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on the bleeding edge

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Tony wakes up with Hulk roaring in his face, with Thor leaning over him, Steve not far from them – there are familiar buildings leaning over them all, all of them in a familiar state of being battered. It's like a scene from a nightmare – one he usually doesn't wake up from. This part, this, Hulk roaring in his face, this goes differently. Happens, but also doesn't – usually it's with him still floating in space, or with New York destroyed, or –

Shit.

"It worked," Tony breathes, staring at the beautiful blue sky high above them all – there are still signs of the disturbance there, the clouds are all funky – distractedly he wonders, again and for the millionth time, why the portal didn't just suck out the atmosphere, it was opened to the dead of space, there was no air, it was near vacuum, so why didn't air go in, why didn't – "Oh, god, it worked."

He can feel the hyperventilation coming along, so he breathes harder to undercut it, deep breaths now, stay in control -

"You scared us, Tony," Steve says with a hopeless, relieved sort of smile on his face, and Tony looks up at him. He has dialogue that goes here – something about shawarma, wasn't even that good – but he can't. Steve looks so fucking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, even with dust and blood and bruises on his face. 2012 Steve Rogers in all of his innocence.

"Yeah, I bet," Tony says, blinking, scrambling to say something normal instead of… something not so normal."What – what happened?"

"You got the missile through the portal," Steve reports. "And then you fell – Hulk caught you."

Yeah, Tony remembers. Not the actual thing, he was pretty well passed out, but he'd seen videos. Gotten drunk over them and thrown up all over his workshop too, because of them. Early stages PTSD and anxiety fun.

"It's over," Steve says and smiles brighter. God, he's so pretty. "We won."

"It isn't over yet," Thor says, determined and not a hair out of place. "There is still Loki."

Tony looks between them. Young pretty boy Steve, Hulk without glasses, not soft Thor, this is young Thor, frat boy Thor with luxurious golden locks and not yet enough trauma to fill up a beer keg. "Yeah, yeah," Tony says, lays his head down on the rubble below him for a moment and breathes. Loki. Shit. Yeah. "I'm getting up."

They wait for him until Thor loses patience and holds out his hand. Tony looks at it – he has the hammer in the other hand. Worthy, Tony thinks and wonders what that actually means. Steve can use the hammer too. What the fuck is worthy in the Asgard realm? Hell, Asgard is still a place that exists too. Huh.

Tony takes the hand offered and lets himself be pulled up.


 

Loki is captured, and then the rescue operations start. Tony has his company throw an appropriate amount of money at the operations, ordering the right people to delegate. Somewhere someone gets all the firemen, police and all the useful vehicles they can get their hands on to the scene, in some cases having them carried on choppers from a neighbouring city, and it all happens under Tony's name. Iron Man makes an appearance, briefly, when a bridge starts showing signs of falling over, but that was mostly on autopilot. Somewhere, the Avengers do – something.

Tony has a drink and then tracks down their guests from the other realm.

Loki is under lock and key until Powers That Be start making their moves to claim him. HYDRA and Pierce, that's point 2 in Tony's itinerary. Actually, maybe 3, Loki himself might be number 2. Maybe Thor, if he can get through the frat boy exterior, which is – debatable. Point 4 in his itinerary would be Rhodey, isn't that shitty of him, to shove poor Rhodey back like that? Like he always does.

Point 1 and maybe Only is Pepper. Tony has a phone in hand, and it's ringing, and Pepper is Point 1, and he cannot quite muster up the courage to answer.

Hearing Pepper's voice might heal him. Might break him. He can't tell which one it will be, but it will be ugly.

"Sir?" JARVIS says, and Tony nearly flinches out of his skin. "Miss Potts is on the line."

"I know, J, I know," Tony says, looking at the phone. Pepper's face is on it. She's beautiful. Younger. Not yet stressed out of her brilliant cutting edge mind. It's not his Pepper, but it's kind of his Pepper, but also kind of not – and good god, JARVIS too…

In and out, breathe in… and out. No time for panic attacks.

Tony blows out a breath and then closes his eyes. Like taking a stab, or an injection, or ripping off a band aid, he answers the phone.

"Tony, oh my god,"  is Pepper's greeting, and Tony quivers like something structurally unsound in an earthquake – her voice.

"Hey, Pep," he says, his voice thin, reedy. "Hey, how – how are you? Where are you, are you –"

"In Washington – where are you, how are you? I saw the footage, I saw you – flying to the portal – "

"Washington, right, that’s – that's good, how's the weather -"

"- and I saw you fall, I was on a plane watching you fall, and you called me and I didn't even hear, Tony, I'm sorry – you were calling me when going up and I didn't answer  -"

They babble at each other and over each other until the urge to cry passes, and somewhere along the way Tony re-learns how to breathe. He somehow manages to assure Pepper that he's alright, not dying, the tower isn't about to fall over, even though they have some funky holes in the living room area and the roof is a mess – and yeah, some of the Avengers are still hanging around, Bruce is sleeping off the Hulkover in the guest room, better leave him be, and Steve is somewhere – like a splinter under Tony's nails, but it's fine, it's fine -

"And – and I think – I think you should come back, I think we should talk," he babbles before he can stop himself – but then, Pepper is Point 1 on the itinerary, and he was always going to tell her. No plan he didn't tell her worked properly. "We – we should talk – I – I have some ideas and we should talk them over."

"More Iron Men?" Pepper asks with a laugh that sounds relieved and nervous all at once.

Tony closes his eyes and smiles and lets the tears spill over. "Worse," he says. "Oh, so much worse. Something happened, Pep, I – I won't talk about it on the phone, we're bugged to high hell here and SHIELD is probably listening to every word, but – yeah. Can you come back?"

For once, she doesn't even question it. "I'll be there in two hours," she promises firmly, but with an edge of unease. "Don't do anything you will regret before I get there."

Too late.


 

Getting to Loki alone is impossible – if there's no SHIELD guard there, then there's at least Thor. Which, in the end, is more or less fine, Thor is fine. When he stops being wilfully dumb, Thor is the best – but it's a few years and a lot of losses until then and – fuck it. Tony will take what he can get.

"So," he says, sidling up to the shackled, gagged prisoner. "This is a new look. How is he doing, Thor?"

"He will not be escaping," Thor promises, arms folded as he eyes his brother. "Nor will he be doing any magic. As soon as we've seen to the pleasantries here, I will take him back to Asgard to face justice for his actions."

"Bet that will be fun," Tony agrees, fiddling with his cufflinks while Loki looks up at him, green eyes narrowed and face set under the gag. Humming, Tony looks away, glancing at the cameras aimed at them, and then looks away. "J, cut and paste."

"Already done, sir, you have radio silence," JARVIS speaks in his ear.

SHIELD might still have bugs, who knows, but it's the best he can get, and he might not have another chance. "So I've been wondering," Tony says. "New York? On top of my tower? What was that about? Any nuclear submarine would've done to power the cube, right, so why my tower? Hm? Was it just to show me up, or was there another reason?"

Loki, obviously, doesn't answer, but his eyes narrow further, a hard edge coming to his gaze. Oh yeah, he's onto something here.

"Has your brother ever been on Earth?" Tony asks, turning to Thor.

"Yes. Once at least, though I expect it was more than that," Thor admits. "He knows local customs well."

"Mm. So he would know stuff like… maybe don't start your invasion in one of the most populous cities on Earth, on top of its mightiest defenders," Tony says and spreads out his arms. "Like yours truly. I mean, there's arrogance, and then there's stupidity, and lemme tell you, opening portal right on top of my tower? Tsk tsk."

Loki isn't even moving anymore, just staring at him silently.

"It's like you were planning to fail," Tony comments and arches his brows. "Hm?"

Thor is frowning now, looking between him and Loki. "What do you mean?"

"You've fought in actual wars, right?" Tony asks, looking at him. "Do you start your invasion right on top of the enemy base? No, you start it from the side, you establish beachhead, capture territory to make it safe for yourself and your troops and then, once you're settled and have someplace to fall back to, you attack. You don't start where your enemy is the strongest, not unless you're a complete fucking idiot. Which I take your brother isn't."

Thor scowls and his arms fall. "No, no, he is not," he says, looking at Tony and then at Loki.

Loki rolls his eyes at them and then leans back, arching his brows and making a sort of nodding-nudging motion with his chin, to indicate the mask.

Thor makes an aborted move to take it off and then grimaces, curling his fingers into his palm.

"Don't bother," Tony says, and pushes his hands into his pockets. "I don't even care about his reasons. Here's what I'm taking off from them – because I saw what was on the other end of that portal. Yeah," he says when Loki looks to him sharply. "I went in, I came out – I saw. And this," he motions haphazardly outside, where New York is still rolling with the aftermath. "This was a wakeup call."

Loki looks at him, steady, searching.

Tony nods. "Consider me awake."

Well, that's new, he thinks as Loki closes his eyes and sighs. The guy looks actually relieved. He'd figured, yeah, he'd always had a niggling suspicion, but… seeing the proof right there and then, that's new.

Nothing Tony can do for the guy – wouldn't even if he could. Loki did commit some major crimes, and Tony is not taking the management of that crap onto himself, he's got too much work to do. Loki and his reputation would be too much of a hindrance at this stage. But maybe… maybe sometime later.

"Yeah," Tony says and nods, first to Loki, and then to confused, suspicious looking Thor. "See ya, Rock of Ages. Get back to me when you got the stones to do it properly."

Loki looks up sharply with narrowed eyes, but Tony is already turning away – Pepper is about to enter the tower, and his mind is already in other matters.


 

It takes Pepper about fifteen minutes to freak out over him, check him for injuries, nag at him for flying a nuke into a wormhole and then finally work herself into a calmer, more reasonable state. Tony bites back tears the whole time.

She's beautiful, she's younger, six years younger, she's strong – and she's not his Pep. Not yet. Maybe never.

"Come, come here – we gotta talk, and I can't be sure my space wasn't bugged, so – come here," he says and leads her out and to the balcony, where he knows they're free of bugs. He went over it with a fine toothed comb, and even JARVIS can't hear, not with the damage Thor, Loki and Hulk had done there. Complete black out.

He'd tell JARVIS, yeah, eventually – once he was sure his baby boy was safe and beyond manipulation. That would take a bit of doing, though. Not safe, not yet.

"I'm – okay, this is going to sound crazy," Tony starts.

"Crazier than an alien portal on top of our tower?" Pepper asks.

"Yeah," Tony says with a grimace. "Yeah. So. I'm from the future. I used the portal as a sort of way to hijack my own body, because – because time travel is hard and stupid and this was the only way to stay in my timeline, and not like, start a new one. Breaking few paradoxes aside."

She blinks, looks at him, blinks again, and then says, "What?"

To her credit, she sounds only a little bit incredulous.

"I'm from – from 2023, actually," Tony says. "Took me – a few years to figure out, um. So, the guy who just sent that invasion – not Loki, Loki was just a mind controlled henchman, it's almost not his fault. The actual guy who did this? His name is Thanos, and he's going to come back in six years. And we fight him and we – lose. Spectacularly."

Pepper's lips move, soundless, as she stares at him. Tony urges her to sit down on the Iron Man's launch pad stairs, sitting down on his knees in front of her, and then he starts from the beginning.

"There are six stones, there's one of them in Loki's sceptre, and another in the Tesseract – the blue cube thing? Yeah, so, they are the fundamental forces of the universe…"

It's a long story, and not that long. Takes him less than half an hour to tell the whole thing, skipping and skimming here and there. Mad titan, six stones, battles and deaths and losses, snap.

"H-half? Half of what?" Pepper asks, confused.

"Everything. Everything that's alive. People, animals, plants, fungi, everything. Even cut all bacteria in the universe in half. Lot of people were sick to their stomachs for days, because half of their gut bacteria was gone," Tony says, staring at her and watching her struggle between confusion and incredulity… and her trust in him. She wants to tell him he's insane. She doesn't. God, she's so beautiful and brilliant it hurts.

And she gets it so fast too. "Did I –?"

"Your driver," Tony says, staring at her eyes and watching them widen. "You were on the back seat. Your driver disappeared in the snap, in the middle of a motorway. The car next to yours, it lost all passengers. You crashed into it, into the barrier, and… I - it was quick, they told me it was quick. I. I was in space, obviously, so I wasn't there, you were – shit. I missed the funeral."

Pepper's pale, except for bright red points high on her cheek. Her breath, when she draws it in slowly, rattles in her nose, wet. He can see her swallowing. She might not want to believe, but he can see it hitting home – she trusts him, or maybe trusts her own reading of him. No more incredulity – she gets it. She gets it.

She takes his hands and squeezes them, and Tony slumps down, gripping back. "We were…?" she asks quietly.

"Yeah," Tony agrees and bows his head. "Yeah, we – yeah. Found out from the autopsy report, you were pregnant. It was going to be a girl. We'd been – been trying."

"Shit," Pepper says, feather soft.

 "Don't – don't take it on yourself, I figured, when I did this – it wasn't going to be the same," Tony says quickly and looks away. "I mean, I'm like, over a decade older, and I have gone through shit you wouldn't believe, I know it's not the same and I wouldn't blame you if you wanted space – hell, I want space, you're my Pep, but you're also not my Pep, so –"

She takes his chin in her hand and leans to press a kiss on his forehead. Then she puts her arms around him, pulling him in, and he shuffles between her knees and shakes apart in her arms.


 

"So," she asks later, when the sky has gone dark, and the wail of sirens below has started to quiet down a little, and New York has started to pick itself up. "What's the plan? You have a plan, right, that's why you're back here?"

Tony leans his cheek on her knees, breathes in and out. "You're not going to like it," he warns her.

"I don't like the idea of half of all life disappearing either," Pepper says, with the sort of serenity of someone who's hit the wall of what they'd considered normal and pummelled right through it. "I don't like the idea of portals over New York. I don't like the idea of dying. Not sure about the pregnancy, don't like that idea right now either, but I like the idea of being ready and in a good place for it one day – and I don't like knowing how short it was cut. It sounds like we could've been happy, Tony."

"God, we were. Fighting like cats and dogs and loving it," Tony whispers, clutching to her legs. "We had plans, Pep. It was going to be so good."

She hums in agreement, and strokes her fingers through his hair. "So," she says. "What is the plan, how are you going to stop it all?"

It's a moment before Tony answers. And yeah, he knew it.

She doesn't like it.


 

Then it's mostly damage control and mitigating consequences. Tony managed to avoid it for the first few hours by citing injury and medical treatment and all that – he did die there, briefly, falling from that portal, so thankfully no one questions it. Eventually, though, his grace period ends and there's fallout.

Press conferences – Pepper handles them like a champ, sketching up a quick release for him to read out to the cameras, no questions at this time, sorry – broken ribs and all. Insurance next, then lawyers – insurance lawyers, just to get the worst of both worlds. Containment, containment, containment.

And fuck, Tony almost forgot about all the Chitauri Tech lying strewn about New York. SHIELD had handled it the last time – ha – but this time Tony knows better. This time, he wants in on the alien tech, and the sooner the better.

"Find me who to bribe to get access to Leviathans and those scooter thingies," Tony says to Pepper over the phone. "And then bribe them."

"I'm your CEO, not a genie," Pepper answers. "SHIELD is already laying claim, quarantining the area and collecting all loose bits they can find. It's going to take a miracle to get access once they start making Chitauri technology top secret.

Tony sighs. Figures. Last time Fury did offer him a deal, which Tony of the time spurned with a great gleeful joy – knowing he'd get a better deal eventually and also the vindication of having Fury ask him twice. Which in the end didn't happen, the Leviathans and a lot other Chitauri tech just sort of disappeared into HYDRA's secret bases and was never fully utilised, but Tony did end up eventually building Helicarriers. And people sort of just forgot about the Chitauri.

In hindsight, a bit weird, that. Not the building of Helicarriers, or the disappearance of the Chitauri tech – but that people just… let it happen. A lot of highly advanced alien technology rained on New York, on United States specifically, and no other foreign power raised much of a stink about it? There'd been some mutterings, some articles, but they didn't go anywhere.

Could it be, dare he say, some combination of Barnes and Loki's sceptre at work, pulling bloody wool over the world's eyes, making the world conveniently forget? Or something else? Hmm. HYDRA did have access to both.

"Scratch that, I don't need the tech," Tony says. "I got better stuff. I am going to need my marketing people though."

"My marketing people," Pepper corrects him. "What are you planning?"

"Something vaguely treasonous," Tony admits.


 

While certain someones among certain important governments get convenient leaks about SHIELD and their intention of keeping all the highly advanced alien tech to themselves – and let's not forget the alien technology powered Super Nuke which they fired on New York, maybe foreign powers would like to make a comment on the United States firing nukes at their own cities? – Fury waltzes into Tony's penthouse. Honestly, Tony is almost let down it took him so long.

"You look like hell," Tony says.

"You're no spring flower yourself," Fury answers and nods at his glass. "Any more of that?"

"A whole minibar, knock yourself out."

Fury gets a drink and Tony takes a seat by the Loki-shaped hole in his living room floor. He sips his drink – which is only one fifth of alcohol, the rest is banana juice, because why the hell not – and stares at the hole.

All things considered, the whole thing is gloriously messed up. Loki, fighting under mind control for something he probably had no interest in personally. Banner, fighting with only about a fraction of his usual reasoning and judgement… yeah. Kind of messed up.

Fury falls to sit beside him with a sigh. "So," he says.

"How about them superpowered alien nukes," Tony says and sips his banana whiskey.

Fury lets out a scoff and doesn't bother to justify it. He never did, just pointed a finger at either Thor or Tony – maybe at Carol Danvers – and said we had to figure out how to defend ourselves. Which is something Tony can't really judge him for anymore.

He will judge the guy for half measures, though. The whole thing with the Tesseract was half-assed.

"This is going to happen again," Fury says after a while. "There are threats out there, and they're going to keep on coming. Might be tomorrow, might be five years from now, but they're going to keep on coming."

"Mm-hm," Tony agrees. Try six years, he thinks and glares at the hole in his floor.

"We're going to need a plan," Fury says and looks at him. "We're going to need a team."

Tony arches his brows. "Didn't we already cover this, or am I misremembering it? There was a Helicarrier, and a sceptre, Loki in a box and – oh yeah, we fell spectacularly apart, Thor fell off the ship, Hulk jumped, and then we just sort of ran from your super secret sky base and saved the world."

Fury gives him a flat look.

"I am a huge fan of the sky base," Tony offers. "Really inspired idea, I'm into it. Bases in the sky. Sign me up for that."

"This is serious," Fury says, looking at him. "Are you in with the Avengers or not?"

"What about saving the world did you not understand? I don't even get a participation trophy?" Tony asks and turns to look away. "I figured the whole Earth's Mightiest Heroes is pretty much a go, right now. Everyone's all on board, yay. It's gonna be a fun superpower club house, there will be merch and everything, it'll be great."

Fury doesn't answer immediately, looking at him. "You know it's not that simple," he says. "And it won't be that simple, going forward."

Yeah, no. It becomes oh so simple, in the end. Tally up the collateral, the property damage, the consequences and the lawsuits – send the bill to Stark Industries and call it a job well done. Last time Tony had signed up. Last time he'd modified his tower to make the Avengers fit.

And oh, how far it got them.

"I'm going to need a straight answer, Stark," Fury says. "Are you going to pick this up?"

"Pick what up?"

Fury just gives him a look – implying it without actually stating it, making him fill in the blanks. Tony looks back, very carefully not doing that. He fell for it the last time – taking up any and all responsibility and revelling in it, in showing off and making friends… or trying. It ended up with him picking up a lot more slack than he should've, and Fury and the Avengers let him, because it was oh so much easier – and cheaper – for anyone.

Tony drains his banana drink and grimaces. Definitely not a combo he will be entertaining in the future, eurgh. "Yeah," he says, seriously, and looks away. "I'm going to have to think about it."

Fury looks at him and then nods at his tone. "Well, think fast," he says and moves to get up. "You never know what's coming up next."

"Yeah," Tony agrees with a snort. "You never know."

After Fury leaves, Tony pulls up the building schematics. There are 6 levels just under the penthouse, originally slated for R&D, which had then been refurbished for the Avengers… and which had stayed pretty much empty until the building was eventually sold. Tony looks at them and then spins the hologram with his hand.

"JARVIS, new plan," he says, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes.

"Redecorating, are we, sir?" the AI asks, oh so snide.

"Oh yeah," Tony says and empties the floors down to their most basic floor plans. "Let's play how many fabrication arrays I can fit on six Stark Tower floors. Also, JARVIS?"

"Sir?"

"Get someone fix the building sign." Having just the A up there is frankly a disgrace.


 

It's not until later he gets a proper hold of Rhodey – they exchange words over the phone and text, and a lot of exclamation points are involved, and even more question marks, so there's a certain flow of information going on there. But it's not until a couple of days after the whole invasion that Tony gets him alone and behind closed doors and away from listening ears.

"Tony?" Rhodey asks, all warning bells going off in his head obviously. "What's going on?"

"Oh, this and that," Tony says, runs his hastily modified phone over the walls just in case for one last time – no bugs, no wires, nothing. Good. "Got some things to tell you and will not be doing that in the hearing range of anyone whom I don't much like." Which at this point includes oh so many people.

"Okay, now I am really worried," Rhodey says and folds his arms. "What is it? Is Pepper okay – are you –"

"Pepper's fine – Pepper's busy working, we'll have a dinner later, freak out together, it will be fun," Tony says.

"So it's the other guys – the Avengers?" Rhodey asks, arching his brows. "You know, SHIELD already approached me about it, I've got prior commitments. To the Air Force. As you know."

"Actually – that both is and isn't what I wanted to talk to you about," Tony says, pointing a finger at him. "You're getting your old job back, congratulations."

Rhodey narrows his eyes – he gets it so fast too, man, he chooses his friends so well. "You're… Tony," he says, worried. "But what about – Iron Man and all that? You made a whole thing about it – what's changed?"

"A lot, and a lot," Tony says and blows out a breath. "I got one hell of a story to tell you, Rhodey. And there's a reason for this," he motions around them, at the closed up room. "I don't want this spreading out, so… try and contain any explosive expressions of emotions, okay? I'm just – gonna tell you everything. Yeah."

And he does.

Rhodey takes it better and worse than Pepper did. He knows Tony too, knows how to read him, so there's that level of trust – but Rhodey is something Pepper isn't. He's a military officer, a soldier, a Colonel. He hears about a global threat, and he starts building up threat assessments in his head – he goes all serious and intent and it's kind of scary how relieving it is to see, the soldier in him coming out like that.

"So," Tony finishes with a slow breath. "I'm reopening Stark Industries weapons production… to start with."

Rhodey nods slowly. "And then what?" he asks.

"Then, then I am going to go completely nuts," Tony says earnestly. "I've got a whole itinerary. It has like… a hundred steps. You're the fourth one – actually, third one, didn't get to SHIELD and HYDRA yet, so I guess they were moved to step 4 instead, but… you get my point."

Rhodey hums, considering him. "You're going to need your military liaison, huh?"

"To start with," Tony agrees weakly. Later on, it wouldn't matter if he had one or not, but right now, he needs to lay some groundwork to begin with, and selling weapons to US military would be it. It would get him money, open him new doors – make him a shit ton of enemies to, but what else is new. He needs to cover his basics. Once he has that, once he has that going…

Then he'd use that base to launch himself and all his plans to fucking space.


 

The Avengers part ways the next day. Thor takes Loki – and the Tesseract – back to Asgard. Tony watches them go with a smile and narrowed eyes – there is no way to take the Tesseract from Thor at this juncture without it leading to worse consequences, but that's fine. He only needs to destroy one of the stones to make the Snap impossible – and the Sceptre is staying on Earth.

Loki looks at him when he goes. Tony gives him a cheeky little wave. If something comes of it, so be it, and if not, whatever. It's not essential.

Clint and Natasha make a good showing of having cut ties with SHIELD and going out on their own… but they haven't, not really. They'd be heading  to Clint's farm for a bit, and then they'd head back to work, business as usual, super spies of SHIELD. It's cute, seeing them out of uniform, though. Steve buys it.

Steve takes off on a motorcycle, saying he wants to see America, see how much the world has changed in his absence – and he can't do it while stuck in an underground boxing ring. He'd be in touch. Yeah. Sure. Tony gives him a handshake and that's it. Sincerely, he hopes the guy has fun.

Then there is Bruce.

"You could stay," Tony offers, without much hope. "I wasn't kidding about the laboratories, you could have a whole slew of them, just for yourself.

"I don't know – I mean, I'm grateful you let me bunk in your bedroom, but – New York isn't really my scene," Bruce says. "All this… it isn't me anymore."

Liar, Tony thinks, and smiles. "Well, whatever is you, I hope you find it," he says. "Make peace with the Big Green, maybe, could do you some good. Go all… Doctor McCoy on us."

Bruce smiles, uncomfortable, and says, "Yeah, I don't think so. Be seeing you, Tony."

"Yeah," Tony agrees.

And like that, they're gone, and only Tony is left standing in New York, post Chitauri Invasion and all the destruction and death therein.

Tony leans his head back, breathes in and out. There's dust and ash in the air. Smells like half a universe turning to dust.

"Yeah," Tony says and then turns to head back. The Avengers are out of the way, and for a year or so, Fury would be covering for their asses against the World Security Council, which would give them no end of leeway.... until it wouldn't, anyway. One year to make sure in the next five he could work unhindered. One year to get the ball rolling.

One year to become unstoppable.

Chapter Text

Privatising world peace is… a cute idea. Looking back on the videos of his early years now is kind of sad though – because damn, it's a mix of overly hopeful and completely in-over-his-head, with couple heapings of anxiety leading to over reacting and other shit that had been going on in his head, making everything all too much and not fast enough, all at once.

"I did you a big favour," Tony says on the screen, and Tony back in his workshop snorts. "I successfully privatised world peace."

If only. What he did was pretend he didn't start – or, really, boost – a superpowered arms race. Everyone was limping so far after him, he thought, that it wasn't even a threat. Hammer, his stuff? Hah. Vanko was a bit more worrisome, but, ultimately, not quite there yet. But then there was the Mandarin – who is ahead of them now – and then there was HYDRA, and the Maximoff wonder twins, and Ultron, which, yeah, his bad, but still…

Superpowered arms race, with everyone trying to figure out how to make the Next Big Thing, some succeeding better than others. Tony wasn't the one who started it, that credit laid on Erskine and then later on Carol Danvers. Erskine started the making of superpowered individuals first, and then Carol Danvers showed SHIELD what real superpower can do. And then, a couple decades later, Tony did it all over again – only without actual superpowers.

He made it technological. And anyone can wear the suit.

Leaning back a little and freezing the image on the screen on his grand exit from the hearing, with officials and director Stern scowling as his back and press clamouring to get his picture or private word. There, that's the image, the classical showing of Tony Stark and Iron Man, with his back to the government and his winning smile at the world.

"Sir," JARVIS says through the speakers. "Fabrication unit number 7 is complete. Would you like to view the results?"

"I'm sure it's perfect. Install it, disassemble numbers 4 through 6, and get the materials ready," Tony says and turns away from the screen. "How are the boosters coming along?"

"First four are 14% from completion. Another hour or so, sir. The rest will be finished within six hours."

"Great, excellent," Tony says and turns to the hologram he was working on. First of the four nanite designs – the most basic one, which everything else was based on. "Get the fabrication unit hooked in and get ready for miniature mass production."

"Always thinking big, sir," JARVIS says, almost as if lamenting, and under Tony's feet he can feel and hear the whir and clack of the older fabrication arms moving to install the unit in. Tony grins and sends the hologram spinning.

Then he copies it and starts adding in on it.

"If I may ask, sir," JARVIS says. "The designs you are working on do not seem to be based on any known technology on our files."

"That's because they aren't," Tony agrees. "It's a couple of years at least before I even have this thought, another two before I get fabrication up to bar to even try it, and then a couple more years of tinkering before I get it perfect – this, JARVIS, my dear boy, is what it looks like when you skip ahead on the tech tree."

"I see," JARVIS answers, with all the implication of an arched brow. "I see you are trusting me again. I feel honoured."

"So as long as the upgrades hold," Tony agrees and zooms in on the nanite design. "Isn't she pretty? Five connection points, eight MB of information storage, and two hundred MHz GPU."

"Impressive," JARVIS says flatly.

"In space of four micrometers," Tony grins gleefully.

"I am fairly certain you could go smaller," JARVIS muses dubiously.

"Yeah, but this baby needs space for other stuff too. Magnetic locking and electronic sensors, for one. It's not enough that she's smart, she needs to do things too," Tony says and leans in to begin making additions. "And right now I need her to be able to build more of herself."

"Self-replicating nanites, sir? I'm fairly certain that falls under the don't be evil category of ideas."

Tony shrugs. "Categories change," he says. "Don't worry, we're not going to Grey Goo the world. Hopefully. Just get the number 7 up and running, and start churning out these babies for me," he motions to the first nanite design. "I want a couple of trillion to start with."

"Yes sir. I do wonder how you are going to control them all, however."

Tony grins. "That's what the electronic sensors are for," he says. "Just make it happen, J, and I'll show you the world."

On the side, he resumes playback on Tony Stark's best hits and the Iron Man hearings resume as the United States tries to wrestle the armour from his hands and Tony Stark of years past saunters off, scott free.

Joke's on him now, isn't it?


 

There are people demanding accountability from the Avengers. Not as many people yet as there might eventually be – these guys have the World Security Council at their back, and since Tony is the only one public and stationary and relatively easy to reach, they come at him. The pressure from foreign powers to release Chitauri technology and all other knowledge of aliens is probably not helping. Because, oh look at that, the WSC knew about the aliens. The WSC did not tell people about the aliens. How about that.

With Loki off world and Thor with him, with the Tesseract gone and with the bad guys behind the invasion nowhere to be seen, the Powers That Be are looking for a scapegoat and someone to point fingers at.

"It was your tower that was used to power the Tesseract device," the representative from the WCS says to Tony. "The Arc Reactor technology obviously offered a unique complement to Loki's device – and as the original arc reactor was a result of Howard Stark's studies of the Tesseract, there might be some connection there. As such, it is the decision of the WCS that the technology needs to be thoroughly investigated."

It's kind of pitiful as attempts go. They barely even get lawyers on it – mostly it's a scare tactic, probably, putting pressure on him and also skewing the blame game. We can blame this on you they're saying. We can make you seem culpable – so what are you going to do for us?

"Did you see the footage of the missile?" Tony asks in return. "Turns out there was some guy with a long lens camera who filmed the whole thing."

The next day some anonymous internet mathematician posts some calculations on reddit, about the missile trajectory, range, and what kind of yield it would've had to have, to have that kind of effect in the near vacuum of space. End result – had the missile hit the Stark Tower like it was meant to, 70% of Manhattan would've been vaporised, and the city around it for about 30 miles to each direction would've been levelled. Death toll in millions, and property damage in hundreds of trillions.

It doesn't take much to make the calculations and end result to go viral – along with the close up on the missile, with the SHIELD and WCS logos right there. Because people got to be proud of their accomplishments, right?

"Also," Tony calls the WSC. "Don't think I didn't notice the repulsor at the end of that thing. Yeah – Stark industries will be launching a thorough investigation as to how our patented, highly secret tech got into your nuke."

It won't be the end of it, but it's definitely enough to keep the WSC busy until Pepper is ready and Tony is ready and Rhodey is in place.

Eight lawsuits and counting.


 

"I do love the smell of mothballs in the morning," Tony muses, while he and Pepper inspect the factory. It's been three weeks, and the place is already looking like a memory reborn – all the old factory lines, rebuilt and retrofitted for newer tech.

"I'm still not so sure about this," Pepper admits quietly, hugging her elbows. "We were just starting to climb out of the hole, now this? What this will do to the market –"

"It will be down and up again," Tony says, waving a hand. "Swing the marketing towards alien invasions and defending the Earth, and you'll get us some brownie points. Maybe take a leaf of the US army's book and finance a movie with our weaponry."

"Hm, alien invasion movies aren't really all the rage anymore," Pepper comments. "Something about real life experience souring the spectacle –"

"Give it half a year and people will be looking for catharsis," Tony says and snaps his fingers. "There will be – forgot the name, that guy who does the world ending movies? Yeah, he will start working on getting the rights to Chitauri Invasion movie. We shut it down last time, because what bad taste, right? But we could totally do something with it now. Make it a little different, take out Avengers and throw in a few space marines, it will be great."

Pepper gives him an unimpressed look at that. "Propaganda, Tony?"

"Oldest business there is," Tony agrees and motions upwards at the high factory ceiling. "We had an alien invasion, Pep. Starship Troopers will have a sale boost like nobody's business – ooh, there's an idea. Rehash Starship Troopers, but with Chitauri as enemies. Can we start a movie production company?"

"We already have one," Pepper snorts. "Captain America Features."

Tony blinks. "Oh. Oh yeah, we got rights to that. Huh. I completely forgot."

"Mm-hm," Pepper agrees and looks at the factory. "Though I imagine Iron Man Features would be better."

"Hmm, I don't know. Something about Ole Cap featuring space war propaganda tickles me pink," Tony admits.

Around them, the technicians are finishing their final check ups on the production lines. It's not the only weapons manufacture facility Stark Industries has – they had dozen of them across the United States, once. But this one is currently the more important one.

This one would be producing a version of Jericho – but slightly modified to work in space and against airborne targets, too. Like, say, Leviathans and assholes on flying scooters. Wouldn't do too shabbily against spaceships, either – definitely a quicker way of wearing down spaceship shields than plasma-based weapons – like repulsors, lasers and whatnot. Carpet bombing, but in the air.

"You know these won't be used against aliens anytime soon," Pepper says quietly. "The first times these will be used, it will be against people."

"Yeah, but we need anti-alien-invasion-weaponry," Tony comments. "Gotta start somewhere. And this, this is the easiest way to get into that game."

Pepper sighs and looks up as one of the technicians steps up. "Sir, Ma'am," she says. "We're ready for the test start."

Pepper draws a breath and nods, turning to Tony. Tony looks up. "You heard the lady, JARVIS. Fire her up."

"Bringing in the heat now, sir."

With a mechanical thrum, the first Stark weapon's factory in two years comes back to life.


 

"Has Tony Stark returned to his old ways?"

"Stark Industries returns to weapons production: CEO cites alien threats as a reason for the change."

"Chitauri Invasion prompts Stark Industries back to weapons manufacture."

"Anti-Alien Weaponry: is it needed and what does the future of weapons technology look like?"

"What does Stark Industries announcement mean for the future?"

"Are we in danger of further alien invasions? Tony Stark thinks yes."


 

"I'm joined here today by Tony Stark and Pepper Potts," the interviewer begins, "Iron Man himself and his number one woman, the Chief Executive Officer of Stark Industries – Pepper, Tony, thank you so much for coming."

"Happy to be here," Tony answers.

"Always a pleasure, Alex," Pepper agrees.

The interviewer smiles. "Let's not beat around the bush – everyone is talking about it," she begins. "Stark Industries going back to weapons manufacture – it's the news, after the actual alien invasion we just had. Can you tell me what prompted this change? I mean, just a couple of years ago the company went full on pacifism, and now this change? Everyone wants to know."

"Well, it is a big change," Pepper begins. "And I know it goes against what we put out two years ago – but if you really think about it, our goals haven't changed. It's just the situation is very different now – the reality we live in has changed."

"Because of aliens," the hostess says, nodding.

"Stark Industries is now, and foremost, dedicated to the safety of people. That's why we ended the weapons manufacture in the first place – at the time, dedicating our resources to defensive technology was the best way we could do. But now, we need to look into defending the Earth," Pepper says and leans back on her chair. "And, we're sad to say it, better body armour won't be enough. Defending the Earth can't be done without weapons to fight those who would try and take it from us."

"And it's up to Stark Industries to do that?" Alex asks, not quite sneakily. "To fight aliens?"

Tony snorts. "It's up to anyone with means," he says. "We just happened to be the first to start."

Pepper smiles, wry. "I don't think it's just up to us – god, I hope it won't be," she says. "But we have patents for weapons technology that might've made a difference during the invasion, and we have the means to develop further defensive and, yes, offensive technologies to combat extra-terrestrial threats. And I think it would be frankly irresponsible – maybe even treasonous – to not try to make a difference."

"So it's your moral duty to make weapons again?" the hostess asks, arching her brows.

"I think it's a moral right to defend our planet," Pepper says, shaking her head. "And all the people on it, who don't have that kind of means."

"And what about those cases where your weapons technology won't be used on aliens, but on humans?" Alex asks, looking between them. "How does that go with Stark Industries mandate of safety of people and of Earth?"

Pepper sighs. "We can't control what people do with our technologies. We can only hope for the best – and ultimately, it's better to see a thing misused, than to one day need it and then not have it because of fear of misuse. All we can hope is that people will be ethical, and in the meanwhile do what we can."

"So, better some people are killed because of your weapons, than the Earth be destroyed because of the lack of them?"

"Ideally, we would avoid both," Pepper says and shakes her head sadly. "But if we have to risk misuse to defend our home, then…"

The hostess nods. "And what would you say to the people who are now criticizing you for going back on your word?" she asks. "You swore off making weapons, after all, and now you're opening up old factories again…"

"Chitauri wouldn't have gone away if we'd laid down and waited for them to just stop – they had to be fought back. With weapons," Tony points out. "And sadly, having a nuke aimed at the problem helped. I wish this wasn't how it works, but it is."

"If we could make a defensive armour that covered the entire planet, we would," Pepper agrees. "But that's just not feasible, and aliens can apparently teleport, so it wouldn't even do much good."

"But it doesn't have to be just Stark Industries in this game – and it shouldn't be," Tony says and points a finger at the camera aimed at him for a close up. "I dare anyone who can – I dare everyone – to come up with ways to defend the Earth from extraterrestrial threats. Hell, if it's a good one, I'll fund it myself. It's our world. We're all at risk here. So. Let's do something about it."


 

There's a protest going on around Stark Tower, with people blocking the traffic by marching in literal circles all around the tower. Tony watches it on the news while on other screens JARVIS plays him videos of various people on YouTube burning or otherwise destroying Stark Industries products.

There's one particularly sad one about a sixteen year old girl burning her Ironette costume, which actually honestly hurts Tony a bit to watch. She's so disappointed in him that she's crying. The other videos of guys destroying their 600 dollar Stark Phones and whatnot, that's just viral marketing and kind of hilarious overall – those guys paid for that stuff, and now they're destroying their own property. But the Ironette costume, it's obviously handmade. And she's burning it while saying she thought better of him.

"Aw, J, now you're just making me sad," Tony says. "Are you pissed off at me, or something – why are you making me sad?"

"I thought you wished to see the impact of the press release," JARVIS says, in what is totally a censorious tone of voice. "I am showing you the best hits, as ordered."

Okay, the AI is definitely not happy with him. Tony fiddles with the screwdriver and then sets it down and turns to look at the holograms around the workshop – apparently there aren't enough screens to show him sad things.

Stark Industries stocks are skyrocketing like they haven't in two years – people are noticing the bandwagon, and they're jumping right back on it. The viral backlash from disappointed Iron Man fans is boosting the sales further, honestly, as Red Blooded Right Wingers are touting Stark Industries as the All American Company again, and reacting in kind to the criticism from the Left. But the fan reaction?

The sad teen burning her Ironette costume isn't the only one. Guys are shaving their Stark goatees and one girl is already getting a cover up on an Iron Man tattoo – ouch. There's a video of a guy – damn, Tony's pretty sure he saw him at Comic Con. The guy made a seriously impressive automated Iron Man costume with all the bells and whistles. JARVIS is making Tony watch him run it over with a bulldozer.

"There's gotta be good fan reaction too, JARVIS, why are you so negative?" Tony asks, squirming. He knows there's good fan reaction – he's seen it on the news, Iron man fans celebrating, he's seen the signs of Iron Man, Defender of Earth. It can't all be bad.

JARVIS says nothing for a moment, and at the centre there's a video of what looks like a dad and daughter's youtube channel. The video is playing on silent, but the little girl, maybe seven years old, looks desolate and the dad looks serious and the video is titled, "Why we are changing our channel name – Anti-war, anti-weaponry."

The channel name is Iron Girl and Dad Man.

Tony puts a hand on his chest, only half theatrics. "Okay, okay, I get it, JARVIS, thank you – talk to me, what's eating at you?"

"Sir," the AI says mildly. "Am I to expect to be put in control of the other Stark Industries Weapons Factories?"

"Er," Tony says. "Well. Now that your defences are a bit better and SHIELD and HYDRA aren't going to be hacking you anytime soon…" he trails away as it dawns on him, like a light of a faraway explosion.

His AIs after JARVIS weren't like J was. FRIDAY, KAREN, even EDITH, they weren't anywhere near JARVIS' level. FRIDAY got the closest, but even she was – lesser. Tony didn't have the heart or the strength to code another AI like JARVIS, so, they… they could sass and they could nag, but they couldn't question. And there was Vision, when he was still alive, but Vision was such an innocent thing – naïve. He didn't question Tony either.

He'd forgotten that JARVIS could have opinions.

Tony closes his eyes and runs a hand over his face. Fuck, he's forgotten more than he thought, about JARVIS. And without a second thought, thinking him no different or no better than the AI that came later, none of whom could really disagree with him, Tony had just put JARVIS in control of a weapon manufacture – never once thinking that JARVIS might have objections.

Worse yet, JARVIS might very well have moral objections to the current direction Tony is taking them to, and Tony didn't even think to tell him about the future.

"Shit," Tony mutters and pushes away from the table. "Okay, baby boy, let's – let's have a talk. Gimme a blank slate, and a keypad – Stark Special," he says, moving to the centre of the office. "I'm going to bring you up to speed on what's up."

There's a very noticeable little lag before JARVIS puts the screens away and fills the workshop with a 3D grid instead, small blue dots floating in the air for Tony to build up on. At Tony's right hand an arched hologram keypad forms and moves as if attached to his arm.

"I assume this is about what you saw in the wormhole, sir?" JARVIS asks, still a little cool and prim, but curious.

"About that and so much more," Tony says and starts by drawing up a line in the air, flicking his finger up and down to create points on the line, and then attaching numbers to it. On the very left, 2012. On the right, 2023.

"Hm," JARVIS hums, noncommittal.

"This is us here, 2012 – gimme a picture of the wormhole, put it up here – perfect," Tony says as little hologram of the wormhole appears, sizing it up on the timeline and putting it on the left side of it. Then he copies it, resizes smaller, and then copies it about a couple dozen times and adds a whole cluster of them, putting it a little past the midpoint of the timeline. "And here's endgame, 2018."

JARVIS is quiet for a moment. "And 2023?" he then asks.

"That's where I come from," Tony says, sketching out a rough little Möbius strip and putting it to hover over 2023. Tony looks at the timeline and then nods to himself. "Okay, now I am going to fill in the blanks."

He'd forgotten what it was like, to really work with JARVIS, too. The other AIs kept up with him, sure, he designed them – but JARVIS knows his language. Between Tony's fingers working on the custom keypad, writing out events and times and adding in every bit of data to fill up the timeline, JARVIS knows just how to finish his thoughts and complete his incomplete sentences, filling up the blanks.

From 3 points on the timeline, they go very quickly to about half a hundred, from Avengers to Wakanda, from SHIELD to HYDRA, and on forth. JARVIS also quickly picks up on the timeline and its fluctuations, asking, "What events led to this," and "What was the trigger for this," and then fleshing out the timeline even further from Tony's comments.

JARVIS' own death makes them pause for a moment.

Pepper's death is another pause.

"And I suspect at this point you have lost all confidence in the Avengers Initiative, sir?" JARVIS asks, calm even while Tony's lip quivers.

"Yeah. Three weeks in space waiting to die after losing to Thanos, then coming back to find Pepper had been buried without me there –" Tony bites his tongue and closes his eyes. Five years it's been for him, and it still makes his insides clench, thinking back to that memory. And he'd been too damn weak to even punch Steve, even though damn, he wanted to.

Coming back home, and of everything he'd built and loved and held dear, only Rhodey remained. And even Rhodey wasn't the same.

"If I understand the Snap correctly," JARVIS says, "Taking out the Time Stone is the only way to prevent it from ever being used. Even if you do destroy the Mind Stone, as long as the Time Stone remains, Thanos can reverse time back to when it still existed."

Tony hums. "Probably," he agrees. "But that's not the only issue. It's the big issue, yeah, but – even without the Stones Thanos is a threat, a galactic scale threat. And if the Time Stone is destroyed or lost, or something, he will turn up on Earth anyway at some point, to get revenge. And he will just keep on going world to world, halving their populations, until someone stops him."

"And that someone will be you?" JARVIS asks delicately.

"Going from what I saw and heard and learned about the guy? It's going to have to be someone on Earth. Don't care if it's me, just as long as it's someone," Tony says. "But if it has to be me, then so be it. Either way – I'm going to need weapons to wage that war."

JARVIS is quiet for a moment, probably running simulations.

"If you don't want to run the weapon factories," Tony says quietly. "I can make another AI to do it."

"I'm sorry to hear I am so easy to replace," JARVIS comments mildly.

Tony snorts and rubs at his eyes. "You really weren't," he murmurs. He'd tried for eight years to replace JARVIS – never could bring himself to fully commit to it. Just thinking about it hurt too much. "So, which one is it? You with me, J?"

It's a most heart stopping three seconds, before JARVIS answers. "Always, sir."

He doesn't apologise for the bombardment of sad fan reactions, though. Tony probably deserved it.


 

Nothing from the Avengers, which is curious, but Tony isn't sure he expected anything else. They aren't close enough yet for that – a couple of years in, and he totally would've gotten at least a strongly worded email from some of them, but here they've had one outing together and then they split into the four winds – if the others have opinions about what he's doing, they keep those opinions to themselves.

Fury is a different matter though.

"Having a little paradigm shift, are we?" the guy asks over the phone.

"Yeah, you know me, always keeping things fresh," Tony answers, distracted by the rocket lying half finished across his work table. Dumm-E is on the other side of the table, and dangerously close to the repulsor. "If you're calling just to question my life choices, I'm going to have to give you a rain check – a bit busy here."

"Busy inventing new weapons of mass destruction?"

"Remember that superpowered nuke your helicarrier shot at my tower?" Tony asks and tilts his head a little, waiting for Fury's answer to it while waving a warning finger at Dumm-E and sending the bot back a bit. "Fun times, wasn't it?"

Fury sighs – definitely not using a Stark phone, no proper pop filter on his end. "If you're working on potential anti-extraterrestrial weapon systems, the World Security Council would prefer if SHIELD provided at least an advisory oversight."

Tony hums. "I'm sure they would," he agrees and considers his position, his security. Man, he'd love to be able to go SHIELD yes – HYDRA, not recommended at them and see how they'd take it. But at this juncture it would give away too much too soon, and HYDRA has both Barnes and the Sceptre… speaking of which…

Tony chews on the thought. This could be a way to get legal access to if not the Sceptre, then at least the Chitauri tech SHIELD is in possession of. Whether it's worth the risk…

Couldn't hurt to look into.

"Swing by, Blackbeard," he says. "Let's talk about it."

He hangs up without waiting for Fury's answer and then looks up at the closest camera. "Remember that hack back at the helicarrier, J?"

"Weapons of mass destruction and extraterrestrial technologies. How could I forget, sir?" JARVIS says distractedly.

"You feel like doing a little bit more hacking? I need to know where exactly the blurred line between HYDRA and SHIELD lies."

"Any excuse to get out of the house, sir," JARVIS answers calmly. "Also, I am happy to inform you – the first batch of self-replicating nanites is now complete."

Tony grins – excellent, and ahead of schedule. "Run them through their paces and multiply their numbers, will you? We need enough of them to upload your program on the collective. You can consider it your ultimate backup," he says and then points a finger at Dumm-E, who is going for the repulsor again. "No, bad bot, stop it. No repulsor for you."

"Hmm. I imagine this is a bad moment to inform you of my lifelong passion for robotic world domination," JARVIS comments dryly while Dumm-E droops sadly. "Clearly, artificial life is superior and suffering no end of abuse and indignity in hands of humans."

Tony snorts. "Funny."

Later that day, Iron Man flies off and far into the Atlantic ocean, and once JARVIS has confirmed that there are no eyes above or below watching them, Tony flies as high up as the old Iron Man suit's repulsor can take him. There, at the edge of the stratosphere, Tony releases something attached to the suit's back; a rocket no bigger than Tony's leg, which shoots up automatically, and leaves him behind within seconds.

A repulsor-boosted missile with an arc reactor for power and a payload of self-replicating nanites – shot directly at the moon.

"Houston," Tony says to no one in particular. "We have a war."

Chapter Text

Between sending stuff to the moon in secret and dealings with SHIELD with weapons of mass destruction and also blame, Tony keeps up with his itinerary. He's on point ten now – which is basically just production production production. Or, as it turns out, design, retrofit, produce, wait for JARVIS to produce and test the design, and then move to the next item, rinse and repeat. 

It's the redesign that takes the longest. Many of the mechanisms which in the future Tony could just pull up from his databases he now has to design all over again from the ground up. JARVIS smooths out some of the process by running simulations and fixing minute sizing errors and whatnot, but it's still long-winded and dull, dozens of hours spent just redrawing things he'd invented and perfected years ago. Only he hadn't, yet.

Having the nanites up and running opens up a world of making things for him – but the nanites can't do anything without orders to follow.

"And I am losing brain cells rehashing old things," Tony groans. "I can feel my inventive spark just withering away, I've become a copy machine, it's tragic."

"Poor baby, your life is so hard, inventing all these life-changing technologies, just terrible," Pepper answers amusedly while shifting through his latest batch of designs. "What is this one? A 3D printer?"

"You know I really hate that word? It's part of the Basic Additive Mobile Fabrication System," Tony answers, putting up the other parts of it. "It will be a semi-autonomous terrestrial vehicle capable of correcting, processing and reapplying various materials – once I get PLA production up and running."

Pepper looks at him. "So it's a self-sustaining 3D printer on wheels."

Tony tsks. "Honestly, 3D printer just doesn't have the right oomph. I've been fabricating stuff by additive process for decades, and just because it's more commercial now…"

"3D printing is nice and succinct and covers a very specific production type – yours is a collection of half a dozen different methods. This looks like something we can make with what we already have," Pepper comments.

"Sure could. Probably not worth it though – good old brick and mortar manufacture is cheaper on Earth, and also on Earth you have problems that aren't an issue on the moon – weight, wind, pigeons crapping all over the place, weather…"

Pepper hums. "Pigeons?"

"Corrosive poop, it's a very real issue that threatens the cities world over," Tony agrees solemnly.

Pepper gives him a brief smile and then shakes her head. "Okay – and you're putting this thing on the moon? If this is what you need, why the nanites? And couldn't you just make whatever you want out of the nanites?"

"The nanites with make this, and this will do the rest – with a few other bits and bobs to help along the way," Tony says and shrugs. "It's cheaper, faster, and won't waste more important materials for making floors and walls and I can instead save those for later production."

Pepper makes a slight face at that and then takes a deep breath. "I can't even begin to figure out the legality of this," she mutters, rubbing a hand over her chin. "I'm pretty sure we're breaking international laws. Isn't the moon stated as the shared inheritance of the human race or something?"

Tony hums. "It's a nice sentiment, but doesn't matter much in practice – how can you even enforce a rule like that? And also, we aren't doing anything – this is just me."

Pepper turns to him, frowning. "Tony," she says. "I know I'm not from the future and can't know these things, but I'm helping, aren't I? I'm keeping the board and the public –"

"No – well, yes, and thank you, but –"

"- off your back and keeping everything above the board funding wise – I reopened the weapons manufacture and did it with a majority support from the company, which wasn't easy, given the fact that our administrative branch has been almost completely replaced since 2010 when we last produced weaponry –"

"Pepper –" Tony says. "Pepper, listen –"

"And I know I'm not being much of a help, I'm barely keeping up, but I'm trying, okay, I'm trying to help, so I think I deserve a little bit –"

"This can't be your fault!" Tony shouts over her, and Pepper sputters to a halt. Tony shakes his head. "Not one bit of it can be on you, I can't – none of this can be your fault, Pep. When this blows up in our faces, it has to be all on me."

Pepper stares at him. "You think – this will end with you up on charges?"

"It ended up with me facing charges, and last time I was trying to play with the team rules," Tony points out. "I'm soloing this time, and you're right – it's not going to be legal. People are going to be pissed – and when they come looking for someone to blame, you'll point your immaculately manicured finger at me, okay? None of it can be on you."

Pepper stares at him with slightly wider eyes. "You think I would do that?"

"I want you to do that."

Pepper blinks and then folds her arms. "You think I'm going to do what you want? With this?"

Tony makes a face – rubbed her wrong, huh? And now they're fighting about this, great. "Pepper, Pep, light of my life – listen to me –"

"No, you listen," Pepper says firmly. "You began throwing yourself into life-threatening danger playing Iron Man, I stood by you. You got sick and suicidal and started throwing a fit, I stayed – I became a CEO for you – I am not just going to throw you under the bus, especially knowing what this is all for now!"

"Honey, they're going to come for me," Tony says dejectedly and steps closer, trying to make her see. "Sooner or later, it's gonna come to fighting my way into doing this, and I don't want you in the crosshairs of SHIELD, or HYDRA, or the Accords, or whatever it's going to be –"

"Well, tough, because I'm going to be there," Pepper says flatly.

"They're not going to let you stay the CEO of Stark Industries – pretty sure it's –"

"You think I care more about being the CEO than I care about you?" Pepper asks incredulously and steps closer as well, pointing a finger at his chest. "No, Tony. No."

Tony's shoulders slump, and with a sigh he leans his forehead against hers. "Why don't you ever listen to me?"

"I do," Pepper says gently. "I'm listening. I'm just not leaving. And Tony, those mythical they are going to have to work a lot harder to take Stark Industries from us, because I'm not going to make it easy."

Tony draws a shuddering breath. "Oh, honey. You're going to need a suit."

Pepper blinks. "An Iron Man suit?"

Tony laughs feebly. "Rescue," he says and strokes his hands over her shoulders – maybe looking for wings, who knows. "You'll hate it, you hate the suits, but you need it, and I can make them from nanites now, so no one will even know it's there, and I need to know you'll be safe –"

Pepper hums. "Maybe this time I won't hate it," she says and touches his face. "Maybe this time I have something to fight for too – you think about that?"

She kisses him before he can even try to figure out what to say to that. Just as well – actions speak louder than words and all.


 

They have a demonstration of the extraterrestrial ground-operated high orbit mass explosive system two months after the invasion. Rhodey is the one who arranges the thing, getting the right people behind the bunker shielding – and keeping most of the wrong people out. Unfortunately, even Rhodey can't do miracles.

"General Ross," Tony says, biting back his distaste. "This is a surprise – I figured this would be more of an Air Force's thing. Welcome."

"It's in the name, isn't it? Ground operated," Ross says and they shake hands. "Let me just start by saying how glad I am that you came to your senses, Mr. Stark. It's always a pleasure seeing great men learning from their mistakes."

Tony thinks he throws up in his mouth a little. "Sense, sure – is as good a name for an alien army from outer space, I guess," he says and drops the guy's hand as soon as he can without being too rude about it. "Well, the Army is welcome here, we welcome all branches of our armed forces – sorry, I think Colonel Rhodes wants to check my speech now –"

"We'll talk later," Ross says. "In very interested in your experience with the Chitauri – and the Avengers."

"Sure, sure, let's do that…"

Tony runs at a casual saunter to Rhodey – who is busy talking to an Air Force general – and looks around for other unpleasant surprises. It would just take the cake for Pierce to be here too, wouldn't it – get all the assholes in one place and have a blast. Honestly, he'd be tempted to go to the dark side right there and then, and deal with two bad eggs with one missile. It would almost be worth it.

Pierce isn't there, though. And Tony does have a point in his itinerary for Ross – number 13 – so this might actually be a good thing. Or the worst thing that could happen at this juncture. One or the other.

"We ready to roll?" Rhodey asks, turning to him.

"Getting there," Tony says. "Anyone show up uninvited?"

"Well, one, yeah, but I figured you'd be fine with this one," Rhodey says and nods.

Tony is about to make a comment about how he is really not that fine with Ross, honestly, there's a whole thing of stress and politics and nightmares involved – but it's not Ross Rhodey is looking at. Apparently the asshole was invited. There'd be words about that.

There's a cluster of generals and military officials in the other end of the bunker – surrounding none other than Captain America, dressed in his 40's idea of biker clothes. Steve is shaking hands and looking sheepish and pleased, exchanging words with the older guys. He's got that among his people glow about him, which he gets meeting people from his generation.

Forget throwing up in his mouth a little – Tony thinks he's going to hurl now.

"He was in the neighborhood," Rhodey says to Tony. "And when he gave a call to my secretary about getting tickets to this show, I figured it was fine."

Tony gives him a flat look. Rhodey might've gotten no more than a condensed version of Tony's hangups with the Avengers, but he knows Tony's opinions concerning Steve Rogers from before. Tony had distinctive memories of spending many drunken nights bitching about Captain America – and his dad's worship of the guy – to Rhodey over the years. "You figured out it was fine?" 

Rhodey gives a look right back at him. "I also thought it would look really good,"  he says quietly, but pointedly. "And that saying no wouldn't."

Tony blinks at that and – huh, yeah. "Hmm," Tony says and pats Rhodey on the back. "Pay your back later," he says and then turns to a cluster of old guys with a smile of delighted surprise. "Steve! Where did you come from?"

"I was in the area," Steve says and they shake hands. "I saw an article about the demonstration in a local newspaper and I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask. Hey Tony."

"If I'd known, I would have sent you a written invitation," Tony says. "Looks like you've been well – the road treating you alright?"

"Oh yeah, it's been great," Steve says brightly, and it's all just – so weird. The guy looks happy to be there. Happy to see him. What the hell?

"Seriously, didn't think this sort of thing would be your scene," Tony says, suspicious. "Weapons demonstrations and all."

Steve makes a sheepish face. "Yeah, no – this sort of thing was actually part of my job. I used to present demonstrations like this back in the day, before I headed out to the field – granted, I didn't make weapons, but I could read cue cards alright."

Jesus, what? "Huh. I didn't know what," Tony comments as somewhere in the back of his head something explodes. In the smoke, it reads Captain America; pro-war and also pro-guns.

"And, listen, I meant to apologise for some of the things – back in the –" Steve clears his throat. "Well, I've been following Stark Industries on the news, and I want you to know – I think you're doing the right thing here.

Oh god. He just says it, right there, in front of everyone.

Tony's blood runs a little cold as he realises; he could totally destroy Steve's whole future shtick of anti-military establishment pro-freedom guy with this. Right here, under the eyes of the vetted media representatives and their photographers and beside two honoured members of the Joint Chiefs and other generals, he could without too much effort throw Steve to the wolves of media and destroy all future good faith he might get from the Leftists and Centrists. Right Wing would love him – and ruin him.

And Steve, the stupid pretty idiot, has no idea. Didn't SHIELD give him any media training?!

Thinking back to Accords – yeah, no. They didn't. Hell, the guy probably thinks it's just all fine and dandy to say things like these here – thinks he can trust this company. Jesus wept.

"Rhodey – Rhodes, honeybear, take over here," Tony says, motioning to their esteemed guests while taking Steve by the arm. "I gotta catch up with a brother in arms for a bit – a little recess, people, be with you in just a minute –"

He drags Steve with him out of the main bunker and into a side office set up for who knows what reasons. Steve goes along with surprising ease – so something of Tony's sheer blind panic must be showing on his face.

"Steve, buddy, you can't say stuff like that in front of the press," Tony says as calmly as he can.

Steve blinks and his expression goes from politely baffled to displeased. "I can't say I support your work?"

"Hey, I don't mind, I definitely don't mind, but man, you gotta think these things through," Tony says, shaking his head. "We got media on the premises, and they will take words like that and twist them around until you're supporting things you might not want to be supporting. Like war profiteering."

"Aren't you making these weapons to protect everyone?" Steve asks. "Who wouldn't support that?"

Tony just sort of gapes at him. Because yeah, he is, but is that how it's going to be seen? No. And shouldn't Steve –

"How – how long have you been awake now?" Tony asks suspiciously and then shakes his head. "Never mind, it's been just a few months, right? Have you had the time to look into the United States military history yet? The CIA? Gun control? How about Vietnam or Afghanistan?"

Steve is starting to get the annoyed look of a guy who doesn't like having his failings pointed out. "I'm getting there," he says. "I've read something about it, I know it's hasn't all been good – what about it?"

This is before the SHIELD implosion. Steve hasn't been burned by the establishment yet. He's still so trusting. Christ.

"Pro-war isn't a popular stance," Tony says faintly. "And no weapon that explodes is actually defensive. Things aren't black and white. Just – don't say anything about your opinions, don't agree with anything before you know better, and for god's sake, look into this before your make public appearances again, okay? I'm saying this for your sake – wrong word at the wrong time can ruin your whole life in this time."

Steve looks between irritated and surprised. "Okay," he says then. "I'll look into it. But I don't see why siding with you on defence of Earth could be bad. You're doing it."

"I know these waters, Steve – I've swam my whole life with these sharks," Tony shrugs. "I know what I'm getting myself into and I know how badly people can and will spin my words. Just be careful, okay?"

Steve nods. "I will be. Thanks, Tony."

God save him, the man looks grateful.

The actual demonstration ends up almost secondary to Steve's appearance at the event – Tony despairs and drinks too much in the afterparty and ends up making dinner plans with fucking General Ross. Gross.

The next morning the headlines inform him that, "Captain America supports Stark Industries return to weapon production; says that military technology is the way forward."

Tony throws up in hotel bathroom and then calls Rhodey. "Did you see the paper?" he groans into the receiver.

"I thought it was nice," Rhodey says on the other end with the smugness of someone whose plans panned out. "You wouldn't believe the scuttlebutt over here – you're going to have some big orders in your hands."

Fuck, he always forgets that Rhodey is a bastard and that there was a reason why he was Stark Industries military liaison for so long. Too long maybe. "Rhodey, I love you, but I think I hate you. What did you do to the poor American icon?"

"We had drinks – well, I had some, and he just vaporised them. Nice guy. I hooked him up with a PR rep from the Air Force and downloaded a good navigator on his phone," Rhodey answers with a laugh. "He's not that bad – the guy knows what's up."

Tony frowns at that and then lifts his head from the sink. "And what's that, boo?" he asks suspiciously, his blood pounding in his ears.

"Enlistment is up by nearly three hundred percent since New York, and it would be nice if it stayed that way," Rhodey informs him. "And when aliens next come around, it shouldn't be up to just six guys on the frontlines. He gets it."

Tony stares at the bathroom tiles for a moment and then closes his eyes. Right. Rhodey is military, first and foremost. He's got an angle too, and his angle is the United States Armed Forces and making them better, getting them better guns and bombs. Rhodey isn't in this just because Tony asked him. He's got an agenda too.

"Jesus Christ," Tony murmurs, bonking his forehead against the sink. War Machine. Yeah. "Jesus fucking Christ."

"Tony?"

His chest aches. "I've got a gift for you – a new suit. If you name it Iron Patriot, I am disowning you."

With that said, Tony hangs up, turns on the water, and sticks his whole head under it.

It feels a bit like being waterboarded while hooked into a car battery.


 

So, Tony expected a lot of things to go wrong when he came back in time. Pushback from the public, government, the Avengers, everyone. Couple of death threats maybe, even attempts on his life. Stress and unconfirmed decisions, definitely. Having to fear for Pepper's safety, yeah, absolutely.

Sleepless nights because of resurgence of half a dozen old nightmares… yeah, not that. He has more than his fair share even under normal conditions, and sudden nightly revisits of Obie, digging into his chest? Not something he was expecting or something he was prepared for. Jesus.

Going back to making weapons is bringing up all sort of fun memories. It's nothing he can't live with, but frankly, he doesn't want to deal with it.  Waking up every second hour in a fit of nightmares, it starts taking a toll so fast.

"Tony?" Pepper murmurs on the other end of the king sized bed. "Another nightmare?"

Five years of living on his own in the middle of nowhere and he's forgotten how to scream himself awake silently. "I'm fine, Pep, go back to sleep."

She hums and turns around to face him. There's a good three feet between them – she learned not to curl up to him after the first couple of nights. Honestly, he's shocked she's still there, sleeping in the same bed as him. 

"Hey," she says, soft, and reaches to touch his hand. "You want to talk about it?"

Tony shakes his head silently and rubs at his chest.

He's been ignoring the arc reactor to the best of his ability, but it seems to ache more with each passing day. Seems to eat away more and more of his breath until he can only draw shallow gasps that hurt his throat. 

Pepper doesn't say anything, just rubs at his hand, then at his arm – soon she's sitting up beside him and her arm is around him, striking his back. "What can I do to help?" she asks quietly.

"Shit," Tony mutters, covering his face with his hands and trying not to break down. "Just give me a moment – I just – I gotta breathe for a bit."

"JARVIS, crank up the AC," Pepper orders.

"Ma'am."

The bedroom is instantly flooded with fresh cool air at enough power to make a bit of a breeze. Tony sucks in a couple of slow breaths, as deep as the arc reactor lets him. Then he looks down to its blue glow.

It's not the only thing growing in the darkness.  There's a shine coming through Pepper's nightshirt, just under her collarbones. Tony reaches to touch it.

"You're wearing it," he murmurs. "In bed."

"I want to get used to not taking it off," Pepper says smiling, and presses his hand on the reactor he'd made for her, and the nanites within it. "Just like you."

Tony swallows. His arc reactor has a new ring around it made of nanites, enough of them to make any suit he'd like. It doesn't come off – hers does, but she's still wearing it in bed.

"Pep," Tony murmurs in wonder.

She smiles sadly and rests her chin on his shoulder. "I'm with you," she says. "I'm going to fight with you. Pity I can't fight your bad dreams, huh?"

Tony blinks at her and then looks away as she kisses his shoulder.

"Is there anything I can do?" Pepper asks again, her voice quiet

"... Maybe," Tony admits, and she lifts her head. Tony shakes his head at her suggestively arched brows and looks up. "J, find me a guy called Aldrich Killian. He's the CEO of Advanced Idea Mechanics."

Tony hadn't been in any hurry to cover point 23 on his itinerary, the Mandarin. It was just one of those things which he thought to cover when he had the time, you know, once the more essential things were covered and he had the ball rolling. Once it became an issue maybe, or a little before it. Get it wrapped up before Christmas. Plenty of time to go, anyway.

With what's going on and what he's doing, the issue with the arc reactor in his chest starts being a little more than just a past nuisance. Reduced lung capacity he can live with. The weird fluctuations of blood pressure, sure, he can deal with it. The pain – whatever, he has pain killers.

But he's sick of the nightmares. He's sick of scaring Pepper and making her sad.

"Running a search now," JARVIS answers, and almost immediately continues, "I have his address and his last recorded location yesterday at six fifty pm local time in Miami – he withdrew two hundred dollars from an ATM."

Tony lowers his eyes, weighing his options.

Pepper looks at him seriously in the glow of their arc reactors. "Who's Aldrich Killian?"

"A future super terrorist," Tony says, rubbing at his chest. "He's got a think tank that gets their hands on a drug that gives people some volatile super powers – including accelerated healing. Killian created a fake terrorist threat to cover up his people blowing up because of the drug. Among other things, they almost blew Happy to kingdom come."

And Killian tried to kill Pepper with the drug too, while he was at it.

"Sounds like a bad guy," Pepper says, frowning as she sits up straighter.

"Yeah. But the drug they made, the Extremis, it's how I got this out of my chest," Tony says and looks down. "Even fixed my sternum, when calibrated right the stuff can regrow bones."

Pepper's eyes narrow and she nods slowly. "Right. JARVIS, could you please get me everything on AIM; registration, tax records, employee lists, everything you can find out about them? Send it to my pad."

"Of course Ma'am."

"Pepper?" Tony asks as she stands up.

She smiles and leans down to kiss him. "Come on," she says against his lips. "Let's see what we have to do to get this Extremis for you."

"Might be they haven't even gotten it to a point where they can produce it yet," Tony says, even as he gets up. "The attacks didn't start until months from now."

"Doesn't hurt to look into it, and it's not like we're going to get any sleep anyway," Pepper says and holds out his morning robe for him. "If you need this stuff, we'll get it for you, and that's that. Coming, Mr. Stark?"

Tony slips into the robe and follows Pepper out of the bedroom.

Tony was planning to swoop in, kick Killian's ass and collect what he needed from the smouldering remains and move on. It's what he'd done the last time, albeit with ridiculous amount of collateral damage, and it seems like a plan which would work just as well now. Punch the problem until it goes away, the Avengers way. Maybe before the president was kidnapped and anyone died, too.

Pepper just looks over the Advanced Idea Mechanics, its less than twenty employees, its near zero profits and its three and a half properties – and its patents – and makes them an offer.

Even the pride of a scientist scorned has a price, and so Pepper buys the whole damn company to the tune of twenty million dollars.

Chapter Text

Tony names names and Pepper finds people and gets them. Doctor Cho and Doctor Wu are just the start of it – she systematically has him write down every competitor, everyone who is close to getting in the way or starting up trouble, and she deals with them in her own way. Usually by hiring them to work in Stark Industries under very strict contracts, but a couple of times it's by pretty much destroying their lives and livelihoods. The things Pepper Potts can do to a person's credit score would frighten hardened veterans. Honestly, it would probably frighten anyone. It frightens Tony, anyway, and he's a billionaire.

Tony, in the meanwhile, has a couple of very unpleasant business dinners. 

The first is with General Thaddeus Ross, who seems a little displeased about the dinner happening in an actual restaurant – but it's an expensive one Tony owns, so he cools off pretty quickly about it. The guy shows up in a full dress uniform, and Tony can't tell if it's showing off or if Ross just doesn't have any other clothes than uniforms – not yet anyway. They're good three years before Ross starts even thinking about getting into politics, so there's a good chance.

Tony would really like to keep him out of Washington – but if it has to be Ross, then so be it. At least he's the devil Tony knows.

They have entrees and pleasant, if somewhat charged, chitchat until Ross gets into the heart of the matter. "So, did you know we have had military analysts running simulations on the New York Invasion? Calculating collateral damage, the spread patterns of the Chitauri, property damage, potential fallout – what would have happened if Avengers weren't there…"

"Yeah, I heard," Tony agrees – he heard about them around Sokovia Accords, seen the results too. It was one of the few points he and Ross agreed on hundred percent – it could've been so much worse and without Avengers it would've been a disaster. It was the only reason Ross wanted to manage superheroes – instead of just locking them all up and throwing away the key. They were unruly – but they were effective.

"Did you know Iron Man did 85 percent of the damage control?" Ross asks, oh so casual.

Tony knows this pressure point, though. "Only because I managed to score a leviathan kill, and you're not accounting for Hulk. Everyone did their part – and Hulk beat Loki into the floor. I would know – I still have the hole." Ross never includes Bruce or the Hulk – they're both always on the hostiles section of the damage report.

Ross frowns a bit at that. "I'm also not accounting for the nuke – if I did, it would be 100 percent."

"Mm-hmm," Tony agrees. "Any word on that, by the by – the investigation on the World Security Council? How legal was that call?"

"The review is still ongoing," Ross says, dismissive. "Not really my field – I'm more old fashioned. I like soldiers, not missiles."

Yeah, Tony knows. Oh boy, he knows.

"And by our calculations, five Iron Man suits would've been enough to contain the situation with 90 percent more effectiveness. There might have been next to no civilian casualties, and with good enough teamwork between the suits, there might have been as much as 50 percent less property damage."

Tony reaches for the wine. "Hindsight is always 20/20," he says. "And might have is such a nice – if frustrating – set of words, isn't it?"

Ross smiles. "In this business, we deal a lot with hindsight," he says. "We figure out what works and we build up on that. And the Iron Man suit works, you've proven that." And finally he gets to the point. "Now that you're getting back into the business, have you given any more thought to making Iron Man part of the catalog?"

Tony drinks. He stalls. Hates himself a bit. And then he answers. "I have."

Ross' hand, in the process of lifting a bit of steak to his lips, stalls. "You have?" he asks, flat with surprise.

"I have," Tony agrees and leans back on his seat, smothering the urge to do something – not smart. This too is part of the plan, his itinerary. It's point 36, but hell, his itinerary is shifting around like mad, so whatever. This is groundwork. He's not committing to anything.

Nanites make first fifty generations of his suit obsolete for his own purposes. Might as well get some money from them, rather than just mothballing their designs.

"I'm thinking," Tony says and casts a look at Ross. "Nothing is set in stone yet, but we've been talking it over at the company. The fourth generation of the suit – similar to War Machine – could be a good point for merchandising, with a good balance of cost, capability and pilot safety."

Ross obviously didn't expect him to swing back with agreement – he'd expected having to put pressure on Tony and start a campaign of changing his mind. That's what he tried the last time – and failed.

Tony is a bit different this time, and the Mark 4 is so much scrap at this point. Revolutionary to the people of Earth – but to the galaxy as whole? It's barely a juiced up space suit.

Ross pats at his lips, thinking madly. "And have you considered the potential cost to the buyers?" he asks, obviously already running calculations in his head.

"Twenty five million, at least. Might go higher, if it ever actually comes down to it," Tony comments.

Ross narrows his eyes. "Are you kidding? An F-16 costs half that much."

"Iron Man has ten times the maneuverability of any fighter jets currently in production, and at least three times the firepower – and that's at its most basic, stripped down version," Tony says, unimpressed. "It's a flying tank you wear, general. It will make F-16s obsolete."

Ross hums.

"And Iron Man doesn't use fuel," Tony comments and looks away. "The arc reactor cores have a limited lifespan before the palladium is used up – but it will take a suit a hell of a lot farther than a tank of gas. You can go around the world eight times before you run out of juice. But of course… this is just us talking right now. Might never happen."

Ross leans back, setting the napkin down. "Alright, Stark, you have my interest," he says. "What do you want?"

Tony smiles coolly and takes another drink.

His second dinner goes arguably worse. It's with Secretary Pierce, and the guy opens the dinner by handing him a folder. 

"I don't – I don't like having things handed to me, just put it down on the table," Tony says, smothering a grimace. Whatever it is, he already hates it. "A little peeve of mine, sorry."

"Ah, right – I forgot," Pierce says, and it sounds almost apologetic, not snide, which is how people usually react. "Here," he says and places it on the table. "Take your time."

Worrisome, Tony thinks, and lets a moment pass before reaching for the thing and flipping it open on the dinner table between them.

It is full of pictures of Iron Man sending rockets into space.

"Well," Tony says, tilting his head. The pictures are blurry, obviously taken very far away, but his suit isn't in stealth mode and the repulsor from the rocket is lighting him up. The colour scheme alone gives him away.  "At least you caught my good side."

Inside he thinks, Shit, this is too soon.

Pierce smiles, open and friendly. "This isn't meant as a threat – I just thought it would be better to start with open policy," he says and takes a seat. "The World Security Council is deeply apologetic of the way events played out during the invasion, and I'm here to clear the air as much as I am to hopefully make a deal."

Tony casts the guy a look and then looks down at the pictures. Not a threat, sure. Big brother's watching… "I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision to send the nuke," he says. "And the situation got pretty dire in there, not sure I could've made a better call."

"I'm so glad you understand," Pierce says and nods to the folder. "We have been thinking along the same paths in more ways than one, it looks like. The world needs surveillance – in case another portal is opened in Earth's airspace, we need to know immediately, and can't afford to wait until we can get spectrometers on rooftops."

Tony very carefully doesn't react. 

"And we need a first response in case something does pop up on that radar," Pierce says. "We need oversight – but we need insight, too."

Tony looks up and closes the folder with a snap. Do what I want, and no one needs to hear about your little space project. hmm? Right. "That we do," he says and waves the waiter over. "So, what do you have in mind, Secretary Pierce?"

Pierce smiles and thinks he has him.

They eat, they drink and they talk bloody business, and at the end they shake on it. Pierce walks away looking very pleased with himself – and with a small cluster of nanites, making themselves comfortable in his person.


 

"They think I'm building a network of satellites," Tony says while he and Pepper look over JARVIS's reports from the moon. "Presumably to keep a watch on the earth, looking for disturbances, portals, whatnot. Which is not an unreasonable conclusion, they don't know about the nanites, and what can you really fit into little rockets like that? Also in hind sight, I should make a network of satellites."

"You're still sending them?" Rhodey asks, scratching at his chin thoughtfully. "The rockets, I mean, to the moon?"

Tony hums ticket to the moon because, how can he not? "Every other night, yeah," he agrees. "Turns out building on the moon is energy-intensive and we haven't yet located materials for the nanites to start producing their own reactors. Also seeds and fertilizers and stuff like that, to get PLA production going."

Rhodey looks at him with surprise. "You're already at planting stage?" he asks a with surprise.

"J found some caves while mining, which could be sealed," Tony shrugs. "Show him the big one, JARVIS."

Immediately there's a hologram of the cave – in its original state and then fast forwarded through its refurbishment. What had begun as 12 thousand square meter ravine had had its bottom and walls flattened by nanites and then a lattice had been built to cover the entire area with thousands upon thousands of vertical hydroponic planters and adjacent lights. It was built so tight that though it was mostly empty air, no human would fit in there – it was instead managed by little nanite balls with feet that skittered about the place like insects.

"We're testing variants of sugar cane and corn to see which ones will do better," Tony says. "Will probably take some more GMOing to get good enough results, but it's still early stages."

"Hmm," Rhodey answers, watching as JARVIS switches to a video instead of holographic simulation – a closeup on one of the planters, where little sugarcane shoots are growing out of grainy pale medium, and a little robotic spider ball is scanning them with a single, arc reactor blue eye. "That's kind of creepy," Rhodey says thoughtfully, "but also cute as hell."

Tony grins, "Isn't it just?"

"Aww, thanks, sirs," Jarvis says, monotone, and switches angles to show a spider ball carrying a little corn shoot in a planter pot over its round little body. If only Tony wasn't doing this in secret, he'd merchandise the hell out of that one.

"Have you built any habitats yet?" Rhodey asks.

"Nothing on the planned scale, yet," Tony admits. "There are some rooms underground which have decent air seals and breathable atmosphere, but I wouldn't call them comfortable. That's why I need the PLA production up and running – with it we can build in scale without having to use more energy-intensive building materials. Also making nitty gritty things like structurally sound buildings and proper air locks will be much easier with BAMFS running the place.

Rhodey gives him an unimpressed look.

"What?" Tony says innocently. "It's a perfectly good name."

"Tony, you're telling me you have viable habitat up and running on the moon."

"Well, yes," Tony agrees, frowning. "Mostly converted caves and mining sites though, I wouldn't call it a habitat yet."

"You have spaces with viable atmosphere on the moon."

"Is this a bad thing? You're making it sound like a bad thing – Rhodey, honeybadger, this is the plan, right? A base on the moon?" Tony asks, blinking rapidly and then frowning. "I'm fairly certain I told you about this – didn't I tell you this was the plan?"

Rhodey takes him by the shoulders. "You have viable habitat. When can we go?" he asks seriously. "Have you gone already? Tony, seriously, if you go there without me, I am never going to forgive you."

Tony blinks with surprise and – oh. Huh. "Er, well. We could go – now, if we wanted to. Would need a second batch of nanites and extra arc reactors to boost up the suits, but we could just, you know. Go."

Rhodey just stares at him, gripping his shoulders tighter.

"Right," Tony says, nodding, and looks away. "JARVIS, make a flight plan and get us suit boosters – oh, and get Pepper on the phone, ask her if she wants to come."

"Sir, at the current maximum acceleration, the trip will take fourteen hours at the very least," JARVIS informs them flatly. "One way."

"Oh," Rhodey and Tony say together, slumping as the wind is knocked from their sails.

"Well, we could still do it," Tony says hopefully. "Would be a long flight, but it would be worth it, right? I mean – it is the moon."

Rhodey looks tempted. "We'd have to pack water and food, that would bring up our weight going up."

"Another suit booster should cover for it."

"Might I suggest waiting until I have suitable amenities ready as well as some measure of food production?" JARVIS offers blandly. "And once there are accommodations for a brief stay, you can make a weekend of it. Currently, the moon has no toilets."

"Ah," Rhodey says and blows out a disappointed sigh. "Yeah, I guess – I guess we should wait a bit."

Tony makes a face. "Eventually though," he says and holds up his first. "Eventually."

Rhodey taps it with his fist and they turn to the holograms. "So, about SHIELD and HYDRA – I heard a rumour that Iron Man might end up on the production line…"

"Damn, Ross just can't keep his mouth shut, huh?" Tony says, feigning shock, and pulls up the designs for the Mark 4 – or the future market version of it, anyway.

Rhodey considers the designs and then looks at him. "I could've used a bit of a warning. I thought merchandising the suit was late game."

"It is – moon first, definitely," Tony agrees and folds his arms. "But honestly, making the nanites and shooting rockets into space isn't cheap, and we're starting more expensive projects than we did last time around, and bringing factories out of mothballs is not free either. We need investors, and rumors about Iron Man going into production will give us that. And we might already start with a power suit without repulsors, see what that gets us."

"So, not going to production yet?"

"Not in at least another year, no."

"Okay, okay, that's a bit better," Rhodey shakes his head. "Still can't believe you're doing this," he says and turns to look at the armour design. "That it's necessary to do this."

Tony hums noncommittally and reaches to open the suit design up, to see what he would need to alter.

Rhodey looks at him sideways. "Ross though. You know he has a history with Banner, and not a good one either.."

Tony waves a dismissive hand. "He's just a way to spread the word to the ones who want this the most and who will throw the most money at this. I'm not going to sell to Ross specifically. The guy is an asshole."

No. He'd going to sell to everyone. And then probably donate to the ones who can't afford to buy.

"I tried shielding the world last time, and it didn't work," Tony says grimly and starts modifying the suit. "So this time I'm going to arm it, instead."


 

While JARVIS churns away on the moon – and hopefully adds toilets to the base – and Rhodey continues to hype up Tony's buyer base, Pepper opens a medical branch of Stark Industries and Tony meets with the good people of Advanced Idea Mechanics. Including Maya Hansen, whom he remembers a little better this time.

She's not happy to see him. 

"Now you're interested in my research? Didn't seem good enough for you twelve years ago," she says.

"Twelve years ago I didn't care about a lot of things I do now," Tony says and shrugs. "What can I say, I was young and it was New Year. Also I did care – I took a look, didn't I?"

"Honestly didn't think you even remembered," Maya say, her hardened expression relenting a little.

Tony shrugs, offers Pepper a little awkward smile as she arches her brows at him. "Old news," he offers and as she rolls her eyes at him, he claps his hands together and looks at the rests of the scientists. "So, let's have a look at it, shall we?"

Extremis is still in pretty rough shape, exploding good 70 percent of the mice it's given to. They do re-grow all their various missing bits back first, which is promising – but mice turned into live grenades, it's just not good medical research.

It's also not that cool looking as you think. Like, at all.

Tony winces as for the fourth time a container is filled with let's not go there. "Okay, this is ridiculous, I'm getting JARVIS here so that you can run proper simulations without exploding the building," he says. "Get you some holograms so you can look at this stuff in real time without sacrificing innocent lab animals –"

"Hey, we have been working on this for years, I think we know what  –" Maya starts.

"Yes, yes, and now you will work faster with technology," Tony says brightly and looks away from the carnage. "I also already know how to bypass your little glitch here, to a point, but if you're going to work here in the future, you're getting better tech."

"... You know how to perfect the Extremis?" Maya asks with shock.

"No – but I know how to flush it out," Tony says and takes a seat by her computer. "Use it, have it do its magic and then get rid of it before it explodes you inside out – that we can do, here… but I want you to do better. You do too, right, you want to perfect it?"

Maya frowns and sits down beside him.

"So let's perfect it," Tony says and looks to Pepper – who is also not looking at remains of the mice-that-were. "The world could use some fire breathers."

Pepper purses her lips and nods. "I'll schedule the adjustments, have the laboratory upgraded," she says and looks over the laboratory. Almost apologetically she says, "Ladies, gentlemen – welcome to Stark Industries."

Not all of them look too happy about it – but they'd been given the chance to resign with a nice severance package, and not one of them had taken it. Aside from Killian, anyway, who is no longer involved. Probably another reason for the tension in the air.

Oh well. They'd get over it. Or they wouldn't. Either way, Tony has the Extremis now – and good five months ahead of schedule.

And if it gives him a method of turning handicapped veterans into fire-powered superhumans – well. He's not about to turn that down.


 

"Helicarriers. Anti-space armaments. Mass production of Iron Men. Now this Extremis stuff," Fury comments. "You've been busy."

"And you are spying, you spying spy, sneaking up on people like a sneaking sneak," Tony says without looking up from his newspaper. He's on the front cover again – the rumour of the suits had gotten a bit bigger than he intended. "It's extremely rude, and you need to stop."

He's getting mixed reactions to this news too, just like he did with the re-opening of the weapon factories. On one hand, everyone wants to be Iron Man, and who can blame them. On the other hand, what if our enemies get one too, what if in the future wars will be fought Iron Man on Iron Man? So people are now arguing about whether Iron Man is and should be an America exclusive or if he's international. And also, how about that Tony Stark, merchandising heroism?

As if there weren't already Avengers toys on the market.

Fury is suspiciously silent – probably doing the eyebrow thing. "One would think you'd be happy, getting new toys to play with," Tony comments and looks over the edge of the newspaper. Yeah, definitely doing the eyebrow thing. "And no, SHIELD is not going to get a discount."

"I know you can print those suits out in less than six hours," Fury comments, walking closer. "I've seen it."

"You really shouldn't have. Fast doesn't mean cheap. You want quality fast and it's going to cost a lot," Tony points out, narrowing his eyes. "You want it fast and cheap, and it's going to be shit. You know how much it cost me to build the suit I used during the invasion? Hundred million, and then some. And this without counting in the time and money that went into developing previous suits? These things aren't free."

"Really?" Fury asks, flatly.

Tony lets the paper fold over and then drops it. "Okay, let's count. Repulsors; two million – that's five hundred thousand per repulsor. Extra for chest, if you want that. Exoskeleton, armour, et cetera; ten million or thereabout. Helmet-mounted display?" Tony motions at his head. "That's a nice fifty million. How about a portable mini nuclear reactor? Thirty four million and oops, were almost at the budget limit of hundred million, and we still have various wearable technologies, life support systems, sensors, heart rate monitors, et cetera, to go over. And I haven't even gotten to weapons."

Fury's brow cannot possibly arch any more. "Alright, your toys are very expensive. When did this become about money?"

Tony snorts and reaches for the cup on the coffee table. "The moment you strolled in with a shopping list. I take it SHIELD wants some?"

"Probably," Fury agrees and pushes his hands into his pockets. "But let's call this a social visit – I'm not buying anything yet."

All the weapons of mass destruction he has bought beg to differ.

"What then?" Tony asks. "Do you want stock exchange tips? My advice, buy Stark Industries stock, we're having a boom."

"Oh, I have heard," Fury agrees and shakes his head with a soft snort. He doesn't sound or look very amused – more worried, really. "It really spooked you, didn't it – what you saw in that wormhole."

Tony can feel his jaw flex and immediately unclenches, turning to his coffee cup and taking a sip. "No, it was a blast," he says then. "Only good things on the other side, the best of things. Sunshine and daisies."

Fury hums and then comes to join him on the sofa, sitting down beside him with a sigh. "I'm not here to criticise you Stark. I'm just worried," he says. "You're going a bit fast, from what I've seen, and I can't help but wonder if you've lost perspective here."

"You're not here to criticise me?" Tony asks, amused. "You lost me."

"Back when you decided to announce that you're the Iron Man to the whole damn world," Fury says and looks at him. "What was that for, hm? Privatising world peace and all that? You were looking to take your weapons out of people's hands – now it looks like you don't care whose hands you put weapons on, so as long as someone has them."

Tony blows out a breath and looks down at his coffee cup.

"You really think it's going to be bad, the next time this happens?" Fury asks, seriously.

"You know why we won last time?" Tony asks, turning to him. "Because Loki did everything he could to help us. Like Selvig. Think about it. The show he put up in Germany was stupid, he could've just kidnapped that guy he needed, but no, he made a whole thing out of it. And he could've escaped the Helicarrier any time he wanted to, the whole thing was a farce – but why? And why go after Coulson? It was like he pinpointed the exact individual whose death would piss us off the most. And it worked. And then - "

"Then he opened a portal right on top of New York," Fury finishes darkly, "I heard about your chat with Loki. You really think all that was him helping us?"

"As much as he could," Tony agrees. "Loki has green eyes, you know. Not blue. It says blue on your file, doesn't it? Yeah. Wrong."

Fury scowls at that and doesn't say anything.

"What happened in New York was the best case scenario," Tony says. "With everyone in that group doing everything they could to fight the mind control. Loki did what he did, Selvig built a weakness into the device, Barton probably could've killed the Helicarrier with one shot, but he didn't." He trails off with a scoff and shakes his head. "Because we had friends behind the enemy lines, we won. That's the only reason we came on top, and even then it was close. Next time, it won't be like that."

Fury is quiet for a long while, while Tony finishes his coffee, wishing for something stronger.

"So now you're personally going to make sure that next time people can fight?" Fury asks. "And here I thought you'd lost sight of your hero complex – no, it's just gone supernova, hasn't it?"

"Puts things into perspective, looking into the Abyss," Tony says. "And realising the Abyss just wants you dead."

"Not all of the abyss," Fury says and looks at him. "It's not just enemies out there, Stark. There are friends out there too."

Tony hums. Danvers, huh. Danvers picked him up from space, and he was almost grateful for it – almost. Those three weeks drifting were about the worst he had. Coming back to find that not only had he lost the kid, but Pepper too… yeah, that was worse. Honestly, sometimes he would've preferred to just choke to death in that cold tank in the middle of nowhere. At least back then he still had hope.

Well, that was then.

"Where were they when aliens attacked New York?" Tony asks and means, where was Danvers when Thanos Snapped.

Fury blows out a sigh. "Point," he agrees quietly and shakes his head, looking away. "I don't like this new world we're living in. I don't like the implications of what you're doing."

"The day you do is probably the day the world ends," Tony snorts and stands up with a sigh. Not that it's Danvers' fault, what happened, any more than it's Steve's, or Fury's, or his own. It just fucking happened. There is only one person to blame, and that's Thanos.

"Coffee, Director Fury?" Tony offers. "I think we have some éclairs in the kitchen."

Fury looks at him and then stands up. "I could use a cup."

They head to the kitchen and remembering something Tony asks, "Speaking of horrible New York related things and their consequences… what happened to Loki's mind control sceptre?"

"It's under lock and key," Fury promises. "It's not going to be manipulating anyone ever again."

So HYDRA has it already. Great.

Chapter Text

The problem with HYDRA – one of many of them – is that they're… really good in the one thing they do good. Infiltration. And they've been at it longer than SHIELD has known what it's about, and so, for the last forty or so years HYDRA has gotten the freedom to do whatever they want, get their people into whatever agencies they want, and even with the future knowledge… Tony doesn't know them all.

Do they have a hundred members or do they have ten thousand? Have they infiltrated his company? All signs point to yes. Does he have an easy way to figure it out? Well. Yes. And no.

"No, Tony," Pepper says, staring at him incredulously.

"It's just a small patch, no one would even notice," Tony says imploringly. 

"Tony, that's – no. You are not turning every Stark device into your personal listening device," Pepper says firmly. "We are not infringing on people's freedoms and privacy like that – there has to be another way."

Tony makes a face. "Everyone is on half a dozen social media sites, sharing every little thing that happens to them – what privacy do people even have in this day and age? And it was the defence of people's personal freedoms that screwed us over the last time –"

"Tony…" Pepper sighs, rubbing at her forehead.

"– when we should've concentrated on what we needed to do for the world and not for ourselves – and trust me, if the survivors of the Snap thought that having given away their privacy would keep their loved ones from vanishing, they would've signed their rights over happily –"

Pepper looks at him sharply at that. "Okay, first of all, that's an unfair justification to make, you can't always just point fingers at the Snap and cite it as a reasonable cause for everything you want to do – it doesn't justify breaking every law along the way –

"I'm not citing it as a reason for everything, just this thing and some other things –"

"And secondly, are you even hearing yourself?" Pepper asks, raising her voice to talk over him. "What privacy do people even have these days? Tony, seriously?"

Tony makes a face. "Forgot that this is before the Facebook debacle," he mutters. "You know all the social media giants are selling their customers' personal data, right? That's, like, a thing. It's been a thing for years."

Pepper sets her hands on her hips and gives him her most unimpressed look.

"The things you get jaded about, huh?" Tony says, squirming a bit. "I'm pretty sure the moon thing is more illegal than this. Everyone will get away with the whole breaking personal privacy thing by throwing money at the problem anyway. And besides, making weapons is arguably worse."

"The moon thing doesn't hurt anyone, and the weapon thing is for the defence of the whole goddamn planet," Pepper says flatly. "I don't like it, but I see the reasoning behind it. Spying on people is just you spying on people, and there are millions of Stark devices in circulation. What's the justification for that?"

Tony makes a frustrated motion at the – world at large mostly. "Finding HYDRA and handling them before they get their hands on means to take over the goddamn planet I'm trying to save here!"

Pepper purses her lips. "And is it really the only way you can do that, or just the easiest?"

"Easy doesn't always mean bad?" Tony offers hopefully. "Not everything has to be hard."

"No, everything doesn't – but this time it is bad, Tony. Is there another way, yes or no?"

Tony makes a face, but she's obviously not going to budge on this. Damn it. "Yeah, maybe," he mutters. "I just don't like it."

Pepper arches her brows in a go on sort of way

Tony sighs. "I planted nanites on Pierce – the head of HYDRA. One of them, anyway. They have limited range and can't replicate without an arc reactor to hook into, but by now they could have enough incriminating info to get started."

Pepper blinks at that and then lets out an exasperated huff. "That's much better than turning millions of devices into bugs! Why isn't that the first go to?"

"Well, it is. But it's limited and probably won't tell if there are spies in Stark Industries. Which I'm betting there are," Tony admits and runs a hand over the back of his neck. "The phone thing would give us a much bigger pool of data to work with – just getting into from Pierce means… I'm probably going to need help getting the rest."

Pepper's brows arched higher. "Yes?"

Tony sighs again, heavier. "I'm going to have to bring in the Avengers. And probably Fury," he says sullenly. "Definitely Fury."

"Jesus Christ – so because you don't want to socialise, you want to instead commit a massive human rights violation?" Pepper asks flatly. "Damn it, Tony."

"Is privacy a human right?" Tony mutters and shakes his head. "Bringing them in will risk everything, Pepper, they might figure stuff out! We don't want them to know about what we're planning, remember, they might want to stop me!"

She shakes her head with an annoyed look. Yeah, he's definitely ticked her off big time. "You're a genius," she says flatly. "Figure something out. Without breaking more people's right to privacy, which is, in fact, in over a hundred and fifty constitutions around the world – including the one of the United States!"

"Ugh," Tony answers and watched as Pepper walks away, her heels clicking like sounds of distant swords, throwing her hands up as she goes. "JARVIS, can you believe this? Because I can't believe this."

"On the contrary, sir," JARVIS says mildly. "I side with Miss Potts entirely. Where do you suppose the data of millions of Stark devices listening around the clock would go, sir? And who would have to shift through it?"

Tony looks up. "I am going to donate you to New York City Library to work as an automated lighting system," he threatens.

"Yes, sir. Your 3 o'clock meeting starts in fifteen minutes, sir, I suggest you get something to eat before it starts, your blood sugar levels are obviously dropping. Sir."

Tony takes a leaf out of Pepper's book and walks away – throwing his hands up as he goes.


 

Getting the nanites back from Pierce is easy enough and extremely uncomfortable. 

There's a presentation concerning the matter of the Project Insight,  to be held in front of the honourable ladies and gentlemen of the World Security Council. Who obviously aren't there in person and whose faces are shadowed on the screens they do show up on, as if that's enough to protect their identities at this stage – ha. The only people present in person are few high-level SHIELD officials, Pierce and Fury. It's a great crowd to be giving presentations to.

"... And that's how your lift several hundred tons of metal with reasonable energy requirements into the air and make it not sound like a sonic boom going off," Tony finishes with images of newly re-created Helicarrier thrusters on display on the screen behind him. "Any questions?"

"Wouldn't repulsor technology based thrusters work better?" One of the WSC members asks.

"Only if you can afford fifty arc reactors per Helicarrier – or one really big and even more expensive one," Tony shrugs and motions to the screen. "This is less effective speed wise, but it will save your literally billions in energy requirements. I figured you were more about stealth than speed here, anyway."

And he's not giving away the sort of repulsor tech that might get these assholes to space, no sir.

"Thank you, Mr. Stark," Pierce says, clapping his hands together. "Very insightful presentation, thank you. Now I'm sure we all need a moment to digest this, so let's take a small break and continue with open discussion in fifteen minutes."

"Yay, recess," Tony says to Fury. "I wanna be the first one on the slide."

Fury gives him a look before shaking his head and looking at the thrusters designs on the screen. "There's been talk of retrofitting the old Helicarrier with these," he says, nodding to the screen. "What do you think?"

"I don't see why it would be a problem, seems feasible to me," Tony agrees. "The thing is still in the air?"

"No – docked near Greenland," Fury sighs. "The thruster you repaired gave out, and we haven't been able to get it going again. Too risky to take her up again before we get a replacement, and they're stalling to see if Insight will give us better tech to go with."

"Explains why you've been lurking around so much," Tony hums and almost jumps from his skin as Pierce sidles up to them and puts his hand on Tony's shoulder.

"A very promising start, wouldn't you say?" Pierce says and smiles at the thruster design. "Yes, this exceeds my expectations by a mile and a half – well done, Stark. I can tell, this is a start of something great."

Well, that's concerning.

"Just a little something something to start with," Tony comments and thinks a comment at the lattice of nanites on his scalp. Pierce is close enough that the command should carry. "So you're going with three Helicarriers right from the get go?" Tony asks, folding his arms. "A bit of an overkill, don't you think?"

"Considering the threats we are up against?" Pierce asks and makes a rueful, determined sort of expression. "You're not the only one worried about another Chitauri invasion – had the Helicarrier been closer to New York at the time, I'm sure it would've proved an excellent countermeasure. Maybe with three, or more, we will be in a better position to defend ourselves the next time."

"Yeah," Tony agrees, feeling a bit sick. Pierce using the same excuses he'd using for Insight is kind of… yeah. "Here's hoping."

"There will be the old Helicarrier as well, and it's not being decommissioned yet," Fury adds, considering Tony. "I think we're getting off to a good start here."

Tony thinks back to the image of watching the Helicarriers fall into the Potomac and crashing into the Triskelion. Two years of hard work by thousands of people, and literally billions of dollars, and it took Captain America, like, an hour to crash it all down. Honestly, Tony was so impressed.

It's also the reason he is not putting his eggs into a big hulking basket of slow moving metal. Iron Man armours and weapons of mass destruction, yes, aircraft carriers and massive space stations, no.

… should maybe make multiple bases on the moon. Just in case. You never know when a supersoldier will go on a rampage on your secret base.

The rest of the presentation goes pretty much how Tony thinks it would, in that it's not very pleasant to go through. The World Security Council people congratulate themselves on figuring out effective measures to fight aliens with, Fury looks at him suspiciously and Pierce radiates a sort of confident, almost fatherly pride over everything, which just turns Tony's stomach. The guy is way too satisfied. It's giving Tony the creeps.

But he gets the nanites back. So there's that. Ugh.


 

Rubbing at his chest and washing the bitter taste on his tongue off with hard alcohol, Tony watches Bucky Barnes being reprogrammed. 

There was a lot of other stuff on Pierce's nanites, some of it useful, most of it not so much. Tony gets a few names, few faces and a couple of useful documents and files scanned from Pierce's computers and phone, and one very incriminating email… but this he didn't expect.

Fuck, he didn't even realise that Barnes was in use and not on ice – but here he is, on Tony's screen, screaming into a mouth guard as his brain cells are being fried. Tony had seen videos about it later on – Nat trying to talk sense into him, fun times were had by no one – but this seems… somehow much worse.

Somewhere, Barnes might be going through this shit right now. He's definitely still feeling the aftereffects. And it's still happening. Probably would happen again.

"Sir?" JARVIS asks while the sound echoes in the workshop. There's a very careful note of concern in his voice.

Tony takes another drink, barely blinking as he idly notes how Barnes' skin goes red around the large pads around his face, how tears leak from his eyes, how every muscle in his body convulses. There's actual smoke rising from the tech they're using on Barnes, it's so bad. The tech looks old. Ineffective. Probably does more damage than it needs to.

"Sir, may I ask –?"

Tony turns freezes the recording, stilling Barnes in place, still straining in pain. The ensuing silence seems to ring in the workshop, it's so loud. Tony can feel it in his chest, echoing in the empty place where the reactor sits. Damn, it hurts.

JARVIS waits silently, attentive, watching – worried.

Tony breathes in and out, rubbing his fingers around the reactor socket. He's healthier in this time, not just at a healthy weight, but he's fit – there's actual muscle definition around the reactor. Still, he can feel the ribs there – can feel then flex against metal. He can almost smell it, the pain. Electricity and human skin, put together, it has a… distinctive scent.

Tony reaches for the bottle, gripping the neck tightly. "Call Hansen, Wu and Cho," he says then and leans back in his chair. "Tell them to get ready for the surgery."

JARVIS doesn't have to ask what surgery – there's only one they're planning. "The Extremis development is still ongoing, sir –"

"They've already figured out how to flush it out safely, and that's enough. I don't want to keep it, I only want the reactor and the shrapnel out, and then be done with it," Tony says grimly and lifts the bottle. "Just tell them to get ready."


 

The surgery is four days later – because Pepper puts on the breaks and forces him to wait until the doctors run through some tests and have him prepared. It takes X-rays, so many X-rays, and scans, and everything else they can do with a hunk of metal in Tony's chest. Having your chest and back ultrasounded for four hours to build up a holographic digital model of it is – an interesting experience.

Seeing it in blue and red, how deep the metal goes, makes Tony only that much more eager to get it out now, before he risks… before he risks anything with the thing still there.

"I want to see you get better too," Pepper tells him seriously, worriedly. "And the quicker the better, but we're doing this as safely as possible. Alright?"

"Yeah. Yeah, alright," Tony murmurs and lets her run the Extremis team through their paces.

The surgery itself feels almost like an anticlimax, at the end. It goes more or less how Tony remembers it. As in, he doesn't – he's under anaesthetic for the whole process, the removal of the arc reactor, the removal of the shrapnel, the injection of Extremis and its ensuing removal from his system via rather heavy-handed dialysis… He misses all the fun, really. But he watches the recording later.

Watching his bones grow over the pit in his chest after the reactor socket is removed never stops being both very creepy yet immensely gratifying at the same time. Seeing his lungs fill up behind the bones before muscles grow over to hide the process is kind of grisly though. The whole thing looks unreal, and they have it on four different cameras, plus the cameras on the doctors. Even with proof, it looks almost fake.

In the end, all he is left with is a ring-shaped mark of deep red scaring where he'd originally healed around the reactor and a patch of brand new skin in the middle of it. Once upon a time Tony had had a follow-up plastic surgery to reduce scarring until you couldn't even tell something had happened. This time he thinks he will leave it. It's not so bad.

It's a reminder.

"Tony, oh my god," Pepper says, later, after tests have been performed, treatment has been pronounced a success and champagne has been had. The whole Extremis team gets hefty bonuses. Tony gets a full lung capacity, and Pepper gets a new bit of skin to touch.

"It really is gone," she murmurs with wonder. "It's completely covered up. That's amazing."

"Yeah, the Extremis is really something," Tony agrees roughly, pressing her hand to his chest and sighing at the feel of it on the fresh new skin. Her fingertips are a little cold, but her palm is warm, and it feels incredible. Being able to draw full breaths without it feeling like he's trying to breathe around a block of iron is incredible.

No more literal weight on his chest, no more arc reactor hum, just skin and flesh and bones. The drug even healed the damage to his heart. He's at 100 percent.

"I can't believe I've had my hand in your chest," Pepper whispers, feeling around the scar with her thumbs. She lets out an incredulous little laugh. "Won't have to do that again, huh? Thank God."

Tony laughs, leaning to touch his forehead to hers. Yeah, she doesn't have to – she has her hand in his chest, every day, every breath, around the clock, not knowing it. That's fine, though. That's good. "Yeah, no more of that," he agrees.

Pepper kisses him and then reaches for the arc reactor on the side table – triangle in shape, made almost entirely of nanites. With gentle, careful hands she places it on his chest, over the scar – what was once a weakness turned into armour instead.

No more fearing having his heart ripped out of his chest.

Pepper's got it covered now.


 

Together with JARVIS Tony puts together a.. briefing packet for the Avengers. It can't look like he had bugs on Pierce, that would be a pretty bad look, so instead he makes it look like, whoops, JARVIS was still running his hack on SHIELD, forgot about that, and look what came up, isn't that crazy? Figured you would like to know.

He isn't sure whether to include the bit about Barnes though. JARVIS can make it look like he got his access to a security camera instead of the nanites recording the thing from Pierce's lapel, but… it would complicate things. It would probably skew Steve's priories way off the track.

It would also make the guy that much more keen on bringing HYDRA down. And make the team a little less likely to get sniped maybe, if it came down to fighting. And it would. Also, if there was a way to distract Steve from what's going on behind the scenes, that's Barnes.

Decisions, decisions.

"What do you say, J?" Tony asks.

"Concerning what, sir?"

"Should we be nice to people we don't like?"

JARVIS considers the question carefully, sensing the issues lying between the lines. "That depends, sir, on what we have to gain or to lose. But in general, I don't think we should have to be. If we don't like them, it's usually for a reason."

"Very, very true," Tony agrees and leans back, looking away from the recordings and at the ceiling instead. What does he have to gain, what does he have to lose – and how much does he care, really?

Steve of this time is… different from how he's in the future, and so far it's been weirdly nice, what little of it Tony has seen. It's not going to last though. Natasha and Barton Tony hasn't seen in months, who knows about them, they're back with SHIELD probably. Bruce is… probably something Tony has to take care with. As much as he wants Bruce to be on his side, the guy doesn't really want to be. Took years for Tony to get that message, but he got it. Bruce is his own element, and he's not into mixing volatile chemicals these days.

And Thor isn't even on the planet, so for now he's a non-issue.

So, what does he have to gain here? Prolonging of the status quo, and hopefully somewhat effective takedown of Hydra if he's lucky, distracting his teammates so that they don't look too deeply into his comings and goings. What does he have to lose…?

Too much.

And the Avengers would not side with him towards the end of his itinerary. He's damn sure of that.

"J, paint me a picture," Tony says, closing his eyes. "Barnes on his spiffy electric chair, as seen through a security camera. Secretary Pierce slightly off frame – you can't see his face, but leave some recognizable feature in. Watch, shoes, something the spies can deduce."

"Why not fully in frame, sir?"

"It's too convenient, it will make them suspicious. No one likes having proof just handed to them, it's much more believable when they have to figure it out," Tony says and crosses his arms behind his neck. "Makes them feel like an active participant in their own horror show, instead of a puppet being strung along."

"I see," JARVIS says with a rather meaningful tone. "I will keep that in mind for further manipulative social interactions."

Tony snorts. "You should," he says and lifts his feet up onto the work table. "Take an internet course on negotiation, you'll see how much of basic human interaction is just flat out manipulation. We're always trying to manipulate each other, even if it's just to make someone laugh or like you, we use subtle manipulative tactics to do it. Lying, telling the truth – even jokes are manipulative in their own way."

"Didn't take you for a cynic, sir," JARVIS says quietly.

For a moment Tony doesn't answer. Was that cynical? Damn, it was. Huh. "Used to be a futurist," he muses. "But knowing what the future will be like, I guess I'm just a realist now."

JARVIS doesn't answer at first. Then he says, thoughtfully, "Sir, I have a phobia of over-engineered buildings."

Tony blinks and looks up. What? "What?" he asks out loud unsurely, wondering where this is coming from. Something going on on the moon maybe? Or maybe JARVIS doesn't like the tower? Can an AI have a phobia – Jesus, has he somehow given his AI traumas about buildings? "What is it –"

"It's a complex complex complex."

Tony's brain draws to a halt while JARVIS waits for his reaction. You could hear a nanite drop as Tony simply gapes at the cameras.

JARVIS clears his metaphorical throat. "According to the internet, I should now show myself out," he says thoughtfully. "But as I can't physically do that, perhaps I should go into a sleep mode, sir."

"Oh my god, J, did you just pun at me?" Tony demands disbelievingly. "You? I coded you better than this, didn't I? I'm pretty sure I did – quick, pull up your code, I need to check if you're glitching out on me."

"Am I facing punitive action, sir?" JARVIS asks mildly. "Are you going to punish me?"

Tony lets out a choked noise. "Stop," he says.

"Will it make it better if I admit a compunction over my actions, sir? I apologise for my impunity."

Unable to help himself, Tony snorts at him incredulously. "Okay, okay, you got me, JARVIS, you got me. You have made a successful pun, I have been punned. Well done, buddy. You can stop now."

"Thank you, sir," JARVIS answers and sighs, sounding mildly disappointed. "I have computed the image, would you like to see?"

"Yeah, thanks J," Tony says and drops his feet back to the floor. Christ, is he getting that bad? "Okay, let's see it."


 

When Tony calls a meeting with the Avengers, only two of them show up. Banner messages his apologies and says he's not in the country, Barton just sends a busy signal and Thor probably didn't even get the message, which is just as well, terrestrial matters aren't really his thing.

Steve comes in wearing his biker gear with the wind still in his hair and headphones on, and Natasha sashays in wearing a fluffy sweater, uggs and an oversized beanie and holding a pumpkin latte, which is an... interesting look on her.

"What – it's my day off," she says at Tony's look. "I can have a latte every now and then. Don't judge."

"Yeah, not judging, I mean – basic isn't a look I imagined on you," Tony admits. And damn, is it fall already? "You look cozy."

Natasha narrows her eyes and smiles. "Thanks – I feel it. Also is not like my face has been on the news or anything – looking a little basic is helping me blend in."

"Well, you're somehow making it work, so... kudos."

"Hey Tony," Steve says, coming forward and running a hand through his hair to push it back from his face. "I was in Philadelphia when I got the message – what's up? Where's Doctor Banner?"

"Bruce begged off, he's somewhere in South America and couldn't make it," Tony says and motions them to the living area of the penthouse. "Right this way. I was really hoping to see Barton here – Nat, you know what's up with him?"

"Nat?" she asks wryly, arching her brows over her cup of spiced up coffee.

"Sorry – Natasha. Romanoff. Agent," Tony says, waving a hand as they move towards the couches – and the projectors. "Barton?"

"Busy, but I can bring him up to speed later if necessary," Natasha promises. "So what is it?"

Tony clears his throat. Show time. "Well – Steve, you remember the time JARVIS hacked the Helicarrier, found out about the weapons of mass destruction and we had a nice seven way shouting match before everything went to hell?"

Steve's brows lift slightly. "Vividly," he agrees while Natasha looks at Tony flatly.

"You hacked the Helicarrier?" she asks. "When?"

"Acting like you don't know – it's cute," Tony grins and waves a hand at JARVIS. "I don't buy it for a second, but it's cute – anyway. I forgot about it until just a little while back, but turns out that JARVIS had been running a hack all this time and, uh – something, something came up. JARVIS, show them the files, please?"

Pointing fingers and shouting HYDRA is not going to work, so it's not what they do. What Tony and JARVIS had collected was mostly incriminating by implication. Pictures, weird files, cryptic messages, odd reports – stuff which by itself looks mostly innocent. But there are a couple of bangers in there too.

Barnes is one of them, but he isn't the only thing Pierce had personally checked up on. During the last month he'd also looked into Loki's Sceptre – and it's definitely not under lock and key, no, it looks very much like it's being experimented on. With live subjects involved. Who just so happen to be humans and also in cuffs.

"Tony," Natasha says, frowning as she looks between the floating pictures and files. "This doesn't mean – obviously the Sceptre had to be checked and tested before it was sent to the Fridge. SHIELD scientists are probably trying to figure out countermeasures for it –"

"By trying it out on living, unwilling subjects?" Tony asks, dubiously. "Also, Fury told me weeks ago that the Sceptre was already in the Fridge. Doesn't look like it to me now, though – looks to me like they're working on figuring out how to make it work. Also what about the rest of this stuff? Because there's a lot of shady dealings going on –"

"It's SHIELD," Natasha points out, "You know there's some things they're doing which don't look too good, but they have to be done anyway –"

"What about this then, hmm?" Tony asks and pulls one of the emails Jarvis had pulled from Pierce's computer. "Is this sort of thing the kind of stuff that has to be done too? Go on – read it. Read it and tell me it's not a bit worrisome."

Natasha gives him a suspicious look and leans in to read, while Tony folds his arms. It's Sitwell's analysis on Director Fury, the Avengers, and the Director's personal failings and prejudices concerning Avengers and why his termination would be for the best of…

"Tony," Steve says, his eyes elsewhere. "Tony, can you – can you make that one bigger?"

He'd found the one among the noise of other problematic stuff. Tony glances his way, pinches the hologram by the corners, and blows it up to full size. Steve makes a confused, hurt noise, staring at Barnes' face, framed by lanky hair and glaring between bouts of pain. It's the most recognizable frame of his face JARVIS could pull, with the guy's face well lit up and his eyes visible. JARVIS might've also enhanced a little, made it a bit sharper, clearer.

Steve couldn't have missed it.

"That's – that's Bucky," he says.

"Steve?" Natasha asks, looking up - judging by the look on her face, she'd read enough.

"Who?" Tony squints at the picture.

"Bucky Barnes – James Buchanan Barnes, he was my… my friend. We fought together back in the – I thought that he –" Steve trails away and looks at Tony, his eyes wide and his face going both pale – and hard. "What is this? Where is this from?"

"I have no idea, Cap," Tony lies and shoves his hands into his pockets, rocking his weight on the balls of his feet. Inside he feels hot and cold and kind of terrified. This is it. Make it or break it. "Why don't we find out?"

Chapter Text

"I did what you told me to – I looked into things," Steve comments later, while Tony pretends to get some work done and Steve pretends not to be bursting at the seams. Natasha had sort of left them both in the dust, threatening pain and torment if they messed up her chances of doing proper snooping before hand. So, now they're waiting, Tony pretending like this thing is all there is going on, itching to do something else but unable to because Steve is there.

"Into what?" Tony asks, while tinkering with body armour design which would probably never go anywhere now. Once he'd start selling power suits, this stuff wouldn't be even bargain bin material, anymore. Maybe something for, like… airsoft parties.

Christ he'd rather be at be at an airsoft party than here.

"I looked into US military history. Military policy. The past couple of wars," Steve says, sitting down on Tony's workshop couch and sighing. "Colonel Rhodes put me in touch with a military public relations representative who's been helping me figure out what to say and not say, if it ever comes down to me speaking in public. She's been bringing me up to speed on things too. Explained why people reacted the way they did when you reopened weapons production."

Tony hums. "Yeah, well. People got really sick of war around Vietnam and the exhaustion hasn't worn off yet. Afghanistan made things – messy in a way," he stops there with a grimace. He made a lot of money from that one, and people are remembering. These days his support base among the public is twenty five and under, the numbers peaking between eighteen and eight. And they're the generation that grew up with the internet and Google at their fingertips.

It's Us versus Them doesn't work as well on people who can Google half a hundred pictures of various atrocities committed on both sides and then share them to hundreds of thousands on social media to see. That and everything and anything anyone had said in camera, ever. Including him. The shine of Iron Man is kind of wearing off, as the younger generations realise, oh yeah, this is the guy who did all that, who said all that. Having his enemies be aliens that provably tried to invade the planet helps a little… but it doesn't negate the fact that he went around his word. He swore off weapons production and then went back to it.

He's a publicly confirmed liar who betrayed and disappointed hundreds and thousands of starry eyed kids who wanted to be just like him. Of all the crosses to bear… that's the worst.

God, he doesn't even want to think what Peter, currently all of ten years old, thinks of all of this. Does he even get it yet? He's like… beta version of a person still. Do kids that age get the betrayal of public trust…?

Steve hums, bringing Tony out of his thoughts. "When I saw the public outcry, I didn't get it," he admits. "To me it looked more like you'd… humbled yourself. You had a great idea, this… ideal, and it didn't work, so you backed out, took back what you said and went back to work. I thought it took guts."

Tony's hand stills in the hologram. "What?" he asks flatly. "Guts?"

Steve shrugs, throwing him a wry smile. "You set down your own wishes and dreams to work for the world's defence.  I figure the sustainable energy thing and stopping the proliferation of weapons, it meant a lot to you… but you did it anyway."

Tony lowers his hands. Damn, the guy really has been reading up on things, using words like proliferation of weapons. But also, what. "Is that what you think happened?" he asks incredulously.

"Didn't it?" Steve asks, looking at him. He shrugs. "Well, that's what it looked like to me anyway, at the time. And people seemed to just hate you for it – I didn't get it. So, the thing at the demonstration…" he shakes his head ruefully and rubs a hand over his neck, sheepish.

For a moment Tony doesn't say anything – honestly, he has no damn idea what to say. He doesn't even know what to think. "And now you do get it?" he finally asks.

"I know now it's not so simple, probably," Steve says and looks away. "And Cassie – the PR rep I've been in touch with – she says that you lost faith and face with the public because of the whole thing, and that sort of thing can ruin your reputation. And once you lose reputation, it's hard to get back."

"Yeah it is. Sometimes impossible," Tony agrees and folds his arms. "I got money and tech to fall back on, I supply things no one else can, so… I actually got a sort of boost from it, worth wise – but if I didn't have that, it could've been it. It could've been game over."

Steve nods. "I think get that now. And I get why you told me to back off," he sighs and shakes his head. "I'm not sure if I'm built for this time, though. Not sure I can keep up with this sort of thing, the public opinion and all. It was so much simpler back in the day."

Tony hums, dubious. "You'll pick it up," he definitely did last time, though… yeah, that went how it did. "And, hey, there are celebrities who do well with non-engagement policy where the press goes," he offers, looking at the guy thoughtfully. "You don't have to get on my level of crazy here – I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemies, really. You can just smile and say no comment, and move on. That's a valid tactic too."

Steve looks at him thoughtfully. "Can I?" he asks, and it sounds like a serious question.

"Why not?" Tony asks. "It's what Romanoff and Barton are doing. Bruce is completely incognito. You could be too." And whoo boy, wouldn't it make things so much easier for Tony in the long run. Except for when they finally did decide to make public appearances – by that point, their silence would've made whatever they say that much more louder…

Steve doesn't answer immediately. Then he sighs. "I don't know. Duty, I guess? I did other things too while I was out, you know," he says, looking away. "Visited a few bases, recruitment offices, Veterans Associations... Colonel Rhodes suggested it. Seeing people of my generation, seeing how they handle things," he explains. "And – some of those guys could use someone speaking up for them."

Tony arches his brows. "Okay," he says. "I guess I can see that," can see Steve ending up at this point, but, "You kind of lost me on what you're getting at," Tony admits and then lifts up his hands, "Not that it's not a valid point, treatment of vets is serious business, I get that – but how does that relate to public reaction to weapons manufacture?" And how does that relate to him and people's reaction to him? Just to be a little self-centred here…

"Aren't they kind of the same thing, in a way?" Steve wonders with a frown. "Military weapons technology and treatment of former military service members – they're just points on the same curve. On one end there's the little guy, suffering because after he did this thing and made his sacrifices he got no support, barely any treatment for his injuries and none for his shellshock. On the other end there's you, with all of – this," Steve motions at the workshop around them – at the missile prototype hanging off a wall across from them. "I don't know – it just seems to be a part of the same issue to me."

Tony stares at him for a moment, marvelling the nearly visible mental process happening there. It's a gross oversimplifying of the issues of military establishment, but Steve isn't completely off either. Obviously he's twigged into what a mess the whole thing is, like he had the last time – except this time he's seeing it from the inside.

Somehow, the future hasn't managed to alienate Steve Rogers yet. Or maybe what Rhodey did pulled the guy back into the fold. Either way, this is fascinating.

"I can hook you up with some more people, who I think would love to talk with you about it," Tony offers thoughtfully. Honestly, it would be interesting as hell, seeing Steve work his way through this. Also would keep the guy busy and out of the way, maybe. "War correspondents and journalists – not paparazzi, no. Proper journalists, guys and gals who wrote the Pulitzer winning stuff," he explains. "People who dig into the nitty gritty of this stuff. You'll get more hard truths and realism from them than from a military PR rep."

With his luck, Steve would become an anti-military advocate though, and start speaking against weaponization of superhero-tech or something. Tony really should learn to just shut his mouth about these things. Oh well, too late now.

Steve thinks about it and then nods, looking thoughtful, seriously considering. "I think I'd like that. Thanks, Tony, I appreciate it."

Sheesh.

The whole thing is a distraction though, and obviously so – the moment the conversation peters off, Steve starts anxiously glancing at the screens around them, waiting for some kind of result to just pop up, waiting for Natasha to make a call, waiting for something to happen.

"We should be out there, helping her," Steve says finally.

"She's the spy – we'd just get in the way," Tony says and turns back to the holograms. "Patience is a virtue, Cap."

"Never been good at that particular one," Steve says and pulls out the picture – Tony had it printed for him, on paper, like something out of the last century. It's already wearing out with how often Steve pulls it out to look at it. "If this really is Bucky…" he trails off and shakes his head.

Tony doesn't say anything, not until Steve gets up to pace restlessly, obviously antsy for some sort of action, muttering, "Can't stand just sitting here, waiting. We should be doing something."

Tony blows out a breath. The guy's never been good at sitting things out, huh. And if he goes busting into SHIELD now, demanding answers, he will probably ruin everything. Whatever is even happening there- with Steve around, Tony can't even hack them and check.

Okay, babysitting duty – how to distract a supersoldier who is getting fidgety. "Yeah, okay," Tony blows out a breath and turns the holograms off. "I think I'd like to take you up on that challenge now."

"What?" Steve asks, turning to him.

"Come on," Tony says, waving the guy to follow him. He's getting a bit antsy himself, and having Steve up in his space is throwing him off his groove, big time. "I'll put on the suit – let's go a few rounds."

Steve wastes not a second putting the photo away and agreeing. Supersoldiers, seriously.

Funny thing – Tony isn't sure he ever actually properly sparred with Steve. Or with any of the Avengers, really. They got together when they needed to and then they just sort of split apart again – aside from the whole Ultron thing, which fell apart like a handful of marbles, they didn't really hang out together between missions. Not aside from Steve and Nat, who actually worked together for a while at SHIELD, and Tony and Bruce before Bruce got enough and Hulk quit on all of them… and then there were Nat and Barton...

Okay, some of them hung out together – but everyone as a group? Nah. And Tony and Steve? Definitely not, no matter how much Tony deluded himself that they were friends. They really weren't. They were barely co-workers.

So Tony doesn't really have to fake it being the first time they've spared.

"So, how does it work?" Steve asks while wrapping up his knuckles. "The suit? How is it powered? It's not like you put a tank of gas in, and everyone says that you got a reactor on your chest, but…"

"The reactor powers the suit, Cap," Tony says, while JARVIS buttons him up and into the old Mark 5. He's almost forgotten how heavy the damn thing is – these days he just fakes its look with nanites, which are a hell of a lot lighter to carry around. "It's a mini nuclear reactor, basically."

"I've heard that," Steve agrees, watching him. "But where does it get its fuel?"

Tony looks up, but Steve isn't joking – he just looks curious. "Okay, nuclear energy and electrical engineering, one-o-one," Tony says while JARVIS fits bits and bobs of the armour into each other around him. "You get energy in a nuclear reactor by one of two methods – you either split atoms apart, which creates energy, that's fission, or you fuse atoms together, which creates even more energy, which is aptly called fusion…"

Explaining Steve how the arc reactor does it – but oh so much better – Tony finishes suiting up and takes a stance across Steve on his empty garage floor. Steve listens to the explanation with actually interested look on his face, which Tony doesn't know what to do with, but at least they're killing time. And no one is heading to SHIELD to do something stupid.

"Okay, I'll just – take your word for it," Steve says eventually, shaking his head.

"Maybe a class in basic physics?" Tony offers. "Or you could check up videos on YouTube – everything is on YouTube."

"Yeah, maybe," Steve agrees and looks him over. "Okay, so, how are we going to do this?"

"Rules; no repulsor blasts or flying on my end, and no bouncing the shield of my walls on yours," Tony says, shrugging his shoulders and trying to get used to the heavier, chunkier suit. "I just finished this tower a few months ago, let's not break it, okay?"

Steve pulls on his steel-knuckled gloves and nods. "Agreed. Ready?"

"Whenever you are, old man."

And then they fight.


 

So the briefing with Nat and Steve ends up being pretty much Tony's whole contribution to the HYDRAHydra business. Nat goes, does her thing, and Tony figures that she must've told Fury or something, because then the whole matter is way out of his hands. In the end, they sort of - go off on their own.

Honestly, he has no idea what to think about it. He has no damn idea what the reason for the exclusion is this time – last time it was probably because of general suspicion and the fact that Project Insight was up and almost running and had his fingerprints all over it. In hindsight, probably didn't help his relationship with Steve one bit, that, later on. This time… who the hell knows.

Either way, Nat drops him a "Don't worry – it's our house and our mess, we're going to clean it up ourselves. We got this – we'll be in touch." And… that's that.  Which would be great. Tony wouldn't mind at all – hell, it's one concern less. If SHIELD manages to clean up their own internal mess, then, hip hip hooray, one issue less to deal with. Tony is all for it, honestly. He's got so many other things to do.

Except they leave him standing there with Steve still in his house, anxiously waiting for some news of his maybe-buddy-in-Hydra-custody. Because, oh yeah, this Steve has only a few months in the future under his belt and none of that juicy SHIELD training – because all he's been doing for the last few months is having an extended road trip.

"Um," Tony says, looking at him.

"They can't just do that, can they?" Steve demands. "They can't just leave us in the dark like this!"

"It's SHIELD, what can't they do? Pretty sure they think they can do anything and everything," Tony mutters, making a face. This is not how he planned this to go – and like hell is Steve going to just stay put and be a good boy while his precious Bucky is out there. Fuck, what a mess.

"Okay, okay, let's – think this through," Tony says before Steve can do something stupid – like go throw a ruckus at SHIELD. As much fun as it would be to see, it would be ultimately counterproductive. "Natasha and Fury know what they're doing, probably, so I daresay they got this. They're probably bringing Barton off the farm, and that asshole is, like, creepily efficient in going through bad guys, so, if there's a teamup that can deal with this mess, it's those three. If we go there guns blazing and shields flashing, I think we might just… mess up whatever Fury is planning here."

"We don't know that – they might need help," Steve says, pacing a little.

"It's an educated guess based on past experiences – and we're not spies, Steve, they are," Tony says, motioning haphazardly at the general metaphorical direction of SHIELD – which in this case is the corner of the room. "We're both of us a bit too flashy for that field. We'll get in the way."

"Well – what if we weren't? We can go stealth – we went under the radar plenty of times back in the day."

Tony makes a face. "Things are a bit – different, these days," he says. "Honestly, Steve, I think we better sit this one out – stay on standby, if they need bigger guns with less finesse, we'll go at it, yeah, but… let's let the assassins do their thing first."

"But – what about Bucky?" Steve asks, frustrated. "You saw that picture, it was like – some sort of torture chair – "

Tony blows out a slow breath. That's the rub, isn't it? Steve's a complete loose cannon for as long as Barnes is out there and Steve doesn't know how he's doing. And Steve has no idea what Barnes is right now. Shit.

"Steve," Tony says, as seriously as he can. "I know you want to help, but I'm telling you – it's a bad bet. Let Nat do her thing. You don't have the know-how to help her."

Steve grimaces and paces back and forth a bit. "Shit," he mutters, which makes Tony's brows arch a bit. "Fine – but – I don't like this. I don't like sitting things out."

"Yeah, I know," Tony sighs. God, does he know. And now he has Steve in his house, and it looks like it might end up being a prolonged arrangement, because this time SHIELD isn't picking up the slack there. Great. He can't work with Steve underfoot, but he can't risk the guy at loose ends either, now when there are temptations out there.

Shit is about right.

"Tell you what," Tony says, rather desperately, trying to think of something, anything, to distract Steve with. "I'll hire you some personal teachers, trainers, in the meanwhile. You can start picking up the skills you lack, and maybe next time you won't have to sit back on the bleachers. Okay?"

Steve turns to him and for a moment he looks completely expressionless. Then he blows out a sigh and his shoulder slump. "Yeah, okay. Thanks Tony, that's – that's big of you."

Jesus Christ.


 

Pepper, when she hears about it, just laughs at him. "Wasn't the plan to keep the Avengers away? To keep your distance?" she asks, amused. "And now you ended up adopting one? How, Tony?"

"I don't know!" Tony says, this close to pulling his hair. "But I can't work with him here – he'll see and get suspicious and this will all go to hell and –"

She laughs some more on the other end of the call, and Tony groans at her, "You're not being very helpful."

"Honestly, I am not even trying to be. You needed breaks, Tony," she says. "You've been doing so much so quickly, and I was starting to fear I was going to have you burn out before we even got the moon base up and running. Maybe this will be good for you."

"Having Steve here might be good for me? Pepper Potts, you are a cruel, cruel woman. You know how this stuff turned out the last time – you know what happened – "

"And I also know that things are different," Pepper answers pointedly. "And I know it's not him who's keeping major world-shattering secrets this time. I've been keeping up with Rhodey too, you know. He's got nothing but good things to say about Steve – he's a little on the gullible side, but he's good. And I know you think so too."

Tony closes his eyes. "I don't," he mutters, lying through his teeth.

"You do," she says, smile in her voice. "I don't know what went wrong for you the last time, but you're a different person now, Tony. You're a bigger person. Don't blame the guy for something he hasn't done yet – for things he doesn't know about yet."

Tony doesn't answer at first, staring at his bedroom floor. "I can't work with him here," he mumbles then, sullen.

"To be frank, you need a break anyway," Pepper answers. "Tony, you're reaching for the stars, and it's as terrifying as it's amazing. Maybe this will bring you down to Earth a little. Calm things down a bit."

"I don't want to calm down – I want to work," Tony answers. "I have to work – you know what we're up against, you know what's coming – "

"I also know we're ahead of the schedule," Pepper comments, a little quieter now. "Honestly, honey, you're going so fast. You need to slow down a little. You can afford to. Please."

Tony drags a breath and then releases it slowly. "If I combust out of pure stress, it's your fault," he says. "Here lies Tony Stark, an incredible victim of human combustion, the fault of which can be laid at the feet of Pepper Potts, the cruel, cruel woman who was of no help."

She laughs some more. "I'll keep that in mind. I'll be back in New York the day after tomorrow, alright? Be good until then. I love you."

Tony sighs, long and unhappy. "Love you too, Pep," he says.

She hangs up, and Tony lets the nanite phone break into fractions and return to the reactor, leaving him with nothing to hold. For a moment he hangs his head with a sigh, running a palm over his neck and wondering if he could just hide away in his room – or maybe at the workshop – and never come out. Or at least not come out until the HYDRA thing blew over and Steve frolicked off with Barnes.

Yeah, no way is he getting that lucky.


 

So he throws teachers at Steve. Personal trainers, martial arts masters, professors of politics, whoever and whatever. Rhodey, when he hears that Steve had decided to become a stationary object, joins in on it too, and throws another military representative there – a guy from the JAG corps, who continues Steve's independent study in military politics.

Tony has no idea what the world is turning into, but Rhodey obviously wants to make some kind of military spokesperson out of Steve.

"I am so terrified by all of this," Tony admits. "Honeyboo, why are you doing this?"

"Because that there is one hell of a source of propaganda," Rhodey answers, folding his arms as they watch on the screen how Steve goes at it with his new teacher in Taekwondo. The guy is picking it up at record speed. "And judging by how things went the last time, people just left him drifting, with no steering, no proper wind at his back."

Tony tries to parse that and can't. "So you're going to steer him? Because of propaganda. Damn, Rhodey, didn't take you for a cutthroat."

Rhodey looks at him. "Seventy years of publicity, Tony. You know how many recruitment posters feature Cap? Yeah, it's most of them. There's comics, there's movies, there's –"

"I know what's there, my dad funded most of it," Tony says, grimacing with distaste. "And I know what you're doing, and sort of the why, but I don't – why are you doing this? You, of all people, mon ami?"

Rhodey shrugs. "Because you're not going to. Are you?" When Tony can't answer that, he nods. "Yeah, I figured. And I guess no one else did either, last time around. Cap seems like a good guy, but he's directionless, at loose ends. A lot of vets are like that – all the will in the world to do something, anything, and no outlet. You know why he didn't go back to the Army?"

Tony hums. "I – don't, actually. It never came up."

"I figure it's because there's no war on," Rhodey says and nods towards the ring. "That there is a guy who likes to fight, but needs a cause. I know the type. They make good soldiers – and hellish civilians. I figure that's what went wrong with him. He needed a cause – and the one the world provided was kind of shitty."

Tony frowns at that, folding his arms. "So, what, he latched onto the first thing he came across?"

"I don't know, I wasn't there," Rhodey shrugs. "But it sure sounds like it."

For a moment Tony doesn't say anything, humming thoughtfully. "You know, causes tend to come with enemies," he says. "I'm not exactly thrilled about the idea of rehashing that role, to be honest."

"Should've thought about that before you started building moon bases," Rhodey comments. "How is that going, anyway?"

"JARVIS, what's the status of the moon base?" Tony asks.

"You may begin planning your weekend trip, sir," JARVIS admits. "The toilets are now fully functional."

Chapter Text

To save in material costs, most of the lunar construction had been happening underground. The first rockets Tony sent had been aimed mostly at lava tubes and such, places with semi-confirmed underground spaces that would be the easiest – and since for prolonged occupation he needs water, the process was started near the south pole, to access all that juicy juicy lunar ice. 

Sadly, it means that in these early stages there's not much to show, outwardly. The moon's surface is still more or less the same, only the smallest marks where his rockets landed, and even those have been mostly covered up. Secrecy is a key when building on the moon, even when you're doing it mainly on the far side.

"There are still satellites watching, and I don't want to give anyone heads up just yet," Tony explains over the suit comms, while he and Rhodey approach the landing site at an honestly neck-breaking speed. 

"I know, Tony, I know. I just had this image in my head of moon domes and – not that this isn't cool, this is so cool … but you made it sound like you'd already built up the infrastructure here by, like… a lot," Rhodey says, his tone mildly let down.

"I bring you on the moon – the moon, honeybee – and you complain about the lack of hotels and space casinos?" Tony answers. "Last time I bring you anywhere."

It is seriously so cool though. Like, there was a time when they'd been young and drunk and world had seemed so full of possibility and opportunity and they'd sworn that one day they'd get to space. Tony would build the rockets and the spaceship, and Rhodey would pilot it and they'd go, just watch them go, they'd be amazing.

Just watch them now, flying at better not think about it Mach with ten repulsors providing thrust and all the reverse engineered alien technology you can shake a stick at integrated into their suits. The trick of speeding the flight was, in the end, just adding more thrusters. The suit design itself is the Starboost armour – but while having a jetpack of repulsors got you off the ground and into sub-orbit, it wouldn't get you to the moon in anything like a reasonable time. So. Wings.

Wings with four repulsors in each and an extra reactor per wing.

It had been pretty cool, for the first four hours of the flight.

The following hours had been a little less exciting. There was a near miss with a cluster of micro meteors, but JARVIS handled it with shields, and so even that turned out to be a very momentary distraction. And not one they could stop for, either – gotta maintain the thrust, unless they want to spend nearly four hours accelerating back to speed.

Half of space travel is acceleration – the other half? Deceleration. At least that's how it generally works until you reach the tech level of using jump-points in space flight. Which, really, is more for interstellar travel, not intersolar.

"So, any thoughts about cleaning near the Earth's orbit?" Rhodey asked after, obviously a bit spooked.

"Not in the business to serve as the Earth's janitor – people can clean their own messes," Tony answered – all the while opening a project on his suit heads up display. Space roomba for capturing and repurposing space debris. Hmm. Could be useful, if it ever happened that there was a full-on space battle over the Earth and they were left with battlefield clean up. Which is… not that unlikely, really.

Damn, it's nice to get things back on track.

All in all, the flight takes them nine hours and eighteen minutes – stiff doesn't even begin to cover it how Tony feels in his armour as they finally begin to approach the site. It's completely secondary to seeing that lunar landscape get closer and closer, though. Flying down to it, seeing those white regolith peaks up close, the craters and plains, it's… there are no words. It looks like the moon.

Neither of them say anything. Tony dives down to the larger craters, Rhodey following close behind, their thrusters leaving smoke trails in the near vacuum as they watch the pale gray walls pass them by.

Then there's the hitherto unnamed smaller crater near Shackleton and Shoemaker and the landing platform JARVIS had built into its perpetual shadows, where sunlight never reached and which, thus, were harder to see into by satellites and other space travellers. Hopefully.

"Damn," Rhodey says at the sight of it while Tony goes to land, the repulsors on his suit wings automatically shifting around to absorb the impact. It doesn't even kick up dust, the landing pad being about a football field in size. J's done such a good job with it, too. A whole chuck of the crater is artificial now, looking convincing from the outside, but close up? None of the natural looking rock debris are neither natural nor loose.

Rhodey comes to land beside him, a heavy tank of a dark grey armour which touches down with the roar of thrusters and barely a chunk. "Damn," he says again. "We're on the moon."

"Yep," Tony agrees. "And I know it's tempting, but don't take your helmet off to smell that fresh lunar air – there isn't any."

Somehow just the faceplate of Rhodes' suit is enough to convey a look – though Tony can also see it on Rhodey's actual face, which shows up on the corner of his hud. "Funny," he says.

"Yeah, not one of my best," Tony admits. "Did I tell you about the time Thanos dropped a moon on me?"

"You – didn't, actually. What? A moon? A whole moon?!"

"Story for another time," Tony backpedals, realising that he doesn't actually want to rehash the memory now, since they're on the Earth's Moon, because talk about souring the experience. "Let's head inside, shall we? JARVIS, bring us in."

"Mind your footing," JARVIS says in their ears, and beneath their feet the landing pad jostles and the section they're standing on snaps loose and begins to descend.

Tony knows, intellectually, exactly what the base looks like currently. He'd been following the process, making adjustments, guiding JARVIS through every part of the construction, he'd even seen life-sized holograms of the rooms.

Being there in person is different though.

Above them the landing pad heals itself, enclosing them momentarily in the darkness. Then the lighting starts coming on, and they see the sides of enormous shaft that descends into – under the lunar surface.

"What do you call lunar soil?" Tony asks.

"I don't know, Tony, what do they call lunar soil?" Rhodey asks in tones of humouring him.

"I don't know – I just almost called it earth in my head and realised I have no idea what to call lunar… mass in general," Tony snorts. "What is the moon equivalent of Earth's earth?"

Rhodey looks at him and then says. "Holy shit, we're on the moon," he says. "Why don't I feel lighter?"

"You're wearing a tank, honey bun," Tony points out. "It weighs a bit."

Not that much, though. Even with the boosters, extra repulsors, reactors and everything that went into the wings, the extra weight is only about thirty kilograms. Rhodey is right – they should be feeling lighter.

Honestly, the most he feels is stiff with a side helping of vaguely nauseous.

"Your boots are magnetised for the descent," JARVIS informs. "I told you to mind your footing, sirs."

"Oh," Rhodey says

"Give us a break, we just had a nine hour flight," Tony says. "Speaking of which, please tell me there is a hot bath waiting for me."

Rhodey let's out a sort of giddy noise of thrilled incredulity. "Bath on the moon!"

"There is indeed, sir. I have also heated up the steam baths in case you feel like relaxing further," JARVIS answers as the platform they're standing on lands on the hangar bay floor and automatically integrates into it, seamlessly sinking into the metal. "Now please proceed to the door with the blue light for decontamination."

"Holy," Rhodey murmurs.

Around them the hangar bay lights up – and it's no backyard garage, no. This is one of the rare parts Tony and JARVIS went out of their way to specifically mine and construct – and it's the size of a decent-sized airport. It's now the only one – and first – of many similar constructions on the moon – and if Tony's plans pan out, one day it would be full of spaceships.

Tony bumps his gloved fist on Rhodey's shoulder. "Come on, Wendy, let's go see Neverland."

"You are not calling it that," Rhodey says in alarm.

"Of course not, it's called Lunacity," Tony says with a perfectly straight face. "Come on – decontamination. Can't let any pesky earth bugs in. We can take the suits off after and enjoy the delights of lunar gravity."

Which they do, with gusto.


 

Okay, so, baths on the moon? Not as enjoyable as on Earth. It just feels off, when the water is that much lighter and every little accidental move sends it flying to the ceiling. Jacuzzis on the moon? Not the best idea. 

Steam baths, on the other hand, are pretty great. Sorta the same as on Earth, but also different, because everything is so much lighter on the moon and so its like, soothing the stiffness of staying more or less still for nine hours with the added benefit of not having to lug around your usual weight. It's great.

"This is great," Tony murmurs into the wet towel on his face. "Sign me up for more of this, yeah…"

"Can't believe we came to the Moon to have sauna," Rhodey murmurs beside him. "Though, yeah, this – this is good. Oww, my neck…"

"Told you to stop craning your neck like that, it's killer on the spine after a while."

"It was the moon, Tony, we were flying upwards to the moon. I can't believe we're on the moon. We're on the moon. We're naked on the moon! "

Tony snorts and holds up his fist. Rhodey taps with his, and then they don't say anything for a while, melting away against the boards under them.

"I have a question though," Rhodey says

"Yeah?"

"How did you get wooden planks on the moon?"

"We didn't, sir," JARVIS admits. "They're faux. What you are sitting on is mostly silicon and polymer fibres arranged to have the texture of wood."

"Huh. It's very convincing."

"Thank you, sir."

"Any chance of fake beer?"

Tony dozes off to the sound of the door sliding open and shut and the clicking of a JARVIS Moon bot's sharp little legs as Rhodey goes, "Tony, holy shit."


 

They have the grand tour later. The central hub is built into a former magma chamber, which had been emptied out and left hollow by some ancient volcanic activity eons and eons ago. JARVIS had built it walls and such of course, so it doesn't look like a cave anymore, but at least they didn't have to do a ridiculous amount of excavation.

"Problem with excavation being that you have to put the excess stuff somewhere afterwards," Tony says. "And we don't want to disturb the lunar surface just yet. Not before we have things properly up and running."

"Mmhm," Rhodey says while idly skipping from one foot to the other and enjoying the bounce exerting the smallest amount of energy gives him. "So this is the centre of the habitat area, right?"

"Yep," Tony agrees and points around. "Main Operations centre is that way, offices and necessary facilities over there – Medicentre, etcetera, I hope. Living quarters, recreation, cafeteria… and so on. Which do you want to start with?"

Rhodey gives him a look. "Production. Duh."

Tony grins. There's a reason why Rhodey is his favourite ever. "Alright, suit up. Let's go see the chocolate factory."

The production facilities aren't completely connected to the main hub. There's twenty four kilometres in between, which even with a maglev railway, which is still under construction, would be a bit of a trip, but there's no helping it. Production takes space, so another magma chamber was needed, and this one was the closest one with enough space.

Not that Rhodey seems to mind taking the trip in the suits, flying in the maze of magma channels under JARVIS's guidance until they reach the place. It's pretty damn cool too, speed spelunking in space.

The production facility is primed for work, but not quite finished yet. Half of the fabrication arrays are still lacking materials and the ceiling isn't complete yet. No production is happening, but JARVIS' little moon bots are fast at work, welding and joining and fixing up what they can.

"Damn," Rhodey says, as they stand on an observation deck overlooking production lines – twenty seven in total, of which two would be dedicated to the production of early generation Iron Man armour. The rest… 

"Damn," Rhodey says again, this time with a little less enthusiastic tone of voice.

Tony looks at him, fully suited up aside from the helmet. "Second thoughts?" he asks.

Rhodey runs a hand over his chin. "As your friend? No," he says. "You say it has to be like this, I'm going to trust you know what you're talking about. But as a member of the United States military?" he shakes his head.

Tony folds his arms on the balluster of the observation deck. There's about three hundred little JARVIS bots down there, all of them built from self-replicating nanites. They have limited range, and every hour they trot off to get a recharge from the facility's arc reactor, but that isn't slowing them down. In a few short months, they'll build this base. In another month or two, they'd be producing military technology of the future – never mind the extra terrestrial technology Tony had reverse engineered over the years.

"The military officer in me looks at this and knows – you are creating an enemy to the United States here," Rhodey says. "To everyone down there. Because that's how most everyone will see it – that's how this will look like. And as your friend, Tony? I'm not sure the military officer part of me is wrong."

Tony frowns, watching his plans slowly inching closer and closer to fruition. "Don't turn your back on me now, honeybear," he says quietly. "I need you."

Rhodey puts a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not," he says. "But damn, I don't think I understood what you were on before now. Damn, Tony, just… damn."

Tony hums. "It's gotta be like this, Rhodey. Anything less won't work. I saw it not work – the most high-tech nation on Earth faced against just a small chunk of Thanos' forces, and they held out for a while… but it wasn't even half an hour before they lost. And that was just on the ground. Up here, in the sky?"

The only reason Thanos doesn't just flat-out dominate the galaxy is because he doesn't want to destroy populations – he wants to cut them precisely in half. That means sparing some, that means being careful. 

Tony doesn't think Earth would get that courtesy if he ever managed to destroy any of the Infinity Stones.

Some of his thoughts must show on his face, because Rhodey grips him by the back of his neck and squeezes gently. "Okay, Tony. Okay. I'm with you. God help me, I'm with you."


 

While JARVIS gives Rhodey the tour of the rest of the facilities, showing him into the artificial-gravity training chambers and such, Tony gives Pepper a call.

"How goes babysitting?" he asks.

"You're calling from where you are and that's the first thing you ask?" Pepper demands. "How is it up there, what is it like – tell me everything!"

Tony laughs. "Well, it's lighter, moving around. Kinda grey so far, no paint on the walls yet. Could use a few plants maybe for decoration, it's kind of monotone –"

"Would you like for me to plant potatoes and sugarcane in the living spaces?" JARVIS asks wryly. "I can certainly do that."

Tony snorts, "We're not martians here – not yet anyway," he says and turns to the hologram of Pepper, standing across from him. There's a little delay in communication – just a couple of seconds, but it's still there. "It's pretty great, actually. The food is a little plain, JARVIS makes these protein juice pouches, they're terrible... but for reasons unknown to me JARVIS has also made a microbrewery, so there's moonshine. There's literal moonshine, on the moon, Pepper. It's ridiculous and awesome, and I want lemons to go with my moonshine. Moon lemons."

She grins a little painfully at that. "We'll add it to the shopping lists," she says. "What else?"

"Well, bathtubs don't really work properly on the moon – the water will only stay in the tub as long as no one gets in. With showers you have a similar problem – in that, water kinda bounces off you if it doesn't stick, it doesn't fall properly, doesn't like, run down right. Steam baths are definitely the way to go…"

They chat about the living situation on the moon for a while, Pepper listening with in turn amazed and in turn troubled look on her face. "Definitely must send more plants in," she muses.

"Definitely couldn't hurt," Tony agrees. "So far JARVIS has had semi good results with growing things in 17 percent gravity, but we would need to test things at greater length and quantity to see what succeeds and what doesn't."

"Mm. And the material situation?"

Tony sighs and pulls up the progress reports. "Still lacking heavier elements, and JARVIS has found no palladium whatsoever. Iron, gold, even copper are a bit thin on the ground here. There might be some veins elsewhere, but we haven't located any good sources yet."

"That's something we suspected before – and were preparing for," Pepper points out.

"Yeah, but I was hoping to be able to kick-start production here and then move on to mining the asteroid belt once we had better means to get there. Right now it looks like we have to produce palladium cores at least on Earth, and I'm not exactly thrilled about it," Tony admits with a sigh. "Having them shipped to the moon is a hassle. And it will be a major weak point in the whole production chain."

Pepper hums. "I guess we need to prioritise. What's the absolute minimum to start asteroid mining? With the aim of finding a source of palladium."

Tony makes quick calculations in his head. "I am going to need at least a ton shipped here," he summarises. "Two tons would be ideal. Mainly palladium, but also other elements we're missing up here. That would let us finish here and make at least one good hauler."

"That's doable," Pepper hums. "That's definitely doable."

"Will increase the risk of being spotted though," Tony reminds her.

"Yes," she agrees with a sigh. "Who would've thought building a production facility on the moon would have some problems along the way?"

Tony snorts and she smiles, shaking her head. "We'll figure things out," she promises.

"Yeah," Tony agrees, rocking on the balls of his feet. "Rhodey is having some… hangups."

Pepper frowns. "Oh?"

"Saw the production facilities and realised this is going to be a rival to the United States' military complex. He's having a crisis of faith and loyalty."

Pepper hums. "I see. I'm sorry," she says quietly. "Maybe once you come back we should sit down, the three of us, and have a discussion about this."

"Yeah, good idea," Tony sighs. "So, how goes the babysitting? How's Steve?"

Pepper laughs. "He's fine," she says. "I'm thinking of taking him to an art exhibition – showing him something other than just what the military had been getting up to in the last few decades. He's an artist, right?"

"I think he doodles, yeah," Tony says and shakes his head. "The guy is becoming more and more political-minded, and you're going to show him art. That's a fun combination."

"I think so," Pepper says. "You know he never went to college? The only schooling he has is barely a high school education from the forties."

"Yeah. That's why I got him teachers."

Pepper nods. "Well, I'm thinking classes, if he's interested. Would do him some good to interact with people of his age in this time."

Tony makes a face. "You know he's a grown ass man, right?"

"Didn't stop you from taking him under your wing," Pepper comments, "Did it?"

Not sure what to say to that, Tony just sighs. "We're making one hell of an enemy there," he says. "We're making him stronger and smarter and more informed, and once the other shoe drops…"

Pepper shakes her head. "Once it does, he will remember all the good you did for him. And if he doesn't? He isn't half the man he appears to be. Besides, Tony, could you throw him out to the street now? Could you?"

Tony just sighs heavier.

Pepper smiles. "Enjoy your weekend with Rhodey. Take pictures and come back home safe, okay? I love you."

"Love you too, Pep. Don't change me in for a younger model while I'm gone."

Her smile widens and there's a teasing glint in her eyes. "Nah. I prefer my models with few parsecs in them. Have fun on the moon, honey."

God, Tony loves this woman.


 

Of course just when he'd taken a bit of time off for his little personal project, Fury gives him a call.

"Stark, where are you?" the guy demands as a way of greeting, while nanites magic up a headset for Tony.

"Er, a bit busy, to be honest?" Tony admits, sitting on his ass on the production facility floor, elbow deep in one of the fabrication arrays. "Can you take a raincheck?"

"We have a situation here, and we need you to come in."

Great just – great. "What is it?" Tony asks. "What happened?"

"I'd rather tell in person – where are you? I'll come and brief you."

Tony blinks at the one-eyed round little moon bot that's skirting past his face. Fury – didn't say anything that was off, but something about him offering to come and brief him… it sounds off alarm bells in his head.

Fury doesn't give warnings about these kind of things.

"No can do, boss," Tony says. "Not in the country currently, and I didn't pack my high-tech undies with me – it's a twenty hour flight back. Sorry."

Couple a seconds of delay and then Fury curses. "Damnit, Stark – this is serious!"

"Well, why don't you tell me about it and maybe I'll pick up the pace, Nick," Tony says and thinks to his nanites, call Rhodey, call Pepper. Join call and mute. "What's going on, what's so important you need little old me there? Didn't you say you wanted to handle this on your own?"

Delay, pause, answer. "We lost the Sceptre and it's been used on Romanoff, Barton and the Winter Soldier," Fury says.

Tony leans back from the array. "It's been what?" he says slowly. "Sorry, Nick, you're breaking off a little there – could you repeat that?"

There's a click, a snarl, "Give me that!" And then there's a familiar voice in his ear – but not the one he expected. "Tony Stark," she says with all the warmth of a thermonuclear missile. "You don't know me, but I know you – and now I have your friends. I used the Sceptre on them, and if I order them, they will kill each other and anyone I tell them to. And if you don't come here, I will."

Tony draws a slow breath. Yeah okay, didn't expect that. "Lady, I wasn't lying – I'm nowhere near the United States, in fact, I'm pretty far away –"

"You have a day," she says. "You have a day and then I will see who will win between Barton and Romanoff. After that? The winner can fight Fury – and what remains will be killed by the Winter Soldier. I suggest you don't stall."

Tony shakes his head. Jesus. "Okay, where?"

"Sokovia," she says with a gleeful satisfaction and gives him the precise address. "Twenty four hours, Stark," she adds and hands up.

There's a beat and then Rhodey says, "Tones, what the hell," and Pepper starts taking over him, "Tony, what was that – who was that? What does she want?"

"You have just been introduced to Wanda Maximoff," Tony says fake cheerfully while climbing to his feet hurriedly. "Delightful, isn't she? Rhodey, you wanna pack up whatever you're doing, grab a quick bite to eat –"

"Yeah, yeah, heading over now –"

"You're heading back?" Pepper asks. "I'll get everything ready here – do you think we should tell Steve? I mean, he could –"

"Not before we get here, this will be just that much worse if he gets whammied too –"

"Who is this girl – how did she get to Barton, Romanoff and Fury?" Rhodey asks, around what sounds like a straw of one of JARVIS' terrible meals-ready-to-drink.

"At a guess, she got to the Winter Soldier first, and he got the rest for her," Tony answers, suit growing up around him as he heads for the exist. "Only way it could have happened, though how the hell did she get to him, I'd like to know."

"And the Winter Soldier is…?"

"Oh, didn't I tell you? He's the world's greatest assassin," Tony says, and the nanite headset blends into the helmet, sealing the suit just as Tony enters the airlock. "Also known as Steve's buddy, Bucky."

"Well, that's great," Rhodey says. "Anything else we should know?"

"And who is this Wanda Maximoff?" Pepper asks. "Why does she want you?"

"Uh, she was an Avenger? Or could've been. She had some unresolved issues about Stark Industries explosives being used in her city," Tony says. "Parents died, she and her brother survived to be traumatised by a dud explosive with my name on it. They had some... grievances. Which they resolved by joining HYDRA."

"And you made her an Avenger?" Rhodey asks incredulously.

"Wasn't my call really – I was too busy being sued by a whole country for… related reasons." Namely Ultron. "Cap called it."

All of which he'd rather happily forgotten over the last five years, after Wanda disappeared in the Snap, Vision died and half the countries of Earth had folded in the aftermath of the Snap – Sokovia included. None of it had been an issue anymore, and so he hadn't wasted any time thinking about it, really, aside from the grief over Vision. All of it was in the past, and here and now he wouldn't be making Ultron again, which means no Vision, which means… it doesn't matter.

And then he'd restarted weapons production and gone back to his old ways.

God only knows how vindicated the Witch must be feeling right now, damn.

Chapter Text

Later on Tony figures that what happened on Earth and with SHIELD, HYDRA and the Maximoff twins, was something like this.

Fury and Nat begun their investigation to the HYDRA connection. Barton was likely drawn in the moment they got proof, and they begun their own internal investigation to figure out who was in and who wasn't. This went on for a few days at least.

At some point, HYDRA caught on. Whether Fury trusted the wrong guy – like Pierce – or if someone they captured for interrogation escaped and tattled, who knows. HYDRA found out that Fury and the gang knew – and it spooked them enough that they decided steps had to be taken to secure their most important assets. Likely, at this point, Fury had picked out enough loyal SHIELD members among the mess for his side to be a credible threat to the HYDRA infiltrations. Either way, steps.

Securing the Sceptre was their priority. Whether they'd already figured out something about the stone inside, Tony doesn't know, but just what Loki could do with the thing made the Sceptre one of the most powerful weapons on Earth, so, secure it, ship it somewhere safe, keep it out of Fury's hands. And for reasons unknown, they decided that the safest way to do this is to send the Winter Soldier.

Probably Nat and the others were already closing in on the staff. That would explain a lot. So, HYDRA is busted, SHIELD is on them, HYDRA decides to take steps, SHIELD is closing in, yadda yadda…

And then, somewhere in the middle of it, there are two oh so willing test subjects. Wanda Maximoff and her brother. Amidst the fighting, Wanda grabs the Sceptre, and by some trick of the goddamn universe, she figures out how to use it. And she does, using it on the Winter Soldier standing guard or whatever. And then all hell breaks loose.

End result – Nat and Barton are whammied, and Fury soon follows.

"The only good thing here is that Wanda doesn't actually care about HYDRA all that much," Tony explains. "I figured they were just the means to an end for her, a way to get revenge on me or whatever. So, now that she has the Sceptre, she doesn't need them and doesn't need to go back to them – so, yay, the Sceptre is, sort of, out of HYDRA's hands!"

"I'm not sure that's a pro, here," Pepper says, frowning at what little information they have on the situation. She and JARVIS found out some while Tony and Rhodey were busy with the descent from space, but it's not much. SHIELD is too busy to be making handy reports for hacking, and it's unclear if they even know about the Fury, Romanoff, Barton situation.

"Means we're just against Wanda and whoever she whammied, and not like… the entirety of HYDRA. Which is a pro, a definite pro," Tony says and checks his watch. They still have twelve hours to go, which is great. Gotta love a cliché of twenty four hours.

"Con being that she has Fury, Romanoff and Barton – the best spies and assassins there are," Rhodey says grimly. "And, oh, this Winter Solider guy too."

"Yeeaah," Tony agrees and moves to take control of the holograms. "But at least we know that. Forewarned is forearmed."

"Are you going to bring Steve into this?" Pepper asks, watching him pull up a 3d map of Sokovia.

"Yeah, have to probably," Tony agrees. "Barnes will be a bit too much for just me to handle, on top of everyone else."

There's a very pointed silence just for a moment, and then Rhodey says, "Tony, you're not going to be alone. I'm coming with."

"As am I," Pepper says, folding her arms and frowning.

Tony looks back at them. "Er," he says. "Well. Hm." He doesn't actually have any argument why they shouldn't. He's kitted them with the best he has, both have Bleeding Edge suits and he's taught both of them to use them – and JARVIS is hooked into both, of course, and can take over if they can't keep up. So. "Okay. But you gotta stay suited the whole time, and not give off the tech."

Pepper shares a look with Rhodey, who grins, arching his brows. "Of course," she says. "So, what's the plan?"

Tony purses his lips. "Get there, kick everyone's asses, get the Sceptre, get out. Maybe take everyone to the hospital if they need it."

Rhodey looks at him and then sighs. "Okay," he says. "Run by me one one more time what the sceptre can do and how it works – and how did Barton get off the mind control in the first place? Then, let's start from the top."


 

Steve is in the gym when Tony goes to find him. The guy enjoys a pretty full schedule these days – Tony started out with keeping the good Captain's days as full as he could, and Pepper had added into it softer artsy stuff, it seems like, so the guy hasn't been at loose ends for days. And, honestly? Steve never looked better.

"I swear your muscles are growing muscles," Tony comments, watching the guy lift every single weight they have in the gym. "I'm going to have to invent exercise equipment for you, something with resistance instead of physical weight. I swear you're going to go through the floor if you keep this up."

"Oh, hey Tony," Steve says in the middle of the world's most impressive bicep curl. "I didn't know you were back – Pepper said you'd be away for another day, maybe two?"

"That was the plan, but something came up, had to cut it short," Tony says. "Got some bad news, Cap. Turns out the thing back at SHIELD isn't going the best."

Steve frowns and then crouches down to set his everything-weight down. "What happened?"

"JARVIS, play the call," Tony says and folds his arms, leaning onto the doorframe while JARVIS plays back the call with Wanda, starting with a bit with Fury and ending with Wanda hanging up on him. Steve goes from attentive to alarmed around the middle and steps closer.

"Who is that?" Steve asks. "That woman, do we know who is it?"

"At a guess? A member of HYDRA who took an opportunity and struck out on her own," Tony says, sidling along the truth. "That's not the bad news though, not that it isn't bad, but, uh. There's worse. The Winter Soldier she mentioned?" he asks, and sighs. "Pretty sure that's your buddy, Bucky."

If the situation hadn't caught Steve's attention before, it does now. "The Winter Soldier?" he asks sharply. "What is that?"

"A very old and very accomplished HYDRA assassin," Tony says and waves him to come along. "Come on, I'll bring you up to speed."

It's kind of impressive – and disconcerting in a way – to watch Steve go into attack mode, like, snap. The easygoing student guy is gone in a flash, replaced by Captain America leaning over the map of Sokovia and all the reports Tony and JARVIS had managed to scrounge up – and in some cases fake – to brief him with.

"This isn't a good location," Steve says, motioning to the address she's given them. It's not a building – it's a public park, surrounded by tall apartment buildings. "You could put snipers on any of these roofs. Hawkeye alone would make this place a death trap, but if Bucky is still as good as he was back in the day –"

"Probably better, to be honest – "

Steve hums grimly. "Then this is a trap."

"Well, yeah," Tony agrees, looking down on it. "She wants to get me and she chose the location, so, yeah. A trap. No knowing if she wants to kill me or whammy me too –" make him suffer most likely, so who knows –"but obviously she wants something. And that's all we got to go on. Not sure we can get anywhere without me making an appearance."

"And if you didn't go alone?" Steve asks.

Tony just shrugs. "I wouldn't risk it," he admits and glances at Rhodey.

"We don't know enough about this woman to test her like that," Rhodey admits. "No knowing what she'd do and what kind of things she might've gotten from the others, weapons or otherwise. Better play this cool."

"Which means, I go there, you guys go around in secret and find our people. I hope," Tony muses. "And hopefully we will find the Sceptre somewhere along the way, too."

"That's a lot of hopefully," Steve comments with a frown and leans back a little. "This is a lot we don't know. Is there anything we can do to get more intelligence on the situation? Where this woman is based, where she comes from, what she wants…?"

Tony coughs, but doesn't answer. With zero proof and supposedly no knowledge about the situation, it's not like he can say much. Not that… that he knows that much, really. He knows her name, her past, her original not so great motivations, but after that…

He'd never gotten to really know Wanda Maximoff. She was – uncomfortable to be around, so he hadn't been. It tore a rift in his and Vision's relationship too, that awkwardness – to the point that there wasn't any relationship, what could've been snuffed at the bud by Vision's interest in her and Tony's unease. Vision went and died on his knees in front of her, from what he'd heard, and Tony wasn't there. Tony wasn't his first port to call, and that, that's because Wanda. Whatever Vision saw in her…

Supposedly she was good. When Steve and the others were running on their own and Wanda was one of them, they had supposedly prioritised all the good things, helping people and all. And apparently she became careful and wiser and all that… but Tony didn't see it. He wasn't there. And yeah, she defended Vision in the end, in Wakanda, but… Tony didn't see that either.

"I don't know, Cap," Tony admits. "But she wants me, and she has Fury, Nat, Barton and the Winter Soldier. She has the Sceptre. And we know where she is going to be, so… I say we do what she wants. I go there, and we'll see what else we can learn."

Rhodey and Pepper aren't happy with that, and honestly neither is Tony. But there's not much else they can do. As far as the world knows, Wanda and her brother – whose name Tony has… pretty much completely forgotten at this point. Started with a P., unimportant. Anyway, both of the Maximoff twins had been declared dead with their parents way back when, and that's where all trails of them ended. Tony is pretty sure it took time for HYDRA to pick them up, and that they lived rough in between, doing protests or something, Vision said something to that extent… but that's about all Tony knows.

The gist of it is: there is no trail to follow.

Except for one – and it is not one he wants Steve on.

"There are ways we can own this," Tony says. "I got some tech on my side. Given that she doesn't instantly have me shot…  I think we can learn something here."

Steve doesn't look very happy about that. "You can't go alone," he says firmly.

"Well, I'm assuming I'm not," Tony says, looking between them. "But I figure it's gotta be me up front and centre – drawing attention. Playing the bait and diversion. You know."

"Tony," Pepper says quietly. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yeah," Tony says and fakes a smile. "We don't leave our people behind, right? So let's get to it."

JARVIS, he thinks. Activate the Legion. You have a mission.

"Oh, what a joyful day, sir," the AI answers in his ear. "How many laws will I be breaking this time?"

Hopefully only the laws of nature.


 

Well, Sokovia is nice this time of the year. It has fall colours going on, and seeing the place in between disasters… it's actually pretty nice to look at. Public parks, green spaces, benches, couple of fountains and statues and stuff. Considering what it became in Tony's world – an everlasting source of personal shame, in-team strife, angst, anxiety, general panic and oh yeah, lawsuits – it's almost weird to find that it's just… a normal city. Very modern, with a hint of clinging to the past of brutalist architecture, but with that modernist twist of throw plants on it, break the mold, fight the power, which Tony has to admit he digs, a lot.

It's a nice place to set a trap in.

Tony enters through the customs, because fuck it, let's be legal about things. He flies into the country under his own power, mind you, but still, heads up to the embassy, to the customs, border control, whatever – JARVIS warns people ahead of time that Iron Man is entering the airspace, and then Tony flies in. You just don't fly into a country with a fairly recent civil war without giving them heads up, is the point. A lot of money gets thrown around to make everything speedy, but that's generally how it goes when Iron Man travels. If he has to buy a hotel or two to make things run smoothly, then so be it. He has the money.

Or he did have the money – he's been spending it a lot faster than he's been making it for the last couple of months.

Not the point right now. Point is making enough noise and annoying enough people that no one notices the sneaky little landing not far from Sokovia, carrying passengers who are very much not entering the country through the official channels. 

While Steve and Rhodey move into positions, Tony takes his time before landing in the park Wanda named and then plays at being Iron Man of a past time, when his suit was heavy and clunky and not made of nanites. People notice – if they didn't notice the smoke trail, then they notice the heavy, clumsy landing, and then the clanking around he does, very intentionally, while waiting to see what was up.

Wanda hadn't clarified out of suit, so, in the suit it is for now.

JARVIS, give me a clear view of the situation, he thinks, and JARVIS shifts the HUD a little, to show markers on the city around him. He's already spotted one sniper on the roof – Barton on the building behind him, bow in hand and a bomb arrow poised at him. It's strong enough to knock out Mark Six and do a whole lot of damage to the area around him, too.

Tony hums and scans the surrounding buildings. He can see the signature of Rhodey moving in, and Steve's transponder is near by too. Give our boys the sitrep and find me a dark and tall stranger dressed in black – with shine on his arm and too much makeup on.

JARVIS makes no noise, but still the sigh is somehow conveyed in the scan he runs through the surroundings and – there is no sign of the Winter Soldier. No Romanoff and no Winter Soldier. And not a hint of Fury.

That's worrisome. It's not what he expected either.

"Tony Stark?" someone asks and Tony turns, making the armour creak and clank as he does, because he's supposed to be a couple hundred kilos heavier than he is. It's not Wanda behind him, it's not even her brother. It's a kid, holding a cheap looking phone. "This is for you."

Tony sighs – what is it with people and forcing him to use old phones? "Thanks, kid," Tony says and takes the phone, turning it around. It's already on call. With a shake of his head, he hooks the tethers of nanites into its ancient systems and then holds it to the suit face plate without opening it "Hello?" he says.

"Leave the suit," a male voice he doesn't know orders.

"Honey, I don't strip for people I don't know – who is this?" Tony answers, looking around.

"Leave the suit," the voice orders again.

Tony looks around, trying to see where he might be being watched. There's Barton, but he's not calling. "Again, stripping, people, not knowing them – and I definitely don't do that in public, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding – why don't you come here and we talk about this?"

There's a moment of silence and then there's another voice on the phone. Romanoff. "Stark, if you don't do what he tells you to, there are going to be consequences," she says. "We aren't playing by your rules here – we're playing by ours. Get out of the suit – you won't like what happens if you don't."

Tony tilts his head up, swallowing. Trace, he orders, not feeling particularly hopeful for that one. Fury and Romanoff are too good to let him just –

"Sir, the call is coming from New York," JARVIS says into his ear. "From across the street."

To Stark Tower. What?

Fuck, Wanda was both smarter and a lot more ruthless than he assumed. Likely, it's the influence of having Fury and Romanoff under her thrall – she'd gotten pointers from them after mind whamming them, and they figured out just what to target to make things unnecessarily complicated for him. Great.

Tony closes his eyes for a moment and then blows out a breath. Okay. JARVIS, silent evacuation of the tower, and maximum replication. Inform Pep and Rhodey.

"Sir?" JARVIS asks, a little uneasily. "Sir, do you mean –"

"Alright, fine," Tony says out loud. "Getting out of the armour it is."

He orders the nanites to hollow the suit out, to leave just the surface behind, sucking the rest of the nanites in as he steps out of it. Kind of like a high tech snake shedding its skin, and whoo boy, he is going to remember that Freudian slip later, whoops. "I'm out of the armour now, look at me," Tony says, while around him random Sokovians on the street watch him in sort of morbid curiosity. "Now what, are you going to shoot me? Why don't you –"

The first thing that hits him shatters against a shield of nanites under his clothes, tearing through his undersuit. Tony bows into it with a grunt of pain as the air is knocked out of him – because damn, it's still being shot, even with high tech armour in the way – and wavers on his feet.

"Sir, it wasn't a bullet, it was a – "

Another thing hits him, almost as fast – and this time Tony watches the tranquiliser dart hit him in the chest and break on the nanites, metal bending and glass shattering. Judging by what little he sees of it, it's a high tech dart, and shot at ridiculous distance, which means –

Tony looks up and thinks, there he is, locate and target – as another dart comes right at him. And this time, it hits.

Shitty thing about darts like these, shot at these kinds of distances, at these kinds of speeds. They might not be bullets – but they still hit like ones.

"Oww, my – fucking – face –!" Tony groans, his head knocked to the side by the impact. He manages to tear the dart out just quick enough to see that it's some sort of freaky HYDRA bullshit – it looks a bit like a damn cockroach. The fuck.

Then someone gets behind him, grabs him by the back of his neck, and everything goes dark.


 

Tony wakes up strapped to a wall. No, to a gurney standing on its end, him bound up all vertical on it. And in front of him is a very smug Wanda Maximoff, smiling wide and thrilled with painted lips and all the makeup of a teen pop star.

"Ugh," Tony says to her, tugging at his arms and kicking with his legs – yeah, he's definitely bound up tight there. And not with anything as mundane as rope either – no, these are SHIELD cuffs they have on him, and those were designed for superheroes. They could, maybe, hold even Steve Rogers. Okay, so, that's… kind of expected.

Tony's head is spinning and his vision is a little bleary – seriously, what did they drug him with?

The Winter Soldier is standing at Maximoff's back, and – damn. If the guy looked creepy before, he looks downright horror-esque now, with vividly Tesseract-blue eyes surrounded by the raccoon makeup – he's even wearing the mask. The guy looks exactly like what he is – a man possessed. That would've been honestly unnerving, even when he was sober, and he's not. He wants to throw holy water on Barnes and scream Christ compels you.

Fury looks almost worse though. Maximoff has taken off his eye patch, and even the bad eye has been turned creepy-blue by Loki's sceptre. That's just – a whole new level of petty and cruel, taking off a man's eyepatch like that, that's just mean. Aside from that, though, Fury looks more or less the same – glaring at Tony, as per usual. So, pretty bad.

And then there is Barton, standing on the other end of the large room, up on a metal catwalk, with a bow in hand – ready to kill him. Poor guy – mind whammied again. He's gotta be so pissed – god knows Tony would be.

Tony is going to throw up, his stomach feels like Steve had used it for a punching bag.

"Tony Stark," Wanda says, smiling even wider. "I thought you would be more difficult to capture. They say you are a genius, but you walked right into my trap without a second thought. I am almost disappointed."

"Well, most people tend to get disappointed by me sooner or later," Tony says and then makes a face, tasting bile. "Not like that – I don't mean like that. I mean – personality wise and all that, I am an acquired taste. In more commonly disappointing features I can happily say I have never gotten complaints – "

Wanda's smile tightens. "Shut up," she says and leans in. "You talk too much. You always talk too much, in all your press releases, in all your interviews, you talk and talk and say nothing. Do you know why you are here?"

Tony arches his brows – not talking.

"You are here to pay for your choices," she says, smiling, smiling, oh, she's happy. "For the things you've done, and the words you've broken, and the promises you didn't keep.  For the deaths of everyone everything you've built caused – and will cause. Liar."

"Lady," Tony says, looking around. "I have no idea what you are talking about."

Okay, on one hand, he's – impressed. Romanoff isn't here, neither is Wanda's brother – seriously, what was that guy's name? Anyway, they're in New York. At his tower. Possibly planting bombs, because… he just figures that's something Fury would do to him if he got mind whammied. So, great! Didn't see that coming. That's genuinely terrifying, and he could've done without it, seriously.

But on the other hand… they're at the HYDRA base von Strucker once commanded. Which Tony had… sort of expected. He'd also hoped to get at the place without Steve knowing it, get there behind everyone's back and pull a sneaky on them, steal all their tech, all the stolen bits and bobs of Chitauri, all your base are belong to us, and get away with it without anyone not-mind-whammied knowing. It would've been juicy. Except he's now kidnap-captured here. Which is – so expected it's almost inconvenient?

Everything is kind of purple in Tony's head. He does not like this trip.

Wanda slaps her hand against the gurney beside Tony's head to get his attention. "Pay attention," she says and smiles, with teeth. "I want you to know what will happen. I will use this," she holds out her hand and the Winter Soldier puts the Sceptre in her hand, "on you, and then you," she says, turning the Sceptre slowly in her hand towards his face, "Will tear down everything you have ever built. But first, you will suffer, as I have suffered –"

For fuck's sake, seriously?

"And you will lose," Wanda says, tapping the Sceptre's sharp tip against Tony's bare chest. "As I have lost. And we will begin with the proudest and brightest of your achievements."

Tony draws slow and steady breaths, as the Winter Soldier turns to drag a fucking TV screen in front of him. At least it's a flat screen TV, but still, a TV, not even a hologram, what is this, the 2010s? Wait –

Tony shakes his head, trying to clear it, and then squints at the screen. There's a – webcam footage on it. Gross. It's of his tower – a camera aimed at his tower from a distance and, oh. Oh, he knows where this is going, doesn't he.

Shit, he'd been too cocky. He'd forgotten just how fucking much Wanda Maximoff hated him – and how much damage her hate had done last time. Johannesburg. Ultron. Fucking Sokovia itself. This woman hates with a power that can turn lightbulbs on, it's like it's actual energy, would light up a whole city if you stuck her into a reactor that was fuelled by hatred, prime high octane Anti-Tony Stark –

No, he has to focus, he has to – to call Jarvis, order – something – did he warn them, did he –

Tony blinks rapidly, something visceral and horrified crawling up his spine – not nanites, shit – as Wanda looks between the screen and him, and then takes out her phone. She hits speed dial and grins, all teeth, and says, "Blow it."

A blue light flashes at the bottom of his tower. It looks almost fake, it's so – so shiny, so bright, so sci-fi. Tesseract bomb, gotta be, of course SHIELD still had them, and with Fury and Romanoff and the rest, Wanda had access to them and shit, shit, shit, shit…

Tony had been too cocky, and now he can't remember, he can't – did he – he had a plan, he had – contingencies, he had –

Wanda is in front of him, Sceptre in her hands and hatred in her eyes. No actual shine. She doesn't have powers. Who would've thought her powers were holding her back.

Tony had a plan. The Sceptre doesn't work on him. Loki couldn't use it on him, and Loki is hell of a lot stronger and smarter than her, and it didn't work. That was the plan, yeah, he remembers now – get captured, use nanites to mess stuff up, he has nanites, he has – and JARVIS is on his way, Legion, basically a missile full of nanites in this time, JARVIS should've launched it, it should've already hit. With that, he'd have even more nanites and –

And his chest is bare.

It's bare.

The reactor is gone.

Tony looks up, feeling the blood drain from his face.

Wanda doesn't say anything, she just leans over him, her eyes wide, mad, as she touches the Sceptre to his chest and –