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The wrong call (all down the line)

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“Did you know?” Tony asks again. His eyes bore into Steve’s, begging for the answer he wants. Say no , his eyes plead, please, say no.

Steve, straight-forward, honest Steve, finally meets his eyes. “Yes.”

And Tony-- Tony can do any number of things. He can go after Barnes, beat him to a pulp. He can blast the smug douche laughing at them in the other room. He can punch Steve right in his perfect teeth. He wants to do these things, all of these things and more but… he doesn’t. He doesn’t because he’s been making the wrong calls for as long as he can remember so Tony--

Tony walks away.

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Later, so many hours later, Tony’s staring down at the opened letter in his hand. There’s a red light blinking on his phone and thousands of miles away Steve is breaking the majority of the Avengers out of a prison that Tony helped put them in.

I’m glad you’re back at the compound , the letter says,  you’ll do well as the new head of the Avengers .

Tony watches the light blink. Pepper has faxed over some documents, still unable to look at him since Sokovia. Tony can’t blame her. He doesn’t want to look at himself either.

When he closes his eyes he can still see the Winter Soldier pulling his dad by the hair, slamming his face over and over again. He can see the man’s fingers (his human fingers) wrapped around his mother’s throat. He thinks it might have been easier to bare if he couldn’t imagine the feeling of skin on skin, the pressure as she was choked to death.

Tony doesn’t understand how Cap could just give up. Leaving the Avengers to a man like Tony Stark?

“Bad call, Cap,” Tony murmurs, tossing the letter onto the desk. It flashes in the glow of the blinking light and Tony hangs up on Ross. He picks up the phone, makes sure that no one else is on it, takes a deep breath.

Then he starts making his calls.

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“We’ve been exonerated?” Steve would almost think this was a trap if it weren’t for the fact that it’s Natasha that’s telling him. She’s made it a point to be honest with him after Shield fell.

“More than that,” Natasha says. She slides him a thick packet, much like the one she handed him that began all this. She nods at it as he picks it up. “That’s the new deal. Long story short on it, we stay the Avengers, completely autonomous with only a courtesy debrief after each meeting.”

Steve flips through it, eyes sliding across the words almost faster than he can comprehend. “This…how?”

He can compromise on this but he hadn’t thought it would be on the table ever .

“I don’t know,” Natasha says. Her lips firm. “But I’m going to find out.”

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Tony’s tired. That’s what it comes down too. He’s tired of always being wrong when all he wants to be is good . He’s a genius and a hell of a lot better than he used to be but he keeps failing at this whole morally right thing.

He doesn’t understand how men like Rogers always know what the right thing is and, therefore, he knows whose hands the Avengers will be better off in. Tony thinks he’s making the right choice (for once) even if he’s had to make a deal with the devil to do it.

Well, the devil doesn’t win here either. Ross has never worked with a Stark, Tony or otherwise, and he’s got no way of knowing what a nightmare it will be.

Tony’s already made the “hold” light brighter so he can properly enjoy the blinking from every angle.

He goes back to his tower before the deal goes through, doesn’t want to see the righteous return of Rogers and Barnes and everyone he’s done wrong by. His lab becomes his cocoon, protecting him from the things he might have tried to interfere with and he works with engines and neuropathology tech and nanofibers for Peter Parker. He creates non-violent things, protective things and secrets away his Ironman suits and drinks too much coffee until he feels like he did with the arc reactor in his chest.

When he talks to Ross, he hums and thinks about the time it would take a normal inventor to complete even the most rudimentary thing and halves it. He redefines the word “weapon” so many times he gets sick of it. He also reminds Ross that as long as Tony gives him his pound of flesh, no matter the form, the governments of the world will leave the Avengers alone .

He hears that Bucky’s submitted to being refrozen in Wakanda. He doesn’t-- he doesn’t think about it (too big, too emotional) and he takes a closer look at brain mapping and overwriting for no real reason.

This is, of course, when Natasha shows up absolutely livid.

“You’re giving Ross weapons,” she hisses, stalking through twelve layers of security like they’re not even there.

He turns without surprise and gives her a smile with too many teeth. His eye is only a little discolored now, all flash and no swelling despite the super soldier fist to the face. “I’m not giving Ross weapons.”

Natasha stops short, face cold. “Don’t lie--”

“I’m selling Ross weapons,” Tony interrupts.

Her face becomes, if possible, colder. “I thought you’d given up weapon’s manufacturing for good. I guess everyone has a price.”

“Yes,” Tony says. “They do.”

Her jaw flexes and she stares him down. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Yes,” Tony says again. His smile is too big, too many teeth, too brilliant. “That’s part of the problem.

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Three months after Barnes is refrozen, Tony stares down at the only neurotech in the world advanced enough to isolate particular cognitive patterns and completely destroy them. He’s looking at the answer to brainwashing, he’s looking at the only qualitative way in the world to be sure someone’s mind is their own.

In the wrong hands, it will be the cruelest weapon in the world.

Tony has contingencies to make sure it never ends up in the wrong hands.

Tony may not have a good handle on what is right and what is wrong but he takes care of who’s important to him. Even when he’s not important to them.

Futurist . It had been the first time that the title was a slur.

“What.” Clint is tense and unhappy. Tony knows he’s a consultant for the new Avengers but not fully on the team. He also knows that the archer will never forgive Tony for putting him away in jail while his kids waited at home for him.

Tony thinks he should start slowly, should apologize, should ask how Clint’s been. But he’s never known how to pull his punches, never been good at working around the subject.

“Bird-brain,” he greets. “You ever think, gee I sure wish there was a way to make sure a norse god isn’t bangin’ around in the ole noggin?”

“Stark,” Clint growls. “If you think--”

“Because I’ve made one,” Tony interrupts. He doesn’t want to hear what Clint thinks Tony thinks. He’s almost positive it’s nothing good. “You in?”

There’s a long silence. “This doesn’t mean I’ll forgive you.”

A spike of pain shoots through Tony’s chest and he instinctively rubs his artificial sternum like he would the arc reactor. “I’ll send a chopper, sans pilot. Tell no one.”

“Trust me, Stark,” Clint says. “They’d stop me if they knew.”

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After, Clint stares down at the pad where all the neuropathways of his brain had flashed and twisted under the scan. His thumbs stroke across the screen and there’s something vulnerable and broken in his gaze.

“No abnormalities,” Tony says briskly. “No contusions, no triggers, no subroutines.” He leans against his workbench, across the room, and jerks his chin at the pad. “No Norse gods hiding in your brain.”

“How--” Clint swallows heavily, adjusts his grip on the thin metal and glass, takes a deep breath. “How accurate is this?”

“Ninety-nine point seven,” Tony says. He doesn’t explain about the tests on himself or others, the hours of sweat and sleepless nights, the missed meals and too many cups of coffee. He’s confident in his work and he lets that show in his voice.

“Did you… did you make this for me?” Clint asks. He finally looks up and he looks about ten years younger. There’s a naked honesty in his expression that has Tony backpedaling as fast he can.

“I made it because I can,” he says and shrugs. “I did some other neurotech and thought it might be worth my time. Useless invention, really, no market for it. Not yet anyway but I don’t foresee one developing either.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, looking back down at the pad. He sets it on the bench next to him and looks back up. “I get that.”

Tony is afraid he does.

“You’ll need to sign an NDA,” Tony says. He clears his throat and wipes grease off his face with one hand. “Patented Stark tech. You can’t tell anyone.”

“Is Pepper upstairs?” Clint asks. He stands up slowly as if finding his feet for the first time. According to the electrodes still strapped to his chest, it isn’t because of the neurotech, only emotional strain. He begins to strip off the electrodes. “I’ll sign that and get it out of your hair.”

Tony turns to avoid looking Clint in the eye. “No, she’s not here. I’ll get the paperwork.”

“Business meeting?” Clint picks up his shirt and slips it on. “She’s a busy woman.”

“Yes. I mean no. She’s busy but she, uh, she’s not here. For other reasons.” Tony manages to track down the papers under a pile of parts and straightens them out best he can. He strides over and drops it in Clint’s hands. “Here, standard stuff. Can’t communicate about it in any way, blah, blah, blah.”

Clint frowns at him, brow pinching. “Jesus, Tony, are you here alone?” He seems to see all the mugs and mess for the first time.

“No,” Tony says. “If you’ll excuse me-- you can just leave that on the table, I’ll get to it, you know, gotta run.”

Tony flees and waits for Clint to leave before slinking back to his cocoon. The documents are signed and Tony throws them off to the side. His company doesn’t know about this tech and there is no patent. He just needs Clint not to talk.

He packs up the mapping with instructions and erases all traces of Stark tech. He mails it discretely and goes back to his solitude.

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James Buchanan Barnes becomes a member of the Avengers five months after the failed Sokovia Accords. He’s got one arm and has enough stamina to keep up with Captain America. Without him, they wouldn’t have been able to defeat a mythic berserker in Austria.

The public panics and the UN publicly speaks against the inclusion of the Winter Soldier in the peacekeeping initiative. They say he’s dangerous, he was a monster, he was responsible for the death of the former King of Wakanda.

Tony turns off the TV on the image of Barnes, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, combatting a hundred separate paparazzi flashes. A shoe is thrown and Rogers catches it before it can hit his friend in the head.

Tony cracks open his first bottle of alcohol in almost a year.

Ross gets new, enhanced Kevlar vests with heat signature masking and EMP capabilities. He puts in a request for automatic weaponry capable of surviving multiple, hostile environments which is declared “pending.”

The UN supports the inclusion of “Bucky”, Captain America’s long time friend in the Avengers. They speak against mind control and its dastardly effects and uphold that no citizen under such barbaric means shall be held accountable for their actions.

The next week, a video of Bucky saving a kid from a collapsing building goes viral and everyone loves Bucky .

Tony tinkers with AK-47s and drinks heavily for twenty-four straight hours. Then he cuts himself off and gets back to work.

The devil can have his pound of flesh, but Tony gets to decide where he cuts it from. He burns the AK-47s under Veronica’s careful supervision and tries to redefine “weapon” for the eighteenth time this month.

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Clint calls a few hours after his first mission working with the Avengers as a consultant, something with Victor von Doom in the Atlantic that Tony doesn’t pay attention too.

Tony is freshly home from a press conference where he gave all the credit for a new development in prosthetics to his R&D. He finishes loosening his tie and answers.

“It wasn’t just because you could,” Clint says tightly. There are faint voices in the background and Tony gathers he’s still in the debriefing room with the Avengers.

Tony shrugs out of his jacket and throws it over the scattered remains of the first generation prosthetics he’d just presented. “Barton, call an adult and open a window, you’re not making any sense.”

“Stop, Tony,” Clint hisses into the receiver and Tony does because it’s the first time in a fucking long time that anyone’s said his name.

The voices in the background fade to be replaced by the sound of wind. Clint’s stepped out of wherever he is to talk to Tony.

“What are you trying to do?” Clint asks. “The machine-- you could have just sent it to Rogers. He would have accepted it. The guy would trust Doom if it meant it might help his friend.”

Tony’s heart twinges. He’d thought he was Roger’s friend once but it had been a common mistake. Steve would never do anything like that for Tony and why would he? It’d probably be morally dubious at that point.

“There was a break in at the lab,” Tony says shortly. “A couple of things went missing, no big deal to someone like me.”

“Why won’t you admit you sent it?” Clint asks. “Are you still made about the Sokovia Accords? Or did something else go down between you and Rogers that I’m missing?”

“Talk to the police if you think it was the same machine,” Tony says. “Full incident report and SI will give you a nice reward for helping solve this horrendous crime.”

“I’m missing something,” Clint says, almost to himself. “You two were practically attached at the hip before all of this.”

“Were we?” Tony asks. He unbuttons the first two buttons of his dress shirt, needing the air. “I don’t recall.”

“Flippant to the end,” Clint says. He sounds disappointed or tired or angry, Tony can’t tell. “Tell me, Stark, how’s that going for you?”

Tony hangs up. He rubs a hand over his face.

How could he tell Barton what happened when it was clear Steve hadn’t? It must mean it was right for him to keep the fact that Tony’s parents were murdered, not killed in the accident, a secret. It must mean it’s right that Rogers would throw over Tony for Barnes.

Tony would leave it to him to be right . Tony would just go with the flow and do what he was told.

Chapter Text

Go with the flow and do what he's told.

Tony should have known the universe would test him on that. The universe tended to enjoy testing him.

“You need to take this contract seriously,” Ross growls over the phone. He’s in a foul mood having been on hold for over half an hour. “Your performance has been less than satisfactory, Stark.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever had that complaint before,” Tony says. He’s sitting on his workbench, scattered plastics and joints and bracers around him. Rhodey deserves the best. He drops his head, elbows resting on his knees, glad that Ross can’t see him, grease-smeared and tired . “You didn’t seem to feel that way last week when I sent over the vehicle specs.”

“It’s been over half a year,” Ross says. “And all you’ve given me is defense tech. You promised me weapons.”

“The best offense is a good defense,” Tony says. He licks his lips and wonders when the last time he ate was. What day is it?

“It’s the best defense is a good offense.”

“I’ve heard it both ways.” He taps on the tablet to his left and his jaw tightens. He’s been down here three days straight in an inventing fugue. He’s got no one around to care.

“Weapons, Stark,” Ross annunciates. There’s a bite in his voice that Tony has been dreading. He’s finally reached Ross’ line. “Tanks, guns, bombs, I don’t care. You promised me weapons and you damn well better deliver.”

“Don’t threaten me, Ross,” Tony warns. It’s flash and show but he can’t let Ross think this is an easy victory or he’ll have Tony making something much, much worse than guns. “Our little agreement is very fragile.”

“I can do whatever I please, Stark,” Ross says. “I hold all the cards.”

He hangs up and Tony stares at the phone.

“Well,” he muses out loud to himself. “He’s not wrong.” Then he bolts to his feet and stumbles his way to the nearest grease pan. He retches into it, throwing up bile and coffee but no solids.

After he’s done, he sits on the cold floor and ignores the shaking as best he can.

Weapons. He holds his head in his hands and breathes through his nose, trying to stave off the panic.

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The next week Natasha is taken into UN custody for impersonating an Australian ambassador in the UK. Steve fights them when they come for her and lands himself (somehow) in a French prison, Sam Wilson and Barnes right next to him. Wanda, Vision and Clint are expelled from both countries.

The President of the United States says that, since the unit is no longer national but international , he won’t be making any bargains without the UN’s go ahead.

Tony watches all this happening with shaking hands. This is everything he’d thought to avoid; the dissolution of the Avengers. Steve’s face is bloody in the photo they keep showing and this isn’t what Tony wants.

The next time the phone rings, he doesn’t let it go to hold. It’s a defeat and nothing he does can mask the acidic taste in his mouth.

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Tony wants a drink. He wants several drinks, in fact. He wants to get drunk enough that he’s not cognizant of what he’s doing, what he’s building, and who he’s building it for . He wants to be able to convince himself that this is for the Iron Man armor and he doesn’t have to give it to Ross, doesn’t have to send it on to mass production.

Tony Stark wants to walk away. He’s found that he wants to do that a lot now, his decision in Siberia having started the trend.

Once you start running, it’s hard to stop.

There’s too much at stake here. Ross is by no means the most powerful player on the board but he has influence over those players. It’s through this deal that the Avengers aren’t being levied with war crimes, that Barnes is pardoned, that Cap isn’t beside the rest of his team in a secret facility.

With shaking hands, Tony picks up his tablet, flicks the screen, and watches an array of blue explode in the air in front of him. It’s the schematics for a small handgun, precision accuracy, almost excessive durability. The bulky computer he’s embedded in the handle serve two purposes: to inform the soldier about potential hostiles in the area, and to take up enough room that there is a very finite number of bullets that can be loaded into it.

He wishes it was enough that he reduced the magazine to six bullets. He wishes it mattered that the computer is ten times larger than what he could make it. He wishes that he couldn’t already see the red staining his hands as he fabricates the first generation.

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The French pardon Cap, Barnes, and Wilson. The UK agrees to not charge Natasha for her “assistance” in the Australian matter. Wanda, Clint and Vision wait for them at the airport and greet them enthusiastically when they land.

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“Now this ,” Ross says, reverently picking the gun out of its case, “is something we can use .”

Tony is a study in indifference, arms crossed in front of Ross’ desk. Behind him are three armed men and they’d made sure to let Tony know how little they cared for the former Avenger on the way in. It makes the hair on the back of his neck stand on end to have them behind him and he knows that’s what Ross wants.

He takes the visitor’s chair without asking, draping himself across the armrests like he chose to be here.

“Tests have that baby surviving lava ,” Tony says. He looks over the edge of his sunglasses and winks. “Of course, your soldiers can’t but it’s the thought that counts.”

“Perhaps that’ll be what I have you make next,” Ross says. His eyes are still fixed on the weapon and he sights down the barrel. “Making my soldiers more durable .”

Tony gets what Ross is hinting at and doesn’t let the fear show on his face. “The suit’s patented,” he drawls, “and our little agreement doesn’t mean I have to share my toys. Afraid you’ll have to wait another eight years for the patent to expire.”

Ross’ eyes gleam as he meets Tony’s. “Baby steps, Mr. Stark, baby steps.”

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Tony feels dirty when he leaves Ross’ offices. He feels like he’s drenched in red, his shame for all to see and he knows that it will only get worse .

He gets into the back of his car and sits absolutely rigid and silent for the entire way back to the Tower. There are eyes watching him all the time and he has no doubt that this little meeting is a matter of public record. It’s another power move on Ross’ part, another way to back Tony into a corner.

They know , Ross is saying. They know that you’re my dog and they will hate you for it.

It hurts something in Tony to know that he’s right. That any last well intentions from the team will be well and truly dashed when they first encounter that weapon. His name isn’t on the side but this level of tech tends to be unmistakable.

His gut clenches at the thought of Steve’s disappointment though he has no reason to think that Steve expects any better of him. Maybe he thinks it’s a matter of course that Tony becomes a murderer again. Maybe he thinks this is who Tony’s always been.

Tony gets back and locks down the Tower. He makes his way down to the workshop and just stands there, in the middle, surveying his sanctuary.

This is where he built his suit, intending to right the wrongs of his past. Here is where he built the most revolutionary medical technology in the world, hoping to heal those he hurt. There is where he built his arc reactor, a physical representation of his change of heart, his desire to do good in the world.

And here is where he broke his promise and built a weapon.

Tony moves in a violent burst, grabs the nearest piece of tech and throws it at the wall. He sweeps metal and screws, blueprints and sketches off of the table tops, tears and rips at his pathetic attempts to be better. He destroys his workshop with a single-minded purpose because it isn’t his sanctuary anymore. Ross has tainted it, has taken this away from him and, god help him, Tony is going to keep doing it .

He stands in the wake of his destruction, chest heaving and eyes wild. The bots are huddled in the corner, whirring softly, afraid of him.

“Me too,” he tells them. He rubs his hand over his chest, phantom shrapnel stabbing. “Me too.”

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For all the things Ross influences, the media isn’t always one of them. It’s been long enough that most news outlets have noticed Tony’s marked absence and have begun speculating as more and more fights are unattended by Iron Man. Was it a fight between Rogers and Stark? What could Stark have done to get kicked out of something that most consider him a founding member?

What did Stark do ?

Tony’s got so many other things on his plate (SI, Rhodey, Ross ) that he doesn’t have time to care. It’s not urgent, it’s not a priority, it’s not affecting stock prices, and it’s not like it isn’t him. He’s the bad guy here and it’s fine if the media wants to beat around that for a turn.

But then Captain America has to go and fuck that all up .

“We will always have a spot on the team for Mr. Stark,” Steve says. His cowl is on and a little battered from the most recent fight. Something about an insane marine biologist in California. “I know I speak for the team when I say his presence has been missed.”

That idiot , Tony thinks, the wrench he’d been using dropping from his fingers. He stares at the TV, eyes wide, hoping he hasn’t heard right. That lying idiot .

“What the Captain means,” Natasha says, stepping forward, “is that while we value Iron Man’s contribution to the team in the past, Mr. Stark has decided to invest his time in alternate pursuits.”

Tony flinches. He can read between the lines. Iron Man, yes, Tony Stark, no .

“Alternate pursuits?” a reporter asks. “Do you mean his company’s recent contribution to medical technology?”

“Among others,” Natasha says, edges in her smiles.

Like building weapons for Ross .

“Kill it, Ronnie,” Tony commands his AI. The screen goes obligingly dark.

He wipes his mouth with one hand, facial hair (needs a trim) dragging against the skin of his palm. Natasha had nearly salvaged it, redirecting the conversation towards Tony’s selfishness, his other pursuits. Though no one had caught the sneer in her face like he had, they would be able to read enough and see that she’s less than thrilled.

But Steve had acted his part too well, had sounded too sincere for the media to just forget it. This news cycle is about to turn all because the Captain had to be righteous and forgiving . It makes them look good for a moment, makes it look like they actually might like Tony back on the team even if he knows the truth. But now, when Tony doesn't go back, the team will be open to criticism. He knows from having seen these situations over and over again that there will be two distinct reactions.

Tony has to make sure the right reaction wins.

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“Ms. Potts,” Tony says into the phone. He breathes evenly through his nose, tries not to choke on the guiltregretsorrowhopedespair in his throat. “How are you?”

“What do you want, Tony?” she asks, voice tight.

So she won’t even give him that. He can’t say that he blames her after everything he’s done.

“I need an invitation,” he says. “Above board, as a donor, not anything political or corporate.”

She may not like him much (who does?) but she does what she can when he asks.

It makes him feel guiltier than it should.

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He gets an invitation to a premier benefit, thrown to raise funds to repair the city after the newest bout of villainy. The Avengers are slated to make an appearance and he doesn’t want to do this but the the media is turning already. Just this morning NBC had hosted a panel of experts who all agreed that his absence from the Avengers was due to him not agreeing with their mission statement. They say it leads them to believe that there’s something darker lying underneath their good intentions.

It’s small but it can unfold into something much larger. He’s got to keep the Avengers’ reputation sterling . If Ross ever makes good on his threats and goes after them, then Tony’ll need it to be as difficult for him as possible.

All this leads to Tony standing in front of a mirror and adjusting the blood red tie around his neck. He’s wearing the oldest armor he has: a suit, glittering cufflinks, polished oxfords. His hair is slicked back and he has his red-lensed glasses on.

None of it will offer him the sort of protection he used to strive for. He won’t let it.

He looks at his reflection and it’s red through his glasses. He looks like a devil but worse. He looks like he did years ago, shark-like and arrogant, greedy.

He looks like the Merchant of Death.

His fist is impacting the glass before he’s conscious of the move. The mirror shatters, shards cutting into his flesh, and he doesn’t feel the pain.

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It’s a game, Tony knows. Manipulating the public always is. There’s the slow way, releasing his inventions at criminally low prices, appearing on late night talk shows, showing up at charitable events. Then there’s the messy, expedient way of getting to all those talking heads that the public listens to in one place and spinning them one hell of a story .

Tony doesn’t have time for the slow way and that’s why he asked Pepper for an invitation to this benefit where the creme de la creme of New York has gathered.

And they’ve so kindly allowed him the opening salvo.

He climbs out of the car like a god, spreads his arms wide, flashes his teeth back at the hundreds of cameras. He’s the ringmaster again and they surge towards him, roaring their questions, their praise, their condemnations.

Tony winks and walks into the hall like he owns it and --huh-- he does.

Society wives, statesmen, reporters, entrepreneurs. Tony welcomes them into his space, welcomes them to take any piece of him that they can. He shakes too many hands, laughs too much, talks too much. He captivates and spins them, planting the seeds so delicately they won’t bear fruit until the morning.

The champagne in his hand disappears in a sleight of hand, another appears ostensibly in front of one of the more conservative members of Congress and her pastor husband. He slurs his words a touch earlier than he’s planned, one eye on the time.

There’s only so much he can do until the Avengers arrive.

Then they do and, oh fuck , Tony’s missed a calculation, stomach plummeting like he’s missed the last step.

Because standing beside Captain America, looking uncomfortable in a black tuxedo, is James Buchanan Barnes.

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Tony, for a blinding moment, sees absolutely nothing but the man’s flesh hand, the way it curls uneasily by his side. He sees the strength that wrapped around Maria Stark’s throat, human fingers against warm flesh, and took her breath away.

He sees a murderer, an assassin, and that can’t be right because there’s Cap standing right by his side and Cap’s right and good .

Tony’s not but he can take a hint. He can.

Tony throws back his champagne, the first bit of alcohol all night, and lets the burn wipe him blank.

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Tony swaggers over (he owns the place, ha) and the people clear the way, eyes fixed to the spot where Tony Stark will meet Captain America. They expect awkward, they expect conflict, they expect something and Tony’s always been a people pleaser.

Ha.

“Cap,” Tony says, signature smirk in place. “Do you want a drink? You look like you could use a drink. Hey!” He snaps and points at a waiter, crooks a finger.  “Come here.”

“Tony,” Steve says, eyebrows pinched together. He waves off the waiter, not even looking at the poor kid.  “I didn’t know you were going to be here.”

Behind him is Natasha and Sam Wilson, Barnes off to the side as if expecting an attack. Tony positions himself so his view of the assassin is blocked by Steve’s mass and forces himself to act normal.

Tony flutters a hand over his chest. “Careful, Cap, people might think you don’t want me here.” He grins because he’s just kidding, just joking, play along Rogers .

Steve does not play along.

“I thought you wanted us to leave you alone,” Steve says. He looks confused and vulnerable, like he’s trying to figure out some form of absolution. “You left the compound and I thought-- after--”

“The past is the past, Rogers,” Tony says. He leans back, smiles wide, and says “And what the past is is dead. You of all people should know that.”

Cap rears back as if struck. It’s a low shot to throw Cap’s past in his face right now, after Peggy, but Tony needs to shake him, needs to break him out of whatever little stunt he’s trying to pull. Because Rogers had actually sounded apologetic and Tony’s not ready to hear that.

Wilson steps up to Roger’s side, hand on the bigger man’s arm. “Come on, man, we should go see the Governor.”

“Go, go,” Tony says. “Chuck’s been waiting all night for your company. Shocking, I know, but there’s no accounting for taste.”

Cap’s face shuts down, the vulnerability Tony had seen earlier melting away into pursed lips and furrowed brow.

“Right,” Cap says. “We’ll talk later, Mr. Stark.”

The formality cuts Tony as much as the hard disappointment. Tony leans into the pain and raises his glass in farewell. “You know where to find me.”

He watches Wilson and Rogers go. He doesn’t see Barnes move ( and holy shit the guy is fast) but the man is by Tony and behind Rogers, like a shadow, in less than a second.

Tony watches them go, a veritable battering ram through the crowd, and looks down at his glass. He’s out of champagne and, when he turns to maybe order something stronger, he comes face to face with Natasha.

“I haven’t told them,” she says. She takes Tony’s glass from him and sets it on a passing waiter’s tray so she can take his arm. It makes Tony’s back throb in preparation for the knife he’s become accustomed to receiving from the woman, but he lets her anyway.

A camera flashes, capturing the image of Tony Stark and the Black Widow on friendly terms, taking a turn about the room.

“About us?” Tony says, voice light. “Darling, I can’t be your dirty little secret forever.”

She gives him a thoroughly unimpressed look. “About Ross.”

“It was one night,” Tony says. “It didn’t mean anything.”

They know and they will hate you for it , Tony thinks. There’s no relief, only the crushing certainty that they will hate him, no matter when it comes out. So he’s not relieved by her pronouncement, instead feels like a man going on a long walk off of a slightly shorter pier.

“Your meeting with him last week says otherwise,” Natasha says. “You said you were selling, not giving. What’s your price, Stark?”

“Going to double it?” he asks.

She breaks away and he realizes she’s lead him to a more secluded portion of the room, by the wall. The look on her face is all Black Widow, no Natasha and he would feel afraid if he had anything else to lose.

“It’s not money,” Natasha says. “Do you want me to tell you what I think it is?”

No . “Sure,” he says, puts his hands in his pockets, rocks up onto his heels. “Shoot.”

“Revenge,” Natasha says and Tony’s world just stops . There’s a moment of complete stillness in his head and then click , his brain kicks into overdrive.

She clearly means to imply that he’s working with Ross to get back at the others for the whole Sokovia Accords affair. She thinks this is a petulant little move from him, to leave the Avengers, to give Ross weapons, to snark at Steve in public.

His entire being rebels at the thought. He wouldn’t-- how could he seek revenge? For what? For Captain America doing the right thing? He’s not a goddamn villain even if he’s not a hero. He opens his mouth to tell her that but--

It has the potential to turn the Avengers against him, regardless of what Steve might say in public, give them the range of motion to scorn him without inciting the media.

This...could work.

Tony lets a smile curl across his lips and he looks over his glasses at Natasha. “Oooh, revenge. Sounds sexy, why don’t you tell me why, exactly, I’d be seeking revenge against…?”

“Don’t play dumb, Stark,” Natasha says coldly. “You don’t pull it off.”

“That sounds like a compliment,” he says. “Ronnie? Did you get that on tape?”

“I haven’t told Steve,” Natasha says, “because, for whatever reason, he thinks you’re a good man. But I will, Stark, if I think you’re dangerous.”

Meaning she didn’t see him as a threat now. The thought makes him smile, makes him think a little more kindly of her. Tony Stark not a threat? It’s not like her to believe the media.

“Revenge doesn’t look good in front of the board,” he drawls. He wishes he had a glass to complete the picture. “It doesn’t end with five figure bonuses at the end of the year.”

She watches him as he walks away, eyes like daggers. He can feel the proverbial points in his back and he wishes it was the first time he’d felt that .

-----------------------------

Sam makes his way over to her, shamelessly abandoning the good Captain to the Governor. Barnes is lurking somewhere and Sam can trust him to have eyes on Steve.

“I saw you talking to Stark,” he says in greeting. “You okay?”

“Something isn’t right,” Natasha murmurs. She’s still focused on Stark where he’s laughing it up with a few society wives. “He gave in too easily.”

Sam raises his eyebrows. “He doesn’t seem like a man who gives in at all .”

“No,” she says, almost to herself. “He doesn’t.”

---------------------------------------------

Howard, in the few times that he paid any attention to Tony, used to level him with a sharp, considering look. He’d reach out and grip Tony’s shoulder too tightly, too intensely and he would say, “Son, it’s not about quality to these people, not at first. It’s about the story , that’s what they buy. You lie to their faces and do the real business behind closed doors. Lie, son, and you’ll make millions .”

---------------------------------------------------

Tony’s made billions. Goal accomplished, he’s had time to reorganize. Adapt.

Evolve.

----------------------------------------------------------------

Tony taps the microphone just right and revels in the feedback that screeches over them all. He sees quite a few people flinch and scowl at him, at the glass in his hand, at the cocky grin on his face.

“You know who I am,” he says. He looks over the glitter and glam, tries not to let the disgust show on his face. His eyes skip over the Avengers, standing to his left and looking tense. “I have the extreme honor of introducing a band of heroes. Really. Stand up guys even if they never let me buy ‘em a drink.”

His audience laughs politely and a camera flashes catching Tony Stark, loose and comfortable, halfway to drunk. It’s years ago now and they’re already expecting what will come next.

“But first,” he says into the microphone, “let’s talk about what’s really important: me.” Pause for laughter. “No, I’m serious. Let’s talk about me. Some of you may be familiar with a guy I like to call Iron Man?”

Another camera flash: Tony Stark, one eyebrow up, mouth pulled into a smirk, the shine of his suit reminiscent of metal.

“I’ve heard you guys have missed him,” Tony says with a chuckle. “Who could blame you? Everyone likes a little eye candy. And who am I to deprive you of eye candy?” Tony pulls the pause out, waits for the tension in the room to rise, waits for them to believe . He pulls back, grins, raises his glass and says, “I’m Tony Stark, that’s who.”

“What are you saying, Mr. Stark?” a reporter asks.

Tony’s eyes the paper in the man’s hands. “Is that a notepad? Kid, do me a favor and contact my office for a Stark Pad. Join the big leagues, okay?” The reporter colors and Tony ignores it. Instead he takes the microphone off the stand so he come right up to the edge of the stage. “What I’m saying, junior, is that I’m a businessman. And what’s important to me is my bottom line. Is being Iron Man fun? Hell fucking yeah.”

Camera flash: A wide, feral grin stretches across Tony Stark’s face; his glasses catch the light.

“But is it profitable? Hell fucking no ,” Tony says, gesturing with his glass. There’s no need for a pause after this statement. The room is dead silent. “So, folks, let’s focus on what’s important to me . Go out and buy the new generation of Stark Phone or, in your case, junior, the new generation of Stark Pad. SI has got some great tech coming to a store near you and trust me , you’d be an idiot to miss out.” He glances absently to the left and feigns surprise. “Oh, of course, I nearly forgot. So without further ado, let’s give a warm, Stark welcome to the Avengers!”

He backs off the mike, clapping around the glass in his hand. His eyes meet Cap’s and there’s disappointment and something else in the good man’s eyes.

Tony makes his exit before he can figure out what that something else is.

------------------------------------------------

The news outlets eat it up. Tony Stark! Back to business! The self-involved billionaire returns to the SI throne! The Avengers wish him the best in his refocused priorities!

The talking heads discuss the Avengers commitment to a peaceful world. The benefit was a success, they comported themselves with dignity, everyone was honored to have them in attendance. Public approval shoots up to 73% and Japan issues the entire team pardons for last week’s pseudo-supervillain fiasco.

SI stock sky rockets. Forbes commends Stark for reinvesting in his company. While it’s unfortunate to see the back of Iron Man, it’s a fair tradeoff to again see a new wave of tech come out of SI. There are heroes aplenty, many agree, and Stark is better off a businessman.

The gossip rags call Stark scum, a traitor, a filthy capitalist. They extol the virtues of Captain America and his team and why they’re better off without a self-serving man like Stark.

The divide between Stark and Avengers grows until they’re in two separate spheres, neither influenced by the other.

Tony reads all of this standing in the ruins of his lab, rubbing his artificial sternum like the pressure will alleviate the ache, and tries to convince himself that this is good .

All he comes up that, while this may not be good (feel good), it is necessary.

------------------------------------------------

“Stark,” Ross says after five minutes on hold, “you’ve reached deadline. What have you got for me?”

Tony grits his teeth. It’s part of the game, it’s all part of the game. There’s an unopened letter on his desk in Steve’s handwriting and Tony probably won’t open it. He’s afraid what Cap has to say, if Natasha told him, if he knows . He’s afraid that Cap will make him doubt .

“Tell me, Ross,” Tony says. “Is it better to be feared or respected?”

The last time he spoke those words was in a desert half a world away right before he blasted the terrain into nonexistence. He thinks this’ll end about the same.

Chapter Text

Rhodey is sitting in Tony’s kitchen, eating a bowl of cereal, about a week after the benefit. His legs are stronger now but will never be at the strength he used to have. Tony knows (from hacking his records) that there’s some debate whether Colonel Rhodes should be issued an honourable discharge or if his suit of armor made up for this new disability.

What Tony doesn’t know is what Rhodey is doing here .

“You stopped visiting,” Rhodey says. He takes another bite of cereal and grimaces. “They’ve still got me on a modified BRAT diet. Stuff tastes like cardboard.”

“I’ve been busy,” Tony says. He walks the rest of the way into the kitchen, floor cold against his bare feet. He hadn’t been expecting company so he’s wearing a pair of jeans and nothing else but it’s Rhodey. Rhodey doesn’t care about the scars the arc reactor left behind. “I don’t know if you’ve seen but SI stock is up forty points. You’re welcome.”

“I did see,” Rhodey says. He puts his bowl down and folds his arms over his chest. The tech strapped around his legs whirs as he shifts, supporting most of his weight.  “What I want to know is what are you about to do that’s going to make it drop?”

Tony blinks at him. “They’ve got you on the good stuff. And you’re not sharing? I’m hurt, Rhodes, genuinely hurt.”

Rhodey leans back, face unimpressed. “See, now I’m worried. It’s not a party or a congressional hearing, you would have joked about that. But you didn’t answer my question.” He leans forward, elbows over knees. “C’mon, man.”

Tony hesitates. It’s a fatal move after the first second because now Rhodey knows it’s bad. But Tony doesn’t want to get his (only) friend any deeper into this than he already is. He doesn’t want Rhodey tainted by what’s going to happen, doesn’t want him caught in the aftermath.

He’s been silent too long and he needs some version of the truth or else Rhodey will push and push and push until more than his L4 to S whatever shatters.

“Are you a pain in my ass because you broke yours?” Tony asks. He opens his refrigerator, ignoring how Rhodey swivels in his chair to keep him in sight, and pulls out the orange juice.  “You’re lucky I had some spare parts laying around or else they would have put you in a diaper cast. Which, while hilarious , I can’t imagine would be very sanitary.” He drinks directly from the bottle.

“That’s how you’re going to play it?” Rhodey asks. “Tony--”

“I don’t want you involved,” Tony says. He puts the orange juice on the counter in between them. “It’s… not good, Rhodey.” He looks away, puts one hand on his pocket, scratches at his facial hair with the other. “I’m doing some things and you can’t be connected to them. Too dangerous.”

“Okay,” Rhodey says slowly. “First question: how not good? Getting drunk in the suit not good or palladium poisoning not good?”

Tony’s mouth twists. “Technically those are the same thing? Because I was dying when I--”

“Tony,” Rhodey says. “How not good?”

“I can’t tell you,” Tony says. He exhales and puts his other hand in his pocket. “I’m serious Rhodey, it’s got to be just me this time.”

“Which brings me to my second question,” Rhodey says. “When you say too dangerous, are you telling that to War Machine, your partner, or honorably discharged, thanks but no thanks, Colonel Rhodes?”

“They haven’t discharged you,” Tony says. “I had Friday set up an alert, she’d have told me. And you know, with a little finagling, I could make that go away--”

“Which one?” Rhodey asks again, voice hard. “Because I swear to God Stark, if this is because of my injury , you will not like the subsequent ass kicking.”

“First of all, how dare you talk dirty to me in my own home,” Tony says. “Secondly, no, of course not. It’s not that type of dangerous.” He purses his lips and shrugs, tries to go for nonchalant. “You may have to visit me in jail but, hey, it’s not like I haven’t been there before.”

“You weren’t a superhero before,” Rhodey says. “Jail for you is the Raft and no one can bail you out of there.”

No one but Captain America but Tony knew better than to put his eggs in that basket.

“I know what I’m doing,” Tony says.

“That,” Rhodey says, pointing at him, “is not comforting. Just tell me, you know I’m going to get sucked in one way or another.”

The thought makes Tony’s lungs seize up, makes his vision white out, makes his left arm go numb. He breathes through the panic as best as he’s able but the cause isn’t going away. Rhodey is his only friend left, the first one who’s been in the Tower since before , and he won’t endanger him again. He won’t. He can’t.

“-ony. Tony!”

A warm hand settles on Tony’s shoulder and he flinches, arms coming up, foot sliding back to defend himself. He blinks his vision clear, chest heaving, and see Rhodey, standing with his hands up, face concerned.

“It’s okay,” Rhodey is saying. “Tony, breathe, you’re fine, I’m fine, Pepper’s fine. Breathe.”

“What? Yeah, I know,” Tony says. “Totally fine. I mean, Pepper’s not speaking to me and you fell a couple thousand feet in a metal coffin I built, but, yeah, whatever, everyone’s fine. Totally fine.”

“Pepper’s working through some stuff on her own,” Rhodey says. “Not your fault. And I told you, 138 combat missions. This-” he gestures to his legs “-isn’t your fault either.”

Tony snorts. His mouth tastes like copper and he reaches up to rub his chest. “It was my call, Rhodey. I’m the reason you were there, I’m the reason any of them were there, I told Vision to take Falcon out. I should have--”

“You did what you thought was right,” Rhodey says and that does it .

“That’s the problem!” He slams a hand on the counter, squares up to Rhodey who’s too trusting to look the slightest bit intimidated by his aggression. “Because whenever I do what I think is right, the world gets fucked!”

“That’s not true,” Rhodey says evenly.

“Ultron,” Tony spits, “the Accords. Every time I try to protect, pull back, anything , I drop a building on a kid or shoot my partner out of the fucking sky. I wish I knew what was right, Rhodey, but I don’t . What I can do is play the fucking game that the good guys refuse to play and do what’s necessary .”

“Is that why you’re building weapons for Ross?” Rhodey asks.

Tony stares at him. Finally he says, “They didn’t teach you that in the army.”

“I diversified when you were in Afghanistan,” Rhodey says. “Interrogation is more mobile than recon when it comes to political prisoners.” He smiles like he doesn’t hate Tony but that can’t be right. It can’t be.

“I’m building weapons for Ross,” Tony says. He watches Rhodey’s face, waiting for the disgust, the anger, the rage. He doesn’t find it. “Business is business and all that, you know the drill.”

“If it were that simple, this would have your name on it, right?” Rhodey reaches behind him and tosses out a very familiar looking handgun. “Because it’s just business, right?”

Tony  taps his fingers against his thigh. “It’s a modern look.”

The gun is lying on the counter, just sitting there, matte black and unadorned. He can’t tear his eyes away from it.

“What’s Ross got on you, Tony?” Rhodey asks. “Because this? This looks a lot like blackmail to me.”

“You have a lot of faith in me,” Tony says. His voice is hoarse and there’s something that feels a lot like relief  in his chest. He pushes it down, pushes it away because he doesn’t deserve it. “I said it was business, Rhodes. Lay off. Better yet, get out.”

Rhodey takes his seat again, pulls his cereal bowl back towards him. “No.” He takes a bite and grimaces. “Ugh, soggy cardboard.”

Tony, for lack of a better word, deflates, sinking down to put his elbows on the counter.. He’s tired and lonely and guilty and he’s not strong enough to actually kick Rhodey out. “How are you a real?”

“Genetic experiments,” Rhodey says. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

Tony bows his head, forehead pressed to his folded hands, and laughs .

---------------------------------------------------------------

“I get that you aren’t going to tell me,” Rhodey says some time later. They’ve migrated to the living room where Rhodey’s got his feet kicked up onto the coffee table. “But you have to know that I’ve got your back. No matter what.”

Tony’s throat feels tight as he tosses a careless grin from the other end of the couch. “Ah, honey bun, you do care.”

“I do,” Rhodey says. He falls silent for a minute and then says, “You know it was Natasha that gave me the gun.”

“Yeah,” Tony sighs. “I figured. She’s been aware of it since I first made the deal. Broke in, gave me the whole run around. I have got to get some spider-proof security.”

Rhodey doesn’t play along with the light-hearted quip. “She doesn’t know everything, Tony, but she knows enough. She’s going to figure you out. Soon.”

“I always did have a weakness for smart redheads,” Tony says. He rubs a hand over his face. “I’ve got it handled.”

Rhodey raises an eyebrow skeptically. “You have the Black Widow handled?”

“It’s a controlled fall,” Tony admits. “Into a canyon at the bottom of which are spikes of varying heights.”

“Sounds like you could use a co-pilot,” Rhodey says casually. At Tony’s look he holds up a hand. “Just saying.”

“Let me know when they graduate you from cardboard to real food,” Tony says. “Maybe I’ll consider it then.”

“Will do, Mr. Stank,” Rhodey says.

Tony throws one of the decorative pillows at him.

---------------------------------------------------

It’s...better knowing Rhodey is on his side. There’s still the certainty that his trust will fade when the trap is sprung, but, for now, it gives Tony a little comfort. Somehow he hasn’t fucked up this one thing in his life and it’s...freeing.

He goes back down to the workshop and surveys the damage he’s wrought. The bots have done their best to sweep things into piles but they don’t have the finesse for a complete clean up. There’s a path to his work bench, though, and another to his cars and bigger projects.

This space isn’t his anymore but it is a workshop. And if there’s one thing Stark’s know how to do, it’s how to work.

---------------------------------------------------

Tony’s given Ross riot shields that shock the guy on the wrong side, kevlar that masks body heat, a handgun that can’t be destroyed by anything short of nuclear fusion. He’s given Ross vehicles that can take an obscene amount of damage before being stopped, radio jammers that cover almost every signal known to man, drones that are capable of guessing if their target has any powers hidden up their sleeve.

This is so much worse than all of that.

They’re in a field in the middle of bumfuck nowhere , and it’s just Tony on his side and a veritable battalion on the other, Ross Sr. at the front. The men behind him are dressed in black and blank-faced, outfitted in Stark tech, carrying Stark tech.

“I asked you a question,” Tony says. He’s in a three piece suit; his glasses are red; his teeth glint under the hot sun. “Is it better to be respected or feared?”

“And I said it didn’t matter,” Ross snaps. “As long as the right people are in control.”

Wrong answer . The thought doesn’t show on his face.

“You all might remember this little number, Just something I pulled out of the closet,” Tony says, jerking his thumb at the covered truck behind him. “Go on, unwrap your present.”

With a nod from Ross, several soldiers push forward, coming uncomfortably close to Tony in the process. Tony doesn’t let it bother him, breathes in the gunpowder and sweat as if it’s not setting off a visceral reaction inside of him. He keeps his eyes on Ross who is looking at the truck with barely concealed anticipation.

He hears the tarp come off, heavy material hitting the ground with an audible thud.

Ross is silent for a long moment. Finally he says, “Well, Stark, you came through this time.” There’s a fierce satisfaction on his face that Tony finds distasteful enough that he has to turn away.

On the flatbed is a bomb. It looks like several, considering that it consists of three, long metal rockets, all grouped together on one stand. On the side of each one is STARK written as tall as the metal allows and in dark, black noticeable ink.

“The Jericho,” Ross says. It’s almost a prayer and Tony can imagine the feverish light in his eyes.

“The Jericho rebranded,” Tony corrects, still looking at the missile. His face tightens where no one can see and then he’s the showman again, turning around with loose shoulders and a sharp smile. “This baby’s like the Jericho on steroids, after puberty. Twice the blasting power, four times the range, and all of the fun.”

He tilts his sunglasses down and winks over the edge. Behind him, the missile gleams dully in the sunlight, rising far above their heads. The past revisits him and he spreads his arms wide like a god to his worshippers, and bares his teeth at them all.

“I call it,” Tony says, “the Trojan.”

Chapter Text

Tony holds the flip phone in his hand. It’s dark in his bedroom, no lights, no moon, all the windows blacked out. He remembers never being in the dark, always in blue light from the arc reactor. He doesn’t know if he misses it or is grateful that it’s gone. It had seemed like a step in the right direction, at the time. Now, he’s not so sure.

He flips the phone open. The tiny screen throws out a white light that illuminates his bare face, his chin, his cheekbones. He shuts it again. Opens. Shuts.

Trust Steve to send Tony something so archaic as a flip phone.

He wants to call Steve. Before everything they’d been something close to friends. Comrades, maybe, maybe a little more than that. Back then Tony could have called the other man for advice or maybe just to talk. He doesn’t know if Steve would pick up now.

Tony throws the phone in the dark and hears it hit the end of the bed and slide off. It removes the temptation from his hands, the temptation to hear the warm voice, the comforting tone. What would he say anyway?

I’m sorry for what’s about to happen. It’s the only way. Trust me.

Tony Stark doesn’t apologize.

He lies down and pretends to sleep.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

There’s a blue rendering of the world floating in the middle of his workshop. On it is a series of little white dots in clusters, scattered, moving. They represent the vehicles, defensive tech, and weapons that Tony has built for Ross.

With a gesture, Tony enlarges a section of the ocean. The cluster there represents all of the tech Ross sent to the Raft. If Tony wanted to, he could discern what each dot is. He doesn’t. Instead, he flicks his fingers and spins the globe until he gets to the coordinates that mark where the Avengers’ compound lies.

It lies dark, only a small, stylized “A” to distinguish it from the faint depictions of the terrain. He slowly drags his hand, rotating the world until he’s about twenty miles from the compound. Twenty dots are gathered there, nothing big, but not nothing at all.

“Friday,” he says, “get me eyes on the situation.”

The screens around him flicker to life. On one is a village in the Middle East. Some of Ross’ men are there, hunting down another innocent person who has had the bad luck to come out special. There’s more of them in the Raft than there were a year ago thanks to Tony’s drones and their tracking capabilities.

Another screen shows the inside of the prison. More personnel, more full cells, more containment procedures since the Avengers’ jail break. Tony has spent hours staring at this screen wondering if this is where he’s going to end up or if it’ll survive the aftermath.

Yet another screen is dark to the point, for a moment, he thinks it might be malfunctioning. But, no, his tech is just that good. The kevlar and stealth vehicles he gave Ross are doing their job, disguising this little squad from all eyes. Unfortunately for them, Tony has a habit of leaving back doors.

The computers in each piece of tech begin to send out the faintest signal, not unlike an electric version of a bat’s echolocation. The drone capturing the image interprets this signal as blue lines and the soldiers are revealed, circled up and camping twenty-two point four miles from the Avengers’ compound.

“Is Ross on scene?” Tony asks. He looks back to the globe.

“Not yet,” Friday says. “He is due to arrive evening after next.”

Tony nods and turns on his heel. “Tell me the second he gets there.”

-------------------------------------------------------

Tony cuts himself off from Stark Industries the next day. Oh, he still owns the company but, as of a week ago, he’s locked out . In his darker moments, he wonders if Obie is looking up from hell and laughing.

The board members are baffled. It’s almost beyond belief. Tony Stark backing out? Relinquishing his vote? Ms. Potts is in Japan and unavailable to offer her opinion. This decision is theirs and theirs alone.

They lock Tony out and clutch the patents he gives them in their grizzled hands. Mine , he imagines they whisper, mine .

Tony encourages that mindset; they’re more likely to protect the company that way.

His phone dings with a notification from Friday. It’s in code but it’s an old one Tony made up himself, easily deciphered. Ross hasn’t shown up yet but another two dozen soldiers have.

Tony feels himself vibrating with repressed energy as he gets into the car that will take him back to the tower. He makes his way to his workshop, not bothering to shed his suit, and doesn’t turn on the lights.

“Friday, give me eyes.”

The screens activate; the globe swells in the center of the room. The section where he knows the compound is is glowing a little brighter with the additional weapons. He observes them for a moment and turns his attention to the monitors.

He has more eyes now, in the Middle East, in Nigeria, in Brazil. Ross is sending out operatives without US sanctions and he can see all with his little spies. Ross is getting confident with Tony’s tech and the body count is rising with that confidence.

The Raft is up on the largest screen. Tony watches the guards pass through the long, metal halls. He thinks about the blue uniforms that Clint, Wanda, Sam, and that one guy (Bugboy? Ant something?) had been in. They’d had embedded electrodes that monitored vitals, ensured health. Would Tony get the same? Or would they be afraid to put any tech in the room with him? Was the steel as cold as it looked? Would he be put in communal cells? Or in solitary?

He stares at the halls of the Raft and the hours slide by.

------------------------------------------------------

“Ross has arrived via stealth chopper,” Friday announces to Tony at 11 pm the next night.

Tony, elbow deep in the guts of another Iron Man suit, stills. Takes a deep breath. Grabs a rag and begins to wipe the grease from his fingers.

“Throw it up, would you? Every angle you can manage. I like these things to have a high production value.”

Friday complies and images of the Avenger’s compound begin to appear. The drones Ross control cruise along just above the ground, low enough to avoid the censors that serve as security for the compound. Tony sees what they see: the road leading in, the open grounds, the landing strip, the hangar.

The soldiers aren’t far behind. Their weapons mark their positions but Tony can see the way they run, low and fast, towards the buildings. Ross is riding lead in the convoy and Tony catches him in profile. He’s got a look of fierce determination on his face, grim satisfaction.

Tony smiles with too many teeth and his fingers begin to drum on his thigh.

Take a shot , he thinks, one more step, give the order. Take a shot. Take the fucking shot .

The sound of a radio crackles through the workshop. “Radio jammer?” Ross asks.

“In place, sir.”

“Then fire on my mark.” Ross waits a beat. “Aim.”

Eager bastard .

The Trojan moves, grinding as it turns to the big, concrete building. STARK is emblazoned on the side and there’s enough explosive power to level a city.

“Fire.”

The missile launches from the road with a roar. It’s designed to travel hundreds of miles and Ross has fired it from 2,679 feet. The alarm lights in the compound begin to flash as the sound rattles the windows and Tony can hear the sirens over Ross’ radio. Avengers Assemble. The missile arc high above the compound and plunge down.

Here’s what’s supposed to happen: a ton of steel rips through the roof like paper, sending chunks of concrete and metal into the air. The three rockets lodge themselves into the compound and detonate. The sheer force shatter the windows, the heat melts what isn’t blown away, everything is consumed by a wave of fire and destruction . Nobody inside is capable of fighting, no one inside can think anything but what just happened?

Here’s what actually happens.

Tony designed the roof of the Avengers’ compound himself and nothing short of the Hulk will ever tear into it. The Trojan slams into the rebar and concrete, shaking the building but not penetrating. The tubes don’t explode, they don’t level the building, they don’t do anything but sit there amidst the rumble from the impact and declare Tony’s win .

Got you , Tony thinks viciously. I got you, you fucking bastard .

“It’s a dud,” Ross says. He recovers quickly and practically screams over the radio, “Goddamnit, Stark played us! Move in, move in, move in--”

His soldiers rush forward, running across the tarmac to the building, guns at the ready. The vehicles run over the hedges, crushing them, and plunge forward, headlights flickering on to light the way.

Too late because the alarm has stopped blaring as the Avengers answer the call to defend their home .

Red encompasses a third of the soldiers and blows them back. Vision lowers Wanda to the ground where she manipulates her magic to pull at the nearest vehicle, flipping it over with an ease she didn’t have all those months ago.

Ross is shouting orders and there’s gunfire and the sound of vehicles revving. Tony hears the classic zing of Cap’s shield before a drone catches him hurling himself from the second floor of the compound and into the middle of a group of soldiers, Barnes hot on his heels.

There’s a flash in the sky and the Falcon is spinning down, plucking a man from behind a turret an instant before he opens fire. He drops him onto a group with riot shields and the resulting electricity from them lights up the area like a small sun.

It’s hard to watch this. Tony wants to be there, on the ground, fighting alongside the team. But that’s not his role, not anymore, and his hands clench and unclench as a spray of bullets narrowly misses Wanda, as Steve is nearly run over by a combat vehicle, as Vision blows out the tires.

A little more. Just a little more .

“Cease resisting,” Ross shouts over his vehicle’s intercom. “You are under arrest by the United States of America--”

Barnes seems to take exception to that and uses his shiny new prosthetic to rip the door off the nearest vehicle and chuck it at him. He has to take cover almost immediately as Ross takes personal offense to that and opens fire with his personal firearm, another Stark invention.

Check and fucking mate, asshole.

“Kill it, Friday,” Tony says. “It’s over.”

She knows what he means. The screens stay up, half a dozen different angles from the drones that are, mysteriously, no longer controlled by Ross. The gunfire stops all at once; the shields quit throwing off arcs of blue electricity; the engines whine and die.

Every piece of tech with a computer in it fails in a single moment. And since he’s been planning this from the beginning, all of it fails .

The lights on the globe flicker and die in a mass wave that starts at the Tower and moves out, across the country, across the sea, across the world. Ross’ forces fail spectacularly and not a single soldier has been trained for this.

“Ross,” Captain America says after a long , stunned moment in which no one moves, no one breathes. “I suggest you surrender.”

---------------------------------------------------

Tony remembers the feeling of the hot sun on his face, his neck, his arms. He remembers the red-tinge his glasses had given the faces of Ross and his soldiers when he handed them the Trojan and remembers the way he held his arms wide for the praise and adoration.

He remembers making himself into a subservient god for this man and, now, a feral joy uncurls in his chest where the arc reactor used to lie.

Ross should have remembered that there’s no such thing as a subservient god.

He should have remembered that there is such a thing as a vengeful one.

-----------------------------------------------

Ross stands in front of the UN and swears up and down that his actions were sanctioned by the US of A. He was right to try and detain the Avengers as powered individuals operating above the government. Didn’t anyone remember Sokovia? The Accords? He was acting in his nation’s best interest with approval and aide.

“I was given my orders from the highest level,” Ross declares. His uniform hat is tucked under his arm and his chin is raised. It’s noble and proud and wins him a lot of sympathy.

It’s not enough.

The “highest level” denies knowledge of Ross’ actions. They dig and scrounge until they find the Middle East, they find Nigeria, they find Brazil. What was he doing abroad? Who gave him the right to hunt down criminals without government sanctions? What did these people do? Where did they go?

“I find it hard to believe,” one UN member says at the hearing, “that you were operating on your country’s orders for many reasons. One being that the Avengers have been acknowledged as an international force of good that answers only to the UN. If I remember correctly, the US was one of the first to agree to those particular terms.”

“Furthermore,” another announces, “I wonder about this.” She clicks a button in front of her and the UN symbol shining on the screen behind them vanishes to be replaced by the damage done to the Avengers’ compound. “If you can direct your attention to the metal on the roof. Can you tell this tribunal what we’re looking at?”

Ross’ lips thin. “A missile, ma’am. Not effective.”

The woman hums. “And on the side of this missile?”

“The manufacturer’s name.” Ross grits his teeth and spits, “Stark.”

“I find it interesting that you were using a weapon this tribunal considers to be a weapon of mass destruction made by a man not in possession of a US military contract,” the woman says. “Would you care to explain how this came about when you claim to have had the support of your government?”

A new glint enters Ross’ eyes, a new calculation, a new way to hurt . “I would be delighted to explain that, ma’am. To this tribunal’s satisfaction even.”

-------------------------------------------------------------

Tony crosses his arms and watches Ross begin to weave his story on national television. Around him is the wreckage of the workshop, the half-torn schematics for weapons he never wanted to make. His suits are locked away deep underground where no one, not even him, will get to them easily.

He knows that this is the end of the line for him.

They’ll come for him. He doesn’t have the licenses to make the weapons he made for Ross. They’re not SI tech, they’re, for the most part, not patented, they bear his name. Tony isn’t an Avenger, he’s a businessman and he sold those weapons to Ross under the guise of legality.

There are a hundred different fibers for Ross to weave the noose from and Tony’s been ready to stretch out his neck since Siberia.

He closes down the workshop manually, the action keeping his hands from shaking. He didn’t do the right thing but he’d done the necessary thing. It has to be enough. The door closes behind him and he walks up to the living area numbly. It seems to take forever and no time at all and then he’s sitting on the couch.

He looks down at his hands and sees blood before the grease still tucked into the lines of his palms. He blinks and the blood fades, leaving the dark stains and callouses.

Images of the Raft dance behind his eyes and he leans into the couch, letting his head fall back until he’s staring at the ceiling. He wants to ask Friday to put the prison’s footage on the TV but can’t find the energy. He doesn't do well with captivity, the Ten Rings taught him that, but he won't run this time. He won't run from his part in all this. He won't.

Instead he thinks about cold metal and the echo of silence through long corridors until he hears the sounds of helicopters approach and land on his helipad. Booted feet rush across to the glass door and there's the crash of an armed team breaking and entering. He closes his eyes.

Checkmate.

Chapter Text

Tony squints against the fluorescent lights and rubs a hand over his eyes. He’s become used to the dark these past few months and the brightness now makes him feel exposed and vulnerable. The metal chair is still cold beneath him, as cold as the table under his bare forearm, despite him having been sitting on it for the past several hours. No one has come to talk to him since he was put into this room though he imagines he can sees dark figures moving beyond the two-way glass taking up the majority of the wall in front of him.

His arm on the table isn’t there by choice; there’s a cold, silver bracelet locking his wrist to an eyelet in the center. His veins stand out starkly under his skin when he flexes against the binding and don’t quite disappear when he relaxes. He rubs the back of his head gruffly with his free hand and leans forward so he can at least give his straining shoulder a break.

Someone should have been by already. To question him, to lecture him, to condemn him. Something. He shouldn’t be sitting in a metal room, no camera in sight, with a host of mysterious people watching him like he’s in a fishtank.

He chews his cheek and his leg begins to bounce with agitation. Were they deciding his sentence without him? Could they do that? More importantly, would they do that? He’d calculated that sentencing him in front of the masses would be more their style, a public showing to make a point: the UN approves of the Avengers and won’t stand for any attacks against them. They’ve come a long way since the Accords (Tony has made sure of it) but the hit they took when Captain America refused to cooperate was big. They need publicity, they need a scapegoat, and Tony had made sure Ross and he were available.

He’s sure that the pieces are in place, sure that they’ve followed the trail of evidence like breadcrumbs. What was taking them so long? The uncertainty eats away at him and his dark eyes flicker to the door, to the mirror and back again.

His fingers begin to tap against the table as the faint shadows of people pass behind the mirror.

-----------------------------------------

Tony hadn’t been thinking while he waiting for them to come for  him. He should have tried to reconcile with Pepper, should have done more than leave her an email with instructions to take care of his bots. He should have called Rhodey and said he was sorry for disappearing when he was barely getting back on his feet.

He’s not going to be hearing any friendly voices for a long time and he regrets missing the opportunity.

----------------------------------------

Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the door opens.

“Mr. Stark,” the woman says, “I apologize for the wait.” She’s dressed in an ill-fitting suit and has a slightly harried air about her. Tony doesn’t recognize her but, then again, he doesn’t recognize many UN ambassadors on sight.

“The novelty of being kept waiting did wear off around hour two,” Tony says. He rolls his head, stretching out his neck. “So, Cathy, may I call you Cathy?”

“No,” the woman says.

Tony ignores her.  “When does my pumpkin arrive? Because the clock has ticked way past midnight if you know what I mean and I’m ready to get this show on the road.”

“You’re very eager to go to prison, Mr. Stark,” she says. “I wonder about that.”

“I wonder about why you aren’t eager to put me in prison,” Tony shoots back. “I’m a suspected terrorist, aren’t I? I know it’ll be a sin to put this face away but there are tax dollars at work and I sincerely doubt you’re paid hourly. Chop chop.”

Rather than bristling, the woman leans forward, lips pressed into a thin line. “There’s been some trouble deciding what to do with you, Mr. Stark. You have to understand that your… status requires some unique considerations.”

“Have you seen the news,” Tony says, “I don’t have to do anything.”

“You’re a superhero and a billionaire,” the woman says bluntly. “The United States and the general public will miss you if you disappear and a conventional prison won’t hold you. We had thought to put you in the maximum security prison known as the Raft, but recent revelations have made it clear that it has been compromised by former Secretary Ross.”

There’s a moment of helpless relief. He’s not going to the Raft, he won’t be confined to bare rooms and the suppression of silence, he won’t be locked underneath the ocean. The halls he stared at for so many hours slide from the forefront of his mind but he holds them on a backburner, just in case. He’ll probably end up there once Ross’ men are rousted from their burrows but, until then, Tony will be elsewhere.

Former Secretary Ross.

Tony cocks his head, a mocking smile on his lips to disguise anything that might have slipped through his guard. “Don’t tell me you’ve run out of hidey holes, Cathy. I’m sure at least one allied nation has a pen big enough for me. Hell, stick me in with wherever you locked up Ross. I think we’d be awesome cellies.”

“Ross is not a superhero or a genius,” she says. She’s acclimated quickly to his brand of humor and has apparently chosen to ignore his attempts to rustle her. “An alternate solution presented itself for you and the United Nations has agreed to it until you are called to testify.”

Tony’s hand twitches, rattling the cuffs against the table. “And what ‘alternate solution’ would that be? Medically induced coma?” His lip curls. “Cryo?” Both are containment procedures Ross had supported for ‘non-human entities’ or, as most people knew them, heroes, ex or otherwise.

The woman levels him with a thoroughly unimpressed look. “Those options were discussed and discarded through unanimous vote. The UN finds those measures extreme for a man who has not been proven guilty.”

“It’s okay if you don’t mention your organization every time you talk,” Tony says. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“It is the United Nations’ opinion that the only way to contain a man of your capabilities is through the application of similar abilities.”

“So where?” Tony asks, tired of the build up. “Wakanda? King T’Challa’s a swell guy and all but he’s got a lot of his plate and not a lot of time for babysitting. He got another family legacy with a vibranium suit?”

“Though Wakanda is in agreement with this proposal, this is still an international matter. As such, a neutral party was needed and one stepped forward.”

Tony’s mind click, click, clicks, and freezes. “Who’re the good Samaritans who decided to house the big bad wolf?” Do not say--

“The Avengers have agreed to contain you until the trial.” The woman stands and strides for the door. “They’ll be here to pick you up within the hour.”

I miscalculated.

“I object,” Tony says. His voice is a little hoarse and he coughs to clear his throat. “It’s not really a neutral party is it? I mean I was practically housing those guys for what? Two years? Three?”

“The Avengers are an international peacekeeping initiative,” she says, one hand on the door knob. “And, Mr. Stark, as a suspected terrorist you don’t have a say in your... accommodations.” She opens the door and shuts it quietly behind her, leaving Tony alone in the room.

Tony stares after her and, for the first time, regrets not running when he heard the glass breaking.

--------------------------------------------------

Soldiers come in some indeterminable time later with metal cuffs that lock Tony’s arms together from wrist to elbow. It reminds him of Loki and he has to fight back the instinctive urge to struggle when they close and lock it.

“Just waiting for my gag,” he says as they yank him up. “Get the whole costume going, sans antlers, obviously.”

Unsurprisingly, they don’t get the reference.

He’s marched out of the door and down the dingy corridor he’d only seen in passing on the way in. There’s more people now, come to see Tony Stark led out in cuffs. He keeps his shoulders back and head high, winking when he catches an eye, raising his eyebrows when he spots a sour expression.

There are a lot of sour expressions.

He’s braced when they get out onto the landing strip but his poker face almost slips when he sees the Quinjet on the asphalt, a host of very recognizable figures standing in front of it.

“The gang’s all here,” Tony mutters and is shoved forward by the muzzle of a gun. He stumbles and recovers, throwing a glare over his shoulder that’s all bark and no bite. “Watch the merchandise, kid, the warranty’s expired.”

There’s no surly, dark-haired former assassin in his escort and Tony takes a moment to be pathetically grateful for small mercies. He hasn’t had much time to work on his act and he’s not sure it would hold if he had to see Barnes.

“Long time no see, Cap,” Tony says, tone nonchalant. “ Love the new paint job on the jet. What do you call that? Cobalt? Marine?”

Rogers doesn’t even look at him, instead meeting the eyes of the soldiers behind him. “Thank you, gentleman, we can take it from here.”

“Tough crowd,” Tony says, redirects his attention, looking for chinks. Natasha is standing stone-faced and he dismisses her, eyes locking on Clint. “Jesus, did they paint you into that suit, Barton? I hope you used lube. I can’t imagine the chafing.”

“Our orders are to secure the prisoner on the aircraft,” the soldier says.

“I think we can manage, soldier,” Rogers says, raising his eyebrows.

Wilson, hanging back by the ramp with Scott Lang, snorts.

Tony grinds his teeth. He can’t get a read on any of them and it’s making him feel agitated. He needs to know what angle they’ll be coming at him so he can prepare for the blows and, for that, he needs an acknowledgement from someone .

“Who are you?” Tony asks Scott Lang.

Scott’s mouth pops open. “Seriously? Again? Come on, man--”

He breaks off as Wilson’s elbow collides with his ribs which is interesting. So Steve has given them orders to not engage him, or maybe Natasha has.  Did that mean this was real, that they were acting as a neutral party for the UN? Or did it mean that they didn’t want to air any dirty laundry to their rather hostile audience?

He looks at Ant-Man who is now studiously avoiding his gaze.

Tony, of course, knows all about Scott Lang. He’d had to do a fair bit of research on the man to get him off the hook for the destruction of the airport, for aiding Cap, for breaking out of jail. He knows Scott has a daughter and he wonders what it says about the other man’s priorities that, once again, he’s here and not there .

It’s low hanging fruit to bring her up though, so Tony doesn’t.

“I think it was at the dry cleaners,” Tony says. He snaps his fingers. “No, wait, weren’t you the taxi driver I t-boned last Thursday?”

“Fine,” the soldier says. He pushes Tony forward again, too hard, and Rogers’ jaw tightens for an instant before relaxing. “He’s a Level 6 danger so keep the cuffs on.”

Tony squawks. “ Excuse you, I’ve never been called anything less than an 8.” He ignores the way his heart kicks into overdrive as he’s suddenly hit with the reality that this is happening . He’s about to get pulled onto the Quinjet with these people where he’ll be trapped, no escape.

Barton moves forward and grabs him by the elbow and Tony instinctively tries to jerk away. The grip tightens almost painfully and Tony stills, shoulders tensing before he forces himself to relax .

“Does this mean you’re my date to the prom?” he snarks as Barton half guides, half drags him up the ramp. He’s sure the other man can feel his pulse racing as the metal walls of the jet come down around him. “Because I’ve got to say I feel underdressed.”

No acknowledgement, no change in Barton’s grip, no flicker of emotion on his face. Tony can hear the others coming up behind them, the sound of the hydraulics working to close the entrance.

He’s not left with a lot of other options so he shuts up, shuts down, lets Barton drop him into a seat and buckles the seatbelt over Tony’s trapped arms. Tony’s arms flex against the bands before going lax. Yeah, Barton had really buckled him in and then walked towards the cockpit.

Tony watches the others with dark eyes. Natasha glances at him before going to stand just behind Clint’s pilot’s seat. Wilson takes copilot without asking, fitting the radio earpiece over his head with practiced ease. Scott takes the bucket seat behind the copilot’s chair and Steve stops to say something, quick and low to him. Lang nods, mouth twisting, and he darts a quick look at Tony and then away.

Steve stays there until they take off, talking quietly to the others. Tony can hear the murmur of voices and he’s trying his damn best not to have a panic attack. It’s only partially effective and when Steve walks back to where Tony is, Tony lashes out.

“So you’re giving me the silent treatment? Not what you’d expect from Captain America.” Tony’s lip curls mockingly, bitingly.

Steve sits across from him heavily and just looks at him. There’s something in his expression that Tony refuses to decipher and it’s a concentrated effort to meet those blue eyes without flinching.

“The tables sure have turned,” Tony says when Steve remains silent. He lifts his bound hands as much as he can under the seat belt. “Of course super soldiers could just break out of these, I bet. What are they, iron? Ironic. I thought carbon steel was the industry standard these days. Well, not my industry standard--”

“Tony,” Steve says. “Just-- stop talking. Please.”

That-- that makes something hot and sharp twist in Tony’s stomach because yeah, thanks, he got the message . This whole mess is because Steve didn’t want to talk and Tony wanted to talk too much and then they didn’t talk and, whoop, now they’re here .

Because, fuck, Cap is right and when you’re right you don’t have to say a goddamn word.

“That would be easy, wouldn’t it, Cap?” Tony says. He says it like it’s a joke and Steve jerks like it’s a blow. “I’m a model prisoner, you know, I can take a hint.” He wants to make the zipping motion across his mouth but he’s trussed up like a goddamn turkey and it’s not happening.

“That’s not what I meant,” Steve says. He swallows. “Just don’t-- don’t pretend that everything is okay. It’s not okay, Tony, and I’m sorry about that.” His jaw firms; his eyes spark. “But I’m going to do my best to make it right.”

Tony thinks that sounds ominous. He wants to ask if that means Steve has decided on Tony’s punishment, some way to repair the cracks their disagreement put in the team, or if he’s decided to have Tony disappeared since the UN refused too.

I’m going to do my best to make it right.

He leans his head against the back of his seat. He wishes the Captain the best of luck with that. Tony’s been trying to make things right for years and it’s never worked out particularly well for him.

He closes his eyes and ignores Steve for the rest of the flight.

Chapter Text

There’s a voice inside of Tony that has been whispering to him his entire life. At first it told him to build and create . Then it told him to be better, don’t cry, be stronger, be smarter . They won’t see you unless you scream , they won’t see you unless you’re better.

The drinking started soon after that.

Tony’s been an object in motion for his entire life. A force was exerted on him in Afghanistan, forced him to change directions, and he’s been gathering speed since. Fix it. Protect them. Be better, be stronger, be smarter . He’s an unstoppable force and he realized too late that certain people are immovable objects.

Tony learned to go around but it came at a cost. Friction has been pulling pieces from him for years and he’s slow, slow, slow , and that’s why he’s here.  Standing in a blank room in a facility he built and wondering if the others think this is fitting . Tony’s the one who tried to clip their wings, Tony’s the one who locked Wanda away and now Tony’s the one boxed up and put into storage.

He’s tired of standing on uneven ground but this is worse. Clint had dropped him off here, taken the cuffs off (thank god ) and then had closed the door. There’s no data, nothing to work from to tell what they’re thinking, to plan around.

Tony Stark has stopped and he hates it .

He paces around the room ( empty bedroom, interior, no windows, reinforced vents, small button camera worked into the plaster in the northwest corner, keypad that’s been reworked so he doesn’t have access, he could get access, does he want access? No point, he can hear someone walking past every three minutes on the dot--) and tries to calm down. The walls are a pale blue, they aren’t rough rock, and the air is oxygenated so the suffocation he’s feeling is in his head.

There’s the sound of the locks disengaging and Tony moves to the opposite side of the room, leans against the wall and crosses his arms. His anxiety doesn’t show on his face because, even now, he doesn’t want them to have that. To have any piece of him he hasn’t already buried.

“You,” Rhodey says, closing the door behind him, “are an idiot , Tony.”

Tony stares at him. Rhodey is-- how? Why? “I didn’t cover enough, you got involved, no, wait, that doesn’t make sense, I’m a genius. Rhodey tell me you didn’t come to break me out --”

“I will if you want me too,” Rhodey says. “I think Captain America is afraid of me.” He makes his way slowly to the center of the room where he stands, leg braces whirring softly.

“Good,” Tony says immediately, temporarily derailed. “I mean, not good, obviously, but you do out rank him so a healthy dose of respect at least--” He stops himself, swallows, tries to refocus. “You-- you’re okay? They didn’t throw you in here with me as some sort of cruel and unusual punishment? Because that keypad is a joke considering I built it .”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Rhodey says and suddenly he’s wrapping his arms around Tony, too rough, too much strength, too good . “I’m okay, Tony.”

Tony returns the hug, fingers digging desperately into Rhodey’s shirt. This is Rhodey he didn’t think he’d ever see his friend again and it’s hard to believe that he’s here, that this is happening.

“You are an idiot,” Rhodey says again. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He pulls away so he’s got a hold of Tony’s shoulders. “You said you’d end up in jail. This isn’t jail, Tony, they think you’re a terrorist . They don’t put terrorists in jail .”

“I told you it was dangerous,” Tony says. He can’t bring himself to let go of Rhodey. “I see you found the new braces. How are those working for you? I calibrated them to your weight distribution but it’s not my field--”

“Tony,” Rhodey says, stopping him short. “Please tell me there was something else to this plan. Another step, something, because you can’t have meant to end up here .” He breaks away to gesture to the empty room.

Tony feels the loss of warmth acutely and his arms drop to his sides. “The Raft was fully booked, apparently.”

“What’s next?” Rhodey asks. When Tony doesn’t answer, a quiet, intense devastation breaks across Rhodey’s face. “ Tony.”

Tony wants to tell Rhodey the truth, he does, but there’s only so much one person can scream before they’re tired of not being heard.

Instead, he spreads his arms as if to illustrate the complete lack of tricks up his sleeves. “At least it’s not a steel bunker a couple hundred feet beneath the ocean?”

By Rhodey’s face, that doesn’t make it any better.

Tony deflates. “Why’d they let you in here? You join the boy band while I wasn’t looking?”

Rhodey scrubs a hand over his face. “No, no, I’m still with the US, none of this international bullshit. I’m here because Captain Rogers promised me he’d clear your name and I’m the only one that can convince you to let him.”

What?

With new data to work with, Tony’s mind spins. Steve wanted to clear his name? His crimes included creating weapons of mass destruction and conspiring to assassinate UN officials. He couldn’t be cleared , not unless--

Steve knows Tony made the weapons fail. Or, more likely, Natasha had figured it out and told Steve. It’s-- it’s an easy conclusion to come to, Tony had expected it to come to light eventually because every single weapon had failed at the same time, it wasn’t a leap but--

Rhodey’s presence complicates things. The second part of what he said complicates things because the charges won’t stick to Ross if Tony is cleared.

I don’t need Rogers’ help , another part whispers, I don’t, I won’t--

“No,” Tony says. He crosses his arms, swallows. “Absolutely not. I’m guilty, I helped Ross, I made a bomb without the paperwork. No one can clear me.” I made sure of it .

You were overworked, taking care of too many things, not sleeping, not eating. Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure ?

Tony isn’t sure.

“The man is damn sure going to try,” Rhodey says, mimicking Tony and crossing his arms. “It’s the least he can do after this past shit show of a year. And you know I’m going to try too, Tones, with or without you.”

“It’ll be without me,” Tony says. His lips are a thin, white line. “Don’t do this, Rhodes. I told you, it’s just me. It has to be.”

“And I told you you needed a copilot,” Rhodey says sharply, temper rising. “Damn it, Tony, I’ve been waiting for months for you to ask me for help and now look at you. I haven’t seen you look this wrecked since Afghanistan--”

“I didn’t ask for help,” Tony says. “I don’t need help, I know what I’m doing--”

“That isn’t comforting!” Rhodey visibly reigns himself in, military posture loosening. “I don’t know what you’ve done but you don’t have to bear the consequences alone, man. I told you I was going to be there for you and I meant it.”

“Maybe,” Tony says slowly, like the calm before the storm. “Maybe, I don’t want help from a guy who can’t even walk . I didn’t involve you because you’re going to be dead weight, Colonel, and we both know it.”

The words are cruel and cutting, designed to wound as deeply as possible. Tony knows that so much of who Rhodey is in his ability to fight for his country ( 138 combat missions ) and this-- this is a low blow.

Rhodey visibly squashes the urge to flinch, eyes squeezed tight before opening again. “That was not cool.”

The acid burn of guilt is on his tongue but Tony says “The truth doesn’t have to be ‘cool.’”

Rhodey gives a measured nod and turns on his heel, heading for the door, offense written in every artificial vertebrae in his spine. Tony feels elated and devastated all at once. Elated because maybe Rhodey will stay out of it for a while at least and devastated because he’d put that look on his friend’s face--

“I know what you’re thinking,” Rhodey says, punching in the code on the keypad. The door hisses open and Rhodey pauses in the opening. “You think that I’ll back off just because you’re being a dick. First, you know damn well what I’m capable of, legs or no so don’t ever try to use that against me again.” He turns so Tony can see the way his jaw flexes. “Secondly, I can walk. You made sure of it.”

Tony watches the door swing behind Rhodey. The locke re-engage and Tony twists, driving his fist into the wall.

Damn it. Damn it .

----------------------------------------------------------------

Tony’s sitting on the floor when the door opens next. It’s been an hour, maybe two, since Rhodey left and Tony’s still feeling raw. That’s probably why he doesn’t stand when Clint comes into the room carrying a small first aid kit.

“Pretty sure this is against some sort of humanitarian standard,” Tony says. If he talks first he sets the tone, he gets control. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the leg room but a bed wouldn’t go amiss. Or a chair. A bathroom is a must at some point.”

“I told Steve that you’re the one who sent the neurotech,” Clint says conversationally, completely ignoring Tony’s opening gambit. He tosses the kit to Tony who catches it with one hand.

Tony snorts and opens the kit. His hand is throbbing, the skin split slightly over one knuckle. “My neurotech was stolen from the lab, remember? By the way, I followed up with the police and you never filed a report, rude. I thought you Avengers were all about being good samaritans.”

“Steve damn near about cried,” Clint says. “It was pretty traumatic for all of us, to be honest.”

“Are you the warden?” Tony asks instead of addressing that. “Or did you just draw the short straw? Seems to me you’ve been holding my hand like it’s the first day of preschool.”

“Natasha figured I’m the one you’re least pissed at,” Clint says. He settles on the floor across from Tony, legs folded. “So I get the honor of putting up with you until a certain someone gets their head out of their ass.”

So this is a manipulation. Send in Rhodey, throw Tony off his game, then send in a ‘neutral’ party to let him patch himself up. He wonders why not Wanda or Vision but discards them just as she must have. Wanda probably didn’t want to see a Stark ever again and Vision would remind him too strongly of Jarvis. That might make him more willing to talk but could also backfire and make him shut down. Still, the fact that there’s a strategy here means that there’s an end goal which Rhodey has provided. To clear Tony.

Well, that’s the goal they gave Rhodey. Tony thinks it's a bit more than that, maybe something a bit more sinister. Failed weapons or no, he’s done a lot lately that the righteous won’t agree with.

He swipes a disinfectant wipe over his knuckles. “When’s the interrogation then? I’ve got a bit of free time these days so I’m sure I can pencil you in.”

“I’m supposed to say that there won’t be an interrogation,” Clint says.

Tony raises an eyebrow. “Fine by me. I hate having to explain anything more than once and the UN wants--”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Clint says and props his chin on his fist. “I’m supposed to say there won’t be an interrogation but there will be a debrief.”

“So that’s what the kids are calling it these days.” Tony sticks on a bandaid and starts putting things back into the kit. “I’ve been around long enough to see a setup when I see one, Bird-brain.”

“We know,” Clint says, still watching him. “But as an Avenger, it qualifies as a debrief and not an interrogation.”

But as an Avenger...

Tony doesn’t remember shooting to his feet but he’s standing in the next second and so is Clint. The first aid kit is in Clint’s hand and Tony realizes he must have thrown it at him.

“I am not,” Tony says, “an Avenger.”

There’s something in Tony’s face that makes Clint’s eyes sharpen, makes the muscles in his arms tense ever so slightly. “You never got your name taken off the payroll.”

“Bullshit,” Tony spits. “I backed the fucking payroll, I was never on it. I’m not an Avenger.”

“Take it up with HR,” Clint says. He sighs and jerks his head to the door. “I’m supposed to take you to your room. It was a bitch and a half to strip it of tech but Steve thought you’d appreciate a familiar environment.”

Tony hates this. “Pretty creative punishment. Let me guess: there’ll be an armed guard at the door 24/7 in case I get any ideas .”

“Aw man, this is such a terrible idea,” Clint mutters to himself. He goes to the door. “Look, they don’t tell me anything, just come on.”

Tony wants to refuse but he also doesn’t want to be dragged out so he goes without another word, teeth gritted. He’s tense the entire way to his old quarters, waiting to catch sight of another Avenger or, worse, Barnes.

“Where is everyone?” Tony asks when they pass through the communal living space. “Field trip? And should I be insulted you’re my only guard? I can take you.”

“Please, I’d wipe the floor with you,” Clint says. “Not that that’s saying much since I’m pretty sure a mildly determined raccoon could take you right now.”

“I can spot a deflection when I see one,” Tony says. “You’re not allowed to tell me where they are.” They arrive at the door to his old rooms. “Doesn’t seem very Avenger-y to me.”

“Wow, look at that, we’re here,” Clint says. He scans his palm and the door slides open.

Tony steps past him into the room which at first glance, appears to be untouched. It’s large, though not as large as he’s used to, and fairly spartan. A bed, a dresser, the ensuite bathroom but no work table, TV, anything remotely electronic.

“Do you want to check for an electric toothbrush before you go?” Tony asks Clint. “I’m pretty sure there’s an extra under the sink.”

“We caught that,” Clint says. He’s still in the doorway, one hand on the pad that’ll close the door. “Uh, you hungry? I mean dinner's at seven but I’m sure there’s, like, a cereal bar or something.”

Tony rubs a hand over his face. “It’s been a long day, Barton, just lock the door, set the dragon, whatever, and go.”

There’s a long silence and, when Tony turns, Barton is staring at him with a slight frown.

“What?” Tony asks. “Do I have something on my face?”

“You think you know what’s best for everyone,” Clint says.

“I think you expressed a similar sentiment on the Raft,” Tony says. “Back then you were the one behind bars. Well, I’m behind walls at this point--”

“When are you going to let people decide for themselves?” Clint’s free hand clenches and unclenches. “When are you going to tell people what’s going on so they can do something about it? If I were you I’d think about that before the debrief.”

How delightfully hypocritical.

“Must be nice to be you,” Tony says. “It’s adorable that you think sharing actually works .”

The door slides shut and Tony can hear some heavy duty locks slide into place. He’d designed this room to be a veritable bomb shelter and it’s a little unnerving that it’s now working to keep him in , rather than everyone else out .

He wonders what Steve is doing. Is he trying to show Tony what he’s lost? What he’s sacrificed for “revenge?” Or was it some misguided attempt to make Tony feel comfortable? That might actually be plausible considering how good Steve Rogers is.

Tony sinks down onto his bed and listens to the silence. It’s not how he thought it would be considering it’s not the Raft but it’s-- it’s silent. There are no footsteps outside the door, no whir of machinery. His eyes flick over the room again. Even the wall outlets have disappeared, sealed, taken.

He gets up and walks to the bathroom. It’s ridiculously extravagant for a terrorist, he thinks, but it’d been one of the many luxuries he’d insisted on when planning this place. There’s a shower separate from the tub, a double sink, an empty medicine cabinet.

He drops down onto the edge of the tub (he’s never used it, too much water as it turns out) and stills. There aren’t any cameras in here (rookies) but he wouldn’t put it past them to have secreted a microphone in the shower head or something.

He leans forward over his knees, holds his head in his hands. He said he wasn’t going to run from this and he won’t if things go to plan. If he gets disappeared with Ross, if the world governments continue to support the Avengers, if they stay united , he’ll take his licking.

But if not…

The seam of the tub is unbroken and that means they didn’t strip every bit of tech from his rooms.

Chapter Text

Tony leaves the bathroom eventually, not wanting to give them a reason to put a camera in there. His face is wet from washing it and he’s exhausted. He’s so goddamn tired that he almost doesn’t mind the silence, wishes it would extend further, inside of him.

There are wheels in motion, public opinion, legislation, adjudication, and he doesn’t have his ear to the ground anymore. He has to trust that he’d done it and he hates not quantifying the results.

There’s a knock on his door. “Stark? Scott Lang. Mind if I come in?”

Tony pulls himself together, pulls the deep well of exhaustion back into his core and stands in the middle of the room, hands in his pockets. He’d let them take him in jeans and a tshirt and he can make that work, he can. “Was it the deli counter? No?”

“It’s so weird to be the jailer,” Lang mutters outside the door. “Hold on--” There’s the sound of the locks disengaging. “Courtesy knock, let’s call it a courtesy knock.” Lang comes into the room in his full uniform. It makes him armed and dangerous, backing up his jailer comment.

“No, don’t come in,” Tony says in a monotone, “I’m not decent. Completely exposed.”

Lang’s eyes dart down and up. “I’d recognize if you were naked.” He winces. “Nude shots. Nineties. I mean, I didn’t go looking for them--”

“Jesus,” Tony says, “you are a trainwreck. I assume you’re here to take me to the interrogation, yeah?” He makes a shooing motion and takes a step forward. “Let’s go, come on, before this gets any more terrible.”

“Good idea,” Lang says. He steps back to let Tony go out first. “Hank would have my head if he knew I let a Stark at my back.”

“Words to live by,” Tony says. “Though I think I should say that’s a matter of opinion.”

“Widespread opinion,” Lang observes.

That is, unfortunately, very true.

---------------------------------------------------------------

“Tony,” Steve says, “sorry for the delay. There was a situation that required our attention.”

Tony swivels around but doesn’t stand. Only Natasha, Wilson, and Rogers are in the doorway and they look stressed. Whatever had gone down had required full costumes, Cap with his cowl, Widow with her bite, and Wilson with his wings. It means Tony’s now in a room with four superheroes and he’s got nothing.

It’s somehow harder to see them now then it was on the jet. He thinks it’s because it could almost be a team debrief from before. It could be the way Cap is looking at him, sad and earnest.

Tony can’t handle a lot of things about this situation.

“Fortunately for you, I had Large here to keep me company,” Tony says.

“He’s doing this on purpose,” Lang tells them. “I know he is and that’s why I’m not angry. On an unrelated note, my shift is up and I’m leaving now.”

“Shifts,” Tony says, impressed. “Did you guys make a chore chart? Do the dishes, take out the trash, babysit Stark?”

“Let’s go, man,” Wilson says. “I think Vision’s trying to cook again.”

Natasha and Steve let the two men go by, Wilson throwing an arm over Lang’s shoulders in camaraderie. Tony takes the opportunity to spin once more in his chair. It takes them out of his sight for a moment and he uses it to shove all the past memories out of his head. He’s a prisoner here and this is an interrogation.

“I’m going to go check on that,” Natasha says. She leans in close to Steve and whispers something that sounds like “clear the air.” Then she closes the doors behind her, leaving just Steve and Tony in the conference room.

The silence begins to ring and Tony can’t stand it. “How come it took this long to come up with a chore chart?” he asks. “Was it me? I feel like it was me.”

“We need to talk,” Steve says. He takes a seat at the other end of the table, in front of the door.

“We’re talking now, Captain,” Tony says. He watches Steve settle back into the chair, seemingly unbothered by the tense atmosphere. “I’m a captive audience.”

To his surprise, Steve laughs. It’s dry and without humor but, still, he laughs. “I guess you could say that.” He shakes his head. “I wish this was under different circumstances, Tony.”

“I’ve been in worse,” Tony says though he’s not sure that’s necessarily true. This is a cage of his own devising, in the end, and at least Afghanistan had been someone else.

“Why didn’t you call?” Steve asks. His jaw is squared, waiting for an answer he won’t like.

“Please, Rogers, I lost your number as fast as I could,” Tony says.

Steve nods as if he hadn’t expected anything less. Then he opens one of the little pouches in his uniform’s pants, pulls out a small object and places it deliberately on the table. He gives it a flick and it slides into the space between them.

It’s the phone, of course it’s the phone, because Tony had been stupid enough to think they wouldn’t break into his tower, go to his bedroom and, he assumes, look under the bed where he last saw that fucking phone .

“Try again, Tony,” Steve says.

Tony doesn’t like this version of Captain America or Steve Rogers or whoever he thinks he’s playing right now. He doesn’t like the measured words, the firm gaze, or the fucking calm . It’s the same one from the airport, the same one from the fucking room where this could have ended .

Tony tries not to bare his teeth. “You know, Capsicle, I don’t think I will. Seems exhausting .”

Steve is silent for a long moment, eyes on the phone. When he looks up there’s something like regret in his eyes, that indecipherable emotion from the Quinjet that Tony sure as hell doesn’t want to see now. “I never wanted it to go down like this. I never--” his hand on the table curls into a fist, takes a deep breath and releases it slowly. “We need to clear the air. You and me.”

Tony’s vibrating under his skin but he forces himself to snort. “We know where we stand, Cap. Why don’t you tell me to ‘shut up’ and I’ll follow your orders for once, huh?”

“Fine, I’ll start,” Steve says evenly. “Tony, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I--”

Nope.

“Nice to see you fixed up the rubble,” Tony says, eyes darting to the ceiling. There are no spiderweb cracks though he knows the Trojan hit directly above them. He does good work.  “Holes are just so tacky these days.”

“So you won’t even let me apologize,” Steve says quietly. He leans back and rubs a hand over his mouth. “Right.”

“National icons shouldn’t,” Tony says. “It’s bad for public morale.”

“Maybe I don’t care about public morale or my public image,” Steve says. He says it offhand, like a challenge, but Tony suddenly sees red .

“It’s about time you start ,” he says, too low, too sharp. “Take it from a guy who knows; the public will eat you alive if you give them the chance.”

“Sometimes,” Steve says, “that’s a risk you have to take.”

An ugly laugh rips its way up Tony’s throat. “I bet.”

Shit. Too bitter, too angry, too hurt. The seething ball in Tony is too close to the surface and he needs to stop.

“The Accords were a mistake, Tony,” Steve says. “I stand by that.”

“You’d have to,” Tony says. “You’re a man of your word.”

“Only you could make that sound like an insult,” Steve says. “I thought we’d moved past the Accords.”

“I wasn’t talking about the Accords,” Tony say even though they both know he was.

“Weren’t you?” Steve asks. He leans forward. “It seems like that’s where all this began. Makes it a good place to start.”

“Or a good place to end,” Tony snaps.

“I don’t think so,” Steve says.

Tony jerks out his chin. “And why’s that?”

“It’s a bad ending.” Steve watches him and he’s so fucking calm .

Tony does bare his teeth this time and says, “Yeah, well those happen in the real world, Captain. You might try taking a look around sometime.”

“Or you might try explaining it to me,” Steve suggests.

They won’t hear you unless you scream.

“I don’t know, Cap,” Tony says, “think you’re willing to compromise ?” He’s so angry that he’s forced to his feet, hands flat on the table, sneering the word at Steve.

“Someone once told me  to compromise where you can,” Steve says, “and where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty--”

“-- to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, ‘No, you move,’” Tony finishes.

Steve blinks. “How did--?”

“I knew Peggy Carter my entire life,” Tony spits. “ Decades longer than you so don’t stand there and throw her words in my face like they mean something.”

“They do mean something,” Steve says, face stony. “She was the best woman I’ve ever met and she accomplished--”

“She was a woman in the mid 1900s who had to fight for the world we’re in today,” Tony says. He leans forward onto his hands as if he’s about to leap across the table. “And the rules she lived by don’t work anymore in that world. Her advice is outdated, Cap, and--”

Steve slams his hands on the table, shooting to his feet so fast that his chair flies back and hits the door. “That’s not true!” His eyes glint as he finally glares at Tony. “Peggy deserves your respect, Stark. You don’t get to--” He breaks off, breathing heavily as he stares at Tony across the table. “You don’t get to put her in the past, Stark.”

Stark . No more Tony, no more calm tone, no more even keel. There’s a feral edge to Tony’s smile now because he’s won .

And if there’s a small, hurt part of him that stings at the change, Tony’s not going to acknowledge it.

“You don’t get to,” Steve says again. His jaw flexes and there’s pain and anger in him now, same as Tony.

Good.

“There we go,” Tony says and grins . “You wanted to know where we stand, Captain? This is where we stand.”

He gestures between the two of them, to the room, to the locked door. They’re both leaning over the table, weight on their fists, lunging towards the other. In the space between them the phone sits, small and dark and cold on the dark wood.

Steve stills, shock blooming across his face. He takes his hands off the table as if burned and straightens. He stares at Tony and Tony lowers his chin as if getting ready for a real, physical blow.

Stiffly, Steve turns away, turns around, picks up his chair with one hand. He moves like he’s as tired as Tony is and he sighs as he places the chair back at the table. He stands there for a minute, hand on the back, not looking at Tony.

“You always knows where to push, don’t you, Tony?” Steve asks rhetorically. “I told myself that it wouldn’t work this time and yet--” He sighs again and his knuckles go white against the black leather.

“Back to first names?” Tony says because he has to say something . “I think I prefer Stark.” The way Steve says his name now is too sorrowful and Tony can’t do this when he says his name like that .

“Tell me what you want,” Steve says. Pleads. “Tell me what you want me to do to fix this. Please.”

Get on your knees. Beg me. Tell me you were wrong that you regret it, that you regret not compromising. Tell me the truth. Bring my parents back. Bring my mom back.

Tony swallows back all these things because they’re not good and they’re not necessary and it’s not what he wants. Not really.

“Nothing to say, Rogers,” Tony says. “We both played our hands. Not your fault you had the better one.”

Chapter Text

Clint and Natasha stand in front of a computer screen in a room off the common area. The sounds of the others filter through to them, Vision cooking and being ribbed good-naturedly by Sam, Scott, and Wanda. The spies won’t be joining them for a while. Clint has his arms crossed, biceps straining with tension. Natasha stands with her arms at her sides, eyes fixed on the screen, absorbing, calculating.

Stark looks worse in person but he still doesn’t look good on camera. There are hollows in his cheeks, dark circles under his eyes, and he looks like a ghost on the footage. Steve looks wrecked already just being in the room with him and Clint was right, this is a terrible idea .

“He’s playing him like a goddamn fiddle,” Clint says. He doesn’t need to clarify which ‘he’ is playing whom.

“Steve needs to be played,” Natasha says, eyes not leaving the sight in front of them. She’s suspected, of course, but it’s another thing entirely to see a man like Stark at work. “He needs to know what he’s up against.”

“I thought the whole point was to stop fighting with Stark,” Clint points out. He winces when Steve flinches. “ Fuck , he’s tearing him apart.” Again, there is no need to clarify.

“It’s necessary,” Natasha reasserts. “Stark isn’t his friend anymore. Steve’s never seen this side of him.”

“The helicarrier,” Clint points out and winces again when Rogers mirrors Stark, stands, begins to shout. “Goddamn.”

“Stark didn’t know him.” Her lips thin. “We need Stark to trust us, to trust him. It’s not going to be easy.”

“No shit,” Clint says. He rubs a hand over his face, blocking his view of the screen. “Nat… was Tony right? About the Accords?”

“Does it matter? We all made our choices. It’s this situation that we have a chance to fix.”

“You think Tony was right,” Clint translates. He watches her and she knows that he reads her better than most. “He said the Accords would be done to us if we didn’t sign but they haven’t.”

“I waited for the fallout,” Natasha says. “It never came.”

Clint nods. “So he was wrong. It went like Steve said, people came around, saw us as a force for good.”

“Stark made sure of it,” she says. It’s a suspicion still but it’s looking more likely than the revenge angle. She needs evidence, not correlations, before she can act. Before the team can act.

“You’ve stopped calling him Tony,” Clint observes like she hasn’t been doing it this whole time.

“I lost that right,” she says and goes to rescue Steve.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Tony is intimately familiar with betrayal. He wishes he could be the type of person who could freeze out someone who hurt him, he wishes he could be the type of person who could forget . But instead he’s the type of person who needs to know why (it’s the inventor in him, the engineer, the little boy in a silent mansion filled with people) and the things he wants to know are weights on his chest.

The words he wants to say are building in his throat but he can’t say them. They’re burning him from the inside out and he can’t say them . It leaves him feeling more trapped than being in this fucking room with Steve standing like a silent guardian in front of the door.

“I...know we’re not at a good place,” Steve says slowly. The words seem to cost him something and his voice is thick with emotion. “You and me. I can see now that...that apologies or explanations aren’t going to fix what happened. Between us.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Tony says because what the fuck . Steve is actually acting guilty and it’s-- on one hand, Tony blames him. He’s human, he’s not perfect, okay? So he blames Captain fucking America for not listening and for lying about something that’s fucked Tony up for his entire adult life. But on the other hand he knows Steve was right in some way Tony can’t possibly comprehend and it doesn’t make sense that he’s being all...apologetic. “Welcome to the party, you’re late.”

“It doesn’t help that you’re always so defensive,” Steve says, a hint of frustration in his voice.

“That happens,” Tony says, “when you’re tired of people fucking stabbing you in the back.”

“I can see how you see it that way,” Steve says, “but that wasn’t my intention. We have different ideas about… accountability and I-- I respect that.” He takes a deep breath.

Different ideas. Ha.

Another part of him whispers, easy to respect someone when you’ve already won.

“Really,” Tony says flatly. Was Rogers fucking high ? Was he actually seeing a therapist to get these lines? Wilson, it had to be Wilson. The man was a fucking wizard at those touchy-feely moments.

Steve nods a bit more confidently. “I do. I respect you as a person too and I’m sorry I haven’t been the best at showing that.”

Fucking Wilson .

“We are getting deliriously close to the part of the conversation where I punch you in your perfect teeth,” Tony says. He isn’t buying this. This is a trap, a play for Tony’s good will. After Rogers gets what he wants he’ll stop… whatever this is. He just needs the man to ask .

Seemingly unwillingly, Steve’s mouth quirks up at one corner. It’s gone in the next second and he says, “We need your help, Tony.”

Whoomp, there it is.

He doesn’t think they think he even knows how to help. They’ve all made their opinions of him known, some publicly, some privately, and he knows what he can give but he doesn’t know what they’d want.

“You can’t afford my rates,” Tony says dismissively to hide the panic. He has nothing they want, he’s tried and tried and tried to give them things and he has nothing they want . So what the fuck are they asking?

What the fuck is Steve asking?

“Natasha is really better at this,” Steve says. He looks over his shoulder at the door as if his gaze will summon her. “She’s the one who put everything together.”

“It’s getting late, Rogers,” says Tony because it really is. “I hear the warden calls lights out at ten so I’d get to the point if I were you.”

“I-- I think we should wait for Natasha,” Steve says, glancing over his shoulder again.

“I’m not really into threesomes,” Tony says, “devil or otherwise. Spit it out.”

“We need to know how you got us exonerated,” Natasha says, coming through the door. She’s still in her suit and the way the tension drains out of Steve when she comes in is a little amusing. And insulting.

“Am I supposed to pretend that you weren’t listening at the door?” Tony asks. “Because coming in right then? Not subtle in the slightest.”

Natasha ignores him and takes the chair to the left of the one Steve still has a hold of. She gestures for him to sit and he does.

“Let me put this in perspective for you, Stark,” Natasha says. She’s totally in control and, yeah, Tony resents that too.

“Oh boy,” Tony says, “here comes the spin.”

“You’re going down,” Natasha says baldly. “During the Sokovia Accords incident you were seen to have a good working relationship with Ross. During that time you fought to detain Captain America and an assortment of other individuals who are considered heroes by the world today. After confronting Zemo with Captain America and Bucky Barnes in Siberia, you went back to New York before any of them were detained due to a personal disagreement. After the Avengers were cleared, you continued your working relationship with Ross which expanded into illegal activities such as providing him with weapons of mass destruction. During this time you resigned from the Avengers, refused to accept any of Captain Roger’s personal invitations to return to the initiative, and publicly stated that your business meant more to you than being a hero. Ross is currently telling anyone who will listen that you fed him false information in order to provoke an attack on the compound as a form of revenge. From your movements over these past few months and a few encrypted communications found on your private server, the revenge angle is looking more and more likely.”

Tony twists his chair from side to side, body loose. “Sounds pretty damning.”

“It is,” she assures him. “They’ll draw it out, put on a big show, but your sentence has already been decided on. You’ll spend the rest of your days in maximum security and in solitary because, when they ask me for my recommendation, I’ll tell them that you don’t need technology to be dangerous.”

“Dangerous,” Tony repeats. She finally thinks he’s dangerous. He’s not sure what his face is doing but it must be something interesting judging by the way both Rogers and Romanov study him.

“Yes,” she says simply. “Your past history with escaping captivity notwithstanding, you are one of the most intelligent men on the planet. As a textbook narcissist, that intelligence is a weapon and one you have been known to use with extreme prejudice.”

Textbook narcissist . She’d said that years ago to Nick Fury in a character evaluation meant to cut him to the quick. Now she means to imply that all of this has been inevitable, that the most significant part of his motivation is a character flaw .

The smile that breaks across his face is not in the least bit amused. “Sounds like you’ve got a grudge. You doing alright, Natalie?”

She’s too well trained to flinch but Tony likes to think she wants too. He hopes she does since the reminder of her alias combined with the question she’d asked him when she was on his side is designed to cut. They’d worked together with Ross, for a bit, and more before that and Tony knows she wants to do good. It’s why she followed Rogers and not him, in the end, the desire to do good.

“Always,” she says smoothly, calmly, throwing it back in his face.

Tony laughs, his entire world focused on this conversation because he knows this woman is dangerous .  “Touche.”

Steve clearly doesn’t understand what they’re talking about. He says, “It looks bad for you, Tony.”

“Stark,” Tony says and widens his smile. “Remember?”

Steve’s shoulders dip. “Stark,” he agrees wearily.

“This entire situation is bad for us as well,” Natasha says, shooting a look at Steve that Tony can’t interpret. “Our actions over the past few months are under review due to our prior association. Anything you did, we need to know, Stark. So tell us how we were exonerated.”

“I’m flattered you think I have that sort of power,” Tony says. He’s spent months making sure that the Avengers are untouchable but still there’s that kernel of fear that he didn’t do it well enough. He breathes evenly to stave off the panic and smiles. “Do you think I orchestrated the moon landing as well?”

“They will find out whatever you did,” Natasha says. “We’ll go down with you when they do.”

Breathe in and out. Breathe in and out . Goddamnit, she’s getting to him. She’s good (the best) and every part of her is weaponizable from her words to her looks to her emotions. He’d expected her to get under his skin (stupid not to) though not about something this close to the truth. Expectation or not, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s fucking unpleasant and makes something hot and angry twist in his stomach.

“Maybe that’s what I want,” Tony suggests. “There’s a certain bionic wunderkid I wouldn’t mind seeing behind bars.” He adds a sneer, a derisive look at Rogers, and Natasha’s eyes flutter closed for a moment as Steve’s jaw flexes.

“He’s not a criminal,” Steve says. “The actions he took while under Hydra control weren’t his fault. You know that.”

“Do I?” Tony asks. He leans forward. “I’ve fought Barnes, remember? Hydra control or not, it doesn’t make him any less dangerous.”

“But it does mean he wasn’t responsible for his actions,” Steve insists. “Hydra used him to attack.”

“Without the Hydra angle, how are you going to get him out of prison next time?” Tony asks. He lifts an eyebrow. “Maybe should have waited to use the neurotech on a rainy day after he kills someone else.”

Instead of infuriating Rogers more ( He won’t, Bucky’s a good person) the anger slides away and leaves Steve blinking at Tony like he’s never seen him before. “How did you know about the neurotech?”

Tony stares. How did he--? The realization that he’s fallen into a trap crashes down and it takes all of Tony’s willpower not to curse out loud.

Fuck Barton . Natasha’s lips twitch upwards. Fuck spies . She knew and she set this up somehow. Fuck. He glares at her and turns back to Steve.

“You think anyone else can make something like that? SI is the leading provider,” Tony says. “I knew it had to be my tech if the UN was letting the Terminator run around with Captain America.”

“It never made sense how it arrived in Wakanda when no one knew where we were,” Steve says almost to himself. “No one but the Avengers and the UN. It would have been easy for you to find out.”

“News flash,” Tony says, “when you tell a global news outlet that the Winter Soldier is submitting to being refrozen, people tend to make connections. A lot of people knew where he went to ground.”

Oooh, that was weak. He can do better, he can, but not when he’s too busy fuming about falling into this trap. Barton, that bastard. He’d told Tony that Steve knew.

Tony knows it’s a lost cause. Now that they know it will be easy to find out the truth, easy to find the missing patent, easy to verify with SI that this neurotech has never hit their R&D. They know and he has to adjust accordingly.

“We traced the package back to New York,” Natasha says to Steve. “I thought this was a possibility,”

“One you neglected to share,” Steve points out, voice a little dry. He still looks shocked. “Tony, why didn’t you--”

“Bullshit,” Tony says to Natasha because there’s no real point in selling a story no one’s buying. “No way you followed it back past France. Barton told you.”

“Clint?” Steve asks. “Clint knew?”

“Stark tested it on Clint first,” Natasha tells Steve. “When it arrived in Wakanda, he confronted Stark and was told the technology had been stolen.”

“I don’t keep track of scraps,” Tony says. “It may have escaped your notice, but I’m a busy man.”

“Why wasn’t this brought to my attention?” Steve demands to know. Tony opens his mouth to reply but closes it when he notices the direction of Steve’s eyes. Cap looks upset at Natasha. “This was something I needed to know.”

“Maybe,” Natasha says. “Or it was a trap to make you underestimate Stark. He’s been up to a lot more than neurotechnology.”

“He’s also sitting right here,” Tony says. His eyes flicker between the two of them and he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. Natasha is playing a game with both of them as pawns and Steve does not handle that well. “Not to sound needy but I thought this was about me.”

“You--” Steve looks lost when he refocuses on Tony. “You helped Bucky.” It’s like he doesn’t dare to hope that that’s the case, like it’s something so wonderful and out of his reach that he can’t bear to hope it was true.

Tony’s not an idiot. He knows what Barnes means to Steve. He knows about the years spent searching for the other man, the solace Steve gets from not being the only man out of time. He knows what Steve is thinking; Tony saved Barnes. Tony gave Barnes back to Steve.

“I helped myself,” Tony says. “It was either kill the codes or kill Barnes and I somehow think the latter wouldn’t have gone well for me. My face isn’t super soldier proof.”

Steve had flinched at “kill Barnes” and paled at the insinuation that he’d have hurt Tony. “I-- I wouldn’t have.”

Tony raises an eyebrow and wonders if Steve knows what a complete lie that is. Cap has been choosing Barnes over everything since day one. “You did. Or have you conveniently forgotten about the fight in Germany?”

“That was because of Zemo,” Steve says. “We had to get to Siberia before he woke the other Winter Soldiers.”

“Right,” Tony says with just enough scorn that Steve knows he doesn’t believe him. “Zemo.”

“You were there,” Steve says, defensive. “You know why Buck and I went.”

“It’s interesting to me that you’d even mention Siberia,” Tony says, “when you want me to tell you anything .”

“Why?” Natasha asks. “What happened in Siberia?”

“For fuck’s sake,” Tony says before he can stop himself. “Your letter was shit, wasn’t it? You talk big game, Rogers, but when push comes to shove you’re just as cowardly as the rest of us.” His lip curls. “Some Captain America.”

“Bucky was in cryo,” Steve snaps. “It didn’t come up.” He winces a moment later. “I didn’t think you’d want me to tell anyone.” It’s pacifying and, hell, might even be true but Tony is in no mood.

“Barnes could still be held accountable,” Tony snaps back. “That’s why you didn’t mention the little fact that the Winter Soldier killed my parents, not in deference to what I wanted.”

“Oh,” Natasha says with such understanding that Tony’s head whips around to her. She knew. She knew . Somehow this is worse than her joining Steve all those months ago. At least then it had been about doing good, about choosing the right side.

This isn’t like that. This is a deliberate withholding of information, a deliberate action to block Tony from what he needs to know, a judgement on how important Tony is in the grand scheme of things.

“Both of you are uninvited from my next birthday party,” Tony says. Is it hot in here? There’s a buzzing that’s building in the back of his head. “Keeping secrets? Rude .”

His artificial sternum feels inflexible and heavy, like it’s preventing him from getting enough air into his lungs.  Did everyone know? Did everyone but Tony? Were they laughing at him? Why would they be laughing? Why wouldn’t any of these people tell him? Why wouldn’t his friends--

Not your friends, his mind whispers, never your friends. Even before the Accords, before Ultron, before-- Then why was he doing this? Why was he doing any of this? Why was he protecting them, helping them, shielding them? Why?

He tries to swallow against the questions, the uncertainty ( damnit, not now, they’re right there) because he knows , he knows why. As much as he wants to leave them behind, to retreat to his workshop ( tainted, no place to go), to keep trying to do good (ha), he can’t. Won’t. Both. The Avengers are necessary and he can’t, won’t (both) let them go down. There are stars appearing in front of him ( blood pressure, got to watch that) and they look endless, a whole infinity of stars and their inhabitants and their threats and--

He can’t and that paralyzes him, locks him up, stops him more efficiently than the words burning in his throat, the threat of incarceration, Captain America sitting between him and the door. The world is trying to tear them all apart and Tony’s the only one who has ever seen it so he has to do something, anything to stop it and--

And he’s having an anxiety attack. He’s having an anxiety attack in front of-- in front of the people who knew and said nothing and they’re going to notice if he doesn’t pull this the fuck back in. He doesn’t want them to have this, to use this against him. He needs to blink, he needs to quiet down, he needs to get his breathing back under control. He doesn’t know how because he’s lost in these questions and these reasons and all these things he’s lost, all these things he’s failed to save and--

Breathe , he commands himself. He does and it hurts as his locked muscles protest the move but the suffocation tucks itself away slowly. He can feel it underneath his ribs. The buzzing in his mind seems to disappear entirely all at once and the silence is so loud it hurts like a concussive force. Blink .  He blinks and the room comes back into focus a little more each time he closes his eyes. His left arm is numb and everything is tingling and he’s-- he’s in the conference room. He’s being interrogated. He’s sitting, he’s looking straight into blue eyes, true blue eyes ( a hint of green ).

“Tony,” Steve says. His tone is concerned and Tony thinks this might not be the first time Steve has said his name. “Tony, are you okay?”

“Sorry, I stopped paying attention,” Tony says. It takes effort to say the words, more effort to drawl them. Everything seems so distant right now and he-- he needs time to recover from this (if he can). “You bore me. I’m done talking.”

“We still need to know how you got us exonerated,” Natasha says. Steve hisses something that she ignores. “You’re not leaving this room until you give us something.”

Tony blinks sluggishly at her. He wonders if she saw the tape, saw the way human fingers wrapped around his mother’s throat. “People in hell want ice water.”

“Was that why you were building weapons for Ross?” Natasha asks. She ignores Steve, presses forward. “Did you sell Ross weapons for our freedom?”

Steve goes still. It’s clearly the first time he’s heard this particular theory.

They know and they hate you for it . Tony doesn’t have much left in him to react to that.

Tony knows he’s in a bad situation. He’s not thinking clearly, he’s still shaken from the anxiety curling in his breast, and he’s not reading the room. That fucking video is still flashing behind his eyes and he can’t help think that it’s-- everyone knows. And no one cares but Tony. No one cares but Tony. Natasha’s voice is like a battering ram and Tony feels empty. It takes all of his effort to not just tell her, to make her stop.

“Why,” he says slowly, “would I do anything for you people?”

“Because you’re a hero,” Steve says, looks down under the weight of some unnamed emotion. When he looks back up, his eyes pierce through Tony and says, with conviction, “A better hero than me.”

Tony stares at him. It’s-- it’s such bullshit and even from where he is now he can see that. Can see how Steve is wrong , how Tony doesn’t know how to be a hero.

“Let me rephrase,” Tony says. “I didn’t do anything for you people. I wouldn’t spit on you if you were on fire.” He sounds angry, harsh, raw but he doesn’t feel it.

“You’re lying,” Steve says, confident, wondering. “I know you and you’re lying.”

“You don’t know shit ,” Tony says. His eyes flick from Steve to Natasha and back again. He can’t-- he can’t do this. He staggers to his feet. “Take me to my cell or whatever, I’m done here.”

“We need to--” Natasha begins and Tony cuts her off.

“--take me to my cell,” Tony says. “Because I’m a criminal who gave Ross weapons to kill you with and, despite his breathtaking lack of success, will be going to trial for it.”

Natasha and Steve exchange a long look.

“We’ll pick this up tomorrow,” Natasha says.

Tomorrow Tony will destroy them. He’ll have to if he wants to save them.

-------------------------------------------------



Chapter Text

The day after Rhodey scares the shit out of Captain America and talks to the biggest idiot on the face of the planet, he goes to the Tower. Tony kept more of himself in his lab than he did in his own brain and Rhodey used to be jealous of all the secrets Tony told his workshop over his best friend. Now, it’s his only clue, his only lead in the maze Tony’s constructed.

Friday’s been silent since Tony was taken, some sort of backup protocol to keep her safe from the UN forces that had taken the genius, but the doors to the upper floors slide open with Rhodey’s biometrics and he knows she’s still there. It means there’s a chance that the workshop hasn’t been searched because, even at the end, Tony guards his mind and Friday wouldn’t have let anyone in.

His legs ache as he drops down the stairs and he frowns at the black glass. Night Protocol then, designed to conceal the contents of the room, to mislead and misdirect to the wine cellar that lies parallel to the workshop. It’s possible that the UN team didn’t even know the lab was down here.

Rhodey grimaces when he reaches the last step and walks gingerly up to where he knows the door should be. It’s smooth and blank, another wall, but when he puts his palm on it, there’s a mere beat before it lights up arc reactor blue. The black bleeds away from the glass, leaving it transparent again, and the door hisses as the lock disengages, allowing Rhodey access.

Rhodey doesn’t step through the door. He pauses on the threshold and his face crumples. “Oh, Tony.”

The workshop is completely wrecked. If he hadn’t witnessed the Night Protocol still in effect, he would have said that the seizure team had searched it. There were schematics and paper shards littering the shop floor, bits of broken metal kicked into corners, tables pushed out of their uniformity until they looked like casualties in the wreckage. Rhodey is used to seeing this place lit up, music blaring, living and the empty carcass he’s seeing now is heartbreaking .

His legs whir softly as he steps inside, closing the door behind him. The glass disguises itself again, plunging the room into an eery darkness only faintly alleviated by the blue light coming from the joints in his legs.

“Lights,” Rhodey says softly, like one speaking at a graveside. The overhead tracks flicker on and Rhodey is confronted with the inside of Tony Stark uncompromisingly.

“What’s next?” He’d asked Tony what’s next, what was his next manipulation, his next trick to get himself out of this mess. There hadn’t been any answer. The answer is here. Nothing .

Rhodey squares his shoulders. Tony may not have a next move but that’s okay. Rhodey’s been picking up after his ass for decades.

---------------------------------------------

None of the terminals have access to the servers. Something’s either blocking them or they’ve been wiped or something. All of the paper on the floor is old weapons schematics, nearly indecipherable, or sticky note reminders to call the Board for some reason or another. All of the suits are gone and Friday hasn’t answered a single one of his questions. Worse, You, Butterfingers and Dum-E are all dark in one corner of the lab and are unresponsive.

Rhodey refuses to get frustrated. He’d expected Tony to have covered his tracks, he had . But this is more evidence that Tony doesn’t want to be saved and that more than anything makes Rhodey grind his teeth. How can his friend be such an idiot?

That, actually, is the only comforting thought in all of this. Tony Stark is an idiot. He gets so many projects going, so many tangents opened and explored, that he’ll forget things. Little thing like sleeping and eating and discarding old research. There is a clue somewhere in this lab and Rhodey is going to find it.

Footsteps coming down the stairs have Rhodey spinning to stare at the opaque door. He stays still and quiet, hoping that they’ll continue on their way to the wine cellar and then go away. He thinks it’s another search team, maybe even an Avenger that’s had the same idea, but no one that will be able to access the--

The door lights up blue as someone’s biometrics are read and accepted.

Rhodey is down behind a bench between one second and the next, handgun held securely in two hands. He ignores the screaming in his spine from the movement and focuses on keeping his breathing steady and even. The unknown steps into the room and then stills, taking in the lights and the disturbed space.

“Um,” a young, male voice says. “I can, um, still hear you? Listen, Mr. Stark told me to keep everyone out of here so I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Jesus Christ,” Rhodey says. He takes his finger off the trigger and stands. “‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave?’ Kid, when there’s an armed man in the room with you, you don’t ask him to leave.”

“Oh,” Spiderman says from the doorway, “it’s you. I guess that’s okay, Mr. Stark didn’t say anything about keeping you out.” His suit’s eyes blink as he catches sight of and focuses on Rhodey’s legs. “Hey, are those part of Mr. Stark’s new prosthetic line? That’s so cool, can I--”

“Kid,” Rhodey says, “what are you doing here?”

Spiderman blinks again and then gestures behind Rhodey to where Dum-E and the other bots sit, dark. “Maintenance. They shut themselves off when I told them about Mr. Stark but I still oil their joints and stuff.” He rubs the back of his head. “I mean, Mr. Stark’s paying me to do it and the last deposit came through so… here I am.”

“You told them?” Rhodey asks. He doesn’t need the gun anymore, but he keeps it in his hand and by his side, just in case. “What’d you say?” He says it casually but the kid tenses anyway. He’s got good senses.

“Just what they news has been saying,” Spiderman says slowly. “Mr. Stark is being tried for treason. They say he tried to destroy the Avengers with Secretary-- former Secretary Ross. He apparently made a big bomb and, uh, boom .” He makes an explosion gesture with his hands.

Rhodey’s good at reading people, even ones wearing a mask. He jerks his chin. “And what about you? What do you believe?”

Spiderman hesitates. “I’m just a street hero, Colonel. And not a super good one? I’ve got my own bad press, believe me. So--”

“What do you think,” Rhodes says again only, this time, it’s not a question.

“I think Mr. Stark must have had a real good reason,” Spiderman says, “to do what he did. ‘Cause he did do it, sir.” Spiderman squares his shoulders like he expects Rhodey to fight him over it. “All these plans are for the weapons they say he gave to Ross. Not just plans though, there are fabrication notes. Shipping manifests. He designed, built, and delivered them himself.”

“He did,” Rhodey agrees because the kid’s not wrong. Tony had admitted that much already. “Why do you say he must have had a good reason?”

“It’s like--” Spiderman starts and stops. He rubs a gloved hand up and down his arm, thinking. Rhodey waits him out because it’s not an easy question. It’s a good thing Spiderman doesn’t have an easy answer.

“When Mr. Stark recruited me,” Spiderman says finally, “I didn’t know what we were fighting about. I, uh, I was a little star struck and I didn’t ask enough questions.” He sounds sheepish. “He told me that we were trying to stop Captain America from making a mistake.”

“That’s over simplifying it,” Rhodey snorts.

“Yeah, it was,” Spiderman says. “And after it all, all went down, it still didn’t make any sense, you know? I still didn’t have any idea why we were fighting. So I did some research and I read the Accords.” He hesitates, shifting his weight. “I found out that Mr. Stark might have been fighting to keep Captain America from making a mistake but Captain America was fighting for something else entirely.”

Rhodey keeps his face blank, his posture open. “What was Captain America fighting for?”

“Look,” Spiderman says, “I don’t, uh, want to, like, bad talk a national hero. International hero. Mr. Stark said that Captain America was doing what he thought was best.”

“But?”

“Great power comes with great responsibility.” The kid sounds like he’s quoting someone but Rhodey doesn’t know who. “I think that’s what Captain America was trying to fight for. That since we-- they have all this power they have to help. People who can do what we can do have a responsibility for the people.” He pauses, swallows audibly. “Mr. Stark was saying that we also have a responsibility to the people. If-- if that makes sense.”

Rhodey nods slightly. Waiting.

“I don’t know if anyone was right,” Spiderman says. “I’m not, like, a paragon of virtue. I don’t know which is more important; to protect people or to listen to people. But I think Mr. Stark wasn’t wrong to sign the Accords.”

“You don’t think Captain America was wrong to not sign them either,” Rhodey says. He sees the way Spiderman shifts and his eyebrows go way up. “Or maybe you do .”

“No, no!” Spiderman says hastily. “I mean, um, it obviously turned out okay, right? So he must’ve been right.”

“Kid,” Rhodey says, “just because it worked out doesn’t mean it was right.”

Spiderman deflates. “I know, but it’s Captain America .  He’s justice personified and everybody knows he’s, like, the champion of the underdogs. To a kid like me who’s been...pushed around all his life, he’s a hero.”

Rhodey thinks about his own Captain America memorabilia and has to hide his grimace. He’d been Captain America for Halloween three years in a row, had seen all of his movies. He’d been this innocent once too. “Yeah, I get that.”

Spiderman nods, glad that Rhodey agrees. “Right? So what does it say about the world when a guy like that goes against billions of people?” There’s something haunted and torn in the kid’s voice. “Half the world -- not bad guys, not villains, half the world -- told him to stop and listen and he didn’t. That… that scares me, sir. That scares me a lot more than I care to admit.”

Rhodey examines the kid and thinks he might have to stop calling him kid . “The Accords were also about regulating the Avengers, not just getting them to listen.” And there were more motives than justice on each side.

“Yeah, I didn’t like that part,” Spiderman admits. “I guess, in the end, I don’t really know what to think about it. I don’t know who was right. But what I do know is that there’s got to be a middle ground. There’s got to be a way to listen to people and protect them. There has to be.”

“What if there isn’t?” Rhodey asks. He watches Spiderman closely. “Then what?”

“I’m just a street hero,” Spiderman repeats quietly. There’s something there though, something like steel and determination, a fire in the younger man’s voice that Rhodey knows intimately. “I can’t speak for everyone. For me though, for me there’s always a way, sir. We just have to keep trying to find it and do our best along the way.”

Rhodey isn’t like Tony. He’s never been able to create and build and innovate like the other man, has never been able to see so far into the future that the present falls away around him. He lives and he serves proudly, has always been a soldier before he signed his first contract, and there’s a burning need in him to do right . Somewhere along the way that need has turned darker, grittier, turned into a desperate hope that’s been suppressed by bureaucracy and missions so heavily classified it took Tony a month to get at them.

Rhodey looks at Spiderman and understands Tony a little more. This kid might just be the future of heroes and that hope in Rhodey’s chest burns a little brighter. This is the future that Tony wants, this is the future the world deserves , not a bunch of grown men fighting for their own self identities, their own pasts, their own sense of right and wrong. It’s unfair that Spiderman has to try and find his way through the ruins the Accords left behind, it’s downright dangerous and--

Rhodey isn’t like Tony but there’s a click, click, click in his head as a piece falls into place.

“This just got a lot bigger than I thought,” Rhodey says, rubbing his hand over his face. “ Damnit, Tony.”

“What?” Spiderman asks, alarmed. “What’d he do?”

Involve you. “I don’t know yet,” Rhodey says, mostly honest. He stops and considers the young man before him. Dangerous, yes, but he was a hero wasn’t he? “Wanna help me find out?”

“Uh,” Spiderman says, “what would that involve?”

A scrap of paper catches Rhodey’s eyes and he beds down to pick it up. It’s a list of the 117 countries who called for the Accords, covered in soot and barely legible. There’re faint checkmarks next to each one and Rhodey’s lips curl at a black X next to one of them. “You ever been to Wakanda?”

“I’ve got homework ,” Spiderman says despairingly. It’s not a no.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The world has changed, Steve thinks, and you’ve survived it before. You can survive it again. He’s become accustomed to squared shoulders, firm jaw, steel spine and he feels small without them. Feels small with the weight of the world on his shoulders, the weight of Tony’s (Stark’s) gaze on his back, the weight of the questions he still has, the apologies that have settled high in his throat. He’s not used to feeling small, not anymore.

Steve can’t help but think that’s part of the problem.

He wants to talk to Bucky but he’s ( hiding, staying out of sight, staying low) not here. He’ll be back in a few days but, until then, Steve is alone. ( That thought is also part of the problem.)

Natasha looks at him differently these days and she’s not the only one. Sam, Clint and Scott Lang are grim comrades, no longer hero worshippers, and it’s for the best, really, but he misses the easy trust, the willingness to follow him without that double take, that hint of are we really doing this ? He’s always wanted to be one of them, to have a place he belonged, but now that he’s there (?), he misses what he’s lost.

It doesn’t make him feel like a good person. He thinks he lost that right, actually, if you can call feeling like a good person a right.

Steve wonders if this is how it ends, with Tony Stark’s venomous gaze, this shrinking feeling in his chest, both of them changed and poisoned by choices they’ve made. Talking with Tony was like walking across a field of landmines, no vehicle, no weapon, no shield. Now he allows himself to feel torn to shreds, no legs to stand on, no way to hold his head up high.

“It’s a bad ending,” he say aloud, alone in his room.

“Yeah, those tend to happen in the real world, Captain.”

Steve doesn’t know the world Tony lives in. He’s a soldier (we are not soldiers) and he leaves no man behind. He’d thought it his duty to bring Bucky home, had thought it the right thing to do ( Still do)(“You’d have to, you’re a man of your word.”) but, in the process, he left Tony behind.

How? Steve thinks if he finds the answer to that question he’ll be able to sleep for what feels like the first time in months . How?

“We both played our hands. Not your fault you had the better one.”

-----------------------------------------------------------

Steve doesn’t get a chance to talk to Tony again for three days after he’s brought to the Compound. He tells himself it’s because of missions and the UN briefing they’d been called to, but there’s something that whispers avoidance in the back of his mind. He still feels ripped open, ripped apart, just plain ripped after talking to the other man.

He’s guilty without seeing a reason for his guilt and he feels blind . So he focuses on what he can see and calls it necessary as he goes out each day with the Avengers.

They have a meeting the next morning, a debrief for the mission yesterday. They’d been the muscle in a peace talk, had congratulated the two nations for mending past wrongs, had promised that they’d be there if either of the countries needed assistance.

Steve tries not to draw parallels, fails, soldiers on.

We are not soldiers .

“Next, we have to talk about Stark,” Natasha says. “He’s sweated for three days and we still don’t know enough. I want Vision to talk to him next.”

The man in question frowns. “You seek to use Mr. Stark’s familiarity with my predecessor as a form of manipulation.”

Well, when you say it like that , Steve thinks and tries to stop himself from looking at his hands like a naughty child.

“We believe he’d be more comfortable talking to someone who has, historically, been on his side,” Natasha says. Her lips twitch ruefully. “It’s as much a mercy as an interrogation tactic.”

Vision’s gaze is cool. “There are no ‘sides’, Ms. Romanov, only differences in ideology.” He looks around the table, eyes falling on Sam to Scott to Clint to Natasha to Steve to Wanda. “If there were sides, I would find myself quite outnumbered now, wouldn’t I?”

Wanda does look at her hands, twisting her rings anxiously. Vision reaches out and covers her hands with one of his own, a comforting gesture. Steve wonders how they did it, how they forgave each other after everything.

“I will not be part of Mr. Stark’s interrogation,” Vision says. His eyes flick to Steve and away. “I find your tactics… distasteful. Especially considering the high probability that Mr. Stark has been acting in the team’s best interests.”

“He’s going to jail,” Clint says, tapping a pencil on the table. “Anything you can get would be used to help him avoid that.” He half smiles. “Trust me, he wants to avoid that.”

“We haven’t seen Stark in months ,” Wilson says. “Good intentions or not, he doesn’t have the right to act for us.”

“Do you agree, Captain Rogers?” Vision asks Steve.

“We have the right to know whatever he’s done that affects us. Good or bad,” Steve says quietly. “His… absence means he doesn’t know what actions we’ve taken over the past few months. What if one of our operations was compromised because we weren’t communicating? We also didn’t ask him for help. We didn’t need it and now it’s put him in a dangerous situation.”

“I suppose he didn’t have the right to provide aid without our full knowledge and consent,” Vision says blandly. His strange eyes meet Steve’s and there’s something that looks a lot like anger there.

“Ha,” Scott says, “because that’s what the Accords were about. Funny.” It doesn’t sound like he finds it funny. It sounds like the comparison makes him uneasy.

“The Accords were about controlling us,” Steve says. “I couldn’t let that happen.”

Vision carefully pulls his hand away from Wanda and stands. “A difference in perspective we have yet to surmount, unfortunately. I will not be used as a manipulation tactic. If you have need of me otherwise, I will be in the common area.” He walks out of the room, shutting the door softly behind him.

“It was unfair to ask that of him,” Wanda says.

“We use what resources we have available to us,” Natasha says. “It will take all of us to break Stark.”

“Whoa,” Sam says. “Whoa, okay, that’s not what I agreed too. We’re not breaking him. We just want to help him. Right?”

“Right,” Steve says firmly. “He’s not our enemy.” He says the last to Natasha, eyes level, jaw squared, shoulders tense.

Because that’s a tactic that works on Natasha. Not.

“Stark,” she says, “is more dangerous than any of you realize. He may not be our enemy but if we don’t treat him like one, he will win.”

“The question is, Ms. Romanov,” a new voice says from the doorway, “what you believe Tony Stark is winning .”

King T’Challa enters the room like the royalty he is, flanked by a furious Colonel Rhodes and Spiderman.

Chapter Text

Tony spends the three days after he’s brought to the compound in a sort of terrible limbo. He’s waiting for the door to open, for the next round to begin, while also hoping for the opposite. Natasha had said “tomorrow” but it’s been tomorrow and the next day and no one’s come. Footsteps come and go through the hallway, sometimes pause, but the silence always wins out, ringing in the bedroom he’d designed to be his sanctuary.

Food appears in the dumbwaiter by the door, healthy, full meals. They don’t want to starve him out, that’s for certain, but they clearly don’t get how little Tony’s been surviving on. His stomach rebels each time the scent of butter and grease slip through the room. He can’t just send it back, he knows he can’t, so he eats the unseasoned green beans, the dry toast, the easy things his stomach can process. He secrets a few bites to the toilet, gagging as the unchewed food falls from his mouth to the water, and grimly flushes it away.

He knows how to appear strong, knows it intimately, and the devil is in the details. Not eating, in this case, will be read as a sign of weakness and he can’t afford that. Not now.

Tony is perhaps overly conscious of the cameras watching his every move. He can feel the cold lense on him and he devotes a lot of energy to the person he has to be for this to work. He lays on the bed with his arms under his head and stares at the ceiling. He exaggerates yawns, refuses to pace, will sit in perfect stillness for hours. He makes sure his every movement shows boredom and contempt.

At night, in the dark, he allows himself to do what he really wants to-- curl up in his bed, blankets pulled over his head, and silently panic. It’s so quiet and his mind won’t stop . The itch in his hands grows worse by the day, begging to draw, plan, build, something . This is sensory deprivation of the worst sort and he can’t do anything about it.

After 24 hours, his mind kicks up the self-torture until it’s all he can do to sit silently and not scream . What ifs and maybes run through his mind and he’s always been a visual person. Images of the team broken and bloody, the world on fire, yelling and fire , all the dead eyes swivelling to land on him --

It’s not a surprise that he doesn’t sleep.

It’s the afternoon of the third day when he finally hears voices , real, human voices for the first time in almost 72 hours. He scrambles up off the bed, vibrating with tension. People. Stimulus .

Tony forces himself to walk to the bathroom and turn on the shower. He’d like nothing more than to call out, to see if they’ll open his door, finally ask him for something he can give but… he’s not an idiot.

Solitary will drive even the most stable man insane. People will cave, surrender, give anything so that they don’t have to be alone, uncertain, scared . It’s a deliberate move to isolate Tony, calculated and cruel . They probably expect him to lash out, to make a mistake, and Tony won’t give them that satisfaction.

So even though it physically hurts him to remain in this limbo, he strips and gets in the shower. He takes his time, washes his hair, and scrubs the tears from his eyes. He washes away the evidence of his distress and brings his character to the front.

When he shuts off the water, he can hear voices ( voices! ) in his room. They’re muffled so he can’t hear what they’re saying, but they’re there. When he looks in the mirror, his eyes are still too wide, too eager. They’ll know in a second that the isolation had gotten to him if he goes out now.

He pulls on his clothes like armor even though it’s the same jeans and t-shirt combo as before. He combs his hair back in the mirror. They’d taken the scissor and razors from the bathroom, precautionary in case he wanted a weapon, and that’s a shame because he could use a trim.

When he looks in the mirror, his eyes are cold and glittering, jaw tense and unhappy. He looks, he thinks, a lot like Howard.

Tony throws the bathroom door open and strolls into the room. His body is loose and open, completely comfortable in his captivity. He’s the shark here, the predator, and he wants them to know it.

“You don’t call, you don’t write,” Tony declares. Steve and Barton take in his wet hair, his rolling gait and tense. Tony rewards them with a dark smile. “I was beginning to think you’d gone and died on me.” Use what scares you against them. Don’t show them your weakness.

Barton is half wild animal, Tony thinks, because he steps back, redistributes his weight, and watches Tony with hooded eyes. Predators can smell each other, after all, and Barton may not consciously know it, but Tony’s been the bigger carnivore all along.

Steve doesn’t play that game though.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says and looks genuinely contrite, maybe even a little guilty. “We had a few missions and couldn’t continue our conversation from last time until now.” Steve’s expression sours, just the slightest bit. “Well, until later. Now you have a visitor.”

“Someone more important than Captain America ?” Tony fake gasps. “That could be anyone.”

Steve opens his mouth as if to respond and then shuts it with a click. He looks sad again, a default expression, and Tony doesn’t have to pretend to want to break him this time.

“Good to see that isolation worked so great,” Barton mutters under his breath.

And he knew it, but it doesn’t mean that the confirmation doesn’t grate . He’d expected to isolated after, had expected to be hurt and questioned and spat on, but not by them . Despite what had happened, he’d never really humored the idea that they’d go out of their way to hurt him .

This is war and Tony knows the game, had planned for it and prepared for it. The rules didn’t change just because the enemy was also the one he was trying to protect.

Tony turns shark-teeth on him. “Next time try a cave and a couple dozen terrorists to keep me company. Historically that’s more effective.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Steve says, brow furrowing. “I told you we had missions--”

“I’ll make a note,” Clint says, shooting a sharp look at Steve.  “Cap, he’s waiting.”

That...doesn’t sound good. Especially considering how much effort it’s taking for Tony to pretend right now. Tony feels like his skin is ill-fitting, the facade he needs slippery and slipping. It’s a struggle to stay present, a struggle to say the things he needs to stay, and his heartrate kicks up ( bang, bang, bang ) at the ominous sentence.

He’s waiting .

Steve scrubs a hand over his face. He looks at Tony with those heart-breaking blue eyes, lines of stress painted around the corners of his mouth. “I hope you’re ready to talk to us, Tony.”

Clint mutters something else and turns on his heel, marching out of the room before Tony’s name is fully out of Steve’s mouth. Someone else is fed up with Steve, another crack that Tony can see,  but there’s not much he can do about that now. Instead, he focuses on Steve and bites back what he wants to say to the awe-inspiring stupidity the other man is still exhibiting.

(Once upon a time, he’d have called it faith . Tony doesn’t believe much in faith anymore._

Tony rolls his eyes at Steve and precedes him out of the room, hands slipped into pockets like he’s got nothing to worry about. He focuses on the set of Clint’s shoulders, high and tense, all the way to the meeting room, trying not to feel the weight of Steve’s eyes behind him.

Clint opens the door to one of the briefing rooms and holds it so Tony can go in first.

“Chivalry isn’t dead,” Tony says. He blows a kiss at the archer as he steps around him, eyes already scanning the table. There’s Natasha, of course, and Wanda and Scott and--

Tony feels his blood run cold, feels his smirk go brittle, feels the floor drop out from underneath him.

Rhodey.

Spiderman.

T’Challa .

One hundred and seventeen countries run through his head, a mantra he’d started when this all began, one that had gotten shorter and shorter as the months marched on, each country disappearing as it bowed to the new Accords, the new deal that’d been agreed upon.

(And, maybe, disappearing as they bowed to him and his gifts and his blessings. )

(All except one.)

Damn it.

“Your majesty,” Tony says, words dropping like ice. He’s tense and wary, too conscious of the precipice he’s standing on. T’Challa’s worked with the Avengers before, he harbored them and cared for Barnes.He could be here for that, about Barnes, there’s a possibility that he doesn’t know--

“Mr. Stark,” T’Challa says, rising. “I’m sorry I missed you on your last visit to Wakanda.” The king’s voice is hard, the true meaning easy for Tony to pick out, probably easy for anyone to pick out.

He knows . Tony’s mind flies into overdrive, clicking, clicking, clicking away. It’s not enough to pretend now--he has to act. He has to do damage control.

“It was an unproductive trip,” Tony says. He steps to the side, back against the wall, and folds his arms. It’s meant to be casual but he’s sure no one misses how it gets Steve out from behind him, how it keeps everyone in his line of sight. “Tight-lipped group, Wakandans.”

“Maybe,” T’Challa allows. He studies Tony, dark eyes missing nothing. “Though not, of course, amongst ourselves.” He lets that sink in and then says, “I’d like to discuss the purpose of your visit, Mr. Stark.”

They’d let T’Challa in to throw Tony off, to confront him with what they imagine to be evidence. Rhodey must have found the connection (somehow), he must have been the one to go to the King. There’s no time to feel anything about that because these are dangerous waters and the stakes are so much higher with royalty afoot.

But their play is a double-edged sword because, unlike Tony, it looks like they’ve forgotten that T’Challa is not an Avenger and certainly not an international force.

“I’d be happy to,” Tony says graciously. He smiles and it’s more a baring of teeth than anything. “In private.”

There’s a stir around the table; their audience doesn’t like that. Tony sees Rhodey purse his lips, sees Natasha’s mouth quirk down the slightest bit, sees Scott look outright disappointed. Spiderman is refusing to meet his eyes, something that hurts but Tony doesn’t have time for ( an hour ago he had all the time in the world). Clint moves to stand behind Natasha and Steve finally opens his mouth.

“I think,” Steve says, “that it’d be better if we all get on the same page. We’re staying.”.  He doesn’t wait for anyone to protest, just resolute that his word is enough for it to be so. The Same page. Ha. Steve turns so he’s facing Tony. “It’s time to start talking, Tony. Why did you go to Wakanda?”

“I do nothing but talk,” Tony says, “or haven’t you been paying attention?” He’s not really paying attention to Steve, instead focused on T’Challa. “I talk to his majesty alone or not at all. What do you say, kitty-cat?”

T’Challa watches him. He looks at Steve and then around the table. Whatever he finds in their faces makes his jaw firm. “Very well.”

And Tony’s won, he’s got a chance to get this under wraps--

“I’m sorry, your majesty,” Natasha says, “but we can’t allow that. As the entity responsible for Mr. Stark, we must be with him at all times, especially while receiving visitors.”

Tony can practically feel Steve’s relief, the bigger man’s shoulders sagging as he turns to give Natasha grateful look.

Acts of war, Tony thinks. He’s, historically, been pretty good at them.

“Damn,” Tony says, arms crossed, and has the pleasure of seeing tension go back into Steve. “Guess we can’t speak at all, your highness. Unless you’re fine with letting an international group in on a few Wakandan secrets.”

The tension comes back to the room, thick and heavy and glittering . It’s always glittering around Tony--even three days alone (tortured) weren’t enough to stop that.

T’Challa knows exactly what he’s doing and, judging by the quirk in his lips, he approves. “Then there is no choice. Mr. Stark and I will speak privately. Should he reveal anything I think it would benefit you to know, Captain, I will inform you.”

It’s not a request.

“Your highness,” Natasha says, “I assure you that any secrets revealed will not leave this room. We’re all willing and able to provide any assurance needed for your trust.”

T’Challa hums and looks at her, an odd look in his eyes. “Until, I imagine, Captain Rogers decides otherwise?”

And, oh , that electrocutes them all. Tony watches with morbid fascination as it occurs to the others that not only does T’Challa not agree with them, he doesn’t like them. The King is good at disguising his true interests, maybe even better than Tony, and that means he’s nearly undetectable so long as he wants to be.

But he’s not interested in hiding his dislike for Captain Rogers. Not at all.

That dislike had sent Tony’s hackles up months ago, but he’d actually recognized what T’Challa was then. An immovable object, one not disguised as a friend, ready to grab the world by the throat if it meant doing the right thing for his country.  Tony knows better than to tangle with another immovable object, but Cap?

(No. You move.)

What will you do, Cap , Tony thinks, watching them all with dark eyes, when they no longer love you? It’s not a charitable thought.

Steve’s jaw flexes. “No. I would never disclose Wakandan secrets, your majesty.  I respect your country’s right to its secrets, your highness. Barring any hostilities towards other nations, I swear no information will leave this room.” He says hostilities like a joke. Like it’s laughable that a country like Wakanda-- a country that has hidden it’s true advancements to this day -- would be prepared to go to war.

 Natasha’s eyes flutter shut and no one laughs.

Naive, Tony thinks with more anger than pity.

“Then you and your colleagues had best leave,” T’Challa says, eyes scanning over them all. “I can not promise that Mr. Stark holds no such information.”

That throws Rogers for a loop but no one else. He blinks. “Excuse me?”

“I can’t say what Mr. Stark learned on his visit,” T’Challa says evenly. “A man with his...talents may very well have found his way into my country’s defense servers.”

“Which have plans to attack other nations on them,” Steve says. But the levity is fading from his face and it’s not a question.

T’Challa raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps.”

“Then all the more reason for us to stay,” Steve says, rising up and up and up . He looks very patriotic like that--jaw firm, eyes level, and shoulders back. It’s a challenge, an inadvisable one, but in character. “We are official UN mediators now, after all. Surely we could assist you with soothing any...hostilities.

So damningly in character, the noble ass .

“I will have to discuss the option with my country’s parliament,” King T’Challa says. He inclines his head. “If you could lend Mr. Stark and I an unmonitored meeting room, I would be in your debt.”

“I don’t think--”

“This way, your highness,” Natasha says, cutting Steve off. She holds his eyes for a meaningful moment. “I’m sure that Colonel Rhodes and Spiderman would like to speak with you.”

Rhodey, the trooper, steps forward with a nod. “I’ve been tasked with updating you on the trial dates and Ross. Due to some logistical issues--”

Tony follows Natasha and T’Challa from the room, not looking at Steve as he brushes past. No one follows them after the door shuts, perhaps confident that Natasha can handle him.

Or perhaps knowing that T’Challa certainly can.

“Perhaps Captain Rogers should be made aware,” T’Challa says as they walk, “that UN mediators are required to provide safe, neutral spaces for parties to meet should they both desire it.”

“The title belongs to the Avengers as a whole, not Captain Rogers,” Natasha says smoothly. She pauses in front of another meeting room, this one with reinforced walls and no surveillance of any sort. Or at least none by Tony’s design. “And we haven’t had any complaints yet.” She pushes the door open and waves them in. “There’s an emergency switch on the wall, your highness. Should you need assistance, please press it and we will be in shortly to aid you.”

“No button for me?” Tony says, speaking for the first time in what feels like forever. He presses a hand over his chest as T’Challa sweeps by, leaving him and Natasha in the hall. “What if the big kitty cat decides to make a chew toy out of me?”

“Then it will be a case of self defense,” T’Challa says with amusement from inside. He’s already sitting at the table, hands folded in front of him. “You are a dangerous criminal.” He nods to the chair across from him. “If you would?”

And Tony-- well, even with his mind in tatters and his hands red with blood, Tony can’t resist a good bit of intrigue. “Of course, your majesty.” He steps right into the lion’s den and shuts the door in Natasha’s face, barely noticing the fury sparking in her green eyes. He’s too focused on the way T’Challa’s eyeing him, the way T’Challa took the seat at the head of the table, back to the wall, the way T’Challa’s ire has shifted from Steven Rogers to Tony Stark.

The door seals shut behind him, the sound of hydraulics hissing in the walls until the room is sound-proof, bug-proof, tamper-proof. Tony would know. He built it himself.

He smiles with enough teeth that his dry lips nearly crack and takes the chair  along the side of the table-- not the one at the other end, not the one that would put them face to face,  not like with Steve. He’s not going to try and fight T’Challa. No, he’s going to try to do something much more difficult.

He’s going to try and convince him.

“Let’s talk.”

Chapter Text

“I do not,” T’Challa starts, “appreciate your attempts to bypass my rule through members of my Parliament, Mr. Stark.”

Tony has always appreciated a man who gets straight to business.

T’Challa’s hands are folded in front of him, loose, and his eyes are steady on Tony. Tony remembers seeing this man tremble with rage, with sorrow, with bloodlust, and he thinks that he’d be wrong to speak to that man--that man from Vienna--now. T’Challa’s become a different beast during the time Tony wasn’t looking. Not so emotional. Not all warrior. Not the sort of man who’d charge halfway across the world to track down one pesky murderer.

Tony’s always been adaptable.

“That’s not the bee in your bonnet,” Tony says. He crosses his legs and leans back, folding his hands over his stomach. He’s showing T’Challa that he’s open and relaxed. He doesn’t expect the other man to believe him--just to see the gesture for what it is. An invitation. “ Your bee is that I tried to break bread with the River Tribe instead of you.”

“Perhaps,” T’Challa allows. He lets silence fall between them, studying Tony. It’s uncomfortable, the scrutiny, one of the few times Tony can remember someone looking through him instead of at him. “I find myself wondering what you found so uncompromising in me that you sought to coerce one of the Elders instead.”

Tony clicks his tongue. “Coerce. That’s not a very nice word. I prefer to think of it as...an attempted negotiation.” He shakes his head. “Not so effective, obviously, if he went tattling to you.”

“Perhaps,” T’Challa says, “you don’t understand Wakandan politics as well as you had anticipated.”

Yeah, Tony had gotten that message when the River Tribe Elder had literally laughed him out of the meeting. ( “Wakanda has her own technology, Stark, and her own blood. We make our deals with the outside world. The outside world does not deal with us .”)

“Not as well as I’d hoped ,” Tony admits.

T’Challa sits and waits.

Tony scrubs a hand over his face. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to manipulate the man sitting in front of him. Almost half-hearted he asks, “What’s it going to take for you not to tell them?”

T’Challa blinks and it’s so guileless that Tony recognizes it for the mask it is. “Tell them what, Mr. Stark? That you attempted to subvert my rule and establish a trade deal with one of the Wakandan tribes?” Heat enters his expression, a shade of anger, a dash of indignation. “Or that you sought to bribe my people into sponsoring the newly reformed Avengers Initiative? Or maybe you would not like them to know how you have been shifting global political opinion in their favor from behind the scenes through bribes, threats, and favors?”

Oh yeah. T’Challa’s not just mad at Steven Grant Rogers. Not by a long shot.

“Sure,” Tony says and flaps a hand at him as if to say obviously.  “All of that.”

“I don’t know,” T’Challa says. He goes back to watching Tony, that heat and anger slipping back under his skin as if it had never risen to the surface. Dangerous. “The truth, I think, would be a respectable place to start.”

Tony can’t help but snort at that. He knows that he’s supposed to be talking T’Challa around, but his word choice is damn fucking hilarious. “The truth? I’ve got gray hair because of the truth .” He watches T’Challa, taking the time to try and soften the cruel twist of his mouth. “Which truth do you want to talk about first? The one on the news? The one coming from Roger’s mouth? There’s about a hundred different truths out there, T’Challa, and I don’t think my warden is going to extend lights out so we can go over all of them. Not even for a King.”

“I am a King,” T’Challa agrees. If he’s offended by Tony’s scathing tone, his stalling, his irreverence, he doesn’t show it. “The only truth I need from you, Dr. Stark, is yours.” His dark eyes are steady. “I suggest you start talking.”

And--oh--it sounds good to tell T’Challa everything. To tell him about the hours of begging Steve Rogers to listen , the fall out, the moves and counter moves that he’s had to contend with over this past year. It sounds good to let this well of steam and anger come ripping up his throat and out into the open. T’Challa, he thinks, might be the only person in the world capable of understanding what exactly Tony is trying to do. What, exactly, Tony is trying to protect.

Who, exactly, Tony has had to become.

But Tony hasn’t changed all that much despite the ( --hard, so fucking hard--) years. He’s still that man in the desert, wind at his back, missiles looming over his head, grinning . He’s still that man who killed his mentor for crossing him. He’s still that man who’s looked into the face of the person holding the gun and laughed.

He’s never given into what he wanted. Not when it matters most.

So Tony doesn’t start speaking. Not yet. Instead, he asks, “Or else what?”

T’Challa raises his eyebrows. “Do I need to threaten you, Dr. Stark?” He leans forward and, although there’s no outward hostility on his face, there’s something in his tone that screams danger . “I could tell you that, in their quest to contain you, they removed your AI, replacing it with a more limited system. I could suggest that it would take little to no effort to break into this compound, in the night, into your cell. I could tell you that it may seem grating to be housed here, under the care of your former teammates, but it would be nothing to the care you would receive in Wakanda.” He leans back, watching Tony. “But none of those things, I think, are threats to a man who’s been trying to die for a long, long time.”

“That was a pretty specific not -threat,” Tony says, eyes skittering away. Trying to die . Tony doesn’t know how to answer that one.

T’Challa’s lips quirk. “Surely you don’t think Wakanda would leave a possible security breach alone, Dr. Stark?”

A beat. “Ah.”

It’s another miscalculation on Tony’s part, made in the heat of the moment like an idiot. T’Challa’s thought process is easy to trace. One of the world’s industry forerunners has been to Wakanda without official invitation. One of the most advanced technological titans has been left alone in the parliament building while he waited for the River Tribe Elder. T’Challa has no way of knowing what Tony might have overheard, what he might have seen, what he might have gotten into.

(Does it make it better or worse that he had gotten into something? It’s so rare that he feels small instead of too big and he’d tested the boundaries. Like he always does. Just a little too far.)

They’ll find a way to take him if he doesn’t succeed in convincing T’Challa. They can’t risk him having freedom of speech with Wakandan secrets beating around his head (what few he got before Princess Shuri shut him out). Either it’ll be legally and the Avengers won’t be able to forgive Wakanda or it’ll be illegally and the Avengers will feel compelled to act against the powerful nation.

Neither is an outcome Tony’s plan accommodates. Tony’s spent months trying to get the heroes on the right side of public opinion. Wakanda can destroy the Avengers within weeks .

And the thing is--he’s tired. He’s tired of playing the puppet master. It’s been months of hard work, months of moving pieces and complicated politics, months of pretending to be the devil when he’s only ever been a man.

So Tony takes a risk. He lets go. It takes energy to let himself speak, it takes so much energy to loosen his hold on even one his masks. He’s used to playing weak, to playing strong, to playing the philanthropist or the playboy or the genius.\

He is not used to being honest.

He remembers long, easy days in his workshop when he wasn’t playing anything. He remembers listening to his music, listening to his bots whir, listening to the scratch of Steve’s pencil on paper.

Those days are gone .

It’s ironic that he draws on their memory now to look T’Challa in the eye.

“The truth,” Tony says slowly. The words come like the best sort of honey--thick and raw . “The truth is that Steve was never going to stop.” Then his mouth slams shut, the truth in the words so hard to follow. That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

Steve was never going to stop.

(“No. You move.”)

(What a joke. )

“No,” T’Challa agrees. He studies Tony. “Ms. Romanov expressed a similar sentiment in the airport. I believe it was the reason for her...lapse in allegiance.”

“Can’t blame her,” Tony says. Flippancy is his greatest weapon, has been his oldest weapon because they can’t beat you with what they think doesn’t matter . Even he can hear how tired he is underneath it. “Steve is always right , isn’t he?”

T’Challa doesn’t give him a reaction. That’s another thing the King’s learned since Germany--back then T’Challa had been easy to read. He’d been filled with hurt and anger and grief and all those horrible emotions Tony knows too well. He’d been fire and vengeance .

Now he is placid, still, and waiting. The silence stretches between them, no judgement, no hostility. All he wants is an answer, Tony’s answer. It’s been a long time since anyone has listened and been awake to understand.

(He waited for them to come grab him from his home. Alone. Game over.)

And suddenly Tony can’t stop talking.

“Steve’s always right,” Tony says again. It’s odd to be calling him Steve out loud--he’s been careful about that these past few months (years). His plan won’t work if he’s still seen as buddy-buddy with the hero . “He always has been. But this time…” He laughs and it’s without humor. “This time a lot of people were telling him he was wrong.”

T’Challa’s eyes are like coal, glittering under the harsh, fluorescent lights. “Over a hundred countries.”

“One hundred and seventeen ,” Tony says because that number should never be round down . He runs a hand through his hair, wishing his fingers would catch on oil. He misses his workshop like a physical ache. “To be exact. One hundred and seventeen nations, millions of people, billions of eyes. I just--put aside whether or not I agree with the Accords, that’s not important, I’m not--” important “--I’m not angry. I mean, I am, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Accords came into existence and that’s, I think you can agree, a pretty good indication that the world wanted them to happen. One way or another. But Steve disagreed.”

“Steven Rogers was in the wrong,” T’Challa murmurs like that’s the end of the story.

If only.

Tony points a finger at him. “ No. No. Steve Rogers was right . Ask anyone, T’Challa, anyone. Who’s going to say he’s wrong? Who’s going to say he’s right?” Tony huffs out a breath and gestures to the King carelessly, like it doesn’t matter. “Even you think he’s right, on some level.”

T’Challa’s lips thin, catching the accusation in Tony’s words. “I don’t believe--”

“Who did you fly out of that bunker, T’Challa? Who did you stay to help?” Tony interrupts, slashing the air with one hand as if to cut T’Challa off physically. It’d been a blow to see his parents’ murderer under the king’s wing. “Because it sure as fuck wasn’t me.”

T’Challa is tellingly silent.

Tony thinks he’s gotten his point across.

The man with a plan, the star spangled man,” Tony half-sings. He laughs without humor. “I grew up with that, you know? Captain America’s fucking theme song hummed around every corner. Everyone this side of the pond did. The day is saved when Captain America shows up because Captain America fights for the right side of things. Back then, propaganda was a lot easier. Marketing too. You could tell people what to buy and they wouldn’t question it. You could tell them what to believe, what to do, and they never even blinked.”

“The world isn’t like that anymore,” T’Challa says.

“Ding, ding, ding, give the man a prize! Something from the top shelf, something extra special .” Tony runs his hands through his hair, missing the pull of oil and grease against his fingers. He misses his workshop, misses the whir of his bots and the gentle blue glow of his screens. “The world doesn’t just believe what people tell them anymore. The masses have access to the numbers. They know the death tolls. They know the money that hemorrhages out of their cities every time we pay a visit. They know. You know who doesn’t know any of that?”

T’Challa’s lips thin. “Ah.”

“Ah,” Tony echoes. He thinks T’Challa sees what he’s saying, but he can’t take the chance the other man is misunderstanding him. “Steve’s right , but the world doesn’t function around what’s right anymore. Being right doesn’t pay funeral costs or legal bills and it sure as hell doesn’t rebuild homes. I tried to tell them--I tried -- that this wasn’t about doing good, about being heroes. I tried to explain that this needed to happen so the world would still let us protect them . But why would any of them need to listen to me?” Tony laughs again and he can hear it hitting the walls, cold and dead. “Steve Rogers is always right . Never mind what a Stark has to say.”

“I think,” T’Challa says slowly, “that you and I have different definitions of right .”

“Do we?” Tony asks. “Doesn’t matter. People think Steve Rogers and hero at the same time. They think of him as a standard . Forget definitions. What did you think about the Avengers when you found out Captain America was against the Accords?”

“I thought of your group as foolish,” T’Challa says. He doesn’t break eye contact with Tony and a muscle in his jaw twitches. “And dangerous. I thought the Accords might have been too...lenient after all. I counseled my father that Wakanda would not benefit from allowing the Avengers access to our people after all.”

Ouch. At least T’Challa’s not lying.

“See?” Tony asks softly. He wants to say more--wants to tell T’Challa about the hundreds of innocents locked up and hurt because Ross didn’t believe in heroes like he should--but doesn’t. He wants to tell the King about Spiderman, hunted by the police in his own city, and about all of the other fledgling heroes getting screamed at, beaten, forgotten, but doesn’t. That’s not what they’re talking about. “I was for the Accords. The Black Widow was. But Captain America wasn’t and that’s who you saw. That’s all you saw.”

It used to be a benefit. Tony’s never really given off that heroic vibe ( Iron Man, yes, Tony Stark, no) and he’d gotten the chance to ride on Steve’s coattails. He was a hero, like Captain America, here to save the day. You could trust him, really, because he was going to show up, defeat the baddie, and make everything better.

(Tony hates himself for believing he had a chance to make things better .)

Tony wonders if a better person could have convinced Steve that punching Hitler was only half the battle. The rest of it--the peace and recovery--was won long after he hit the water.

“The world needs heroes,” Tony tells T’Challa. “I know you’ve seen a hint of what’s out there.” He’d seen it that day, in the Parliament, on their defense servers. They know and Tony needs T’Challa to understand that that day is coming, faster than he wants to believe. “Steve wasn’t going to stop.”

T’Challa releases a slow breath. “If the UN hadn’t modified the Accords, Captain Rogers would never have agreed to work with them.”

“No,” Tony agrees.

“Every hero that signed would have been subject to every regulation the original Accords outlined,” T’Challa says. “After Captain Rogers’ actions, there would be no room to make amendments. The committee would have cited precedent and ruled against any leniency.”

Every superpowered individual forced to register if they so much as dared show their abilities in public. Every fight hashed out in court, real prison sentences for any perceived mistakes. Constant scrutiny, constant blame, constant harassment, and that’s not even going into the clauses that allowed a hero’s country to use them. Contain them. Control them.

Steve wasn’t wrong when he said that that the Accords were about controlling them. He, as usual, was right . But he didn’t understand that they weren’t concrete. Not yet. He didn’t understand that it was all about perception .

For a dancing monkey, Steve Rogers has never been any good at dancing.

“The tone would have changed.” Tony doesn’t know if he feels relieved that T’Challa sees it. Mostly, he feels empty. Numb. “Instead of it being an agreement between heroes and the world, a way to build a cooperative future together , it would have turned into a very unappealing, very ethically ambiguous, mandatory contract without any benefits.”

“The Accords could still have been amended,” T’Challa says. He’s trying to find a reason why Tony’s wrong, but he’s lived in the limelight, same as Tony. He knows that it’s hard to stop a story once the public’s latched on. The best way to beat it is to wait it out. “It would have taken longer, but I know the sting of Captain Rogers’ actions would not have had a lasting impact. With every good deed, public opinion would change.”

“Sure,” Tony agrees. He doesn’t wait for T’Challa to voice his surprise at the agreement. He says, “But would it have changed in time?”

T’Challa doesn’t answer. Tony knows what he’s thinking about. He’s thinking about the energy readings Princess Shuri’s been receiving from beyond their galaxy. He’s thinking about Thor and the events in London. Tony’s got a reading from that one--nothing in his arsenal can quite match wormholes or whatever the fuck that had been.

Maybe that sort of threat won’t be here today. Maybe it won’t be here tomorrow. But someday? Oh yeah, it’s coming for them.

Could they risk not being prepared?

It’s a relief that someone else sees it. Someone else understands and Tony isn’t nearly as crazy as he’s been pretending.

“Say that I agree with you,” T’Challa says finally. He leans back in his chair, studying Tony. “The world needs the Avengers Initiative now for what it represents and what it can do. What leads you to believe that I’d let an innocent man pay for that with his life?”

“What innocent man?” Tony asks before he thinks it through. When T’Challa raises an eyebrow, Tony can’t help but laugh. “ Me? Are you okay there, kitty-cat? Need some air?”

“It’s clear that you allowed yourself to be caught in order to remove Ross from the equation,” T’Challa says. His eyes are half-lidded as he watches Tony. “Several of Stark Industry’s moves lately have also been to your detriment in an attempt, I assume, to keep the company alive after your arrest. I can’t, in good conscience, let you pay this price alone, Mr. Stark.”

“You’d have no proof,” Tony says. His hands curl into fists and his eyes narrow. It never occurred to Tony that T’Challa would try to save him.  “You’d destroy the world’s only chance against an interstellar threat.”

“Anything that can be destroyed with the truth,” T’Challa says, “should be. That’s what I believe.” He taps the necklace around his throat. “This entire conversation has already been recorded.”

Jesus, Tony’s in worse shape than he thought if he couldn’t spot a fucking mic.

(Unfair, he knows a little about what Shuri’s capable of. If she didn’t want him to see it, he wouldn’t.)

( He should have.)

“You’re a king,” Tony retorts. There’s a curl of panic in his chest that he ruthlessly beats back. He makes mistakes when he panics. He makes mistakes when he lets go. He makes mistakes whatever he does because he’s an idiot .  He’s got to make T’Challa listen . “You can’t afford to act according to your beliefs.” Don’t be a hero.

For a long moment, Tony thinks T’Challa isn’t going to listen. He thinks that T’Challa is going to leave this room and hand the recording straight to Natasha. He thinks that T’Challa’s going to let them exonerate him, claim him, and open their entire organization to the unease and fear that had torn the Avengers apart in the first place.

“I must act in the interests of Wakanda,” T’Challa murmurs. He closes his eyes and leans forward, clasping his hands in front of his face as if praying. “It can not protect the world alone.” When he opens his eyes, there’s something tortured behind them. “If there was another way, I would choose it, Mr. Stark.”

Another man might have felt bad for the conflict on T’Challa’s face, the struggle between being a hero and being a king. It’s not easy--Tony knows that first hand. Long term security doesn’t feel like saving the day--it feels like a compromise and a bad one at that.

But sometimes the people need more than a hero and it’s the worst sort of necessity for someone like the Black Panther. Tony wonders if it’d be insensitive to welcome him to the club.

“Meh,” Tony says, flapping a hand dismissively. “Don’t sweat it. I’ve always been a better villain anyway.”