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Sic Semper Tyrannis

Chapter Text

“HISTORY, like hate, is the product of memory, and memory is composed of unforgettable detail — sights, smells, sounds, exalted emotions, grim statistics and cruel ironies. The Balkans are a region of pure memory: a Bosch-like tapestry of interlocking ethnic rivalries where medieval and modern history thread into each other.” — New York Times, 1993

 

+++

 

It went something like this:

 

In 2006, a family of four sat down for dinner.

 

(Beef tripe soup.)

 

They sat down for dinner and a rogue mortar shell hit their apartment building.

 

(Pointless destruction in a war of attrition that could have no victor.)

 

A mortar shell hit a building and a family of four became a family of two.

 

(Just two more victims of a civil war that had been raging on and off for more than fifteen years.)

 

In 2006, a family of two was established in the form of ten-year-old twins. They were left trapped in the rubble, injured but alive. They cowered in as close to total stillness as two hurting children ever could, surrounded by the ruins of their life.

 

(Orphaned in the name of… what?)

 

There were two rogue mortar shells that crashed into their apartment building that day. The second shell did not go off. For two days, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff could do nothing but hold each other and wait. Watch. Paralyzed as much by fear as the crumbled concrete and collapsed support beams encasing them.

 

For two days, they waited for the shell to explode and to join their parents. The smallest disturbances set their hearts racing anew. The creak of a settling beam. The groan of metal bending under tonnes of rock, the pattering of loosed pebbles against stone and steel.

 

Each new threat was certain to be the one that final triggered the primed weapon. For two days, they lived with this certainty. Two days, until the rubble above them shifted.

 

Above them, a foreign bomb squad was surprised to find survivors and cautiously freed Wanda and Pietro.

 

For those two days, the twins were left with nothing but themselves and the missile. The words neither could yet read but memorized regardless: Stark Industries.

 

They recognized the English, knew the missile must be American and their fear gave birth to a hatred born of desperation. For the West. For the United States. For Stark Industries.

 

For Stark.

 

+++

 

In 2008, a pair of twelve-year-old twins watched with the rest of the world as Tony Stark was attacked in Afghanistan and kidnapped from right under the nose of the U.S. military.

 

Was this what justice looked like?

 

They watched with the rest of the world as the man returned and a mass-murderer had the gall to cast himself the hero. They watched a charismatic charlatan bewitch the world. Watched as he deemed himself above all and beholden to none and the world let him.

 

Stark paraded around the globe in a red-and-gold weapon of mass destruction. The ultimate American, casting himself as the global arbiter of Truth, Justice, and Freedom, and never mind the cultures and peoples and nations who might disagree with the American Way as the One True Path.

 

+++

 

2011, and a pair of teenagers forced to grow up far too early were now active and impassioned members of a growing protest movement. The protestors had allies in nations across Eastern Europe and particularly in the Balkans. The movement railed against an era of renewed American Imperialism couched in terms of “privatized world peace” and “heroism” that had been spearheaded by— who else? —Tony Stark.

 

Then aliens invaded New York, and the world was abruptly forced into a new paradigm, one that bowed at the altar of a small gang of enhanced ‘superheros’ that called themselves the Avengers.

 

Stark joined forces with a miraculously returned Captain America and wielded a nuclear missile to win the battle.

 

In the aftermath, the protests in Sokovia gave way to riots and violence.

 

+++

 

In 2013, Wanda and Pietro were recruited by Baron Von Strucker to join a top-secret research outfit funded by SHIELD.

 

They were sixteen.

 

+++

 

The Baron was a driven, charismatic man.

 

“We’re going to find a way to allow humanity to tap into the power of the scepter. Right now, the ‘enhanced’ hold all the cards. They’re only controllable insofar as they allow themselves to be controlled. There’s simply no one powerful enough to take them down without massive collateral damage, and even then the outcome is uncertain—look at what the Abomination and the Hulk did to Harlem, for example. Millions in damage, dozens of casualties… and yet the Hulk remains free to this day, shielded from consequence through the threat of another rampage and his billionaire, one-man-army backer.”

 

His honeyed words painted the possibility of a future where the world was no longer subjected to the whims of the powerful few.

 

“We walk in the footsteps of Dr. Erskine. His goal was never to create a singular enhanced strongman, but rather to elevate humanity as a whole. He was a visionary ahead of his time. His work was co-opted by the U.S. military. They twisted his creation into just another weapon of war the powerful sought to wield to subjugate the masses.”

 

As the research progressed, Von Strucker established himself and Dr. List, his second-in-command, as a pseudo father figures in the lives of Pietro and Wanda. Wanda grew closer to Von Strucker, while Pietro spent an increasing amount of his time with Dr. List.

 

The human trials began.

 

Pietro and Wanda were kept isolated from the other volunteers, their routines carefully-controlled in preparation for the procedures that would hopefully enable them to first survive then wield the potential power of the scepter.

 

+++

 

In other times and other places, the mind stone proved itself capable of many things:

 

On the Helicarrier, it nearly brought the newborn Avengers Initiative to a violent end before it could properly begin.

 

Channelled by a mage, it twisted and subverted agents with decades of experience to the side of an invader bent on global domination with smiles on their faces.

 

Once, it might have interfaced with the most advanced technology Earth had to offer and created a monster that thought itself a savior.

 

Once, it might have driven the God of Thunder to forget the comparative durability differential between their species and nearly strangle a long-time shield-brother in a moment of blind rage.

 

Once, it might have led a half-dozen superheros, including the victim’s long-time friend, to simply stand by and watch as Thor did so.

 

What then could it do to a pair of still-underage volunteers gradually exposed to increasing degrees of the scepter’s influence over the course of several months? To a pair of isolated and traumatized orphans predisposed towards hatred? Teens steeped in the resentment and anger of the powerless subject to the whims of others. The passion of youth, carefully nurtured by malicious actors into the kind of loathing that drove countless before them to violence and atrocity.

 

With such a base to latch onto and grow from, was it any wonder the mind stone was willing to embrace the Maximoff siblings as its own, even as its power rejected and destroyed dozens of others?

 

Was it any wonder, then, that they, Von Strucker’s Star Pupils, would be the only successes of project?

 

+++

 

It was several months of monitoring and experimentation before the twins were allowed out of isolation. Dr. List swore it was for both their own safety and that of others. Only until they were sure the duo could control their powers well enough to not accidentally hurt themselves or others.

 

Once that was accomplished, they could begin training in earnest. They were taught to push their abilities to ever-higher peaks that could one day stand against the might of the Avengers (of Tony Stark) and come out on top.

 

The process was hardest on Wanda, whose powers held the potential to either influence or destroy the minds of others.

 

They brought her the irredeemable dregs of society. The war profiteers. The sex traffickers. The child pornographers. As her skill increased, Wanda learned to harden her heart and see the truth of the victim’s prisoner’s guilt and depravity.

 

It was months of this before, on November 11, 2014, SHIELD fell. In its aftermath, Tony Stark proved himself both the ultimate megalomaniac and master manipulator when he took control of the U.S. Government and, in a blatant grab for power, became a dictator President of the United States.

 

The remnants of SHIELD and their secret weapons—Wanda and Pietro—were all that stood a chance at stopping him.

 

+++

 

("Ultron can't tell the difference between saving the World and destroying it. Who do you think he gets that from?")

 

+++

 

It took time. Wanda and Pietro looked on with disgust as Stark solidified his power base and cemented his position as President sans the pretense of “Acting” or “Interim.”

 

They watched in horror as he ruthlessly hunted down the remnants of SHIELD in the name of “defeating HYDRA”, leaving hundreds of innocent, non-Nazi agents dead, disfigured, or—if they were lucky—merely discredited in his wake.

 

President Stark was well protected. He had a personal, ever-expanding robot army. He had the might of the U.S. military that wreaked havoc both in Sokovia and around the globe. Both served at his at his beck and call.

 

The operation, when it came on a unseasonably cold day in early 2015, was the product of months of intensive efforts and preparations.

 

It began like this:

 

On May 14, 2015, President Stark convened a summit meeting at Camp David for the Gulf Cooperation Council. The meeting comprised of leaders from six Middle Eastern nations: Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. It was focused on the ongoing instability of the region in the wake of the “SHIELDRA Leak” just over six months prior. The conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq were of particular interest—the reveal of HYDRA had fanned the flames of extremism and anti-Western rhetoric around the globe, but in those three nations in particular they’d provided enough of a spark to reignite active hostilities requiring active NATO intervention.

 

President Stark and his military leaders sought to permanently station an Iron Legionnaire in the region until the situation “calmed down.” As part of the effort, they sought to obtain standing airspace clearance for the Legionnaire and the anonymous pilot within.

 

At 10:40 that morning, President Stark departed from the White House on Marine One. Accompanying him were the new Secretaries of State and Defense along with long-time ally Col. James Rhodes and his recently-appointed Chief of Staff, Daisy Johnson.

 

At 11:05—remarkably close to being on schedule with the published agenda for a man with a notorious, well-documented disregard for adhering to schedules—the President greeted the assembled leaders and delegations.

 

Six hours later, the President and a small security entourage departed from the conference center and began to make their way towards Camp Round Meadow, a facility a short distance away from Camp David where the White House Press Corps had assembled.

 

Notably, he was accompanied by neither Ms. Johnson nor Col. Rhodes, both of whom took the President up on his offer that they make their way back to Marine One and “take a load off” rather than “tag along, when you know I’m probably going to say the opposite of what you want me to say anyways, so you might as well just save yourself the increased blood pressure and avoid the issue entirely.”

 

Unfortunately, President Stark would never arrive at Camp Round Meadow.

 

+++

 

“The key word for understanding Sokovia is process: the process of history and the process of memory, processes that Communism kept on hold for 45 years, thereby creating a kind of multiplier effect for violence. The 1989 revolution was a natural extension of what had occurred in the same streets almost half a century earlier: a fascist-style monarch was being overthrown by a usually docile population, which every few decades explodes in a bout of orgiastic fury.” — New York Times, 2003

 

+++

 

It was a classic “snatch-and-grab” abduction.

 

Codenamed: the Scarlet Witch used her powers to temporarily short out a perimeter surveillance camera the night before, creating a tiny blind spot that she and Codenamed: Quicksilver could exploit as they snuck into the forests surrounding Camp David.

 

They settled into position in a spot hidden from view with a clear line-of-sight on their planned ambush point. The stretch of short, cobbled trail President Stark would almost certainly take the next day was just out of sight and hearing range of Camp David, carefully chosen to maximize their getaway time before Stark’s absence was noticed.

 

When the moment came and the pair caught sight of their target for the first time, they exchanged a momentary glance. Each saw their own rage and anger mirrored in the eyes of their twin. At long last, that rage was channeled into action.

 

Quicksilver struck first, zooming in to snatch Stark. In the blink of an eye the man was deposited before his sister. Wanda promptly ensnared him in a vision of his worst nightmares and deepest fears brought to life.

 

The paralysis only lasted a few seconds, but that was all they would need. Quicksilver lifted his sister into a bridal carry and returned to where Stark’s security retinue were only just beginning to note their bosses’ abrupt disappearance. The Scarlet Witch pushed a deep, all-consuming exhaustion into their minds. Like marionettes with their strings cut, a half-dozen men collapsed in a instant and fell into a deep slumber. It would take several hours at minimum before they began to wake up.

 

The security team would awaken with memories of nothing but a moment of intense confusion followed by a sickly red glow.

 

Returning to where they’d temporarily left Stark, Wanda allowed the remainder of the man’s vision to play out in the blink of an eye before hitting him with the same push of exhaustion.

 

If she was perhaps a bit harsher with the man himself than she’d been with his lackeys? If he was destined to wake up with a nasty migraine rather than the feeling of a good night’s rest? ...Well, who could blame her?

 

This was the man who had murdered her parents. He had destroyed the only life she and her brother had ever known, and done the same to countless other victims left forgotten and without a voice. Stark was an arrogant, egocentric burgeoning tyrant. A Merchant of Death who’d somehow duped the globe into believing he was a hero.

 

She and her brother would help SHIELD ensure the man received his comeuppance.

 

+++

 

On the way out of the facility, things took a turn for the worse.

 

Well. Not for Wanda and Pietro. Or at least, not in the same way.

 

A few miles outside the camp, the Maximoffs met up with a SHIELD extraction team. The operation was running smoothly, a well-oiled machine prepared and ready to rapidly secure the unarguably genius engineer’s person before they left the area.

 

A pair of technicians efficiently removed President Stark’s clothing and accessories. Anything Stark had control over, even indirectly, was considered a risk factor. They hardly intended to repeat the mistakes of the Ten Rings, and in the years since Stark and his team had presumably grown only more paranoid. His involvement in events following HYDRA’s premature exposure and the failure of Project Insight, coupled with the fact that as President he now had entire teams and organizations dedicated to his protection had led HYDRA to overwhelmingly err on the side of caution.

 

Next, one of the technicians carefully ran a high-sensitivity scanner over Stark.

 

They removed a subcutaneous tracker in his forearm. A barely-detectable chip in a back molar.

 

At that point, the scan was complete.

 

“Wait.” The Scarlet Witch commanded. “There’s… something else. I can feel it. Chest area.”

 

A closer look revealed the presence of a dormant device embedded within Stark’s artificial sternum, entirely undetectable unless you were specifically looking for even the smallest piece out of the ordinary.

 

They didn’t know what it was, but it would take a delicate procedure to remove. They really couldn’t risk performing outside a relatively safe temporary base of operations farther away from the numerous already-discovered beacons that would no doubt lead authorities to their location soon enough.

 

+++

 

Wanda and Pietro were both in the theater when the surgery began. Wanda was there to monitor for any signs of Stark beginning to wake, while Pietro was there for his reaction speeds.

 

Actively monitoring a specific target was something Wanda had a significant amount of experience in, but she’d never quite managed to suppress the resultant passive, surface-level telepathy of those nearby.

 

Normally it wasn’t much of an issue, but by necessity the surgeon and his assistants were will within the approximately half-meter radius of the centerpoint of her focus.

 

Even so, the passive telepathy only picked up on snippets of thoughts. HYDRA agents, particularly those remaining under Von Strucker’s command following the fall of SHIELD, were well-versed in the art of doublethink.

 

The surgeon, focused as he was on the procedure, was an exception. He was vaguely aware of Wanda’s abilities, of course, but in the hubbub of being unexpectedly called in for an emergency operation, monitoring his own thoughts was far from the top of his priorities.

 

He would, after all, have needed to realize that was something he needed to be doing in the first place.

 

Wanda wasn’t particularly listening the doctors surrounding Stark, but she couldn’t help but hear.

 

And well.

 

Certain thoughts were a bit more attention grabbing than others.

 

+++

 

“...in HYDRA’s side...”

 

Wanda’s attention twitched.

 

“...hero of HYDRA…”

 

She was actively listening now.

 

Dr. List’s voice on the phone.

 

“Heil HYDRA.”

 

Wanda saw red.

 

But as quick as her fury surged it was pushed back down, channeled into a renewed burst of energy targeting Stark that could be easily excused.

 

She wanted to rip into the surgeon’s mind and find out how far the deception went.

 

She’d always spent more time with Von Strucker than List. Surely he was true SHIELD? List might have simply been avoiding Wanda, and Pietro could hardly be blamed when, unlike herself, he couldn’t read minds.

 

(But then, as her control grew she’d accidentally dropped into the minds of others less and less. And it’d never been a deep read in any case. The human mind was fragile and would shatter before being so easily deciphered. And she would never do that to a father figure ally.)

 

Pietro gave her a questioning look, reading… something… in her expression that had him concerned. She responded with an infinitesimal headshake.

 

+++

 

On a plane bound for Sokovia less than an hour later, there were six people.

 

The pilot and copilot were safely ensconced and isolated in the flight deck, studiously ignorant of the passengers they carried.

 

The Maximoffs, a technician, and Stark were in the main cabin. Stark, still firmly out for the count and freshly bandaged, was restrained and monitored on an impromptu med-bed.

 

It was child’s play to take out the technician. Trivial to fill in Pietro on what she’d learned. Easy to come up with a plan.

 

Wanda used the same techniques she’d honed for Stark to pull the proof of guilt from the technician’s mind and learned just how deep the treachery went.

 

+++

 

“Control the mind, control the asset.”

 

Once, HYDRA took a moderately enhanced sergeant and made the Winter Soldier.

 

The scientists who shaped The Asset into what he became lived and died by a single maxim.

 

In Wanda and Pietro, HYDRA sought to take two teenagers and shape them into Weapons. They nurtured a hate born of trauma. Encouraged activism’s evolution into extremism, and sought to point it in the direction of HYDRA’s greatest enemies.

 

The power of Infinity, diluted as it was in the blood of the Maximoffs, was not so easily tamed. Each Stone exacts a price from those that dare try to control its power, and the Mind Stone was no exception.

 

+++

 

“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee." — Nietzsche

 

+++

 

Fuck HYDRA was a pretty universal sentiment outside the rank-and-file of the organization’s True Believers. Wanda and Pietro were manipulated. Arguably brainwashed.

 

But they were never fully robbed of their agency.

 

Von Strucker and his team never stood a chance.

 

+++

 

Tony awoke to the unpleasant sensation of an icepick attempting to drive its way through the back of his brain.

 

What the—?

 

He struggled to remember where he was, or where he’d been before that.

 

A Chitauri Leviathan flying overhead.

 

Rhodey: Dead.

 

Clint: Dead.

 

Hulk: A groan, but no— Dead.

 

Steve: dea—

 

Worse.

 

A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead.

 

Shield split in two. Tony checking for a pulse, a hand shooting up to grab—

 

“You could have saved us.”

 

The suit and a lifeless legion. Instinctively knowing the AI within was shattered beyond repair.

 

“Why didn’t… you... do more?”

 

Glassy eyes.

 

Looking up. An army of Leviathans, a portal opened into Earth’s orbit, the sister ship of the vessel he’d nearly died to destroy already through the breach.

 

No—!

 

Not-real-not-real-can’t-be-couldn’t-be-wasn’t-real-just-a-flashback-no-a-vision-a-nightmare-a—

 

His eyelids were impossibly heavy. Millimeter by millimeter, he forced them open to—

 

A red miasma.

 

—No!

 

The blur resolved into a steady, blinking red light.

 

A feminine, accented voice.

 

Romanian? Slovakian? Impossible to decipher.

 

“Hello, Stark.”

 

+++

 

“The present civil war is merely the second half of one that began in the midst of World War II, only to be interrupted by 45 years of Communist rule. The Slovaks were responsible for much of the brutality in the first half; the Sokovs are guilty now.” — New York Times, 2013

Chapter Text

Pepper was not the First Lady. She was CEO of Stark Industries, true. One of the President’s closest advisors, true. She was even Tony’s partner, one-half of the world’s most recognizable power couple.

 

But she was not the First Lady.

 

It was a distinction that had mattered greatly when the lawyers were sorting out the legalities of Tony’s divestiture from his myriad assets, the most notable of which had obviously been Stark Industries. To a degree, they’d been able to handwave the issue when Tony was Defense Secretary; the main point of contention had been the ethics of continuing or expanding existing defense contracts with Stark Industries given the undeniably close ties between the company and Dr. Stark. Tony’s name, after all, was on the patents of dozens of proprietary Stark systems.

 

The situation had become even more complex during the tumultuous early weeks of Stark’s tenure as Interim President. Even then, it had been somewhat tabled during Tony’s First Hundred Days. Early on, everyone—including Tony himself—had clung to the hope that they would be his Only Hundred Days in office. Stabilizing a government freshly-purged of HYDRA and attempting to root out the worst of its influence had overridden the comparatively ‘trivial’ legal concerns for a nation in crisis.

 

The National Guard had been deployed in thirty-four states. There were Special Elections to schedule for suddenly-vacant Congressional positions in twenty-nine. Emergency funding boosts for FEMA and to supplement local response teams. Ruffled feathers across Eurasia to settle.

 

Even given all that, the issues most pertinent to Pepper that kept Stark Legal working round-the-clock had been addressing the complex legalities surrounding the Exo-Falcon and Iron Legion contracts. Both were cleared for significant expansion well in advance of the official 2015 Federal Budget’s arrival on the House and Senate floors, albeit with the tacit approval of Congress.

 

Now that things had begun to settle down, questions of antitrust regulations and preferential treatment were being raised, although given the smorgasbord of big news events to cover it had yet to approach Front Page News status. If the lawyers had their way, it never would.

 

So, no.

 

Pepper was empathetically not the First Lady.

 

She was first and foremost the CEO of Stark Industries.

 

She was still the closest thing to a First Lady this administration had. Certainly the closest it was likely to see.

 

Ostensibly, Pepper’s primary residence was still in the penthouse of Stark Tower.

 

Practically speaking, she spent as much time in D.C. as in NYC.

 

That said, her duty was by necessity to Stark Industries first and the Executive branch second.

 

Pepper was not at Camp David when Tony went missing, nor was her absence particularly noteworthy. Instead, she was in the tail-end of a long afternoon meeting with the leadership team of Stark Industries.

 

The meeting was primarily focused around their ongoing renewable energy contract negotiations with the government of Botswana. Their team on the ground had recently submitted a report to the Senior Vice President (SVP) of Global Investment & Development (GID); the last of the major points of contention had been tentatively resolved and were being looked over by Stark Legal.

 

The nation hoped to simultaneously eliminate its reliance on foreign oil imports and provide a huge boost towards the nation’s goal of a completely carbon-neutral power grid. Stark Industries, meanwhile, wanted to solidify itself as a major player in the clean energy industry. They’d faced unexpected pushback from a small but vocal isolationist minority, prolonging the discussions past the initial projected signing date in early January.

 

The SVP of GID gave a presentation on the timeline, semi-finalized contract details, and projected outcomes before they’d moved on to a discussion of Pepper’s upcoming trip to Gaborone, Botswana. Provided everything continued on its current trajectory, Pepper would fly out mid-June to finalize negotiations with President Khama and Mayor Haskins Nkaigwa.

 

At that point, both parties would sign the contract, providing the final stamp of legal and budgetary approval from both Khama and Nkaigwa.

 

Pepper was mid-sentence when her headset buzzed, the incoming call overriding the device’s Do Not Disturb mode. Simultaneously, a cursory knock sounded at the door. Clint, the head of Pepper’s personal security team. strode purposefully into the room.

 

Their relationship had been awkward at first.

 

Romanoff and Rogers had soured Pepper’s opinion on anyone associated with the Avengers Initiative as a whole. Hawkeye coming out from the woodwork following SHIELD’s fall was eerily reminiscent of Natalie Rushman to her, and Pepper had hardly relished the prospect of a repeat.

 

They’d gradually transitioned from distant to cordial in the intervening weeks until he was the de facto liaison between the former-SHIELD contingent and both Stark Industries and Tony himself.

 

That he was interrupting a meeting at the same time either Tony (or, more likely, JARVIS on Tony’s behalf) was calling wasn’t a good sign.

 

Pepper was standing and making her excuses before she’d consciously made the decision to.

 

In the privacy of the elevator....

 

It was Afghanistan all over again.

 

They didn’t know if Tony was alive or who had him. His guards were alive but unconscious to the man. So far no one had been able to revive them.

 

To all appearances, Tony simply… disappeared… without a trace, though Jim and Maria Hill were already collaborating on a search of the surrounding area.

 

Jim was en route in War Machine to the most recently transmitted location of Tony’s trackers.

 

Worst case scenario, they were looking at a literal alien abduction, likely at the hands of whomever was behind the 2011 New York Invasion. Potentially just as devastatingly, the culprits could be a surviving contingent of HYDRA agents, possibly in conjunction with one of a dozen extremist groups that would like nothing more than to see Stark out of power and/or dead.

 

Clint’s role was to escort Pepper, whose comparative vulnerability made her a high-risk target, to a secure location.

 

An Iron Legionaire served as their aerial escort and defense for the journey.

 

They didn’t have much time before the news would inevitably break to the press.

 

Tony’s disappearance was confirmed less than five minutes ago. The top priority thus far had been gathering and reading in Stark’s inner circle and other essential personnel.

 

Something like this was hardly going to remain a secret for long; Pepper had no doubt that the Press Corps at Camp David were already getting restless.

 

+++

 

Mid-flight, several things occurred in rapid succession.

 

A small explosion occurred not far outside the perimeter of Camp David. At its source Jim found the destroyed remains of Tony’s clothing and various trackers, including one within a tooth no one but JARVIS and Jim had even known existed.

 

A dormant, thought-to-be-undetectable device went live for a fraction of a second. It triggered an alert in a subsystem, taking JARVIS by surprise. He traced the signal back to its source, to a program he suspected he’d deliberately erased his own knowledge of.

 

Literally no one else had known about the device that had been seamlessly integrated into Tony’s reconstructed sternum. The only thing that could trigger it was the absence of a detectable heartbeat for at least seven minutes.

 

Finally, Vice President Pryde declared a National Emergency in a broadcast that, by the end of the day, would be viewed by the overwhelming majority of Americans and millions more around the globe.

 

She spoke for two minutes, thirty seconds and took no questions.

 

+++

 

Tony’s eyes were shrouded by a thin veil of cloudy red. A feminine voice turned masculine. Tony’s consciousness struggled to the surface, his mind gradually clearing as he slowly regained the ability to parse reality once more.

 

“Stark. Stark, are you with me?”

 

He nodded.

 

“Good, good. You’ve been unresponsive for several minutes; I’m attempting to check you for a concussion now. What’s your name?”

 

Name? Name. His name. Da Vinci of our time and merchant of death. Rusting iron, hope you’ve got your tetanus shots, focus Tony.

 

“Tony Stark.”

 

“Social security number?”

 

“Right. It’s. Uh. There’s a five.” He meant for the lattermost to come out a question, but something in him rebelled and it became the statement it was in truth. A part of him didn’t like that, and the familiar man before him was only trying to help. And yet—

 

“Why?” He deflected. “Planning to steal my identity?”

 

“Stark.”

 

And. That tone. That voice. The tired man before him with the round glasses and solemn dignity.

 

Yinsen.

 

He was only trying to help.

 

Tony recited the nine-digit code that, if it were anyone else or in any other circumstance, he would plead complete ignorance of.

 

(As if he hadn’t memorized the string of digits when he was three. As if he hadn’t known it the moment Ana explained its meaning to an incredibly curious toddler.)

 

Really, it was such a ridiculous thing to lie about in the first place, wasn’t it?

 

“Good, good. Who’s the President?”

 

And he knew this one, but somehow he’s choking on the sentence. Sidestepping a mine that wasn’t even there, he furrowed his brow and let his voice come out nonchalant when he replied with the non-answer—

 

“Well, Bush was re-elected in 2004.”

 

“Yes, but who is the President right now?”

 

And it was a ridiculous question, because last he checked Bush was never impeached or assassinated or otherwise removed from office.

 

(Although to be fair, his subscription to the Times hadn’t been reaching him much recently.)

 

But when he attempted to put that sentiment into words, what came out instead was—

 

“That’d be me. President Stark, at your service.” The impromptu retort should have been sarcastic.

 

Tony wouldn’t touch public office with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole. Even then, he’d try to convince Pepper to go in his place, and he certainly wouldn’t aim for the Oval Office. If nothing else, recent events had taught him how absurdly ill-suited he was for executive power in his own damn company, let alone governance.

 

His vocal chords missed the memo. His words came far too serious even for deadpan.

 

“Very funny, Mr. President.” Yinsen fixed him with another exasperated look.

 

The persistent nagging in the back of Tony’s mind was getting worse. There was this feeling he couldn’t pinpoint. Some instinctual, fundamental sense of wrongness to this moment. This conversation.

 

But what?

 

However much he might wish otherwise, this was real.

 

Tony was still kidnapped. Still a prisoner in a freezing cave in the Afghan mountains. Still held by terrorists waiting for a ransom or a rescue that would never come.

 

Nothing more than a coward in a cave. A man who agreed to build missiles for his loyal customers, with little more than a half-baked escape plan to sooth his conscience. A plan that could fail the moment a single captor showed even a modicum of knowledge about engineering. The great Tony Stark.

 

Trying anyway, because if he was going to die, he would damn well go out fighting and take as many of these bastards with him as he could.

 

The confusion had to be illusory. It must stem from whatever event that had Yinsen checking him for a concussion in the first place.

 

And yet.

 

And yet...

 

What?

 

His headache was worsening, moving past migraine into spring ‘87 hangover territory.

 

Yinsen’s voice cut through the building tension.

 

“Tell me about the Jericho, Stark.”

 

+++

 

Knuckles rapped against the closed door.

 

A harried figure inside the office looked up briefly before refocusing on her current phone conversation. Her angry voice was hardly muffled by the wooden barrier, no doubt terrifying the intern or whoever it was who’d drawn the short straw to be sent her way.

 

“Where the fuck is Secretary Howley?! I have a call waiting from Director Haspel, and judging by what I’m seeing on the TV she doesn’t have good news for me. Howley was supposed arrive from the Pentagon twenty minutes ago and no one’s heard from him since the GPS cut out on 395!” The voice cut off, listening, then let out a loud sigh.

 

“Right. Fine. Call Hogan’s line, that should get you through to someone who can figure out if he’s involved or just stuck.”

 

The knock repeated, more insistent now.

 

“Look, I don’t have time to walk you through everything. Figure it out,” she said curtly, cutting the call.

 

A flashing golden icon on her screen distracted her from hopping into the next call. She scanned JARVIS’s message. It was probably too ambitious to hope for good news, but please, God, she hoped the situation somehow hadn’t managed to deteriorate even further since the AI last forwarded her an update. She didn’t want to learn what would be worse than the absolute clusterfuck this already was.

 

JARVIS:: Miss Johnson. I have taken the liberty of addressing Director Haspel’s concerns in your stead and am in the process of redirecting the bulk of my servers to assist DS&T with pinpointing and stopping the transmission.

 

JARVIS:: I will be pulling out of the White House networks entirely over the next several minutes. Miss Potts has elected to activate one of Sir’s contingency protocols and thus FRIDAY, an adaptive AI tailored towards crisis coordination, will be coming online to address the deficit. You and Miss Potts will be her primary points of contact and she will defer to one of you on major decisions.

 

Wonderful.

 

It couldn't be a good sign that President Stark's terrifying digital assistant was unable to juggle his current workload to the point that he’d need to call for his own AI backup.

 

Though really, the scene playing out on the television might have warned her about that.

 

The golden icon flickered and disappeared, the persistent widget dropping out of her desktop’s taskbar for the first time since, well… ever.

 

Its absence was surprisingly disconcerting. When she was first appointed Chief of Staff following Maria Hill’s departure, she’d been properly introduced to and told of the AI’s true capabilities. At the time, she had found JARVIS's virtual omnipresence in the West Wing unsettling.

 

Now, JARVIS’s absence was just as uncanny, if not more.

 

Her door opened. Apparently, whoever was on the other side had grown tired of waiting for permission to enter. The sound snapped her attention away from the corner of the screen she’d lingered on for a fraction of a second too long.

 

To her surprise, it was Clint Barton— Hawkeye —who strode into the room.

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be—”

 

“Glued to Pepper’s side? Yes. She’s in the Situation Room with Rhodes. Sent me to pull you in as our current resident tech expert what with—” He grimaced, gesturing towards TV mounted on the wall.

 

Skye had been avoiding looking in that direction beyond the periphery awareness that the broadcast was still live. She automatically followed his movements and involuntary refocused her attention on the TV.

 

The President was central in the frame, camera angled such that he was visible only from the chest up. Thick, white bandages wrapped around his chest. A thin, sluggish stream of blood had begun to trail down from the corner of his mouth as he spoke, though its source was not immediately apparent. It dripped from his chin onto the bandages, gradually turning them into a gruesome imitation of a Pollock painting.

 

The TV was muted, but captions were printed alongside the time clock on the NSA overlay someone had thought to patch her into. She grimaced and looked away.

 

Three minutes, twenty-seven seconds and counting on-air, Christ.

 

“Can’t really say more here, but when I left she looked one wrong word away from sticking her heel through MacKenzie’s eye, so…”

 

Skye nodded. Her eyes briefly swept her desk for anything that needed to come with her.

 

“Also brought you a few gadgets courtesy Dr. Stark.” Here, Clint would normally have some half-joking, snarky comment regarding the President’s tendency to have a contingency plan for everything and then some, but…

 

Clint’s gaze shifted over to the TV, and Skye knew immediately where his mind had gone.

 

President Stark's normally-brown eyes, now marred by an unnatural, swirling red.

 

She took the headset and corresponding... pager? Battery? PDA? The headset clicked easily into place, leading to several seconds of rapid blinking as the small glass pane immediately came to life, commandeering her entire field of view in her right eye. Her brain was forced to abruptly adjust to the sudden mismatch in visual input, and it wasn’t particularly pleased by their almost entirely disjoint natures.

 

She quickly flicked through the abbreviated usage directions, lingering just long enough to confirm the basic and most pertinent operational details before dismissing it entirely.

 

In its stead, a rose-gold icon appeared in the upper right corner of her vision, pulsing with a unread notification

 

FRIDAY?

 

It was.

 

She slipped what she now knew to be a computer and AI access point powered by arc reactor technology, holy shit into her pocket.

 

All of this happened in perhaps thirty seconds. She turned back towards Clint, ready to follow him downstairs.

 

“Thanks,” she said. It was the closest thing to comfort she could offer.

 

+++

 

Pietro watched his sister work in silence.

 

The duality of reality as it was and reality as Wanda’s powers defined it was always disconcerting at the start, but in the build-up to their first official SHIELD—no, HYDRA, and that rankled—mission, he’d learned to overcome that initially moment of dissonance after a few seconds of adjustment.

 

Learning to project without overwhelming had been another step in Wanda’s fight for control over her powers.

 

The end result was that, in the here and now, Pietro saw the vision entrapping Stark as a ghostly overlay to the scene that was being broadcast to the world. It mutated in response to Stark’s thoughts and Wanda’s probing, a delicate balance designed to both encourage their prisoner to talk and prevent them from realizing there was anything to fight against.

 

Pietro had been in favor of carrying out the original plan—shattering the man’s mind in search of information, followed by a long-overdue execution—but was swayed by Wanda’s logic.

 

“He deserves to die a monster, not a martyr.”

 

A few extra hours spent in Stark’s presence was a pittance compared to the priceless value to be found in watching the man destroy himself. Especially given there was no (had never been a?) SHIELD to use the knowledge Wanda took to expose him after the fact.

 

She started out by proving that, while under duress, Stark was still compelled to tell the truth. He might try to avoid answering the question directly, he might even in theory remain silent, but he would not lie.

 

Part of the trap of Wanda’s mind techniques was her ability to suggest specific emotions and push them to extremes. She might make him feel utter terror or complete despair. Could induce euphoria approaching nirvana or pain beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend.

 

The emotions were fleeting, would begin to fade as soon as she stopped nurturing them, but they would leave scars that could—or rather, would, given his meagre time left on Earth—last a lifetime.

 

He watched as she gradually dialled his guilt upward until it became soul-crushing, the kind of guilt that brokered no forgiveness, promise of redemption, or inner peace. The kind of guilt that left a man desperate for atonement that he could never find, coupled with a desire to confess in hopes of finding some form of absolution anyway.

 

Primed by emotion, the basic truth of Stark’s words confirmed, his sister began to delve into the most personal of Stark’s sins, when a warmongering weapons manufacturer designed then sold the missile that killed their parents.

 

Pietro watched.

 

His demeanour carried the grim satisfaction of the righteous dispensing justice.

 

+++

 

It wasn’t immediately obvious that anything was amiss, that the script they’d constructed in their minds was about to go wildly off-track.

 

Here’s the problem:

 

Stark felt guilty.

 

It was evident in his posture. In the hunch of his shoulders which overpowered the pain the movement must cause from the recent surgery. In his voice, and the words it carried.

 

But.

 

He didn’t feel guilty about the right things.

 

It was sickening to watch; Wanda was doing her best but even her powers were proving little match for the man’s God-complex and capacity for self-delusion.

 

She did her best to nudge him in the right direction.

 

Wanda had learned to see the truth in the depravity and guilty of the monsters her mind touches.

 

It was infinitely harder with Stark; the master manipulator had warped his own internal reality in a way that cast himself the hero rather than the demon.

 

Somewhere, deep inside at the core of his being, awaited the truth of the man Stark was. A truth that even Stark could not erase entirely despite his immense capacity for self-deception.

 

Pietro could see the toll the struggle was taking on Wanda. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead and traced patterns down her body.

 

When asked, she reassured Pietro that she could handle it, and he didn’t argue.

 

They had walked together down this path for nearly a decade, but this was something Wanda needed to do alone. The best Pietro could do was to continue to stand by her side and support her.

 

He’d done his piece. Now he had to let her do hers.

 

+++

 

Yinsen’s face bled into that of a brunette woman.

 

...a flashback?

 

He was in a small room, still hooked up to an IV working to fix months of malnourishment followed by extreme dehydration. He was being debriefed, and he knows they’re doing their best to make him feel as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. The room had multiple clerestory windows letting in natural light; the air conditioning was set to carefully toe the line between too warm and too chilly.

 

If he was Goldilocks, did that make Rhodey the bear?

 

His interrogator (debriefer?) was around his age, dressed in a way that screamed American without being overly military.

 

The door was slightly ajar; closed enough to block most noise but open enough to reassure Tony that he could leave at any time, that he was not a prisoner.

 

Or at least, no more a prisoner than anyone else, bound by social convention and the understanding that this conversation needed to happen. It was best done sooner rather than later given Tony’s intense and frequently-expressed desire to return to the States as soon as possible. Better to have now, when they could take breaks as needed, than ensconced on a plane with nowhere to go if he felt the need.

 

Tony could understand the logic and psychology of it, was self-aware enough that he even agreed with it to some extent.

 

That didn’t mean he had to like it.

 

It certainly wasn’t enough stop the jittery anxiety and the increasingly difficult-to-suppress need to be out. Not even a destination in mind, just a nebulous, primal desire to be not-here the superseded his rational mind.

 

Right now, it was only the guilt of what had happened that stayed his hand, a desperate desire to find some sort of answers to the questions that had been tormenting him three months now.

 

How did terrorists get their hands on so many of his weapons?

 

Weapons he built to protect and defend, not destroy.

 

(What was his life’s work, how could he live with himself, how could he continue to look Rhodey and Pepper in the eye, if he did not right this wrong?)

 

The room was fuzzy, and everything felt wrong-wrong-wrong.

 

Female bled into male, the unnamed woman warped into Agent Coulson, and—

 

...a flashback?

 

“Stark. You with me? You’ve been quiet for the past couple minutes; Do you need some time?”

 

And sure, the statement was as manipulative as it was genuine, giving him an out even as it instinctively raised his hackles at the perceived insinuation of weakness. He appreciated the gesture nonetheless.

 

“No, no, I’m… sorry, what was the question?”

 

“The fight? Your partner, Obadiah Stane, was murdered?”

 

He wanted to protest, the connotations of murdered so much worse than died or killed or defended myself.

 

But really, wasn’t it accurate?

 

He had...

 

No, Pepper had...

 

At his behest...

 

She’d pressed the button...

 

To save his life, a choice that wasn’t really a choice…

 

Obie sold weapons to terrorists.

 

He tried to have Tony killed for fear Tony might find out.

 

Paralyzed on the couch, Obie looming over him...

 

Duplicity, perhaps, but never this.

 

Ripped Tony’s heart from his chest...

 

He let out a strangled scream that turned into a groan of pain. His unwillingness to implicate Pepper warred with a desperate urge to explain, to tell the story he’d kept buried behind half-truths and misdirections for so long. He needed to make sense of his past; everything else fell by the wayside in comparison. He couldn’t keep these secrets any longer, for his own sake if nothing else.

 

The truth will set you free.

 

His chest burned, a pulse of agony spreading out from where his sternum had been was.

 

His reactor?!

 

Worse, the car battery?

 

He vomited bile into his lap. Drenched in sweat...

 

No.

 

Tony was with Coulson. He was stressed but uninjured.

 

Vision blurred with tears...

 

Trapped in a room. A sudden, blinding brightness shone in his face.

 

Men speaking in a language he didn’t understand. A machine gun pointed at his head.

 

He tried. He had to… where was he? What was happening? The knowledge slipped like water through his hands, he couldn’t… he needed to focus, dammit.

 

His eyes caught on a steadily blinking red light and—

 

The camera clicked off.

Chapter Text

“How do you know the CIA had nothing to do with the Kennedy Assassination?”

 

“He died.”

 

+++

 

Of the four major Directorates the CIA was organized into, the Directorate of Science and Technology, or S&T, often drew far less attention than its flashier counterparts. It wasn’t that S&T was intentionally neglected or underfunded, but ever since the disaster that was the “Star Wars Defense Initiative” of the eighties, the Executive branch had been far more willing to adopt a laissez-faire approach to S&T.

 

As Defense Secretary, Dr. Stark had taken one look at the S&T’s decades-in-the-making torpor and promptly took action in the way he always did: dramatically and irreversibly.  While ostensibly the Secretary of Defense was appointed the watcher to the CIA’s watchmen, years of administrative neglect had eroded the connection until it was tenuous at best.

 

As such, it’d taken a bit longer for the Stark-induced shock waves to hit the CIA than with other agencies that had maintained closer ties with the administration. And even as the CIA as a whole began to feel the early impacts of the Secretary’s influence and attention, S&T again seemed destined to remain on the outskirts, feeling faint tremors but overall maintaining homeostasis.

 

It was the calm before the storm.

 

+++

 

“Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.

Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.

Age: five thousand three hundred days.

Profession: none, or "starlet"

 

+++

 

When Dr. Stark’s efforts finally turned to bringing S&T into the rapidly-expanding fold of his technical staff and allies, the directorate underwent a minor renaissance.

 

In some sub-departments and offices, the changes were more immediately evident than in others. The Office of Technical Readiness (OTR) in particular flourished under the attentions of the self-proclaimed futurist.

 

Often considered a bit of a dead-end office, career-wise, OTR had a reputation for being perennially understaffed. Recruiting for the CIA had always been a long and arduous process, taking around ten months on average. While the process was protracted for good reason, even  the most civic-minded of potential recruits rarely found the slog worth the potential payoff. In an age where demand for engineering talent far outpaced supply, why waste months trying to secure a role in a department that was so clearly beyond its peak glory days of the early and mid Cold War?

 

Change never happened overnight, but Dr. Stark’s appointment proved to be a turning point that would help return OTR to its former position as a cornerstone enabling the continuance of S&T’s core mission and values.

 

Grace Harris’s employment within the agency was perhaps one of the earliest examples of this.

 

She was nothing special—a bog-standard university “new grad” hire by nearly every measure.

 

The personal history available for the agency to comb through prior to her hiring was neither extensive nor complex. She grew up in a rural middle-American town. It was the kind of place where Tractor Tuesday was a vaunted Homecoming Week tradition and diversity meant having both a Baptist and Assemblies of God congregation within its six square mile border.

 

She’d gone to the best engineering school in the state no one outside the region had ever heard of. A combination of FAFSA, scholarships, and a modest amount of loans saw her through a four-year degree in Electrical Engineering with a supplementary concentration in Control Systems. A flawless 4.0 GPA, five semesters of research work leading to a glowing recommendation, and a pair of internships at respectable companies in the industry was enough to get her resume in front of an actual human, while affirmative action saw here through the pseudo-lottery leading to preliminary phone screens early on in her Senior year.

 

A favorable impression in her initial interview beget nearly a year of extensive vetting and seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles, beginning with a second phone screen.

 

A few days later came a request for information as part of her background check.

 

A month later, she was invited to D.C. for an in-person interview with her prospective manager. It was immediately followed by a friendly yet mildly terrifying interrogation and polygraph test.

 

She must have passed, because from there came yet another request to supply supporting information. She supplied a fair number of character witnesses extending as far back as the second grade teacher who’d awarded her with the 3rd Quarter Student Citizen Certificate her parents unearthed from a box of momentos in their basement.

 

For a while, it seemed as though every person she’d so much as spoken to once was getting called in for an interview about their thoughts on Grace Harris.

 

All that, and it wasn’t until the June following her Senior year, months after the last of the interviews tapered off, that she formally received a job offered with a start date in med-September.

 

She bought her ticket to D.C. that evening.

 

Less than three months into her life as a public sector engineer, Iron Man—Dr. Stark—was appointed Secretary of Defense by President Ellis.

 

Grace, the youngest in the office by about seven years, had a unique perspective on the appointment and the months that followed in comparison to her colleagues. A nineties kid and so-called “digital native” in a world of Gen X’ers and early Millennials, she was still in high school when Iron Man first debuted. While her coworkers struggled to help the CIA forge its identity in a post-9/11 world, she was still in elementary school learning to touch-type.

 

She felt a bit like a third-party observer as the agency, or at least her department’s corner of it, began to reinvent itself under Dr. Stark’s direction.

 

When governmental timelines tended to be measured in years rather than quarters, the rate of change during that period was downright dizzying. To many of her more entrenched colleagues, it was as if the floor had shifted out from underneath them.

 

But where they struggled, Grace thrived.

 

It wasn’t long before her manager approached her one day with an opportunity to transfer onto a team working on one of the higher-clearance initiatives Dr. Stark was spearheading in the Department of Defense.

 

She accepted, joining a trio of more senior colleagues in the move as the junior Technical Readiness Liaison to the Ultron Program.

 

Then came Veteran’s Day. The SHIELDRA Leak decimated the upper echelons of CIA personnel, forcing the remainder to step into roles and responsibilities typically required years of gradual career growth. While OTR, Grace’s base office, weathered the initial storm fairly well in comparison to many sectors of the CIA, it still keenly felt the personnel squeeze. Much of their best talent found themselves appropriated to shore up headcount for other critical roles and positions.

 

The Ultron Program was abruptly shelved.

 

Amidst the chaos of crisis mitigation and recovery, Grace was somehow appointed both impromptu consultant and de facto courier. Within weeks, her growing professional reputation allowed her to essentially stumbled into a role as a primary point of contact between the entirety of S&T and the DoD.

 

After six months of bouncing back and forth between teams and agencies, the global situation and President Stark’s administration had generally stabilized. Life in D.C. began to settle into a tentative new equilibrium. Sure, there was still an external hiring freeze in effect. And sure, everyone knew but politely didn’t acknowledge that the ongoing trickle of traumatized transfers were all but exclusively former SHIELD Agents.

 

But just as they had following 9/11, people were adapting into what was already being called the “post-SHIELDRA” world.

 

Grace’s relative visibility during critical moments of the crisis meant that, unbeknownst to her, the higher-ups started to scout her for a more permanent career shift.

 

Unknown, at least, until Grace came into work one morning and found an email and accompanying calendar invite from President Stark’s then-Chief of Staff, Maria Hill, waiting in her inbox.

 

One minor panic attack later— because holy crap, former right-hand woman of Nick Fury, turned President Stark’s right hand and the face of the former SHIELD contingent! —she recovered enough from the shock to accept the request.

 

Ms. Hill had been both more and less intimidating than she’d expected. Within a week of their meeting, Grace Harris was officially ‘on loan’ to the Administration as an S&T (or rather, DS&T, as her non-Agency colleagues apparently referred to it) engineering consultant. She even managed to get an assigned desk in the West Wing. It may have been a tiny, shared desk, but two or three days every week, she now worked there instead of at her comparatively spacious cubicle within DS&T headquarters.

 

It was nothing like what she imagined she would being doing a few years out from her Bachelor’s degree in engineering. A series of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, chance meetings, and lucky breaks had led to her success. Whenever she took the time to reflect, she couldn’t help but feel incredibly blessed.

 

Someone upstairs was looking out for her.

 

And while she was incredibly thankful, today Grace found herself praying that divine grace might bless the President instead.

 

The combined might of the U.S. Government and President Stark’s personal technical resources couldn’t shut down the broadcast. Before it abruptly cut itself off, they’d proven equally inept at tracing the feed’s origins.

 

The chilling echo of the President’s scream lingered in the silence.

 

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” a voiced breathed into the room, startling everyone out of their momentary trance.

 

Though she wasn’t overly fond of the language, Grace certainly agreed with the sentiment.

 

“Miss Harris?” the voice in her headset prodded, surprisingly gentle.

 

It was JARVIS. Or rather, J.A.R.V.I.S., President Stark’s personal AI. Even before the President’s kidnapping, he had become a bit of an open secret within certain corners of the federal government. Grace herself interacted with him rarely but more often than most outside the President’s inner circle, primarily thanks to her time as part of the Ultron team.

 

Perhaps the past several months had led to niggling suspicions regarding the AI’s true agency and sentiency.

 

If so, she’d known better than to voice them.

 

Then again, that cat was might be out of the bag sooner rather than later after the events of the past few hours as JARVIS took an increasingly active role in S&T’s work. Few at the agency were experts in machine learning or neural networks, true. But it didn’t take a graduate degree to realize that a ‘digital assistant’ purported to merely be the President’s souped up, snarkier Siri shouldn’t be capable of even a fraction of what JARVIS was managing to accomplish.

 

Her mind was wandering now, distracted by stray thoughts and musings borne of exhaustion and a surplus of unprocessed heavy emotion.

 

She stilled, a new thought striking her:

 

If JARVIS… if he could choose, if he had emotions and agency and hopes and dreams of his own…

 

Did that… wouldn’t that imply… was JARVIS in some way the President’s child? His… son?

 

From there, her mind continued down the rabbit hole of its own accord. Shock gave way to mild horror, casting a new light on JARVIS’s actions over the past several hours.

 

Because. Because imagine it was your family. Your parents, your dad even. And—oh God—not just that. A literal, tangible Father. A Creator that intentionally and deliberately hand-crafted you. A Creator that gave you the most precious gift of all, and was now being robbed of the same—

 

(free will. choice. for better or worse, for good or ill.)

 

It was the final straw breaking the camel’s back.

 

“I—I need a moment,” Grace stammered. She wasn’t quite sure who the statement was meant for.

 

Shaky hands removed her headset, half-tossing them onto her workstation with a loud clatter.

 

Nearby coworkers turned in concern.

 

Grace—stalwart, ever-professional, quietly-competent Grace—pushed back from her desk, stood, and all but fled the room.

 

She found and commandeered the nearest single-occupant restroom. She held herself together long enough to click the lock into place, then sank to the floor.

 

She slumped against the neutral beige wall.

 

In the privacy of the small room, she succumbed to the panic-attack-cum-mental-breakdown that was, in all likelihood, several months overdue.

 

+++

 

Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?

Why are you hiding, darling?

(I Talk in a daze, I walk in a maze

I cannot get out, said the starling).

 

+++

Eventually, Grace would return to her desk. Her eyes would be red but dry.

 

Eventually she, like so many others in a thousand different positions, would manage to channel that emotion into motivation to continue their work.

 

Eventually.

 

But in that moment, there was only this.

 

Only an ordinary person, asked to bear intimate witness to the suffering of another.

 

An ordinary person, ultimately helpless in that moment to do anything but watch.

 

It was a moment that played out in a thousand-thousand different ways. Millions confronted with the unwanted and unasked burden of being asked to endure.

 

Those with the right impetus—a child’s innocence to spare, perhaps—might avoid shouldering the bulk of that heavy weight.

 

But in that moment, millions more remained. Terribly, impossibly present as the scene unfolded on their screens.

 

Each could, in theory, turn away.

 

Few did.

 

+++

 

A plane crashes into a tower. The world stills.

 

Names etched on

the head of a pin.

 

A dozen regimes topple. A President dies. The world pauses, and perhaps thinks itself jaded.

 

Keep Calm

And Carry On

 

A man is kidnapped.

 

A man that is not just a man is taken. Tortured. Violated.

 

But.

 

First, a man became a symbol. Was anointed representative and scapegoat for a thousand different ideas and ideals.

 

Futurist. Genius. Inventor.

 

(Doctor. Chief Executive. Secretary.)

 

45th President of the United States of America.

 

He is the personified amalgam of as many hopes and dreams. A global titan and superhero. The Savior of New York.

 

Avenger.

 

He is history in motion. A man whose every action seems to lend credence to the Great Man school of historical inquiry. He is perhaps as close to a true Leader of the Free World as any man has been in living memory and is at the peak of his popularity. He is chaos incarnate that has weathered a dozen storms only to emerge each time all the stronger for it.

 

A man becomes a symbol of stability. Becomes the rock and anchor for a society threatening to drown under the weight of so much uncertainty and fear and hate.

 

He became a symbol, but more than that: Tony Stark came to believe. Truly and wholeheartedly, he believed in a humanity that was and could be So Much More. He saw firsthand some of the worst society had to offer and rose from the quagmire more certain than ever that he’d seen something worth fighting for. Worth dying for, even.

 

It is all too easy to lose sight of the person beneath the image in the face of all that Belief and Expectation.

 

All too easy to forget the very real, very human reality underpinning the idealized paragon.

 

Tony Stark was many things to many people. But ultimately, he was still just a man.

 

+++

 

Officer, officer, there they go—

In the rain, where that lighted store is!

And her socks are white, and I love her so,

And her name is Haze, Dolores.

 

+++

Water dripped from Stark’s body. Every few seconds, an involuntary shudder wracked through him, shaking a fresh shower loose.

 

He no longer smelled of vomit and sickness.

 

Wanda paused in her approach and turned to Pietro.

 

“He’s drenched.”

 

“So?”

 

She gave him a meaningful look.

 

“Fine,” Pietro said, “But it’s your job to dry him off, if you’re so worried.”

 

Wanda rolled her eyes and shooed him away.

 

Predictably, he reappeared a moment later at her side, a hair’s breadth away from actually touching her.

 

In months past, it might have managed to startle her. She was used enough to his antics by now that Wanda’s only reaction was a raised eyebrow and, okay, maybe an expression that might be considered an amused smile.

 

Pietro flashed a brief grin. He studied her for a moment then leaned in, brushing a loose strand of disturbed hair back behind her ear.

 

“Don’t let him get to you,” he said gently.

 

His hand dropped to rest on her shoulder, eyes drifting shut as she closed the remaining distance. Their foreheads met and she let out a soft sigh, relaxing into his embrace.

 

It helped ground her, reasserting her presence in reality over the distorted worlds she encountered in the minds of others. When she was younger and less experienced, Pietro was often the one to pull her out of powers-induced catatonia. He was her anchor, just as she was his.

 

The familiar gesture steadied her. He breathed in, and she breathed with him. Soon, their breaths were entirely in sync.

 

“Better?” He asked when she pulled away several seconds later.

 

She didn’t have an answer for him, never really could in moments like this.

 

She nodded anyway, trusting him to read the complete response in her expression.

 

He stepped back and handed over the towel acquired from who-knew-where. Cloth in hand, she approached Stark.

 

+++

 

Who is your hero, Dolores Haze?

Still one of those blue-capped star-men?

Oh the balmy days and the palmy bays,

And the cars, and the bars, my Carmen!

 

+++

The camera clicked on.

 

A damp towel draped over Stark’s shoulders caught the occasional drip from still-wet hair. He occasionally shivered, but it was no longer the dramatic, full-body movement it had been.

 

Wanda resumed her interrogation.

 

She took a slightly gentler approach this time. Not out of any particular kindness or misplaced compassion. Pure practicality.

 

(liar)

 

She reached for too much too quickly, before. Let her emotions get the better of her. Stark was the toughest mind she’d ever tried to crack. She should have expected that some of the tricks she’d perfected on weaker minds would fail.

 

Be objective.

 

They wanted a confession.

 

Reframe that in a way that might get around Stark’s deeply-entrenched internal narratives.

 

(Cognitive dissonance, von Strucker called it once, comforting her in the aftermath of a particularly twisted mind. The prettiest of lies—victim not assailant—but never entirely able to shake the truth.)

 

They wanted a confession.

 

Phrased another way: they wanted evidence. They wanted information.

 

So Stark had murdered, by his own hand or through that of another, a man that had been an executive at Stark Industries for literal decades.

 

Her attempts to force him to confront that directly had only led the man fight harder to cling to his imagined narrative. No wonder that, coupled with her powers prohibiting giving voice to the comforting lies, he made himself sick.

 

So Stark had been kidnapped by the same criminals he’d sold weapons to.

 

So Stark had gotten cold feet, balked when forced to witness— experience —the consequences of his decisions first-hand.

 

So Stark became Iron Man for the first time, and ensured none but himself survived to tell the tale of just what had happened in that cave and why.

 

So a few months later, Obadiah Stane was dead. Just as he nearly succeeded in removing Stark from power for good.

 

She’d begun with the what. This time, she’d aim for the why. The rest would follow.

 

+++

 

Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.

Her dream-gray gaze never flinches.

Ninety pounds is all she weighs

With a height of sixty inches.

 

+++

 

It’d been ten days since Obi—since Stane’s—funeral.

 

He felt like shit. The injuries from the fight were beginning to heal, but his mind seemed determined to replace real pain with the remembered. All the painkillers in the world couldn’t dull those aches. And so Tony was in his workshop, staring at an empty screen when he should no doubt have been at Stark Industries dealing with the myriad Very Urgent Issues awaiting him there.

 

He shivered again.

 

“Dammit J, thought we agreed to turn off the A/C?”

 

“It is currently 81 degrees in the workshop.”

 

Right. Of course. Because he was a basket-case these days who couldn’t handle so much as a gentle breeze without a fucking flashback to a freezing cold cave and his face shoved in a goddamn bucket of cold and dirty water.

 

He could still feel the water dripping, tracing rivulets down his neck. Doubled over, hacking up a damaged lung’s worth of water when they let him up for air.

 

Probably just sweat since you went and turned your shop into a sauna, remember, genius?

 

He didn’t apologize for the harshness. He didn’t apologize to actual people, and JARVIS was Just a Rather Very Intelligent System.

 

...Enough sulking, Stark. Things to do, people to screw—

 

don’t waste your life

 

—and all that.

 

Channel all that angst into something productive.

 

“JARVIS, pull up the files. The financials aren’t going to untangle themselves, and fuck knows we don’t want some alphabet soup agency showing us up on this one.”

 

“As you say, Sir.”


+++

 

My Dolly, my folly! Her eyes were vair,

And never closed when I kissed her.

Know an old perfume called Soliel Vert?

Are you from Paris, mister?

 

+++

 

“He’s fighting it.”

 

Pepper’s voice broke the silence that had descended in the Situation Room as the minutes had dragged on.

 

“He’s… he’s leaving things out. It’s… Jim, you know how Tony is. After Stane… well, Stane was always the ruthless businessman, but he was our ruthless businessman. He and Tony had these routines—”

 

She trailed off as onscreen, Tony reacted to… whatever he was seeing, whatever he was being made to see and grimaced. His captor filled the silence, weaving whatever conversation was playing out in Tony’s mind into a narrative of questions and answers like this was some innocent interview on Sixty Minutes.

 

She forced herself to continue the half-voiced thought, unable to completely suppress that damnable tremor in her voice.

 

“Tony… Tony would be this unreasonable jackass. Stane would swoop in, consummate professional and conciliatory, long-suffering ally. Tony would gamble with millions on vanity projects. Stane would crush the dreams of the ones that couldn’t deliver.

 

“It’s—Stane left a lot of potential scapegoats behind. I was one. The Hail Mary, last resort ghost-in-the-machine. Because if—if it ever came down to that, to him or me, with the evidence on Stane’s side...”

 

Who would Tony have believed? And could she fault him for that?

 

“Tony’s not—well. The numbers kept pointing to members of the board, carryovers from Howard’s day. And—well, with the injunction, who could have blamed him… but he kept digging, never said a word until eventually he put together the final audit report and it was clear the only willfully malevolent actor implicated was Stane.”

 

She’s choking on her words again, eyes locked onto where Tony continued to detail the financials and duplicity behind the greatest corporate scandal no one’s ever heard of on-screen.

 

She was the only one he had ever let catch glimpses of the person behind the persona, and this when he was doing his best to push her out as well and eventually she’d let him—

 

“Tears for you long-lost boss?”

 

Someone offered a comforting hand to her right. She didn’t know when Kate—Vice President Pryde, or if you listened to Tony, Kitty —had returned, but Pepper accepted the proffered support gratefully.

 

“It’s not even lying by omission, not really… but there’s a lot that went into that report that… well, Stane’s death looks awful convenient from a certain point of view, doesn’t it? Collateral damage standing in the way of Tony’s… of our—”

 

It was as if speaking the words would bring life to the nightmare Tony and later she herself had envisioned.

 

“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” Kate said softly.

 

A modern Lord and Lady Macbeth.

 

It said a lot about the loyalty of those in the room that not a single one entertained the possibility of there being any truth behind the words’ ugly implications.

 

+++

 

Consider this:

 

The infinite is fundamentally irreducible to the finite. It can never be fully possessed nor controlled.

 

Each stone exacts a price from those who dare to wield its power.

 

The Mind Stone took its first toll here:

 

The Maximoffs saw the man and thought to expose the Monster hiding beneath.

 

Instead, they forced the world to see the man within the Myth.

 

+++

 

My car is limping, Dolores Haze,

And the last long lap is the hardest,

And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,

And the rest is rust and stardust.

 

Chapter Text

The lone Iron Legionnaire landed in the ruins of what may have once been a laboratory.

 

While JARVIS was ostensibly in control, the legionaries were largely autonomous. They were not sentient, not like JARVIS or—once she gained her footing—FRIDAY would almost certainly be. But most of the time, JARVIS himself, his main attention, or consciousness as it were, was not actually present.

 

This was no exception. 

 

The footage was being transmitted back, of course.

 

Both JARVIS and the Legionnaire’s partner Air Force pilot, callsign Octavius, were monitoring the footage, but the myriad of other readings and metrics were handled autonomously by the Legionnaire itself. One of those metrics had led the Legionnaire here.

 

It cautiously made its way into the ruins, dutifully scanning its surroundings and heading towards the epicenter of the readings that led it to Novi Grad to begin with.

 

It paused in front of what looked to be just another stone brick wall, head quirking at an angle not unlike a curious dog.

 

A query was sent out. A decision was made.

 

The Iron Legionaire raised its repulsor and blasted away the wall, revealing a hidden staircase.

 

It noted the trail of bloodstains and began its descent.

 

+++

 

Tony was in the jet’s tiny kitchen, staring in dismay at the dessicated remains of his latest attempt at an omelette.

 

“J, how many eggs do we have left?”

 

“Those were the last, Sir,” JARVIS said apologetically.

 

“Right. Okay. Guess it’ll have to do—it’s the thought that counts, right? We can ask the pilot nicely to make a pit stop in… I don’t know. Nice? Omelette sounds French, but Paris sounds more romance than Sorry I’m Dying, don’t you think?”

 

JARVIS didn’t reply; he knew Tony was more talking to himself than the AI for this one—

 

Not that JARVIS could know anything, or at least not any more than a vacuum “knew” how to clean—

 

Only thing Hammer ever made that didn’t suck was a vacuum.

 

—or a calculator “knew” how to plot an equation on a graph, of course.

 

+++

 

There were very few exceptions to the blanket ban on lab access. The access control list to the Mark II, which Tony definitely hadn’t touched since that first ill-fated flight in it, was even more restrictive. JARVIS had unrestricted permissions to taser anyone else that got too close to the armor that wasn’t on that list—e.g. Anyone who wasn’t Rhodey and Tony.

 

Tony knew that, and he thought Rhodey probably knew on some level as well. Certainly Director Fury wasn’t fooled by his attempts at deflection.

 

He felt the targeted stab of the hypodermic needle before he consciously registered the threat. By then, Tony was already half-panicked and trying to figure out if JARVIS had a close enough connection to the suit to fly him out of here if needed. To get him back to the lab and— 

 

Fuck. His reactor. He already felt different, what if they were after the reactor—

 

Fuck! Tony had thought—

 

Stupid. So stupid. Didn’t matter what he’d thought. Tony was going to be dead in a few days, but he wanted to go out on his own terms. 

 

He didn’t want some sketchy spy organization getting ahold of his suit, didn’t want JARVIS to—

 

JARVIS to what? JARVIS is just a glorified Siri, could only do what Tony programmed him to. It—

 

(No. Definitely he. Totally normal to anthropomorphize tech. JARVIS, a program tailor-written to suit Tony’s ego. Why else would he feel the need to create an artificial and perfectly-obedient butler? An obsequious Alfred to Tony’s Batman.)

 

JARVIS was just the pseudo-sapient glorified operating system guarding Tony’s private servers. There was plenty on there he didn’t want SHIELD getting their grubby paws on. 

 

But then, back at the mansion, JARVIS wasn’t there. Was (dead) offline.

 

"Taser you and watch supernanny while you drool on the carpet."

 

He did what he learned while isolated and under extreme duress in Afghanistan: played along just enough to be tolerated and then goddamn built himself a way out.

 

What did it matter if he failed, he'd be dead and what could Coulson possibly do to Tony then?

 

(It wasn’t Coulson doing something to Tony that he truly feared.)

 

JARVIS’s absence rankled. It was the second time SHIELD successfully to shut him down now. They’d fixed the exploits and vulnerabilities that were used against JARVIS the first time around. Hooked up JARVIS to his own emergency power grid. Eliminated the override Obie had taken advantage of when he—

 

But still. All this was done only for the sake of his pride. Just his pride. He refused to be bested at anything, ever. His actions were not borne of care or empathy or genuine concern for an incredibly advanced, unique software package he’d spent years designing and upgrading.

 

+++

 

Colantottes on his wrists, emergency signal sent.

 

“Now would be good, JARVIS!”

 

+++

 

“Shall I call Miss Potts?”

 

+++

 

"JARVIS, drop my needle."

 

+++

 

"As you wish, sir. I've also prepared a safety briefing for you to entirely ignore."

 

+++

 

“Welcome to the birthing suite.”

 

+++

 

"What are you waiting for? It's Christmas. Take 'em to church."

 

+++

 

“JARVIS, how would you feel about having a physical form?”

 

+++

 

“Daddy’s home!”

 

+++

 

"As always sir, a great pleasure watching you work.”

 

+++

 

"JARVIS? JARVIS!? Don't leave me, buddy."

 

+++

 

“For you, Sir, always.”

 

+++

 

It took longer than it should have to try to figure out that the truths Stark fought so desperately to conceal were centered around his AI, “J.A.R.V.I.S..” She started actively trying to steer the interrogation and his mind in that direction. It was the continued, stubborn resistance in the face of a targeted effort that convinced Wanda she was onto something. She just couldn’t quite tell what that something was—the proverbial forgotten word on the tip of her tongue.

 

Before, she might have classed his vaguely-conscious struggles against the compulsions as mildly irritating at best. Now that he was, if not fully aware, at least semi-consciously fighting back, it was starting to become a seriously annoying inconvenience.

 

And then came the breaking point.

 

The moment when Wanda pushed a bit too far or a bit too quickly. Let herself get distracted for a moment too long. Faltered in some unknown way, though she couldn’t say how. Or maybe it was something Stark did, allowing him the presence of mind just long enough to—

 

It was over before Wanda knew it had started. 

 

Pietro darted forward.  He shoved something into their prisoner’s mouth.

 

Blood pooled rapidly in Stark’s mouth, welling up. Stark gagged, choking on—

 

A washrag?

 

Pietro, why—?

 

Wanda’s control definitely faltered then. The red faded from Stark’s eyes for the first time since they’d taken him as she took in the scene, uncomprehendingly.

 

Stark struggled to breathe around the obstacle, blood staining the rag red and escaping in tiny rivulets as he attempted to spit it from his mouth.

 

Pietro removed the gag a moment later, hovering unusually close as Stark continued to splutter, spitting up blood and gradually getting his breathing under control as the stem of blood ebbed.

 

Pietro hissed something into Stark’s ear that Wanda didn’t catch, her mind too busy deconstructing and reassembling the past few seconds until the pieces began to fall into place.

 

Stark just tried to bite off his own tongue.

 

If not for Pietro, he would have succeeded.

 

+++

 

Tony couldn’t trace how long the sense of wrongness had been building. Couldn’t tell you where he was or even where he’d been.

 

At some point, it just was.

 

The same lack of clear-headedness that made concepts like “time” and “space” unreliable at best was what alerted him, in the end.

 

His first thought, or at least the first thought he was aware of having, was that he was high on some unfamiliar psychedelic or hallucinogen.

 

That thought, too, floated away on the wind before long, but this time it left enough of an echo that he knew.

 

What he knew, he both did and did not know. He had to, and yet he couldn’t, because… because…

 

Tony was speaking—rambling really—in his lab. He wanted to stop. And yet… and yet he continued. He was talking to JARVIS. Or was that talking to himself? Talking to someone else, about JAR—

 

No, he would never. Had to protect him.

 

If they knew—

 

If anyone knew—

 

A hundred nightmare scenarios that didn’t exist because there was nothing to fear.

 

Red edging into the corners of his vision, and that was—

 

There was—

 

Nothing existed but the words he was saying, his confession or absolution or whatever this was, delivered to an empty lab and in a dark room that he was not aware of.

 

The only thing that mattered was that he stopped speaking.

 

And that lack of awareness, that wrongness that was and was not and had to be even as it couldn’t exist, reached a critical mass. For all his genius, he was cornered and outmaneuvered and—

 

just cut the wire

 

Without his voice, he could not speak.

 

Without the ability to shape words, he’d lose his voice.

 

Without his tongue, he wouldn’t be able to shape words.

 

It was but a moment. A singular burst of indomitable will.

 

He channeled everything he had into a solitary movement in the world that he did and did not inhabit.

 

Tony bit down.

 

A spike of pain. A blur of time. His body busy trying to remember how to breathe. Trying not to choke.

 

There was no time for anything so frivolous as thinking.

 

His mind slowly reasserted itself. Desperate gasps turned into rapid breathing skirting just on this side of hyperventilation alongside a racing heart.

 

Then, an accented voice.

 

“If you do not give, she will take. Your precious intellect won’t survive that.”

 

Tony blinked, and he was able to see again—really see, because he hadn’t been here even as he was—

 

He didn’t know how much time had passed. What he’d said or thought or revealed before he regained his sense of self enough to recognize on some level what he was doing—what was being done to him.

 

It was both something out of his nightmares— thanks, Loki— and something far worse.

 

+++

 

Capture the scene through the eyes of the camcorder lens. The scene as it is transmitted to the world in a paltry 24 FPS and 540P.

 

Linger on the current scene, a small splice of time pulled from hours of footage. Linger on this image:

 

There was the President of the United States. 

 

President Stark. 

 

Dr. Stark, thanks to the three PhDs obtained before he could legally drink. 

 

Iron Man. 

 

Behind every title stood the same man.

 

Tony Stark.

 

Blood dripped, leaking out the corner of his mouth. His eyes burned, bright with desperate terror and fierce determination. They bore a hard glint entirely unlike the Tony Stark the world had come to know and (occasionally, sometimes, often despite themselves) love.

 

A look only the dead could attest has always been an option.

 

Contrast these two splotches of life with the complete, unnatural stillness of the remainder of the scene.

 

The Uncanny Valley of a video that is almost a photo, the subconscious checklist of humanity ticking wrong-wrong-wrong in a way that few are able to pinpoint.

 

There are 86,400 seconds in a day. Take out this clip, duration insignificant to a degree that lacks even a proper SI prefix for a descriptor.

 

Examine that moment for long enough, as many times as JARVIS will come to, and perhaps learn to pick out the source underlying that uneasy, prickling sensation.

 

The human body is in constant motion in a thousand different ways, most of which pass our conscious self by entirely. The faint movement of lungs as they expand and contract. The thumping of the heart, and the accompanying sound of blood rushing through veins most commonly identified as the ocean in a seashell by small and older children alike. The twitch of muscles, infinitesimal, common, more vibration perhaps than twitch, rather than the dramatic, difficult to miss movements more commonly considered.

 

Micro-expressions and body language. Constantly changing in ways often not quite captured even given active attention.

 

For this brief slice of time, Tony is utterly lifeless in nigh-every way.

 

+++

 

It was an overreaction packaged in a delayed reaction to an incident that’s already over.

 

A long moment of absolute stillness followed.

 

As attuned as she was to Stark’s mind, his reaction as his mind processed the complete paralysis felt tangible in its weight.

 

Perhaps that was a good thing, even. It jarred her, yanking her out of her own mental paralysis enough to remember to loosen the chains of her control to a less… immediately fatal… level.

 

“That… all you… got… Voldemort?” Stark said through heaving breaths, words slurring into one another.

 

+++

 

In conjunction with DS&T, JARVIS was not-so-passively monitoring global communications regarding Sir’s abduction. The constant stream of data was predominantly forwarded directly to DS&T if it needed to pass through his systems at all, but every now and again a conversation managed to snag his attention for a moment.

 

The bulk of his own attention was focused on the Iron Legionnaire currently investigating their primary lead, a recently-destroyed HYDRA facility in Sokovia. But for seven milliseconds, JARVIS was distracted by a Macedonian group chat conversation discussing the live video feed.

 

It summed up his captor’s response to Sir’s defiant quip succinctly in a way that mirrored the glib attitude Sir himself tended to use when required to discuss unpleasant personal matters. 

 

Perhaps JARVIS was more like Sir than he preferred to acknowledge generally because, despite the grim subject, JARVIS found the commentary almost… comforting?... in the brief moment it occupied his thoughts.

 

It was the kind of conversation that Sir would find amusing.

 

[CONVERSATION SNAPSHOT LOGGED; NE42.0050-21.4408]

 

@jakkl:: knock-off crucio

@luddite:: no

@luddite:: worse

@jakkl:: ?

@luddite:: crucio’s the knock-off

 

One day, long after his safe return and recovery, JARVIS knew he would share the snippet with Sir.

 

+++

 

Just before the camera shorted out, Tony managed one final statement.

 

“JARVIS... activate the Sarah Connor Protocol.”

 

The video feed cut out. 

 

Around the world a million million screens slipped from Wanda’s grasp for good.

 

+++

 

Who are you?

 

Seven years spent with her life hewn to the obsessive hatred of a single person.

 

Two years spent in the willful employ of HYDRA.

 

(They hadn’t known.)

 

Wanda sought the monster lurking within the mind of Tony Stark. She possessed powers capable of divining the truths at the core of anyone her mind touched. So certain in her purpose, in the righteousness of her actions and the justice of her cause.

 

No reason to doubt. No reason to turn that undeniable insight inward. No reason to look into the core of her own being.

 

No need to examine just what, exactly, was nestled deep in the heart of Wanda Maximoff.

 

Uncontrolled rage beget uncontrolled magic. A final, blistering bid to unearth the rot Stark so desperately sought to hide. And in that moment, she knew.

 

The monster under the bed was never Tony Stark.

 

No. Instead, the demon in Wanda’s closet had worn an entirely different mask all along. They bore the faces of a young Sokovian man and woman unmoored and adrift in lives built on a rock-solid foundation collapsing beneath them into dust.

 

If Stark wasn’t the monster…

 

If the truths divined didn’t affirm the proportionality of her actions…

 

If Stark was not the villain…

 

(Take what makes you you. Then rip out the entirety of who you thought you were in one fell swoop.)

 

We create our own demons. 

 

And sometimes, we become them.

 

+++

 

“The scariest demons come in the form of unfiltered reflections. And then, the mirror becomes the hero’s prison.” — Arshi Dokadia

Chapter Text

A family of four sat down for dinner.

 

(Beef tripe soup.)

 

The father worried aloud that the political unrest in the city would soon erupt into outright violence. Between bites, he passionately decried those damned Slovaks and the ongoing legacy of the Cold War-era persecution and marginalization.

 

After a particularly explicit complaint, the mother stepped in and scolded her husband gently. Such talk, she said, was hardly appropriate dinner table conversation. Particularly not with such young ears listening.

 

Wanda pouted at the implication that, at ten years old, she and her brother weren’t yet ‘old enough.’ Especially not when she and Pietro heard far more colorful exhortations from Old Man Mihai all the time.

 

It was a perfectly normal day. There were no missiles, Stark Industries or otherwise, raining down from the sky. Though tensions in Sokovia were high, they hadn’t boiled over into outright violence.

 

Wanda finished her meal first, inhaling the food in her haste to move on to bigger, better, and far more interesting matters.

 

“May I be excused?!” she asked, all but vibrating in her seat.

 

“Wipe your face first,” Mother admonished. 

 

Wanda quickly wiped away her faint mustache of hearty broth, eyes still fixed impatiently on her parents.

 

Her father nodded. Wanda bounced to her feet, depositing her bowl in the sink before rushing over to where Tony waited. 

 

Where Tony had been leaning against the wall all along.

 

“Poďme,” Wanda said, not-quite-commanding Tony to follow her. Bemused but indulgent, Tony played along, taking his hand in her small but firm grip and proceeding to try her level best to tug him towards the exit. Vaguely, he realized that he shouldn’t understand her words, or anyone else’s. Tony didn’t speak Sokov. Yet somehow, he still understood. 

 

“Take Mr. Țăranu his bread on your way out, dear. Don’t wander off alone!” Mother called after them.

 

They made a slight detour to the breadbox. Wanda pulled out a freshly-made loaf of Cozonac, then gave a final goodbye to her family and headed out the door.

 

Tony could faintly hear Pietro’s voice behind them as the door swung shut.

 

“And you say I’m the one that’s always running everywhere.”

 

Tony grinned and agreeably followed his cheerful guide with her vibrant blood-red hair.

 

(“white shirt now red, my bloody nose”)

 

Their first stop was the requisite delivery two doors down at the door of Mr. Țăranu, better known to the Maximoff twins as Old Man Mihai.

 

“Well if it isn’t one of my favorite troublemakers,” Mihai said, “Where’s your partner in crime? You finally trade him in for a newer model?”

 

“No!” Wanda said with a laugh, “but we brought you this.” She held up her cargo for inspection.

 

“Ah, wonderful, wonderful. You and your mami are too good to me. Sweet children deserve sweet rewards for taking care of an old man like me, don’t they?”

 

Tony was temporarily forgotten in favor of potential sweets. 

 

Wanda beamed and followed Mr. Țăranu inside obligingly with Tony trailing behind them. The apartment was small and cramped. Half-listening, half taking in his surroundings, Tony gradually grew more and more conscious of his own confusion. What at first had seemed utterly natural now began to seem incongruous with…with whatever reality should be. Whatever had come before this.

 

One small Margot bar and short conversation later, Wanda remembered Tony’s existence. She said her goodbyes and folded her hand back into Tony’s. 

 

Together, they exited the apartment.

 

(“slee-ping, you’re on your tippy-toes”)

 

Trailing spirals of red in hues ranging from shiny like ruby to dull like wine in turn, swirled around them in a nightmarish reflection of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

 

Wanda clutched Tony’s hand tighter. The scene sharpened into a clear image.

 

They were on the other side of an observational window, looking in on another Wanda. The same girl beside him was now a young woman curled into a corner. Arms wrapped around her knees, knees tucked against her chest, she looked...

 

Empty. Forlorn. Hollowed out.

 

Wanda was now a shell of the kid she’d once been. Her hair had dulled from years of stress and neglect. While not quite malnourished, this Wanda was far thinner, had an almost sallow tint to her complexion.

 

The room was bare bones, aged and utilitarian. Not quite a cell, but hardly qualified as a proper bedroom either.

 

A gentle but firm knock sounded. Wanda looked up as the door to the… well, cell was perhaps a more honest term for the space than anything else… opened and a middle-aged man tentatively entered.

 

“Wanda?” Von Strucker’s voice was soft as he carefully approached her. “Dr. List told me what happened.” 

 

He knelt down, broadcasting his movement like one might with a wounded animal. His compassionate gaze met her blank one.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

 

Wanda shook her head.

 

“Alright. That’s okay. How about I just sit with you for a bit, then?”

 

She didn’t nod, but she also didn’t shrink away as he settled in beside her. He leaned back against the wall in a more open, relaxed version of Wanda’s own position.

 

Gradually, a spark of life returned to Wanda’s empty eyes, though they remained stubbornly dry of tears, unshed or otherwise. She leaned into Von Strucker and he wrapped a comforting arm around her.

 

“I can still feel him,” she said tentatively in a low, pained voice after some time. 

 

“His thoughts, his emotions his… pleasure. His satisfaction at their fear... at how his was able to get away time again and it’s like… it’s as if I were… as if it were… as though he was me.” She curled in on herself as she spoke but now, at least, there was Von Strucker’s comforting embrace to ground her.

 

“He was a monster. He doesn’t deserve pity or sympathy. And he’s dead and… and I killed him but.... but I remember what he’s done. Carry the weight of his actions as though I’d done them myself. And I don’t… I want it to stop. I want it out. I didn’t ask for this; I don’t want to understand him. Don’t want to know all the lies he told himself and how I—how he— twisted reality… 

 

“It’s not… It’s not fair . If I could only control this better… if I were better. I could be so much more, do so much, but…” she trailed off.

 

“Sometimes,” she admitted, voice so quiet now Tony ought not have been able to hear it, “I just want it all to stop. I just want to be… I want to be just me again…”

 

Unlike the teen in the room, the girl beside him was far less constrained in her emotions. She was openly, if silently, crying, tears tracking their way down her face.

 

Unthinkingly, Tony squeezed her hand in reassurance. She returned it with a surprised but grateful look.

 

Before he could react any further, the world bled into a morass of heavy reds.

 

(“cree-ping around like no one knows”)

 

The Wanda of this new scene was younger, perhaps seven or eight and adorned in a worn, dirtied dress. Her brother had wormed his way into a crew helping with the child-friendly aspects of clearing debris. This latest bombing blew out the windows and took out a huge chunk from the eastern walls of the church. Two days later, the community was already hard at work making it serviceable for Liturgy again.

 

Unfortunately for Wanda, no amount of wheedling was able to convince the men to accept her help. Eventually, she sullenly made her way over to Father Alexander. The priest was organizing and salvaging what he could from the scattered mess of church records, music sheets, and past homilies that once comprised his office library. Unlike the workmen, he might be open to a girl’s help.

 

Reality shifted.

 

The church was pristine. It was never bombed.

 

The ten-year-old clutching at Tony was mid-conversation with Father Alexander before he recognized her sudden absence.

 

“But if God hardened his heart, then how is it fair that the Pharaoh still gets hurt for it?”

 

“...Years ago, my younger sisters used to love molding and shaping river clay. Have you ever tried it?”

 

She nodded hesitantly, a bit thrown by the non sequitur but familiar enough with Father Alexander’s way of speaking to play along.

 

“Me and Sofia tried to make furniture for our dollhouses last summer,” Wanda said.

 

“How did that go?”

 

“Good, mostly… One time, though, I spent hours carving folk flower patterns into the wardrobe for Kristi’s room. I was extra careful, got it perfectly smooth and even first and everything. Then I went and baked it but… it still cracked, and not even where I did the designs. The whole thing was ruined.”

 

“Did you ever notice anything different about the clay that cracked instead of baking properly?”

 

“No… I mean, it was all just normal river clay we’d get, and once Sofia’s mami showed up how to actually mold it we were good about, um... structural integrity... so it should have been fine!”

 

“Would it be fair to say that, regardless of whether the end product turned out well or not, it was definitely dried and hardened by the same source?”

 

“I mean… we always put models out to bake on my apartment’s roof, because Sofia’s mami said up there was the most ‘consistent’ sun.”

 

“Consider that in this scenario, God is the sun and men are the clay. His Light touches the hearts of everyone, but just like with the clay, not everyone reacts the same way. For those of us who willingly place our faith in Him, His Grace—his light—is a blessing that strengthens and fortifies us. For others, men like the Pharaoh, who have chosen time and time again to reject His Grace, their hearts will still harden. But because the foundation was weak, even though we might not have been able to see from the outside, it hardens into something that is brittle and misshapen. 

 

“God knows our hearts; he knew how Pharaoh would react to His Grace just as he knew how Moses would respond. He exposed what was already there—the Pharaoh’s hatred of the Israelites—but he was not at fault for it, any more than we would blame the sun for our clay’s brittleness. Does that make sense?”

 

“Yeah…” Wanda said,.

 

“God gave us free will. Our actions and choices determine what kind of clay we are—that is, how we will respond to His presence. But He knows us, and he’s able to shape us in accordance with His Divine Plan even when we choose to reject Him.”

 

“But… why would Pharaoh choose to hate them in the first place?”

 

The priest studied Wanda for a long moment.

 

“...Is this about the protests?”

 

“Yes! Why do they hate us so much?! I never did anything to them, and neither did my parents!”

 

“Hate festers. We plant the seeds with our thoughts and actions, but over time, it grows. Our hearts harden, until the only thing we can see is our own hatred and we have no room for anything else. The more entrenched the emotions, the harder it becomes to change. Eventually, our hearts start to calcify—we don’t want to change, and so we never will. You and your parents might not have sown the seeds, but decades of animosity means that you shoulder its burden nonetheless. If you let it, your heart in turn will begin to harden, just as theirs once did against your forefathers.”

 

“I won’t let it,” Wanda swore.

 

The girl who promised was but a half-realized shade. Wanda—the real Wanda, whatever that meant—still clung to Tony’s side, staining his clothes with her silent tears.

 

The oath echoed. 

 

Specter and silent witness alike, Wanda fled. Merged into one and faded away.

 

Their voices, stolen from a thousand moments in a thousand memories, piled atop one another in the ether into a discordant symphony of rage and joy. 

 

Hatred and love.

 

Denial and acceptance.

 

There was nothing and then—

 

(“think you’re so criminal”)

 

There was Wanda Maximoff. Eighteen years old, and now Tony knew. Knew who and what she was, knew her as the adult that was simultaneously still so impossibly young.

 

There was Tony, and Tony remembered. He felt every one of his forty-some years and realized, now, where they were. 

 

Where he was. 

 

What had happened. What was still happening. What she and her brother had done. Were still doing. Tony stood tall. Unbroken and unbowed even as his physical self lay battered and slumped.

 

This Wanda’s eyes were red. Not the painful, horrifying scarlet of his recent memories, but the soft, glistening red of emotion. Of remorse.

 

They stared at one another, both unable or unwilling to break the impossible silence between them.

 

“I’m going to die. I am dying,” Tony said, the words both a defiant assertion and a question in turn.

 

Wanda met his gaze.

 

“We will not let you die,” she said. Given recent events the words could, maybe even should, have sounded like a threat. Her voice was exhausted. Heavy with shame and awash in negative emotions numerous and bold as the reds swirling around them.

 

A dozen questions Tony might have asked sprang to mind. Instead, he met her gaze and waited. Some part of him knows he should be far more upset. Far more concerned than he was. But the emotion feels...distant, somehow. Disconnected. There, but like the spirals around him, nothing more than a distant backdrop.

 

“I… I know there is likely nothing I, or my brother can do to ever deserve or even come close to earning your forgiveness. But… if you’ll allow me…” She reached out. Paused.

 

There was no distance great enough to stop Tony from tensing with dread. Not quite flinching away, but—

 

“Please. I have… you have no reason to believe me. To trust my word, to trust that I am not manipulating you even now. But… I have done enough damage to you. To your mind. Please, let me fix what little I can.”

 

He studied her. The dread was still there, but far enough away that he could still think. Tony felt like his normal, whole and rational self even as he knew that he shouldn’t and couldn’t possibly be so clear-headed.

 

He watched. 

 

She made no move to approach further.

 

But he knew. He could feel in some deep, visceral way that her words were genuine. The emotions were real. An eternity and a moment in her mind, and Tony knew Wanda. Knew who she was, knew what she’d done and why and how it made her feel. He knew every regret. Knew ever hope and dream and hidden desire.

 

He knew her.

 

And he knew, in that distant way, that still he ought to hate her. For what she’d done to him. For what she’d intended to do.

 

But…

 

How can you know somebody, truly know them in a deeply personal and intimate way, and feel nothing but contempt?

 

Wanda felt herself monstrous. She stood on a precipice, and with the slightest nudge Tony might yet push her over the edge. Send her spiraling into an all-consuming descent into self-loathing, a fall Tony was all too familiar with.

 

(He saw his reflection in the glass and fired.)

 

(He saw the consequences of his own indifference, and his eyes were opened.)

 

(He knew his reactor was slowly killing him and thought perhaps it was for the best. Perhaps he deserved this.)

 

Guilt clawed at Wanda’s sense of self. Left untended it might shred her entirely. Her recent actions, certainly, were monstrous. Perhaps even more so because she still so clearly retained her humanity.

 

Tony could watch her self-destruct and by almost any estimation, could call it justice. Certainly, she deserved to feel remorse. Deserved to face consequences for her actions, and Tony had no obligation to ever forgive her for violating his person, his mind, the way she had.

 

And maybe he never would.

 

Tony knew Wanda. Knew, but did not condone. Understood, but did not forgive.

 

What makes a hero?

 

Is it the lives saved? 

 

The villains stopped. The harm prevented and reversed.

 

Something intrinsic? 

 

Is it why we do or what we do that defines us? Is it the consequences or is it the motivation?

 

And what of a superhero? 

 

Was it the costume? The gadgets and pageantry and fanfare?

 

(“I am Iron Man.”)

 

Was it the power? The ability and the will to effect change?

 

(“I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”)

 

Was it in holding yourself to a higher standard? Make the hard choices. Put the Other before the self.

 

(“I think I would just cut the wire.”)

 

What is the measure of a man?

 

Perhaps, it is exemplified in moments such as this.

 

Things were not okay. Tony was not okay. It would take time to even begin to fathom what a new normal for him might look like from here.

 

But…

 

Tony was a hero. 

 

For many, he was the hero. 

 

He was Iron Man and he was the President and he was the Da Vinci of his time and he was damned good at all he did.

 

Once, perhaps, he might have been called an Avenger.

 

(“Isn’t that what they call us? The Avengers. Never the Pre-vengers.”)

 

And he might have still been great. Might have given his life to save everyone.

 

But here? Now? This Tony?

 

He might not be an Avenger. Might not carry the weight of the term and the team that he could once have come to bear.

 

But he was still unarguably a superhero. There was only ever one choice that he could make, when faced with a woman that had hated him and hurt him in a way that left millions baying for her blood.

 

And perhaps, if he had not known her… if it were Pepper she had taken, JARVIS she had hurt... he might still have taken that vengeance.

 

But he did, and she had not. And that thin line of separation, that distinction between hurting Tony and hurting those Tony loved that was always there but rarely acknowledged….

 

(“Shame you had to bring Pepper into this. I would have preferred she live...")

 

Tony knew Wanda. Knew that she had yet to take that final leap, one that would calcify her into the unrepentant villain, beyond redemption and forever convinced of her own righteousness.

 

What does it mean to be a hero?

 

Tony nodded.

 

+++

 

Outside Wanda’s mind, the scene was such:

 

There was Wanda Maximoff. Collapsed on her knees and trapped in her own mind.

 

There was Pietro Maximoff. Kneeling at her side, desperately afraid as she remained prone and non-responsive.

 

There was Tony Stark. Bound and bleeding sluggishly, ashen gray as though on death’s doorstep.

 

Then there was this:

 

Wisping tendrils of red. First faint but soon bold and strong.

 

Wanda. Pushing herself upright. Reaching out for their captive, her mind still in another world. Caught in an infinite reality that only she and he could see.

 

Tony. No longer slumped. Held upright by a force other than himself, unseeing eyes vacantly staring both at and straight through his captors.

 

Spiraling blood-red swirls. An ephemeral bond between tormentor and tormented, the string of fate stretched from Wanda’s hands to Tony’s mind.

 

And then?

 

A final, blinding burst. Two figures collapsed, marionettes with cut strings.

 

Only Pietro remained awake in the moments that followed. Perplexed and uncertain, his sister and greatest enemy drained and unaware before him.

 

Time and anxiety and potentialities stretched into infinity before them all.

 

The ceiling exploded.

 

The infinite compressed into the now and Pietro moved.