” He tells her genuinely.
Nebula’s come far from her small, unsure smiles in the face of gratitude, but there’s still an underling discomfort in her posture, even now.
Tony knows that that won’t change overnight, the saying Rome wasn’t built in a day, coming to mind, but he’s happy that there’s an improvement nonetheless.
Still, the fact that Thanos harming Nebula the way he did, is honestly enough to make Tony want to rip Thanos’ throat out. Added to that fact is Peter’s fragile, last words and Tony feels a fire burn through him, hot enough to erase the rest of his shaky nerves.
“Boss?” FRIDAY questions. “The unknown craft?”
“It’s a friendly,” Tony replies, grimacing at the word use of ‘friendly.’ “Let them land and then direct them to the common area, if you will, please, FRIDAY.”
“On it, Boss.”
Tony slides off the table he’d been sitting cross legged on and says, “Might as well get it over and done with. We don’t have time to fight one another.”
“Maybe just a little bit of time.” Rhodey gripes, following with Nebula at his side.
Having Rhodey and Nebula at his back, when Rogers and his team step into the large room, gives Tony a level of calm he didn’t know he could reach.
Sure, he’s several microseconds away from calling on the Suits, if anyone so much as thinks of making a wrong move, but he’s calm.
He watches on as they silently take in Nebula on his left, their shock — Rogers and Lang — and disapproval — Romanoff and Barton — plain to see. Tony glances over them, noting their outdated uniforms and suits, before his gaze stops on Rogers.
And suddenly Tony is laying on his back in a Siberian bunker, blood thick in his mouth and his torso broken, as he watches Steve bring the Shield down towards his chest.
Tony finds it’s suddenly hard to breathe.
“Tony,” Rogers breathes out, when their eyes connect. He smiles gently. “It’s good to see you.”
It’s the fury he feels, hot and syrupy rushing through his veins, that unlocks his lungs, allows him to take a desperate breathe in.
The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them. “Can’t say the same, Rogers. I could have died happy, never seeing you again.”
Rogers looks startled for a moment, before he gets that disappointed look on his face, that Tony’s always wanted to punch.
“You can’t seriously be still mad about —“
Before Tony can even feel his body flare up with the fury that’s likely to consume him, a gentle palm on his right shoulder, grounds him.
“You’re not here to discuss anything but the fight that we’re trying to plan against Thanos,” Rhodey interrupts, glaring. His teeth are bared in a sharp smile, one Tony’s never seen before in the years he’s known the man. “If it isn’t relevant to that, keep it to yourselves.”
Tony stays silent as Rogers and his team frown at him. Like it’s his fault that they’ve just been chastised like children. But it’s Romanoff that decides to cut through the silence.
“Who are you?” She asks, staring at Nebula with narrowed eyes.
Nebula stays silent by Tony’s side, opting not to reply.
If possible, Romanoff’s eyes narrow further.
“I believe you were asked a question, ma’am.” Rogers tells her.
“I believe I don’t have to answer.” Nebula replies, moving forward and sitting in a chair. Tony notices that she’s seated in direct line of Tony’s body, like she’s shielding it. “You are fond of keeping things relevant to others to yourself, are you not? Why can’t I do the same?”
Rogers’ eyes dart from her to Tony, an accusation flashing in his gaze. Tony just raises an eyebrow at him, daring him to protest.
Silently respecting Nebula’s wish to keep herself unnamed, Rhodey cuts in. “She’s an ally and most of all, our friend. If you can’t respect that, then you’re welcome to leave.”
“How will we be able to communicate out there if we don’t know who she is or what her name is?” Lang questions, fidgeting. He, at least, doesn’t sound suspicious or annoyed. Just curious.
“I won’t be anywhere near you.” Nebula answers, looking bored. “I’ll be with Tony and Colonel Rhodes until they get me my opportunity to kill Thanos.”
“And why are you three the ones to go up against Thanos?” Rogers says. There’s a furrow between his eyebrows, that tells Tony he’s irritated.
Nebula pins him with a glare. “Tony made Thanos bleed, and that was without FRIDAY’s help and half of his Suit malfunctioning. I’m inclined to believe Colonel Rhodes with his Suit, will do damage too.”
“No disrespect to Tony and James, but they’re human.” Rogers protests, smiling contrite. “You’re better off with someone like me on your six.”
“You’re human too, especially if going up against Thanos.” Nebula says, lifting an eyebrow and folding her hands across her naval, before settling in her chair more comfortably. “And you’ll address Colonel Rhodes by his title.”
For some reason, Tony can see the silent ‘or else’ in Nebula’s relaxed position in her seat.
“And what would you have us call Stark?” Barton suddenly snaps, not keeping silent any longer. “Your Highness?”
Nebula smiles, and it’s sharp as it is chilly. “It would be best that you just not say Tony’s name at all.”
Barton goes to open his mouth to reply, argue more like, but is stopped by Rogers.
“Why don’t we get settled in and then reconvene later.” He suggests, arms spread and hands facing palms out, in a placating manner.
Tony shrugs, not caring in the slightest in what they do. “You all know where the kitchen is.”
“I meant our rooms, but we’ll hit the kitchen later.” Rogers replies, nodding with a smile.
Tony shakes his head, feeling a little confused. “You have no rooms here. They’ve been renovated into bigger offices for the staff that work here.”
It’s silent for a moment and then Rogers, smile long gone, says in a clipped tone, “You got rid of our rooms? Without our permission?”
Tony feels petty all of a sudden. Did they honestly expect him to have their rooms waiting for their glorious return, after they stabbed him in the back? After he was discarded like a used toy, broken and near death?
Was he supposed to cling to the family he had built in his head, and ignore reality giving him one hell of a wake up call?
Before he can even retort anything, Nebula suddenly stands and glares in Rogers’ direction. She places both hands on the table and leans all her weight onto the wood.
The blade in her right hand glints under the lights in the room.
“I’m sorry, did you own the building we’re standing in? Because even on other planets, we knew the deal when it came to sleeping in a quarters you didn’t actually own. You paid. Something I know you didn’t do.”
“The rooms were freely given.” Romanoff replies, coolly. “Our stuff is in there.”
“Stuff I know Tony would have supplied most of for you, also freely given, so your claim has no merit.” Nebula retorts, waving Romanoff’s words away. “I’ve been here for six days and I’ve seen how generous Tony is. You’re delusional if you think you can crawl back here, like starving animals, and start demanding for more than the scraps you deserve.”
“They were gifts.” Romanoff snapped, squaring her shoulders. “Gifts, Tony happily handed over.”
“And like spoiled children, you held your hand out for more, and threw tantrums when you didn’t get your way.” Nebula growls, gesturing at Romanoff, in a ‘for instance’ flourish. “For someone that spoke a lot about Tony’s ego, you’ve showed a lot more in the past five minutes, than Tony has in the days I’ve known him.”
Tony watches the verbal tennis match with equal amounts of twisted pleasure and trepidation.
He’s never had someone defend him so vehemently against the other Avengers, what with them being sneaky and avoiding their particular brand of saccharine cruelty when Rhodey or Pepper was in earshot.
(Though Tony knows both his fiancé and best friend would have reigned upon the team like a never ending shitstorm, if Tony had opened his mouth in the first place.)
It leaves him feeling a little off kilter.
“Again, who are you?” Barton snaps, taking a step forward.
“I’m Tony’s friend. One who won’t let you treat him how you did before.” Nebula says, standing to her full height, shoulders pushed back.
“Oh, that’s just great.” Barton laughs, before throwing a sneer in Tony’s direction. “You make another Ultron, Stark? She’s looking a little too robotic for my liking. Are we gonna have to clean up your mess again?”
Tony stiffens, angry on Nebula’s behalf and the defamation of the memory of JARVIS. “Loki’s sceptre corrupted my AI, the one Bruce and I created. Something you know because I’ve told you a million times. With proof.”
Barton rolls his eyes. “What I know is you should’ve been the one to disappear, instead of the real heroes.”
“I wonder if you’d be this mouthy after I cut out your tongue.” Nebula growls out, flipping the blade around in her hand.
Barton has his bow up and an arrow notched, ready to fire. “You’re welcome to try.”
Tony sees Nebula grin.
“Stand down, Barton.” Rhodey suddenly warns, stepping forward as well, his jaw tight as he glares. “Save it for the only reason why you’re allowed back here.”
“Hey, Clint,” Rogers murmurs then, reaching out to grasp the archer’s shoulder. “Ease up.”
It’s a tense silence where no one moves, before Barton turns sharply on a heel and storms off. Romanoff and Lang follow, though Rogers stays behind, just to flash that disappointed frown in Tony’s direction on more time, before disappearing after his team.
It’s another loaded silence, as Tony watches Nebula and Rhodey, waiting for someone or something to break the tension.
“Well, that went well.” FRIDAY finally cuts in cheerfully. “Though I had thought Miss Nebula would have attacked Romanoff and Barton’s face. I even had a wager with Butterfingers.”
“FRIDAY,” Rhodey chides, trying for stern.
Tony can see the twitching of his mouth and grins. He gets an elbow jammed into his side for his trouble.
“Don’t tempt me with any ideas.” Nebula replies, still glaring down the hallway the Rogues left through.
“Nebula.” Rhodey scolds.
Tony bursts out into laughter.