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Catching Butterflies

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Tony gasped, lungs that had just collapsed with their last breath expanding painfully. He coughed and sputtered, his hands clenching into the fabric below him. 

That wasn’t right - he’d been grasping at ash only moments before. Breathing it, just like on Titan when Peter had died in his arms. But there was no ash, here. The air smelled like grease and metal and ozone. He wasn’t cold anymore, either. He wasn’t in pain. 

Tony opened his eyes. He was... in his workshop. On a couch. But not the workshop in the lakehouse he’d spent the last five years existing in, wandering around its rooms like a ghost. It wasn’t even his workshop at the Compound. 

He drank in the familiar walls, the sound of DUM-E whirling and wheeling around in the background. He was in his tower, the one he’d sold after he’d lost everything - his friends, his faith in others, his faith in himself. 

“Sir? Are you well?” 

Something rippled in his chest, an understanding, perhaps, that tingled and spread out to his limbs. “I'm dead,” he whispered. “JARVIS, oh my God, I knew you had a soul. I mean, of course, you did.” He stood and walked with long strides to the middle of the room. His smile was so wide it hurt his cheeks. He thought he’d never hear that voice again, well, outside of Vision. 

“While I appreciate the sentiment, sir, I would like to assure you that you are not dead.” 

Tony’s brows furrowed. “Uh, pretty sure I am, buddy. I distinctly remember going out in a blaze of glory. Saved half the Universe in the process. Plus, you’ve been dead for eight years, so if I’m talking to you, well.” His eyes widened with realization. “Unless - J, did you not...realize you’re dead?” 

There was a beat of silence, unusual for JARVIS but not unheard of when Tony used to do something that baffled even something with processors as powerful as his. 

“Sir, I assure you I am not dead, and neither are you. I am concerned about your health as you are displaying symptoms of a possible stroke. Scanning now.” 

Tony squawked in outrage when blue light extended from the scanners in the corner to move up and down his body. “I am not having a stroke! JARVIS, buddy, you’ve been dead since 2015.” 

“The date today is August 5, 2015.” Tony’s knees went weak and he had to stumble over to one of his stools and sit down hard on it or risk falling. DUM-E and U wheeled over, making little beeps and whirls of distress. 

“I - what? No, no, I’m pretty sure when I woke up this morning it was 2023. Jesus. Okay, this - this isn’t happening.” He waved off the cup of cold coffee DUM-E was trying to push at him. “I’m in a coma or something. Or some fucked up purgatory.” 

“Scans complete. I don’t see anything out of the ordinary, but I would suggest you go to the med bay. I will alert -” 

“No, JARVIS. No, no med bay. I just.” He put his hands in his hair and tugged harshly at it. “Shit shit shit. What the hell is happening?” 

“Sir...” Damn, twice in one day he’d made JARVIS hesitate. “Perhaps you should explain to me exactly why you believe you are from eight years in the future.” 

Tony paused because, really, if this was all happening in his head, then wouldn’t this count as talking to himself? He was so distracted by his whirling thoughts that he allowed DUM-E to push the cup of coffee into his hand. He took a sip, then sputtered when the disgusting, gloopy excuse for caffeine hit his tongue. The sourness spread down his throat despite his attempts to spit it out. 

“Dammit, DUM-E, how hard is it to make a cup of coffee,” he groaned before wiping his tongue on the inside of his t-shirt, which only made it worse by adding the taste of grease and sweat to the whole horrible cocktail. 

Just like that, he knew this was real. The taste, the way DUM-E drooped while U scolded him, the cleaning bots that sped out to clean up the coffee he’d spit on the floor. It was too vivid. Even the horrible hallucinations Wanda had sent him didn’t feel this real. “Holy shit, I traveled back in time.” 

“That is incredibly impressive, sir,” JARVIS said. “Perhaps you should explain to me how this is possible. As far as I can tell, nobody has been successful in discovering the secret to time travel.” 

Tony’s heart felt full to bursting. Because he’d missed this, the acceptance, the lack of doubt. The only person he’d found after JARVIS died that had given him that had been Peter. And Tony had eventually lost that, too. 

“I -” his voice cracked. “I’m so happy to have you with me again, buddy.” 

“I am always happy to be with you, sir.” 

Tony hung his head and let himself have this moment, let it wash over him. Most people, he knew, would choose right about now to have a breakdown, do the whole, 'this isn’t happening, oh no, I can’t believe it, how is it possible' for at least a day or two. Tony, however, had one of the brightest minds in the world and he’d seen the impossible too many times to count. He’d traveled through space, watched an all-powerful mad warlord wield magic stones to destroy half the universe, invented time travel, and wielded those magic stones himself. Tony had died, for Christ’s sake. 

This was just another Wednesday for him. He took a deep breath. “Alright, JARVIS. Buckle up, because boy, have I got a story for you.” 

It took hours to give a full recount of everything that had happened in the past eight years. The first part was the hardest because he’d had to tell JARVIS that Tony had fucked up and gotten him killed, along with a lot of other people. 

“I’m so sorry, JARVIS.” 

“While I understand why you carry guilt over this, I hope you realize that the actions of an insane Artificial Intelligence and vengeful science experiments are not actually your fault. You and Dr. Banner were trying to create something that protected people and it was perverted by others.” 

Tony shook his head. “It was reckless, to try and use alien tech that way.” 

“Sir, if I may. These past years have been difficult for you. You have shown symptoms of PTSD since the alien attack on New York, and though you have improved greatly, it still haunts you.” 

“It’s not an excuse, J. People died. I need to be accountable for my actions. We all do.” 

“I understand. All I ask is that you try not to put all the blame for the mistake of many only on your shoulders.” 

Tony rubbed a hand over his goatee. “Yeah, well, that’s something I learned the hard way later on. I won’t ever not regret my actions, JARVIS. That regret helps me make better decisions now. But, yeah, I know it wasn’t all on me. And, hopefully, it won’t happen at all now.” Please don’t all be a dream, he couldn't help but think. 

He continued on, not leaving anything out of his story. He knew he’d need JARVIS to help him figure out what to do with the clusterfuck that was the future. And Tony would do something about it. There would be no attempt to preserve timelines to get an edge. Not when all of it had imploded so completely. Half the damn universe had perished. Peter had died, and there’d been nothing he could do about it. It still clawed at him, even after all this time, even after bringing him back.

When he got to Siberia, the lights in the room actually dimmed. JARVIS sometimes used lights to express emotion, something he’d just started doing before he sacrificed himself to destroy Ultron. Usually, it was amusement or annoyance, but this, this felt darker.

“Sir, are you saying that Captain Rogers has known ever since the fall of SHIELD, and he didn’t tell you? And that he almost killed you when you found out?”

“Yeah. I know, buddy, believe me.”

JARVIS didn’t say anything else about it, allowing Tony to continue on with his tale after a quick break so Tony could eat. Finally, they got to Titan, and what had happened after Strange gave up the Time Stone.

“You care for Peter Parker very much,” JARVIS stated.

“Yeah, J. I do. I never really got the chance to tell him, though.”

“Well, sir, now you’ll have the chance,” JARVIS said confidently.

Tony shook his head. “No way. I’m not involving the kid in this crazy life again.”

“You can’t really stop him, from the way you’ve described his nature. His class field trip to Oscorp was two months ago, and his Uncle died on July 2nd. He is already in this life.”

Tony slumped. “Damn. I was hoping I could spare him from that.”

“You can spare him from other hurts. You told me he is all alone when it comes to Spider-man and he isn’t likely to stay out of trouble.” JARVIS paused. “He needs you. This is a chance to right a wrong.”

Tony leaned back and closed his eyes. He wondered how much sleep this version of him had been getting recently. “Maybe. For now, I need to focus on the Ultron disaster.”

“We will simply make sure it does not happen.”

“It’s not that easy. Yes, I plan on shutting down the Ultron program, but in five days I’ll still be expected to go to that HYDRA base. We’re going to find the scepter, and we’re going to find the Maximoff twins. What are we going to do about them?”

“I have been running possibilities in the background and researching both the facility and the Maximoffs. Perhaps you should finish your overview of the future so that I do not miss any important information before we begin changing the timeline?”

“Yeah,” Tony said, though the thought was exhausting. “Probably should.”

By the time he’d finished, it was midnight, he could smell himself, and his eyes were drooping. Dying and waking up in the past was exhausting.

“Sir, may I suggest you shower and sleep, and we can reconvene in the morning?”

Tony opened his mouth to argue before closing it. Yes, they were short on time, but Tony had learned his limits these past eight years. He had to have a clear head to deal with this. “Alright. I’ll sleep for six hours, give you time to work some magic, then we’ll reconvene.”

“Yes, sir.” Tony closed his eyes at the warm timber JARVIS had added to his voice. He did that when he was especially happy with a choice Tony had made. He was probably completely shocked that Tony had agreed to take care of himself. 

But Tony didn’t have a choice but to stay healthy. The fate of the world was literally hinging on his shoulders. “I guess we’ll see if all of this is even real in a few days,” he mumbled because while he wasn’t letting himself waste time with a breakdown, he was aware that this could all be the result of some mental break. There was also the possibility that the stones had thrown him into some totally different dimension where nothing was the same. 

Even as he thought it, he didn’t believe that this would turn out to be not real. It felt real. Maybe the Stones had given him some subconscious clue that this would happen. Maybe they’d listened to the voice in the back of his head that was always listing off his regrets, wishing he could go back and do it over. Do it better. 

 

Somehow, Tony slept for the full six hours. He woke up feeling clear-headed and, for the first time in years, hopeful. Not the desperate hope he’d had when he came up with the time machine. But the hope that things could actually be okay, that the world wouldn’t have this huge, gaping scar that Thanos had left behind no matter what Tony did to try and make it better. 

Part of him wondered why he wasn’t in a little ball, rocking back and forth. The past eight years had been hell. He’d lost everything, made catastrophic mistakes that he could never, ever make up for. And here he was, with all of these problems to solve, all these tragedies to prevent. Yet, he wasn’t overwhelmed. He knew he could do it. He’d held the power of the Universe in his hands, he’d made the sacrifice play. 

He was Tony Fucking Stark, and for the first time in almost a decade, he felt it. It was almost like being a child again, the hope of the future stretching out before him. Tony laughed. 

“Good morning, sir. I trust you slept well?”

“Like a baby, J.” He sat up and stretched, moaning when his back popped. That was another thing - his body felt amazing. Sure, he had scars - the most notable the one on his chest - but his joints weren’t a mess, his chest wasn’t weakened from somebody he’d thought of as a friend bashing it in, and his fingers didn’t have any chilblains from a day spent in a cool lab working with metal. The after-effects of frostbite had not been ideal for someone who worked with their hands on a daily basis. 

Of course, the Universe couldn’t just let him keep his good mood. “Ms. Potts is on her way up, boss.”

It took a moment for the implications to set in. Even after they’d broken up when Tony returned from space they’d been close, so he was always happy to see her. Pepper Potts and Tony Stark were meant to exist in the same orbit, whether they were dating or not. It was just a truth of the universe. 

But then, he remembered. “Oh, shit. JARVIS, we’re dating, aren’t we?”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony buried his face in his hands. “What am I going to do?”

“Would you like me to make excuses for you, sir?”

Tony hesitated. A very big part of him wanted to say yes. But one of his biggest regrets had been how long he’d strung Pepper along. He hadn’t meant to - he loved her and wanted to be with her. But he’d been fooling both of them with his promises to lay down the mantle of Iron Man. Tony Stark was Iron Man. One did not exist without the other. 

Pepper had loved him enough to pretend she believed him until he’d made it obvious that he could not stop being a hero by getting on that spaceship. She’d spent so many years trying to be happy with him. Tony couldn’t do that to her again, not even for a few more days. He wanted her and Rhodey to find their happiness earlier this time. It’d taken years after they’d broken it off for the two of them to get over their misplaced loyalty and start dating. They’d made an amazing couple.

“Nah, JARVIS. Tell her I’ll meet her in the kitchen.” 

He got ready and threw on jeans and a t-shirt, dread a heavy weight in his stomach. He forced himself to walk confidently down the hall to the living area. Tony Stark did not falter, not even in the face of the hard stuff. He couldn’t afford to.

Still, he paused at the end of the hallway, taking in the early morning sunlight on her hair, the way her dark blue dress clung to her curves. There were not a lot of women out there with more beauty and poise than Pepper Potts. He had to swallow a few times before he could speak.

“Hey, Pep,” he said softly. She turned from where she’d been looking out the window, coffee cup in hand and smile on her face.

“Hi, Tony.” She walked across the living room and leaned in to kiss him. He’d always secretly loved that she was taller than him in her heels. That would probably come as a surprise to most people but her powerful presence was one of the things that’d always drawn him in. It wasn’t like he had self-confidence issues when it came to his body, anyway.

He let himself enjoy her lips on his for a moment before gently pushing her back. “Hi, Pep. You look gorgeous.”

Her brow furrowed a bit, but she didn’t comment on his actions. “You look good, too, Tony. You get some sleep?”

He stepped around her, nerves getting the best of him, and made his way to the coffee pot. “Yep. Trying to turn over a new leaf, I guess you could say.”

He turned after filling up his mug. She’d followed after him and sat down on one of the barstools. One brow was raised and she had a fond smile on her face. “Oh, really?”

“Yep. I mean, it’s me, so. There’s only so much we can expect on that front.”

She laughed. “Well, you know I won’t argue with you. I’d love to see you take better care of yourself.”

Tony had to look away from her warm brown eyes. He studied the ripples across the surface of his coffee and tried to figure out what to say. 

“Tony?” 

Her gentle tone pulled his attention again and he licked his lips at her concerned expression. It was now or never. He walked to the bar until he was across from her and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the cool surface. “Pep. I’m so sorry. I think - I’ve been lying to you. To both of us.”

There was a long silence and then Pepper said, “Are you breaking up with me?”

Dammit, she was too perceptive. Tony set down his cup with a sigh and met her confused and hurt gaze. “I love you. I do. But I’m not - I can’t be somebody I’m not.”

“I don’t want you to -”

“You do,” he said, gently. At her stricken look, he reached out to put his hand on top of hers. “It’s not your fault. I never really explained it to you. That Iron Man isn’t just something I do, it’s something I am. Pepper, I am Iron Man. I won’t be able to stop, not really. And you’ll never be able to be happy with that, no matter how hard you try.”

Her eyes had filled with tears, but she wasn’t denying it. “I think, I think I always knew that. But I didn’t want to admit it.” Her voice broke and she looked away. 

Tony stood and scrambled around the bar until he was close enough to pull her into a gentle hug. She rested her face against his chest. He could feel her shoulders shaking, but she was mostly silent. “God, I hate it when I make you cry. I’m so sorry, Pepper. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure it out. I wish -” his voice cracked and he realized he was crying, too. 

Shouldn’t this hurt less? He’d already done it once, half a decade ago. But then again, Pepper Potts wasn’t somebody you just got over. After a few minutes, she pulled away, reaching up to wipe at the moisture under her eyes. “Alright.” She took a shaky breath and squared her shoulders. “We’re going to be okay, Tony.”

He stepped back and looked away while he dried his own eyes. “I know we are. You and me, Pepper Potts, we’re a team. Even if we’re not dating, I’m here for you, you know?”

“You seem different, Tony,” she said softly. She was looking at him like a puzzle she needed to solve.

“Just been doing a lot of soul-searching lately.”

She nodded slowly. “You’re okay, though?”

He smiled. “Yeah, I think I am.”

She stayed for another hour and they talked while Tony made them omelets. Tony knew when she left that they’d be fine, eventually, though she’d asked for some space outside of work. That was something Tony could do - he was going to be busy, anyway.

“Alright, J. Let’s see what you’ve got,” Tony said as soon as he was back in the workshop, armed with coffee and a good night’s sleep.

“I’ve looked into the base in Sokovia, sir. Activity indicates that it is indeed an active site. There have also been some strange energy signatures coming from that location.”

Tony sat down and read through the information JARVIS had pulled up. “Hmm. Thoughts on how to proceed?”

The information disappeared and a moment later a timeline appeared, detailing all of the major events he’d outlined for JARVIS. “I’ve taken the liberty of outlining the major events coming up. I think it would be helpful if we discussed goals.”

“Right, well, the biggest one is obviously to stop Thanos.”

“How do we do that, sir?”

“Destroy the Stones. Or at least some of them.”

Six gems popped up on the hologram, each with a small description and label beneath it. Mind, Time, Power, Soul, Reality, and Space. “We can get ahold of the Mind Stone, destroy that one first.” He felt a pang when he realized that Vision would never be born, but Tony couldn’t justify the sacrifices, and Vision wouldn’t have wanted him to. Too many people died as a result of Ultron. “The Time Stone will pop up eventually. Soul is out of our reach - I’m not sacrificing anybody I love for it.”

“Perhaps, if we get to Gamora before Thanos can, we can prevent him ever getting the location of Vormir, and he won’t have anything to sacrifice if we keep her from him.”

“Okay, so. Get the Mind Stone and destroy it. Somehow find the Guardians and warn them.”

“How can we destroy it, sir?”

Tony sighed and pressed his thumb and forefinger into his eyes. “Wanda. We need Wanda.”

“I’d advise trying to find a different solution, sir. From what you told me of her, Ms. Maximoff is dangerously unstable and wishes you harm in particular at this point.”

Tony let out a breath of frustration. Getting the twins on their side would be tricky without a crazed AI hellbent on destroying their planet. “Right. Well, we have a few years to convince her. For now, we’ll concentrate on containment. That thing has already caused enough grief.”

“What kind of containment, sir?”

Tony grinned at one of JARVIS’ cameras. “Well, J, I’m going to have to invent nanotech, then recreate something similar to the gauntlet I used to wield them before. This iteration, though, will have to somehow reroute the power so that it stays self-contained, stuck in a loop.”

“That could work, sir.”

Tony just hummed. He was already working on sketching out some schematics. “Is it cheating to use my future self’s innovations years early?”

“When it comes to the fate of the world, sir, I’m not sure that there is such a thing as cheating.”

Tony pointed at the camera. “I like the way you think. Okay, let’s figure out how we’re going to deal with the twin terrors.”

“If I may, sir. I think I have some suggestions.”

000

It was shocking, how young his team looked. Steve without his beard, without the heaviness of defeat around him. Clint with his easy grin, the death of his family not taking all semblance of happiness from him. Natasha, less grim, that calculating look in her eyes softened by her fondness for her team. A purpose that was more than what the Red Room or SHIELD had given her.

Tony shouldn’t have been surprised by the bitterness that welled in him when Steve clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, Tones, nice to see you.”

They had spent the last week spending Tony’s money on their quest to find Bucky Barnes. They found it so easy to lie to him. It still stung, after all this time, and it was worse living in the moment, knowing they knew. “Hey,” he managed to choke out, the pressure of the realization that he couldn’t stomach being on their team anymore hitting him.

He’d been so wrung out by the time they’d come up with their plan to go through time to get the Stones. So desperate to get Peter back that he’d been willing to ignore their past. Now, though, with years stretching out in front of him, with the fate of the world resting on his shoulders, he knew without a doubt that he could not do it with this team. The world may need the Avengers, but Tony Stark did not.

With that recognition came a deep relief. Tony Stark was going to leave the Avengers, for good this time. He took in a deep breath and smiled. “So, Cap, you ready to kick some HYDRA ass?”

Steve laughed, his blue eyes crinkling at the sides. “Always.”

“Then let’s do this.”

Tony let the fight play out just as he’d remembered it, though he’d winced when Clint was injured, guilt pinging in his gut. Maybe he should have stopped that part. He took a deep breath as soon as he stood in the bunker surrounded by moaning men, then stepped out of the suit. “Sentry mode,” he said.

He pulled out the small housing unit full of nanotech that he’d spent the past three days working on nonstop. Then, he went to retrieve the Mind Stone before the rest of the team showed up.

000

“I can’t believe it wasn’t there,” Clint said, then winced when Natasha double-checked the bandage around his middle.

They were in the Quinjet on their way home, bruised and defeated. Well, Tony was pretending to be defeated from where he was leaning against the wall, watching as they tried to figure out where the stone had gone. It hurt, lying to them. It hurt watching them bicker good-naturedly and complain about getting their asses kicked by a couple of kids out in the woods.

“I’m sure we’ll find it. It lets off a pretty distinct energy signature, am I right Bruce?” Tony said.

Bruce smiled at him, looking small and exhausted in his sweats. “Yeah. We’ll find it again.”

No, you won’t. JARVIS had already confirmed that the nanotech casing was doing its job. The energy signature was being turned back in on itself, being forced into a closed loop. It was currently tucked inside of one of the Legion, on its way across the ocean to a very deep bunker in the middle of Utah that had absolutely no signals going in or out. The suit itself had already been disconnected from the rest of the Legion, too, so as not to risk the consciousness inside of it getting out. 

So Tony was paranoid, so sue him. He felt eyes on him and looked up. Steve’s brow was furrowed and he was watching Tony like he was puzzling something out about him. He always had been perceptive. He had to have picked up on the fact that Tony was different. 

“What’s up, Cap?”

“You okay, Tony? You seem a little off today.”

Tony pressed his lips together to keep himself from saying something he’d regret. Not because it would hurt anybody’s feelings, but because Tony wasn’t ready to act on his decision to leave the team yet. Sam and Natasha were both watching him closely, too and Tony wondered if they’d been doing that, searching for any indication that he knew and Tony had just continued on, blissfully unaware that their attention was anything but friendly.

Fuck, he had to come up with something. He really didn’t want them all poking into his business. “Ah. Well, Pepper and I broke up a few days ago.”

“Shit, man, that blows,” Clint said after a few shocked seconds of silence.

“I am sorry to hear that, my friend,” Thor said, coming over and gripping his shoulder. Tony sent him a real smile. He would miss Thor and Bruce when he struck out on his own, but it couldn’t be helped. If there was one thing he’d learned last time, it was that the rest of the team’s loyalty was to Steve. And Tony couldn't blame them. Sure, Steve had betrayed Tony, but he was still Captain America and everything that meant. Good men sometimes did bad things. 

“Thanks, Thor. I appreciate it. I, uh, I’ll be fine. It was amicable.”

“You know we’re here for you, Tony,” Natasha said, eyes warm, and the worst part was, Tony knew she meant it. Natasha was complicated. She might stab you in the back, but it didn’t mean she didn’t care. It just meant she cared about something else more. 

He knew his smile was strained, but he was pretty sure they’d write it off as heartbreak and his general discomfort with talking about feelings. Steve was having a hard time hiding his relief, but everyone else just seemed sympathetic.

God, this was going to be torture, having all of this back while knowing it wasn’t real. He was itching to get back to his workshop, to talk to JARVIS and try to figure out how to get the Maximoff twins under control and no longer homicidal.

The long ride finally ended and after an even longer debrief and more concerned looks from his teammates than were good for his state of mind, he was on his way home. It was so odd, the proof that they did care about him, at least a bit, despite the lies and eventual betrayals. They cared, but they didn’t trust him, not really. Not the way they trusted Steve.

He didn’t expect it to hurt so much after all this time. “JARVIS, buddy, we need to figure out a way to keep them away from me until I figure out how to deal with the Barnes situation, the UN, and withdrawing support from the team,” he said as soon as he was back in his lab. 

Even though Sokovia had jumpstarted the Accords, Tony knew they had already been in motion long before then. Sokovia just gave them the momentum to turn into a wave that eventually crashed over the team, taking advantage of the hidden cracks and destroying them utterly.

“Understood, sir. May I suggest that you come up with an excuse?”

Tony laughed. “An excuse? What, like the dog ate my Iron Man armor?”

“Similar, but more along the lines of ‘I have a stomach ache.”

Tony scoffed but his mind was already mulling it over. Everyone knew that he’d had multiple surgeries on his heart and chest since Afghanistan. Before Siberia, he’d been more than fine, the modified Extremis and rebuilt sternum doing their jobs nicely. It wasn’t like he talked a lot about his health, though, so the team didn’t really know the details. Not even SHIELD could get past his firewalls or his Doctor’s stalwart refusal to break confidentiality. 

“If I’m out on medical leave, I won’t be able to help them with the twins,” he mused and drummed out a rhythm on his workbench. “I have no idea how to convince them to switch sides without a murderbot bent on world destruction to help them along.”

Tony rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I can’t just leave Bruce to her mercy. Okay, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll fake a heart attack that takes me out of the loop for a month or two. I know where the twins are, I’ll send some of the Legion to take Wanda quietly the first chance I get. I’ll have to build the collar.” 

His lips twisted with distaste. He had gotten his hands on the schematics for it in the future. It made him feel gross even contemplating using it, but he couldn’t let her wreak destruction again. Much of what had happened with the last Accords could have been prevented if they’d been more careful with Wanda and her powers.

“She can’t know it was me, though. This is going to be tough.” He sighed and stood. “Let’s get to work, J.”

000

Asking Pepper for a favor mere days after breaking up with her wasn’t as awkward as Tony was afraid it would be. “Seriously, Tony? If you want a vacation, you can just ask,” she teased. “I’m not that much of a slave driver.”

He grinned and leaned over to inspect the piece of Wanda’s collar he’d just finished putting together. “Keep telling yourself that, Pep.”

She huffed and when she spoke again all traces of humor had left her voice. “Seriously, Tony, what’s going on?”

“It’s complicated, Pepper. Just - suffice it to say, I stumbled across some pretty disturbing information and I need some time off the grid to figure out what to do with it.”

“Our stocks will take a hit,” she said mildly. Too mildly.

“I know. I’m sorry. Really. But I think in the end, if I handle this right, I’ll be able to prevent worse hits later. Please, Pep. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

Pepper sighed. “Alright. Fine. I’ll do it.”

He let out a breath of relief. “Thanks. As soon as you can. I’m already at the Malibu mansion and I plan on keeping my head down.” If capturing a known terrorist and locking her away in a bunker for a few weeks while planning how to leave the Avengers without destroying them counts as laying low. 

“You better, Tony. If anyone finds out this is bogus...”

“I know, I know. Don’t worry, Dr. Wu has promised not to say anything either way about it and agreed to stop by the tower for a day to get some new equipment set up, then make a dramatic exit via life flight helicopter. That should at least corroborate our story.”

“Fine. Just - if you need me, I’m here. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, Pep, I know. Thanks, really. I’m going to buy you all the shoes.”

She snorted and somehow it sounded ladylike and slightly sexy coming from her. “Alright, Tony. You better have something awesome to get stock prices back up by the end of this.”

“Don’t worry, Pep,” he said, thinking of all the knowledge from the future floating around his head. “I’ll blow them all away.”

He spent the next two days finishing up Wanda’s collar and setting up surveillance around the abandoned base the Maximoff twins were hunkered down in and a few other odds and ends. It was about five in the evening when he got the text from Pepper. It’s out. See you in a month, Tony.

His lips quirked. “JARVIS, turn on the news.”

A projection of the news flickered to life to his right, showing two concerned-looking newscasters talking with an image of Avengers Tower behind them, a helicopter taking off from the roof. “...Yes, we’ve just gotten word that Tony Stark has suffered from a major heart attack. He’s being flown to a private hospital in an undisclosed location for surgery. That’s all the information we have for now.”

“Alright, shut it off, J.” 

The screen disappeared and Tony went back to calibrating the collar. “I think this is done, buddy.”

“It would seem so. You have ten missed calls on your phone from various members of the Avengers.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “What part of massive heart attack did they not understand?”

“I’ve redirected their queries to Ms. Potts.”

“That should make her day.”

He handed off the collar to one of his Iron Legion a few hours later. While he waited for his drones and suits to get into position he took a nap and a shower. 

“Sir, everything is ready for Operation Glinda. We are just waiting for Mr. Maximoff to go get supplies.”

He left every few days to get them food from a village nearby, and it had been two days since his last run. “Alright. As soon as he’s gone, we need to move.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How are we doing on locating Barnes?”

“I believe he is in Romania, sir, but I still need to find an exact location.”

“Alright. I’m going to do some light reading, then,” he said, lips twitching into a wry grin. He accepted a smoothie from DUM-E and collapsed on the couch with a StarkPad, then opened up the rough documents that would have one day turned into the Accords. JARVIS had hacked more than one international server to find them, along with the people leading their creation. He wasn’t sure why he was surprised to find evidence that T’Chaka was already involved, though from way, way behind the scenes.

It made sense, really, for the monarch of a country that was ruled by enhanced individuals powered up by tech to get a voice in these documents. Especially since Wakanda was planning on stepping into the international scene.

This first iteration wasn’t bad. He got lost in the rhythm of reading and scribbling notes and thoughts down and it took JARVIS a few tries to pull his attention. “Sir, Pietro Maximoff has left the facility. Should we commence the operation?”

Tony dropped the StarkPad on the couch next to him and stood quickly, moving to look at the screens that had just lit up, showing the outside of the bunker and a few shots from inside where his drones had managed to place cameras. Movement in one drew his eye.

Wanda was pacing across the cement floor, brows furrowed as she mumbled to herself. “You’re sure Pietro is gone?”

“Yes, sir. We should have about fifteen minutes until he returns.”

“Alright, let’s do this.”

“Activating sedative now.”

On-screen, nothing looked like it was changing, but the monitor listing the small grenades his drones had placed in the vents blinked green as each one was successfully activated. This particular drug was one that future Tony had run into when it was used to subdue Spider-man. Of course, criminals always seemed to forget that messing with Spider-man meant bringing the whole damn Iron Legion and one very pissed off Iron Man down on your head, so he’d managed to swoop in and save the day. Seriously, he wasn’t sure why they had even continued to even try. 

He shook his head before those thoughts could inevitably lead to the memory of Peter turning to ash in his arms. It won’t happen this time. I won’t let it.

Wanda put her hand to her head and shook it. The gas was colorless and scentless - a truly impressive creation. Best of all, completely outside of Tony’s usual wheelhouse, so nobody would suspect him as the creator. He’d even based the grenade off of the original design, which didn’t exactly scream Tony Stark with its redundancies and extra wiring that did fuck all for efficiency. 

Wanda took a step, then stumbled, her eyes going wide. A moment later her hands lit up and red magic began to flow around her. Smart - she’d already figured out she was being poisoned. Still, the damage was already done, even if she managed to clean the air around her. If Spider-man couldn’t shake it off, Wanda Maximoff certainly couldn’t.

Sure enough, her magic started to flicker in and out until it disappeared altogether. She fell to her knees, her usually pale face almost colorless now. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out. A pang of guilt hit Tony, but he ignored it. Honestly, he was doing her a favor. Wanda always regretted all the lives that had been taken in her quest for revenge. Now she wouldn’t have to live with that. 

He waited until she’d fallen to the floor, limp, eyes closed, before speaking. “Send in the suit, J. Let’s move quickly on this - if she wakes up in the middle the whole plan is fucked.”

A moment later the suit he’d given the collar to flew into the room and knelt next to her. A scan showed that she was completely out of it so it reached out and clicked the collar around her neck. Tony flinched but didn’t call it off. “Okay, take her to her new home.”

“Yes, sir.” The suit picked her up before turning on stealth mode and leaving the bunker. Drones buzzed in and began taking down the surveillance equipment, which would give Tony’s involvement away fairly quickly to anybody who knew his work.

“We should arrive to her cell in half an hour.”

“Okay. How are her vitals?”

“All within normal range. She isn’t close to waking up and with the collar, her magic shouldn’t be able to interfere.”

“Good. Bring up video.”

Tony had retrofitted an old Russian HYDRA storage facility that he’d found in 2018 to be a makeshift cell. He’d put in a comfortable bed, made sure the space was warm and hacked into the extremely old security system so he could keep an eye on her, though JARVIS had strict instructions to delete or blot out any of the more personal moments. Tony already felt a little apprehensive about what he was doing, he didn’t need to add accidentally perving on Wanda to the list.

The drones had finished their cleanup, though they left the grenades as a red herring. “Let’s move out, guys. We need to be far away before Pietro gets back.”

He watched while the little dots on the map JARVIS had pulled up got further and further away from the hideout, only letting out a breath of relief when they’d left the country altogether. Fifteen minutes later he watched his suit drop Wanda off in the bunker after removing a knife from her boot and a nail file from her hair. 

“Okay,” he breathed. “Phase 1 complete. Now we just have to wait for Pietro to take the bait.”

“Indeed. And you can focus on other things.”

“Yep. That’s the plan.”

“Just as soon as you sleep and eat.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yes, mom.” 

He didn’t argue, though. He was exhausted and needed his wits about him. Tony was creating an extremely intricate web of lies and schemes and all it would take was a small mistake to bring it crashing down around him. He really needed all his wits about him. Working from the shadows wasn’t exactly his forte, but if he wanted to prepare the Earth for Thanos, he had to clean house first.

“Where are we on finding major HYDRA hideouts?”

“Still narrowing it down, sir. I’ve confirmed three of the eighteen possible HYDRA bases you gave me. Unfortunately, my servers have too many processes going right now to run at my usual capacity,” JARVIS said, sounding almost apologetic.

Tony paused in his trek to the shower. “Right. I guess I have kinda put a lot on you.” He tapped his fingers against his bicep. “What do you think about bringing FRIDAY online a little early? She’s young, but she learns fast, and she can help with some of the smaller stuff. Free you up.”

“I believe the assistance of another AI would be invaluable, sir.”

Tony pulled his shirt over his head and nodded. “Alright. While I’m sleeping, go ahead and look over her code, start running tests. We can put her in charge of gathering information on Ross and keeping an eye out for enhanced individuals he and SHIELD are targeting.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony stepped into the shower and let out a breath when the warm water smoothed out a few of the knots he’d built up since returning to the past. It was overwhelming, the number of things he needed to get done in such a short time. He lathered up his hair as he went through his mental checklist of things he needed to finish before the end of his ‘sabbatical.’

Find Barnes, get him de-HYDRA’d and lawyered up before that whole situation could escalate beyond control. Tony ground his teeth together. Yeah, he’d had time to come to terms with the fact that Bucky hadn’t murdered his parents - that was all HYDRA - but Christ, did he hate having to interact with the guy.

And Thaddeus Ross - yeah, that was a whole can of worms. Tony knew better than to try and play nice with him, this time.

He leaned back and rinsed his hair before reaching for his body wash. He was going to let Steve’s team do their thing with the Maximoffs and hopefully turn them where Tony couldn’t. He paused when he realized what he’d just thought. Steve’s team.  

It was true, though. It had always been Steve’s team. Tony was just their benefactor and occasional backup. He wasn’t as bitter about it as he used to be. Hurt feelings weren’t much in comparison to the hell they would go through, soon. Still, he wasn’t going to let himself or his resources get bogged down in the Avengers, anymore. There were plenty of people who would be happy to step up as their new benefactors.

He resumed scrubbing. The Accords and protecting enhanced was something he couldn’t even begin to tackle on his own. He needed allies. That would come later, though. Right now he needed to deal with immediate issues.

He rinsed and turned off the water, grabbing a towel and drying off. He needed to stop going over and over this. He and JARVIS had already talked through it all. They had plans and back up plans for their backup plans. Tony needed to sleep, and then he needed to focus on taking it one step at a time. 

The fate of the world depended on his success. More importantly, Peter's life depended on it.

Chapter Text

“Sir, Ms. Maximoff is awake and in distress.”

Tony blinked up at the ceiling. It was light out, which meant he’d slept for at least twelve hours. “How long?”

“She woke up eight hours ago.”

Tony sat up and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Oddly enough, he hadn’t had any nightmares since he came back. Maybe it was the relief of having a second chance. Whatever it was, he was more than a little grateful. “Show me.”

He winced when the sound of screams echoed through the room, accompanied by a hologram of Wanda on her knees, eyes wild, tears on her cheeks, scratching at the collar. “Jesus. Put me through, JARVIS.”

They hadn’t planned on talking to her this soon but he couldn’t sit by and watch her hurt herself. He cleared his throat then said, “Ms. Maximoff, please refrain from injuring yourself.” He knew his voice would come through as a youngish-woman with a South African accent, thanks to a quick program he and JARVIS wrote. 

Her eyes darted around, taking in every corner of the room. “Who are you? Take this off of me! I’ll kill you for this!”

Tony breathed in slowly before answering. “My name is not important. I’m afraid we can’t take that off of you - not yet.”

Wanda scoffed. “Oh, only when I agree to do something for you, right?”

“No. We’ve blocked your powers because we’re trying to prevent you from doing something that you will regret.”

“You know nothing about me.”

“We know that you’re driven by revenge, that you don’t care about who you kill to get to your target. We know HYDRA used your hatred and youth to shape you into a weapon that will be used to help kill us all.”

“Who are you?” Wanda whispered. “How do you know this?”

“You aren’t the only one granted special powers, Wanda Maximoff. We know everything about you - what you were, what you are, and what you could become.”

Tony’s lips twitched at his own dramatic flair but, hey, if he was going to pretend to be an all-knowing group of magical beings, he was going to do it right. Wanda pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, looking so young that Tony’s chest ached. “You know nothing.”

“We know enough. If you continue on this path you will become the very thing you hate. Parents, children, brothers, sisters, all dead at your hand. Is that what you want for yourself?” Tony stretched and picked up his phone, looking through the headlines and thinking about what he needed to get done that day.

Wanda glared down at her knees. “All that matters is killing the man who took my parents from me.”

“Perhaps. Or you could turn that pain into something good. You could protect instead of destroy. You could prevent others from having to live through what you did.” He may have put more dramatic flair into that little speech than necessary. This was oddly fun.

“So, what, I’m just supposed to forgive what Tony Stark did to my family?” she spat and Tony flinched.

“No. Your feelings are your own. We are saying you can be a symbol of revenge and destruction or one of hope and safety. We have seen both and only one brings you peace. The other leads to the death of your last remaining family member.”

Wanda froze and her eyes widened in horror. “Pietro?” she whispered. Then, stronger, “No. You’re lying. You’re just trying to manipulate me!”

“I suppose we are,” Tony admitted. “But it’s not for our gain. It’s for you, your brother, and the whole world. You have a choice to make, Wanda Maximoff. Will you become another monster, or will you become something better?”

She just looked to the side, face twisted. Tony sighed. Right, of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Besides, he was just trying to plant a seed - he’d let the Avengers nurture it into a non-homicidal tree or - whatever, the metaphor was getting lost. 

“If you hurt yourself again, we will knock you out with an airborne gas. There is plenty of food in your cell and we will grant you privacy when appropriate.” JARVIS would still be keeping an eye out, but he wouldn’t be recording.

He made a motion to cut the input and waited until the screen disappeared. “How’d I do, J?”

“You were a very convincing all-knowing being, sir. You could write a screenplay.”

Tony ran a hand down his face. “This is so fucked up, JARVIS. I kidnapped a nineteen-year-old and I’m manipulating her into being not-evil.”

“Yes, but you’re doing it to save her pain later and save the world.”

“Nothing is going to make this not a bit morally gray, JARVIS.”

It was silent for a long moment and then the lights dimmed and brightened in what Tony assumed was a shrug. “I believe the saying is: you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.”

Tony rolled his eyes and chuckled. “True. Alright, I’ll stop worrying about it. Just, let me know if she does anything weird, okay? I don’t plan on doing the creepy voice-over fairy thing again.”

“Of course, sir.”

They spent the rest of the day working on getting FRIDAY online. When her voice finally came over the speakers Tony had to blink back tears. “Hello, Boss. How can I help you?”

“FRIDAY. It’s good to hear your voice, sweetheart. Big brother JARVIS is going to get you caught up, alright?”

There was a pause as she processed that. “Yes, Boss. I understand.”

He took a breath. Even though she sounded the same, she wasn’t his FRIDAY, not really, and she never would be. She would grow up in a much different environment with JARVIS to help her along. Still, he was glad to have her back.

Tony moved on to working on his nanotech suit, flipping through the schematics he’d been putting together, music blaring in the background. Everything felt so...normal, in a way it hadn’t been for years. Somewhere out there Peter was alive, the team weren’t criminals, and the world didn’t hate him yet.

“Incoming call from Ms. Potts. Shall I put it through?” JARVIS asked after turning down the music.

“Yeah, go ahead.” 

“Hey, Pepper. How’s it going?”

“Do you even need to ask?” she said wryly. “I’ve spent the past two days doing damage control. James says he’s going to kick your ass when he gets back, by the way.” Tony grinned. Rhodey was the only person he’d let Pepper reveal the truth to, mostly because he knew Rhodey would literally break down walls to get to him if he thought he was legitimately sick.

“Looking forward to it.”

Pepper laughed. “I don’t doubt it. Your team has been calling practically non stop for updates. Tony, are you sure you don’t want to tell any of them?”

Tony sighed and ignored the warmth warring with the doubt her statement caused. Were they really worried about losing him, Tony, or their payday? “I can’t, Pep. Once I have everything figured out I’ll bring you into the loop, but for now, we can’t trust them.”

There was a long, ringing silence. “Tony, you’re scaring me.”

He pushed his fingers against his closed eyes. “It’s okay, Pepper. It’s more personal than anything. They aren’t about to go Supervillain on us.”

“I wish you would just tell me.”

“I know. I promise, when I’m ready to talk about it you and Rhodey will be the first to know.”

He spent the next week building armor and helping JARVIS get FRIDAY up to working order. Wanda didn’t have any more major freakouts, but she didn’t exactly look happy, either. She eventually became bored enough to start reading the stacks of books Tony had left for her. They all focused on heroes and heroines saving the day and generally doing the right thing. 

Hey, he never claimed to be subtle. Giving her nothing to do but read books featuring powerful people with strong moral compasses and quests to save the world was as close as he’d probably get to actual brainwashing. Who would choose to be Voldemort when you could be Dumbledore?  

“Sir, the Avengers are being attacked by Pietro Maximoff.”

Tony looked up from the pasta he’d been picking at as he considered the best way to approach Spider-man once he was free from his self-imposed exile. He’d had to talk himself out of buying him and his Aunt something ridiculous like an apartment or new car twice. Buying the kid’s love wasn’t going to cut it. Maybe he could make him his own lab, right next to Tony’s. 

“Bring up the feed.”

He had mostly left the Avengers to their own devices the past few weeks, but since he built all their tech it was easy enough to hack into their feeds. They were underground somewhere if the artificial lights and dirt were any indication. “They are currently in South America, raiding a HYDRA base that was flagged in his files as a place the Winter Soldier used to frequent.”

The picture was shaky since something - Pietro - kept speeding past them, knocking them over, sending furniture flying at them, and altogether being a pain in the ass.

“Do you have eyes on the threat?” Steve yelled just before something smacked into him from behind and sent him flying.

“Negative,” Natasha and Clint said.

“Shit!” Sam yelped and Tony’s eyes widened when Steve spun around to find his friend held up against Pietro’s chest, a knife pressed to his throat. 

Pietro looked less than put together. Or sane. His hair was greasy and sticking up in odd places, there were bags under his eyes, and his expression could only be described as feral. “What have you done with her?” he screamed. “Tell me where my sister is or I will slit his throat.”

Tony switched to Natasha’s feed since she was standing at an angle that had a view of the full room. Steve was holding up a placating hand, body angled in a way that he could throw his shield quickly. “Son, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t have your sister. Put down the knife and we can discuss this.”

Natasha shifted and Pietro stiffened. “I am faster than you by quite a bit. You will never make it in time.”

“JARVIS, think you can hack into Sam’s wing casing? Short it out, give Pietro a shock?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Alright, let Steve know it’s coming,” Tony said. Shit, if he got one of them killed, he’d never forgive himself.

“Your sister - what’s her name?”

Pietro looked back at Steve. “Don’t pretend you don’t know. Who else would have her but the Avengers.” He spat the last word like it was something disgusting. “Letting a murderer pay your way, protecting him from what he rightfully deserves -”

Steve’s brow furrowed and he made a small motion with his hand that meant wait.  

“JARVIS, wait for his signal.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You mean Tony? He’s not a murderer,” Steve said.

Pietro bared his teeth. “Tell that to my parents, who were killed by one of his bombs.”

Steve exchanged a look with Natasha. “Tony doesn’t make weapons anymore.”

“Oh, that makes it all better, huh? I wonder, how did terrorists get ahold of Stark missiles? We had to stare at his disgusting name on the side of one of them for days while we were stuck in the rubble, our parents’ bodies decaying next to us. He cannot fool us the way he did the rest of the world! And now you try to take my sister from me, too.”

“Tony wasn’t dealing under the table,” Natasha said in a soothing tone. “He was betrayed. It’s what prompted him to stop making weapons. The people to blame are those who sent the bombs and Obadiah Stane, who was secretly selling SI weapons under the table.”

Something flickered across Pietro’s expression before it settled into a hard mask. “I see you are not taking me seriously. Let me show you -”

Steve gave the signal and a moment later Pietro seized. Sam twisted Pieteo’s hand away from his throat and ducked out from under his arm just as one of Clint’s arrows embedded into Pietro’s shoulder. Tony recognized it as one that held a sedative in the hollow tip. It was designed by Bruce to take down even people with enhanced metabolism.

“You okay, Sam?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Damn, that guy is fast.”

Clint hopped down from where he’d been perched on a shelf in the corner of the room. He knelt next to Pietro, who was out cold and put a finger to his neck. “Pulse is steady.”

Steve sighed. “He looks young.”

“If I may, Captain Rogers. I’ve found a match for his identity. Pietro Maximoff...”

Tony tuned out JARVIS’ voice as it listed off facts about the Maximoff twins. His gut was still churning from Pietro’s speech about his missiles. It was nice that Nat and Steve had defended him, but Pietro was right. Tony had built those missiles and it was his irresponsibility that had led to Stane being able to sell them under his nose for so long.

“Thanks, JARVIS. Is Tony there? Is he listening?”

“He is not, Captain. He asked me to keep an eye on you while he recovers.”

Tony didn’t miss the spasm of worry that flitted across Steve’s face. “That’s kind of him,” he said.

“Sir is an extremely generous person. Especially with those he puts his trust in,” JARVIS said primly and Tony snorted. 

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “Yes. Tony’s a good friend.” Tony wasn’t sure what to make of that, but luckily Steve moved on quickly, gesturing at Pietro. “Any suggestions on what to do with him?”

“The Hulk cage in the compound would probably hold him,” JARVIS offered. “If you’d like, I can look into where his sister may have disappeared to.”

“Yeah, sure, that would be great, JARVIS,” Steve said, though he already sounded distracted. Probably disappointed that the base didn’t have anything Barnes-related in it.

A swipe of his hand disconnected the link and Tony took a shaky breath before turning back to his work. So far, so good. He’d give the team a few days to work their magic on Pietro - Tony knew very well how Steve Rogers made you want to lay down your life for him and his cause - before letting JARVIS give them the clues they’d need to find and ‘save’ Wanda. 

Hopefully, they’d join Team Steve. If not, well. He’d figure that out when it happened. He’d just proven he was capable of keeping them contained with enough planning.

Tony kept an eye on the situation as it progressed over the next few days. There was a lot of back and forth about where the Mind Stone had gone. Pietro said that he and Wanda had thought it’d been taken by the Avengers, while the Avengers were convinced he and his sister had hidden it. Finally, Nat had to concede that he didn’t know where it was, which had sent up a flurry of confusion and conspiracy theories. Luckily everyone suspected Hydra or an unknown third party, not Tony.

He was currently watching Bruce on the security feed from the compound. He was hunched over in the lab, taking apart one of the grenades they’d found in the bunker Pietro had finally given them the location to.

Tony was tinkering with a specialized EMP while he kept one ear out to make sure Bruce didn't suddenly announce that it was obviously made by Tony Stark.

“Sir, I’ve found Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS said.

Tony froze at the words, then forced himself to relax. “Looks like we’re heading to Romania, buddy.”

It had come just in time, really. He had a week left before the ‘recovery period’ that Pepper had told the world he was taking in a clinic in Switzerland was over. Any longer than that and Stark Industries would have a hard time recovering before releasing their quarterly numbers. 

On that note, he sent off the designs for the line of prosthetics he’d put together to Pepper. They could release an update on his health along with a new medical branch of SI that would also be releasing the B.A.R.F. technology and improved field dressings Tony had originally created for the Avengers. Take that, dropping stock numbers. You’d think that people would learn to stop underestimating Tony Stark.

Hours later saw Tony sitting at a beat-up card table in a kitchen that had seen better days, drinking tea from a chipped mug. The sounds of the town they were in filtered in through the thin walls and there was a definite chill in the air. A suit stood sentinel in the corner, and with a well-placed word to local authorities, the building had been quietly evacuated.

He heard a key in the door and his heart jumped but he made sure to keep his posture relaxed, one leg folded over the other and both hands wrapped around his teacup. JARVIS was silent in his ear but Tony imagined he could feel his disapproval. He had not been impressed with Tony’s decision to meet with Barnes out of the armor.

A moment later Barnes appeared in the kitchen, gun held in front of him, hands steady as they pointed it at Tony’s head. “Hey, Elsa. Was wondering when you’d grace us with your presence. It’s rude to leave a guest waiting, you know,” Tony said, ignoring the way his heartbeat increased and the sweat prickling on his lower back.

Barnes’ eyes darted around the kitchen, resting on the armor for a moment before he edged over to the window to stand at an angle that allowed him to peek through the curtains without making himself a target. “It’s just me here, Barnes.”

His eyes narrowed. “Why would you come alone? I thought you were in Switzerland?”

Tony shrugged and set down his cup, though he kept his hands flat on the table. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear. And I came alone because I don’t want to fight.”

“What do you want, then?”

“To help you.”

Barnes scoffed and turned his full attention to Tony, dark eyes cold and sad. “There is no helping me.”

“Wrong,” Tony said. “I know all about the triggers, Barnes. I want to help. More importantly, I can help. Well, I know people who can, anyway.”

“Why would you do that?”

Tony sighed. “Steve is my teammate, and you’re important to him.”

Barnes tilted his head to the side. “That’s not why.”

“Ugh, super soldiers. Fine. I want to help you because what happened to you was fucked up. Plus, I’m not a fan of HYDRA and I figure if I take away the weapon they used to kill my parents it’ll be a very cathartic fuck you.”

The gun in Barnes’ hand lowered an inch and Tony thought it was more out of shock than a willingness to trust Tony. “You know about that?” he whispered.

“Yeah, I know. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to kill you at first, but.” Tony looked down at the chip in the mug, running his thumb over it and letting a callous catch on the rough edge. “But then I realized you were a victim of HYDRA, too. I read the files. I know what they did. I’m not what a lot of people would call a good man, but I’m not evil, either. I want to help you, Barnes.”

“What if I don’t want help?”

Tony met his gaze with a hard one of his own. “You and I both know you’re a ticking time bomb. It’s not your fault and it’s not fair, but leaving you out in the wind is just asking for trouble. All it takes is one asshole who knows your trigger words to turn you back into a monster. Now, if you’re the man I think you are beneath all that brainwashing bullshit, you don’t want that to happen. You don’t know me, you don’t trust me, and that’s fine, I don’t blame you. But you also don’t have a lot of options, here.”

They stared each other down for a long moment. Finally, Barnes lowered the gun. “I guess you’re right about that. Just - let’s keep Steve Rogers out of this. I’m not ready to see him.”

“You read my mind, buddy. Now, come on, we’ve got a country to crash.”

000

“Your majesty, we just picked up intruders half a mile inside the border.”

T’Chaka looked up at the Dora Milaje standing in the doorway. That was...different. Not many people made it past their borders. “Oh? How did they get past our security?”

Okoye pressed her lips together. “One of them is Tony Stark, sir.”

T’Chaka leaned back in his chair, expression slipping into one of shock. His country may be isolationist, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t paying attention to the rest of the world. He knew who Tony Stark was. “And he only made it a half-mile?”

She scowled. “He showed himself voluntarily. Said that he needed to speak with you urgently.”

“And his companion?”

“I do not recognize him, but he is deadly.”

T’Chaka hummed. Ten years ago he would have had them thrown out, but with Wakanda on the verge of joining the international scene, turning away someone like Tony Stark would not be wise. It would also be foolish to assume he didn’t know that Wakanda was more than it seemed. “Show them to our receiving room. I will speak to him. Ask T’Challa to join us, please.”

T’Chaka watched Okoye struggle with the urge to argue with no small amount of amusement before she inclined her head and turned smartly to do as he asked. She had always been headstrong and full of pride, even as a young trainee. His family was lucky to have her on their side.

He spent a few minutes finishing up his paperwork, knowing it would take a while to get everyone sorted. Plus, he wanted to make T’Challa stew a bit. His son was a good man and would make a fine king someday, but he tended to act rashly and judge too quickly at times. This might be a good chance to ease him into the world of international politics.

After what he deemed enough time had passed he stood, smoothing the wrinkles from his high-collared shirt before moving to the door. The Dora Milaje standing guard fell into step behind him, matching his sedate pace with ease. Sure enough, when he reached the door to the receiving room T’Challa was already there. While he was still maintaining his elegant bearing and cool expression, T’Chaka could see the irritation in the line of his shoulders and the flashing of his eyes.

“My son,” he said and put a hand on his arm. “Has Okoye told you why I called for you?”

“Yes,” he gritted out. “Apparently two Americans have invaded our borders.”

T’Chaka lifted a hand to run over his beard and hide his smile. “I hardly think two men count as an invasion.”

“It may as well when one of them is Tony Stark and the other is a man whose very existence screams danger.” Ah, good, T’Challa wasn’t underestimating Tony Stark, either. 

“Let us see why they have come before casting judgment.”

T’Challa glanced at him from the corner of his eye, obviously wishing to argue but holding back. “Of course, father.”

T’Chaka’s lips twitched again when T’Challa stepped through the door first, followed by two Dora Milaje, one of which was Okoye, before T’Chaka himself was allowed to enter, his own guards bringing up the rear. The room he’d chosen was fairly small but decorated in rich fabrics and liberally covered in rugs. A table carved from the stump of a four-hundred-year-old tree that had been hit by lightning took up the center of the room, lined on either side by large comfortable chairs with a more throne-like chair at the end.

Seated a few spots down from the head of the table were two men. One was easily recognizable as Tony Stark, who was dressed in a suit (T’Chaka couldn’t help but feel amused that he had broken into his country wearing a bespoke suit). He was sitting like a man who was used to owning the room. Next to him, in deep contrast, was a ragged-looking man.

T’Chaka could see what his son and Okoye meant when they called him dangerous. His eyes were dark and darting around, his posture that of somebody who was ready to fight at any moment. His left hand was made of metal and his clothes were those of a warrior - sturdy and well-used. T’Chaka wondered how these two men had ended up traveling together.

Tony Stark smiled and stood at their entrance, nudging the other man until he did as well. “Your Majesty. Thanks for taking the time to meet with us.”

“Is it not considered polite to make an appointment first in your country, Mr. Stark?” T’Challa said before T’Chaka could reply.

“In my defense, I did try to call ahead, but you’re a hard man to get ahold of. It was either this or hacking into your systems and all in all, this seemed more polite.”

“Yes, and much healthier for you,” T’Chaka said, letting his eyes crinkle into a smile as he stepped forward, ignoring T’Challa’s aborted movement to shield him. “Many people assume it is my son who they should fear retaliation from, but you will find my daughter to be quite the foe if you dare to attack her systems.”

“Sounds like my kind of person,” Mr. Stark said with a genuine laugh. “Oh, but how rude, I haven’t made introductions. King T’Chaka, my name is Tony Stark, but please, call me Tony, and this is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes.”

T’Chaka froze and turned his attention back to the other man who was standing behind and to the right of Tony, eyes moving warily between Okoye, T’Chaka, and T’Challa as though unsure who was the bigger threat. “Is the name a coincidence?”

“Ah, no. That’s partly why we’re here, actually.”

T’Chaka held up a hand to keep T’Challa from saying anything. He would hear them out. “I am King T’Chaka of Wakanda and this is my son, T’Challa. You may simply refer to us by our names, as we are no sovereign of yours. These are my elite guards, the Dora Milaje.”

“A pleasure,” Tony said, then clapped his hands together, causing Barnes to jump and the Dora Milaje to stiffen. “Do you think you could have your incredibly terrifying and impressive guards return my phone? It has some information on it I’d like to share with you.”

T’Chaka narrowed his eyes. “If this is a trick -”

“It’s not,” Tony said and his voice was low and sincere, a stark contrast to the flippant way he’d spoken earlier. “I won’t record you or use it to hack your systems or any other nefarious things you can think of. And at the end of all this meeting, no matter the outcome, I’ll keep your country’s secrets. I swear.”

“Very well,” T’Chaka said after taking the time to study Tony closely. You didn’t rule a country for thirty-eight years without learning to read people. “Let us sit.”

T’Challa was pressing his lips together in obvious dismay but he knew better than to openly defy T’Chaka. The royal family must always be united to the outside world. T’Chaka sat at the head of the table and T’Challa sat directly to his right. Tony and Barnes retook their seats and a moment later one of the Dora set his phone in front of him, along with a pair of sunglasses that T’Chaka was sure were more than they seemed.

“Thank you,” he murmured and slipped the glasses on. “JARVIS, say hello and be polite, you’re in the presence of royalty.”

“Hello,” a cultured voice said from the speakers of the phone. “It is a pleasure to meet you, your majesties. Also, I am always polite. I believe you are confusing me with you, sir.”

Tony chuckled. “JARVIS is my AI. He pretty much keeps my life running.”

T’Challa leaned forward, interested despite himself, it seemed. “A true AI?”

“That’s right. Been with me for fifteen years now.”

“Remarkable,” T’Chaka said. “We are pleased to meet you as well.”

The door opened and a young man brought in a tray of refreshments. They were silent while he poured them tea, hands steady even in the face Barnes’ dark distrust. Once he’d left and they all had tea that they promptly ignored, T’Chaka spoke. “So. I think it’s time to discuss why you’re here, Tony.”

“No point drawing it out, you’re right. But first, a peace offering. J, bring up everything we have on Erik Stevens, aka Erik Killmonger.” T’Chaka’s eyes widened and his back stiffened. Okoye looked over at him with obvious concern, but he shook his head.

A holographic image appeared above the phone, showing a picture of a young, serious black man in fatigues. Information flowed next to him.

“This is an American soldier. Why should we care about him?” T’Challa asked. 

T’Chaka had to admit that his background was impressive. Formerly special forces, multiple awards for service, enough various skills to make him a force to be reckoned with. Less impressive were the crimes he was suspected of taking part in more recently. He’d made a point of not looking too closely at his nephew these past years, lest the shame overwhelm him.

“Because his name wasn’t always Erik Stevens,” Tony said and with a flick of his hand, the name at the top changed to N'Jadaka. “Prince T’Challa, meet your cousin, N’Jadaka. Son of N’Jobu.”

All good humor left T’Chaka and he stood. “How do you know this,” he said in a low tone that set everybody on edge - everybody, that is, except for Tony Stark, who met his gaze calmly.

“I have my ways. Erik Stevens is an extremely dangerous man and he has a very specific goal in mind: take the throne of Wakanda for himself. I don’t know the details of why, but I suspect you do.”

T’Chaka sat down, suddenly feeling all of his years. The reminder of what he’d done to his own brother...he closed his eyes. The physical similarities between T’Challa and N’Jadaka were striking. There was no doubt that they were cousins and there would be no keeping T’Challa from this, now. 

“Father?” T’Challa said. He was standing, looking torn between comforting him or attacking Tony. Barnes was either going to run or start killing people any minute. Tony was still sitting calmly, gaze steady. T’Chaka sighed and waved him back to his seat. It seemed his past had finally caught up to him.

“Thank you for the warning, Mr. Stark. We will deal with this.”

Tony nodded slowly, once. “Of course. If you give me your contact information I can send everything I have to you.”

“How did you come by this information?” T’Challa asked. 

“I have a lot of channels open to me.”

A hand on T’Challa’s arm kept him from saying something they would probably both regret. “And what is it you hope to gain today, Mr. Stark?”

He held up a placating hand. “It’s Tony, please. And I think you’ll find that what I have in mind is mutually beneficial.” Another wave of his hand and Erik Stevens was replaced with a document. A very familiar document that Tony Stark should not have had access to.

“Where did you get that?” T’Chaka asked.

“Found it,” Tony said with a shrug. “You’d be surprised what people leave just lying around.”

“Are you here to ask me to withdraw my support of these laws?” he asked mildly. 

“Nope. I’m here to help you make them better.”

That wasn’t what T’Chaka expected to hear. After all, more oversight and accountability would certainly make the Avengers’ jobs harder. 

“What is this, father?” T’Challa asked, looking between them.

“This is the early draft of a set of international laws for the oversight of superheroes, more or less,” Tony answered for him.

T’Challa turned his gaze on T’Chaka, questioning but never accusing. No, he still held on to the firm faith that all children seemed to have in their parents. T’Chaka was not looking forward to proving him wrong later when he would have to come clean about what happened with N’Jobu.

“It is my intention to join the international platform when these become public,” he said to his son. T’Challa opened his mouth, then closed it. 

T’Chaka turned away and let him have a moment to catch his equilibrium. After all, he’d had a lot of information dropped on him today. He wondered if Tony did this sort of thing a lot. “You claim to want to help in their creation. Why?”

Tony leaned forward and threaded his fingers together before resting his arms on the table. “Because I believe in accountability without control. I believe that the only way to keep our world safe from what’s coming is to unite and we can’t do that if only a small number of people are invested in keeping everybody safe. These documents,” he said, gesturing towards the hologram, “can be either the first step towards unification or destruction. I want to make sure it’s the former.”

Silence followed his proclamation for a moment before T’Challa broke it. “And what is it that you believe is coming, Mr. Stark?”

He looked over at T’Challa and the tension between then sharpened. “When I flew a nuke into that portal in New York, I saw something.”

His voice was low and for the first time since T’Chaka had walked into the room, Tony Stark showed fear. Even Barnes was focused on him now and everyone seemed to have stopped breathing. This man, thought T’Chaka, has presence. A monarch in his own right.

“There was an army. Thousands of ships, bigger than anything that made it down onto Earth. Our nuke destroyed one of them. They’re coming back because we have something they want. And if we’re not ready, we will fall.”

Oppressive silence met his proclamation. Surprisingly, it was Barnes who spoke next. “If this is true, why are we just hearing about it now? Shouldn’t the world be scrambling to get it together?”

Tony huffed and leaned back and the tension in the room went down along with the change in his demeanor. “That’s the problem with dropping End-of-the-World type news on people. Nobody wants to believe it until it’s too late. I’ve been trying to get somebody to listen to me for years, but people keep brushing it off. So I’ve decided to stop talking and start doing.”

“And you believe this is the first step,” T’Chaka said, motioning towards the documents and trying to ignore the pit opening up in his stomach. If what Tony said was true, his country was in danger. The world was in danger. As much as he’d like to believe he could close his borders and survive an invasion of the scale Tony was claiming was coming their way, he knew better. If the world fell, Wakanda would follow eventually. Nothing was infallible.

“Yes. I think we could accomplish a helluva lot if we teamed up, King T’Chaka,” Tony said, brown eyes solemn. “Both on this and on world defense systems. Hell, we could collaborate in the business world, too. Stark Industries would be a great partner in helping you come out Internationally. Joint projects in medicine, communications - we could probably solve world hunger if we put our minds to it. That would grab people’s attention.”

He was leaning forward, eyes bright and hand movements expansive and for the first time in a long time, T’Chaka felt overwhelmed by the presence of another person. This whole meeting had been a jump from one extreme to another. Even T’Challa looked begrudgingly intrigued.

“Let me send you some of my thoughts on the documents, alright? And, while we’re discussing collaboration in the medical field, I should tell you the third reason I’m here.” Tony motioned at Barnes, who hunched his shoulders and ducked his head, an odd juxtaposition to the deadly aura he’d been exuding.

“Sergeant Barnes was, up until a few months ago, a prisoner of war,” Tony said seriously. “He was captured by HYDRA in 1944 and has spent the time in between being tortured, experimented on, and brainwashed by them. He only recently broke their control. Up until then, he was known as the Winter Soldier.”

There was a flurry of activity as all four Dora Milaje rushed to flank T’Chaka and T’Challa stood, looking for all the world like he was ready to leap across the table. “You dare bring this man into the same room as my father?”

Tony put a hand on Barnes’ arm when it looked like he would stand, too.  “Woah, woah, woah, did you not hear me when I said he broke control? Torture? Brainwashing? Ringing any bells?”

T’Chaka held up his hand and the Dora relaxed marginally. He ran his eyes over Barnes, taking in the tenseness of his posture, the way he held himself like a wounded animal. It was the hopelessness in his eyes that convinced him, though. “T’Challa, sit,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

For a moment, he thought he would be disobeyed. Then T’Challa let out a low growl and threw himself down in his chair. Tony’s lips twitched but he didn’t say anything. That was good because his son’s temper was already frayed at the edges. Perhaps this wasn’t as much of an easing into international politics as T’Chaka had hoped. He’d basically been thrown into the deep end. 

“And what is it you would ask of us?”

Tony’s shoulders lowered a bit and T’Chaka realized he had been much more on edge than he seemed. “There are still triggers - words HYDRA agents used to gain control of the Winter Soldier. They need to be removed. I have something that could help. A technology called Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing. It’s a holographic system that connects with the hippocampus, allowing it to find traumatic memories and alter them. Through the altered projection, the user can successfully re-experience and hopefully work through overcoming traumatic experiences.”

“That’s impressive,” T’Chaka said, meaning it.

Tony shrugged. “It’s a piggy-back off somebody else’s work. Anyway, I think it can be reconfigured to help with the triggers, but I don’t really have the background or time to make it work that way. I’m assuming someone in Wakanda does.”

T’Chaka threaded his fingers together. “You want us to cure him.”

“That, and give him sanctuary. Once he’s all better I’ll get him a lawyer, some good PR, and hopefully, we can clear his name.”

“Why would you do this?” T’Chaka asked. Barnes glanced over at Tony, seeming just as interested in his answer.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said steadily. “The other options are locking him up or letting some shadow organization take him and use him for their own purposes. I’m a hero, I’m supposed to be in the business of doing the right thing. And I believe you and your son are cut from the same cloth. That’s why I came to you.”

T’Chaka studied him, looking for any indication he was being lied to. He found none. “And you, Sergeant Barnes? Is this what you want?”

“I - if I can be free of this, then yeah, that’s what I want,” he said roughly.

“Then we will help you. There will be rules, of course. Nothing that will put too much of a burden on you, I’m sure.” Barnes’ head snapped up, the look of wary hope on his face almost painful in its intensity.

“You’re really going to -”

“Yes.”

“I’m not - I mean, sometimes I still have trouble,” he said softly. “I don’t always know where I am, or who’s friendly.”

T’Chaka felt himself soften further at the admission. “Do not worry. We are hardy and we will take proper precautions, Sargeant.”

“Y’can call me James,” he muttered and T’Chaka smiled. 

Even T’Challa looked like he supported the decision despite his still-obvious annoyance at Tony Stark’s, well, everything, if T’Chaka had to guess. His son was used to being the most powerful figure in the room, aside from T’Chaka. This lesson would be amusing if it hadn’t been such an emotional rollercoaster.

“As for the rest. I will review what you send me and get back to you. I will also give you my number so you aren’t forced to take drastic measures next time you would like to speak with me,” T’Chaka said wryly.

“Hey, drastic measures is practically my middle name. I’ll send along a list of weaknesses I found in your security, too,” he said before picking up his phone and pocketing it. “I didn’t find many, I admit, and most of them would probably be impossible to bypass for somebody that wasn’t me or, say, the Black Widow, but it’s always good to know.”

T’Chaka stood with him and reached across the table. Tony clasped his hand and his smile was warm, nothing like the fake one he’d used at the beginning of the meeting. “I’ll send the BARF along, too.”

“BARF?” T’Challa said, bemused, and Barnes surprised T’Chaka by snickering.

“Right, short for Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing.” Tony tilted his head, his lips turned up one side. “Thought it was fitting.”

“Indeed it is,” T’Chaka said with a sincere laugh that made Tony’s smile grow. “Well, I look forward to reading your proposals. Let us see if we can work together with the Avengers and Stark Industries.”

Tony blinked twice, then rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, full disclosure, here. I’ll be leaving the Avengers sometime in the next couple of weeks.”

T’Chaka exchanged a look with T’Challa. The Avengers were famous internationally and Stark and Rogers’ names were practically synonymous with the group. “May I ask why?”

Tony shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Personal reasons. The Avengers do good work, we just have different ways of going about that. We’ll all work better if I’m doing my own thing. Though of course, we would collaborate in the case of large-scale emergencies.”

T’Chaka could see that absolutely nobody in the room was convinced by his vague answer, but no one argued it. “Ah, I see. Well, I wish you the best of luck with your endeavors, then. And can I just say,” he added, letting the laughter he’d been holding back off and on trickle into his voice, “that I am glad to see you are not, in fact, on your deathbed.”

Tony grinned. “Thanks, Your Majesty. Means a lot. Well, I had better get Barnes here settled, I’ve got a long plane ride home coming up.”

“Of course,” T’Chaka said and motioned for him to leave ahead of them. He, too, had much to do and little time to do it. Tony had given him much to think on.

But first, he had to tell his family about N’Jobu and his son and why they now had a member of their family who considered them enemies. It was going to be a long night.

000

“Sir, the Avengers have found Wanda and are currently breaching the bunker.”

Tony slit his eyes open and stared out the plane window. “Is Pietro with them?”

“Yes. They have spent the last four days convincing him that you are not to blame for the death of their family and that his powers should be used for good.”

“How sure are we that he actually believes it?” Tony asked around a yawn. Damn, he was tired. He’d probably only gotten four hours of sleep before JARVIS woke him. 

“I believe so. Captain Rogers and Mr. Barton were very convincing. Especially when they showed them all the evil HYDRA has done.”

“Right,” Tony muttered. “Well, keep the collar on until it seems like she’s calm and then release it and have it self destruct. We don’t want it getting into the wrong hands or being tied back to me. And JARVIS, if she seems like she can’t be convinced, you know what to do.”

He was taking a chance, here, but even if Wanda had never warmed up to him, she had still regretted her actions and tried to be a hero. Tony could only hope that his push would work in this timeline. “Pull up the feed,” he said.

A moment later he was watching the Avengers plus Pietro burst into the small cell Wanda had been stuck in for over a week. She jumped to her feet, a Tamora Pierce book falling from her fingers. “Pietro!” she yelled when he sped to her side and pulled her into a hug. “You’re okay!”

“Yes, I’m fine, I wasn’t the one who was kidnapped,” he said and lifted one hand to touch the collar. He winced and pulled his hand away when it shocked him. “What is this?” 

Tony really hoped they never figured out who had kidnapped her and put that thing on her, because he was pretty sure he’d be right back at the top of Pietro Maximoff’s to-kill list.

“Never mind that,” she hissed and pushed him behind her. “What are you doing here with them?”

“Ah - Wanda, listen. I think we might have been wrong.”

She stiffened and glanced over at him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean - did you know that those weapons weren’t sold by Tony Stark, but by Obadiah Stane, the man Howard Stark’s will named as CEO until Tony Stark was old enough to take over? He betrayed him - it was him that set up the kidnapping in Afghanistan, he tried to kill him -”

“He built them!” Wanda yelled. “He built them and profited from them, he is a monster -” 

Tony winced and muted the audio. “Yeah, J, how about you just give me the cliff notes version. I’m going back to sleep, I trust you to deal with,” he flapped his hand, “all of that.”

He’d put a kill switch in the collar if Wanda really seemed like she wasn’t going to come over to their side. He didn’t want to have to use it, felt sick at the thought, but he also didn’t want her to turn one of his good friends into a mindless killing machine and set him loose on a city. Tony was already tired of the drama surrounding all of that. What did it matter, in the face of what he’d been through?

Part of him recognized that he was probably crossing a moral line somewhere, but he was just so tired. He’d already spent literal years dealing with team drama, and in the end, none of it had actually mattered. 

When he woke up again the plane was landing and the sun was rising over LA. “Oh, thank god,” he muttered.

“Sir, the situation with the Avengers and the Maximoffs has resolved itself. They went to the compound and the collar is destroyed.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, sir. It seems that while Wanda still holds a bit of a grudge against you, she has been convinced to leave the employ of HYDRA. They are currently focused on finding the mysterious group responsible for her kidnapping.”

Tony’s lips twitched when he heard the humor in JARVIS’ tone. “Ah. I See.”

“Yes. They even asked for my assistance. I’ve assured them I am putting considerable effort towards following every lead, no matter how big or small.”

Tony leaned forward with his arms propped on his knees and laughed helplessly. God, it shouldn’t be as funny as it was, but imagining them chasing their tails, trying to find this imaginary mystic was hilarious. It was like the best prank ever, if kidnapping could be considered a prank. By the time he calmed down enough to wipe the tears from his eyes, the plane had landed.

He took a shaky breath and slipped his sunglasses on. It was time to step back into the world. They wouldn’t know what hit them.

Chapter Text

He’d left the room while Pepper and Rhodey watched the video. Honestly, watching his parents being murdered wasn’t something he wanted to do more times than necessary. He’d already have to watch it at least once more before he could put it behind him.

It’d taken a bit of time for FRIDAY and JARVIS to track it down, but eventually, they’d found it tucked away in an older HYDRA server. 

“Sir, they are finished and are requesting that you return to the room.”

Tony looked up from his phone where he’d been sending a message to the Avengers - minus their newest acquisitions - letting them know he was back in New York and that he needed a few weeks to get caught up on SI stuff but would be in touch. Hopefully, that would keep them from swarming him.

“Thanks, J.” 

He opened the door with trepidation and had barely stepped inside before he was wrapped in a bone-crushing hug. “I’m so sorry, Tones,” Rhodey said. “That - that’s fucked up, man.”

He stepped back so that Pepper could wrap him in a hug of her own. “Are you okay, Tony?”

“Yeah, I’m - I mean, it’s awful, but I’m fine. Come on, let’s sit down.” Once they were settled on the couch, Rhodey on one side of him and Pepper on the other, he said, “I came across that video recently. It had been removed from the original dump of SHIELD’s files but JARVIS found it buried in a bunch of data in an old HYDRA base.”

Pepper, always quick to put things together, realized what this meant first. She sat up, eyes bright and lips tight. “They knew. They knew about this and they hid it from you!”

Rhodey stood and Tony’s eyes lingered on his braceless legs for a moment before his ranting pulled his attention. “ - they burned all those agents, but of course Rogers took the time to remove the proof that his best buddy was a HYDRA assassin. And they - oh my god, Tony, they’ve been using your resources to find him while lying to your face!”

“Yeah,” Tony said and had to clear his throat at how rough his voice came out. “I don’t think all of them know. Steve and Natasha do for sure, obviously. Pretty sure Sam does, too.”

“We’re going to burn them to the ground for this,” Pepper said in a too-calm voice. Yep, that was her kicking ass and taking names expression. “They’ve gone too far this time.”

“Damn right we are. I’ll hold and you punch,” Rhodey said.

“First of all, nice Mulan reference,” Tony broke in before they could actually come up with a plan to murder the Avengers. “Second of all, we aren’t ruining anybody.”

Pepper pinned him with a stare, the one that said, ‘I am Pepper Potts, do not fuck with me.’ “You aren’t seriously going to just let this go?”

Tony held up his hands. “No, of course not. I’m pulling my funding, Pep, leaving the team. I can’t trust them to watch my back. But I’m going to make sure they’re not left out in the cold.”

“Let them figure it out for themselves, for once!”

“Tony, they’re adults -”

“Guys!” he said, then gentler when they stopped yelling. “Guys, I know. But I saw something when I went through that portal. There was a whole damn army on the other side and I don’t think they’re done with us. I thought I needed to be an Avenger, that I needed that team, for when they come. But I realized that all they’re doing is holding me back from my goals, from doing what needs to be done. That doesn’t mean they won’t be an important part of our forces.”

“You really think they’re coming,” Rhodey said.

Tony shrugged and wrapped his hand around Pepper’s when he saw how pale she was. “I don’t think, I know. The Earth isn’t ready and we have to be. So I’m going to leave the Avengers, let them do their thing, and I’m going to start gathering allies who will work with me on this. I need to know - are you two in?”

They exchanged a long look before turning to him. “Of course we are, Tony,” Pepper said with a watery smile. “Just tell us what we need to do.”

“Well, I could use some help finding other backers for the Avengers,” he said. 

Pepper tilted her head to the side in thought, then turned to rifle through her purse in search of her StarkPad. “I’ve got a few ideas.”

“Of course she does,” Rhodey said with a shaky smile. 

“That’s Pep for you. The woman with a plan.” She rolled her eyes and sat back, fingers already flying across the screen. 

“She’s not the only one who usually has a plan. I think it’s time to tell us what you’ve been up to the past month,” Rhodey said.

Tony grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”

He could still hear the echoes of their laughter and half-hearted scoldings when Happy came around to open the door for him at his next destination. 

They’d thought that him finding Barnes and then breaking into Wakanda with him behind Rogers’ back was hilarious. Well, Pepper had been furious that he’d risked the wrath of the monarch of a secretly technologically advanced country that was ruled by super-powered individuals. Eventually, though, she’d given in and laughed when he described the look on the prince’s face throughout the meeting.

Tony adjusted his hat and sunglasses before stepping out of the car and looked up at the building in front of him with no small amount of trepidation. The Sanctum looked the same from the outside as it had the first time he’d seen it, though he’d barely gotten a glance at the front of it when he’d run out to see what newest disaster had hit New York. 

The next time he’d come the street had been torn up and many of the buildings around it damaged or destroyed. Those who hadn’t been dusted had been wandering the streets in a daze, trying to move on with lives that had been irrevocably changed. Tony swallowed and forced his thoughts away from the memories. It wouldn’t happen that way this time. 

“Wait here, Hap. I won’t be long.”

Happy sent the street a distrustful glance. “You got it, Tony.”

There was no indication that the building in front of him was hiding something magical. No weird tingling up and down his spine, no ominous feeling. Just another old building in a city full of old buildings. His feet were steady when they climbed the step, and his knock was sure against the thick wooden door.

There was no helping his grimace when the door opened on his own, though, revealing the Sanctum. There wasn’t a huge hole in the floor this time, no frantic Bruce telling him that this was it, this was the moment Tony had been dreading. Actually, it was pretty peaceful. And empty. 

Tony avoided looking over at the couch against the wall. That’s where he’d sat when he’d broken the news to Wong that Strange was dead and the Time Stone was lost. The man looked stoic even when he cried.

“Hello? Doc, you around?”

“I am not sure who the Doc is, but I am here.”

Tony spun on his heel towards the calm voice. Standing at the top of the stairs was a woman. She was probably around forty years old with long black hair, olive skin, and a thin scar down one side of her face. There were golden glass beads woven into her hair in intervals that almost looked like they were shining from within. Hell, maybe they were, because magic. 

She was wearing red robes similar in style to Strange’s, but there was no cape.

“I must say, I was not expecting Tony Stark to step into my Sanctum today.” She put a hand on the rail and began making her way down.

“Uh. Yeah, sorry I didn’t call ahead,” he said with a shrug and removed his hat. 

Her thin lips turned up into a smile. “Yes, we can be difficult to get ahold of.” She had reached the bottom of the stairs and walked towards him with the confidence of someone who could take care of herself. She held out her hand. “My name is Masako Mori. I am the Master of this Sanctum.”

Her palm was cool in Tony’s, her grip firm but not overly so. “Tony Stark. Nice to meet you. I suppose that means you’re, you know.” He waved his hands around in an approximation of the motion Strange had made to open portals. Her smile grew.

“A Master of the Mystic Arts? Yes. Though I do wonder how you came about this information.”

Her expression remained serene but Tony could sense the danger beneath. “Hey, I come in peace. As for how I know...well, that’s kind of a long story. Is, uh, Doctor Stephen Strange around?”

Her brow furrowed. “Who?”

“The...Sorcerer Supreme? Kinda hard to miss - tall, amazing facial hair, wears a sentient cloak? Kind of an asshole, actually,” he said then stopped talking when he saw that she still looked confused.

“I do not know anybody by that name,” she said slowly. “Please, wait here for a moment.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but she was already stepping through a portal into an empty courtyard. It slammed shut behind her and he lowered his hand from where he’d lifted it in protest. 

“Dammit,” he muttered. He should have done some research before crashing the Sanctum but it had been on a whim, born of a spike of anxiety when Steve had sent him an email confirming a meeting with the team a few weeks from now. He’d also hinted that he had some people he wanted Tony to meet.

The last thing Tony needed was to be mind-fucked by Wanda again. There were more than a few secrets he needed to keep to himself. Sure, it seemed like she was settling in okay with the Avengers, but he couldn’t really trust her to keep her temper with him. Not yet. So he’d instructed Happy to go to the one place where he thought someone might help him. Apparently, that person hadn’t graduated from Hogwarts yet.

“I think I might have just screwed up, JARVIS. Can you find out where Stephen Strange is at?”

There was a pause before information lit up on the HUD in his sunglasses. Turns out Dr. Strange was an actual doctor, as in, still practicing, sans cape. “Well, damn.”

“Should you make an exit, sir?”

Tony sighed and wandered over to a display case with a tiara perched on a bust inside of it. “Nah, I’m on their radar now. May as well see if they’re willing to help me.”

“I understand. I have the Legion on standby.”

“Sounds good, but I doubt we’ll need it. Pretty sure these are the good guys,” he said with more confidence than he was feeling. From what Wong had told him about the order they generally leaned on the side of the light.

Before JARVIS could reply, there was the sound of a portal opening behind him. He turned just in time to see Masako step back into the room, followed by a bald woman dressed in deep blue and purple robes who exuded power the same way Strange had.

The portal closed behind them and Masako stepped back so that she was standing at the woman’s right and slightly behind her. Ah, so this was the head honcho, then.

“Tony Stark.” She stepped forward. He put his hands in his pockets and forced himself to be still when she walked around him, feet silent on the wood. “You are steeped in the magic of the Infinity Stones. You carry with you echoes of the future. Or...a future. Tell me, how did you come to know the name Stephen Strange?” she asked as she came back around to stand in front of him.

Masako hadn’t moved, though he recognized the posture of someone who was ready for a fight should it break out. The reverence in her gaze as she stared at the woman in front of him was humbling and concerning all at once. “Well, when we met he was the Sorcerer Supreme. Though it seems like I might be a few years early. Sorry I freaked out your minion.”

Instead of getting upset her lips turned up into a small smile. “You were friends?”

He hesitated. “Allies. He saved my life.”

“That does sound like the man I’ve seen,” she said, gaze unfocused as though looking at something far away. 

Tony cleared his throat. “Right. I don’t suppose you have a name?”

Her attention snapped back to him. “They call me the Ancient One.”

“That’s...okay. I can roll with that.”

“I must ask you not to approach Dr. Strange until he has completed his training,” she said in an apologetic tone. “It’s very important that his path unfolds as it is destined.”

“Stay away from your baby, got it,” he said, disappointment that he wouldn’t be finding the assistance he needed from this front. “Well, it’s been real, but I should -” 

He made to step around her but a soft hand on his arm stopped him. “You need help. Perhaps I can be of assistance?”

“Why would you help me?”

“It is my calling, to help those in need where I can, as well as protecting the world from interdimensional threats. Also, Stephen will one day mean a great deal to me. I would be honored to help his friends - past, present, and future.”

“This is...this is weird.”

She laughed. “Yes. More odd is that I did not see you coming, but I can sense the disaster on you, the things that you’ve come to change. I must preserve parts of the timeline, but I will help you with that which will not affect the events that must come to pass.”

Masako was staring at them, wide-eyed but not moving to intervene. Apparently this was weird even for a bunch of sorcerers. 

Tony licked his lips. “I’m not great at trust.”

“Perhaps you have just not put your trust in the right people,” the Ancient One said gently.

Tony let out a breath. It was either ask for help here or walk into a dicey situation with no protection against something he didn’t understand and couldn’t fight. “I need something to protect my friends and me from magical mental attacks,” he said bluntly.

Masako gasped and brought her hands to her mouth. “Who is using magic for such a thing?” she asked and took a step forward. The beads in her hair lifted, coiling like snakes around her head. Ha, Tony had totally called that they were magic beads.

The Ancient One was frowning. “You have been attacked this way?”

“Ah, yeah, well, not yet. It happened in that other future. I’m hoping I’ve changed things enough that it won’t be an issue this time, but.” He shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Come, let us sit and have tea,” the Ancient One said and Tony let her lead him past the stairs through a wide archway into what looked like a sitting room. The walls were lined with shelves that were filled with old, important-looking tomes. 

Masako waved her hand and a tray with coffee, tea, and three mugs appeared on the table. Tony tried not to freak out too visibly at the casual display of power. Magic still made him nervous, just a bit. Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that all of his interactions with it had been less than positive.

He let the Ancient One choose her seat before gingerly sitting down in the armchair across from her. Masoko took a moment to pour them tea before settling into a loveseat. Tony wondered what it was with tea and awkward meetings lately. For lack of something better to do with his hands he picked his cup up and took a sip of it.

“This is good,” he said, blinking down at it when warm spices and lemon hit his tongue.

The Ancient One smiled. “It’s a favorite of mine. Masako is kind enough to always keep some on hand for me.

Masako’s lips turned up slightly and she ducked her head. Tony cleared his throat and set his cup down gingerly. “So.”

The Ancient One set her own cup gently on the table and folded her hands in her lap. “Is there anything you can tell me about the threat we are facing? Or do you think it would be wiser to keep the details to yourself?”

Tony looked over at Masako, then back to the Ancient One, a little surprised that she was asking his opinion. He had a feeling that when it came to magical woo-woo stuff, she was the top expert in her field. “I’m not really sure. I don’t have a rulebook for this situation. I didn’t even mean to travel back in time.”

“You can trust Masako. She is one of my most loyal,” the Ancient One said, answering his silent question before addressing the rest. “It is unusual for someone to achieve something so powerful by accident.”

“I think it had something to do with wearing all six of the Infinity Stones at the same time,” he said and Masako inhaled the drink of tea she’d just taken.

She coughed and sputtered until the Ancient One waved her hand, a small glyph appearing in the air at her fingertips, and then Masako was able to breathe normally. “How did that happen?” 

“Not many know of the existence of the stones, but Masako is a scholar at heart,” the Ancient One said with fondness. “Sometimes I think she may have read every book in the library.”

Masako shook her head. “I could live two hundred years and never read everything in our library. The Infinity Stones, all gathered in one place...there would have been a lot of bloodshed, for that to happen.”

Tony fiddled with his cup as he thought about how to answer. He had to make a choice, here. He had a feeling he could stand up and leave and they wouldn’t try to stop him. But hadn’t he been saying he needed allies? Powerful people who wouldn’t scoff at his claims that something was coming? 

His track record with trust wasn’t great, but Tony knew that he’d learned some valuable lessons from when he’d been burned. Doctor Stephen Strange had been an arrogant asshole, but in the end he hadn’t hesitated to make the sacrifice play. For a long time Tony had hated him for saving him and letting the kid die, until he realized that he had known Tony would bring them all back.

If the rest of his order was like Strange, then their goals aligned with Tony’s on this. He could at least trust in that. He took a deep breath, then looked up. “His name is Thanos. Currently, he and his army travel around the Universe, attacking planets and killing half their population. He thinks he’s some sort of conservationist,” he said with a snort.

“His ultimate goal is to collect all six stones and, using a gauntlet, harness their power to kill half of all life in the Universe. Where I come from, he succeeds.”

The Ancient One had somehow gone paler and Masako’s eyes had gone wide. There was no doubt there, no Tony has lost it, just a sort of horrified acceptance. He pulled out his phone and set it on the table. “JARVIS, pull up the timeline and information we have on Thanos.”

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS said. A hologram expanded over the table and Tony settled in to tell his story, with a little less personal detail than what he’d given JARVIS.

He ended the tale when he woke up in his lab, eight years in the past. Masako had gone from wide-eyed terror to the calm of a warrior preparing herself to fight. The Ancient One had put one finger to her lips and was obviously deep in thought.

“I will need to think on this,” she finally said and stood. “Masako, would you be willing to come up with some sort of protection for Mr. Stark’s mind?”

“Yes, of course, sensei,” she murmured. 

The Ancient one reached out and lightly touched the crown of her head, expression soft. Then she turned to Tony. “I do not know what aide I can provide outside of that. I must ensure that I do not create another disaster by trying to avert this one. Return one week from now for your protection and for my decision.”

Tony stood and wiped his hands on his pants, torn between relief at getting any help at all and disappointment that an order full of badass sorcerers hadn’t immediately pledged their loyalty to his cause. “Right, sure, go meditate on it or whatever it is you need to do. Thanks for the tea, and for helping with the,” he made a whistling sound and circled his finger around his temple.

The Ancient One simply smiled before opening a portal and stepping through it. “Huh,” Tony said, then turned to Masako, mouth open to say something flippant, but she was gone. “Right. Guess I’ll just show myself out.”

000

“This is a terrible idea,” Tony muttered to himself, but didn’t straighten from where he was leaning against the wall in the dingy hallway of an apartment building in Queens. 

“I disagree, sir,” JARVIS said primly. “I, for one, am looking forward to meeting my younger brother.”

“Me, too, Boss.”

“He’s not my -” Before he could deny that Peter was his son - the kid didn’t even know him - the door to the stairs swung open and the person they’d just been talking about bounded into the hallway.

Tony froze, breath catching in his throat. Peter looked so young. His cheeks still held a bit of roundness that they’d lost by the time Thanos had come calling. His hair was longer than it had been, too, curls flopping forward onto his forehead, brown eyes focused on the phone in his hand. His backpack was slung over his shoulder and he was smiling to himself.

He’d only gotten that one hug from Peter before he’d died and it hadn’t been enough. Five years, five goddamn years he’d had to live with the kid’s death. Tony straightened and had already taken three steps forward before he remembered the situation. Trying to hug a teenaged boy he’d never met before would be, well, not a great first impression.

He grimaced and managed to wipe his expression clean and relax his posture just before Peter stopped and looked up, probably sensing the attention on him. Or maybe he heard Tony’s chaotic heartbeat or footsteps. 

His jaw fell open and he dropped his phone, though he managed to catch it with reflexes that were a little too good before it hit the ground. Sometimes Tony wondered how Peter had managed to keep his secret for so long. Peter fumbled with the phone before getting a grip on it and shoving it into his pocket. “Y-you’re Tony Stark!” 

Tony smiled and stepped closer, not having to fake the warmth in his voice when he said, “You must be Peter Parker,” and held out his hand.

“Oh my god, Tony Stark knows my name,” he said faintly, reaching out to grab his hand automatically. Tony winced at his too-firm grip but didn’t comment on it. “Why does Tony Stark know my name? Why is Tony Stark in my apartment building?”

Tony had to fight his grin. Peter was still pumping his hand up and down and was staring at Tony in a way that would have been incredibly creepy if he didn’t already love him. 

“We’ve established that my name is Tony Stark,” he said and Peter jolted before dropping Tony’s hand like it was going to explode.

A flush crawled up Peter’s neck to his cheeks. “Oh my god, this is so embarrassing. I’m so sorry, Mr. Stark, Iron Man, sir. I just - you’re Tony Stark.

“Last time I checked.’

“You’re in my apartment building!”

“Seems like it.”

“You know my name.”

“Yep.”

Peter’s hands dropped to his sides and he blinked before visibly shaking himself. “Um. Do you want to come in?”

“Sure, kid.”

“Alright. My Aunt May - she takes care of me - is still at work, but she should be back soon,” he said, fumbling with the keys while he attempted to put one into the lock without taking his eyes off Tony.

Tony was having a hard time keeping himself from staring right back. Peter was so warm, so full of life. Tony knew he’d had his fair share of tragedy already, but it had never managed to dim the light he carried around inside of him.

To distract himself, Tony took out his phone and fiddled with it until Peter finally managed the apparently gargantuan task of opening the door after dropping his keys twice. “Um, come in, Mr. Stark. Sorry, it’s, uh, a bit messy.” Tony stepped into the apartment, nostalgia hitting hard when he took in the comfortable, worn furniture and clutter. 

Peter was zooming around picking up cups and discarded sweaters, moving as fast as he could without looking something more than baseline human. 

“No problem, kid. You should see my workshop right now.” He sauntered over to the kitchen table and sat at the slightly sticky table, content to watch Peter shove dirty dishes into the dishwasher when he stuttered out, “Do you want some, um, coffee? Is it too late for coffee? Usually when I come home I have juice and peanut butter toast, but obviously you won’t -”

“Juice and peanut butter toast sound good.”

Peter turned and looked at him, eyes wide and horrified, like Tony had just announced he’d like to look through his underwear drawers. “Right,” he squeaked. “I can - yeah, I can totally make Tony Stark peanut butter toast. Oh my god,” he whispered to himself before dashing to the bread box and fumbling with the latch. 

Peter had convinced Tony to try peanut butter toast one day when he’d come to the lab after school to fix his suit after it was hit by acid. Tony had taken the chance to tease him on his choice of snack when he could have literally anything he wanted because, hello, he was standing in the kitchen of a billionaire. “Mr. Stark, don’t knock it till you try it!”  

It had been surprisingly good and after the Snap, when Tony was spending his days alone in a cabin by a lake, it was his go-to meal when he remembered to eat.

“Here you go,” Peter said and nervously set a glass of orange juice in front of Tony, then went to hover by the toaster, waiting for the bread to pop back up. He kept glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, fingers fidgeting with the butter knife, the jar of peanut butter, and his shirt before he jumped about a foot in the air and yelped when the toaster released.

Tony chuckled and took a sip of his juice and Peter laughed nervously before carefully slathering peanut butter across each slice. Tony waited until he’d gingerly sat down across from Tony and slid his plate in front of him to break the silence. “So you go to Midtown, and on a scholarship no less. That’s impressive.”

He lifted the toast and bit off a corner, the crispness of the bread and gooey peanut butter rolling across his tongue. He’d skipped lunch, so this was nice. Peter blinked, then swallowed and licked his lips. “Um. Yeah, I guess. I like science, so. Mostly biochemistry and engineering?”

“I’d say you more than ‘like’ them. You’re top of your class in related subjects and math,” Tony said mildly after taking a sip of juice.

Peter’s cheeks turned red and his expression lit with pleasure before turning to a frown. “Wait, how do you know that? Aren’t my records, like, private?”

Instead of answering directly, Tony pulled out his phone and set it on the table. “Say hi, JARVIS.”

“Hello, Mr. Parker, I am JARVIS, Mr. Stark’s AI. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m sorry to say that I’m to blame for sir’s access to your school records.”

He took another large bite and brushed crumbs from his goatee as Peter gaped before falling into a rapid fire question and answer session with his AI. Tony had to look down to hide whatever his expression was doing, because Peter was talking to JARVIS.  

He finished his first piece of toast before deciding it was time to get to the point. “So,” he cut in after JARVIS had assured Peter he had no designs on taking over the world, to which Peter had the gall to look a little disappointed about, “how’s your head?” 

Peter blinked up at him, brown eyes guileless. “My head?”

“Yeah. You took quite the hit last night.”

Peter froze, eyes going wide and cheeks paling. “I - what? What, no, I didn’t. I was here last night, sleeping. I mean, of course, I was, I’m fourteen, it was a school night -”

“Cut the crap, kid. I know you’re Spider-man. JARVIS, show the footage.”

A little image popped up above the phone. It offered a half-obstructed view of an alley, pulled from an old security camera across the street. You could barely make out three figures fighting. One was wearing a tracksuit and ski mask. He flicked his wrist and one of the other figures was covered in a blurry, white substance. A moment later he was struggling to get himself unstuck to the alley wall to no avail.

The other figure took it as a chance to hit Spider-man across the back of his head with what looked like a lead pipe. Spider-man went down hard and the man took off running, ignoring the yells of his companion.

“You didn’t move for five minutes,” Tony said mildly. “Anything could have happened. The second guy could have stayed and finished the job. Somebody else might have come along and looked under your mask.”

Peter was staring at his motionless body with something that looked like horror. Tony could relate. When FRIDAY had alerted him that she’d found footage of Spider-man being injured he hadn’t been prepared for how fucking terrifying it was, seeing Peter helpless and alone in a dark alley with no hope of backup. By the time he’d watched it the situation was over - Peter had woken up and stumbled home, blood staining the collar of his ridiculous suit.

It was why Tony had decided to approach him earlier than he’d originally planned. He was going to wait until he’d split from the Avengers and dealt with the fallout, but he couldn’t leave Peter out in the wind for another second. So, here he was.

“That - that’s really awful, Mr. Stark, but that isn’t, um, that isn’t me.” 

Tony sighed and threaded his fingers together, leaning forward to put his elbows on the table. “Kid, think about who you’re talking to, here. I know you’re Spider-man, so let’s skip the denials, huh? I’m not here to get you in trouble or to out you. I’m here to help.”

Peter blinked rapidly. “You want to help Spider-man? Not that Spider-man is me! Just, you know. Asking. Because I’m curious.”

Tony grinned. “Uh-huh. And, no, I don’t want to help Spider-man. I want to help Peter Parker.”

He met Peter’s gaze and tried to exude honesty. Peter bit his lip and picked up the peanut butter toast he’d been ignoring for the past ten minutes. “What makes Peter Parker so special?” he whispered.

Tony swallowed down any number of replies to that, because they weren’t things he should know about a kid he just met. “Tell me, Peter, why did you become Spider-man?”

He held his breath when Peter looked up at him, expression solemn. He knew what he was going to say before he even opened his mouth. “When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”

Tony smiled. “That, right there, is what makes Peter Parker special. Now, eat your toast, I’m guessing your super strength comes with a super metabolism,” he said, mostly as a way to get Peter to stop looking at him that way - like he’d just given him something profound.

Tony picked up his second piece of toast and raised his brow until Peter ducked his head with a smile and started eating his own. They sat in companionable silence until they’d finished their snack. Peter licked his lips after finishing his juice.

“How exactly -” he cut off at the sound of a key in the door and his eyes widened. “That’s my Aunt May, she doesn’t know about Spider-man. You have to go!”

Tony reached across the table and gripped Peter’s hand to keep him from jumping up and trying to stuff him in the closet or something. “Chill, kid, just follow my lead.”

He released him and stood, turning with a smile just as May stepped into the apartment. “Peter, baby, you here? I thought we could go out for Thai, I just got my pay...check.” She blinked at him, her large purse falling from her shoulder to land in the crook of her elbow with a jolt. “Why is Tony Stark in my kitchen?”

“Hello,” he said. “Sorry to come over unannounced, but after receiving a very interesting email from your nephew, here, I thought I should come over to sort a few things out.”

“What?” they both said in tandem, but Tony was already pulling up said email on his phone. He’d had JARVIS hack into Peter’s account and send it to him, backdated of course. 

“Please just call me Tony, by the way. Both of you.” He handed the phone over and she took it, still looking shell-shocked. She was still wearing her coat.

“Dear Mr. Stark,” she mumbled. “I’m not sure if you can find any use for this, but I came up with this awesome formula for an adhesive...” she skipped a few lines that were mostly scientific terms, “and since I’m only fourteen I’m not sure I can really do much with it. But since you’re my hero, I...” her voice trailed off when she began to read the rest silently.

Tony glanced over and had to hide a laugh at Peter’s gobsmacked expression. He could see when she got to the actual formula portion of the email because her gaze went a little vacant and she handed the phone back. “You actually check your public email?”

“Well, my AI flags certain content to forward to me.” He took the phone and motioned magnanimously for her to sit at her own table. She removed her coat and set it and her purse on the couch while she passed it as though on autopilot. “Pete was kind enough to make me a snack while we waited. Would you like anything before we continue our conversation?”

“Um, no, thank you,” she said faintly. “But, I’m sorry, what conversation?”

He pulled out her chair and waited for her to sit before returning to his spot. Peter scrambled to do the same. His eyes were wide - he probably knew exactly what formula Tony had sent to himself. “Well, I think first of all we should talk about the importance of patenting your work. Peter,” he said firmly and Peter jumped and actually looked guilty for something he hadn't even done under his stern gaze, “you shouldn’t just send your scientific achievements off to random CEOs of corporations. Most of them wouldn’t hesitate to steal it. Luckily for you, I don’t need to steal other people’s successes, I have plenty of my own.”

May was glaring at Peter, now, too, and he had shrunk back into a sulk. Tony almost felt bad for doing this to him, but then he remembered the multi-million dollar suit he planned on gifting him before the end of the week. 

“So, I actually came up with some options.” He reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out two stacks of paper. “Option one, I buy the rights to the formula outright.” 

May’s eyes widened when he sat down the first contract and pointed to the number. “Option two, my personal favorite. Peter becomes my personal intern, working closely with me fifteen hours a week while he’s still in school. He’s too young for it to be paid, but I’m sure I can get him some school credits. One of our projects will be coming up with applications to this formula, and your family would receive two percent of the profit.”

Pepper was going to kill him, but it would be worth it. Besides, Peter was the future heir of the company. He’d be getting a lot more than two percent of a small bit of what SI offered. Not that anyone knew that but Tony at this point.

“I...” May said. “This is quite...”

Tony held up a hand. “I understand it’s a lot to take in. Please, think on it. Talk to a lawyer, come back to me with counter-offers. No matter what you choose, I’d still like Peter to come work as my intern. You don’t run across a mind like his very often.”

Peter was bright red and Tony now knew what it meant for somebody to have stars in their eyes. I let you die, he thought and turned his attention to May before he could blurt out the confession. He wouldn’t let it happen this time. 

She was studying him with a shrewd expression that he’d never seen on Peter’s face. Tony kept his body relaxed and didn’t flinch. The stare-off went on long enough that Peter started to fidget in his seat. 

After a moment May let out a breath. “He is incredibly special. I’ve known that since he was six years old. He’s also got the kindest heart I’ve ever seen. And I’ve told myself that I would make damn sure nobody ever took advantage of that. Do you understand what I’m saying, Mr. Stark?”

Tony tilted his head into a nod. “You don’t know me, Mrs. Parker, but I can guarantee that we’re on the same page, here.”

Her eyes narrowed but whatever she saw on his face must have convinced her he wasn’t planning on screwing over her nephew. “Alright. We’ll look these over and talk about it. Can we have a week?”

“Take all the time you need,” Tony said and stood, recognizing a dismissal when he heard one. He’d forgotten how tough May Parker was.

Peter scrambled to his feet. “I’ll walk you out,” he said.

Tony grinned and clasped a hand to his bony shoulder. “Sure, kid. It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Parker.”

“Call me May. I’ll talk to you soon, Mr. Stark.”

“Tony’s fine, please.” They shook hands and then Peter was leading him out the door into the hallway.

Peter waited until they were in the stairwell to speak. “How did you get my web formula?” he hissed.

Tony put his sunglasses on and shoved his hands into his pockets. “You do kind of leave the stuff just lying around New York. Don’t worry, I only reverse engineered what’s in there, not the process itself.”

“Oh, no, I’m not worried about, you know,” Peter flapped his hand and Tony assumed he meant I’m not worried about you being a dirty thief who steals intellectual property from minors. Hah, that would be more of a Norman Osborn move. 

Speaking of Osborn, he should try to get proof of him being a mad scientist who does human experimentation on the side before Spider-man gets on his radar. That had been a not-fun couple of weeks in the future-past.

“I just, I mean,” Peter was stuttering and Tony raised a brow at him. He took a breath and straightened his shoulders. “You don’t need to make up something about me being some sort of genius to my Aunt May and give me an internship just to help with Spider-man. I can come up with an excuse, because, like, giving us money is going too far -”

Tony stopped walking and it took Peter a few steps and more rambling before he realized. He turned and looked up at Tony, brow furrowed. “Kid, I want you to listen to me. I didn’t make up anything. Those web-shooters? That formula? How many fourteen-year-olds do you know that could pull that off? Yeah, I plan on helping you with your teenaged super-heroeing, but the thing I’m most interested in is that brain of yours. So, turn down the internship if you don’t want it, but don’t turn it down because you think I’m blowing smoke up your ass.”

Tony started walking again and stepped around Peter, who was frozen with his mouth and eyes wide open. He paused and turned his head so he was looking at him from over his shoulder. “Oh, and kid? If you decide to go work for someone else, I’m buying their company and stealing your contract for myself.”

Tony then continued on his way, leaving Peter gaping in the stairwell.

The warmth from their encounter didn’t leave his chest for days.

Chapter Text

Tony eyed the front of the Sanctum, hoping that when the Ancient One said ‘come back in one week’ she meant exactly to the day and time he’d come the first time. It’s not like they’d given him a phone number. 

“Sir, May Parker is calling.” 

He paused at the steps and his heart leaped. “Put her through,” he said.

“Hello, Tony?”

“Hi, May. What can I do for you?”

“We’ve made a decision, but I have some concerns before we sign anything. I was hoping you could come by for dinner this week.”

Dinner was a good sign. If she wanted to tell him to fuck off she’d probably just send an email. “Sure. I’m actually heading into a meeting but I’ll put you through to JARVIS and he can set something up.”

“Okay. I’ll see you later this week, then.”

“Yep. Looking forward to it.” He hung up and took a deep breath to clear his thoughts before jogging up the steps.

The door opened before he could knock and the calm atmosphere of the street was broken by the sound of shattering wood and a shout. Adrenaline hit and he tapped his chest, already through the door as the suit spread around him, the nanotech still a little sluggish compared to the one he’d had in the future but serviceable enough.

Only the fact that he’d seen weirder kept him from faltering. The Sanctum was in shambles, shelves of books toppled, chunks taken out of the wall, the railing of the stairs torn apart. In the middle of the room, standing back-to-back, was the Ancient One and Masako, and they were fighting dozens of orangish-brown...creatures.

Only humanoid in the loosest sense of the word, with crouched postures and long, spindly legs, they jeered and lunged at the two women, leaving chaos in their wake. They only came up to hip height but they were fast and strong, too, judging by the way one picked up the couch and tossed it at Masako. On reflex, Tony lifted a hand and shot it off-course, wincing when it shattered against the stairs.

“Mr. Stark. You’re late,” the Ancient One said calmly before tossing a long scythe of energy that sliced four of the little creatures in half. They shrieked before dissolving into a puddle of bright orange goop that splashed onto the floor.

The same gunk was spattered against the walls and on Masako’s robes. “Sorry, I had to take a call,” Tony said before taking to the air and smacking a few of the little creatures off the chandelier where they’d been taking careful aim with something that looked like glowing, pulsing eggs. They screeched and hit the wall and Tony winced when they exploded, leaving more of the gelatinous substance behind.

“This is disgusting,” he said.

“Oh, you think?” Masako said and Tony grimaced when he realized she’d been hit by the cross spray. 

“Sorry?”

The beads in her hair lifted and extended, their golden hue glowing brighter, then they shot out and wrapped around three of the creatures. The little monsters screamed when the beads swung them across the room and Tony scrambled to get out of the way when he saw what she intended to do with them.

He wasn’t fast enough and their bodies slammed into the floor a few feet from him, drenching his suit in orange goop. “Oh, come on!”

“Sorry,” she said sweetly, then ducked so that the Ancient One could roll over her back and land on her feet in time to extend a sparkling whip out and whack a creature that had his arm prepped to throw one of the egg-looking things. It dropped it just before its body fell apart.

“Masako,” she said when the egg-thing started to pulse. Masako spread her hands and a huge glyph expanded out from her, morphing into a yellow bubble that stretched between the egg and the rest of the room. 

Tony twisted and shot two creatures that looked like they were ready to leap across the room from a bookshelf. Three more threw themselves at the yellow shield and scrabbled at it with long talons, showing needle-sharp teeth and yellow, crazed eyes.

A moment later, the egg exploded outward, spraying yellow substance all over everything, including the two little Oompa Loompas trying to scratch through the shield. Tony shuddered at their screams of pain when their skin started to smoke. The shield dropped.

“Well that’s disturbing,” he muttered.

The rest of the Oompa Loompas threw their heads back and did an approximation of a squeaky roar before moving as one to converge on them. Two small gun-like devices extended up and out of Tony’s shoulders and he sprayed a group of three with small blasts of energy, whooping when he succeeded in getting goop on the ceiling. 

Masako grinned at the four converging on her, then reached into her sash and pulled out a small wooden rod. 

“Please don’t tell me you have a magic wand,” he said, descending to land feet first on one that had been knocked down by its overly-excited friends. 

Orange goo arced up and Tony tried not to laugh when he succeeded in getting some on the Ancient One’s previously-spotless robes. She raised a non-brow at him before spinning and slamming a palm forward, sending a wave of the little creatures rolling backward as though they’d been hit by a gust of wind. Hey, she’s the one that chose to wear white to a party.

In answer, Masako twirled the stick. Gold sparks flew from it and then it was expanding and lengthening until she was swinging a glowing staff at her attackers. 

“Oh, come on!” Tony yelled when she got a direct hit and Oompa Loompa juice splattered across his mask.

“Oops,” she deadpanned before ducking and doing some complicated sideways flip-slash-cartwheel, staff moving with her to take out the other two when they got too close.

Tony shot two more out of the air and then the Ancient One blasted the last three while Masako did another magic shield thing after one got off a lucky throw with an egg. 

“Please tell me that Oompa Loompa didn’t just pull that egg-bomb from its ass,” he said, landing next to them and retracting his faceplate.

Masako sighed and flipped a piece of goo-covered hair out of her face. The Ancient One just smiled mysteriously and looked around. “This is quite the mess.” Tony followed her gaze, taking in the clumps of orange jelly hanging from cracked bookshelves and caking the chandelier. “Masako, are you okay to help me clean it up?”

“Yes, of course,” she said with a sigh and Tony took a large step back when they began doing something complicated with their hands. 

“JARVIS, you getting this?” he muttered when glyphs appeared in the air.

“Recording and taking the standard readings, sir,” he confirmed. The goo was starting to slide across various surfaces, pooling into a large condensed ball in the middle of the room. “And can I just congratulate you on saving our world from a plague of poo-throwing orange monkeys. Truly exceptional work.”

“Hey, that poo was explosive, also I can’t believe you just said the word poo - I can’t believe I just said the word poo - and wouldn’t you say they’re more Oompa Loompa than monkey-like?”

Tony jumped when, with a small pop, the goo disappeared. It wasn’t on his armor or the sorceress’ clothes anymore, either. 

“They did resemble Oompa Loompas, if Oompa Loompas had teeth,” Masako said and gestured at a bookshelf, which obligingly put itself back together. Neat. The stairs were next.

“And if they threw poo,” the Ancient One added as a side table snapped back into being whole at her command.

“And now the Ancient One has said poo. Do you see what you’ve done, here, JARVIS? You should be ashamed.”

“Of course, sir.”

Masako laughed, a small exhausted thing, then swayed on her feet. The Ancient One’s smile fell and she moved to her side to put a hand on her elbow. “Come, you’ve been working too hard this week.”

Tony glanced around one more time before retracting his suit. “What’s been going on this week? And what was up with the poo-throwing Oompa Loompas?” He followed them into the same sitting room they’d talked in before and tried not to look overly excited about the tea that appeared. That stuff was delicious.

The Ancient One helped Masako sit and poured her a cup. “There have been a few multi-dimensional disturbances in New York and the surrounding areas the past month or so. Creatures coming through from other dimensions, dark sorcerers trying to siphon energy away. It has gotten more intense the past week.”

Tony froze mid-reach for a cup and dropped his hand to his side. “The past month?”

The Ancient One filled the cup he’d been reaching for and set it in front of him with a sympathetic smile. “I’m afraid your trip back in time has created some waves.”

“Waves,” he said flatly and took a drink of the (scrumptious) tea to distract himself from dawning horror.

“When the Stones brought you back, there was a release of energy. You can think of it like a great gong being hit upon your arrival, sending out waves of power. This energy is resonating across multiple dimensions and has drawn attention from some of the less savory beings that traverse the multi-verse. It has also weakened the veil between our world and others in this particular location, giving access to those who would normally be too weak to get through.”

“Shit. I - I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

The Ancient One held up her hand. “None of these threats is something we can’t handle, and none of them hold a candle to what Thanos can do. Please do not blame yourself.”

Well that was easier said than done. Tony looked at Masako, took in the bags under her eyes and the exhausted slump of her shoulders. “Can’t you send her some backup?”

Masako shook her head. “The other masters have roles of their own to play. The New York Sanctum is mine to protect.”

“Really? This is about territory? I thought you were all friends.”

The Ancient One set her cup down gently. “I have been helping Masako this week where I can, but what she says is true. I am preparing for something big, something more destructive even than Thanos. I cannot misstep, or we will all be lost.”

Tony straightened his shoulders. “What do you mean, more destructive than Thanos? I can help, just tell me -”

She shook her head. “You do not play a part in this, Tony. By the time your future came around it had already been dealt with and you never knew.”

“Yeah, but now I’ve changed things. Masako didn’t have to deal with all this bullshit before. Let me help.”

The Ancient One tilted her head to the side and studied him with shrewd eyes. Her white robes made her look even more washed out and he held himself back from suggesting she go back to the purple and blue.

“Masako, why don’t you show Tony what you made him?” she said and took another drink of tea.

Masako blinked and then straightened. “Of course, sensei.”

She waved her hand and a moment later a wooden box came floating through the doorway and landed gently on the table in front of him. 

He put his cup down next to it and glanced at Masako for permission before reaching out to unlatch it, the rough wood catching on his calluses when he flipped the lid open. Nestled inside were ten bands glowing the same gold as Masako’s beads.

“The protection you asked for,” Masako said softly. “I based it off an old spell that was popular for a while when a sect of dark sorcerers rose that favored attacks of the mind.”

Tony realized suddenly that Masako was a bit of a nerd. He assumed she spent most of her free time in the library reading through esoteric books on history and magic and whatever else Sorceresses liked to read.

He reached out and picked one up. It was warm in his hand but didn’t otherwise react to his touch. “How does it work?”

“You put it on your arm to activate it. It will sink into your skin and leave a mark, though it will not hurt. It creates an astrophysical shield of sorts around your mind. The mark will grow warm when somebody is testing its boundaries.”

“A mark, huh?”

“A tattoo of some sort, from what I could gather. I’m sorry, it hasn’t been used for a long time, not since the mind arts were banned five hundred years ago.”

Tony turned it in his hands, studying the smooth, glass-like texture. Sooner rather than later he was going to have to be in the same room as the Maximoffs. His only choices were to trust them, or trust Masako.

“You made more than one.”

“Yes. I assumed you would want to protect the people you care about as well.”

Decision made, he stood. “Okay. So, how do we do this?”

The Ancient One smiled around a sip of tea. Masako glanced at her before clearing her throat. “You need to put it on your bare bicep. It doesn’t matter which one.”

He removed his blazer and set it over the back of his chair, then pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt. There was only a moment of hesitation while he tried to figure out how to open the band, but almost as soon as he had the thought it unfurled to lie innocently in his hand.

He stared at it and licked his lips. “Right,” he said and slapped it down high up on his bicep.

It curled around his arm and the glow brightened and expanded. It grew warmer on his skin, almost too hot, and then the glow was rising away from the glass and reforming into glyphs. His lips parted but before he could freak out they were lowering back to his arm. The glass disappeared and the glyphs soaked into his skin and the glare slowly faded until all that was left were slightly-glittering glyphs wrapped around his arm.

“Well,” Tony said after a moment. “And here I’d thought that tattoos were the only rebellious thing I’d managed to avoid.”

Masako chuckled. “Sorry, I tried to make it as unobtrusive as possible.”

He twisted his arm and watched the light shimmer across the swirling shapes. Unless somebody was looking for it, or it caught a bright light, it really wasn’t noticeable. “This is good, thanks. Really.” 

He pulled his blazer back on so that he wouldn’t stare at his magical, sparkling tattoo for the rest of their meeting. 

“If you ever want it removed, you simply need to will it away,” Masako said. “You won’t be able to reapply it, though, and they aren’t easy to make so please don’t do it on a whim.”

“Will it away,” he said faintly. “Right.”

Her lips quirked up and he supposed he wasn’t hiding how much all this magic bullshit freaked him out as well as he would have liked. “Yes. Don’t worry, they’re quite safe.”

Tony ran a hand down his face. “I...mostly believe you. Sorry, I just haven’t had great experiences with magic so far.”

Masako shrugged. “I know I have to prove myself before I can be truly trusted. I’m not offended.”

“That’s...actually really mature. Thank you.”

They sipped tea in comfortable silence while Tony planned out who to give the Mind Fuck Stoppers to. Peter, Pepper, and Rhodey, obviously. Bruce should probably have one, since the last time somebody messed with his mind he destroyed half a city. That pretty much summed up his list of trusted people. Well, that was just sad.

The Ancient One set her cup down and Tony straightened unconsciously when she focused on him. “I am afraid you and I will not meet again, Tony,” she said.

The lead weight of disappointment shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. Not only was he hoping for an assist from a group of super-strong and mostly morally sound sorcerers, but he actually kind of liked the Ancient One. She was a bit cryptic, but she seemed like she genuinely cared about doing the right thing.

“Ah. I see. Well, no hard feelings, and thanks for the Mind Fuck Stoppers, seriously. And if you ever need a favor -”

“Wait.” He froze mid-stand and looked between the Ancient One and Masako, but of course, neither was giving anything away. He dropped slowly back down in his seat.

“Yes?”

“You will not be seeing me again. I said nothing of Masako.”

“O...kay?”

The Ancient One folded her hands in her lap and her eyes did that thing where they went distant like they were looking at something beyond him. “I have a part I must play in upcoming events. A great catastrophe that must be stopped before it consumes our world. I looked into many futures, and I’m afraid you and I cannot walk the same path.”

She focused back on him. “You need not worry about this event, as you will be only peripherally involved, and in a way that will preserve something infinitely precious to me that would have otherwise been lost. There are no words to express how deep my gratitude goes for this future event.”

“Uh,” Tony said. “I’ll pass the message on to future Tony.”

She smiled. “Please do. You are worried about the calamity your presence has caused by thinning the veil between dimensions. Please do not. Every action has consequences, but what I have seen unfold before us is already so much better than it once was. My vision does not go past a certain point, so I cannot tell you whether or not you will persevere over Thanos and his armies. For what it is worth, though, I believe you will triumph.”

Tony cleared his throat. “Thank you. That’s...thank you.”

She tipped her head. “I do not plan on leaving you without assistance. Masako has agreed to join your team.”

Tony’s eyes widened and he looked between the two sorceresses. Masako seemed a little resigned, perhaps, but determined. “That’s - wow. I mean, that’s great, really. But I’m actually leaving the Avengers -”

“Not the Avengers. Your new team.”

“I...I mean, I had kinda planned on going solo. The whole team thing didn’t really work out for me -”

“I think you will find yourself surprised,” the Ancient One said softly. “But, fine, Masako will be a...friend to you. Someone you can call on when you need help, and I was hoping she could call on you, as well. Unfortunately, she has a large task ahead of her as the echoes of the Stones continue to resonate, and I must put the focus of my forces elsewhere. May she call on you in times of need, Iron Man?”

The words felt heavy, as though there was something behind them, giving them weight. The Ancient One’s eyes seemed to almost glow with pinpricks of starlight, and it was all he could see, the room fading around him. 

The moment felt big, suspended in time, like he was about to decide the fate of the world but wasn’t sure how or why. Still, there was only one answer he could give. “Of course.”

The world snapped back into focus and he had to fight not to slump in his chair while he caught his breath. The Ancient One was smiling at him again, small and soft.

“I am glad. I ask that you not reveal the existence of my order. Masako will become a public figure eventually, we cannot prevent it, but she will claim to be the only one of her kind.”

He scrambled to his feet and rubbed his sweaty palms on his pants. “Uh, yeah. Okay. I can do that.”

She held out her hand, but instead of shaking his when he reached out she grabbed it between both of hers. They were surprisingly small and cool to the touch. “I would like to part as friends, Tony. I’m sorry I can’t give you more. I would if I could.”

He smiled at her and was surprised at how much he meant it. There was something that felt a bit like sorrow wrapping around his heart. “Of course. If you ever change your mind and need me, I’m there.”

His eyes widened when she stepped around the table and pulled him into a light hug. He’d barely lifted his arms to return it before she stepped back. “Goodbye, Tony.”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, uh, bye.” 

He watched her open a portal and step through it into a dimly lit room, something uncomfortable turning in his stomach. There was a thought chasing itself around in his head, waiting for him to catch it. Stephen Strange had been the Sorcerer Supreme in 2018. Tony had a feeling that one didn’t just step down and retire from those duties. 

He turned back to Masako and tried to smile. “Right,” he said when he took in her own troubled expression. “So. Allies.”

She nodded warily. “It would seem so.”

“We should exchange numbers.”

“I...don’t have a phone,” Masako said almost sheepishly.

“You don’t have a - is this like a Harry Potter thing? You can’t use tech around magic? Because I have to say, I’m not sure how we’ll be able to make that work.” He pointed his finger between the two of them.

Masako smiled. “No, it’s like a most sorcerers only know other sorcerers and have alternate methods of communication thing.  Also, it’s not like we have jobs.” She shrugged and showed no sign that she was upset about the fact that she apparently had little to no money to her name.

“Right,” he said and took out his phone. “JARVIS, factory reset. Put my number in. Pepper and Rhodey’s too.”

Masako didn’t hesitate to take the phone, but then he supposed she’d just given him a bunch of priceless magical tattoos, so they were more than even. “I’m going to make you a panic button, too. You’re in trouble, you press it, and the closest suits from the Iron Legion will come to you. I’ll come, too, if I’m close and able. Is a bracelet okay?”

She looked up from where she’d been swiping through the phone. Apparently being a poor wizard hadn’t kept her from actually knowing how to use technology. “That’s fine,” she said.

He squinted at her. “You’re taking this really well.”

“Taking what well?”

“Being farmed out into superheroism by your boss.”

Masako rolled her eyes before tucking the phone into her sash next to her magic stick. “I am a Master of the Mystic Arts. I go where the Sorceress Supreme needs me. Also, I already spend my time protecting our dimension from things that would make even your Avengers squirm.”

“Just like that, huh?”

Masako sat back down and pushed her hair out of her face, sending a few of her beads clacking together. Tony took in the bags under her eyes and overly pale face. “The Ancient One trusts you, respects you, even. That is enough until you prove yourself one way or the other to me.”

“You’re incredibly loyal to her.”

Masako looked down at her hands, now folded primly in her lap. “She lent meaning to my life when I had none. She took me under her wing, treated me as though I were her very own. Yes, I am loyal to her.”

There was pain in her eyes and Tony realized she must have come to the same conclusion he had. Sometime in the next year or two, the Ancient One was most likely going to die. Of course, Masako hadn’t been around in the future either, but it could be she hadn’t been in the day that Dr. Strange had been kidnapped, and then been dusted after.

He tilted his head to the side. Well, she was one of his, now, even if only peripherally. He’d have to make sure that whatever catastrophe was coming up, she made it through. The Ancient One was out of his hands, but Masako wasn’t.

“Well, I guess we should get you set up with some wifi, huh? How do you feel about AIs?”

000

“Where do you want this?” Happy asked, pointing at the half-put-together shaper. 

“Put it in the general workshop truck,” Tony said. He tucked his hands in his pockets and stepped out of the way of two of Happy’s men who were hauling a large sofa that he was particularly fond of towards one of the five moving trucks parked in front of the compound.

“I’m going to go install the basic security system,” Tony said and Happy just waved at him before rushing over to yell at someone hauling one of Tony’s classified projects.

He rolled his eyes and left him to it, knowing he only had a few hours before he’d need to escort the jet with all the most dangerous tech he was moving to the Tower. He’d learned his lesson with the Vulture. He needed to have JARVIS uninstalled by then, along with anything else SHIELD or Natasha could use to hack into his servers. 

Tony had dropped some breadcrumbs to a large, active HYDRA base that would require all of the team in order to get them out of the Compound. He needed a chance to remove his most dangerous tech before the big breakup, though he’d left most of the furniture and planned on installing a good security system. Bruce’s lab remained untouched, as well. Hopefully, they wouldn’t return until the day of their meeting with him.

“Sir, I’ve wiped the servers and installed the security system we built.”

“And your back door?”

“Well hidden and secure.”

“Great. Okay, let’s do this, JARVIS.”

He spent the next two hours changing codes and making sure everyone could get in and out of their common and personal areas. 

“Sir, if you want to make dinner, you should leave within half an hour,” JARVIS said in his earpiece.

Tony stood and stretched his back, sighing when it popped. “Alright. Ask Happy if the jets are ready to go.”

There was a pause, then, “The jets containing classified and dangerous materials are prepped and ready to take off. They are awaiting our escort.”

Tony took one last look around the empty lab. He’d technically only used it for a few months in this timeline, as his main lab had still been in the Tower at that point. Eventually, though, it had become his home. It hurt to give it up, but in a good way.

“Alright, J. I’m done.”

He made his way to the elevator and then out to the launch pad. The compound held a lot of memories, some good, some not so good. Leaving it felt right, somehow, like he was officially shedding the mistakes of his past and moving on to a better future. He’d been clinging to the Ancient One’s words all week. If someone like her believed in him, then maybe it’d be alright.

He tapped the casing on his chest to activate the armor and a moment later two more armors landed next to him. 

“Ready when you are, sir.”

He looked around one last time before nodding. “Let’s go.”

The flight to the tower was uneventful and he left JARVIS to oversee unloading and guarding the cargo. He could hear the drones working on the sign on the side of the building, preparing to change it back to STARK in a few days. The media was under the impression that he was putting up a newer, flashier version of the Avengers sign. 

After a quick shower and putting on jeans and a t-shirt, Tony was on his way to Queens. He was more nervous about this dinner than he was about his upcoming break-up with the Avengers. Hell, breaking up with them felt like old hat, by now. This, though, this was building something new, something that he didn’t want to screw up.

He parked the car - a nondescript Audi - and grabbed the bottle of wine and chocolate cake from Pepper’s favorite bakery he’d bought before making his way to the front of the building and pressing the buzzer. 

A moment later he was buzzed inside. He sighed at the Out of Order sign on the elevator and turned to take the stairs. The apartment door opened before he could knock when he finally got there and he blinked at Peter, who looked miserable in an ill-fitting suit and overly-styled hair.

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” he said in a subdued tone. “Won’t you please come in.”

Tony’s lips twitched. “Hi, kid. I’d love to. Nice suit.”

Peter’s shoulders slumped. “She made me,” he mumbled and dutifully took the cake box when Tony handed it to him. “Also, she burned dinner so we had to order in. Do you like Thai?”

Tony couldn’t resist reaching out with his newly-freed hand to ruffle his sticky overly-gelled hair. “I do. Don’t look so glum, Underoos.”

Peter scowled at the nickname while somehow looking simultaneously pleased at the hair-ruffle before closing the door behind Tony. The apartment was much neater than the last time he’d been there and smelled faintly of lemon cleaner. 

May looked up from where she was transferring Thai from cardboard containers into serving dishes. Her smile was sheepish. “Sorry, I tried to cook, but.” She shrugged. “It was always more my husband’s thing.”

“It’s no problem,” Tony said smoothly. “I brought wine and cake, I hope that’s okay.” He leaned in to kiss her on the cheek.

“Oh, um, no, that’s perfect. Thank you. Pete, will you get out the wine glasses?” She was obviously a bit flustered but hiding it well and Tony mentally turned down the charm. Old habits.

“Sure,” Peter said eagerly. 

They settled in at the table a few minutes later. An awkward silence fell over them and Tony scrambled for something to say. He couldn’t treat them as familiarly as he wanted, not yet. 

“So, Pete, tell me about Decathlon,” he finally settled on.

Peter looked up, wide-eyed, from where he’d been poking at his pile of noodles. “Oh, it, uh, it’s good.”

“Peter is one of their top competitors,” May said with a proud smile. “At his last meet, he got more points than the team captain did.”

“Only a few more,” he mumbled and ducked his head. “Liz usually does better.”

Liz...wait. Wasn’t that the girl he’d gone to Homecoming with next year? The one whose father was the Vulture. Man, he’d forgotten how bad the kid’s luck was.

May sent Tony a knowing look at Peter’s bright red cheeks. Yep, it was that Liz, alright. 

“I’ve never been to one of those meets before. Club activities were never really my thing in school. Probably because I skipped most of high school and nobody wanted the bratty fifteen-year-old in their college clubs.”

Peter’s eyes widened. “People didn’t want you in their clubs?”

Tony huffed out a laugh. “Kid, I wasn’t always this cool.”

Peter narrowed his eyes at him as though gauging his sincerity. “Huh.” And then he was off, rambling about meets and his friends and the types of questions he usually ended up answering.

Somehow that segued into a monologue about Ned’s new lego set and by the time he was winding down they’d mostly finished eating dessert. 

“So,” May said once Tony had set down his fork. “We’ve made a decision.”

“Okay, hit me with it.”

She took out one of the packets of paperwork and handed it to him. It was the one outlining the internship along with a percentage of revenue made from products utilizing Peter’s formula. Tension he didn’t even realize he’d been carrying loosened in his shoulders and he looked at Peter and smiled.

“Excellent! I’ll get these to legal, they’ll be in touch with details, and I’ll have HR deal with your school.”

Peter blinked at him. “Oh, um, yeah, okay! I mean, I can deal with the school, Mr. Stark -”

“No, no, it’ll be faster for my people, it’s what I pay them for -”

“There will be some ground rules,” May said firmly, pulling their attention back to her. She was smiling a little, though, so Tony assumed he hadn’t actually upset her. “Pete’s grades stay up. He remains in Decathlon.”

“I’ll make a 3.5 GPA or higher one of the stipulations of the internship,” Tony said smoothly and May nodded. They both ignored Peter’s grumbling.

“Alright, then.” May smiled and stood. “Thank you so much for this, Tony. I really appreciate you giving Peter this opportunity.”

Peter shot to his feet, too and Tony followed more sedately. “Yeah, Mr. Stark, thank you so much!”

“Hey, you earned it, kiddo. I’m looking forward to working with you. I’ve got some time Friday afternoon if you want to come by after school. I’ll have my driver pick you up if that works.”

“Oh, um, yeah, yes, that’s fine. It’s fine, right Aunt May?”

Her lips twitched and she wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Yeah, Pete, that’s fine.”

“Great. Good.” Tony clapped his hands together before heading for the door. “See ya soon.”

The next day and a half was spent in a flurry of activity. Pepper needed him to sign about a million documents to complete the transfer of the Avengers into ‘somebody else’s problem,’ and he dodged two calls from Hill, who had to have realized something was up. SHIELD watched him too closely these days. He’d need to do something about that.

The rest of his time was spent working on the Spider-man suit and overseeing the creation of more Iron Legion drones and armors. He was going to need the extra backup, now.

Sooner than he would have liked he was in a quinjet, heading back to the compound. Rhodey was next to him since he’d insisted on being there for this. He was now sporting an identical tattoo to Tony’s on his arm underneath his shirt. Tony had given the bands to him and Pepper the day before and it had made his throat ache when they didn’t even question it.

“If you wanted matching tattoos, Tones, you only ever had to ask,” Rhodey had said.

Pepper had sighed down at her own arm. “I can never let my mother see this.”

He’d convince Peter to put his on soon. He knew from unfortunate experience that it wouldn’t take long for Iron Man and Spider-man to become known allies. Peter would get into trouble and Tony would swoop in to save him with some highly dramatic rendition of Kid! I’ve got you! and the world would coo over how cute and protective Iron Man was of his protegé. 

Been there, done that, suffered through his friends making fun of his overprotectiveness even while he struggled to maintain emotional distance from the walking, talking, adorable disaster that was Peter Parker. Only this time he wouldn’t be able to do that. Having someone die in your arms tended to clarify your feelings for them. 

The quinjet landed on the pad and Tony stood and buttoned his suit jacket before sliding his glasses on. “J, you with me?”

“Always, sir.”

“Come on, let’s get this over with,” Rhodey said and clapped his hand to his shoulder. 

Tony picked up the briefcase he’d brought along and followed his friend down the ramp. Bruce was waiting for him on the landing pad, brow furrowed. Tony braced himself for the questions about where Tony’s lab equipment had gone, or why JARVIS suddenly wasn’t available in the compound.

What he actually got was engulfed in a brief but tight hug. Bruce pulled back and looked over him, forehead wrinkled. “Tony, how are you? I’m so glad you’re okay.”

It felt like a punch to the stomach. God, he’d let Bruce think he was practically dying. Yes, he’d run off after Ultron, but before that, they’d been close, and when he’d come back they hadn’t exactly fallen back into their old easy relationship, but they’d still been friends.

He smiled, small and tight. “I’m okay, Bruce. Really. Good as new. Better, even, I think.”

Bruce returned his smile, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “Are you sure? Because I went into your lab to use one of your drilling machines, and it was, well, it was empty. And JARVIS is gone...”

He put his hand on Bruce’s shoulder and started leading him inside. “Had to make some changes. We’ll talk about it in the meeting, alright?”

“Okay. Tony, you should know, those twins -”

“You mean the ones whose greatest dream up until a few weeks ago was to kill me?” he said flippantly and Bruce wrung his hands together.

“...Yes. Them. Steve wants to add them to the roster. They helped out at that HYDRA facility.”

Tony just hummed. “Well, I’m only a consultant for the Avengers, you know, so I don’t really have any official say in changes to the roster.”

“You - what? I didn’t know that, Tony. Why?”

Tony exchanged a look with Rhodey. “Well, I do have a company to run, Brucie-bear, plus I’ve never been Fury’s favorite person.”

“So? Fury isn’t on this team. He’s off playing dead.”

Tony shook his head, but he smiled at Bruce, trying to show his appreciation for his defense. “It’s always been more Steve’s team than mine, Bruce. You know that.”

Before Bruce could argue further, they were inside the common room, where apparently the whole damn team - plus the newest members - were waiting for him. 

“Tony,” Steve said and he had to fight not to flinch when he hugged him. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“Thanks, Cap,” Tony said and stepped back. 

Natasha was next with a peck on the cheek, and Clint clapped him on the shoulder, eyes warm. “Good to see you again, Tony.”

He swallowed, overwhelmed at the honesty in their eyes. They had been worried about him, were relieved to see him again. God, maybe he wasn’t doing the right thing, after all. He was judging them all for things that hadn’t even happened yet.

He reached up and rubbed at his arm when he felt a tingle. It deepened and he caught on to what was happening when a flash of heat seared across it. He frowned and stepped back, craning his head until he caught sight of the Maximoff twins standing in the corner.

Wanda was scowling, staring at him with an intensity that made his heart lurch. He hadn’t been afraid of her by the time he died. She’d been different, no longer angry, broken from everything she’d lost. They were never friends, of course, but all the hatred and fear had drained away, been overtaken by grief that was too big to leave room for anything else.

“Tony,” Rhodey said and shifted. He was probably feeling it, too. Tony put his hand on his forearm to stop him from saying anything else.

“You must be Pietro and Wanda.” He stepped forward but didn’t hold out his hand. “I hear I owe you an apology,” he said softly.

There were a few shocked intakes of breath behind him. Both twins looked a combination of confused and distrustful. “I was an idiot before Afghanistan. Trusted the wrong people, didn’t pay enough attention. I’m sorry that Stark Weapons were used to hurt your family.”

Wanda’s lips pressed together and she breathed in deeply through her nose. It was Pietro who answered. “I have been told that you were betrayed, that it was not you who sold those weapons.”

“No, but my company developed them, and we should have been more careful with them. I know that. It’s why I shut down weapons production. I’m much more careful with my resources, now. They can do a lot of good, but they can also be used for destruction. It’s my responsibility to keep the people I trust with them in check.”

His own words centered him, pushed the doubt back. Yes, he loved the team. But he couldn’t let someone have access to his money, weapons, or mind when they wouldn’t use them honestly. Steve may not have driven his shield into Tony’s chest yet, but he had already betrayed and used him.

“I cannot hear you,” Wanda said.

Well, he certainly hadn’t expected her to comment on the fact that she’d been trying to read or otherwise mess with his mind. “What do you mean?” he asked carefully and she huffed with impatience.

“You and your friend, the War Machine,” she motioned to Rhodey, “I cannot pick up your thoughts. Usually, I hear them, on the surface, but you...”

Tony tilted his head to the side and ignored the way the rest of the team’s looks. “Huh. You got your powers from the Mind Stone?”

“That is right.”

“Loki couldn’t use it on me. Something to do with the Arc Reactor. Both Rhodey and I have one on us. Could be that.” That was a lie. Rhodey didn’t just carry around a reactor, obviously, but nobody could know that for sure.

Natasha was side-eyeing him, probably well aware he was lying, but she wouldn’t say anything outright. Not until she’d figured out his angle, anyway. Tony cleared his throat.

“Right, well, I was hoping to meet with you guys.” He forced himself to turn his back on the Maximoffs and motioned towards his old team. “There’s some personal stuff involved, so if we could keep it to just us for now,” he said apologetically.

“That’s fine, Tony. A team meeting sounds good,” Steve said.

“Right,” Tony said and deliberately didn’t look at Bruce, whose lips had pressed together at the word team. The Maximoff twins looked relieved at not being included - probably because they didn’t want to be forced into Tony’s presence more than necessary. Just how did Steve think that was going to work out long-term anyway? Probably through sheer, stubborn force of will. The thought actually brought a bit of a smile to Tony’s face. That sounded like Steve.

“So, Tony, what’s up with JARVIS?” Natasha asked casually. “I noticed that a few things around here changed, too. And of course we got your email about the changes to the security system.”

“I’m gonna go over all that in the meeting,” he said with his best press smile.

Natasha raised a brow. “Hm.”

“Here we are, the conference room,” Tony said and reached out to open the door.

“Finally,” Rhodey muttered.

Tony cleared his throat and gestured into the room when everyone just stood in the hallway staring at him. 

“You’re being weird,” Clint said.

“He is,” Natasha agreed.

“What is this, attack Tony hour?”

“He did have a near-death experience,” Bruce added.

“That - are you going inside, or what?” Tony said, ignoring the way Rhodey was covering his mouth and trying not to laugh.

“Come on,” Steve said and Tony swallowed when he smiled at him as he passed. He’d forgotten what it was like when they’d still been a team, still been friends.

They followed him in and Tony took a moment to breathe in deeply. Rhodey put his hand on his shoulder and squeezed, eyes sympathetic, before stepping inside. Tony went in after him and let the door swing shut.

“Right. I know you’re all wondering about the changes around here,” he said and took a seat at the head of the table without meeting anybody’s eyes. It was time to rip off the bandaid. “Let’s start out with a little video.”

They all exchanged uneasy glances when he pulled out his phone and said, “Sync it up, JARVIS.”

A large screen lowered at the end of the table with a second’s delay while JARVIS hacked the system and took over the room. 

“Tony, what is this?” Steve asked.

Tony brought one ankle up to rest on his knee and leaned his elbow on the arm of his chair. “Just watch the show, Cap.”

“Tony, you don’t have to be in here for this,” Rhodey said when the screen lit up.

“I think I do,” Tony said and ignored the looks everyone was exchanging.

Before anybody could say anything else the video started. Tony set his jaw and forced himself to watch it. The snowy road, the familiar car. 

“What the fuck is this,” Clint said when the car crashed.

“This is the video of my parents’ murders,” he said softly.

Natasha straightened and her eyes widened but Tony was mostly watching Steve, now. He was staring at the screen, face losing all of its color, jaw tense, eyes wet. Tony looked away when the metal hand wrapped around his mother’s throat. Steve flinched at the wet sounds of the fist hitting Howards’s face.

“What the fuck. Is that...” Sam whispered. “Is that Bucky?”

Bruce stood abruptly and left the room, skin roiling green. He met Tony’s gaze, apologetic, but he just waved him off. They could talk later.

“Oh, so you didn’t know,” Tony said to Sam, and with a motion of his hand the screen shut off. “I wasn’t sure.”

Steve was staring down at the table and Natasha was looking straight ahead, body stiff. “Now you two,” Tony said and pointed between them, “you two knew, obviously. Since you oh-so-helpfully deleted the fact that your buddy, James Buchanan Barnes, murdered my parents before dropping all those SHIELD files online. You know, the ones that burned all those agents that had no idea HYDRA had infiltrated the organization?”

A deathly silence had fallen over the room. Clint was gripping the table and staring at Steve and Sam had leaned back and had his hand over his mouth. 

“So just you two, then, huh,” Tony said.

“Tony -” Steve said, voice weak. “I just. I didn’t want to, to hurt you. It was in the past.”

“Don’t pretend this was about me, Rogers,” Tony said. He sat up and sighed. “You used me. I thought we were friends, and you lied to me, used my money to look for the man who killed my parents.” 

“That wasn’t him, it was -”

“HYDRA. Yeah, I know.” His lips twisted on one side. “At first I wanted to kill him. Would have tried, if he’d been standing in front of me. But after I had some time to think about it, well. I don’t blame him. Not really. I would have helped you, if you’d given me the chance.”

Steve’s eyes were wide. “You - Tony, that’s - thank you. Thank you so much. I can tell you what we’ve already done, ground we’ve covered -”

“Read the room, Steve,” Clint groaned and ran both his hands down his face. “God, this is a fucking disaster. I can’t believe you went along with this, Nat.”

Tony sighed and brought his briefcase up to the table. He pressed his thumbs to two small pads and it popped open to reveal a neat stack of Starkpads, which he handed over to Rhodes to slide down the table to the others. He motioned for them to pick them up. “I’m resigning from the Avengers effective immediately.”

Clint dropped his forehead into his hand and Steve stood. “Tony, no! Please, we’re a team -”

“You guys are a team. I’m just a consultant, remember? Iron Man yes, Tony Stark, no? Ringing any bells?”

“Tony, that was a long time ago,” Natasha said.

He shrugged. “I know it was. Just. Pick up the damn tablets. I’ve outlined the new Avengers Initiative Organization. Not-for-profit, of course. Pepper’s found you new backers, though you’ll have to deal with a board of directors, now.”

“New backers, what -”

“A board of directors? What does that mean?”

“I’ve agreed to let you stay in the compound for a pretty damn good monthly rate, if I do say so myself. There’s a list of contractors that would be willing to take over maintenance of your equipment.”

“Tony,” Steve said, voice desperate.

“I’ve removed anything proprietary from the building, including JARVIS, but I’ve left your personal quarters and common rooms as they are. Except for that one couch, you know the one I like, yeah, I took that -”

“Tony, don’t do this!” Steve yelled and the table cracked when he slammed his hands down on it. His chest was heaving and he looked...well, heartbroken. The word wretched came to mind. Natasha was pale and her eyes looked a bit wet, Sam still had his hand over his mouth, and Clint was just staring at Steve like he’d never seen him before.

“It’s done, Steve. I’m sorry. I made sure that your backers are above-board. I’m guessing Hill and Fury will be sticking their noses in to take over operations. Also, you might want to be careful with the furniture. You’re going to have to fill out incident reports whenever you request replacements, now. Hey, don’t look at me, that was all Pepper. Who’s on the board, by the way, since SI is still donating money earmarked for cleanup after incidents. There won’t be any pulling the wool over her eyes, though, so I’d work on your honesty.”

Tony stood and buttoned his jacket and Rhodey, who had watched silently up until then, followed. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said to Natasha and Steve.

“So this is it?” Clint said. “You’re just...out?”

Tony looked at him. “Yeah. This is it. You ever need help you can still come to me, okay?”

Clint let out a long breath. “Alright. Same here. See ya around, Tony. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

“Tony, wait.” He glanced over his shoulder at Steve. “Bucky - you aren’t going to hurt him, are you?”

Tony swallowed. Right, because that’s what he thought was most important right now. “Read over the paperwork, guys. The new boss won’t take any shit.”

“Steve, man, that was fucked up,” he heard Sam say right before the door closed.

“Glad I won’t have to be part of the cluster of a conversation they’re about to have,” Rhodey said.

Tony tried to smile at him and was pretty sure he failed miserably. “They’ll get over it and be singing kumbaya by the fire within a week,” he said with surety. After all, nobody had held it against Steve last time. 

“You okay?”

Tony actually thought about that. It had hurt, the way nobody had really protested him leaving. But then, it probably hadn’t sunk in yet, what it meant to have Tony pull his funding. He hadn’t exactly been putting a high level of oversight into how they were spending before. Between Pepper and the various defense departments that were pitching in now, they would be buried in forms every time they tried to wipe their ass. Yeah, he was sure they’d make at least one extremely romantic gesture to try and get him back eventually.

Before he could spiral too much into those thoughts JARVIS said, “Sir, you have an incoming call from Peter Parker.”

He blinked. “Take it,” he said and lifted a finger to let Rhodey know he’d be a minute. “Hey, kiddo, what’s up?” 

He pushed open the door and paused, letting the sunshine soak into his skin and drive out the chill that had overtaken him while watching the video with Steve only feet from him.

“Oh, um, hi, Mr. Stark! Wow, you answered, cool, cool. Um, I was just calling to let you know that I’m going to be an hour later than I thought on Friday. I’m really sorry, but Liz called an emergency Decathlon meeting because Sarah broke her leg and we have a meet next week and Flash is our alternate but he’s not very good so we have to -”

The laugh was surprised out of Tony. God, this kid. How did he manage to banish the shadows lurking around his mind with a bit of rambling? “It’s cool, kid. I’ll let Happy know to pick you up later. Don’t forget your ID for security and HR, alright?”

“Yeah, okay Mr. Stark. I won’t.”

Tony ignored the curious look he was getting from Rhodey. “You get everything squared away with the school okay?”

“Oh! Yes. I mean, my principal thought it was a joke at first, but then the head of HR called and kinda yelled at him and he, uh, yeah he believed us after that.”

Tony grinned. “Yeah, Susan’s terrifying. I don’t pity the man. Alright, I’ve got to go. See you on Friday, Pete.”

“Yep! Yes, um, see you then, Mr. Stark, sir. Looking forward to it!”

Tony rolled his eyes and disconnected before Peter’s voice could go up another octave. He was probably already beating himself up for his awkwardness.

“Who was that?” Rhodey asked.

“My new intern,” Tony said and knew he sounded way too fond.

“You don’t do interns.”

Tony grinned at him as he settled into the pilot’s seat and retracted the ramp. The quinjet rose into the air and he turned it towards New York.

“I do now.”

Just before he took off, he saw Steve step outside, though he made no motion to flag them down. He just stood there, watching, until they were out of sight.

Chapter Text

“This is for me?”

“Yep.”

“Like, to keep? For me? To use?”

Tony rolled his lips under his teeth to keep from smiling. “That’s what I said, Underoos.”

Peter was twisting around, trying to see as much of himself in the suit as he could. “This is so cool, Mr. Stark!” He did a flip and landed on the edge of a sturdy workbench.

“Alright, that’s enough, no acrobatics in the workshop. It won’t save you if you blow up the tower, even I’m not that good.”

Peter hopped down and wrung his hands, the picture of earnest regret. “Sorry, Mr. Stark.”

Tony looked up at the ceiling. “The Bambi eyes, they’re deadly.”

When he lowered his head Peter was trying to hide a smile. “Alright, fine, you’ve convinced me. Come on, let’s go to the training floors, you can flip and flap and schwip to your heart’s content.”

Peter clasped his hands in front of him like a Disney princess and bounced up on his toes. “Really?”

“Yep, come on, let’s move it. FRIDAY, make sure the gym is cleared.” 

“Yes, Boss.”

He highly doubted there was anybody using it at the moment. The ex-SHIELD agents that he'd hired had been the only ones to ever use it once the Compound was built. He’d ‘restructured’ the division that had officially been Avengers Support and unofficially the remnants SHIELD. He’d kept the people from the division that he trusted not to sell him out as support, operations and intelligence for the Legion and given the rest a choice of relocation to small, far away satellite offices with limited access to any SI information outside of their specific operations or a nice severance package.

Hill had taken the severance package after five attempts to break into his private floor to talk to him. He wasn’t stupid - she’d known about his parents, she had to have known. She had ended up at the Compound and applied under the new Avengers Initiative management and as far as Pepper could tell would be hired. 

“You have two AIs?” Peter exclaimed, then, before he could answer, “Hi, FRIDAY, I’m Peter.”

“Hello, Peter. It’s nice to meet you. JARVIS and Mr. Stark told me all about you.”

“They did?” Peter squeaked, then cleared his throat. “Cool, that’s cool. I like JARVIS. And Mr. Stark, obviously!”

Tony rolled his eyes and put a hand on Peter’s shoulder to direct him into the elevator. “FRIDAY is JARVIS’ baby sister. She’s been learning the ropes the last few weeks. And, actually, I have three AIs, if we want to be exact about it.” He hadn’t decided yet if he was going to give Karen to Peter right away, but his delight at meeting FRIDAY had tipped the scales. Tony tapped out the code on his tablet to boot her up in Peter’s suit then smirked. “Say hello to Peter, Karen.”

“Hello, Peter.” 

Peter jumped about three feet in the air when the voice sounded through a tiny speaker in the spider on his chest. Tony had wanted him to have access to her even when the mask was off this time. “Oh, my god! Is that - is she in my suit?”

“Yep. Spider-Man's very own AI. Treat her right, Underoos.” 

His tone was light but he knew Peter had caught on to the seriousness of the request because he nodded solemnly. “Of course, Mr. Stark! She’s like your kid, right?” Then he continued on blithely as though he hadn’t just accepted something about Tony that nobody else ever seemed to get. “Hi, Karen. I, um, I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“As am I. Would you like to know my primary functions?”

“Yes, please!”

Peter was still chattering at Karen when they entered the training facility, which was locked down with the windows blacked out to ensure privacy. Peter trailed off to gape at the room around him. “Woah.”

Tony couldn’t resist ruffling his hair before moving to sit down on a bench against the wall. “Go crazy, kid. Put the suit through its paces, let me know if anything needs adjusting. It’s a good chance to get used to working with Karen, too.”

“Really? You don’t mind? You won’t be bored?” Peter asked even as he edged towards the rock wall.

“Nah, I’ve got a bunch of paperwork to do. Actually, I’ll get brownie points with the boss if I get it done early.”

Peter tilted his head to the side. “The boss? Aren’t you...”

“I believe he is referring to Ms. Potts,” JARVIS chimed in. Tony wondered if he’d been feeling left out.

“Oh,” Peter said. “Uncle Ben used to call Aunt May his boss.” He looked like he immediately regretted bringing up his recently-dead uncle, so Tony cut in before anybody could start crying.

“Yeah, I meant my boss-boss,” he said with a chuckle. “She’s the CEO and I’m the head of R&D, so. Though technically I still hold the majority shares so, eh. We, uh, actually broke up recently, though don’t spread that around. We want to keep the vultures at bay as long as possible.”

Peter’s eyes went wide and Tony could see he was on the verge of an awkward attempt at comfort so he said, “Go on, kid, daylight’s a wastin’.”

Peter shuffled awkwardly on his feet before darting forward to pat Tony’s shoulder. Before he could react, the mask was on and Peter was swinging his way towards the rock wall, exclaiming about how amazing everything was.

Tony huffed and turned his attention to work while keeping half an eye on Peter. Sure, if he broke his leg it’d heal but he’d still rather it didn’t come to that. Peter was taking nose dives off the rafters of the ceiling and catching himself with his webbing when JARVIS spoke from the Starkpad.

“Sir, you have an incoming call from King T’Chaka. Should I put it through?”

Peter yelped and flailed and barely caught himself before hitting the ground. Tony rolled his eyes and put a finger to his lips when Peter looked over. He’d hear the call with his super-hearing but Tony honestly didn’t care. He trusted the kid, at least when it came to keeping Tony’s secrets. His use of common sense, however, was more than a little suspect.

“Put him through, J.”

“Tony. Thank you for taking my call.”

“No problem, T’Chaka. How are you?”

“I am...well. There have been many things to do since your visit.”

“Oh, yeah? That have anything to do with the information I gave you last time?”

“Partly, yes. Along with the suggestions you made for those documents. I think your idea to reach out to enhanced individuals around the world and get their feedback while creating a network has merit.”

Peter tripped over his feet and fell on his face with a soft oof. There was a pause on the line. “Is somebody with you, Tony?”

“Nah, sorry. I’m watching a friend’s pet. He gets rambunctious.” He grinned when Peter pulled off his mask to glare at him. “So, reaching out. I assume you’d like me to get started on that?”

“Please don’t misunderstand, Tony. I would like us to work together on this. You and I as men, and perhaps Wakanda and Stark Industries as partners.”

Tony leaned back. “Really?”

“Yes. I have an idea that may facilitate both and also help with the problem of Erik Killmonger.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“I would like to send my son to America for a few months. He has been...restless since your visit, I’m afraid.” Tony frowned at the sadness in his tone. He never got the full story of Erik Stevens from Shuri outside of him almost killing T’Challa and triggering what had been a very short civil war - civil battle? - over the throne, but he knew it had not been a happy one for anybody. 

“Okay,” Tony said, drawing the word out. “You need help getting him a visa?”

“No, no, I was hoping that you would do an old man a favor and keep an eye on him. He is a good man but still acts rashly when his emotions run high. He will be there officially as a diplomat, but he will also be searching for his cousin. I’m afraid he is very good at hiding, but our intelligence says he spends a lot of time in the New York area. While T’Challa is there I thought he could begin networking with other enhanced as a representative of Wakanda and as an enhanced himself.”

Tony paused, then decided he didn’t want to comment the on the casual admission of T’Challa’s special features. It was fairly obvious Tony knew most of Wakanda's big secrets, anyway. “Okay. Will he be representing Wakanda in talks with SI, as well?” Tony was already opening a chat window with Pepper.

“Partly. For business discussions, he will represent me. All questions regarding technology should be sent to my daughter, Shuri, though all final decisions will, of course, be mine.”

“Okay. That means T'Challa will mostly be talking to Pepper Potts, my CEO, and I’ll be Shuri’s point of contact, at least for the SI stuff.”

The hum of the treadmill filled the room and soon Peter was running flat out, much faster than any regular human could manage, legs a blur. He’d have to look at the readouts later. “So you want me to play tour guide with your kid, maybe act as back-up if he gets himself into trouble?”

“I would be very grateful if you could keep an eye on him, yes. Wakanda is a beautiful and advanced country -” Peter’s steps wobbled on the treadmill “-but outside of furthering his education he has been isolated here for much of his life. I worry about him.”

“Why not send someone else, then?” Tony asked and grinned when Pepper’s enthusiastic reply about opening talks with Wakanda popped up in their chat window.

“He is unhappy with me at the moment and I believe some space will do us good. He is also determined to locate his cousin. I believe he hopes for reconciliation but I fear he will not receive it.”

Tony grimaced. From what he’d read in the guy’s file, he was one step away from being a sociopath. Killmonger had toppled governments for a living through various sundry means and liked pulling off bloody heists in his spare time. “Yeah. That’s...”

“I know. But Erik Killmonger exists because of a mistake I made. T’Challa is a good man and he feels it is his responsibility to try and fix it.” He let out a breath. “He is a better man than me, and will be a great King.”

Tony watched Peter do a flip and somehow not get ejected off the treadmill. “I know how that is,” he said softly.

T’Chaka chuckled. “On a more mundane note, do you have any suggestions for hotels in New York that would not flinch at a few security measures being put into place?”

“Anything for the rich and famous,” he said slowly, mind racing. “But why doesn’t he just stay here? I have plenty of space, he can have a full floor to himself. It’s one of the most secure buildings in the world, actually. Just make sure your daughter knows not to try and hack it.”

“That is a generous offer,” T’Chaka said and Tony heard real surprise in his voice. “I admit, the Dora Milaje have expressed worries about his security.”

“And I’m sure you’ve been feeling that worry yourself,” Tony said with a smile.

“Yes. It is a father’s greatest burden and greatest privilege, to worry for his children.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Tony pinched his brow when Peter finally missed his step after a triple flip and was slung off the back of the treadmill. He bounced across the mat a few times before staggering to his feet and sending Tony a shaky thumbs-up.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Alright, so, when was he planning on coming out here?”

“He was hoping to leave in a few weeks. If that is too little time -”

“No, that works. How big is his entourage?”

“He will bring four Dora Milaje with him. They would probably prefer to share a room adjacent to him if that is possible.”

“Sure, sure, I can do that. Have your people send over any additions to security they’d like to make and I’ll look it over.”

“Shuri will probably want to visit at some point. The two of them are quite close.”

“I’ll make sure she has a room, along with one for her guard, on the same floor.”

“Thank you, Tony. I will not forget your kindness.”

“Eh, don’t worry about it. Just tell your kid to stay out of my systems.” Even as he said it he knew he’d be fending off attempts to hack his systems by Shuri. From what he remembered of her she wouldn’t leave her brother’s safety to chance.

“I will make it clear that you are a friend of Wakanda and should be treated as such.”

Tony’s fingers froze over his keypad. That had sounded a little more formal than introducing someone as your new buddy. “Thank you. I’ll do my best to honor that.”

“I have no doubt you will. My people will be in touch with more details. If you need anything from me, you need only ask. You can also expect correspondence on the documents.”

“Yeah, same, and I’ll keep an eye out. I’d like to loop Pepper in on that if you don’t mind.”

“You trust her?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. 

“Alright, then, I look forward to meeting her.”

They said a few more pleasantries before hanging up. “JARVIS, FRIDAY, go through our systems, shore ‘em up using the information I’ve been giving you about Wakanda’s tech. Let Shuri get enough to reassure her, but don’t let her get to anything too classified or personal. Let’s leave her a present, too.”

Peter was bounding over to him, practically vibrating with excitement. “And order some dinner, lots of carbs for our Spiderling and something actually healthy for me.”

“Oh, Mr. Stark, you don’t have to feed me -”

“Yes, yes, I’m aware. I can see you have questions, ask.”

“Was that really the King of Wakanda?”

“Sure was.”

“But the way you were talking about their tech? I mean, we learned about Wakanda last year and everything said that they were, um, well.”

“A tiny agriculturally-focused country with no technological advancements to speak of?”

“Well, yeah,” Peter said.

“Oh, kid.” Tony slung his arm around his shoulder and led him towards the door. “Do I have a surprise for you.”

000

Tony watched the news coverage of his press conference with something between annoyance and relief.

“Tony Stark has announced his retirement from the Avengers Initiative. In a surprise twist, however, he confirmed that he would still be acting as a solo superhero and offering the use of his Legion to relief and rescue efforts globally to those countries who request it.”

He swiped his hand and the channel obligingly changed. “ - Tony Stark has pulled personal funding and support from the Avengers Initiative, which is now set up as a not-for-profit with various investors, including Stark Industries and the Department of Defense -”

Another swipe. “Some are wondering if it is related to his health scare two months ago, but if that were true wouldn’t he be putting down the mantle of Iron Man -”

“- the Avengers were unavailable for comment, however, we are expecting a press release on the matter -”

“Shut it down, JARVIS,” he said with a sigh and rolled his head to the side to look at Pepper. “What do you think?”

Pepper took a drink of her coffee and shrugged. They were in her office and she was studying a large spreadsheet and multiple graphs on her three computer displays. Tony was pretty sure it was from the Marketing Department. God, he was so glad not to be the CEO anymore.

“The reactions aren’t negative, at least. People are confused and maybe a bit concerned, but as long as both the Avengers and Iron Man are available to save the world when things go down I don’t think they care much about whose team they’re on. Outside of the juicy gossip, of course."

Tony hummed. He wanted to ask her about how things were going with the new Avengers set-up but wasn’t sure he cared enough. She’d tell him if there was a problem.

“The press release from the Avengers side will be neutral,” she offered because she knew him too well. “The parting was amicable, they look forward to working with the new board, etc, etc.”

Tony chuckled. “And in reality?”

Pepper grinned at him. “Their actual reactions are Hill’s problem, not mine. I’m just there to make sure resources aren’t getting abused and nobody’s breaking any laws.”

“That is what I asked you to do,” he agreed. 

The only reason Pepper had given in to his request to donate enough of SI’s money to get a spot on the board was that he was hoping she could keep their noses clean until the Accords were ratified. He also knew that if they did step out of line she’d actually do something about it and cover SI’s ass in the process. He couldn’t trust himself to keep them in check. Family was weird that way.

“Thank you, Pepper.”

She looked over at him and smiled. “You’re welcome. Now get out, I’m busy. And call Bruce back so he stops bothering me.”

He winced and stood from the couch she’d had moved into her office, probably just to entice him to actually show up sometimes. Yeah, he needed to get on that. Honestly, he was worried that Bruce would just try and offer excuses for Steve and Natasha and wasn't sure he was ready to deal with it.

“You should come up to my lab today. Meet the new intern.”

“Oh, you mean the intern you gave a ridiculous contract to? That intern?” Her tone was sweet but her eyes promised death.

“Trust me, Pep. Once you talk to him you’ll understand. He, uh, he’s something special.”

She tilted her head to the side. “Fine. I’ll bring dinner down to you two. I want updates on your projects. I expect that adhesive to make us some money.”

“You got it.”

He tried not to feel overly smug when Pepper was charmed by Peter’s bumbling attempts at reciting every impressive thing she’d ever done and why she was ‘just so amazing, Ms. Potts, really, it’s an honor!’ within the first five minutes. 

It helped that they were working on a version of the webbing that could be used as a building material. It was a selfish request from Tony, who was always looking for new ways to make his tower indestructible. It was possible it’d get attacked less now that it just said ‘STARK’ on the side instead of rocking a big ‘A’ for Avengers, but the opposite could also be true.

“This is wonderful,” Pepper said to Peter. “We’re so lucky to have you.”

“What am I? Chopped liver?” Tony grumbled but neither one of them responded. He didn’t mind as much as he pretended to.

000

The past month had been the worst of T’Challa’s life and the start of it all could be firmly traced back to the moment Tony Stark had broken into Wakanda. His father had practically laughed it off and Shuri had been furiously delighted in a strictly professional sense that ended in her spending three days shoring up the holes in their defense that only technological geniuses could take advantage of. 

It made T’Challa’s blood boil, though. An outsider had waltzed into Wakanda and demanded a meeting with the royal family. He’d then dropped a (devastating, perspective-changing) secret into their laps that had stricken a blow to his father’s relationships with his whole family. And then Mr. Stark had proceeded to suggest that they all hold hands and work together.

Logically, he knew that his father’s actions towards N’Jadaka were not Mr. Stark’s fault. In fact, he didn’t seem to know the full story at all behind Erik Steven’s grudge. And it was most definitely a grudge. Once they had a name they were able to trace him to multiple thefts of Wakandan technology along with a spy within their country.  Nobody close to the royal family but they were still able to give him information he should not have had.

Still, despite the heads up and his father’s well-hidden pleasure at their new alliance, T’Challa couldn’t find it in him to give up on his animosity towards Mr. Stark, even if it was a case of shooting the messenger. 

He was arrogant and rude and so sure of himself that he hadn’t shown an ounce of fear after crossing their borders without permission. It was only a matter of time before he started demanding things they didn’t want to give in exchange for his ‘kindnesses.’ Vibranium would be right at the top of that list.

His father had requested that he give Mr. Stark the benefit of the doubt when he’d come to see him off. It was the first conversation they’d had in weeks. T’Challa could barely look at his father without feeling ill, knowing that he’d left a child of Wakanda, of their family, out in the cold.

Still, T’Chaka had always given good advice so he’d done his best to keep his mind clear when they’d landed at Stark Tower. However, after being led to Mr. Stark’s Penthouse by his AI they’d been left waiting for almost forty-five minutes.

T’Challa was sitting on the couch, staring out at the famous New York skyline and tapping his foot with impatience when Mr. Stark finally emerged from the hallway, hair damp and what looked like a spectacular bruise starting to form on one side of his face.

“Sorry I’m late, I was fighting an interdimensional caterpillar before it could eat the life energy of our planet. Good to see you again, T’Challa, T’Challa’s scary watchers. I have to say, I miss the kick-ass outfits you were rocking in Wakanda, but the whole black suit look is also good. We should get you some sunglasses. JARVIS, make a note, sunglasses with the standard HUD, chop-chop.

“Yes, sir.” 

T’Challa stood, feeling off-balance in a way he hadn’t since, well, the last time he’d seen Mr. Stark, and took his offered hand. “Mr. Stark. Do you need medical attention?” he settled on because he wasn’t sure he wanted to even attempt to unpack the rest of what he’d said.

“I told you, it’s Tony, please don’t make me feel older than I already do. And no, no medical attention necessary, I just got bitch-slapped by an antenna. Looks much worse than it feels I’m sure.”

He smiled, then winced. T’Challa caught Okoye mid-sympathetic wince and felt mildly betrayed. “Tony, then,” he said stiffly. “I was hoping we’d have time to discuss -”

“Sir, Mr. Parker should arrive in ten minutes.”

Tony swore and stepped around T’Challa to rush to the kitchen. “Sorry, just need to greet someone and then we can head to your floor, do the tour, make nice, all that fun stuff.” He opened a cupboard and pulled out a plate and bowl before bustling over to the breadbox. After exchanging a look with Okoye, T’Challa moved to the island and perched on a barstool, doing his best not to purse his lips in his annoyance.

He assumed Mr. Parker was some rich white man whom Tony thought too important to put off. Why couldn’t his father have just let him stay in a hotel? T’Challa hadn’t fought that hard against it because it had already been a huge battle getting T’Chaka to agree to let T’Challa leave. But he had needed the space, needed to be somewhere that he didn’t have to see his father’s face every day and be reminded of the way he’d betrayed their family, their way of life.

“You want some tea?”

“Please,” T’Challa said with a put upon sigh that Tony either didn’t hear or ignored.

“What about you?” Tony asked the Dora Milaje and shrugged when they shook their heads.

“You hungry?” Tony placed four pieces of bread into the toaster before moving to start a kettle of water and pull down a tea set. 

“No, thank you.” T’Challa had assumed he’d call for someone else to bring them tea, but he just continued moving around the kitchen, getting it together himself.

“The kitchen on your floor is well-stocked so you can eat in, or ask JARVIS to order food at any time. My treat,” Tony said absently before bending over to rummage around in the fridge. T’Challa pulled his gaze from the sight of the fabric of his tailored pants pulling at his thighs and ass and cleared his throat.

“That is very kind of you. Thank you for hosting us during our stay in America,” T’Challa said and knew it came out stiffly, but the man had ignored them for forty-five minutes, come in with some ridiculous story about a giant arthropod, then ignored them more while he made a snack for some rich man that he’d double-booked a meeting for. So far America was exactly what T’Challa had thought it would be.

Judging from the quirk of his lips when he turned around with a large pyrex full of cut-up fruit in his hands, Tony knew exactly what he was thinking. “It’s no problem, we have plenty of space. I’ll give you a tour of the training facilities, too. The whole tower if you want. Well, most of it, I have some classified areas and others that haven’t been cleaned in literal years.”

“Please,” Okoye said in a clipped tone, probably thinking about security and assassination attempts.

The toast popped up and Tony picked up a plate and brought it over to the toaster, hissing when the warm bread burnt his fingers. “Ow, ow, ow,” he muttered but it didn’t stop him from opening a jar of peanut butter and holding the bread while he slathered the spread over the top.

T’Challa looked between the toast and heaping pile of fruit, brow furrowed. Was Tony Stark stranger than he thought and this was the type of fare he offered important people during meetings?

“Should we give you privacy for your meeting?”

Tony looked up from where he was carefully cutting the toast into triangles. “No, no, this will take just a minute. Plus, I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”

Great, now T’Challa was going to be the funny foreigner from the poor African country that Tony showed off to his friends. He barely held in a scoff while Tony carefully carried the food to the counter and set it two seats away from T’Challa before serving him a cup of tea.

Tony was in the process of pouring a large glass of juice when the elevator dinged. He set the glass down next to the plates. “Don’t kill him, no matter how much awkward flailing he does,” he said to the Dora Milaje sternly, who just stared at him with blank expressions. “Great, good talk.”

“Mr. Stark!” 

T’Challa’s eyes widened at the young voice and he twisted around just in time to see a boy of about thirteen or fourteen dash into the room, backpack over one shoulder and eyes wide. He went right past the Dora Milaje and T’Challa and into the kitchen, then gasped when he saw Tony’s face, hands flailing in Tony’s general direction. Now Tony's warning was making more sense.

“Oh my god, are you okay? JARVIS told FRIDAY who told Karen who told me that you helped a friend kill a dimension-eating worm but she didn’t say you were hurt! Why didn’t you call me?”

T’Challa had to work to keep his jaw from dropping when he saw Tony’s reaction. Gone was the smarmy, arrogant, flippant man. His expression had softened into a small smile, the lines around his eyes deepening in a way that could not be faked. He reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair, laughing when he scowled and half-heartedly batted his hand away.

“Please tell me you aren’t using my AIs as a gossip chain. I didn’t call you because you were in school, kid. Plus, my friend and I had it handled. It’s just a bruise.”

“It’s covering like half your face! And - is your heart okay, like should you be fighting? All the news stations are saying you quit the Avengers because of your heart, and I know you said it was just time to move on or whatever when I asked, but you don’t mean, like, moving on to the next great adventure, do you? You, you’re okay, right?”

It would take a much harder man than T’Challa to be unaffected by the way the boy’s eyes watered and his lower lip trembled. Tony must have felt the same way because he said, “Christ, kid, doomsday much? Come here,” and pulled him into a hug. The child’s arms waved in the air uncertainly before settling gingerly on Tony’s back.

“My heart is fine, my face is fine, everything is fine, except you won’t be if you don’t eat your snack in the next twenty minutes because Pepper is expecting you in her office in twenty-five.”

“I get to see Ms. Potts?” he said and pulled back, eyes now bright with joy instead of suppressed tears. 

Tony rolled his eyes and directed the boy around the island and towards his seat. “Yes, she’s taking you on her monthly tour of terror through R&D today. They named it that, not me, don’t give me that look.”

“You’re not coming?” he said then stopped and stared at T’Challa and his guards. “Uh.”

“Hey, Peter, this is Prince T’Challa of Wakanda and his bodyguards, the Dora Milaje. T’Challa, this is my intern, Peter Parker.” Ah, so not, in fact, a rich man that Tony decided was more important than T’Challa. Perhaps his mother had a point when she accused him of jumping to conclusions too often.

“You, what, why didn’t you,” Peter flailed and Okoye’s lips twitched. “Your majesty Mr. T’Challa sir! And, um, your ladyships?” he turned desperate eyes on Mr. Stark, who was shaking with suppressed laughter.

“You may call me T’Challa,” T’Challa said and stood with the first genuine smile he’d worn for what felt like weeks.

Okoye stepped forward. “I am Okoye. This is Aneka, Ayo, and Zola.”

“I, um. Wow. Hi. I read about you in school. Not you specifically, but Wakanda, though Mr. T’Challa was probably in the book. Mr. Stark said that you’re thinking of opening up your borders a bit and that SI is going to help. That’s so cool! Do you think I could interview you for a school project for social studies? We’re supposed to pick a country and talk about how their history has influenced their current politics -”

“Yes, okay, less making friends and influencing people and more eating. Come on, kid, you do not want to make Pepper wait, this is for your own good, I don’t want you to die this young.”

Peter rolled his eyes in a way that reminded T’Challa strongly of Shuri but let himself be led to his seat. “I don’t know why you’re so scared of Ms. Potts, she’s so nice.”

“Yeah, okay, we’ll go with that. Is that enough to hold you till dinner?” Peter, T’Challa, and the Dora eyed the mountain of food in front of Peter with identical expressions of disbelief. 

“Yeah, Mr. Stark this is - this is fine. Uh, thanks. So, you’re not coming with us on the tour?” Peter took a mournful bite of his toast and Tony paused where he had been putting away a loaf of bread.

“Sorry, kid, I’m behind thanks to the worm.”

T’Challa took a sip of his tea and fought a smile at Peter’s downtrodden posture and Tony’s increasingly guilty one. “Oh, yeah, I mean, that makes sense. Saving the world comes first, obviously, and Ms. Potts is awesome, I’m sure I’ll learn lots and I’ll see you Saturday -”

“Ah, actually, I have to go deal with a situation in LA this weekend.”

Okoye narrowed her eyes at Tony, but he didn’t even seem to notice, his attention fixed on Peter, who was now picking at his bowl of fruit. “Oh, yeah, you’re busy, that makes sense, I mean you’re a superhero and you own a business, so, like, of course -”

T’Challa joined Okoye in glaring at Tony. Just when he’d been starting to second-guess his original opinion of the man -

“Tell you what. Why don’t I call your aunt and see if you can come with me? I can put off flying out until Friday night. What do you think?” His voice was casual but there was a tenseness to his shoulders, as though he was bracing for rejection.

“Wait, really? Are you serious? You want me to come with you?”

Tony’s expression lit up with a smile. “Yes, really, would I say it if I didn’t mean it? You can do your homework on the plane, I’ll have you back Sunday evening. It’ll be great, you can see the other offices, I’ll take you to meetings and let you do all the work -”

“Mr. Stark!”

“Maybe you can even charm the manager of R&D there, she hates my guts but everyone loves you.”

Peter ducked his head when his cheeks pinked and shoved half a slice of toast in his mouth, which was disgusting but somewhat adorable. He listened to Tony as he continued to talk about all the terrible things he was going to be subjected to on the trip with bright eyes. T’Challa watched with no small amount of disbelief when Peter polished off the last of the bread and fruit and downed his juice.

“May I suggest that Mr. Parker leave to meet Ms. Potts?” JARVIS cut in.

Peter’s eyes widened. “Oh! I’m going to be late.” He picked up his dishes and scurried around the island to put them in the sink. 

“I’ve got those, kid. Just get out of here.”

“But -”

“No, no, Pepper will blame me if you’re late and then I’ll have to run away to Majorca -”

Peter sent him an exasperated look. “Don’t worry, Mr. Stark, I would protect you -”

T’Challa watched in bemusement as the boy was hustled into the elevator, feeling a bit like he’d just been at the center of a wind storm. It was more than a little confusing, seeing somebody he’d suspected was nothing more than genius wrapped in arrogance and hubris showing anybody such care. Perhaps he’d withhold forming an opinion of Tony Stark for just a little longer.

He didn’t see Tony again for another week after a quick but informative tour of the tower. It wasn’t as impressive as the palace at Wakanda, but outside of his country T’Challa assumed it was more advanced than any other building in the world. He’d spent most of his time at the embassy and meeting with spies and contacts to try and get a lead on where Erik Stevens was at. He was a ghost, though, impossible to pin down, and his time at the embassy wasn’t going much better.

“T’Challa, sir is asking if you’d like to join him for lunch in the penthouse.”

T’Challa rubbed a hand over his eyes and considered refusing. It would be beyond rude to turn down the invitation of the man who was so graciously hosting him, though. The fact that it was his mother’s voice saying those words in his mind was not lost on him. He sighed and stood.

“Of course. Tell him I’m on my way up.”

Okoye and Zola fell into step with him as they entered the elevator. T’Challa was glad he knew how to keep his feelings from his posture and expression from his years as training to become Wakanda’s next monarch. There was an odd nervousness buzzing under his skin at the thought of seeing Tony again. He managed to put T’Challa off-balance every time they met and he had a feeling it would prove to be more than just coincidence.

The smell of tomato sauce and spices greeted him with the doors opened, and he really shouldn’t have been surprised to see Tony in the kitchen, plating up something from a large pot, evidence that he’d just finished cooking littering the counters.

“Hey,” Tony said and glanced over his shoulder. “Okoye, Zola, you want any?”

“No, thank you, Mr. Stark,” Okoye said stiffly while Zola prowled around the perimeter of the room, looking for threats. Tony watched her with a slight quirk of his lips.

“Alright. Hope you like ratatouille, your princeliness.”

“I’ve never had it before,” T’Challa admitted. Tony’s sleeves were rolled up and T’Challa watched the play of muscle under skin while Tony carried two plates heaped high with cut squash and eggplant lightly coated in red sauce to the table. 

“Well, you’ll love it. Have a seat,” Tony gestured before going back for a bowl of thickly sliced bread with butter slathered on it and a bottle of wine with two glasses. 

T’Challa chose one of the places that had been set out, breathing in the mouth-watering aroma of the food, and waited for Tony to sit across from him. The bruise on his face was faded and yellowed around the edges, the swelling all but gone.

He nodded when Tony made a questioning motion with the wine bottle and watched while he poured them both a respectable amount before placing his napkin in his lap. T’Challa followed suit and picked up his fork. 

“So how’s it going, kitty-cat? I heard you’ve been spending time at the embassy.”

T’Challa speared a piece of yellow squash and a hunk of cooked tomato. “It has been...interesting. People do not take me seriously, I suspect because they are still under the impression that my country is underdeveloped.” He placed the bite in his mouth and his eyes widened at the explosion of flavor on his tongue. The squash was juicy and still crisp enough to avoid the pitfalls of mushiness, the sauce was rich and spicy. He looked down at the dish with new respect.

Tony winced. “Yeah, sorry about that. American politicians can be assholes. All politicians, actually. I’ve got a few meetings in the White House next week, I’ll take you with me, introduce you around, drop some hints that I’m working with your dad on some mysterious project. You’ll be fighting them off with sticks. Or, you know, spears.”

“This is delicious,” T’Challa said to buy himself time to recover from Tony’s casual delivery of what he knew was an invaluable offer. “And that is very generous, thank you.”

Tony shrugged and lifted his lips into a small smile. “Thank you, it was my mother’s recipe. And no problem. I promised your father I would, I just had some stuff to deal with this week, didn’t mean to leave you hanging.” 

Speaking of that. “How was your trip with Peter?”

Tony’s expression went from slightly bored and pensive to warm and fond. “That kid. He’s so awkwardly sweet and sunshine personified, you don’t expect the brain underneath, you know what I mean? All my engineers and scientists couldn’t decide if they wanted to kill him or keep him. He didn’t even realize he kept showing up half the department in the midst of his excited word-vomits.” Tony shook his head and took a bite, lines deepening at the corners of his mouth with his small smile.

“He is that intelligent?”

Tony looked up at him, suddenly all sharp edges, and T’Challa realized suddenly how dismissive that might have sounded. “Hey, you don’t have to be an asshole to be smart. Peter’s going to be the best of us.”

T’Challa held up his hand. “Peace. I did not mean anything by it. My sister Shuri is only seventeen and many would find rambunctious too light a word for her. Yet her mind shines more brightly than any other in Wakanda.” He knew he was probably mirroring the expression Tony had been wearing earlier when he asked about Peter, but it was impossible to talk about Shuri and not be overtaken by fond exasperation. 

Tony leaned back and took a sip of wine, posture relaxing. “I figured she must be smart, the way she keeps hacking into my systems to make sure I don’t have you locked up in the basement telling you to put the lotion in the basket.”

 T’Challa choked on the wine he’d just taken a sip of. He held the cloth over his mouth while he coughed and sputtered, ignoring Tony’s wide grin and Okoye’s twitching lips. “I apologize for my sister,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster with a raw throat and burning cheeks. “I will discuss her behavior with her and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed. It was a nice sight, which was a disturbing thought that T’Challa promptly ignored. “Please, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about precocious genius teenagers, it’s that they never listen.”

T’Challa had to smile a bit because that summed up Shuri very well. “How long have you known Peter, then?”

Tony sobered quickly and ran one finger along the handle of his fork. His eyes had gone very far away and there was something like pain in them. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve known him for years, but we only met a while ago.” He cleared his throat, then scooped up more food and put on a smile that was very different from his earlier one. 

It was too similar to the ones he’d worn in their first meeting in Wakanda and T’Challa was abruptly reminded of why he hadn’t liked him much. “So, I wanted to start approaching a few enhanced people about the UN documents. Thought we’d start with those who are already ‘out,’ don’t want to freak out all those people with secret identities. Not yet, anyway.”

T’Challa raised a brow and patted at his mouth with his napkin. He was surprised to find his plate mostly clean already. It had really been very good. “Would you like me to accompany you?”

Tony held out his hands to the side in an expansive gesture and grinned. “Thought you’d never ask! As soon as you’re done we can load up, head to Harlem -”

T’Challa blinked. “Now?”

“Yep, I have this afternoon free, no time like the present.” He threw down his napkin and stood. 

T’Challa finished his wine before following him into the living room where he was handed a tablet. “Here you go, loaded up with all the information I have on one Luke Cage.”

T’Challa opened the file and trailed after Tony into the elevator, not protesting when Okoye looked over his shoulder. “I want to get the other two Dora,” she said mildly after seeing the highlights. Super strength, impenetrable skin, spent some time in prison. 

T’Challa sent her an exasperated look, ignoring the possible whys of his embarrassment over her insistence on bringing along more babysitters for him. He was used to it, honestly.

Tony shrugged. “I mean, sure, if you think Iron Man isn’t a good enough bodyguard, be my guest. Two of you need to stay in the car, I don’t need Cage running off because of Mr. Meow’s terrifying entourage.”

Okoye made a pleased hum, presumably at being called terrifying, before using her beads to call Ayo to tell her to meet her at the car. Tony watched with undisguised interest. “Think your sister would let me take a closer look at those?”

“Perhaps,” T’Challa said, though he highly doubted it. 

Tony must have heard the underlying thought because he sighed and slipped on his sunglasses. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

The doors opened to reveal more cars than any one person could possibly need. He didn’t comment, of course, just folded his hands behind his back and tried to channel his father’s peaceful exterior as he followed Tony to a nondescript blue Audi. Aneka and Ayo caught up to him just as Tony beeped the car. 

“Here,” Tony said and tossed a set of keys to Ayo, who caught them deftly. “You can take the one next to us.” He turned to Okoye. “If that works for you? I’m assuming you all know American traffic laws, which side of the road to drive on?”

Okoye nodded. “We are well trained in any situation that may come up in the protection of the royal family.”

“Awesome. FRIDAY already sent the address to the car, there should be a StarkPad in the glove box, she’ll upload building schematics and information on Luke Cage. Just remember, we want him as an ally, so play nice. If it gets out that I’m running around harassing enhanced then we’ll never get anywhere. Also, you can use the toys I sent you last week to stay in communication with FRIDAY. Be nice to her, she’s young.”

Okoye nodded and T’Challa did a double-take when she pulled out a pair of sunglasses that he knew she didn’t have last week and the other three followed suit. Paired with the black suits the Dora Milaje had taken to wearing while in the United States, they looked like something straight out of a spy movie. Tony turned towards the driver’s seat, but not before T’Challa saw the grin on his face.

He slid into the passenger seat and ignored Okoye’s glare. Yes, he knew he was more vulnerable in that spot, but it felt beyond odd to sit in the back while Tony Stark drove him around. Okoye and Akena climbed into the back.

“Don’t worry, the car’s bullet-proof, fire-proof, and has all the safety features. Your baby will be fine,” Tony said and deftly ignored T’Challa’s glare while Akena turned to look out the window so he couldn’t see her expression, though he didn’t miss the slight shaking of her shoulders.

He'd gotten the impression that the Dora Milaje actually liked Tony and T’Challa spent the ride to Harlem vacillating between betrayal and befuddlement. Okoye generally didn’t suffer fools and all indicators had pointed at Tony Stark being a self-obsessed, show-boating asshole, heroics aside. Yet, in private, T’Challa had to admit that he kept surprising him.

They pulled up to a bar and Tony parked - illegally - in front. The car holding Ayo and Zola circled around, presumably to the other side of the building. “You ready?” Tony asked and T’Challa nodded.

Confidence was returning back to him with every step they took towards the door. Diplomacy, leadership, those were things that came easily to him. It was much less confusing than trying to keep up with Tony Stark’s odd personality.

The bar was well-maintained, a bit run-down but clean. It was mostly empty save for a group of college-aged kids watching TV and a few older men at the far side of the bar. The bartender was none other than Luke Cage himself, and the closer they got the more apparent it became that the pictures did not do the sheer size of the man justice.

His shoulders and bearing were relaxed but he watched Okoye and Akena with sharp, knowing eyes. He just raised his brows when Tony sat down on a stool like he owned it and smiled. “Scotch, neat, whatever counts as top shelf in this place.”

T’Challa closed his eyes and let out a breath. “I will have the same, please, Mr. Cage.”

Luke stared at them for a long moment before turning his eyes to the Dora Milaje. “I’m guessing they’ll be abstaining?”

Okoye stepped up so that she was standing a foot behind T’Challa and to the right. “Yes.”

“Alright, then.” 

When Luke turned to get them their drinks T’Challa took it as a chance to glare at Tony, who looked at him over the top of his glasses. “You’re giving me the look - you know the one - what, what did I do?”

“Try,” he said through gritted teeth, “to at least pretend your mother taught you manners.”

“Hey, I have manners,” Tony protested mildly. T’Challa narrowed his eyes. “Jeez, okay, put the laser eyes away. Polite, got it, I can do that.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he muttered and his brow furrowed when his comment seemed to just delight Tony instead of annoying him.

“Challenge accepted.”

“It was not a challenge -”

“Here,” Luke said and put their drinks in front of them. 

Tony smiled and slid a credit card across the table. “There you go. Oh, how rude of us, not introducing ourselves.”

Luke’s biceps bulged when he crossed his arms over his chest and T’Challa eyed them, wondering how a fight between them would go. It depended on whether vibranium was included on the list of things that couldn’t pierce his skin. “It’s not required to introduce yourself to your bartender. Plus, I know who both of you are.”

“You know who I am?” T’Challa asked, honestly surprised.

Luke glanced at him. “You were on the local news. Not a headline story, but I pay attention.” He swiped the card off the bar and stalked over to ring them up before he could answer.

T’Challa took a drink of his scotch. He could sense Okoye’s annoyance at the man’s disrespect and decided he should probably keep her from saying or doing something about it. “Peace, Okoye. I am not royalty here.”

“You are my prince regardless of where we are in the world.”

“Aw,” Tony said mildly and T’Challa resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands.

Luke slapped down the receipt and a pen in front of Tony, who smiled winningly at him. “So, Luke -”

“No.”

“You have not heard what we are here to say,” T’Challa said.

“I assume it has something to do with you wanting to use my abilities for your own ends, Stark, and the answer is hell no.” 

Tony didn’t visibly react, but there was something about the way his smile grew just a bit strained that had T’Challa’s hackles rising, though he wasn’t sure why. Just a week ago he had been making very similar assumptions about Tony, still doubted how genuine he was often. Still, there was something like protectiveness bubbling up in him.

“Do not speak as though you know him,” T’Challa said in a mild tone that made Okoye and Akena shift, sensing the restrained violence in it. “He is here to help you, not use you, but if this is the way you would treat people you’ve just met, perhaps we shouldn’t bother.”

T’Challa went to stand, but a light touch to his wrist stopped him. Tony was looking up at him with an odd expression. “Woah, there, as much as I appreciate the prince in shining armor routine -” Okoye snorted “-let’s all just calm down. It’s not every day Tony Stark and literal royalty walk into his bar, am I right, Luke?”

Luke was looking between them, more thoughtful than annoyed, now. “I can honestly say it’s a first.”

“There, see? Come on, kitty cat, sit down, I’ll order you a saucer of cream.”

T’Challa let out an annoyed breath and allowed himself to be coaxed back onto the barstool. He carefully didn’t look at Okoye, knowing full well he’d overreacted. It seemed that somehow, in their past few interactions, he’d started to see Tony as an ally at least, maybe even a possible friend. A really annoying, confusing friend.

“What do you mean, you want to help me?”

Tony took a miniature Starkpad - seriously, how many did the man have - from inside his suit jacket and set it on the bar. He leaned forward, making sure none of the few patrons in the bar were close enough to hear.

“There are international laws being drawn up in the UN whose focus is on regulating enhanced humans. Domestic ones will come soon after. I have an early draft here and I want to get it out to as many enhanced, mutants, superhumans, whatever you want to call them as possible. It’s important that you have representation in this and I’m willing to facilitate that on a national and international level. T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, will also be working with the UN. We’re sort of...collaborating on this.”

Luke stood very still as he took that in. “What kind of laws?”

Tony shrugged and relaxed back in his stool. T’Challa tried not to react when he extended his arm over the back of T’Challa’s chair and took a sip of his drink. “That still remains to be seen. Read those over, maybe share them with any lawyer friends you may have -” T’Challa tilted his head to the side when Luke stiffened at those words, said in a teasing lilt, “and if you have any comments, suggestions, whatever, get back to me.”

“That’s it,” Luke said in a flat voice. “You’re just going to help a whole community of people you’re not even really part of and expect nothing in return?”

Tony sighed and pushed his sunglasses up his nose. “That’s right. Besides, I may not be enhanced, but I’ll be affected by these laws, as well.”

“One could argue his mind is the enhanced part of him,” Okoye said.

Tony gasped and put a hand to his chest. “Okoye, was that...a compliment? Do you, dare I say it, like me?”

A strange twisting feeling rose in T’Challa’s chest, flashing through him too quickly to analyze. Then Okoye rolled her eyes. “Do not bet on it, Stark.”

“Ouch, I thought we had something -”

“Is that all?” Luke said and T’Challa felt weirdly grateful to him for cutting Tony off. 

Tony shrugged and threw back the rest of his drink before standing. “Yep. Feel free to share those around with people you trust, just don’t go singing it from the rooftops. The element of surprise will be useful once we have a united front.”

Luke just grunted but he picked up the small tablet and slid it under the bar. “Right. Well. Thanks, I guess,” Luke said grudgingly and T’Challa couldn’t help but commiserate.

Tony seemed to have that effect on people.

Chapter Text

Watching T’Challa navigate D.C. politics was more entertaining than Tony had expected. He was all smooth smiles and grace and it hid the predator beneath the words.

T'Challa was new to this particular form of politics but he wasn’t ignorant or naive, either. Tony had predicted he’d spend the whole time hovering over T’Challa making sure he didn’t do something disastrous, but in reality, he’d only had to interject on a few occasions.

T’Challa was a hell of a lot more mature and poised than Tony had been at thirty-two, that’s for sure. Perks of having a father that gave a damn, he supposed.

“Of course providing aid for the countries surrounding your own is a noble goal, but you might find that you’ll be better able to help others if you help yourselves, first.” 

Tony pressed his lips together at the senator’s words. Ah, yes, talk down to the foreign diplomat whose country you know nothing about. T’Challa was wearing a politely interested expression that Tony had come to realize over the past few days covered what he could only assume was a giant mass of fuck you, arrogant American. 

“Dr. Stark.” Tony pulled his attention away from where T’Challa was running rings around the group of southern senators. A bald older man was sitting in a wheelchair next to him. 

A woman with white hair that was a striking contrast against her dark skin was standing behind him, hands resting on the handles of the chair. Tony was good at spotting people with money, power or influence and the man in the wheelchair had all three. Which was odd, because Tony had never seen him before.

“That’s me. And you are?”

The man’s lips twitched up into a knowing smile that somehow managed to be kindly. “Professor Charles Xavier. This is my associate Ororo Munroe. I think you and I might have some things to discuss.”

Tony raised a brow. He could feel T’Challa’s attention on him but he twitched his hand at him in a little wave to let him know he was fine. From the corner of his eye he saw him go back to listening to the senators with that calm, kingly expression. It was a little hot, how poised he was, especially since Tony knew that he was more than a little rash at heart. 

He’d been grateful when T’Challa had defended him against Luke Cage a few days ago. He’d also been turned on enough that he'd had to stay in his seat until he’d calmed down. Too bad the guy barely tolerated Tony. Maybe he should have knocked instead of barging into Wakanda, after all.

“Do we?” Tony scanned the room. Yep, still a bunch of boring people in boring suits talking about boring ways to increase their own personal power. He hated this town.

“Yes. I heard through the grapevine that you are working with certain individuals on some documents that may well one day become international law. We’re interested in collaborating.”

Tony froze and resisted the urge to shush him or look around for possible eavesdroppers. No reason to signal to the world that he was having a sensitive conversation in a public-ass room.

“Really? I’d be interested in knowing who those contacts are,” he said mildly, then waved his hand before Xavier could answer. He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a card. “This is a direct line to my AI. You can make an appointment with him. I have time next week.” 

If Xavier was disappointed that Tony wasn’t willing to talk to him right that second, he didn’t show it. He just gave that same kind smile and took the card from Tony. “I look forward to it, Dr. Stark.”

Tony smiled his best press smile. “Likewise, Professor.”

He watched them go with an uneasy feeling. He wasn’t ready for what he was doing to get out yet. He’d reached out to a few people he knew that would be affected by the Accords, or whatever they would be named this time around, but nothing definitive had happened. 

“Is everything alright?” T’Challa asked. 

Tony didn’t jump, but it was a near thing. “Hey, kitty-cat, how about you make some sort of sound before sneaking up on me, hm? You’ll give me a heart attack, I’m not as young as I once was, you know.”

T’Challa huffed. “Please. You are not that old.”

Tony put a hand to his chest and fluttered his eyelashes. “Be still, my heart. He’s only playing with you.”

T’Challa smiled, just a flash of white, and it was the most carefree expression Tony had seen on him since they met. In both timelines. He hadn’t known him well before, had worked with him to bring in Barnes after the death of his father, but like everyone else he’d chosen the other side in the end. 

“You are only a little over a decade older than me, after all,” T’Challa said, then snapped his mouth shut like he wished he hadn’t spoken at all.

Tony cleared his throat. “Yes, well. You done with all the schmoozing?”

“I believe so.”

“Great. Let’s get out of here. This place gives me hives.” And, oh, great, there was his smile again.

They moved towards the door, not bothering to say goodbye to anyone. Tony could get away with it because, well, he was him, and T’Challa was his guest, which meant he could get away with it, too.

Tony opened the door to the bland, boring room with its bland, boring people and bland, terrible food and motioned T’Challa through. He raised a brow but didn’t argue. Tony put an absent hand between his shoulder blades. He could feel how warm he was even through the suit. Ayo and Okoye were silent shadows behind them.

“You were surprised by that man,” T’Challa said as soon as they were all ensconced in the vehicle and Happy was navigating through traffic towards the airport. 

“I’m never surprised.”

T’Challa just tilted his head to the side as if to say, ‘I am waiting.’ It was weirdly effective. “Fine.” Tony waved a hand in the air. “He was asking about the documents. Which he shouldn’t know about.”

“Oh no, it must have been terrible, having someone confront you with something you worked hard to keep secret,” T’Challa said dryly.

“Such sass, can you believe this, Okoye?” She just looked at him, either bored or thinking about how she could probably kill all of them in less than ten seconds. He threw up his hands. “I see how it is. Happy, take me somewhere with people who will understand how amazing I am.”

“Sorry, boss, I don’t know where to find brothels in D.C.”

There was a long pause after Happy’s words, then a warm, rich laugh filled the car. Tony interrupted his glare at Happy and turned to T’Challa, who had put his head back against the seat, shoulders shaking, chest rumbling with laughter. Okay, wow, the man had an attractive laugh. An attractive everything if Tony was going to be honest. 

Tony didn’t realize he was still watching T’Challa until he had mostly stopped laughing and turned towards him. T’Challa’s eyes were still crinkled at the corners in amusement. “It is a sad day when your loyal subjects become comfortable with you.”

He tipped his head towards Okoye who rolled her eyes. “I knew the prince when he was a teenager. It sort of ruins the glow,” Okoye said and Ayo smiled.

“Yeah, try dealing with memories of Tony in the early two-thousands,” Happy piped in.

Tony pointed at him. “That’s enough out of you, you’ve done enough damage to my reputation today.”

T’Challa was laughing again, easy and open, and Tony leaned back against the seat when he realized the fluttering in his stomach was simple contentment. Outside of his time with Pete, he hadn’t thought that was something he’d find in this timeline. He had too much to do, too much on his shoulders. The weight of it felt a little less oppressing right at that moment.

Once they were on the plane, Tony had JARVIS and FRIDAY pull up all the information they could find on Xavier. “A school teacher? An extremely political one, too, though I don’t see a lot on what agendas he’s interested in.”

“I would assume it has something to do with enhanced,” T’Challa said. “Considering why he approached you.”

Tony hummed. “JARVIS, is his place a fancy boarding school for rich kids, or what?”

JARVIS was silent for a moment as he sorted through information. “It would seem there are children from all different socio-economic circumstances. They are not all American, either.” Another pause. “Many of the students were in some sort of trouble before Xavier’s people found them, either with the law, their schools, or their parents.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“The kind that can’t always be explained, sir.”

Tony stood and paced slowly in front of the seats, aware that T’Challa was watching him closely. “J, are you saying this is a school for enhanced?”

“All evidence points towards that, yes.”

“Huh. How in the world does he keep that under the radar?”

“A combination of extreme secrecy and enough money to place bribes where needed. I assume having a school full of people with powers is useful, too.”

“Depends on the powers,” Tony said dryly, then sighed. “Keep digging. When Xavier calls make sure to schedule something with him for next week. This could be big.”

“It could also be dangerous,” Okoye said and Tony blinked at her sharp tone.

“Well, yeah, but that’s kind of my thing, you know? Walking into dangerous situations, kicking ass where needed, charming people where I can.”

T’Challa sighed as though somebody had just put a great weight upon his shoulders. “Obviously I will be attending as well.”

“Oh you will, will you?” Tony asked, more amused than annoyed.

“We are supposed to be working together on making contact with enhanced individuals, are we not?” Then he picked up the Starkpad Tony had given him and started casually reading on it, a clear signal that the conversation was over.

“Your dad teach you that little ice-out after announcing that you’ll be doing something trick?”

T’Challa’s lips twitched. “My mother, actually. She uses it on my father frequently.”

Tony swallowed, unsure why the admission made his stomach swoop. “Uh-huh. Well, kudos to her, running the country from behind the throne.” T’Challa flashed a smile at him and Tony cleared his throat and went back to his seat. What happened to the cold little princeling from two weeks ago? Tony kind of missed him, he was less disconcerting.

Tony had a car waiting for him at the airport and motioned for Happy to drive the Wakandans back to the tower. “I have a meeting,” Tony explained when T’Challa sent him a questioning look after he’d veered off in a different direction.

“Ah. Will I be seeing you later this evening? I was hoping to ask your opinion on some of the people I met.”

“The kid’s coming over, you can join us for dinner. If you let him interview you for his paper I’ll let you interview me about politicians.”

T’Challa was smiling at him again. It seemed a little unfair that he was the future king of the most technologically advanced country in the world and ridiculously attractive. Tony silently listed off all the reasons why it was a bad idea to seduce T’Chaka’s son. “That sounds like a good deal.”

“Uh-huh. Right, well, I’d better,” Tony pointed over his shoulder at his car before turning and sauntering towards it, because Tony Stark was too cool to rush away from cute men.

He slid into the seat and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, watching the Wakandans get into the other car with a sigh. “Nice, Stark. Crushes on foreign future monarchs never end well unless you’re a coed in a rom-com.”

He shook his head and started up the car. T’Challa would be leaving soon, anyway. No point in getting worked up about a bit of attraction.

Two hours later he was on a ladder in the Sanctum, wiring up the last of the speakers and cameras he’d had delivered. His suit jacket was draped over a chair and he’d rolled up his shirtsleeves. Masako was standing below him, his tools floating around her. “Can you hand me those needle-nose pliers?” he called down and they floated up to him. 

If Masako ever needed a job as a lab assistant, she had it. She just huffed out a small laugh when he told her as much as he finished connecting everything together and tapped at his phone.

“So,” he said conversationally after climbing down the ladder. “You’re looking horrible.”

Masako sighed and he busied himself with flipping the breaker. “I spent most of last night in my astral form, and the night before that researching. And the day before that fighting.”

He frowned and brought his focus from contemplating whether he needed to replace a few of his tools to her. “Just how bad was it?”

“The fight itself was fine. It was what I sensed on the other side of the dimensional rift that concerned me.”

“Okay, now you have me worried,” he said before making his way over to the couch to sit across from her. Her brows were pulled downwards and the corners of her lips were pressed together tightly enough that her dimples were showing. 

She was generally pretty collected so this whole tired, worried thing she had going on had his attention. He wasn’t kidding about her looking awful, either. There were bags under her eyes and her skin was pale, making the scar on her face more noticeable.

“It is...big. And powerful. And it is struggling very hard to get through. So far it has only been able to send a few of its minions. That’s all I know, unfortunately.” 

“Well, that sounds terrifying,” Tony said and crossed an ankle over his knee with a frown. “You think it’ll be able to push through?”

“I’m not sure.”

“And these minions?”

“I thought they were androids, at first. But it turns out they bleed like anything else. They are silver, their skin metallic, and they fly.”

“Of course they do.”

Her lips turned up on one corner and he decided to count it as a win. “They are tall, perhaps seven feet or so, and stronger than the average human but not by much.”

“Weapons?”

“Swords. Large ones, like claymores but with spikes in the blades.” She made a shape with her hand to indicate the spikes.

“Awesome. That’s...great. Where did you fight them at?”

“Upstate. I was able to pull them into a mirror dimension.”

Tony just hummed. His watch beeped to let him know the upload to Masako’s systems was complete. “FRIDAY, say hello to Masako Mori.”

“Hello, Ms. Mori.”

He’d already told Masako he was installing FRIDAY in the Sanctum so she just said, “Hello, FRIDAY. Tony tells me you are here to assist in -” she looked at him - “world-saving business.”

“That is true. I help my brother, JARVIS, run the legion and keep boss and his friends out of trouble.”

“Hey, now, no ruining my image,” he said and pointed at one of the cameras. 

Tony and Masako had met a total of two more times since she’d given him the armbands, both of them to fight off weird-ass monsters that had so far been corralled into mirror dimensions. Tony was rapidly becoming used to both magic and Masako. She was one of the calmest, most focused people he’d ever met and he could respect that. 

He was also fairly certain he had a handle on her motivations, which meant he knew what he could and couldn’t trust her with. Just like Stephen Strange, her first priority would always be her mission. Since Tony was on the same page, for the most part, they worked well together.

“So when you say big, are you talking the dimension-eating caterpillar big, or...”

She waved her hand and Tony perked up when tea appeared. Seriously, he needed to find out who her supplier was. He was sure his guests would love it. T’Challa did drink a lot of tea.

“The size may be comparable but the threat level isn’t. This being has intelligence that the worm didn’t. He’s after something.” She looked down at her tea.

Tony closed his eyes. “The stones.”

“Yes. Most likely.”

“We really need to get on destroying the mind stone, huh?” he mused.

“I have been looking for ways it might be done with the mystic arts. I’ve also been trying to find a way to communicate with these...Guardians you mentioned.”

“And?”

She shook her head. “I haven’t had a lot of time. Once the dimensional barrier stabilizes I should be able to focus more on these tasks.”

“And when do you think that will be?”

“Six months to a year.”

Tony breathed in deeply before letting it all out in a whoosh. “Right. Well, on that note, I’ve got something for you.” He pulled out a thin red metal band with a golden arc reactor imprint on the front. She took it from him and turned it over in her hands.

“What is it?”

“Panic button. You press the golden circle twice and any of the legion nearby will come to your location. FRIDAY will call if anything crazy happens, too. Of course, if I’m close I’ll come myself, but I do have some travel planned in the next few months.”

Masako stared down at the band and Tony resisted the urge to shift uncomfortably. He knew that some people tended to find his protective measures overbearing. 

He’d been more than a little shocked when she hadn’t batted an eye at having an all-seeing AI put into the main rooms of the Sanctum. Of course, Tony knew there were probably rooms tucked away in other dimensions or some shit that he didn’t have access to.

“Why are you trusting me with this?” Her voice was bland but she was tense, eyes still on the bracelet.

Tony’s brows rose. “It’s kind of the other way around, isn’t it? You’re the one letting me put in security systems and tag you with a glorified GPS.”

Masako huffed and looked up. “I’m not stupid. FRIDAY is your creation, an asset and something you care for, as well. You left your old team because you couldn’t trust them to actually be your team. Yet you let me in. You must know about my past by now, what I was before the Ancient One saved me from that life.”

Tony sighed. So that was what this was about. Yeah, he’d done his research on her, and while he’d been surprised it hadn’t exactly phased him. Not after all the heroes he’d met with bloody pasts. “First of all, you were pretty much still a kid. You think I don’t know what it’s like to be born into expectations like that? When it comes to shady pasts I’m living in a glass house. You’ve spent the past seventeen years doing a lot of good.”

“And what about when we’re seen fighting together? It will happen eventually. Others will look into my past. They will -”

“They won’t find anything concrete. Yes, people will read between the lines but you were never implicated in any crimes. You were just born into a crap family.”

She lifted her head and looked at him, calm and implacable. “They called me the Bloody Daughter, you know. Because when I entered a room with my father, everyone knew I would probably leave it drenched in the blood of others. Even now, people speak of it.”

“And now you’re Masako Mori, Master of the Mystic Arts and a protector of Earth. I used to have a nickname, too, you know.”

Masako hummed. “The Merchant of Death.”

He pointed at her. “That’s the one. Natasha is called the Black Widow for a reason. Hawkeye was an assassin for hire before SHIELD got to him. People change, Masako. I think I’ve been betrayed enough times to know the signs and you don’t have them.” 

Tony wasn’t sure why he was arguing so hard on her behalf. The truth was, he didn’t know her well. They’d only had a handful of conversations. But they’d fought together, watched each other’s backs. He’d seen how loyal she could be, too, in the way she looked at the Ancient One. How deeply she could love. Sure, if the Ancient One declared him an interdimensional threat Masako would kick his ass with those beads of hers, but so long as he did his best not to try and destroy the world he was probably good. 

He hadn’t been lying when he said he saw a bit of himself in her, either. A bloody past, a desperate quest for redemption. She had a sharp mind, too. From little comments both she and the Ancient One had made, he had picked up on the fact that she enjoyed collecting knowledge.

Masako studied him closely, eyes just a little wider than usual. Eventually, her shoulders relaxed and she snapped the bracelet onto her wrist. “There are few who wholly accept me after they learn about my past.”

“Yeah, I know how that is,” he said and they shared a small smile. They spent the next twenty minutes drinking tea in comfortable silence and it wasn’t until Tony was leaving the Sanctum that he realized he’d probably just made a friend.

“What am I, in preschool?” he grumbled before putting on his sunglasses and adjusting his cuffs.

He paused at the door of his car and leaned down to get a better look at the person in the passenger seat. “Come on, seriously?” he groaned before deciding to face his fate and opening the door, unbuttoning his suit jacket before sliding into his seat.

“Ahoy there, matey, long time no see,” Tony said without looking over at Fury. He started the car and put on his seatbelt before staring pointedly at Fury’s.

He rolled his eye but pulled it forward and clicked it into place. “Still a damn pain in the ass, Stark,” he barked out.

“That’s me,” Tony said lightly before merging into traffic. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this break-in? You’d better hope you didn’t scratch the paint or bend anything out of shape. You break my stuff, I break yours.”

“I’m aware of your penchant for petty revenge, Stark. Your car is fine.”

He just hummed and pretended to focus on driving, waiting Fury out. “Dating a member of the Yakuza? You really have changed.”

Tony rolled his eyes, though his lips twitched at the irony of being confronted about this right after his heart-to-heart with Masako. “Ex-member, actually.”

“Hm, yes, the Mori family was wiped out seventeen years ago. His eldest daughter’s body was never found, she was presumed dead until recently.”

“You mean until your little agency caught sight of her while spying on me. You know, you should really be careful who you mess with, Fury. Some people bite back.”

“Threatening me now, Stark?”

“More like warning. You plan on getting to the point, or do you want to wave your dick around a bit more? Just so you know, it’s not as big as you think it is.”

“It’s just as big as I think it is,” Fury said without missing a beat. He must have decided he’d done enough of the intimidation act because he actually did get to the point. Shocker. “It’s time for you to come back to the team.”

“Yeah, I’m going to give you a hard no, there.”

“You’re punishing everyone for the actions of a few.”

“I’m not punishing anyone. The team is still there, they have funding, and I haven’t made one move against them. All I did was remove myself from the situation.”

“Still putting yourself before the safety of the world, Stark?”

Fury’s hand flew to the handle above the window when Tony slammed on his breaks and pulled the car over into a loading zone. “Get out,” he said.

“Stark -”

“No. Nope. You don’t get to fuck me over and then come in here and try to turn it on me. You lied to me. Rogers and Romanoff lied to me. Then you used me. Which is all you’ve ever done. And, yeah, I expected it of you, I’ve never had any illusions about exactly what kind of person you are. But them...I’m done, Fury. I’m done dealing with that, I don’t have time for it.”

“And what’s so important that you would abandon your responsibility to the -”

“I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. I’m still a superhero, still working on ways to protect Earth. I’m just doing it my way, now, because honestly? Your way wasn’t working. Now either get out or risk revealing you’re still alive when you get into a brawl with Iron Man in broad daylight on a busy street.”

Fury turned towards him and Tony met his gaze squarely. “You’re serious,” he finally said, more thoughtful than upset. “This isn’t some tantrum or a way to prove a point and punish Steve. You’re not coming back to the team.”

“No. I’m not. Also, for future reference? I’m a grown-ass man. I own a multi-billion dollar company and fly around in a weaponized suit of armor saving lives. I don’t throw tantrums. If you actually knew anything about me, you would know that. Now get. Out.”

Fury’s hand went to the handle of the door and he turned away. “If a situation arises that needs us to work together -”

“I collaborate with assholes all the time for SI. I can handle working with the team even if Steve and I aren’t on speaking terms personally. I don’t hate them, Fury,” he said in a softer tone. He remembered the sacrifices all of them had made to save the Universe. “They’re still my family. If they’re in trouble, you call me. I needed to do this my own way, is all. This is how it’s going to be, and you’re not going to change my mind.”

Fury nodded and stepped out of the car. The sound of the door closing felt final. Tony let out a breath, releasing the tension that had built during the altercation as he did. He put the car back into gear and looked over his shoulder before merging into traffic. He was surprised by how sincere he’d been while telling off Fury, but sometimes the truth worked better than a lie. 

It was always going to hurt, the memory of what happened in Siberia and after. But it was an old pain, one that had faded with age and perspective. 

Tony sighed. “FRIDAY, call Bruce.”

The phone rang three times before it was answered. “Tony?” 

“Hey, Bruce,” he said.

There was a long stretch of silence before Bruce said, “I’m glad you called.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. I just needed some space.”

“I get it, Tony. Believe me, I am well versed in the art of running away. Just - are you okay?”

Tony cleared his throat. He thought about Peter’s check-in call the night before, the way he’d rambled on about helping a young couple unload their Uhaul, the mugger he’d convinced to walk away. How he’d smiled when Tony said ‘good job, kid.’ He thought about T’Challa sharing an exasperated look with him over the heads of all those boring, boring old men in D.C. He thought about Masako, the way she’d tilted her head in greeting when he’d gotten to the Sanctum.

“Yeah. I’m good, Bruce. And you?”

He could almost see Bruce shrugging through the phone. “Things are okay. They’ve been a little weird.” He paused before saying, hesitantly, “Everyone’s kind of mad at Steve and Natasha.”

Tony just hummed, not sure what to say to that. “And your lab?”

“Oh, it’s fine. Pepper actually convinced the board to redirect more funds to it.”

“Well, you’ve always been her favorite Avenger.”

Bruce laughed and Tony smiled. “Listen, why don’t you come over Sunday morning? I have some projects I could use your opinion on. The usual consultant fee.”

“Tony, you don’t have to pay me -”

“Yep, kinda do, since they’re for SI. Gotta keep it all above board. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

Bruce sighed but Tony knew he was pleased by the invitation. He was always happy when someone wanted him for Bruce instead of the Hulk. “It might have to be later in the morning, I’ll need to catch the bus. We aren’t allowed to use Avenger resources for personal errands anymore,” he said wryly.

“That has Pepper written all over it.”

“Yep.”

“I’ll send a car.”

“Tony, no -”

“On SI’s dime. You’re one of our top contractors, Brucie. No more buts or I’ll also wine and dine you -”

“Tony!”

“Take you to one of those four-star restaurants you hate so much -”

“Only you would use this as a threat,” Bruce muttered but Tony could still hear the smile in his voice. “Fine. I’ll see you Sunday.”

“Alright, buddy. See ya.”

“Bye, Tony.”

He let out a breath when the call disconnected, unsure now why he’d even put it off for so long. Sure, Bruce was still an Avenger, but it wasn’t like he had a lot of choices. SHIELD literally shielded him from multiple government and private institutions that would love nothing more than to either experiment on him or lock him away. 

They really were Bruce’s family, too. They accepted him, supported him. Tony’s brow furrowed as he remembered Johannesburg and guilt twisted his stomach. Bruce was living with the woman who had unleashed the Hulk on a city last time around. Tony didn’t think she’d do it again - Wanda had loved the members of the team that weren’t Tony once she’d joined - but there was still a chance. He’d give Bruce the armband on Sunday.

000

Peter’s steps slowed without his permission when he heard T’Challa’s voice coming down the hall. His stomach was growling at the smell of dinner but something about the stress in T’Challa’s tone made him falter. He’d only left them alone for five minutes to wash the grease from working in the lab off his hands at Mr. Stark’s insistence.

“People have heard rumors, but he must have heard that I am searching for him and gone to ground. Nobody knows where Erik Stevens is hiding though most agree he is in America.”

There was the sound of plates being set at the table. “FRI and JARVIS didn’t have any luck?”

“No, sir. Unfortunately, this may be a job for someone who can do the legwork to follow up on our leads,” JARVIS cut in.

Mr. Stark snorted. “I’m smart, but I’m no detective. I’ll see if I can find somebody that can help.”

“He is dangerous, we cannot just send anybody after him.” T’Challa sounded even more frustrated, now.

“Don’t worry, Puss in Boots, I’ll come up with something.”

There was a pause and Peter tried to deal with the horror of Mr. Stark having called a prince such an undignified nickname. One that didn’t make any sense, on top of that. Then T’Challa said in a much warmer tone, “I am wearing sandals.”

Mr. Stark did his surprised bark laugh and Peter felt a little warmed by it. He’d only known him for a while, but he could tell that Mr. Stark didn’t have a lot of friends. Just Ms. Potts, and Colonel Rhodes, who Peter hadn’t met yet but had seen Mr. Stark take a few calls with. Well, and Peter, but he doubted Mr. Stark saw a fourteen-year-old as a friend.

He forced himself to move even as he mulled the mystery of Erik Stevens over in his mind. Why was T’Challa looking for him? If he was dangerous it made sense that Mr. Stark was helping him, though, since Prince T’Challa wasn’t a superhero or anything. 

Peter sat down at the table just as Mr. Stark put down a large bowl of rice next to the stir fry he’d made. “Mr. Stark, you’re so good at cooking!”

He rolled his eyes and ruffled Peter’s hair. “It’s called being a grown-up, kid. If I ate take out all the time I’d get fat.”

“Yeah but not all adults can cook,” Peter said, already putting three large scoops of rice on his plate. “Aunt May is kind of awful at it.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Mr. Stark said with a small smile. 

“You live with your aunt, Peter?” T’Challa asked after accepting the spoon. 

“Yeah, she’s really great. She’s not even related to me but she never acts like it.”

“Family is not only about blood. Okoye is like an older, overprotective, angry sister to me.”

Peter secretly thought he wouldn’t be saying that if she were in the room. “I heard you and Tony talking about your dad. Do you have other family? Are you married?”

T’Challa smiled. “I’m not married, no. I do have a sister. She is only a few years older than you, I think. I have my mother, the Queen, as well.”

“What’s your sister’s name?” 

T’Challa was so nice, not at all what Peter would have expected a prince to act like. Sure, he was very, well, regal and calm, but his eyes were soft and he actually listened as Peter talked about mundane things like school and Decathlon. He even let Peter interview him for his social studies paper.

“I’d suggest you list him as a diplomat,” Mr. Stark said wryly. “I doubt they’d believe you if you told them you interviewed the prince.”

Peter snorted as he finished scribbling down T’Challa’s answers and took a bite of ice cream at the same time. “Yeah, people have a hard enough time believing I actually have an internship with you, Mr. Stark. Even some of the teachers don’t believe me!”

Mr. Stark frowned and put his spoon down in his ice cream bowl. “Excuse me, are you saying that people think you’re lying?”

Peter blinked up at his affronted expression. “Um. Yes?”

“But HR sent over the paperwork!”

“Well, obviously the admin assistant and Mr. Morita believe me, but it’s not like they gave out copies of my personal paperwork, Mr. Stark. It’s not a big deal, the kids who give me a hard time would just find another reason to mess with me.”

“I -” Mr. Stark made a strangled sound of rage. “What do you mean, mess with you?”

“Are the children at school unkind to you, Peter?” T’Challa asked and if he didn’t know that he was just a baseline human Peter would probably be a bit intimidated by his expression. Okay, so he was intimidated, anyway.

“Uh. Not really? It’s just one kid and sometimes his friends, but it’s mostly just annoying.”

“Name?”

Peter turned back to Mr. Stark and sighed. “I’m not telling you. This isn’t a big deal -”

“If someone is being mean to my...intern, then yes it is.” He sounded so indignant that Peter couldn’t stop his small snort. “And what is so funny?”

“Nothing, it’s just, you kinda sound like one of those helicopter parents, except you’re, like, a helicopter boss. Mentor? Yeah, helicopter mentor.”

“I am not a helicopter anything, I’m too cool for that.”

Peter eyed him. “You flew across the city last week because I forgot to check in after, uh, club.” Right, can’t talk about Spider-Man in front of T’Challa.

“That was perfectly reasonable.” Mr. Stark glared at T’Challa when he laughed.

“Not really? I know Karen could have told you I was fine and that I had made it home.” 

“You could have been kidnapped.”

“I mean, could I really have been? Who would kidnap a poor kid from Queens? You know, Mr. Stark, there are a lot of options for people who suffer from anxiety, even old people like you who have probably had it forever -” He laughed and ducked out of the way of the soggy piece of cookie Mr. Stark flicked at him from his spoon.

“I guess somebody doesn’t want to go to the Bluetech Summit with me tomorrow. I mean I already cleared it with May, but I’m sure you don’t want to go with an anxious old man -”

“Oh my god, Mr. Stark, are you serious? Those tickets are like $800 and only, like, super important tech business people and tech companies and ocean conservationists get to go -”

“I kind of fit the bill, here.”

Peter clasped his hands under his chin and widened his eyes. “You’re not an anxious old man, you’re a cool and collected distinguished gentleman -”

Now Mr. Stark and T’Challa were both laughing and Mr. Stark waved his hand in the air. “Stop with the Disney princess schtick, I’m still taking you. You’re invited, too, kitty-cat.”

Peter wrinkled his nose. The cat nicknames made a little more sense after T’Challa had explained about the different tribes in Wakanda and that he was part of the Panther tribe. But it was still weird. Unless...was Mr. Stark flirting with T’Challa? Peter’s eyes widened. Oh my god, it would make sense if Mr. Stark had a crush on him. Who else would be good enough for Mr. Stark except for actual royalty? 

T’Challa had also revealed during their ‘interview’ that he’d gone to school in London and had a PhD in physics so he was smart enough for Mr. Stark, too. He was also nice and made Mr. Stark laugh. Peter nodded to himself. There was only one thing to do if Mr. Stark had feelings for T’Challa. Peter would be the best wingman the world had ever seen.

“I don’t know, I should be working,” T’Challa said, but he looked torn.

His first mission as Mr. Stark's secret wingman was clear. Peter turned his Bambi eyes, which May had assured him many times were deadly, on T’Challa. “You should come, Mr. T’Challa! It’ll be fun.”

T’Challa smiled, even though Mr. Stark was looking a little suspicious. “Well, I suppose it would be a good chance to network. And it’s just T’Challa, remember.”

“Yes!” Peter crowed, then picked up his phone to start looking through the keynote speakers scheduled for the next day. “Ohmygodmrstark!” T’Challa jumped at his exclamation. “You’re one of the speakers! Why didn’t you tell me? I didn’t know you were working on cleantech for the ocean.”

“Kid, clean energy is good for the oceans. But, yeah, we’ve got a few things going. Thought I’d bring up your formula if that’s cool, since it’d biodegradable and would be a good alternative to some plastics products.”

“Oh my god,” Peter whimpered and Mr. Stark rolled his eyes. 

“All right, time to get little sp - interns off to bed. I’ll drive you home. T’Challa, we’ll have that talk when I get back.”

Peter put his hand over his mouth. They were having a talk? Maybe Mr. Stark was going to ask him out! “You - you don’t have to drive me home. I can take the subway.”

“Yeah, I’m not letting my - a fourteen-year-old take the subway to Queens at nine o'clock at night. Say goodnight to his princeliness.” 

“Um, goodnight, T’Challa.” 

Peter spent most of the ride home chattering about Bluetech and listing off all the things he wanted to see while they were there. “I wonder if there will be giveaways at the booths.”

“There usually are.”

“Maybe I’ll even get to say hi to a few of the keynote speakers.”

“Kid, we’ll talk to whoever you want to.”

“Of course, I’m most excited to hear your keynote, Mr. Stark.”

That one earned him a hair ruffle and a small smile. “Sooooo,” Peter said when they were turning onto his block. “T’Challa sure is nice.”

“Uh huh.”

“And smart, too!”

“He is the prince of a secretly advanced society.”

“And handsome, right?”

“Mm-hm - wait, what?”

“Oh, we’re here! Bye, Mr. Stark!” Peter grabbed his backpack and scrambled out of the car, waving frantically after shutting the door. Okay, so that hadn’t been as smooth as he’d thought it would be. But he’d still gotten Mr. Stark to admit that T’Challa was handsome.

Though did that mean anything? Peter didn’t like boys that way and he could tell that T’Challa was good-looking. 

“What’s got you thinking so hard?” May asked after giving him his cursory kiss on the forehead.

“Nothing,” he mumbled. Then, “why didn’t you tell me Mr. Stark was taking me with him to Bluetech Summit?”

“Because I didn’t know until today,” May said with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what Bluetech Summit was.”

“I’m going to bed since Mr. Stark is coming to pick me up super early tomorrow.”

“Alright, sweetheart. Sleep tight.”

Peter did not sleep tight. Maybe it made him a nerd, but he was way too excited about spending the whole day with Mr. Stark surrounded by leaders in ocean conservation through technological advancements. Now that he thought about it, Mr. Stark was a perfect keynote speaker. 

The next morning he was up and dressed half an hour before Mr. Stark was due to arrive. May watched him shovel eggs and toast into his mouth with amusement until his phone buzzed. 

“Have fun. Be good for Mr. Stark.”

“I will! I larb you!”

“Larb you, too!”

Then he was out the door and racing down the stairs. He slipped into the car next to Mr. Stark and waved hello to Okoye and Ayo who were sitting across from them, before turning towards Mr. Stark and grinning. 

“Good morning!”

“Ugh, too much excitement in the morning. Stop. Happy, coffee.”

Peter leaned around him to wave at T’Challa, seated on the other side of Mr. Stark. He was perfectly put together in a suit and didn’t seem affected at all by the early hour. “Hi, T’Challa.”

“Hello, Peter. Did you sleep well?”

“Yep! Well, no, I was too excited, but -”

He blinked when Mr. Stark grasped his chin and turned his face towards him, squinting at him over his sunglasses. “You didn’t sleep?”

“I did, just not well -”

“We can always let you nap and come back in the afternoon, my keynote isn’t until one -”

“No! No, Mr. Stark, I’m fine. The CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is speaking first thing and I have to go, please, I’ll die if I don’t -”

Mr. Stark let go of his chin and laughed. “Jeez, kid, fine, calm down. Didn’t know you were so into maritime ecosystems.”

“Um, I’m into conserving them, and obviously the way to do that is through innovation and all of the world’s best minds coming together to -”

Mr. Stark rolled his eyes and shoved his palm lightly against Peter’s face, pushing him back. “Too early, no, nope. Tweet about it if you’re so excited.”

“What am I gonna say? Tony Stark is taking me to the Bluetech Summit? Yeah, right.”

“Tony Stark is taking you to the Bluetech Summit.”

“Maybe I should include the fact that Wakandan royalty is tagging along. Maybe then I’ll get beat up instead of just made fun of on Monday.”

It was a joke - Peter was in way too good of a mood to say anything at all without a huge amount of cheer - but Mr. Stark’s lips pursed together. “Hm,” he said before pulling out his phone. 

Realizing he probably had work to do, Peter turned towards Okoye. “Hi, Ms. Okoye, how are you this morning?”

She smiled at him. It wasn’t exactly kindly, but it was still softer than most of her expressions. “I am well, Peter. I don’t need to ask how you are.” 

She looked pointedly at his jiggling legs and the way his fingers were tapping together. “Oh, yeah, I’m just excited, I guess.”

“Kid, come here.” 

Peter flailed when an arm wrapped around him and tugged him against Mr. Stark’s side. He caught a whiff of metal and cologne just before he frowned up at the image of himself and Tony on the phone, held aloft in front of them in Tony’s other hand. “T’Challa, lean in.”

“Oh, a selfie, okay, cool, that’s, uh, cool.”

He held himself as still as he could while T’Challa sighed but leaned in against Mr. Stark. Peter’s nerves faded into delight when the two men had to push so close their cheeks almost touched to get them all in the frame. Peter decided not to mention that Okoye or Ayo could take the picture and then they wouldn’t all have to practically cuddle.

Mr. Stark was probably doing it on purpose since he was in love with T’Challa. Or in like with him. It was weird to think about somebody as old as him having a crush, after all.

There was the sound of a click and Peter turned his attention back to the phone. He almost cringed at how dorky he looked, smile wide while he looked over at Mr. Stark, who was staring right at the camera with his signature smirk. T’Challa had a half-smile on and was looking at Mr. Stark from the corner of his eye. They all looked comfortable and happy to be there. Peter’s chest warmed at the thought. 

“Perfect,” Mr. Stark said and sat back, though he didn’t remove his arm from around Peter’s shoulders.

He swallowed and relaxed against him shyly, watching with interest while JARVIS cropped and put a filter on the photo before it shrank into...a tweet. Tony Stark hardly ever tweeted!

Iron Man @TonyStark

Looking forward to attending @SeaHead Bluetech Summit with my itty bitty intern and Prince T’Challa of Wakanda. 

“Please don’t call me your itty bitty intern.”

“Too late.”

“What? No!” But he had already tweeted it. 

“Mr. Stark, why?” Peter whined, running a hand down his face.

“Is that safe?” Okoye asked.

Tony shrugged. “Anybody who wanted to get to me would already know about him anyway. Don’t worry, I have security measures in place. This way the little assholes at school can stop picking on him.” He said it casually as he typed on his phone but Peter saw the way his lips pressed together.

Peter leaned a little further into him, watching his reaction closely in case the extra contact was unwanted. “You know I can take care of myself, Mr. Stark.”

He looked over at him and his lips turned up into a small smile. “I know, kiddo. No one is going to concern themselves overmuch with an intern. We’ll just have to pretend I don’t like you in public.”

Peter turned away to hide his pleased smile. After a while he’d accepted that Mr. Stark really did seem to like him, which was, well, awesome and very unexpected. And of course, Peter thought Mr. Stark was amazing. He listened to Peter when he rambled and taught him so much and had Peter check-in after patrols. He didn’t answer every time, of course, but Peter knew he listened to his voicemails because sometimes he made comments about what he’d said the next time they saw each other. 

Now he was tweeting about him just so that kids at school would stop making fun of him. It was something...well, it was something Ben would have done. Peter swallowed and looked down. 

They stopped for coffee and Peter opened the tweet on his phone. There was a lot of activity on it already, of course, though most of it was just people replying to Mr. Stark about the conference. 

Though more than a few people called Peter ‘adorable.’ Others were asking how they could become interns, since SI didn’t have an internship program.

His lips twitched when Mr. Stark actually replied with Be a genius like itty bitty, I guess.

“Mr. Stark, why don’t you have interns at SI? Other than me, I mean.”

He looked over at him and took a grumpy sip of his coffee. “Because interns are idiots. And the paperwork with the schools is annoying. And all those pesky laws, seriously. As soon as you’re old enough I’m making you a real employee.”

“Well, it’s not like you’d have to do the paperwork. You have a whole department for it.”

“Pepper would make me be involved,” he grumbled. “No, no way am I letting a bunch of snot-nosed brats wander all over my building. No offense.”

“I take offense. All the offense. That’s ageist, Mr. Stark!”

He rolled his eyes while T’Challa laughed. “Are you saying you want me to get more interns?”

“What! No, no, not you. Stark Industries. You’re way too busy for more.” Peter knew he was pouting but he really didn’t like the idea of having to share Mr. Stark’s time.

Mr. Stark’s eyes crinkled in the corners as he laughed and Peter didn’t miss the way T’Challa watched him with a small smile. He resisted the urge to yell, ‘aha, you like him, too!’ and settled back against Mr. Stark’s arm with a smug smile. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he took it out, rolling his eyes when he saw multiple excited texts from Ned, who had seen the tweet.

By the time he’d finished responding, ignoring the shameless way Mr. Stark was reading over his shoulder, they had arrived at the convention center. They parked in the VIP parking garage beneath the building and had to hustle to make it to the first keynote. Peter made sure that he ended up sitting on one side of Mr. Stark and T’Challa ended up on the other, all of them bracketed by the Dora Milaje. 

The talk was awesome, even though people kept craning around to stare at Mr. Stark, who remained loose and relaxed the whole time, leaning over to say something to T’Challa and Peter every once in a while. Peter thought about making sure the two men would end up with some alone time but figured it was a moot point with the Dora Milaje shadowing T’Challa’s every move, anyway.

Honestly, Mr. Stark probably (definitely) knew more than Peter did about getting a date. Considering Peter had been on exactly zero and didn’t really plan to date anytime soon. An image of Liz flitted through his mind but he ignored it. 

Peter practically dragged them to the exhibition hall next, where they were swarmed by people who wanted to talk to Tony Stark. Peter tried to stick close, he did, but there was a booth about advanced compact sonar systems and Peter just kind of...wandered away. 

He wasn’t worried about it when he couldn’t see Mr. Stark anymore. After all, they were in the same room. Even if it was a huge room full of booths and hundreds of people. He was having a spirited discussion about robotics in undersea exploration with a petite woman in glasses when a familiar hand squeezed his shoulder.

“There you are, Pete. I was worried.” 

He looked over his shoulder and saw that Mr. Stark actually did look a little tense. Maybe he really was a helicopter mentor, because even Aunt May wouldn’t blink twice at letting him explore this space on his own. “Sorry, Mr. Stark,” he said cheerfully. “This is Dr. Lowary. Her company builds unmanned maritime systems technologies, isn’t that cool?”

Dr. Lowary’s eyes had gone wide and her face was a little pale, but she held out her hand to Mr. Stark and shook his hand firmly. Mr. Stark smiled, his eyes darting over the booth and lingering on the models of the underwater vehicles there. Then he was off, asking questions that Peter never would have even thought of. 

By the end of their discussion, Dr. Lowary’s eyes were bright and happy and Peter knew he was staring up at Mr. Stark with awe but he couldn’t help it. He was just so amazing at everything.

Mr. Stark looked over at him and rolled his eyes. “Come on, kid, the Dora were getting restless when they couldn’t see you anymore.”

“Oh, um. Okay. Bye, Dr. Lowary!” 

She fumbled in her bag and pulled out a flier. “It was nice meeting you, Peter. We do a summer internship program -”

“No, nope, sorry, this one’s taken,” Mr. Stark said and it was Peter’s turn to roll his eyes.

“Sorry, Dr. Lowary, but I’m Mr. Stark’s intern. I’ll still take that, though, I have lots of friends who would be interested. I go to Midtown School of Science and Technology. My friend Ned is amazing with robotics and computers.”

She looked between him and Mr. Stark before slowly extending the flyer. He took it and shoved it into his rapidly filling tote that he’d gotten at the booth about navigators. “She was so nice. Mr. Stark, I’ve met so many people. There was one guy and he -”

By the time they made it back to T’Challa and the Dora Milaje Peter was winded from his play-by-play account of every person he’d talked to. “Hi, T’Challa. Hi Ms. Okoye, Ms. Ayo.”

“A young prince should not wander on his own,” Okoye said mildly but wow, she was scary.

“Well, I’m not really a prince, so.” He blinked up at her and she snorted.

“Whatever you say.”

Peter looked up at Mr. Stark, brow furrowed, but he was staring off at something in the distance very hard. Peter tried to follow his gaze but all he saw were the bathrooms. Did he need to go?

Peter shook his head and turned back to T’Challa. “Are you having fun?”

“I am. I think Shuri would enjoy herself more if she were here, though.”

“You should bring her next time, right, Mr. Stark?”

Mr. Stark looked over at him and smiled, small and soft and Peter was pretty sure he could take out a dozen muggers in just one punch with how big it made him feel. “Sure, bud. Come on, let’s get some food in you before my thing.”

They filled up on sushi, which Peter had never tried before but mostly liked. Though he did have one oopsie with the wasabi that had Mr. Stark laughing so hard he cried. His nose was still burning.

“You can watch from backstage,” Mr. Stark said as they sauntered into a large room with a big stage surrounded by screens. 

“Woah, really? Like we’re VIPs or something?”

Mr. Stark laughed. “Kid, you are a VIP. Now come on.”

There were a few Stark Industry employees hovering around, plugging things in and arguing with each other over who saved what where. The auditorium was filling up and Peter watched while Mr. Stark sipped a bottle of water. There was a change coming over him. His expression became one of cool amusement, his body relaxed while somehow exuding confidence at the same time.

Peter hadn’t realized just how different Mr. Stark was around him until it was gone. This was Tony Stark, owner of Stark Industries, superhero, and billionaire. Peter’s throat tightened as he thought, why is he spending his time on Peter Parker?

Mr. Stark must have seen something of what he was thinking on his face, though, because he smiled, the one that Peter realized was just for the people he cared about. “Hold down the fort for me, huh, Pete?”

Peter clasped his water bottle to his chest and nodded rapidly. Mr. Stark looked over at T’Challa. “Keep an eye on him while I’m up there?”

T’Challa nodded and put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Of course.”

Peter sighed. “I’m almost fifteen, Mr. Stark, I don’t need a babysitter.”

“You’re six months away from being fifteen, underoos. Now be good for T’Challa.” Then he smirked and strode out on stage as he was announced. Peter looked up at T’Challa, who was watching Mr. Stark greet the crowd with the easy confidence people had come to expect from him.

“He’s pretty smart, huh?” Peter whispered to T’Challa as Mr. Stark talked about the consequences of clean energy, both good and bad. Though the bad mostly consisted of rich people getting less rich if all their money was in oil. Sure, installing infrastructure would be expensive and time-consuming but the money would be made back within a fairly small amount of time. Plus, maintenance would be much more cost-effective. He’d done a paper on it earlier that year.

T’Challa glanced down at him. His arms were behind his back and he was watching Mr. Stark with an unreadable expression. “He is.”

Peter made sure the Dora Milaje were distracted by whatever threats they thought might be lurking backstage and said, “You think he’s handsome, too, right? And funny!”

T’Challa blinked and suddenly his full attention was on Peter. ”Peter...” His mouth opened and closed before he squared his shoulders as though readying himself for something unpleasant. “It is normal to develop a crush -” Aha! So he did have a crush on Mr. Stark! “-on, uh, figures in your life that you respect. Just remember that it will fade and it’s better, probably, not to say anything to Mr. Stark or his associates.” He patted Peter’s shoulder awkwardly.

Wait, what? Oh, oh, T’Challa thought that he - “Gross!” Peter blurted, forgetting for a moment that he was supposed to be quiet. 

On stage, Mr. Stark faltered for a moment and looked over before shaking his head and resuming. Peter was pretty sure his whole body was blushing. “That’s - I don’t - I don’t have a crush on Mr. Stark,” he hissed at T’Challa, who was now struggling to hold in his laughter. A look at the Dora told him everything he needed to know. They’d heard the whole thing.

“I mean, he’s great, but it’d be like having a crush on your father - not that I think of him as a -! That’d be weird since he’s my boss and obviously I’m just - oh my god this is so embarrassing.” He dropped his face into his hands and prayed for death.

He could hear all three adults trying to muffle their laughter. Peter was the worst wingman ever. Though, T’Challa hadn’t denied that he thought Mr. Stark was handsome. 

“I’m sorry for making assumptions, Peter,” T’Challa leaned over to whisper once he was calm. “I believe you, though in the future you should perhaps come up with attributes that do not include how handsome Mr. Stark is when trying to express your admiration for him to others. Just to avoid any more misunderstandings.”

Peter lowered his hands. “So you do think he’s handsome?” 

T’Challa blinked down at him and Peter’s blush came rushing back when he heard Okoye and Ayo’s laughter again. Peter seemed to have made a prince speechless twice in one day because his mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. 

Raucous applause made both of them jump and they turned back to see Mr. Stark waving and smiling as he exited the stage. “God, that was boring,” he muttered as soon as he reached them. He looked between Peter’s red face, T’Challa’s blank one, and the laughing Dora Milaje. “What’d I miss?”

“Nothing!” Peter squeaked out. “Nope, nothing here, uh. Yeah.”

Mr. Stark raised a brow, then shrugged and slung an arm around Peter’s shoulders. “What do you say we blow this joint? Head back to the labs, get some work done? I have an idea for exploratory water robots.”

“Really? Cool!” Pete said, embarrassment momentarily forgotten in favor of bouncing next to Mr. Stark. “Like, deep sea?”

“Would you expect anything less from me?”

“Oh my god, can I pilot it? Maybe we’ll find treasure!”

“Do I look like I need any treasure, kid? I was thinking more along the lines of amazing scientific discoveries.”

“Maybe we’ll find a new type of fish. Or algae!”

“You could name it the Parker-Stark fish,” T’Challa said and Peter did his best to avoid looking directly at him even as he nodded enthusiastically.

“Uh, excuse you, that’s the Stark-Parker fish.”

Peter smiled up at him, glad to see the last of his Tony Stark persona was gone, leaving just Mr. Stark behind. 

“The first has a better ring to it,” Okoye said.

“I agree,” T’Challa chimed in.

“Yeah, yeah, of course, you’d side with the kid.”

“I can’t help that I’m adorable,” Peter said solemnly and laughed when Mr. Stark ruffled his hair. People were watching them but it was hard to care when Mr. Stark was smiling down at him. Was it weird to already love somebody so much after knowing them for only a short amount of time?

Was it wrong to? Ben hadn’t been dead for that long. Was Peter disrespecting his memory? He bit his lip and looked down while they waited for the elevator to come.

“You okay, Pete?” Mr. Stark whispered.

He nodded but didn’t think he could actually talk past the lump in his throat. Oh, god, he was going to cry in front of all these people! An elevator dinged and Peter headed blindly for the doors when they opened, slipping out from under Mr. Stark’s arm. 

“Pete, wait, that one’s too full for all of us.”

“I’ll meet you down there!” Peter yelled and slipped inside. The people around him shifted politely to make space but he barely noticed them.

He let out a breath of relief when the doors began to whoosh shut and lifted his sleeve to wipe at his eyes. It was so dumb, ruining this perfect day that Mr. Stark had given him. He knew that, but sometimes he thought of Ben and -

A hand slammed into the elevator and pushed the doors open and Peter’s eyes widened when Mr. Stark and T’Challa muscled their way in. It really was too full for more people but apparently nobody was going to argue with Tony Stark about it because they all squished together to make room for the two of them.

The last thing he saw before the elevator doors shut were two furious Dora Milaje striding towards them. “Well, they’re going to kill you,” Mr. Stark said mildly to T’Challa, but his attention was on Peter. His brow was furrowed and Peter knew he’d seen that his eyes were wet and probably swollen.

“They will get over it. I highly doubt there are any assassins waiting in this elevator.” Somebody in the back made a high-pitched sound.

“Don’t jinx it,” Mr. Stark said, then turned towards a woman plastered up against the side of the elevator and held out the badge he’d refused to wear all day. “Do me a favor and hit G6. You’ll need to scan this.”

“Oh, um, sure,” she said, eyes wide as she contorted to do as he asked. She handed it back with a, “Here you go Mr. Stark, sir.”

He smiled at her before turning back to Peter, who had hunched in on himself. He screwed up his face in an attempt to keep from crying. The doors opened a few times and they all shuffled awkwardly to let people out until it was just the three of them. 

As soon as they were alone Mr. Stark turned Pete towards him and tipped his head up so he could see his face. T’Challa was hovering somewhere in the background and couldn’t Peter go one hour without completely humiliating himself?

“What’s wrong, bud? Did I say something to upset you?” Peter’s lower lip trembled and he shook his head. “Somebody else, then?”

“No, I just.” His breath hiccuped and the elevator dinged as the door opened at their parking level. T’Challa reached out and held it open with one hand. Peter had a feeling nobody was leaving the elevator until he came clean. “I was just reminded of - of Uncle Ben.”

“Oh, kiddo.” Then Mr. Stark was hugging him, one hand on the back of his head and Peter’s lip trembled again, a few more tears escaping.

“I just, I was having so much fun and I realized I really care about you, Mr. Stark, but then I felt bad because I shouldn’t - I don’t deserve -”

“Hey, none of that. You deserve to have fun. And even if you...” Mr. Stark cleared his throat. “Even if you care about other people, that doesn’t mean you love him less. He’d want you to be happy.”

“How do you know?” Peter asked but it was more desperate than challenging. “You didn’t know him.”

“Anyone who could raise somebody as great as you had to have been the type of man who would want you to be happy more than he’d want anything else.”

Peter pressed his face into his shoulder and swallowed. His next words left him before he could stop them. They’d been sitting there behind his teeth for months, a constant reminder that it was his fault. “Even if it’s my fault he’s dead?”

Mr. Stark went very still at his quiet words. He pulled back, all three of them ignoring the voice asking if everyone was alright over the speakers. “What do you mean?”

Peter looked over at a stain on the carpet in the corner. “The man who shot him. I was there in the store he robbed. The bodega owner was always so mean to Ben because he was a cop and I just thought - I thought, see how much you hate cops while you’re getting robbed.”

Peter wasn’t crying anymore. A sort of numbness was setting in, a surety that he was about to lose another person he loved. Mr. Stark would stop looking at him like he was good, now. Maybe he’d even tell Aunt May, and she’d know how awful Peter was, too. It was almost a relief.

“I didn’t know Uncle Ben was looking for me because I was late getting home.” Peter looked back at Mr. Stark, whose eyes were wide but still focused on him. He felt T’Challa’s attention on him, too. Another person whose respect he would lose. “I could have stopped him. You know I could have. But I didn’t. Uncle Ben wasn’t like me, though, he was, he was good. So when that guy ran out of the store with all that money, he tried to stop him and he shot Ben. Then he died. He died and it’s my fault.”

There was a long silence in the elevator. Mr. Stark was just staring at him, but he didn’t look disgusted or upset. He just looked very, very sad. 

The voice over the speakers came back. “Excuse me, sirs, if you could -”

“Jesus christ, we’re going, you asshole! Maybe get more than one elevator that comes to this level.”

Peter let Mr. Stark drag him out. He wondered if he’d take him home now. What words he’d use when he asked Peter for the suit back. The moment they were out of the elevator, though, Mr. Stark turned Peter almost roughly to look at him and cupped his cheeks in his hands.

“You listen to me, Peter Parker. I never want to hear you say you’re not good. You understand me?” The words were harsh but the tone behind them was almost desperate. Peter reached up and wrapped his hands around his wrists, staring up at him with wide eyes. His sunglasses had disappeared somewhere.

“You - you don’t hate me?”

“I could never,” Mr. Stark said with a small, trembling smile that looked odd on his face. “The only person at fault for the death of Ben is the man who shot him, Pete. I know what it’s like to carry guilt like that around. You - you’re just a kid and you already help so many people. Your uncle would be proud of you, okay?”

“Tony is right.” Peter looked over at T’Challa, though he was a little blurry through his tears. “It is not your fault.”

Peter swallowed. He wanted to believe them, but he still remembered the ugly thing that had twisted inside him while he watched his uncle’s killer take off with that money. How satisfying it’d been to see the bodega owner sweat.

“Come on. We’ll stop for ice cream on the way to the tower and then we’ll work on anything you want, okay? Or we can do a movie day.” Mr. Stark dropped his hands but didn’t say anything when Peter kept ahold of one of his wrists. He just pulled out his sunglasses and slid them back on his face with his other hand.

“Okay, Mr. Stark. Um. Thanks.” Peter felt a little lighter, now. It wasn’t absolution - he didn’t think he’d ever get that - but the weight of his guilt was less heavy, now. If Mr. Stark thought he was still good, even after telling him the truth, maybe it was true.

He wiped at his eyes with his free hand and smiled tentatively up at T’Challa when he moved to walk next to him. He smiled back and even though Peter was still pretty embarrassed about breaking down in front of him, it was nice.

They’d only gone a few steps when the lights flickered. They didn’t go out all the way but it was suddenly a lot darker than it had been before. They stopped walking and Mr. Stark looked around suspiciously. “Well, that’s not ominou -”

Peter’s spidey senses screamed, lighting up Mr. Stark in that weird way that was all in his head, practically an arrow with blinking words above it spelling out this man is in danger.

Peter twisted around in front of him just as a figure dressed in red dropped from the ceiling. He shoved Mr. Stark back before catching the baton that had been aimed at Mr. Stark’s stomach. He blocked three more rapid hits before he managed to grab the man’s arm and toss him through the air. 

He winced when he landed on the hood of an expensive-looking car ten feet away, crumpling it. Peter backed up when the man kicked his legs up and propelled himself into the air, landing lightly on his feet.

“Stark. How do you know who I am?” the man demanded in a gravelly voice.

T’Challa had moved in front of all three of them and a moment later Mr. Stark was tugging Peter to stand behind him as his gauntlet formed around his hand. “Stay out of this, Pete, alright? Come on, kitty-cat, get behind me.”

For some reason, T’Challa sent Mr. Stark a glare at what Peter thought was a pretty reasonable request but didn't argue, moving over to stand next to Peter. Then the masked man stepped forward and Peter was able to make out the horns on his mask.

“Is that Daredevil? Oh my god, I just threw Daredevil! I’m a huge fan, sir. But, uh, I’m going to have to fight you if you try to hurt Mr. Stark. No hard feelings.”

Daredevil froze and tipped his head to the side. “Is that a child? You have enhanced children working as your bodyguards now, Stark?”

“Uh, no. He’s my intern. And he’s not enhanced, he’s just very fit.”

Daredevil tipped his head to the side and Peter swallowed. Oh, crap, he hadn’t even thought about the fact that he wasn’t wearing his mask. He’d just sensed that Mr. Stark was in trouble and acted on instinct. His throat tightened and it became difficult to breathe.

Daredevil hummed. “I’m not going to tell anybody, you can stop hyperventilating. I don’t out the secret identities of others, unlike some.”

It was obvious who he was talking about when he turned back towards Mr. Stark. “Hey! I don’t do that, either.”

“You told Luke Cage to come to me with those documents.” 

“I named no names.”

“But you hinted that you knew.”

“I’ll say it again: I named no names. Is that what this is about? Did you really decide to beat me up to try and scare me into silence? Me?”

This time Peter was pretty sure that Daredevil’s silence was more sheepish than anything. But he was still focused on Mr. Stark’s words. Daredevil had been planning on beating up Mr. Stark. 

“Not cool, man,” Peter said. “Just to be clear, you mess with Mr. Stark, you mess with Spider-Man.”

Mr. Stark groaned. “Pete, how are you so bad at this secret identity thing?”

Peter’s cheeks heated as T’Challa said, “Wait, Peter is one of these masked heroes you Americans have running around everywhere?”

Peter hung his head. “Sorry, Mr. T’Challa, I didn’t mean to lie, I just -”

His spidey sense went off again when Daredevil darted forward towards Mr. Stark. He dodged a repulsor shot and Peter readied himself to step in but it turned out he didn’t have to because T’Challa was some sort of martial arts master.

Peter’s jaw dropped when he stepped around Mr. Stark and punched Daredevil in the stomach, sending him flying back into the car. Okay, so, not just a regular old human, then. Peter couldn't help but add another little checkmark in the why T'Challa is perfect for Mr. Stark box. Then they were exchanging blows so fast that even Peter was having trouble keeping up.

“Mr. Stark, I think both of them could kick my ass,” he whispered as T’Challa executed some flying spinny kick thing and Daredevil flipped out of the way.

“Yeah, we’re getting you some training,” Mr. Stark said before pulling Peter out of the trajectory of a flying baton, followed shortly after by a flying T’Challa, who flipped neatly in the air and landed in a crouch. 

Before he could go back into the fray Okoye was there, pulling something from her pocket that extended into a freaking spear. “That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Peter breathed when Ayo stalked out of the shadows on his other side, also holding a spear.

“Hey, I thought my lab was the coolest thing you’ve ever seen,” Mr. Stark said.

Daredevil was backing up now, posture wary. Peter didn’t blame him. Okoye looked pissed. “You leave my sight for five minutes and this is what happens?”

T’Challa stood and sighed, tugging at the cuffs of his now-wrinkled suit. “It is hardly my fault we were attacked by a mad man, Okoye. Actually, I believe he was after Tony.”

Tony stepped forward, though he still had a hold on Peter’s arm and was keeping himself between Daredevil and Peter. “There’s just been a bit of a misunderstanding. Daredevil, I’m not going to tell anybody who you are. I even erased all of the breadcrumbs I used to find you to make sure nobody else could, alright? I know you’re an intelligent guy who can use your words,” Mr. Stark said meaningfully, “so let’s talk about this, huh? Oh, and JARVIS, erase the footage down here and in the elevator from the past fifteen minutes or so.”

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS’ tinny voice said from his sunglasses.

“There, now. Isn’t that better?” Mr. Stark said when Daredevil relaxed his stance. The Dora Milaje took a step back but still had their spears raised. So. Cool.

“What do you want?”

“I’m sure your friend Luke already told you.”

“I want you to say it.”

Mr. Stark sighed. “Fine. I want to make sure that enhanced have representation for these laws, but for that, I need actual people on board with me. So. I just want you to look at the documents and let me know if you have any feedback. Or, you know, interest in helping.”

Daredevil cocked his head to the side as Mr. Stark spoke. “You’re not lying.”

“You can tell that? Cool superpower.”

Daredevil sighed and Peter wondered if everyone ended up doing that when dealing with Mr. Stark. “I’ll reach out if I have any thoughts.”

Then he was leaping up into the rafters and darting away and Peter wondered if he’d ever be that cool.

Both Dora Milaje waited a few long moments before having their spears retract, then turned slowly to glare at all three of them. Peter gulped and stepped closer to Mr. Stark. Even T’Challa looked nervous.

Mr. Stark seemed unbothered, though. He clapped his hands together. “So, who wants ice cream?”