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Planning For the End Of the World

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Alien invasion or not, does Tony really need to protect (read: coddle/spoil/finance/house/feed/clothe) the Avengers because they are “needed”?

Tony kept staring as if willing it to be a very weird dream after three days of work binging in his lab.

“I am sorry, Sir. Last casualty count is close to fifteen thousand in U.S territory alone.”

With every update, there was a new weight on his shoulders that wasn’t there before. Surprisingly, there was no guilt. Maybe six months before there would be but Bruce’s, “I’m not that kind of doctor” did have the effect of making Tony look for one.

This wasn’t his fault. He didn’t cause nor could he have reasonably help by any stretch considering how fucking long the ones directly involved took to contact him… which was never since they had yet to do so.

By the time Tony managed to understand what the hell was going – with dozens of unanswered calls and texts to Rogers, the one whose involvement he was sure since… the man kind of made news – there wasn’t much or anyone to save anymore.

Suddenly, there were details of his time in the Ten Rings hands, of details of Ross hunting Bruce all over the world. Just as there was a lacking of details on Romanoff (her “time” with SI all but glossed over with a mention that she was sent to access Tony Stark’s suitability for the Avengers) on Barton (understandable since, once Tony got to dig, a family farm was all he found on the other end and two kids and his wife didn’t deserve being known as the family of a mercenary) and on Rogers (there was nothing on the files dumped that couldn’t be found by that spring Captain America exhibition on Smithsonian).

And Tony… was pissed. He genuinely couldn’t remember the last time he felt so much anger. To the point that his vision went red and his hands shook.

What. The. Fuck?!

“What should I do, sir?”

“Let’s wait for those we managed to extract to recover… and see what they want.”

“What of the files now in the open?”

“We can’t do much about those.”

“Sir, I believe you should see this.” J.A.R.V.I.S turned on the closest holoscreen to Tony.

“You’re not gonna put me into prison. You’re not gonna put any of us into prison. You know why?”

“Do enlighten us.”

“Because you need us. Yes, the world is a vulnerable place and yes we helped make it that way. But we’re also the ones best qualified to defend it. So, if you wanna arrest me, arrest me. You’ll know where to find me.”

 And Tony could only sigh. Natasha herself gave everybody all the cards and now it was out of his hands.

“… shall I alert legal for the possible case?” J.A.R.V.I.S inquired.

“No.”

~*~

Not a week later, officers of the law went looking.

Tony was in the middle of a board meeting in SI’s London headquarters and only heard of it when he was halfway to the airport to take his jet to Berlin.

“The FBI entered in contact to schedule a meeting, they would like for you to testify, sir.”

“Testify what?” Tony asked tiredly. “I wasn’t even there for the whole thing, I met Rogers for a few hours under horrible circumstances and I can’t possibly be an impartial voice against Romanoff after her stint in SI. And… there was this random other guy I never even heard from Adam.”

“I wouldn’t be able to say, sir. But if I may, it is possible that prosecutor wants on record about your experience… and Ms. Romanova’s complete lack of qualification or basic common sense in accessing a man for combat duty when suffering he was suffering a medical condition that impairs his physical and mental state of mind.”

Tony smirked at that. “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t hold a grudge, Jay.”

“As you wish, sir.”

~*~

“I’m also being called to testify on Romanoff’s character.” Pepper commented lightly.

Tony eyes her relatively blank expression and the fire in her eyes. “This will be a shitstorm.”

“For them.” Pepper agreed. “Kara Palamas recovered enough and accepted a meeting.”

Tony winced at the name. From those recovered that didn’t immediately went to the paranoid (or not so much) route of disappearing out of thing air, Palamas was by far the angriest… and by far the worst off. Everybody with a S.H.I.E.L.D badge had their entire lives completely dismantled, but there were those, like Kara Palamas that at some point wished for the quick death instead of the long con.

Tall, with olive skin and dark eyes, Tony could see himself trying really hard not to leave alone if they had met in a social event. The new, vivid, and still healing scars and wounds didn’t detract from her looks, but certainly told quite the story of survival.

“Mr. Stark.” She greeted evenly.

“Ms. Palamas, thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

“It was for my benefit.” Kara readjusted herself and didn’t show any indication that the movement pulled at the stitches in her abdomen a bit. “But I am curious why you would want to meet with one us,  rats.” She sneered but Tony didn’t take offense, he knew it wasn’t for him.

Tony eyed her for a bit before biting the bullet. “Romanoff and Rogers just approached me a few days ago about funding the Avengers.”

The inventor didn’t seem the least bit surprised that Palamas snarled at the news.

“My issues with them are pettier even if from the same source.” He crossed his hands behind his back in fake nonchalant.

With some effort, Kara turned her lips from the snarl it was to quite the grim smile with no amusement anywhere in it. “Let me guess, you didn’t think that the carrot and the stick was very fun.”

Tony shrugged and was happy that his position, with his hands behind his back, hid the tight fists they formed. “I’m used to manipulations, Ms. Palamas, at a times I can even congratulate and allow myself to be impressed at the more successful and ‘slash’ or more intricate ones. S.H.I.E.L.D gambled and cheated and now I no longer see them as much more than HYDRA itself.” Tony gave Kara time to calm herself at his very accusing words.

At the end of the day, no matter how much Kara was burned, she couldn’t deny the reason HYDRA prevailed within S.H.I.E.L.D since their founding days.

“Then why are you here? You did the civic duty, we are receiving treatments before the trials.”

“I don’t deny that failing to recognize Nazism is quite the red flag, but I can also recognize victims. I’m here to offer an alternative to putting a bullet in Rogers and Romanoff’s heads.”

Kara had to laugh at that. “What do you think you can offer that would be enough for us? Those idiots ruined our lives! If not me then you can bet any of the others… excuse me, the survivors that is, will get a rifle at the first opportunity. Who knows, maybe it will be Barton, heavens know where he was when it all went down.”

And never let it be said that Tony sometimes didn’t enjoy adding fuel to the fire but even he wasn’t enough of a bastard to enjoy what is going to happen next… this would be quite the kick in the balls. He didn’t know how close Palamas and Romanoff were but it wasn’t like it mattered now. “Keeping in mind that Rogers would hardly know what to do with the files, it was Romanoff that executed the plans and, coincidentally, there has been a scarcity of information on Barton on the files found online.”

Kara’s breath quickened in anger and despair.

“There is this… thinking in S.H.I.E.L.D. Us vs them. Cliques cracked up to eleven.”

Tony finally sighed and his shoulder sagged. “It just sucks when you’re part of ‘them’.”

Kara swallowed with some difficult – the bruises around her throat didn’t help – and didn’t answer. She didn’t need to, and Tony continued.

“I don’t know if you saw—”

“Romanoff giving the finger to the Congress and walking out?” Kara muttered bitterly.

“Right now, the government is too busy trying to protect themselves to dispend much effort and resources on the Three Stooges. I have been called to testify on their characters, but it probably won’t go anywhere aside from some news articles.”

“Your point?” She almost gritted out.

“That it could go somewhere.”

Kara almost snorted. “What, putting them in jail? If they don’t get out by themselves, Rogers has Captain America to fall back to.”

“My aim was a little higher. Rogers can be excused from a lot thanks to his seventy years long nap, he wouldn’t understand all the repercussions of putting those files online, but Romanoff can’t say “I didn’t know” considering her long years at S.H.I.E.L.D and… well… being born after the seventies. If you and, say, more than twenty other S.H.I.E.L.D agents that genuinely thought you were doing good work, without any participation in the missions in a darker grey area sought restitution, you have quite the case to put Romanoff behind bars, but for now and to make it really long term and long reaching, I am more interested in the civil lawsuits, no jailtime involved.”

“Ok…?” Kara didn’t know where Stark was going with this.

“I have tracked down every single account with the flimsiest of connection to S.H.I.E.L.D, right now they are frozen pending investigations. I happen not to be inclined to fund Romanoff and company at the present moment and I will say just that in a few days. Then, it won’t be long, if she didn’t already think of that, before Romanoff turns to the frozen accounts. Hacking them would be no hardship for someone a lot less skilled than Romanoff.”

And the thought rankled but… Kara raised an eyebrow and ignored the sting when it pulled at the cut on her forehead. “You want to drain them. Without S.H.I.E.L.D and without a backer of sufficient clout like you, Rogers and Romanoff have nothing to offer and her little power trip of “You need me” falls apart before even having the chance to take off.”

“Considering their promptness of contacting me, I’d say that, at least Romanoff, came to the same conclusion.” Stark’s voice was bland, but Kara finally saw where he wanted to hit.

Captain America did no wrong. Even Stark deigned to show up when summoned to court, Rogers didn’t consider it worth his time, and no one said a peep. He had enough sway that Congress didn’t even manage to detain Romanoff with her speech of ‘you need us’ and that was as good as confirmation in the eyes of the public.

But what can they realistically do without a base of operations, ground support, reconnaissance teams, international liaisons, vehicles, weapons, armor? And the list only went on.

Tony Stark would be the obvious choice. But if that was the case, they didn’t think it through: the files dumped would have included their plans for Stark. From letting the man die and sweeping what they could before the will was read to giving the man his own property but presenting it like they were saving him. All the while, of course, pretending that they even have a solution to begin with (all they had was a pep talk from the beyond). Stark saved his own life but S.H.I.E.L.D had to pretend and twist facts in a way that kept him in their debt.

Now in the known and understandably less than happy with the whole thing, what was next on the list? Twist the facts some more and have S.H.I.E.L.D’s resources be invested in their project to track and destroy HYDRA, and if they happened to help themselves as well, no one needed to know. Most would eat it up and that’s where Stark was aiming.

“How did you get to twenty other agents?” Kara frowned at the strangely specific number.

“I didn’t, I’m just guessing high. You will never find a formula of x equals this, but there are some concrete lines like medical bills, obviously, then loss of earning capacity, loss of income while you were recovering, then the more abstract like pain and suffering. Besides any other foreseeable harms. There is really no way to monetize an injury, you won’t find ‘broken wrist equals a thousand dollars’ anywhere because who decides on the amount is a jury who won’t use a math algorithm for it. However, I have seen settlements go for the sum of five digits, a sentencing? In the millions. Right now, S.H.I.E.L.D is being liquidated, I am estimating that by the end of it, they will have close to fifteen billion dollars.” Stark met her eyes. “I want each of you to get compensations close to a billion.”

Kara realized that her mouth was hanging open when it pulled at her burns. “Is that even possible?”

Stark shrugged. “There was a case in Texas, plaintiff got almost seven million for second degree burns, it had disfigured him, and the value was raised. Still, the more people that get on board, the better.”

She huffed and leaned back on the pillows. “I can’t say for the others… but that kind of money means better ways to protect ourselves.”

Tony nodded. “Yes. Getting even and cutting them at the knees aside… you could restart your lives. With no sword hanging over your heads because then no one else affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D would have access to the resources to even find you.”

Kara gently patted her bruised arm. “I will talk to some of the others, but I think they’ll want in just to get back at Romanoff and Rogers. The money will be a huge incentive, but just a plus nonetheless.”

Tony nodded again. “The personal injury lawsuit is in the bag, tort cases this obvious are pretty straightforward. A criminal case will take longer and bear in mind that it might only get Romanoff, but if you guys want to keep going, I will support it.”

~*~

And Tony did just that. By the time he finished having the same conversation with the S.H.I.E.L.D agents that agreed to speak with him and by the time Kara herself rallied the ones he couldn’t, they were ready.

Ignoring calls and only using the Armor to go to and from where he needed to be ensured that there was no Rogers and Romanoff waiting to accost him outside of his work. Hmmm, maybe he should adopt that from now on.

The next time he saw Romanoff, they were in a court of law and, there was a bittersweet pleasure in seeing the usually high and mighty Black Widow so frazzled, frazzled enough to show it even.

After not having any compunction of upheaving so many lives… ending them even, Tony didn’t feel any sympathy for the woman that once gave months of work and risked millions of dollars to his legal department. From the corner of his eye, he could see Rogers there as well. Either he never wore a formal suit or his own lawyer got it for him because Tony felt more comfortable in a suit at the age of four than Rogers was looking right now.

Still Tony made a whole show of it. Staring confusedly at the duo as if asking himself what they were even doing here, whereas Natashalie alternated between being anxious and glaring at him, and Rogers alternated between being confused and glaring at him.

It’s not like Tony didn’t know why they were angry, that was his whole point after all, but in the “every-day, I only know what the news say” point of view? The S.H.I.E.L.D victims of the Info Dump (and the families of those that were injured or killed by the falling Helicarriers) were seeking monetary restitution and weren’t even giving side-glances at Rogers and Romanoff. After all, the money wasn’t theirs either.

“While this court recognizes the need for a task force in the name of fighting the criminal and terrorist organization called HYDRA, the victims and their families have the right to the restitution asked for. The accounts registered in S.H.I.E.L.D’s name are henceforth to be distributed to the plaintiffs according to the jury’s decision. Dismissed.” The judge hit the gavel.

And Tony smiled because step one was complete. He met Kara’s eyes who nodded once.

Romanoff tried to hurry along and intercept him before he could leave but the whole event was televised and there were plenty of reporters about to ask her why would she try to claim that money for a team of four (since Tony Stark and Bruce Banner turned down their offer and Thor is not on Earth) when there were so many victims whose lives were turned upside down when S.H.I.E.L.D fell (conveniently forgoing the need to say that she was the reason it fell the way it did).

If Tony had a small hand in herding the questions via some creative nudges here and there in the media and many fake accounts that PR set up… well…

He made a mental note for someone to yell at Romanoff’s face if she thinks that three people that worked for S.H.I.E.L.D for so long (decades in Romanoff and Barton’s cases) were the best equipped to hunt HYDRA down when they didn’t even notice Nazism right under the noses, it's like the blind being lead by the even blinder. Tony made another mental note to ask J.A.R.V.I.S to record it for when it happened.

~*~

Step two: now that the precedent was set that there were victims... what were they victims of?

Tony smiled as this time, it was a criminal case being judged with jailtime being the consequences of being found guilty.

As the sentence was carried out, Tony finally conceded to talking to Romanoff.

“You know you need us.” Natasha tried for a confident voice, but the last few days shook her to her core. This was a last ditch attempt.

“… ok.” Tony offered, not really understanding.

“So why are you doing this?” She almost hissed.

But Tony could only give her a half-smile, still confused. “You will note that I’m not doing anything. I’m not even in the equation.”

Which, in the practical sense, he really wasn’t. Tony may have provided the lawyers (personal injury lawyers) but that was for getting compensation for injuries not about crimes, those were persecutors and defence lawyers. He didn’t even take the stand since Tony wasn’t needed as witness in either side. Testifying Romanoff's character went as he had predicted: some news articles and a piece here and there.

Natasha was incensed and it was getting harder and harder to hid it. “You know what I meant! You could make this whole thing go away, you have a battalion of lawyers and an entire PR department.”

And didn’t that sting? Who would have thought that Captain America would need it? But as good as Rogers was at raising battle spirit, the man was hopeless at rallying the public because of one simple issue that Natasha had overlooked: Rogers saw any kind of press (be it conferences or not) as a Dancing Monkey routine since the USO tours back in the 40s and refused to even explain publicly what was going on, instead he chose to ‘believe’ that ‘the people were smart’, ‘they know we are there for them’ and ‘they were doing the right thing’ regardless of the fact that he seemed to have no answer when asked ‘How can people be smart or know what was going on if they don’t say it to them?’.

Proof is in the pudding: Rogers' court day was one garbage fire after another and it didn't take the jury long before giving him the same sentece they gave Natasha herself.

Tony sighed. “PR only ever goes so far, Romanoff, I thought that you of all people would know that. My lawyers honestly wouldn’t be able to do much more than yours did. Involuntary manslaughter truly was the best possible outcome. I don’t have to tell you that, you were there. Not even Captain America was exempt when there were so many casualties thanks to the ‘Let's drop Helicarriers right on the Potomac in rush hour’ plan.”

Natasha only glared at him through the bulletproof glass and Tony was more focused on suppressing his reaction at the clash of the orange suit with her red hair.

“It’s a sentence of twenty-seven years with no possibility of parole.” She gritted out. “And you know you need us.” Natasha repeated.

Tony blinked. “Ok.” He repeated.

“Ok, you agree?” She raised an eyebrow in challenge.

“Yes.” He shrugged. “I mean, there were… quite a few former S.H.I.E.L.D agents that stepped up in the interim but you’re still quite the name, the Black Widow.”

Natasha frowned, not understanding his angle. She knew about all the other S.H.I.E.L.D agents that were comparable to her in skill (as much as it grated her), she was banking on the fact that none of them would want, in a million years, be caught in front of a camera and the Avengers are very public. But when people like Isabelle Hartley and Melinda May took the stand, betrayed and angry if not injured and tortured like Kara Palamas, she knew she overplayed her hand.

But here Stark was, admitting that she was still an asset. And still waiting as if it was her turn to speak, with a damnable patient expression on his face.

“So letting a member of your team go to waste in a prison is hardly the way to use their abilities.” Natasha tried to go for smooth and hinting at their shared past but then realized her mistake.

Stark would hardly remember their ‘past’ fondly what with how they met at all and his newfound knowledge of the context inside S.H.I.E.L.D back then. Natasha suppressed a wince at the way his lips pursed in displeasure before he wiped any reaction out of his face.

“Your situation is hardly without precedents. How many convicts have their sentences reduced because they provided vital intel or services if only as bait or point of contact? It shouldn’t be news for you, Romanoff.”

The use of her last name confirmed her analysis. Stark knew very well their plans for him before S.H.I.E.L.D decided that he was more useful alive than dead with threats like the Hulk around and Enhanceds cropping up everywhere. Still…

“S.H.I.E.L.D had a similar policy, but we would usually have access to training facilities and other perks if only as an incentive.” It was said grumblingly but if it was bait, then Natasha overshot because the only thing Tony did was sent her an exasperated look.

“Yeah and look how S.H.I.E.L.D’s version of Operation Paperclip ended up: not even you know what you did for S.H.I.E.L.D and what you did for HYDRA.” Tony took a deep breath and closed his eyes, so he didn’t seen Natasha genuinely wincing. “Look, you basically dared Congress to ‘come and get it’ when you told them that they ‘need you and if they want to arrest you, then they should arrest you’, basically their response is to treat you like any other convicted criminal in the world – shooting down the ego trip – and, if you have something to offer in an investigation taking place, a lawyer will very likely come with offers to reduce your sentence. This situation is not exactly the Second Coming, it’s done all over the country all the time. What S.H.I.E.L.D did? With hiring from all over the world based on the asset’s” Tony’s voice was fill of derision, “skills in a parody of Operation Paperclip and with none of their safeguards is what blew up in all of our faces. They are not exactly eager to have you out and about just to repeat the same mistakes.”

“It wouldn’t be a mistake. I know better now.” Was said softly.

“Do you?” Tony challenged her. “Because not two days after you found out about HYDRA’s infestation – after failing to recognize it for the ten years you worked for S.H.I.E.L.D – you decided that the most reasonable course of action is to Wiki-Leaks the whole database with active missions all over the world still taking place. As a result, we have people like Kara Palamas that had to be extracted from a torture room and would want nothing more than to put a bullet between your eyes the second you step outside prison.”

Natasha took a deep breath. “I made mistakes. I fully admit that. At the time I genuinely thought that I was redeeming myself, cleaning the red off my ledger when I found out that… that I was just doing the same horrible things for different people I followed the one person whose principles wouldn’t be compromised. Steve also recognized what S.H.I.E.L.D became and he was, in theory, right to get rid of the whole thing.”

Tony leaned back in his seat. “Steve can be excused of a lot in the Info Dump, but he is still the guy that thought it was a good idea to drop three Helicarriers on the Potomac. The number of casualties from that is almost as high as the ones caused by the Info Dump… well… at least in U.S, so I wouldn’t put all my eggs in his basket either. He may be a better moral barometer, but he is clearly no better at the decision-making department.” This time he got to see Natasha’s wince. "As much it galls me, Loki wasn't wrong. You kill and lie for the service of killers and liars and never saw anything wrong with it. You even went a step further, you thought you were redeeming yourself. That and the fact that you never noticed Nazism or didn't see anything sufficiently wrong with it... I can only say that I'm sorry that I'm not sorry, but even I wouldn't be comfortable working with you on a day to day basis, I have no idea what you would overlook."

Tony stood up, he came more out of curiosity than anything else and the only thing he found was just sad.

“And when a threat comes?” Natasha crossed her arms, not used to coming second best in a conversation with Tony.

But now she realizes that maybe they weren’t seeing them from the same perspective. Has she ever truly come out on top when Tony was involved? Only when he was dying of heavy metal poisoning. A traitorous part of her mind whispered.

Still, she knew Stark’s biggest fear, the way he kept flinching after the Chitauri, the way his PR spun things and the way Stark himself spoke about the Avengers after Loki… the Avengers were needed in his mind, they weren’t just a good card up the sleeve.

Tony turned around but didn’t seem to hesitate because he was considering her words. “Again, your situation is hardly a new one. If a current investigation has use for your skills or knowledge a lawyer will be provided and a deal will be offered, but it’s not like I’m saying that they’ll implant bombs at the back of your neck.”

Natasha gawked for maybe half a second before gathering herself. “What?!”

But Tony only snorted which grated even more on her nerves. “Never watched Suicide Squad, have you? I was investing on the Avengers for world ending events like the Chitauri, when those happen, I’m trusting your survival instincts.”

“What?” Natasha asked again, completely out of the loop and hating it with every fiber of her body.

Tony frowned in confusion at her bafflement. “Saving the world doesn’t depend on moral anything. If the world is ending, you either help us or end with the world.”