The offhand comment stuck with Tony for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. It was made at the end of a Senate Hearing, one called by the government to find out the full details of precisely why the Europeans politely despised them more than usual right now. Tony had been grilled by the Senators in charge of the hearing and while he hadn't been entirely forthcoming, he hadn't been obstructionist either. He’d answered their questions with as much detail as was necessary, even though that hadn’t exactly pleased all of them. The Senator who muttered the comment as he pushed past Tony on leaving the room wasn't exactly one of Tony’s biggest fans and maybe that was why it stuck.
“I liked you more before you met the Avengers.”
The Senator in question had never liked him so Tony couldn’t help puzzling over the comment and what it might mean.
He brought it up a few days later in the workshop. “Have I changed since I met the Avengers?” He wasn’t entirely sure whether the question was directed at FRIDAY or himself.
Silence greeted him at first before FRIDAY said very hesitantly, “I can't really say, boss.”
Tony made a harumphing noise and went back to his work, trying to dismiss the errant thought with only limited success.
It came back again the next day when he was slumped on the couch with Rhodey. They were ostensibly watching the latest Star Wars film but Tony hadn't been paying attention, too caught up in his own thoughts.
“Have I changed since I met the Avengers?”
Rhodey turned his head to look at him and FRIDAY obligingly lowered the volume of the movie. The expression on Rhodey’s face was one Tony had never seen before and couldn’t quite decipher.
“Yeah, Tones. You have.” He paused for a moment then continued. “And not for the better.”
Tony frowned, feeling almost offended. “What?”
Rhodey hesitated again as though he wasn’t sure whether he should continue. But he did and Tony appreciated that. Rhodey had never been afraid to call him out on his bullshit and he was glad that hadn't changed now, after everything that had happened.
“You let them turn you into a doormat,” Rhodey said bluntly and Tony could only gape at him in disbelief.
“What?” he finally managed when he could find his voice again.
“You let them turn you into a doormat,” Rhodey repeated, more confidently this time. “You let them walk all over you, take everything without giving anything in return. You do know they never fucking said thank you for anything you gave them or did for them? You do realise that, right, Tones?”
“I…” Tony frowned. “Didn't notice,” he finished lamely.
Rhodey sighed. “You did everything for them and they treated you like shit. They treated you like an annoyance they had to tolerate. And you let ‘em.”
“I… well…” Tony began, feeling rather off-balance, but Rhodey cut him off.
“No. There's no excuse for their behaviour.” Rhodes sighed. “I know Pepper and I sometimes forget to thank you for the things you do for us but we also know you break out in hives when things get mushy and emotional.” They exchanged quick grins before Rhodes continued. “But we also find other ways to thank you that don't make you break out in hives. And that doesn't excuse the Avengers’ complete lack of gratitude because they never thanked you at all. Not in words and not in any other way. I mean, it’s just common fucking decency and they had none.”
Rhodes frowned down at his knees and this time when he turned back to Tony, he looked worried.
“You diminished yourself for them and they didn't deserve it.”
“Diminished!” Tony squawked. “I thought I was being responsible.”
“You were,” Rhodey conceded. “But you were losing you to do it.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Tony said softly, hesitantly. “Most people don't really like me when I'm me.”
Rhodey wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him into his side. Tony took that as permission to snuggle in even closer, something which drew a fond chuckle from Rhodey.
“Screw ‘em. If they can't handle you as you are then they don't deserve you. And what the fuck do they know about you anyway? They never got to know you. They just judged you from… whatever the hell it was Rogers used. Probably nothing but his preconceived notions. Actually, probably Romanoff’s report,” Rhodey said sourly then he snorted. “If she’s the best profiler SHIELD had, no wonder HYDRA were able to infiltrate them so successively.”
That startled a laugh out of Tony then he blinked. “I never thought about it like that.”
“She’s the one that’s supposed to be able to pick people apart and find out all their secrets and she didn’t even notice that half her colleagues were fucking HYDRA,” Rhodey said derisively. “So any assessment she did of you could only be a load of horse shit and if that’s what the others were using to judge you without getting to know you properly and make their own judgement, then they’re idiots.”
Tony gave a lop-sided smile at Rhodey’s staunch support. “But still…”
“No,” Rhodey said firmly. “Whatever garbage was about to come out of your mouth, no.” His expression softened and pulled Tony in close to his side again. “You and your ridiculous guilt complex let them blame you for everything while they waltzed off without a care in the world. Fucking Rogers sloughed off half of his responsibilities as team leader onto your shoulders without a word of thanks or any direction as to what he wanted, then bitched at you when you did your best to take care of them.”
“Well, it was my fault,” Tony said softly.
Rhodes sighed. “Okay, so you have some culpability when it comes to Ultron but that mess wasn’t all your fault, Tones. I got FRIDAY to show me everything about Ultron.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t ready. I’m not the programming genius you are but I know my stuff. That AI was barely functional. There was no way Ultron could have woken up on its own. That was the mind gem and that’s not your fault.”
“I asked to keep the staff,” Tony countered.
Rhodes frowned. “Yeah, why did you do that? That wasn’t in the plan. You were going to give it back to Thor to take to Asgard. You were pretty wary about that thing when we spoke before the mission.”
Now it was Tony’s turn to frown. “I… don’t know.”
“You don’t do anything without a reason, Tony,” Rhodes said, now looking concerned. “It may be a stupid reason but you always have one.”
Tony’s frown deepened. “I… felt I needed it.”
“To help me create Ultron.”
Rhodey shook his head slowly. “That doesn’t make any sense. What put that thought in your head?”
Tony shifted uncomfortably. “I had a weird… I don’t know, flashback or something.” He jerked and frowned. “Wait. No. I don’t know what it was. I thought it was a flashback at the time, to the… the Chitauri.”
“The witch,” Rhodes growled. “Could it have been her? Didn’t she give the others visions as well?”
“But this was well before the others and why would she want me to take the sceptre?” Tony objected.
“Because that thing is fucked up?” Rhodes replied. “She’s not one of the good guys, Tony, no matter what Rogers and Barton might say. The mind stone made Ultron really work and she manipulated you into taking it. She needs to take her share of the blame for Ultron and so does Banner. It’s not all on you and you shouldn’t take on their blame as well. That’s for them to deal with.”
“But if I hadn’t started working on it…” Tony began.
“Then the mind stone would have found something else to use or manipulate,” Rhodey replied. “Like maybe one of the bots or even JARVIS.” He shuddered. “Or maybe you or Banner. Remember, Loki used it to mind control people.”
Tony shuddered as well and rubbed at his chest where the arc reactor had been. And where Loki had tapped the sceptre when he’d tried to mind whammy him during that invasion.
“But Lagos wasn’t your fault,” Rhodey continued. “The mess in DC wasn’t your fault. Hell, you weren’t even there for either of those and you’re the only one who’s been trying to clean up the mess Rogers and Romanov caused by dumping all those files on the net. And Rogers losing his fucking mind over Barnes definitely isn’t your fault.” He paused and shook his head with fond exasperation. “Okay, goading the Mandarin, yeah, that was your fault. That was stupid.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said ruefully. “You’ve already given me that lecture.”
“But Killian wasn’t your fault,” Rhodey said.
“Did what you’ve done to a hundred people, a thousand people over the years,” Rhodes said with a shake of his head. “Killian waylaid you at a party to try and sell you his idea. He didn’t make an appointment or do it through the proper channels. You’ve blown off a hundred people like that at a hundred parties and they never went full supervillian in response. Killian being a complete lunatic isn’t your fault. That’s on him for completely overreacting.”
Tony opened his mouth to reply but then closed it again. He didn’t really have a rebuttal for that because Rhodey was making sense. He had blown off any number of people who’d approached him like Killian did at parties over the years when he was drunk. He’d sort of made an art form of it. Killian’s reaction was not normal. Normal would have been snarky or snide comments and maybe a rude puff piece in a magazine or two.
“Not telling us you were dying is also your fault,” Rhodey continued.
“I thought it would be easier,” Tony protested.
“You thought…” Rhodey broke off and took a deep breath. “Okay, yeah, we’ve also had that argument and it doesn’t need to be rehashed. But the rest of it? The invasion, the Avengers stuff? It’s not all your fault, Tones.”
“They blamed me,” Tony said quietly.
“Yeah, because they’re jackasses,” Rhodey growled. “Selfish parasites and you owe them nothing.” He cocked his head and eyed Tony curiously. “What brought this on, by the way?”
“Senator… what’s-his-name. The one who looks like a dyspeptic clam,” Tony said, waving a hand. “At the hearing the other day. He said he liked me more before I met the Avengers.” He frowned. “He never liked me so it… didn’t make sense.”
“Huh,” Rhodey said. “Yes, it does. You stood up to them back then. You blew them off, you ran rings around them, you put on a show but you always had solid facts and reasons behind everything you did and said. You made no apologies for doing what you thought was right and if you fucked up, you owned up to it and tried to make things right. You didn’t let them intimidate you or force you to back down but you still made it plain you were willing to compromise on certain things. Maybe he liked that as much as he hated it. A lot of people do. They like an enemy who’s a challenge.”
Tony looked at him askance. “He liked me being…?”
“Tony Fucking Stark,” Rhodey said with a grin. “Yeah, why wouldn’t he? You put on a show. You were fucking annoying but it was always a hell of a show. And once you looked below the show to the actual facts, you weren’t unreasonable.”
Tony cogitated on that and Rhodey let him. FRIDAY turned up the volume again and they both pretended to watch the movie as Tony thought and Rhodey waited for the next round.
“So, the Accords?” Tony said after about half an hour. FRIDAY lowered the volume again.
“Were the right thing to do,” Rhodey said promptly. “Still are. Sure, there’s things that need to be fixed and amended and that’s going to be harder now than it needed to be but they’re the right way to go.”
Tony nodded, seemingly willing to trust Rhodey’s judgement more than his own. Then he frowned. “What did you mean about Steve sloughing off his responsibilities?”
Rhodes grimaced. “Something I should have spoken up about a lot sooner. And maybe done some of the poking around I’ve been doing since everything happened. I knew something wasn’t quite right but I bought into the Captain America propaganda.”
“I’m still not following.”
“You’re not military,” Rhodey replied. “Then again, as I’ve found out, neither is Rogers.”
Tony straightened and stared at Rhodes. “What?”
“He’s not military,” Rhodey repeated. “Sure, he did a few days of boot camp but he never finished it before he was sucked up by Erskine and the SSR. I’m not sure what his status was there, whether he was considered an agent or just a civilian consultant or contractor or whatever they did back in those days. Captain America was a stage name and after the rescue of the 107th, it seems everyone just whistled Dixie and let the whole ‘Captain Rogers’ thing stand because it was good for morale. I can’t get much information about how things worked in the Howling Commandos but I’m betting it’s not what the propaganda tells us. Because not only does he not have any basic military training, he doesn’t have any officer training either. Which explains a hell of a lot.”
Tony frowned at him. “He did fine in the field.”
Rhodey grimaced. “Yes and no. He’s good at coming up with a plan at the beginning. Where he starts to fall apart is when things don’t continue to go to his plan. He’s not good at adapting on the fly. He tends to lack situational awareness and he sure as hell lacks flexibility.” He waved a hand. “Now, that can happen to any commanding officer but the reason they make us go to whatever command school is appropriate for whatever arm of the military we’re in is because what we learn there is how to mitigate a lot of that.” He smiled wryly at Tony. “And we learn how to handle different personalities in such a way as to bring out their individual talents. A good commanding officer does not expect their people to be little cookie cutter soldiers, all exactly the same.”
He shook his head ruefully. “I should have picked up on it sooner but I wasn’t around consistently enough, didn’t go on enough Avengers missions, to really see it clearly. It was only after the fact, when I reviewed the missions I wasn’t on, that I started to see the patterns. Rogers could be a good commanding officer but he needs a shitload of training to get rid of his bad habits.”
Rhodey waved his hand. “But back to your question… being a commanding officer doesn’t start and finish with the action. Rogers was adequate at the before stuff. Analysing the intel he was given and making the plan, though he didn’t ask enough questions or follow the right process. Mostly because he didn’t know it. But the after action stuff… he was a complete failure. There are almost no mission reports after SHIELD fell and those that do exist are yours. Or well, whatever was written up by JARVIS and later FRIDAY and signed off by you. Even Romanov and Barton stopped writing reports and they should have known better.”
“Should I have…?” Tony began but Rhodey cut him off again. He glared at his friend but it had no effect. Rhodey was pretty much immune to his glares by now and he was apparently on a roll and not inclined to give up the conversational high ground. In fact, he had the air of a man who’d been bottling all of this up and was glad for the opportunity to get it all off his chest in a situation where Tony seemed inclined to listen to him.
“No,” Rhodey said firmly. “It was never your job to do anything other than pilot the Iron Man suit. It wasn’t your job to get intel, to deal with governments and relief agencies, any of that. Rogers wanted to be in command; he should have been doing all of that unless he had specifically requested it of you and backed it up with written orders, clarifying your extended role. Hell, it wasn’t even technically your job to be supplying the others with weapons and armour.” He snorted. “Unless they wanted to pay your consulting fees.”
“They couldn’t afford them,” Tony said automatically then he frowned. Now that Rhodey was pointing all of this out to him, he was starting to realise other things as well. It was as though Rhodey was stripping the scales away from his eyes and showing him things that had always been obvious but he just hadn’t been able to see before. “Huh. Not that any of them actually had jobs. Well, Wilson did. Sort of. I suppose Lang did as well.” He was a little startled when Rhodey actually growled. “Honeybear?”
“Pack of freeloading parasites,” Rhodey snarled. “Rogers and Maximoff were the worst. Rogers used your money, your resources to search for the murderer of your parents. And Maximoff was quite happy to live under your roof, eat food you provided and spend your money on shit, all the while hating you and poisoning the minds of the others.”
“You think she was doing that?” Tony asked, feeling a little sick to his stomach. “Poisoning the minds of the others?”
“Metaphorically? Sure,” Rhodey replied. “Literally? Using her powers? I don’t know. I know the others say she lost control in Lagos but I don’t buy it. This is a woman who had the kind of precision that allowed her to dig up the nightmares of the Avengers and control a city’s worth of people. That doesn’t speak of a lack of control to me. That speaks of a great deal of control. Maybe she could still be influencing the others unconsciously but if she is doing that, it’s far more likely to be because she wants to. And think about it... the only people who didn’t fall in line with Rogers’ madness were you and me, who didn’t spend much time at the Compound, Banner, who isn’t here, and Vision, who I’d imagine is pretty much immune to any mind control powers given by the mind stone given that he has the damn thing planted in his forehead.”
“What about Natasha?” Tony said, pointing a finger.
“I think we can safely say she was only ever in it for herself,” Rhodey said with a derisive snort. “And I think trusting her again is out the window.”
“Yeah, I’d already come to that conclusion,” Tony said sourly.
He’d given Natasha plenty of chances, more than she really deserved given the mess she’d caused in SI after her stint as Natalie Rushman. It had taken weeks to discover everything she’d had her hands in and sort out what they’d needed to do to ensure they were legally protected from the consequences of her presence. Her betrayal at Leipzig was the last straw even for him. He was prepared to utilise her talents if it was necessary – and by preference from afar – but he had no intention of ever trusting her again. He hadn’t seen her since she backstabbed him at the airport and he was quite happy about that.
“Anyway,” Rhodey continued. “I’m not saying Maximoff was definitely influencing their minds. Let’s face it, if she was going to do that, she’d have done it before. To you. And probably made you do something fatal. Since she hasn’t, I think we can safely say she isn’t.”
Tony shuddered. “Thanks for that, platypus. I needed another nightmare to add to the collection.”
Rhodey winced and drew him close again. “Sorry, Tones.”
“I have a large collection,” Tony said ruefully. “So it probably won’t show up too often.”
“I’m still sorry,” Rhodey replied.
Tony waved it away and stared at the TV for a while. Rhodey let him stew and FRIDAY obligingly turned up the volume and started the movie again. Tony didn’t speak again until the credits were rolling and then he straightened.
“Screw it,” he said abruptly. “And screw them. I’m Tony Fucking Stark. I’m going to fix the Accords, rebuild the Avengers and get ready for whatever’s coming. I don’t need them.”
“Now there’s the man Senator Dyspeptic Clam loves to hate,” Rhodey said with an approving grin.
Tony laughed and slouched back against Rhodey again. “You know I’m going to call him that to his face, right? And tell him you called him that first.”
Rhodey just shook his head and laughed. “This is your retaliation for the Tony Stank cracks, isn’t it?”
“You bet it is,” Tony said. “Fry my girl, fire up some Indiana Jones. I’m in the mood for adventure.”
“You got it, boss,” FRIDAY said and Tony settled in to watch the movie in a far better frame of mind. It wasn’t going to be easy but for the first time since he’d gotten back from Siberia, he felt like he could actually do this again.
Oooh, look! A second chapter! (With more to come because I keep getting ideas!)
The world is reacting to the events of the civil war and Tony doesn't have to collect a new team, they come to him.
Okay, just some notes...
1. I brought the International Criminal Court into this because they would be the most likely court to try someone like the rogue Avengers, especially after hearing that Steve Rogers has been labelled a war criminal in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The ICC was set up to prosecute war crimes, among other things. It can also prosecute people if they are referred to the ICC by an individual state or by the Security Council. So it makes sense that the ICC could be used by the Accords Council.
2. Michel Dorn is a character from a TV series called Crossing Lines, which is a joint German/French/Italian/American series on Netflix, which depicts the ICC dealing with crimes which it technically doesn't have the authorisation to handle but the characters are interesting and the stories are fun so I'm bringing them in, at least in a small side role. I haven't decided whether I'm going with the Season 1 & 2 team or the Season 3 team but either way I'm going to be screwing around with the Crossing Lines time lines. I'm putting on my Loki - I do what I want! :D
3. According to most of the timelines I've seen, most of the events in Doctor Strange take place after Civil War with Dr Strange's confrontation with Dormammu occurring in early 2017 and the meeting with Thor taking place in late 2017. So I haven't quite worked out whether this story currently takes place before or after that meeting. Probably before since I'm assuming that meeting has some relationship to the events that will occur in Thor: Ragnarok. Or I may just say screw it and handwave things and not take Thor: Ragnarok into account. Which means I'll have to sort out what I'm going to do with Bruce... *headdesk*
4. And finally, I've postulated that the original Accords Committee has been shifted into the Accords Council in the wake of the civil war. It's membership is not completely sorted but they needed a bit more oomph than a committee implies.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tony Fucking Stark.
Tony had always assumed that people hated – or were at least irritated by – that particular mask of his. But as he navigated the turbulent waters left in the wake of what the media were calling the Avenger’s ‘Civil War’, he found that nine times out of ten, Tony Fucking Stark was greeted with relief and even, oddly enough, delight. Irritation and exasperation might appear afterwards but even then they were fleeting things that didn’t linger as he’d always thought they had in the past. All in all, Tony found it very weird, which is what he said to Rhodey when he returned to the Compound after a brief trip to The Hague to speak to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
“It’s weird, platypus.” He collapsed on the couch beside Rhodey and patted his friend’s leg where the latest version of the exo-skeleton he was building gleamed softly. “Everyone’s weird.”
Rhodey chuckled at the mock-whine in Tony’s voice. “What are they doing now, Tones?”
“They’re…” Tony flapped his hand around. “They like me.”
“You’re a pretty likable fellow when you want to be,” Rhodey said mildly as Vision came into the room carrying a tray laden with drinks and food.
“But people don’t like me!” Tony whined. “They hate me or… or at least they look at me like I’m something unpleasant they just found on their shoe.”
Vision looked genuinely worried at that statement and Rhodey silently waved at him to sit down. He then wrapped his arm around Tony’s shoulders and gave him a little shake.
“Tony…” he began but Tony didn’t let him finish.
“No, it’s weird. Everyone’s liking me and smiling… and they’re genuine smiles, sugarplum, not the fake ones. I know what fake smiles look like. But they’re smiling and they like me and they’re being helpful and it’s weird and I don’t know what to dooooooo.”
He tipped over and slumped against Rhodey with that last drawn out word and Rhodey could only laugh at how ridiculous he was being. However Tony’s next plaintive words had him sobering in an instant.
“People don’t like me, honeybear. No one does.”
“I do,” Rhodey said without hesitation.
“As do I,” Vision added.
“So do Pepper and Happy,” Rhodey added, giving Vision a small encouraging smile. “Peter outright adores you. Hope likes you and so does Stephen…” Rhodey gave a long-suffering sigh. “And his cloak.”
Hope Van Dyne and Dr Stephen Strange were new additions to the Avengers roster.
Hope had approached them when they had been in California, schmoozing a few politicians to help ease matters in the US. Rhodey had been on the defensive with her at first. He knew all about Hank Pym’s hatred of Howard Stark and how he seemed to have trouble separating the father from the son. Hope, however, had been nothing like her father. She’d been angry, yes, but not at Tony. With Tony, she was more concerned about making sure he was okay. No, her anger was directed almost solely at Scott Lang and within a couple of days of meeting Hope, Rhodey actually felt a little sorry for Lang. The German government just wanted to throw him into prison. Rhodey was pretty sure Hope wanted to eviscerate him.
Dr Stephen Strange, on the other hand, had actually made an appointment, which had immediately put him in Rhodey’s good books. He liked when people didn’t assume they had a right to Tony’s time and attention. Then Strange had added another mark in the plus column when he’d told them he was the Sorcerer Supreme. Actually, it had been two marks. One for his abilities, since a magic user would be useful, and the other for the entertainment of the immediate rant Tony began about magic and the illogic of it all. Then Strange had added a fourth mark in his plus column when, instead of getting annoyed or angry at Tony’s reaction, he’d gotten this amused little smirk on his face and promptly proceeded to goad Tony’s rant to new heights with little remarks about the strangeness of magic until FRIDAY had brought it all to a halt when she’d gotten alarmed about Tony’s blood pressure.
Once things had settled down again, Strange had impressed them by explaining about his magic in as close to scientific terms as they were probably ever going to get. Rhodey had been surprised until Strange had explained that he had been a surgeon, a man of science, and if he could accept magic then they damn well could as well. Tony had gotten intrigued at that point and that was when the weirdness had ramped itself up a bit.
They’d moved down to Tony’s workshop by then and Tony had been explaining the technicalities of the prosthetic exoskeleton he was working on for Rhodey when Strange’s cloak had gotten really weird. Rhodey had raised an eyebrow at the cloak and the unusual clothes Strange was wearing when he’d first come in but hadn’t really thought anything of them. But as Tony and Strange leaned in towards the holographic display of the exoskeleton, the cloak began to inch its way across Strange’s shoulders and onto Tony’s, where it promptly wrapped itself warmly and comfortingly around him.
Hilariously, Tony hadn’t noticed for several minutes, though Strange certainly did. He’d earned another mark in the plus column at that point when he’d simply rolled his eyes and sighed fondly, though Rhodey suspected it was directed more at the cloak than at Tony. Still, he didn’t think it was wrong or try to take the cloak back. He’d just shaken his head, swallowed a smile and kept listening to Tony with a great deal of interest.
Tony’s squawks when he’d realised he was being wrapped up in what was essentially a cloak-shaped hug had been hysterical. Though both Strange and Rhodey had noticed that, despite his complaints about uppity magical objects taking liberties with his person, Tony hadn’t tried to take the cloak off or stop it from wrapping itself around him at every opportunity it had after that. Strange had explained that the cloak was sentient in its own way and that it only allowed itself to be worn by people it liked, which had made Tony blush and go speechless in a way that Rhodey so very rarely saw. From that moment, as far as Rhodey had been concerned, Strange was a keeper.
He brought his attention back to Tony who was squirming by his side. He rolled his eyes and sighed at the ridiculous of his best friend, who apparently couldn’t cope with the fact that people genuinely liked him. He also felt the familiar surge of anger directed at Howard Stark that he damped down with long experience. Getting angry at a dead man wouldn’t help. He just wished Howard Stark’s reach wasn’t quite so long as to still affect his son, even now. He very firmly didn’t think about the Avengers and how they had only made it worse. He didn’t need to get warnings from FRIDAY about his blood pressure.
“Yes, well, that’s as may be,” Tony said awkwardly. “But other people don’t tend to like me.”
“Tony,” Rhodey said patiently. “You’re the one who’s working with them. Why wouldn’t they like you?”
“I don’t always agree with them,” Tony replied. In fact, he wasn’t sure what the percentage stood at but he was fairly sure it was closer to only agreeing with them about fifty percent of the time. In his experience, that was not conducive to people liking him.
“But you have logical and sensible reasons for disagreeing with them,” Rhodey replied. “You explain those reasons calmly and with evidence and you offer reasonable alternatives. You’re willing to understand their point of view and compromise. So again, why wouldn’t they like you?”
“Oh,” was all Tony said and he tapped his fingers against his chest as he thought about that. “It’s still weird,” he said finally.
“What’s weird?” asked Stephen Strange as he and Hope walked into the room. The cloak immediately detached itself from Stephen’s shoulders and floated over to the couch before promptly pouting when it realised it couldn’t wrap itself round Tony the way it wanted to when he was slouched against Rhodey the way he was. It was definitely a little odd to see a cloak pout.
“People liking me,” Tony said as he shifted away from Rhodey just long enough to let the cloak engulf him before slumping back down again.
Both Stephen and Hope froze for a moment with uncertain expressions on their faces. Since they’d started staying at the Compound for extended periods of time, they’d become aware of the many emotional minefields surrounding Tony and they were never quite sure now when a comment like that was just a piece of offhand flippancy or whether it was one of those mines that would explode messily and drive Tony into his workshop for a couple of days if they stepped on it. Rhodey decided to take pity on them because he liked them.
“How’d it go in The Hague?” he asked, poking Tony in the side and getting a poke back from both Tony and the cloak for his troubles.
“Europeans are weirdly polite,” Tony said. “Even when they’re angry, they’re polite.”
“Angry at you?” Hope asked with a worried frown as she sat down and Vision offered her a drink.
Tony shook his head. “Nope,” he said, popping the ‘p’ sound. “The Germans are grateful that the Maria Stark Foundation and Pym Technologies are helping to foot the bill for the repairs at Leipzig, though they refuse to let us pay for everything. Apparently they’ve reviewed the security footage and the stuff I made available to them from the Iron Man and War Machine armours and they are only allowing us to pay a carefully calculated amount. The rest, they say, will be paid by Team Cap when they are brought to justice.” He wrinkled his nose. “When did Team Cap become the accepted vernacular?”
“About a week ago,” Vision said, taking the rhetorical question seriously because apparently it did have an answer. “The various social media hashtags consolidated down at that point to the predominant use of Team Cap and Team Iron Man to refer to the respective sides of the… civil war and the mainstream media picked up on it.”
“Huh,” Tony said. “Anyway. The Romanians are still pissed as hell as at Rogers, Wilson, Barnes and King T’Challa and not without reason. The body count there is still climbing since another one of the injured died when I was in The Hague and there’s one more that isn’t expected to make it.”
They all winced at that. The death toll from Rogers et al’s little rampage through Bucharest was alarmingly high and even worse was the injury count. Tony gave them some credit in that he didn’t think they had caused those injuries and deaths maliciously but causing injuries or deaths carelessly or through indifference wasn’t much better in the eyes of those who had suffered.
“They’re not going to back off, are they?” Rhodey said heavily.
Tony shook his head and patted the cloak with a small, sad smile as it tightened comfortingly around him. “Not a chance in hell. T’Challa’s making his own reparations and apologies to them for his actions and the Romanians seem amenable to accepting them. Apparently they’re willing to make allowances for T’Challa’s grief overriding his common sense.”
“And he’s the King of a sovereign nation and the diplomatic ground is very sticky,” Stephen added dryly. He had a faint fond expression on his face when he looked at the way his cloak was cuddling Tony.
“That too,” Tony replied. “But I think, given the way the prevailing winds are blowing across Europe, they still would have been willing to kick up an international and diplomatic stink if T’Challa wasn’t being so accommodating.” He grimaced. “Oh, and T’Challa asked if he could come to New York and meet with me.”
A ripple went through the room. Tony had finally told them what had happened in Siberia in a bleak, empty voice that had sent shivers through all of them and had the cloak curling around Tony as though it hoped it could make all the pain go away. When Tony had told them what had happened, Stephen, Vision and Hope had been horrified and angry but Rhodey had been almost incandescent with rage. He had been there after Howard and Maria died and he was the one who had repeatedly picked Tony up off the floor, had dragged him home and then held him while he wept and raged and fell apart. Hearing about Rogers’ callous disregard for Tony in favour of the man who had killed Tony’s parents had infuriated Rhodey. He knew Barnes was Rogers’ friend but still…
After that and after hearing that T’Challa had been the one to drop Zemo off at the ICC, it hadn’t exactly taken much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out where Rogers and his little group of malcontents must be hiding.
“Why?” Rhodey said with trenchant suspicion and displeasure.
“He didn’t say,” Tony said dryly. “But we are fairly sure he has a small pest infestation.”
Rhodey snorted and Stephen echoed him. “I want to be there,” Rhodey said flatly.
“So do I.”
“As do I.”
Tony looked over at Stephen, Hope and Vision with some exasperation. “Bombarding the man probably won’t get any cooperation from him.”
“I don’t care,” Rhodey said flatly. “He left you there in Siberia. He didn’t bother to check and make sure you were okay. I don’t trust any man who blindly believes Rogers’ word.”
“Why not invite him here to the Compound?” Hope said, deflecting the incipient argument. “It’ll look friendly and welcoming, opening the doors and inviting him into our home, then we can all… lurk in our various ways as you talk to him.”
She gave Tony an impish smile and he couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him.
“You lot are incorrigible,” he said fondly. “I’m going to lose this argument, no matter what I say, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Stephen said, looking completely unrepentant.
“Fine,” Tony said with amusement. “But no ambushing the man until we find out what he wants. And be careful. Those bodyguards of his… the Dora Milaje… they do not look like they have much of a sense of humour.”
“What about the Russians?” Rhodey asked, getting things back on track.
“They’re not happy,” Tony replied. “But the nascent Accords Council has backed my actions so they can’t really do much more than be unhappy. However, the Council has agreed to allow Russia to help dig information out of that HYDRA base so by the end of it all, I think you could describe them as unhappy but mollified.”
“Good,” Rhodey said with relief. Russia had been making some very irritated noises in the international community about the breach of their borders so ‘unhappy but mollified’ was definitely a good outcome.
“At least in terms of their opinions about me and T’Challa,” Tony added, getting their attention.
“Oh?” Hope said, raising an eyebrow. “They have a different opinion about the others?”
“Yep,” Tony replied. “They don’t like the idea that Captain America thought he could just waltz into Russian territory in his full star-spangled glory and do whatever the hell he wanted. They like even less that he brought a fully aware Winter Soldier with him into the country for a meeting with a man who could trigger said Winter Soldier into actually, you know, being the Winter Soldier. I did mention that wasn’t the purpose behind Zemo luring us all there but… they don’t care. It’s the fact that the potential was there that has them up in arms. There are many within the UN who agree with their concerns.”
“That’s not surprising,” Rhodey said. “So what’s going to happen?”
“The ICC has agreed to conduct an investigation into the actions of Team Cap during the so-called civil war with the ultimate aim of bringing any and all appropriate charges against them,” Tony replied. “They’ve appointed a special prosecutor called Michel Dorn and he’s got a team of ICC investigators who will be doing all the legwork. They’re going to want to do formal interviews with you, Vision and me. I said we’d be amenable to that.” Vision and Rhodey indicated their agreement and Tony continued, “They also want to talk to the Spiderling, which I said may be a little more problematic because he insists on anonymity. Dorn was tentatively okay with maintaining that anonymity.”
Rhodey gave a low whistle. “I didn’t think they’d actually go so far as to use the ICC.”
“Well, hold onto your britches, sugarplum,” Tony said grimly. “Because they’ll also be investigating our actions as well to ensure they hold up to what we told the old Accords Committee.”
“Is that… bad?” Vision said, his head cocked slightly to one side. “We were following the instructions of the Committee.”
“Yeah, we should be okay,” Tony said. “I made sure FRIDAY has records of as much as possible so we can corroborate everything we say.”
Stephen quirked an eyebrow. “You need corroboration?”
“Ross is going to get dragged into this investigation,” Tony said and Rhodey sucked in a breath. “He’s going to be twisting and turning and throwing everything out there he can to evade any responsibility. I intend to make sure he can’t do that. Hence, FRIDAY’s recordings. Irrefutable evidence.”
“Are we likely to face charges?” Rhodey asked.
“Dorn has indicated that we won’t,” Tony replied. “Germany and Russia aren’t interested in pursuing us and we weren’t involved in Bucharest. From what he said, as long what we say and what we show them matches up to what we said to the Committee, there are unlikely to be any repercussions for us beyond perhaps me getting a reprimand for going to Siberia without telling anyone. Dorn thinks that can technically be covered by the leeway I had to bring the others in but they might issue the reprimand anyway, just to cover all their bases.”
Rhodey looked outraged. “They want to reprimand you for Siberia? What the hell, Tony…”
“They don’t know what happened there,” Tony said flatly. “Not all of it. They know that Zemo had a different agenda than letting out the Winter Soldiers, that there was a disagreement between Rogers and Barnes and myself and that I came off second best from that. They don’t know what the disagreement was about and I let them draw their own conclusions.”
Now Tony smirked and Rhodey’s eyes widened. It had been a while since he’d seen that particular smirk and all of a sudden he felt a lot better about the meeting in The Hague. That smirk did not bode well for Tony’s enemies. It never had.
“That Rogers is a loose cannon who doesn’t care what sort of collateral damage he leaves behind as long as he gets what he wants,” Tony replied. “That he decided he and Barnes weren’t going to come in with me and made very sure they were going to be able to leave to my detriment.”
Rhodey snorted and looked amused. “Which is pretty much true.”
“I didn’t tell them a single lie, except of omission when I left out the video and Rogers’ lie to me.”
Rhodey nudged him in the side and decided to steer the conversation away from Siberia. “And what about Romanov? Was anything said about her?”
“She’s in breach of the Accords and the Council is discussing the appropriate response,” Tony replied. “T’Challa has apparently waived any necessity for charges regarding her attack on him.” He snickered. “From the look on the faces of the Dora Milaje who were with him, my guess is it’s because he’s promised them first dibs.” He affected an innocent expression. “I almost feel sorry for Natashalie.”
Rhodey laughed. “So when do these investigators get here?”
“Sometime next week apparently,” Tony replied. “There’s some work they want to do in Germany and Romania first then they’ll come here. They’ll let us know when they’re going to arrive so we can adjust our schedules accordingly.”
“Couldn’t there be accusations of favouritism or bias or something along those lines if you’re the only ones who are interviewed?” Hope asked.
Tony smirked again. “Oh, there’ll be an opportunity for Rogers and his lot to make submissions. Dorn is going to do a public appeal to them to contact the ICC. The questions the investigators want answered will be publicly available on the ICC website and Rogers and the others will have plenty of time to make a submission in whatever form they deem necessary.”
“There’s going to be full openness, isn’t there?” Stephen said, looking amused.
“Yep,” Tony replied, the smirk lingering. “When the decision about charges is made, any response they send in will be published along with transcripts of our interviews. Dorn does not want there to be any possibility for people to cry foul.”
“I think I like this man,” Rhodey said with a nod of satisfaction.
“He normally prosecutes war criminals so his appointment is going to send a specific message about how the Council and the ICC view Rogers and his lot,” Tony added. He then turned to Hope and Stephen. “But… that wasn’t why I asked you two come around today. We need to do a press conference, officially announcing the New Avengers.”
Hope nodded calmly but Stephen arched an eyebrow. “Why now?”
“We want to get in ahead of the news of the ICC investigation,” Tony replied. “That’ll head off any nervousness about the status of the Avengers that the investigation might cause.”
“When did you want to do this?” Hope asked. She grimaced. “Because I want to get in first to tell my father.”
Tony blinked. “You haven’t told him yet?”
“I wasn’t in the mood for the ‘all Starks are evil’ rant,” Hope said with a roll of her eyes. “But if I don’t tell him before the press conference, the rant will be so much worse.”
Tony snorted with amusement. “We were thinking three days from now since Dorn’s planning on officially announcing the ICC investigation at the end of the week. Will that give you enough time?”
Hope nodded. “I’ll fly in and fly out. That’ll make sure I have an excuse to leave when he ends up going over the top.”
“What did my old man do to him?” Tony said with a shake of his head.
“If my father is to be believed, Howard Stark is responsible for everything that’s ever gone wrong all the way back to the original sin,” Hope said dryly.
“That’s an impressive grudge,” Stephen said, his eyebrows raised. “Will he cause trouble once he finds out you’re an Avenger?”
“I hope not,” Hope said with a weary sigh. “He’s always been more bark than bite and I can’t really see that changing, even now.” She looked over at Tony. “But you might get an abusive phone call or two, in which case, I apologise in advance.”
Tony waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. FRIDAY won’t let him get through to me, will you, FRI?”
“He can talk to the hand,” FRIDAY said with an audible sniff.
Tony frowned up at the nearest camera. “Who has been teaching you such horrendous vernacular, baby girl?”
“The… internet?” she said, a little hesitantly.
“That’s it, you’re cut off,” Tony said, though everyone in the room could see he didn’t mean it. “You’ll be inflicting memes on me next.”
“I would never, boss!” FRIDAY said with an amused lilt to her voice.
“Kids,” Tony said to the others. “They grow up so fast.”
The others started laughing and by unspoken agreement, the heavy conversation was shelved in favour of a debate over what they wanted to order in for dinner.
I will get around to doing the ExVengers reactions. But it won't be the next couple of chapters. I've already got them sorted - T'Challa and the New Avengers press conference. It might be the one after that. Maybe. I have a few half-started chapters for various matters I want to get to, including a chapter for one of the forgotten women of the MCU whom if she hadn't been forgotten, would have saved us from that very weird Bruce/Natasha romance plot line in AoU. I just have to sort out where all these chapters are going to sit in the story timeline.
And here's T'Challa. Who has come to realise that he has made a terrible mistake.
Tony had to admit that T’Challa cut an impressive figure in his dark suit as he walked from the car towards the compound, the four Dora Milaje he’d brought with him falling into step around him. He wasn’t sure what to make of the new King after their brief alliance of convenience and he didn’t want to judge him on the basis of his presumed sheltering of Rogers and his crew because he didn’t know the precise circumstances how that had come about, let alone why T’Challa had agreed to something that, on the surface, was a very stupid idea. Everything he’d learned about T’Challa indicated he wasn’t a stupid man. So was he reckless, gullible or was it something else?
Rogers was unlikely to lay low for long and he didn’t have the skill to cover his tracks well enough to avoid people knowing where he’d been hiding. When that happened, T’Challa was going to be in a world of trouble and Wakanda had been isolated for too long and far too thoroughly for him to have built up the kind of diplomatic credentials and favours that he could subsequently call in to get him out of that trouble – or at least minimise it. Tony knew that while he himself possessed a large amount of influence on the world stage, he had neither the scope nor, currently, the motivation to do anything to get T’Challa off the hook.
“Your Majesty,” Tony said in a neutral tone and offered his hand.
T’Challa shook the proffered hand. “Dr Stark.”
Tony was too experienced in the world of international business and diplomacy to let his surprise show when he had his game face on. Most people tended to forget – or not even know – that he had multiple doctorates. T’Challa’s use of his well-earned title could either be a simple way of letting Tony know he’d done his homework or an olive branch. Time would tell which it was.
“Come on in,” Tony said, ushering T’Challa and his bodyguards into the Compound and leading them down the corridor towards the main room. “And welcome to the Compound.”
“Thank you,” T’Challa said. “It was kind of you to invite me here.”
“I’ve been basing myself here at the moment,” Tony said, keeping his tone light and amiable. “It’s easier to travel from on Avengers and Accords business and the media can’t get in.” He let his voice turn a little dry. “They’re a bit rabid at the moment.”
“I had noticed,” T’Challa said, matching his dryness. “Though I understand you have called a press conference for tomorrow.”
Tony nodded. “I have.” He did not elaborate and since they had arrived in the main lounge area, he was able to turn the conversation away from the press conference. “Have a seat. Can I get any of you something to drink? Coffee, tea, water, something else?”
He glanced around, making sure to include all of the Dora Milaje. The four women seemed surprised and then faintly pleased at his courtesy though they declined his offer. T’Challa requested coffee and Tony busied himself at the coffee machine, giving himself a moment to shore up his defences for this conversation. Once the coffee was ready, he brought it over and handed one cup to T’Challa, glancing around idly as he did.
The Dora Milaje had spaced themselves around the room but looked relaxed and calm. They obviously weren’t expecting trouble, which Tony found intriguing. They either didn’t know what T’Challa was about to say or they did and felt confident that Tony wasn’t going to react poorly to it. They also hadn’t noticed the tiny Wasp who was hiding amongst the various bit of equipment in the entertainment centre. Admittedly Tony himself probably wouldn’t have noticed Hope either if he hadn’t known she was in here somewhere. He’d shoo her out but it wouldn’t do any good. She’d just find a way to sneak back in and FRIDAY would help her. He didn’t know where Rhodey, Vision and Stephen were but he’d bet it was close and that they were watching and listening. He smothered a smile by taking a sip of his coffee.
“So, Your Majesty, what can I do for you?”
T’Challa drew in a breath and set his coffee cup down. He licked his lips and there was the faintest edge of nervousness about him that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Someone who hadn’t been watching as closely as Tony was might not have noticed and Tony was reminded that T’Challa was young, not exactly in age – though he was younger than Tony by some years – but in his tenure as King and in dealing with the wider world.
“I am glad of the opportunity to meet discretely, Dr Stark,” T’Challa said. “I have a matter with which I hope to gain your advice and possibly assistance.”
Tony tensed a little and as he did, he heard a faint buzzing sound from the direction of the entertainment centre. The Dora Milaje also heard it but their sudden frowns cleared when they looked over in that direction. Tony silently congratulated Hope for her choice of perch. Any noises she made would be brushed off as coming from the electrical equipment.
“If I can help the King of Wakanda, I’d be happy to,” Tony replied cautiously.
T’Challa sighed and dropped all his pretences. “I have… inadvertently gathered some strays, Dr Stark, and I find myself at something of a loss as to what to do with them. They are… somewhat unruly.”
T’Challa sighed and Tony saw the stiff, displeased expressions on the faces of the Dora Milaje. He struggled to smother a smirk. Clearly Rogers and the others were doing a sterling job of alienating even more people.
“You noticed,” he said dryly then he too dropped all pretences. “What possessed you to take them in, Your Majesty? There are very few ways in which this can end well for Wakanda.”
T’Challa grimaced. “I am aware and I had no intention of giving anyone other than Barnes sanctuary in my country. Rogers appears to have… misinterpreted my words.”
“He has a habit of doing that,” Tony said. He drained half his coffee in one go and then put the cup down. “And now you don’t know what to do with them?”
T’Challa grimaced again, his frustration plain. “I will not go back on my word to Sergeant Barnes. I promised him sanctuary until such time as a solution could be found for the trigger words in his mind. He, however, is the least of my problems. He has chosen to go back into cryosleep.”
James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes was not Tony’s favourite subject. Enough time had passed that he was beginning to be able to intellectually grasp the magnitude of what had been done to Barnes and what that meant in terms of his parents’ murders and Barnes’ agency – or lack thereof – in them but emotionally? Emotionally, he was nowhere near being able to be objective and he knew it. If Barnes was to walk into the room right now, Tony knew he’d go after him again… and probably break his hand on the man’s jaw. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, it was a wholly emotional and irrational reaction, but the hurt and grief and anguish were still too raw and, at the moment, still too tied up in his anger at Rogers.
But hearing that Barnes had chosen to go back into cryosleep did make him stop for a moment. It was a surprisingly responsible attitude from someone who had caused so much in the way of injuries, deaths and destruction trying to avoid the law. It made the intellectual side of his brain wonder exactly how complicit Barnes had been in some of it and how much of it had been him following Rogers blindly because he didn’t know any better, because he was confused and lost and at least some part of his brain tagged Rogers as being someone he used to trust. Had anyone had the time to tell Barnes of the deal he’d brokered after the mess in Bucharest, let alone give him the option to take it?
“That’s… surprising,” he managed. “How did Rogers take it?”
“Not well,” T’Challa said dryly. “And when I informed him that it had been Barnes’ decision and that after seventy years of not being able to make his own decisions, I was hardly going to deny him the opportunity now, Rogers looked remarkably like he had been sucking on a lemon.”
That startled a laugh out of Tony and T’Challa smiled slightly in response. Tony shook his head then contemplated the problem at hand. He knew why T’Challa had come to him. Tony knew more about the Accords than anyone else, he knew the foibles of the rogues and he and Rhodey were soon to become the public faces of the New Avengers. T’Challa currently lacked the international political capital to bear this on his own. He needed Tony’s cooperation. If the ‘civil war’ had occurred even six months from now, that might not be the case. Wakanda would have had time to establish itself in the international community and form a few alliances, both trade and diplomatic. But those talks were still underway and T’Challa needed a way to avoid any adverse repercussions to those discussions and to his country.
“The Accords allow for in confidence meetings of the Council,” Tony said slowly, forcing himself to be as objective as he could manage under the circumstances. “As both a head of state and an Enhanced covered by the Accords, you can call for that kind of meeting. I can’t see the Council being too put out about your decision regarding Barnes. Berlin taught us the kind of danger he presents if someone can activate him. If he’s not safe in cryosleep in Wakanda, he’s not safe anywhere.” He raised an eyebrow at T’Challa. “The big question, Your Majesty, is what you want to do about Rogers and his lot?”
The tense line of T’Challa’s shoulders eased at Tony’s reasonable response. “There are many things I want to do,” T’Challa said dryly. “However, after consulting with my advisors, I believe the best option is for Wakanda to continue to host the rogues. The Council will be informed, of course, but based on what has occurred, I am uncertain as to the capacity of anyone else to contain them.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “That’s… an interesting solution, Your Majesty.”
“T’Challa, please,” the King said.
Tony blinked then nodded with a small smile. “Then it’s Tony.” He licked his lips then continued with his previous thought. “Romania and Germany are going to be your problem. They’re out for blood right now.”
“I had noticed,” T’Challa said with a wince. “I cannot fault them. The Romanian authorities have been very… politely pointed about my part in the mess in Bucharest. I, not Wakanda, will be paying reparations for the damage I caused and Wakanda will be sending medical personnel to aid those who were injured. As for the Germans, they have been very…” He frowned, clearly searching for the right word.
“Precise?” Tony suggested.
T’Challa chuckled. “Yes, that will do. They have presented me with an exact amount equating to the damage I caused at the airport.”
Tony nodded. “They did the same for Rhodey, Spider-Man and myself. They refuse to let us pay for the damage done by others.”
T’Challa got the conversation back on track. “My argument to Romania and Germany regarding the rogues would be whether there is a place anywhere else that can hold them. The Raft is out of the question. Rogers already proved that.”
“Would you be able to hold them if they decided they were going to leave, come hell or high water?” Tony asked with a raised eyebrow.
T’Challa smiled and there were chuckles from the four Dora Milaje. “We can contain them,” he said with a confidence that held no arrogance, only certainty. Tony was inclined to believe him. “Including the witch. Magic is not unknown among my people and my court sorcerer has already begun the work to contain Miss Maximoff’s power without her knowing.”
Tony couldn’t help the sigh of relief that escaped him then. He and Rhodey had talked a few times about the vision he’d had in Sokovia and what effect it might have had. Rhodey wanted him to talk to Stephen about it and while he was resisting, Rhodey was slowly wearing him down.
“That might work,” he said then he cocked his head slightly. “Have you heard about the ICC investigation?”
T’Challa nodded. “Yes, it is why I approached you. I understand this… Michel Dorn is going to offer them an opportunity to explain their side of the story?”
Tony nodded. “He wants to be fair and I agree with him.”
“I will… encourage them to do so and arrange for any submissions they make to get to the ICC discretely.” T’Challa grimaced with distaste. “Though I doubt that any of their accounts will have much grounding in reality.”
“All the better,” Tony said dryly. “Right now, people are confused so they’re picking sides based on who they like more. If we put the facts out there, put their own words out there, at least some of the people flailing around will actually read it and think about what they’re doing and saying. And if their statements look like the ravings of lunatics, all the better.”
T’Challa quirked an eyebrow then nodded, clearly deciding that he wasn’t going to open this can of worms. “And may I count on your support when I approach the Council regarding all of this?”
He looked at Tony calmly and it was with a sense of surprise that Tony realised that T’Challa had no expectations of him either way and he would accept Tony’s decision whatever it was. He clearly wanted Tony’s support but would not demand it of him or try to guilt him into doing what he wanted or anything along those lines. That lack of expectations or manipulations made Tony’s decision easy.
“Yes,” Tony said firmly. He got to his feet and gestured for T’Challa to accompany him. “Let’s go and meet with Colonel Rhodes. We should talk to you about the New Avengers.”
T’Challa raised an eyebrow but he got to his feet with a pleased smile. “I would like that.”
Press conferences! Two of them! One with the New Avengers and one with the ICC. Things will be said, questions will be answered and Pepper will neuter a journalist with her heels. (Well, not that last one. That's going to happen after the press conference.)
Tony looked in the mirror and straightened his tie. The suit he’d chosen to wear today was dark grey and severe and worn with a plain white shirt. The starkness of his suit was only offset by the red and gold tie and the red tinted glasses that he was wearing. He’d feel overdressed but Rhodey was wearing his dress uniform – he was still a member of the Air Force, though Tony knew there was some discussion going on about that in light of his injuries. Rhodey had told him very firmly to stay out of it and despite his worries, he was doing so. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep that up though. Rhodey didn’t deserve to have his career taken away from him because Tony had dragged him into this Accords mess.
Stephen was wearing a fancier version of his normal clothes and while the cloak had made a brief foray onto Tony’s shoulders to give him its version of a hug shortly after Stephen had arrived, it had soon returned to Stephen. Tony kind of missed having the cloak wrapped warmly around him, though he’d never admit it. Beside Stephen, Hope was wearing a business suit not overly dissimilar to Tony’s and beside her, Vision was wearing his cape and had foregone his warm sweaters. They looked formidable and professional, which is exactly the impression Tony wanted to give.
Tony had left Spider-Man out of this press conference, much to Peter’s dismay, but he didn’t want Peter having to answer questions about the Accords. That might give away his age and that was a thorny path Tony didn’t want to go down again. There were reasons why he’d taken Peter to Leipzig, some good, some not so good, but the kid deserved time to just be a kid. God knows Tony hadn’t often been afforded that luxury. He’d be damned if he didn’t give Peter every opportunity to do so now. Officially tagging him as an Avenger would rob him of that.
“Looking good, Tones.”
Tony turned to find Rhodey had come over to join him. The latest version of the exo-skeleton braces on his legs were just barely visible under his trousers and he was moving easily. Tony had handed the prototype over to R&D just this week to start the process of making them more accessible to everyone. From that the whizkids had said, Stark Industries was going to revolutionise the world of medical assistance equipment and, thanks to Stephen’s contacts, they already had a few doctors cautiously interested in any forthcoming patient trials.
“You too, honeybear.”
“T’Challa isn’t coming?” Rhodey asked with a raised eyebrow. “After his help me, Tony-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope moment, I would have thought he’d be in for a bit of solidarity.”
Tony snickered. “He wanted to be here but he managed to organise some preliminary meetings with some of the Council members on the downlow. That kind of has priority at the moment. Besides, until he gets things settled, it’s probably for the best that he’s not seen to be associating too closely with us. None of us want Rogers and his pals being spooked into running off into the wild and causing untold damage before T’Challa can pen them in.”
Rhodey grunted. He still didn’t entirely trust the King of Wakanda. T’Challa certainly talked a good game but after what he’d done… or hadn’t done... in Siberia, Rhodey was going to wait and see whether he followed up on all that talk with tangible results before he actually started doing something as important as trusting him. Especially trusting him around Tony.
The door opened and they all turned around when Pepper walked in. She had a StarkPad in her hand and was tapping away on it as she entered. She tapped it one final time then raised her head.
“Everything’s ready,” she said.
Tony drew in a breath and let it out slowly. He looked at the others. “Ready to go?”
Rhodey and the others nodded and they filed out of the room and onto the stage that had been set up. They sat down at a long table, cameras clicking and flashing away as they did so. The low murmuring of the journalists slowly died away and Tony cleared his throat.
“Well, thank you all for coming. You’re here to get the latest about all the new SI gadgets, right?” He waited out the spurt of laughter then he sobered. “As you all know, recent events have caused a bit of a shakeup within the Avengers, to the point where I have officially declared the Avengers Initiative defunct. In its place, I present the New Avengers. Me. Iron Man. Obviously.” He grinned and the press obligingly laughed. “Colonel James Rhodes or War Machine.” There was another bout of laughter at his obvious emphasis on the name. “The Vision. Dr Hope Van Dyne also known as the Wasp. And last but definitely not least, Dr Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme.”
There was a smattering of polite applause that Tony allowed then he continued on, “Recent events in Romania, Germany and Russia have highlighted a number of flaws in the way the Avengers have been operating. Flaws that had tragic consequences for not only individual Avengers but also the very people the Avengers were established to protect. This cannot be allowed to continue and the Accords give us a framework in which to establish and maintain a proper charter, chain of command and set of standard operating procedures. Much of the work on these is still to be done but it will be and when it is, there will be full transparency for them. The Avengers are here to protect the people of Earth and that means listening to what they have to say. You have my word that we, the New Avengers, are listening.”
Rhodey smoothly picked up when Tony stopped. “After discussion with the members of the New Avengers and the Accords Council, Dr Stark and myself will be the co-leaders of the New Avengers. Between us, we have over two decades of experience with the government, military, commercial, political and diplomatic worlds. Dr Strange and Dr Van Dyne will assist when matters move into their areas of expertise. We know we have a great deal of work to do to re-establish the good name of the Avengers with the world and that is work we are willing to do.” He paused. “We’ll take some questions from the floor.”
There was a sudden cacophony of shouted questions and hands being waved in the air. Pepper emerged from seemingly nowhere and walked along the front of the table. Her stern look cowed many of the reporters as she began wrangling them into some semblance of order and allowing them to ask their questions. Tony has hesitated to ask her to do this, partly due to the continuing awkwardness between them but mostly feeling it was beneath her position as a CEO, but she’d just smiled and said that was precisely why she was going to do it. The smart ones among the journalists would remember not to piss off the woman who could either make their career or ruin it with one interview… or lack thereof.
“Dr Stark! You said you declared the Avengers Initiative defunct. How is that so?”
“When SHIELD fell, I moved as quickly as I could to protect as much as I could from falling into the wrong hands,” Tony replied, his expression bland. “Part of that was the Avengers name. The Avengers Initiative and all its associated rights are owned by me personally.”
“If that’s the case, why declare it defunct?”
“The Avengers Initiative is associated with many good things,” Tony said. “But it is also associated with some terrible tragedies. I felt it best to draw a line in the sand, as it were. The Avengers are still needed but not in the form they were. The New Avengers are a fresh start and this time, we’ll do it right.”
“Dr Stark! Colonel Rhodes! Do you know where the rogue Avengers are and what will be done to them?”
“We currently do not know their precise location,” Colonel Rhodes said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. It was… a creative interpretation of the truth. They knew the rogues were in Wakanda but they didn’t know their precise location within that country. It was about as much leeway as Rhodey was willing to give T’Challa for now. “As for what will be done, prosecutors from the International Criminal Court have called a press conference for two days from now in The Hague and they will have more details as to what will be happening. The New Avengers will only be involved on request from the ICC.”
“Dr Stark! Rumour says that you will be subject to an ICC investigation.”
“All participants in the events in Romania, Germany and Russia will be subject to an ICC investigation,” Tony said. “Including myself, Colonel Rhodes and the Vision.”
“How are they going to interview the rogues?”
“The rogue Avengers will be given an opportunity to have their say,” Rhodey said. “However, questions regarding the investigation are best saved for the ICC press conference.”
“Dr Van Dyne! There has been animosity between Pym Technologies and Stark Industries for years. Why have you now joined the New Avengers?”
“There has only been healthy competition between Pym Technologies and Stark Industries,” Hope said firmly. “My father’s grudge was with Howard Stark. I am not my father nor is Tony his. I am very happy to work with the New Avengers.” She paused and smiled faintly. “My father will just have to get over it.”
There were chuckles from both the New Avengers and some of the media who had dealt with Hank Pym over the years. Hope’s conversation with her father had been… interesting, according to what she’d told them when she’d returned to the Compound. Hank Pym’s fury at Scott Lang’s actions had been warring with his intense dislike of all things Stark. That combined with his support for the Accords and his surprising disdain for Captain America and Hope had said that she’d been almost surprised that he didn’t have a coronary when she told him she was joining the New Avengers.
However, when he’d recovered from his fit of pique, he’d questioned her intensely then fallen into a rather thoughtful funk. Hope had left him to it and come back. They hadn’t heard anything from him since and Hope was tentatively hopeful that he might actually be coming to his senses. Though she’d then immediately turned very rueful and said that might be her optimism getting in the way of her good sense because her father had never shown signs of coming to his senses when it came to the name Stark and she had no idea why he’d start now. Tony had just laughed.
“Dr Stark! What happened in Siberia?”
Pepper glared at the reporter bold enough… or foolish enough… to ask that question. The man quailed but then gulped and raised his chin defiantly. He knew that he was done, he knew that Pepper Potts was going to make him pay, but the question had been asked and he couldn’t take it back. Tony would admire his balls (because, if nothing else, Pepper was going to remove them, politely, while smiling like a shark) except the question made him shudder.
“I had a disagreement with Rogers and Barnes,” he said tersely. “No further questions will be taken on this topic until the ICC investigation is done.”
It escaped no one that Rogers wasn’t ‘Cap’ or ‘Steve’ anymore. No one was stupid enough to ask questions though, not with the way Pepper was now glowering at them. They might scent blood in the water but the look on Pepper Potts’ face told them that one more step out of line and the press conference would be over. And so might some careers if she could manage it.
“Dr Strange! What is a Sorcerer Supreme?”
The rather baffled question drew laughter from not only the journalists but also Stephen and the other Avengers.
“The Sorcerers of Kamar-Taj have been protecting the Earth from magical and multi-dimensional threats for centuries,” Stephen said, leaning forward a little. “The Sorcerer Supreme is… their leader. I am new to being a Sorcerer but have found myself in the position of Sorcerer Supreme due my facility with magic and my ability to use the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical relic.”
“If the Sorcerers have been protecting Earth for so long on their own, why join the Avengers now?”
“It seemed the right thing to do,” Stephen said wryly then he continued more soberly. “Dr Stark has stated since the invasion by the Chitauri that it was not a one off. That something more is coming. I believe him. As such, joining the New Avengers and ensuring they have a powerful magic user at their disposal seems only right.”
“You agree with the Accords then?”
“Of course,” Stephen said as though it was the obvious answer. “Before I became a sorcerer, I was a doctor and a surgeon. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath. We work within ethical and moral guidelines. We are subject to the laws of the country in which we live. The Accords are no different. They provide a framework and guidelines for appropriate behaviour and they provide the public with the assurance that we will not pursue our own agendas to the detriment of the people we are sworn to protect.” He smiled thinly. “And that if we do go off the rails, we will be dealt with appropriately.” He shrugged and leaned back. “It is no different to how the police, paramilitary and military work.”
“Dr Van Dyne, do you agree?”
Hope nodded. “Yes, I do. To me, the unfettered way the Avengers Initiative behaved was an unintended side effect of the vacuum created by the fall of SHIELD, who had previously been overseeing their actions. In that light, something like the Sokovia Accords was inevitable. It could have been avoided, of course, had the previous Avengers worked within the law. They chose not to and thus the Accords became a necessity.” She smiled thinly. “No one is above the law, not even superheroes.”
“Isn’t your boyfriend one of the rogues?”
Hope’s expression turned icily cold and her voice was brittle with suppressed anger when she spoke. “If you are talking about Scott Lang then yes, he is one of the rogues but he is not my boyfriend. Not anymore.”
The journalists clearly smelled blood in the water but Pepper’s sudden gimlet glare made most of the rethink their next questions. Then Pepper subverted all of that by deliberately choosing one of the investigative reporters. He showed his appreciation by changing the subject.
“Would the rogues ever be welcomed back?”
Rhodey quickly fielded the question before Tony could answer. “That would depend on the outcome of the ICC investigation. As part of the discussions we’ve been having with the Accords Council, questions have been raised about the… somewhat murky backgrounds of a number of the rogues and whether they were the appropriate kind of people to have on such a team.” Rhodey grimaced. “Further questions were asked about precisely how and why they were permitted on the team. Unfortunately, those questions were not ones that either Tony or I could answer as we were not full members of the team at that time.”
It was a veiled reference to Wanda and her past but Tony knew that while it would go over the heads of most, it would be more than enough for some of the media out there to start poking around, something confirmed by the speculative expressions on the faces of some of the more serious investigative journalists. And from the sharp look he and Rhodey were getting from one Christine Everhart, she at least would be quite willing to do the kind of research that had once lead to her bringing Gulmira to his attention. He’d thought he could rely on her ability to scent blood in the water and move in for the attack.
“What now for the New Avengers?”
“We sort out the details with the Accords Council,” Rhodey said. “Then we stand ready to defend the people of Earth.”
Pepper took that as being a good stopping point and she stepped forward to thank the media for coming. Tony and the others took the opportunity to leave the room before they could be ambushed with any more questions.
“That went well,” Stephen said as the door closed behind them.
“Only because we caught them a bit by surprise,” Tony replied. “You wait for the next one.”
“What fun,” Stephen said dryly.
What Tony noticed more than anything else was that Stephen made no attempt to try and avoid the next press conference, another marked difference from the way things had gone in the past. What’s more Stephen and Hope had fielded the questions they’d been asked with aplomb. Tony felt something inside him relax and unknot at the growing knowledge that he now had teammates he could actually rely on.
Two days later
The man standing behind the podium did not seem to be terribly intimidating at first glance. With his white hair and beard and the easy way he smiled at the woman he was speaking quietly to, he seemed more like someone’s grandfather than a senior prosecutor representing the International Criminal Court. Or at least, that was what many of the American journalists were murmuring to each other. The European journalists eyed their American counterparts with a mix of amusement, exasperation and contempt and when they were asked, they rolled their eyes and told the journalists to try using Google. Only a handful of the Americans seemed to know who they were going to be hearing from and they were accepted into the European gaggle with nods and small smiles.
Finally, the white haired man stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. “Good morning.” His accent was an unusual one that even the Europeans struggled to firmly place to one particular country or locale. “My name is Michel Dorn. I am a Special Prosecutor with the International Criminal Court and I have been placed in charge of the investigation into the recent Avenger’s Civil War, as it has been termed, with a view to determining what criminal charges, if any, are to be brought against the parties involved.”
He placed his hands on the podium and his expression hardened slightly. It was a sight that made even the more hardened and cynical journalists among them shiver and the Europeans and those Americans who had done their research were reminded that this man had made his name prosecuting some of the worst war criminals the modern era had seen. He’d done it successfully too. Prisons in The Hague and around Europe were filled with men and women this man had put away. He might look avuncular and grandfatherly but he was utterly ruthless when it came to his work.
“The governments of Germany, Romania and Russia have agreed to waive their individual country’s rights to charge and prosecute any wrongdoers,” Dorn continued, “and have agreed to abide by the decisions and judgements made by the ICC. Additionally, this morning, the government of Nigeria formally requested that the events in Lagos that preceded the Civil War also be investigated by the ICC.”
That unexpected announcement caused a susurration among the gathered journalists. The Nigerian government had been furious about what had happened in Lagos. Not just because of the deaths and the destruction but because the Avengers had failed to inform them and gain the cooperation of their military and police. There were even rumours that the Nigerian government had known about Rumlow’s presence in Lagos and had been making plans to arrest him using their own counterterrorism forces. No one had been able to either confirm or deny those rumours.
“Dr Anthony Stark, King T’Challa, Colonel James Rhodes, the Vision and the individual known as Spider-Man have all agreed to make themselves available to be interviewed by ICC investigators,” Dorn said. “We are seeking submissions from Steven Rogers, James Barnes, Samuel Wilson, Clinton Barton, Wanda Maximoff, Scott Lang and Natasha Romanov. The questions for which we are seeking answers will be published on the ICC website after this press conference, along with contact information and the date by which we require the submissions. We are making a public appeal to the individuals named to submit their answers or better still, to come forward and allow our investigators to question them.”
There was a wave of snorts and sceptical looks from the journalists and the faintest of smiles wafted briefly across Dorn’s face. They all knew that it was highly unlikely that the rogues would come forward after running away so firmly from their responsibilities already. But it had to be said so that no one could deny that every opportunity had been given for fair and reasonable representation.
“Once our investigators have finished their work,” Dorn continued, his tone still calm and even bland, giving no indication of his personal opinions, “the case will be referred to my office and I will assess the individual statement along with all evidence gathered by the investigators. After which, charges may be levelled against individuals if it is deemed necessary and international warrants issued.” He looked around mildly. “I will now take some questions.”
“Sir! What good is pressing charges if the rogue Avengers are still in the wind?”
“The charges will precede the issuing of arrest warrants by Interpol,” Dorn said, apparently unperturbed at repeating what he’d just said. “Interpol has always received excellent cooperation from law enforcement around the world and I see no reason it will be any different now.” He paused and smiled faintly. “Of course, it would be my hope that the rogue Avengers would see reason and turn themselves in rather than require good honest law enforcement personnel to place themselves at undue risk from enhanced individuals."
It was a subtle reminder of the fate of the last group of law enforcement who had tried to arrest an Enhanced individual. It was also clearly a reproof regarding that outcome. Most of the European journalists were convinced it would be far too subtle for the ones it was aimed at and many of their American colleagues could only agree.
“Will Tony Stark be charged with anything?” one of the American journalists asked.
“At this time I have no comment on that matter,” Dorn replied. “Dr Stark, as a signatory of the Accords, was however working in conjunction with the Accords Committee during the period in question.”
“Not when he went to Siberia,” came the response from the same journalist.
“And that incident will be examined closely when statements have been received from the involved parties,” Dorn replied, hardly batting an eyelid. “However, I will remind you that Dr Stark had obtained permission to attempt to bring in the rogue Avengers without further violence.”
“What will happen if the rogue Avengers are found guilty? The last place they were held… well, that didn’t work out so well.”
“That decision will be made in due time,” Dorn said. “It would be outside my remit to make comments on a decision that has not yet been made and before any charges have even been brought to bear.”
“How can US citizens be tried before the ICC?”
Dorn looked amused. “US citizens are tried in courts around the world when they break the laws of the countries they are in, are they not? Since the countries where the ‘Civil War’ incidents occurred have referred the matters to the ICC, this is no different.”
“Why were the cases referred to the ICC?”
“To avoid being bogged down in extensive extradition proceedings given that Romania, Germany and Russia all have a piece of this pie.” Dorn looked sympathetic. “By referring the cases to the ICC, the charges can be consolidated rather than having them tried in this country for that reason and that country for another reason. Romania, Germany and Russia have chosen to see this as an international problem rather than one purely affecting their own countries.”
The looks exchanged by the European journalists were priceless and each of them was wondering how that had been negotiated and what the price had been. For all that the EU and the UN worked collaboratively and were supposed to be for the betterment of Europe and the world as a whole respectively, internecine squabbles were the norm rather than the exception. For Russia, Germany and Romania to set aside their own wants and place the good of the world and the Accords above their own internal interests… well, there wasn’t a journalist in the room, cynics that they were by profession, who wasn’t wondering what the quid pro quo had been. They also knew that Dorn would never tell them, even if he knew.
“You mentioned Natasha Romanov… is she with the rogue Avengers?”
“We do not know,” Dorn said. “She did however sign the Accords and then breach the agreement she had made. We are seeking answers as to why.”
“Will she be charged?”
Dorn smiled. “That depends on what she has to say in her defence.”
A woman came forward and murmured something into Dorn’s ear. He listened then nodded and said a few quiet words back to her.
“I am afraid that is all I can say for the moment,” Dorn said to the gathered press. “There will be an official press release available when you leave the room and any further questions may be submitted to the ICC press office. Thank you.”
Dorn turned and left the room, ignoring the questions still being shouted at him.
And guess what comes after this? Yep, you guessed it - the ExVengers reactions. I think you'll like them. :D
Well, here they are - the ExVengers. This is set after the ICC press conference because let's face it, nothing edifying would have been said after the New Avengers one. But by the time the ICC presser occurs, they've had time to cogitate on everything. Not that it's done them much good.
I think I can sum this up as: Scott buys a clue, Clint is all over the place, Wanda is delusional, Sam is trying to deny reality, Steve is... well, Steve, Natasha's in it for herself and then her past catches up with her and Bucky's cold and asleep.
This was an interesting chapter to write and there is a lot in the way of unreliable narrators here and people trying evade responsibility for their own actions and rewrite history to suit themselves. Also, I did my best to try and give Sam some kind of sensible reason for his weird reaction (for a military man who should know all about accountability) to the Accords.
Scott Lang watched the ICC press conference with apparent disinterest. He’d learned a number of things in prison, some of which he had found useful, others he had forgotten the moment he walked out of the gate. Right now, he was exercising a skill he’d learned then promptly discarded once he’d gotten out, thinking he wouldn’t need it anymore. He was relieved to find that the ability to conceal his feelings was easy enough to drag back out of his repertoire. It was surprisingly useful right now.
The New Avengers press conference had been a shock to the system. Despite everything, he’d spent his time since they arrived in Wakanda feeling rather pleased with himself and happy to join in the general atmosphere of hurling shit at Tony Stark and feeling sure that the Accords would soon be thrown away and they’d be welcomed back with ticker tape parades and lots of confetti.
But that press conference had shattered all those happy thoughts. He wasn’t sure what the others thought beyond what they were willing to say – most of which was uncomplimentary – but he didn’t think Stark was actually missing any of them at all. His new team looked professional, competent and determined. In fact, if they were anything like Hope, then they were professional, competent and determined.
And speaking of Hope… she hated him. He’d actually flinched at her reply to the question about him. He’d never been broken up with on live television before and he couldn’t say he had really enjoyed the experience. It did make him think though. He knew he wasn’t a stupid man. He had a degree in engineering after all. But he would admit to sometimes being a little… thoughtless. Occasionally rash in his actions. Maybe even gullible. Easily led had been mentioned before. One thing he knew for certain, however, was that Hope was a hell of a lot smarter and cannier than him and she was backing the Accords. If she was backing the Accords then she had read them which… put her one up on him.
He looked around at his erstwhile companions and saw that most of them were busy making snide comments about Stark, the ICC, Stark, the UN, Stark, the Accords, Ross and Stark. He wasn’t really in the mood for any of that and quietly got up and slipped out of the room. He stood in the corridor, rocking back and forth on his heels with uncertainty. He then squared his shoulders and started walking.
When T’Challa had shown them into their new digs, he’d impressed on them the importance of staying where they were and that there would be guards outside his door to enforce that. Thus far no one had felt the need to challenge that and Scott wasn’t planning on starting now. But the guards might be able to help him.
He carefully opened one of the large double doors at the end of the corridor and immediately halted as the two women standing outside turned with weapons abruptly as the ready. He held up his hands, his eyes wide.
“Uh… sorry,” he said.
“You are not to leave this wing,” one of the women said tersely.
“Um, yeah, I know.” Scott swallowed. “I, uh… I know King T’Challa is a busy man but I was hoping I might be able to speak to him… or to someone who could help me at least.”
The woman who had spoken before narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you wish to know?”
“About the Accords,” Scott replied. “I’m beginning to think I’ve made a horrible mistake.”
The woman gave him a long steady look, certainly long enough to make Scott shift uncomfortably.
“I will speak to His Majesty,” she finally said. “You will have an answer within the next few days.”
Scott gave a sigh of relief and nodded. “Right. Yes. Thank you. I’ll, uh… just…” He gestured behind himself with a thumb. “Go back.”
He stepped back from the doors and they closed very abruptly in his face. He heaved a sigh of relief and turned on his heel. He was going to go back to his room. He was beginning to think it might be best to put some distance between himself and the others.
Clint Barton was angry. He’d like to say he was angry at Tony or Steve or Ross or the world but if he was honest, he was really only angry at himself. He’d never been good at dealing with his anger when it was directed at himself and the ones who usually helped him through that were not here and so he was left just feeling… angry. And lashing out at all and sundry.
He was currently perched high on one of the bookshelves, having removed himself up there the moment the ICC press conference had started. After the shit fight he’d started after the New Avengers press conference, he didn’t trust himself not to do it again and this time he might actually get himself punched in the face or – he glowered at the back of Wanda’s head – worse.
He’d retired. And if he was honest with himself, he really couldn’t say why. That made him feel angry. Tony had distanced himself from the Avengers in the wake of the Ultron fiasco and Clint was convinced it had something to do with Wanda and a lot to do with Bruce… which also mean it had something to do with Wanda. Wanda, who had fucked with everyone’s mind except his and Tony’s. Except had she? It seemed weird to him that they were the two who hadn’t been fucked with, especially Tony with the way Wanda felt about him. So, had she fucked with their minds? Had she driven Tony away? Had she driven him away?
He didn’t know and that made him angry. Everything made him angry these days and he didn’t know why. It was just easy to think it was Wanda. If she’d fucked with Tony’s mind, why hadn’t he said anything? Clint stared down at their fearless leader and snorted to himself. Yeah, right, like anything Tony would have said about Wanda would have gotten through to Captain She’s-just-a-kid, especially if it had been negative in nature.
And when had he gone from thinking of Wanda like she was practically one of his kids to whatever he felt now? He didn’t know and the only people he trusted to talk about it with were Laura, Natasha and Coulson. Natasha had disappeared to fuck knows where, Coulson was dead and Laura was probably going to reach down his throat and rip his balls out when she next saw him.
He didn’t know what to do, which made him feel angrier. Which didn’t help.
He’d stopped agreeing with Steve that everything was going to blow over and the world was going to forgive them and beg them to return. He had thought that, right up until Stark and co’s press conference. Or more specifically, the aftermath of that press conference. He’d spent hours trawling the internet and in the two days between that press conference and the ICC one, he hadn’t seen a lot of support for any of Team Cap, as they were being called. Sure, there was some but it wasn’t really the sort of support you’d want – rabid right-wing ‘Murica types that just made Clint cringe.
It seemed that responsibility and accountability were considered the basic starting point these days and the fact that not only had Steve shit all over that, he’d done it not for any kind of principles or protest but for one man, a known murderer, wasn’t going down very well, especially outside of America. Clint actually felt some sympathy for Barnes. He knew what it was like to have his free will taken from him and be forced into killing people against his will. But when the anger died down a little, he had to admit that he’d come into this thinking it was about some sort of restrictive Accords shit, not because Cap wanted to save one man at the expense of the rest of the world.
And from what had been said at Stark’s press conference, by the guy from the ICC and everything on the internet, the rest of the world didn’t much care for being Cap’s collateral damage in his crusade for his BFF.
Clint shifted and scowled at the TV from his perch on the bookshelf. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to get himself out of this and he was starting to get a sneaking, panicky feeling that there was no way out of it. Because the one man who could do it didn’t seem to give a shit about them anymore. And when he thought back to the hateful words he’d spat at Tony on the Raft, he honestly couldn’t blame him.
It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t. Wanda scowled at the TV and sunk down lower on the couch. She didn’t cause any of this trouble. She didn’t see why she should have to answer for any of it. All she had been doing was trying to help people. It wasn’t her fault that people were afraid of her. She couldn’t control other people’s fear and as Steve had said, sometimes things happened and
Pietro people died. They had tried their best though and that was what really mattered.
The man from the ICC looked directly at the camera as he spoke and she felt like his disapproving expression was directed at her and her alone. He looked a little bit like what she remembered of her grandfather and that just made it worse. Her grandfather had been a kind and gentle man who would not have approved of what she and Pietro had done. He’d lived through Word War II, fought in the Resistance and had not been shy in expressing his opinions about those who had tried to oppress them.
She shuddered away from memories of her grandfather and what she’d done, tucking them away where she didn’t have to ever think about them, and went back to watching the press conference. The man, Dorn, seemed so implacable, so unrelenting, and she wondered how Stark had got to him, what lies he’d told to turn him against them.
“Are we going to do it?” she asked when the press conference was over.
“Do what?” Sam asked.
“The submissions, the questions he was talking about.”
Steve smiled at her. “Of course we are. He’s clearly not completely biased. They want to hear our side of the story and that’s all we’ve needed really. A chance to tell the truth. Tell people about how bad the Accords are and how we cannot be leashed by corrupt governments and used as attack dogs. Once they hear our side of the story, they’ll realise what we were trying to do and scrap the Accords.”
Wanda heaved a sigh of relief and smiled back at him. “Good.”
Of course Steve was right. They had been doing this for the world. To make sure that they were free to save people whenever and wherever they were needed. Lagos was a tragedy but they hadn’t done anything wrong… she hadn’t done anything wrong. Besides, they succeeded in stopping Rumlow and that’s what was really important. Really, the people of Lagos should be thanking them for saving them from Rumlow.
It was just typical that Stark was trying to stop them. He wasn’t a hero. He was just a leech, trying to live in their reflected glory. That Rhodes man was just Stark’s bootlicker and the Van Dyne woman and the magic user they’d found were just pale imitations of Scott and herself. The magic user… Strange… couldn’t be any good or he wouldn’t be following Stark around. She’d take care of Strange at the earliest opportunity. Prove that she couldn’t be replaced. It was just a shame that Vision hadn’t come with them. Maybe she should send him an email and tell him he’d be welcome. Vision would immediately join them once he knew that. She was sure of that.
She settled back on the couch and watched the aftermath of the press conference with equanimity. This would all blow over once they told their side of the story and they’d be back in the US soon enough. And when they were, they’d be heroes again and Stark would have to run off to his little hole and hide like the coward he was.
Sam Wilson watched the man from the ICC talk and wondered where it had all gone so wrong. More importantly, he was trying to figure out how it had all gone so wrong. The Accords were dangerous – anything Ross was involved in was dangerous – but it seemed more and more like they were the only ones who thought so and that was making Sam doubt himself and his actions. He’d always tried to be honest with himself but now he was starting to wonder whether he had been lying to himself. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.
He got to his feet as Steve reassured Wanda and made his way to the room he’d been given. He hadn’t missed the fact that they had been confined to this section of the palace and that there were guards on the door to stop them from leaving. The area they’d been given was large and had plenty of distractions so its status as a prison was well-disguised. Sam had still noticed though. He hadn’t told the others and he couldn’t quite work out why.
He opened the laptop he’d been given on his first day here and started surfing – news websites, Facebook, forums, wherever he found a link. While the opinions weren’t universal, they were overwhelmingly in favour of the Accords, the stance the New Avengers were taking and the new ICC investigation. Sam stared at the laptop screen with a frown. How could they think this? Didn’t they know how bad the Accords would be?
He kept clicking on links and found himself in the middle of a conversation on a forum.
Do you think any of Team Crap actually read the Accords? Cos I did.
Yeah? What were they like?
Boring as fuck but nothing scary. Lots of rules so that one country can’t use the Avengers as a private army and a lot of stuff about reports and reviews and such. Tedious but pretty sensible. And you know how much I hate sensible.
Sam leaned back in his seat and stared at that reply. That couldn’t be true, could it? Why would Ross support anything that didn’t give him the upper hand? No, this person had to be wrong. He gave a brief thought to finding a copy of the Accords and reading it but shook that thought away. Ross was involved and that was all Sam needed to know to form an opinion.
He’d heard a great deal about Ross when he’d been serving. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross had been described, usually accompanied by a sardonic smile and contemptuous snort, as being ‘not a soldier’s general’. He was in it for the power and prestige and he didn’t care how many soldiers’ lives he had to spend to get what he wanted. He would hardly have changed when moving into a civilian position, especially one that held such power, including the ear of the President.
Sam would admit his grudge was personal. It was another General like Ross who had approved the mission that had cost Riley his life. A General who had been perfunctorily sympathetic in the face of Sam’s grief before turning away and immediately wanting to know what had happened and how soon a replacement could be found. That callousness had been like a slap round the head for Sam.
What he didn’t understand was why Stark had sided with Ross of all people? According to what he’d been told, Stark and Banner had been good friends and everyone knew about Ross’ endless persecution of Banner. Surely Stark should have been standing right next to Steve on this issue? It made him wonder what Ross had on Stark. Maybe that was where they should be aiming their next mission? Work out what Ross had on Stark to make him act so out of character and see if they could neutralise that. Once they did that, Stark would drop the pretence and the Accords would fall down without their richest backer. Then they could get things back to normal.
Sam nodded in satisfaction and stood up. He’d go and talk to Steve about this right away. The sooner they got this done, the sooner they could get out of this pretty, gilded prison.
Steve glanced over at Sam briefly and felt a sense of relief and gratitude towards his friend. He’d watched the ICC press conference with dismay and with the sense of bewilderment and confusion he’d felt since the New Avengers press conference growing by the minute. He’d been baffled as to why Tony had formed the New Avengers and why he was still supporting the Accords, too baffled to take part in or even really recognise the vitriol being thrown around by the others. Surely Tony now understood why he’d gone to such lengths to protect Bucky? How could he not? And yet, it seemed he didn’t and what’s more the rest of the world seemed to be joining in. It made him feel lost and alone, despite the people in the room with him.
When Sam had come back into the room after the ICC press conference and announced his theory as to what was happening, Steve had seized on it with a sense of relief. Sam’s theory made sense, even Clint and Wanda had agreed with that. Tony was being manipulated and blackmailed by Ross. It was the only explanation as to why he hadn’t come to his senses and helped them. Why he’d opposed them so fiercely. The others – Rhodes, Vision and the rest – probably didn’t know what was really going on. It was so like Tony to keep something like Ross’ blackmailing a secret instead of coming to the team and letting them help him.
Steve sighed with fond exasperation. He and Tony would have to have another talk about keeping secrets but he could easily forgive Tony for this. Blackmail was an awful thing and no doubt Ross had hit close to home. Maybe he’d threatened Pepper. Despite what Tony had said about them taking a break, Steve knew that Tony loved Pepper. He would do anything to keep her safe. Steve could understand that, even sympathise.
He turned his attention back to the conversation going on around the kitchen table. “Surely Natasha must know what Ross has on Tony?” he said. “That could explain why she took his side. She may have been trying to protect him.”
Clint nodded. The man had done a complete one eighty on hearing Sam’s theory and had dived into the planning they were doing. He seemed to be as relieved as Steve was to have a logical explanation as to why Tony had backed the Accords.
“It makes sense,” he said. “Tash has always had a weird soft spot for Tony and she likes Pepper so she probably decided to back Tony up and try and dig up whatever Ross has and neutralise it.”
“Have you been able to contact her?” Sam asked.
Clint shook his head, looking frustrated. “I’ve left messages in a few of our old online places but I haven’t had a reply as yet. She may be off the grid until she can find a safe spot to hunker down.”
Steve nodded and frowned. “Do you know what it might be? I mean, Tony’s life is pretty much an open book.”
“Even someone like Tony has his secrets,” Sam said with a shake of his head.
“Maybe it’s about Banner?” Wanda said softly.
She’d been the most resistant to Sam’s idea but when everyone else had fallen in line, she’d relented. The only one who was not here was Scott. Clint had gone and knocked on the door of his room but he hadn’t answered. Steve had told Clint not to worry. He’d fill in Scott later. He was sure the Ant-Man would help them once he understood what was really going on.
“That could be it,” Clint said, his eyes lighting up. “You know how close Tony and Bruce were.”
“Science bros,” Steve said with rueful amusement.
“Yeah,” Clint said with an answering grin. He sobered quickly. “And given Ross’ history with Bruce, that could be a powerful motivator for Tony. Tony likes both Bruce and the Hulk and the reverse is true for both as well. What if that’s the bargaining chip Ross has? What if he has Bruce?”
Steve sucked in a shocked breath. “That would explain everything, Clint.” He frowned. “There was no sign of Bruce on the Raft though.”
“He wouldn’t be there,” Clint replied. “There’s no way they could contain the Hulk on the Raft. No, Ross has got the Abomination stashed away somewhere. That’s where he’ll be holding Bruce. Any place that can hold the Abomination can hold the Hulk.”
“Who’s the Abomination?” Sam asked with a small frown. “I mean, I know he’s the one that wrecked Harlem along with the Hulk but who is he? Or who was he?”
“Emil Blonsky,” Clint replied. “British military, loaned to Ross when he was still hunting Bruce before the Harlem incident. He gave Blonsky some knock off of the super soldier serum then Blonsky let some scientist named Stern experiment on him some more. I don’t know the details but it turned Blonsky into the Abomination. No one knows if he’s capable of turning back because as far as I know, he never has. He either can’t or he won’t.”
“And Ross has him?” Steve asked.
Clint nodded. “Yeah, but I don’t know where. SHIELD probably did. The WSC originally wanted to use the Abomination for the Avengers but Fury sent Tony to talk to Ross. They’ve always hated each other, even more so after Stark Industries stopped making weapons. Ross took that personally.”
“Using Tony doesn’t make much sense if that’s the case,” Sam said.
“Yeah, it does, if you know Fury.” Clint grinned. “Fury knew Tony would be just the right kind of obnoxious about it and in return Ross would deny the WSC and SHIELD any access at all to the Abomination. Fury wanted Bruce, not Blonsky, but he didn’t want to seem too eager and make Bruce run to an even deeper hole where SHIELD couldn’t track him.” His grin widened. “Tony hates Ross so much that after that little meeting, he bought Ross’ favourite bar and had it razed to the ground.”
Sam laughed and Steve shook his head with rueful amusement. That really did sound like something Tony would do.
“That just makes Sam’s theory seem all the more accurate,” Steve said. “There just doesn’t seem to be any other plausible explanation for Tony working with Ross.”
He sighed and shook his head sorrowfully. Then he squared his shoulders. They would help. It’s what the Avengers did for a teammate and Tony, despite his mistake with Ultron, was still their teammate. They’d find Bruce and free him and then Tony would be able to do what was right.
“Do you have any ideas about where Ross would be holding Bruce?” he asked Clint.
The archer nodded. “I think so.” He pulled a map of the continental United States towards him and picked up a pencil. “Let me see.”
As Clint began to mark spots and explain what they were, Steve felt the frustrations and worries of the past few weeks fade away. They had their explanation and now they had a goal. They would save Tony and then with him, they would save the world. It was what the Avengers did, after all.
Natasha watched the ICC press conference on the TV, her expression impassive even though she was alone in the tiny hotel room. The studied indifference was a mask she wished would extend further inside but she wasn’t that lucky. Her original plan after leaving Tony at Leipzig had been to lay low and see which way the tide was turning then join up with whichever group was the winner. But that plan had just turned to dust at her feet.
It wouldn’t be that difficult to find out where Steve and the others were hiding but between Tony’s press conference and this one, there wouldn’t be much point hitching her bandwagon to Steve’s crusade. He had lost. It was only a matter of how long it would take for him to realise it and what he might do in the meantime to make things worse. Either way, she didn’t want to be a part of it. Dorn had made it clear that the Accords Council were stronger than ever and they did not view her actions at Leipzig, however justified in her mind, as being the right thing to do.
And Tony… well, she would admit privately that she had never really been able to read Tony Stark. It had rankled her to an excessive extent back when she’d gone in undercover at SI and in spiteful retaliation, she’d written that unfavourable review of him. She’d known it was wrong when she’d been writing it but she’d hated that a rank amateur had been able to not only pull the wool over her eyes when he was dying but that he’d been able to keep his secrets hidden even after she’d been revealed. She had no idea why Fury had let her evaluation stand. He had to have known it was wrong, that Natasha was compromised, but he did nothing.
In fact, Natasha had never been able to get a clear read on Tony in all the time she’d known him and even more frustrating was the patently obvious fact that James Rhodes could. Rhodes had never been fazed by anything Tony said or did and often took them in a way that Natasha had never thought of. She’d reviewed interaction after interaction and while sometimes she could figure out how Rhodes knew what Tony really meant, far too often for her liking she just couldn’t see it. And she hated that. She was good at what she did and she didn’t like failing.
It made her comments about Tony’s ego at Leipzig all the more hypocritical when it was her ego that had been knocked out of joint first. She was almost surprised that Tony hadn’t called her on it but now that she looked back on that moment, she wondered if he had decided he wasn’t going to bother anymore. That it had been one betrayal too many and he had washed his hands of her then and there. Based on what had happened during the New Avengers press conference, she was beginning to suspect that was the case. And if that was so, there would be no welcome from Tony if she tried to contact him.
She was alone. Steve was a waste of time and Tony had no time for her. She’d tried contacting Coulson (she’d never believed he was dead – she hadn’t seen the body after all – and it didn’t take too much digging to find out she was right – she should have told Clint but she’d wanted to keep that card in her deck for the right moment and then Clint had retired so… she’d never gotten around to it) but had only gotten Melinda May. May hadn’t said a word but she hadn’t needed to. Her long, pregnant silence had said it all. Natasha wasn’t intimidated by many people but Melinda May was one of them. So Coulson had cut her loose as well. And since Fury hadn’t appeared out of the shadows anywhere – Tony had told her the man was still alive – she was pretty sure he wasn’t too impressed with her either and was prepared to let her sink or swim on her own recognisance. If she survived, he might be willing to scoop her up at some point in the future. If she could be useful to him.
She was pulled out of her thoughts by a knock on the door and a muffled voice saying, “Housekeeping!”
She frowned then sighed and got to her feet. The room could do with a clean and she could take the opportunity to head for the nearest library and use their internet to keep up to date with everything that was going on. She opened the door and barely had a moment to register the barrel of the gun before there was a soft whooshing sound and something sharp pierced her throat. She raised a hand and touched a small dart before her knees went out from underneath her.
Someone stepped into the room then there was a second set of footsteps and the door was closed. Two faces loomed over her, fuzzy and indistinct as whatever was in the dart clouded her mind.
“Hello, Widow,” one of the figures said. “We’ve been trying to catch up with you for a long time. Since DC as a matter of fact.”
Just before she slipped into unconsciousness, Natasha felt a frisson of fear run down her spine.
Bucky slept, safe in cryosleep and undisturbed by all that was going on in the world.
A small detour to introduce someone who was left out of the MCU after her first appearance. Which frankly is a crime. We wouldn't have needed that kinda weird Bruce/Natasha thing if they'd just remembered there is a woman in the MCU who can bring a raging, furious Hulk to a screeching halt on an active battlefield. She makes her appearance in this chapter. Mostly because her father is an enormous douchecanoe. For his part, Tony's actually kind of glad to meet the expert Bruce-whisperer. She puts a few things into perspective.
This takes a little bit before the previous chapter. Ugh. Timelines.
Tony and the others had just arrived back at the Compound after the press conference announcing the New Avengers when FRIDAY did the electronic equivalent of clearing her throat.
“There’s… someone here to see you.”
Tony and the others stilled and exchanged glances.
“Who is it?” Tony asked, feeling trepidation rise in his chest.
“A Dr Elizabeth Ross,” came the answer and Tony felt his mind kind of fritz out for a moment.
Of all the people he’d ever expected to come knocking at his door, Bruce’s former sweetheart was about the last person. He honestly had no idea why she was here now.
“Where is she?”
“In the conference room, boss.”
Tony nodded and looked at the others. “Right. I guess I’ll go and meet with Dr Ross.”
“You want us to come with you?” Rhodey asked.
Tony hesitated for a moment then shook his head. “No, not yet. Let’s see what she wants.”
Rhodey didn’t look happy but he nodded anyway. Tony patted him on the shoulder and made his way to the conference room. He opened the door to find a slim brunette pacing back and forth on the other side of the room, wearing jeans and a nondescript hoodie. There was a large overnight bag sitting on the table, which was somewhat unexpected. In fact, her whole appearance was unexpected.
“Dr Ross? I’m Tony Stark.”
Tony walked around the table and offered his hand. Dr Ross scrubbed her palms on her jeans before shaking his hand.
“Dr Stark. I’ve come to beg for shelter and protection.”
Tony blinked and stared at her for a long moment. “Uh, what?”
Dr Ross smiled faintly. “Shortly after the Chitauri invasion, I received a letter that had apparently travelled via a very convoluted route. It was from Bruce. Among other things, he told me I could trust you if anything ever went wrong.”
“Right,” Tony said slowly. He remembered that letter. Bruce had asked him to get it to Dr Ross without her father knowing. He'd done so but he’d never asked what had been in it. “Um. Yes, of course. Though… I actually don’t know where Bruce is, if that’s what you want to know.”
He’d lost Bruce not that long ago and he had no idea how. Either Bruce was better at hiding than he’d expected or… something had happened. He had people looking, very discretely, and he had to admit that, whatever his issues with Bruce’s abandonment after Ultron, he was getting worried. The only thing he did know for certain about Bruce’s whereabouts was that Ross or what was left of his cronies didn’t have him. Ross would have crowed about it to him if he had.
Dr Ross gave him a tired smile. “It wasn’t, mostly because I was already aware that Bruce had managed to find a hole deep enough that no one could find him this time.” She ran a hand down her face and that was when Tony noticed the signs of stress and her complete lack of makeup. “Not even the… my father.”
Tony grimaced. “Ross is supposed to be out of that game.”
“He is. Officially,” Dr Ross said. “Unofficially, Bruce is his white whale.”
Tony sighed. “Ugh. What’s he done now?”
“Tried to kidnap me to use as bait to lure Bruce out of his hiding spot. Thankfully one of the people involved has a bit more in the way of morals and ethics than my father does and they warned me in time.” The weariness seemed to overwhelm her and she dropped into one of the chairs. “Bruce told me I could trust you so…” She smiled wanly. “Here I am.”
Tony felt his brain actually blue screen for a moment before it rebooted and went into overdrive. “Thaddeus Ross… the Secretary of State… tried to have you kidnapped?”
Dr Ross nodded then fished a USB drive out of her pocket and held it out to him. “I have the proof here, courtesy of that ethical person I mentioned.”
Tony stared at the USB and before he could censor the words, they spilled out of his mouth. “I don’t like being handed things.”
Dr Ross looked momentarily surprised then she simply nodded and placed the USB drive on the table. “It has the orders that were issued as well as copies of the email chain that set it up.”
Tony stared at the USB then back at Dr Ross. “Um… you sound like you want me to have your father arrested.”
Dr Ross considered that for a moment. “It wouldn’t be before time, would it?”
Tony stared at her some more. “You don’t like your father.”
Honest amusement grew on Dr Ross’ face. “Dr Stark…”
“Only if you call me Betty.” She drew in a deep breath. “No, I don’t like my father. We’ve always had a tense relationship, mostly because I was a girl and not the boy who would follow in his footsteps that he wanted.” Tony winced. And he thought his daddy issues were bad. Betty simply continued, “But it was his behaviour towards Bruce that was the final straw. So yes, I am giving you evidence that could have my father arrested and in fact, I have a whole lot more evidence to give you as well.”
“Well,” Tony said. “Okay.” He looked at her properly. “But before you do that, do you maybe want to get settled in, have a shower, get some rest, have something to eat?”
Betty let out a gusty sigh and slumped down in her chair for a moment. She scrubbed her face with her hands and when she looked up again, she looked so relieved that Tony was actually startled.
“Bruce was right. You are a good friend,” she said.
Tony stuttered a little. It was nice to hear that Bruce thought so highly of him but if he did, why had he run so fast and so far after Ultron. He didn’t even stay to help explain what they’d been doing.
“He ran away on you when you needed him, didn’t he?” He looked over to find Betty watching him with a sympathetic smile on her face. “If it’s any consolation, he’s done the same to me. More than once. He’s so afraid of accidentally hurting people that his default response to anything is to run…” She smiled wanly again. “And then, of course, he accidentally hurts people by doing that. Just… not in the way that prompted the running in the first place.”
She sighed and got to her feet. “You know, if he ever gave the Hulk free rein, he would come back to us. Which probably gives you a better idea of where Bruce would rather be, instead of where he thinks he should be.”
Tony scooped up the USB drive and stuck it in his pocket. He managed a small smile for Betty as he gestured for her to accompany him further into the Compound.
“You’re not afraid of him.”
“Who? The Hulk?” Betty smiled. “No, not at all. The Hulk came to a screeching halt on an active battlefield just so he could stare dopily at me and say my name.”
Now, finally, Tony laughed. “Yeah, I saw the footage. That pretty much consolidated my opinion of the green bean. Not just a giant rage monster but also a giant cuddle monster.”
Betty’s laugh in return was bright and delighted. “You’ve said that to Bruce’s face, haven’t you? Did he get that slightly dyspeptic ‘I don’t know whether to disapprove or laugh’ look?”
“I get that look a lot from him,” Tony said, pretending to pout. “I am very familiar with it.”
Betty’s smile was still bright but there were tears in her eyes as she slid her hand into the crook of his arm. It felt good.
“That makes two of us, you know? Who recognise that the Hulk is a… a person in his own right and not a monster to be contained.” She sighed. “I wish it was three but Bruce is very stubborn about this.”
“I’m a big fan of the jolly green giant,” Tony replied. “He saved me from going splat on a New York street.” He smiled. “I’m also a big fan of Brucie-bear.”
The smile faltered a little as he thought of what had happened with he’d tried to tell Bruce about Killian and get his opinion and Betty picked it up in an instant. “What did he do?” she asked, all sympathy.
“I… nothing,” Tony said hurriedly.
“You’re a terrible liar, Tony,” Betty replied. She patted his arm. “Bruce…” She sighed. “Has issues. Then again, don’t we all? But our issues aren’t large, green and angry. He thinks that if he keeps himself as far away as possible from people, even when he’s in the same room, he’ll be able to keep them safe. So he finds ways of pushing them away, even people he cares about.”
Tony winced. “Are you sure you’re not a mind reader?”
Betty smiled sadly. “Not a mind reader, just very experienced with the frustrations that come with knowing Bruce Banner.”
Tony nodded and was silent for a moment as they walked along a corridor. He wasn’t sure whether to trust Betty with this but then her words really sank in and he rethought his hesitation. He didn’t need to get specific but if anyone was likely to understand how he felt, it was the woman walking next to him.
“He… fell asleep. I was trying to tell him about something important because I wanted his… I don’t know. Advice maybe? Or just… for him to listen. Be a sounding board.” He gave a frustrated huff. “I didn’t need him to be that kind of doctor, I just needed a friend.”
Betty sighed and shook her head. “You realise that he probably did listen to every word.”
Tony stared at her. “What?”
“I doubt he was actually asleep,” Betty said with a small sympathetic smile. “If he’s not exhausted, either from over working or from a transformation, he’s a fairly light sleeper. He wouldn’t have been able to sleep through someone talking, especially if they were talking to him.”
“Then… why?” Tony said, hating how plaintive he sounded but unable to stop himself.
“I can’t say for sure,” Betty replied. “But my guess would be that at some point he realised how much you trusted him – really realised it – and had a large internal freak out about it and then stupidly decided to push you away.” She patted his arm. “If it’s any consolation, he probably immediately regretted it but then didn’t know what to do to fix things. He does that too.”
Tony contemplated that idea. It would certainly explain some of Bruce’s behaviour in the weeks afterwards. Bruce had been a little more solicitous than usual, making himself available for ‘science bros time’ more than he usually did and bringing Tony food and occasionally tea, though the tea was usually meant to make Tony laugh.
“Huh,” he said finally, feeling something inside him that had shrivelled up after that day start to bloom again. “Do you think he’ll be pissed at me for backing the Accords?”
“No,” Betty said immediately. “He’d approve of the Accords. Accountability and responsibility is… well, it’s his thing since the accident. That’s why he tends to run. I’ll admit he wouldn’t like the General’s involvement in them but they’re from the UN, not the General, and Bruce is smart enough to see that.”
“The General?” Tony said, arching an eyebrow at Betty.
She arched one right back at him. “Do you really want to get into my issues with my father?”
“Nope,” Tony said hurriedly, raising both hands in a surrender gesture. “Definitely not. You’d make me talk about my daddy issues in retaliation and… yeah, let’s not go there.”
Betty laughed at him. “Let’s talk about Bruce instead,” she said with an impish look on her face. “That’s a much better subject.”
“Definitely,” Tony said fervently, happy to change the subject to someone they both cared about.
T'Challa fesses up to the Accords Council about his unwanted guests. Since he's being honest and sincere, it actually goes quite well. Also, he has Tony on his side. That helps too. Romania still doesn't like him much though.
Note: I have no idea how the UN really works and how committees and councils are chosen so let's all wave our hands and just say it works the way I say it does in this chapter. :D Also, my limited googling told me that 'Your Excellency' is the correct form of address for an Ambassador to the UN. Lucky them.
“What’s new, pussycat?”
T’Challa’s head jerked around at Tony’s greeting and he smiled. “If some formless wailing noise is the next thing to come out of your mouth, I will be terribly disappointed.”
Tony laughed. “Nah, I never could match Tom Jones’ vocal gymnastics.”
“That is a relief.”
Tony tilted his head to one side in a clear gesture to follow him and they made their way over to a quiet corner of the busy foyer of the UN building. T’Challa was glad to have an opportunity to speak to Tony before the meeting with the Accords Council. They’d been emailing and calling each other since their meeting at the Compound but he had always found it easier to talk to people face to face.
“So what’s up?” Tony asked once they were as alone as they were going to get. “You were twitchy when we spoke yesterday but I didn’t have time to ask.”
T’Challa grimaced. He had wanted to at least mention it during their video call the previous day but Tony had been called away to a Stark Industries meeting. It hadn’t been urgent enough to call back later – though it was likely to become so in the future – but he was glad to discuss it with Tony prior to their meeting instead of ambushing the man with it during.
“You know I’ve been monitoring my… strays?” he said, raising an eyebrow. Tony nodded and T’Challa continued. “Their reactions to the New Avengers press conference do not deserve to be repeated.”
Tony snorted. “I can imagine. Am I the devil?”
T’Challa rolled his eyes. “Indeed. However, it is their reactions to the ICC press conference that have been… interesting. They have come to the conclusion that Secretary Ross is blackmailing you by holding Dr Banner prisoner and that if they rescue Dr Banner, you will drop your support of the Accords and everything will go back to their definition of normal.”
Tony gaped at him for a moment before snapping his mouth shut. He still seemed a little lost for words. T’Challa could sympathise. He’d felt much the same when Shuri had reported the conversation to him. He’d had to watch the video feed for himself before he would believe it.
“They what?” Tony finally said, his disbelief and bafflement plain in his voice. “Are they insane?”
“That is debatable,” T’Challa said dryly and he got a small laugh from Tony for his trouble. “On a more positive note, Mr Lang appears to have come to his senses and decided he has made a mistake in his allegiances. He has asked for a copy of the Accords. I have obliged and my sister Shuri is standing by for when he inevitably flounders with the dense language of the document and needs assistance.”
“Huh,” Tony said then he shook his head. “I suppose one out of five isn’t the worst thing that could happen.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t suppose you’ve had an itsy bitsy spider climbing up your waterspout?”
T’Challa raised an eyebrow but decided to continue the analogy. “No but if she tried, she would find that the rain would come and wash her right back out.”
Tony grinned at him. “Your Doras hold grudges, eh?”
“They did not appreciate her actions,” T’Challa replied, trying to maintain some dignity, though the twitch of his lips surely gave him away.
Tony was about to reply but at that moment, a young man approached them, telling them the Council was ready. T’Challa squared his shoulders as he walked beside Tony into the council room. There were fifteen countries on the Accords Council, with the quorum amount set at nine in order to reach a decision. That had been a smart move, one T’Challa thoroughly approved of. There would always be circumstances that might cause a country’s representative to be unavailable, which made requiring all fifteen people to be present for a decision troublesome. But allowing the Council to make a decision with a minimum of nine members present was wise. If they were ever in a situation where more than six representatives were unavailable then it was more than likely that other clauses of the Accords would be relevant.
The selection of the countries for the initial Council had been interesting. It had been decided by a vote in the General Assembly and much to T’Challa’s amusement, the US hadn’t even made the top fifty. Germany, Romania and Russia had, which had set Secretary Ross fuming, if T’Challa’s sources were correct. Nigeria had been another easy selection. Australia, Japan and Indonesia had apparently been chosen for their distance and relative neutrality and Britain for its diplomatic credentials. Brazil and Canada had been uncontroversial selections, unlike China. The last four seats on the Council had gone to smaller nations – the Maldives, Cameroon, Sokovia and the Soloman Islands – so that the Council would never forget its purpose to protect the ‘little people’.
The US had protested having both China and Russia on the Council but they’d had little grounds to contest it. The vote had been open and sudden with no time for the usual horse trading that went on. The US simply had to accept that they were not very popular right now, courtesy of both Secretary Ross’ actions and the fact that Captain America had been wearing the US flag emblazoned on his chest as he’d rampaged across Europe. Perhaps in two years when half the Council seats were up for re-election, things would have calmed down enough that they would be voted in at that time.
T’Challa had met with the Brazilian, Cameroonian and British representatives prior to this full meeting and all three had seemed amenable to his suggestions, though no doubt there were still going to be some recriminations. He was sure that the rest of the Council had been primed by the representatives he’d met with about this purpose of this meeting and the mood as he and Tony sat down was not acrimonious, which he took to be a good sign.
“Dr Stark, thank you for coming,” said Nigel Clements, the British representative, who was the current Chair of the Council. “King T’Challa, I think under the circumstances, we can dispense with the usual pleasantries and give you the floor immediately.”
T’Challa smoothed down the front of his suit as he inclined his head. “Thank you, Mr Clements. You are all already aware of my involvement in the events in Bucharest and at the Leipzig/Halle airport, for which I am deeply apologetic. I allowed my emotions and grief to overcome my good sense and caused a great deal of damage, both to people and property.”
The representatives from Germany and Romania both nodded, acknowledging his involvement and his apology.
“I was also briefly involved in the events in Siberia,” T‘Challa continued. “I arrived, I believe, towards the end of that incident and was able to capture Helmut Zemo, as you know. What I have not mentioned until now is that I also removed James Barnes and Steven Rogers from Siberia at the same time.”
The reactions from the Council told T’Challa that they did indeed know that and he was pleased that the representatives he’d met with had indeed laid down some of the ground work already. He suspected that was why everyone was calm, if coldly stern on the part of the Romanian representative, so he continued.
“My actions against James Barnes were rash and reckless and made without any concrete evidence as to his involvement in my father’s death,” T’Challa continued. “I felt that my honour would be besmirched if I did not offer him sanctuary until such time as the triggers in his mind could be removed.” He paused and when he continued, his tone was very dry. “Steven Rogers appeared to take my words and actions as some sort of proof that I would offer him and his followers shelter as well. As a result, I have ended up with the lot of them in my palace.”
“Had you always intended to inform the Accords Council of this matter?” the German representative, an oddly ethereal-looking blonde called Saskia Gerst, asked severely. “Or is it just the prevailing winds that have prompted you to do so?”
“I had always intended to bring the matter to the Council,” T’Challa replied. “However I had to placate my advisors before I could do anything with the wider world. As you may imagine, most of my advisors, whom I inherited from my father’s reign, are not pleased at the situation in regards to Rogers and his friends, though most of them agree with my offer of sanctuary regarding Barnes.” He sighed and looked rather long-suffering. “Truth be told, had I tried to come before the Council any earlier, I could not have guaranteed that Rogers and his friends would have either been alive or still within the borders of Wakanda when I returned to my country.”
A ripple of amusement flitted around the Council members, though the Romanian representative looked as though he agreed with the advisors.
“I can sympathise,” the Romanian representative, Nicolae Vasilescu, said with deep irony. He then cleared his throat and continued sharply, “I cannot imagine you have come here without some plan in mind, Your Majesty.”
T’Challa inclined his head. “I have. Sergeant Barnes is currently once more in cryosleep. At his request. He does not trust himself and given that it is unknown as to precisely how many people know the words that can trigger the Winter Soldier, I felt it advisable to agree to his request.”
“How well protected is he?” Chiyo Koizumi from Japan asked.
“Exceedingly,” T’Challa replied. “The laboratories within the palace are among the most well-protected in Wakanda and I have increased that security subsequent to Barnes’ request. I would be loath to say it is impossible for him to be interfered with but the obstacles are all but insurmountable.”
“I think that irrespective of any other decisions that are made here today, leaving Barnes where he is now is probably a good idea,” Tony said, surprising the Council members. They hadn’t precisely ignored Tony’s presence but they clearly hadn’t known why he was there. T’Challa was pleased that Tony truly was going to support him. He had not taken it for granted, despite Tony’s presence at his side today. He let himself relax just a fraction as Tony continued. “He’s as safe as he’s going to get and while there are many good reasons for him to stand trial, frankly I don’t think it’s safe until those triggers are removed. Berlin proved that.”
“You believe he should stand trial?” Koizumi asked, her head tilting slightly to one side.
“We know James Barnes was brainwashed into becoming the Winter Soldier,” Tony said, his tone flat. “To what extent is currently unknown, though the New Avengers are searching for whatever information can be found about the Winter Soldier program. Hopefully, more information may be found at the base in Siberia.”
He inclined his head slightly towards the Russian representative who immediately cleared his throat.
“That is one of the objectives of the joint Russian-Accords team,” Kirill Markov said. “My government was as displeased as everyone else to discover that there was more than one Winter Soldier. There is no guarantee that the five that were killed and Sergeant Barnes are the only ones left. Whatever information we find will be submitted to the Accords Council.”
“The Council will forward any information to both yourself, Dr Stark, and King T’Challa’s scientists,” Clements said, after a brief murmured conversation with his counterparts.
“Thank you,” Tony said then he continued. “The brainwashing Barnes underwent is certainly something that should be taken into account when considering the actions of the Winter Soldier, however the incidents in Bucharest and at the airport are another matter. I’m not qualified – for many reasons – to give any judgement on Barnes’ guilt or whether he can be held accountable for the actions of the Winter Soldier but I do think that before any judgement can be done by anyone about anything, it would be advisable for Barnes to be his own man.”
The Council members went into something of a huddle as they discussed the matter then they returned to their seats.
“The Council wishes to discuss the matter further,” Clements said. “Though we do agree that a decision is needed today to allow King T’Challa to make any arrangements that might be necessary.” He waited for T’Challa’s acknowledgement then continued, “Now we come to the matter of Rogers and his cohort.”
“Were you aware of the plan to attack the Raft?” said Vasilescu harshly.
“I was not,” T’Challa replied. “They had already left before I became aware of their plans and after some discussion with my sister, Princess Shuri, I deemed it wise to allow them to return and then to contain them within the palace until a decision could be made as to their disposition.” He paused for a moment. “I must add that they are currently concocting plans to leave on a rescue mission. My technicians are controlling their access to information, which is hindering their plans but that will only last for so long.”
“How well can you contain them?” Clements asked.
“Indefinitely, I believe. Right now, I have their agreement to remain in the quarters I have given them and they are abiding by that. Should they choose to break that agreement, which I suspect they will, and attempt to leave, I will see that they are detained more… firmly, “ T’Challa said. “Magic is not unknown in Wakanda and my court sorcerer believes he can contain Miss Maximoff, which is half the battle right there. The guards watching over them have been armed with tranquiliser darts that should stop even a super soldier. They can certainly stop a Black Panther.”
“But you’re not sure,” Vasilescu said, looking very sour. “I hear a lot of maybes and ‘I believes’ in what you’re saying but not a lot of certainty. These people are dangerous. They must be contained.”
“Do you have a better place for them to be held?” Tony said dryly before T’Challa could respond. “The Raft failed and that was with Maximoff contained by the restraining collar.”
Vasilescu did not look pleased and he leaned back in his chair. “And if they escape again?”
“Then they will be dealt with,” Tony replied, his tone was flat and harsh.
T’Challa wanted to wince but he kept himself very still. He did not know what had happened inside the bunker in Siberia but he strongly suspected that Rogers’ offhand comment about Tony being fine had not been entirely accurate. Tony had not been seen in public for some time after Siberia and T’Challa was convinced that the man had been badly hurt. He felt a familiar wash of guilt rush through him at that thought. He should have checked. He had been an ally of sorts to Tony. He had not behaved as such and given Tony’s support here today and his general graciousness about all things related to the ‘civil war’, he felt he owed a debt to Tony as well.
“I am willing to have any or all of the Council come to Wakanda to observe our precautions,” he said, feeling like he could almost hear the howls of outrage from his advisors from here. But they would just have to deal with it. They were a part of the wider world now and it was time to get used to it. Which he knew would not have been so abrupt if he’d been less of a fool and more of a king but what was done was done. He couldn’t change it, he could only make such amends as were possible.
Vasilescu looked like he wanted to say something more but Clements called the Council together and spoke quietly again.
“We will do so, Your Majesty,” Clements said once the Council members had resumed their seats. “Now, you said something about the… rogues making new plans.”
T’Challa looked over at Tony who just shrugged. “Might as well tell them, Simba,” Tony said. “They can be as baffled as I am.”
T’Challa nodded then opened his mouth to speak. He closed it again since he couldn’t quite figure out a way to make it all sound sensible then decided that it was pointless trying.
“The… rogues believe that Dr Stark’s support for the Accords came about because Secretary Ross is holding Dr Bruce Banner prisoner and if they rescue Dr Banner, then Dr Stark will drop his support of the Accords and all will go back to how it was.”
A rather baffled silence fell in the room and T’Challa had to control the urge to start giggling. He hadn’t giggled since he was a boy but the rather dumbfounded looks on the faces of the men and women in front of him made it hard to not do so now. That it was more of a hysterical giggle than an amused one was beside the point.
“That’s… creative,” Fiona Reed from Australia said slowly. “I’m presuming there’s no truth in it. Where is Dr Banner exactly?”
Tony grimaced. “That’s an interesting question, Your Excellency. I have been very quietly keeping track of Bruce since he left after the Ultron incident. The last time I had a fix on him, he was in Thailand. Then he went missing. I don’t know where he is but I do know where he isn’t… and that is in Secretary Ross’ clutches.”
“Are you certain?” Clements asked.
Tony nodded. “One hundred percent certain.”
“How?” the Brit asked with all the dryness he could muster, which was considerable.
Tony pursed his lips for a moment then shrugged. “Because his daughter, Dr Elizabeth Ross, came to the Compound seeking shelter because her father had tried to have her kidnapped to use as bait to draw Bruce out. He’d have no reason to do so if he already had Bruce.”
There was a stunned silence in the room that Clements finally broke. “Secretary Ross tried to kidnap his own daughter?”
“I think it’s an internal matter, to be handled by the United States government and law enforcement. If the UN or anyone else wishes to pursue Ross for his actions during the recent debacle, that’s an entirely separate matter,” Tony said firmly. “I was just explaining how I know Ross doesn’t have Bruce.”
“I trust it will be handled,” Markov said pointedly.
“With great delight,” Tony replied, drawing faint amusement from the Council. None of them cared much for the former US General.
“So where do the rogues believe Dr Banner is being held?” Reed asked.
“They have narrowed it down to three possible locations in the US,” T’Challa said, picking up the thread of the conversation. “We are slowing down their ability to access information on those locations as much as we can while not appearing to be deliberately blocking them.” He contrived to look innocent. “Wakanda has been out of the world for so long that despite our skill with technology, it’s been difficult to make our computer networks completely compatible with external ones.”
“They actually bought that?” Tony said with an incredulous look then he snorted. “Wait, what am I saying? The only one who would have smelled a rat with that story is Romanov and she’s who knows where.”
“They did question Lang about it when he emerged at one point for food,” T’Challa said. “But he had the good sense to go along with it.”
“What’s this about Lang?” Clements asked.
“He appears to have a better grasp of the situation than his colleagues,” T’Challa said. “He has asked for a copy of the Accords and is making himself acquainted with them. We suspect he will become bogged down shortly and we have people standing by to assist him. Carefully. We want to lead him to the appropriate conclusion but not in a way that could be considered coercion by a skilled lawyer.”
“Promising,” Koizumi said. “If one of them turns himself in, we can turn this to your advantage, Your Majesty.” She cocked her head to the side slightly. “While we can understand the actions you have taken, the wider world community may not be so forgiving, no matter what we tell them.”
T’Challa nodded, his expression grim. “I am aware of that, Your Excellency.”
“But if Lang turns himself in, that will be the story,” she continued. “If he gives up the others, we can be… vague about Wakanda’s involvement. Or, if today’s discussions go well, we can tell them that Wakanda was holding them under official UN sanction.”
“I would consider myself very lucky if my foolish actions received such a light consequence,” T’Challa said. “I failed to consider the good of my country when I made my decisions. I cannot do that again.”
“We do not wish to drive Wakanda back into isolation,” Clements said and many of those at the table nodded in agreement. “And you have come to us, freely and willingly. That speaks loudly in and of itself.” He glanced over at Vasilescu. “As… cathartic as recriminations are, it would better for us to sit down now and work out what we are to do together. To show how the Accords will work for the countries of the world.”
Vasilescu’s sour expression deepened for a moment then he sighed and nodded. “Very well. I cannot deny King T’Challa’s genuine remorse for his actions in Bucharest and the generosity both he and his country have shown to the victims. I could wish that it had never occurred in the first place but that is not something that lies on King T’Challa’s shoulders. Rogers was the instigator of that mess and it is with him that my… discontent truly lies.”
T’Challa finally relaxed and beside him, he heard Tony’s faint sigh of relief. Vasilescu’s restrained animosity had been a worry but now that the man was on board, albeit somewhat reluctantly, he felt that they could make some concrete plans. And it seemed the rest of the Council agreed.
“Then let us start examining contingencies,” Clements said. “As good as your security is, Your Majesty, I think we must take a pessimistic view and plan for the worst.”
“I quite agree, Your Excellency,” T’Challa said then he turned his mind to all the ways things could go wrong at home.
The ICC Investigators arrive to conduct some interviews. It goes better than Tony expected, even when the questions turn to something he'd rather not talk about.
I'm using the third season Crossing Lines team because Carine Strand is into being honest, above board and objective and as much as I like Louis, I think Carine is the better one to handle the aftermath of the CW. Also, I'm not quite confident enough to write Carl Hickman. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tony leaned back in his chair and eyed the two ICC investigators who were about to interview him. One, a German named Sebastian Berger, appeared to be on the verge of fanboying all over him, which he was faintly amused about. It was easy to see that Berger’s Italian colleague, Marco Costante, was even more amused, though he was refraining from actually saying anything about it. Tony suspected he was trying to be professional and saving it up for later when he and Berger were in private and he could tease him… relentlessly probably. Neither man seemed hostile or antagonistic, which Tony was tentatively pleased about. He knew that could change based on what sort of remit the investigators had but it was, at least, a good start.
Rhodey was in a separate room with a British man called Luke Wilkinson and the severe blonde woman, Carine Strand, who was the leader of the ICC team and, to Tony’s surprise, an American. Vision was being interviewed by the remaining members of the team, a Dutch woman named Arabela Seeger and a plummy English woman with the mouthful of a name of Ellie Delfont-Bogard. It was an interesting division of their forces and Tony suspected that Strand had picked who was going to interview whom very carefully to ensure the best results.
“So,” he said, breaking the silence. He hated silences but he’d long ago stopped caring about what people thought about that. He knew some people perceived it as a weakness to not be able to maintain silence but Tony was perfectly capable of babbling away, saying everything and nothing, which was often more effective than remaining silent. He’d certainly found it to be so. “How are we doing this?”
“We already have your written statement about the events of the… civil war,” Marco said, indicating the folder he’d brought in with him. “And Dorn is satisfied with its clarity. It also gels with what the members of the old Accords Committee have said. So we really just have some clarifying questions to ask.”
“Ask away,” Tony said with an expansive wave of his hand.
“Might as well start with the big one. Get it over and done with,” Marco said. “Siberia. You went alone and did not make any contact with the Committee or your fellow Avengers prior to doing so. Dorn’s satisfied that it fundamentally falls under the coverage of the previous agreement for you to bring in Rogers and Barnes but you were a bit reticent about why you did what you did.”
Tony grimaced. “It was the only way Wilson would tell me where they’d gone. If I went alone and didn’t tell anyone else.”
Both Sebastian and Marco looked at him like he was an idiot and in retrospect, he kind of had to agree with them. When you looked at that decision with a cool head, it was stupid. I mean, sure, tell Wilson yes but given that Wilson had been breaking the law left, right and centre, he’d really had no obligation to keep to that agreement beyond the doors of the prison. He supposed he’d wanted to not… betray people who had already betrayed him. Which made him feel like an idiot now that he thought about it.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, pre-empting their response. “I was an idiot. Me, Rogers and Barnes against five Winter Soldiers was already bad odds. Add in the fact that Barnes had already been triggered once by Zemo and could be again and then it would have been me and Rogers against six Winter Soldiers and it looks even stupider.” He sighed and scrubbed his face with one hand. “I was still, even then, trying to bring them in peacefully. I knew what Ross wanted was against the Accords and I should have brought it to the Committee but Ross is famous for shooting first then shrugging and saying oops afterwards when everyone’s dead and nothing can really be done about it. Even the super soldier serum can’t raise Rogers and Barnes from the dead. I didn’t think I had time.”
“That makes a little more sense,” Sebastian said, though he still sounded dubious.
“Just a tiny bit,” Marcos replied with a wry smile, holding up one hand with his forefinger and thumb not very far apart.
Tony chuckled. “I’ll also concede that I probably still had a head injury at that point, hadn’t slept for more than 15 minutes at a time in about three days and was having on and off symptoms that felt disturbingly like a heart attack but that my doctor says was probably gastrointestinal in nature because I hadn’t eaten much in those three days and what I had eaten was mostly grease and sugar.” He paused for effect. “I may not have been at my best when it came to making judgement calls.”
“That makes a lot more sense,” Sebastian deadpanned and the three of them laughed.
“It does,” Marcos said, his smile fading a little as he looked down at his notes. “Dorn also noted you were very vague about what happened in the bunker. You mentioned the Winter Soldiers had been killed by Zemo and then you, Rogers and Barnes had a disagreement.” He raised an eyebrow at Tony. “A disagreement that left you injured and Barnes without an arm.”
Tony stilled and his face went blank. “It’s… fundamentally what happened.”
Marcos nodded to himself and he and Sebastian exchanged glances, as though Tony’s reaction was something they’d expected. Sebastian reached out and turned off the digital recorder sitting in the middle of the table.
“Dorn needs to know and he suspected you would be reluctant to speak about it on the record,” Marcos said. He was firm but there was a kindness in his voice as well. “He’s willing to allow this to be off the record but he needs to know in order to make a balanced decision. He directed us to get an off the record verbal statement as well as a written record of the events that will remain confidential.” He paused for a moment. “Dr Stark, if he doesn’t have your version of events, he can only make a decision about possible charges based on what Rogers says when and if he submits a statement.”
Tony grimaced and looked away. He could see the logic in what Costante and, through him, Dorn was saying and as little as he wanted to relive the events or talk about them, he really didn’t want Rogers to lie about it all again and get away with it.
He swallowed hard but then turned back and nodded. “Right.” He licked his lips. “Right… so… after I found the dead Winter Soldiers, I met up with Rogers and Barnes. That was when Zemo started monologuing about the shit that happened in Sokovia and how he wanted to tear the Avengers apart and blah blah blah. Then he…” Tony hesitated for a moment. “There was a video. Of the Winter’s Soldier’s mission on December 16, 1991.”
Marco looked blank but Sebastian’s eyes widened. “That’s… that’s the day your…”
“My parents died.” Tony’s voice was flat and empty. “I thought it was a car accident but it wasn’t. They were murdered by the Winter Soldier. The video showed it clear as day. He punched my father in the face until he killed him and then strangled my mother.” His breathing hitched for a moment but his face was blank. A muscle in his cheek twitched. “I’m guessing HYDRA paid off the coroner or something because no one gets strangled in a car accident.”
There was a moment of stunned silence then Marcos asked carefully, “I… see. What happened next?”
Tony’s jaw tightened before he forced himself to relax a bit. These men were not his enemy and he understood why they needed to know. Given his past record on the matter, Rogers was unlikely to tell any truth that would paint his precious Bucky in a bad light and whatever physical evidence existed in the bunker would simply show there had been a fight, not what it had been about.
“I asked Rogers if he’d known since he looked remarkably unsurprised to see what had happened to my parents,” he said through gritted teeth. “He tried to prevaricate and when I pushed him further, he admitted that he’d known. Barnes also admitted to remembering the mission. That was about the time when the fight started, though I’ll admit I threw the first punch.”
“What did Barnes and Rogers do?” Marcos asked.
“Barnes was mostly defending himself,” Tony replied. “Rogers was protecting his friend.”
“I thought he was your friend as well,” Sebastian asked.
Tony twitched at the question, feeling a sense of sour amusement that at least he wasn’t the only one who had completely misread that relationship. “So did I.”
“What happened?” Marcos prompted as gently as he could.
Tony decided to rip the bandage off and get it all out as quickly as possible. “We fought. It was ugly. At one point, Barnes tried to rip the arc reactor out of my suit and triggered an automated defence mechanism that blew off his arm. Lucky for him, he was using his mechanical arm so he didn’t get himself killed. Then Rogers got me down.” He grimaced. “The suit isn’t really designed for close combat fighting and as for the other weapons in it, well… while I was angry with both of them, I didn’t want to kill them, even then.” His expression turned very grim. “I’m not sure either of them realised that if I’d really wanted them dead, they’d be smeared across the bunker walls right now.”
Marcos and Sebastian exchanged glances. Tony ignored them and scrubbed his face with one hand.
“Anyway, Rogers got me down and smashed his shield into my faceplate until it broke off,” he continued. “He raised his shield again and I thought he was going to bring it down on my face or neck. He sure as shit looked like he wanted to kill me at that moment. But instead he used it to smash the arc reactor in my suit. That disabled it. He got up and picked up his bestest buddy…” He knew his voice sounded sour and bitter when he said that but he really didn’t give a shit. “I told him he didn’t deserve the shield that my father made. He dropped it and they left.”
Marcos’ expression was bland and indecipherable and Tony had to admit he was impressed. He honestly had no idea how the man was reacting to what he’d just said. Sebastian was a little easier to read – there was anger and outrage on his face and Tony was fairly sure it was directed at Rogers and Barnes and not him.
“They didn’t make sure you were alright? That you could get out of the bunker yourself?” Marcos asked.
“No.” Tony’s voice was flat and bleak.
“How did you get out?”
“Friday… the AI that runs the suit… sent out a distress call to Vision when she lost contact with me,” Tony replied. “He contacted Pepper… Ms Potts… and a Stark Industries team was sent to retrieve me. Vision cleared it with the Committee. Thankfully, the clauses surrounding rescue missions in other countries had pretty much been hammered out already so he wasn’t delayed at all.”
“That son of a bitch,” Sebastian snapped.
“Sebastian,” Marcos said warningly.
The German grimaced. “Yeah, I know… professionalism. Rogers is still a son of a bitch.”
“I agree,” Marcos said. “But let’s not say that around Carine.”
“Rogers fan?” Tony said cynically, the muscles in his shoulders crawling into tense knots at the idea of a Cap fangirl being in charge of the investigation.
Marcos shook his head. “A fan of rules, responsibility and professionalism. We’re supposed to be unbiased and objective.”
Tony relaxed again, his muscles unknotting. A fan of rules and responsibility sounded like someone who wouldn’t be blinded by Rogers’ charisma. That boded well for a clear and concise investigation that wasn’t biased in any way, not in the direction of Team Cap and not in his team’s direction either. That was something Tony could accept with equanimity.
“Just off the record,” he said, levelling a finger at Sebastian. “I agree with him.”
Both of the investigators chuckled then Marcos looked down at his notes. Sebastian leaned in and they both pretended to read as a cover to allow Tony to regain his composure and let the jitters caused by having to talk about the fight in the bunker settle down. After a few minutes, Marcos closed the folder and Sebastian turned the recorder on again.
“Moving on,” Marcos said more formally. “The other question Dorn had was about the initial briefing regarding the Accords. Your statement seemed to say that it was the first time Rogers and the rest of the Avengers had ever heard about it.” He frowned. “Dorn wondered whether that was an error.”
“Nope,” Tony said, deliberately leaning back in his seat and affecting a casual slouch. This was something he’d learned a long time ago – letting his posture affect his mood. It didn’t always work and was highly dependent on what was going on but it usually had at least a small effect. After having to relive the events in Siberia, he was almost willing himself to calm down a little. “When I walked in and told them about the Accords that was literally the first time they’d heard about them.”
“But the process has been public ever since the events in Sokovia,” Sebastian said, looking taken aback. “The discussions and the early drafts of the Accords were on the UN website and it was widely reported.”
“I know,” Tony said. He grimaced and sighed. “I didn’t realise what kind of vacuum I left when I stepped down from the Avengers. That was the sort of thing I usually took care of and alerted people about. I wasn’t really expecting Rogers, Vision or Maximoff to have picked up on it but I expected that Wilson and Romanov would have been paying attention and keeping themselves in the loop on world matters. I certainly was even though I wasn’t an active Avenger. I’m still Iron Man, after all.”
“Wasn’t there some sort of handover when you stepped down?” Marcos asked.
Tony smiled wryly. “You’re assuming there was some sort of structure and operational hierarchy. Nothing like that existed and I didn’t even think about it because…” He waved a hand. “I’m… me. Structure and hierarchy have never really been something I’ve paid a lot of attention to. I mean, I do pay attention to it but mostly I get to bypass that sort of thing. Pepper has always handled the rest of it.”
He stared at the wall past the two men opposite him for a moment and a frown creased his forehead. “If the Avengers had been run like a business, I probably would have picked up on it quicker than I did. I know people tend to think that I spent all my time before Afghanistan partying, drinking and bedding whoever caught my fancy but I did actually run SI in between all of that. And frankly, I never did as much of that as the gossip rags said I did. But talking about who I’d slept with last week sold more newspapers than talking about how I took SI from being a multimillion dollar American company to a multi-billion dollar, multinational company spanning nearly forty countries and employing close to half a million people worldwide.”
He snorted. “And people wondered why I backed the Accords. Apart from the fact that one of the first things I said after I got back from Afghanistan was all about accountability, I’m not really in a position to be lifting my middle finger to the entire damn world. I won’t put my employees at risk for a temper tantrum.”
He glanced over at the two ICC investigators and waved a hand apologetically. “Sorry for the rant. Back to my point… to be honest, it didn’t occur to me to wonder who was going to do the things I used to do. I still did some of it anyway but… the reasons I stepped back meant that as far as I was concerned, that was Rogers’ problem to sort out and I guess part of me still believed the propaganda. He’s the man with the plan, after all.”
“Yet you weren’t surprised when you found out they didn’t know?” Marcos asked.
Tony contemplated that for a moment. “No, I wasn’t. I mean, I was but… I just wasn’t. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to admit it to myself but I think even then I subconsciously knew they were… spoiled brats?” He snorted. “I’m not sure if those are the right words but they’ll kind of do. Even though they didn’t consider me a part of the team, it was somehow my fault they didn’t know. And my fault the Accords existed at all, apparently.”
Sebastian snorted. “They really weren’t paying attention then, were they? It wasn’t the events in Sokovia that prompted the Accords. That just catapulted them to the forefront. It was the fall of SHIELD that got them started. The idea that the Avengers weren’t answering to anyone made people nervous. The only reason things never went any further than low-level discussions and a few half-hearted drafts was because you were involved.”
Tony blinked at him. “What?”
“Sebastian’s correct,” Marcos said. “Your little speech about accountability after your return from Afghanistan and the fact that you followed it up by actually being accountable, to the public in particular, set a lot of minds at ease.” He smiled slightly. “Dorn’s been talking to a lot of people within the UN. And he knows a lot of people. They all said more or less the same thing. While you were involved, they were willing to let things go because you told the right people the things they needed to know, even if it was after the fact. Once you stepped down, that’s when the Accords really started taking off. King T’Chaka’s willingness to step up and be the public face of the UN Accords Committee, both as a way of smoothly bringing his country back into the world and later because of Lagos, just solidified everything. He may not have been well-known but King T’Chaka impressed a lot of people very quickly, including Dorn.”
It was clear to Tony that not only did these men hold Dorn in high regard but that Dorn had more power and influence among the movers and shakers in the UN than he’d initially thought… and more than his contacts had told him. He wondered if he should be nervous and then decided he wasn’t. If Dorn’s chosen team was headed by a woman whose priority was professionalism, responsibility and objectivity then he was willing to leave his fate to the man. And that was something he didn’t often say.
“Huh,” he said. “I’m more used to people looking at my involvement and immediately wanting me gone or held in check.”
“Maybe here,” Marcos said. “But we don’t pay that much attention to US gossip rags.” He started to grin, clearly teasing just a little. “And our gossip rags are far too sophisticated to care about some American billionaire. Unless he decided to marry European royalty. Then he’d be interesting.”
That startled a laugh out of Tony and he shook his head with a smile. “I can’t see that happening.”
“Then you’re fine,” Marcos said. He sobered and looked down at his notes as he got the interview back on track. “So, they didn’t know, they hadn’t ever made any effort to know and from your report, they didn’t listen to you either. Okay. That’ll clear things up for Dorn.”
“That’s it?” Tony said with surprise. He’d been expecting some sort of censure for not making them listen.
“That’s it,” Marcos replied. “You sent a copy of your presentation with your report and Dorn was satisfied with it. If they chose not to listen, then that’s not on you. That’s on them.”
Tony sat back, feeling a little nonplussed. It did occur to him that it was a bit sad and more than a little worrisome that he was always surprised when people either simply accepted his word as truth without him having to do a whole song and dance to convince them or didn’t think he’d failed at a task when he’d tried his best. It was a novel feeling and certain things that Rhodey had said began to finally really sink in.
These people – experienced, objective, independent investigators – believed he had done his best and that the fault lay with others. He let himself believe them and let that belief sink in. It was amazingly freeing. He felt the weight lift off his shoulders and with it went the guilt that he’d felt since the civil war had ended. He had tried. He had tried to explain and to make the others understand. And sure, maybe he hadn’t been the best at it but ultimately they were the ones who had closed their minds and dismissed everything he’d had to say.
It wasn’t his fault.
Well, taking a fifteen year old into a fight in a foreign country without his guardian’s permission was his fault – and something he really needed to talk to Peter about – but the rest of it wasn’t.
He shivered a little as the tension he’d been carrying for weeks, maybe even months or years, flowed out of him. This time when he lounged casually in his chair, it had less to do with trying to project an image and more to do with him actually feeling more relaxed.
“So, is there anything else?” He grinned mischievously. “Or can I take Berger here on a tour of paradise… also known as my workshop?” Sebastian perked up, excitement written all over him. Tony then paused and raised a finger. “Or would that be considered bribery and corruption?”
Sebastian slumped down in his chair with an expression of disappointment and that drew a laugh from Marcos and Tony. There was also a hint of shame about the man as well that Tony didn’t understand but decided not to ask about.
“We’re done,” Marcos said. “If we have any more questions, we’ll email or call.” He looked over at the sad and sorry sight Sebastian was presenting and laughed again. “And no, since we’re done, it wouldn’t count as bribery and corruption if you were to show Sebastian your workshop. We’ll come and get him when we have to leave.”
Sebastian perked up again. “Really?”
Tony got up and waved Sebastian over. “Come on. I’ll introduce you to my AI, FRIDAY. No flirting though.”
“I make no promises,” Sebastian replied as he left the room with Tony.
Just some quick comments since there was no way to address some of this in the chapter.
1. Yes, Carine Strand very carefully selected who was going to interview whom. She felt that she and Luke would be too authoritative and severe to do anything other than put Tony's defences up and Arabella and Ellie lacked the experience to get anything other than glib answers out of him. Sebastian the computer geek and Marco who knows all about impossible crusades seemed the best options.
2. Yes, gastrointestinal problems such as severe reflux can present with similar symptoms to a heart attack if they're allowed to build up enough. I know this because it happened to me. I had symptoms that seemed enough like a heart attack that when I called 000 (our version of 911 or 999) and described them, they not only responded an ambulance immediately but also sent a MICA (mobile intensive care ambulance) unit along as well. That was a fun night... not. :D
3. Yes, Tony does answer the question about what happened in Siberia... mostly because Marco gives him a sensible reason for it - because Dorn can only make a decision based on the evidence he has in front of him. Tony needs to give his side of events. So, he doesn't like it but he does it.
4. For those who are curious, Sebastian's odd reaction of shame to the question of graft and corruption is because he had a small problem with gambling in the first season of Crossing Lines that nearly got him thrown off the team. Also his previous boss, Louis Daniel, was perhaps a little... relaxed about doing things that were ostensibly illegal but necessary to get the information needed - like allowing Sebastian to hack in places he should not be.
We're stepping away slightly in this chapter to answer the question: What did happen to Natasha? When we last saw her in Chapter 5, she'd just been tranqed by persons unknown. This is what happened to her.
Natasha slowly woke to the feeling of being hungover and lethargic. It took a moment for her brain to kick into gear and even then it was sluggish and slow but she remembered what had happened and knew what she’d been hit with. She’d used the sedative drug a few times during her career at SHIELD. It was effective against almost everyone… including her apparently. She blinked and tried to move.
That was when she realised she was tied to a chair. What’s more it had been very efficiently done. Her arms were bound to each other as well as to the back of the chair, wrenching her shoulders into a moderately uncomfortable posture. Her ankles and legs had been tied to the legs of the chair and when she looked down, she saw the chair was metal. There’d be no breaking it if she tipped it over.
“You were easier to catch than we expected.”
She looked up to see a woman glaring at her with a man standing at her side. “Sanchez,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Gordon.”
“Aw, so you actually do remember your former colleagues,” the man Gordon said mockingly. ‘And here I thought we were just rubbish to be discarded in favour of your buddy Steve.”
Natasha blinked and swallowed. “The info dump.”
“Yeah, the info dump,” Sanchez said sarcastically. “The info dump that nearly got me killed and did get Gordon’s wife and kids killed.”
Natasha’s heart started hammering and she felt the adrenaline started to kick in. “I… didn’t know,” she said. The stammer and her nervousness were not entirely feigned.
“Bullshit,” Gordon spat. “You knew damn well you’d be putting a lot of good people… people who were horrified to find out that HYDRA had infiltrated us… in danger. You just didn’t give a shit. Too busy kissing Captain America’s ass. Too busy thinking that just because he liked you that made you a good person.”
Natasha flinched at that razor sharp assessment of her character but was unable to deny it. She had liked having Steve’s good opinion. She’d liked that he liked and respected her. It made her feel like she was doing something worthwhile.
It had made her feel like she was a good person.
And in a sharp flash of realisation that she wished she could forget, she knew why she’d turned on Tony at the airport and thrown that bullshit about his ego in his face and why she’d let Steve go. Because no matter how much Tony might like her, he’d never trusted her. Not really. Not the way Steve did.
And Tony didn’t make her feel like a good person. Tony looked at her and she felt like he was assessing her and find her wanting. That he was measuring her current behaviour against her past behaviour and wondering whether to believe her, wondering whether she was lying to him… whether she was going to stab him in the neck again.
As if her thoughts of Tony Stark had been obvious, Sanchez leaned forward and glared at her.
“If it hadn’t been for Tony Stark, I’d be dead,” Sanchez hissed. “And you betrayed him… for Rogers.”
“Rogers wasn’t going to stop,” Natasha snapped.
Sanchez snorted. “Only because you didn’t try.” She sneered and turned away. “Why are we bothering? This one’s got her head shoved too far up her own ass to listen to anyone other than herself.”
“Entertainment? Besides, we can do things other than talk,” Gordon suggested, sending a smirk Natasha’s way. “They only said we had to capture her, they didn’t say what condition she had to be in when we turned her over.”
“Good point.” In one swift move, Sanchez stepped over and backhanded Natasha across the face, sending her head snapping to the side and splitting her lip. Sanchez then returned to Gordon and smirked. “You know what? I do feel better now.”
“Atta girl,” Gordon said dryly.
“So this is what you’ve sunk to,” Natasha sneered, feeling the blood drip down her chin.
Sanchez snorted. “Like you can talk. How many enemies did you torture… oh, sorry. Interrogate.”
“We’re not enemies.”
The moment the words were out of her mouth, Natasha knew they’d been the wrong thing to say. Gordon’s face darkened into something ugly and Sanchez looked like she was about two seconds from ripping Natasha’s face off.
“We became enemies the moment you decide your buddy Steve was more important than the people who you’d worked with for years,” Sanchez snarled.
“HYDRA…” Natasha began but she was cut off before she could say anymore.
“Do you know how many people in SHIELD were actually HYDRA?” Gordon growled, stepping closer. “Twelve percent. Almost all of them in the upper echelons or in support roles. There were maybe one or two active agents who were HYDRA. They didn’t recruit until someone was worth recruiting. Until they had some kind of power or position that made it worthwhile.”
Natasha paled. Twelve percent? It couldn’t have been that low.
“Most of the HYDRA bastards disappeared into the woodwork the moment they got wind of the info dump,” Sanchez said, looking at Natasha with contempt. “Barely any of them were caught and instead you got a lot of us killed. Or worse.”
Natasha knew there were indeed worse things than being killed if you were caught spying, especially on an unfriendly foreign power. Being killed was actually the best case scenario if that happened. Dying was quick and clean. The other options were messy and painful and lingering.
“I’m not even going to bother asking why you did it,” Gordon said with open and obvious contempt. “Because I’m betting the answer is because Rogers said so and you’re apparently too enamoured with his pretty face…”
“Or is it his pretty dick she’s enamoured with?” Sanchez sneered. “I’ll bet he has a very pretty dick. A good old polite college boy’s dick. Just enough to jazz with but not enough to be offensive.”
Gordon snorted with amusement. “What is with your current obsession with dicks? You were assessing Stark’s dick the other day.”
“That’s what he gets for putting it on the internet,” Sanchez said with a flash of a grin.
“I don’t think he was the one to put it on the internet,” Gordon replied.
Sanchez waved a hand. “Semantics. Stark has a lovely dick and from all reports he knows how to use it well.” She smirked at Natasha. “Maybe you should have concentrated on sucking Stark’s dick instead of Rogers’. You might not be here right now.”
“Maybe she tried and Stark wouldn’t have her,” Gordon added.
“Could be,” Sanchez said knowingly. “He is a smart man after all.”
Natasha fumed silently, desperately wishing she could lash out either physically or verbally. The physical was impossible with the way they had her trussed up and the verbal… well, she might get somewhere with that but Gordon and Sanchez weren’t green agents who would be vulnerable to her blandishments. They were hardened and experienced. What’s more they were used to counteracting PsyOps. That had been part of their job in SHIELD. They were well aware of her skill set and clearly not inclined to listen to anything she had to say anyway. They were just as likely to put a bullet in her brain. Her best bet now was to wait until the handover with their contact, whoever that was. Handovers were always the best times to try to escape and if that didn’t work, she could always try her blandishments on her new captor.
As if she’d summoned them, there was a knock on the door. Gordon and Sanchez exchanged glances and Sanchez grinned as Gordon headed over to the door. She picked up a roll of duct tape and ripped a length of tape off the roll.
“Your ride’s here, Widow. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to see them,” Sanchez said as she placed the duct tape over Natasha’s mouth. She felt a frisson of apprehension run down her spine. Gordon and Sanchez were seemingly covering all the bases and erasing her opportunities to escape. She didn’t like that one bit.
Then Gordon ushered a rather urbane looking older man with salt and pepper hair into the room. For a moment Natasha couldn’t see who it was then he stepped in front of her and she paled, genuine fear flooding through her.
“Hello, Natalia,” the man said with an avuncular smile. His Russian accent was barely noticeable. “How lovely to see you again.”
Natasha could only stare at him and try to hide her fear. She’d been prepared for the UN or SHIELD or even the US government but not for her Red Room past to come back for her.
The man chuckled and turned to Gordon and Sanchez. “If I may… would you be so kind as to carry her out to the van I have procured? I don’t think it wise to disturb the excellent job you’ve done restraining her.”
“Sure,” Gordon said with a smile. “The deal’s still intact?”
“Of course, Mr Gordon. Once we are done with her, she will be handed over to the United Nations. Russia does like to be a good world citizen after all.”
Gordon shook hands with the man then he and Sanchez approached Natasha. As they did, her much-vaunted composure finally broke and she began to scream and thrash in her bonds.
It didn’t do any good.
1. Yes, the 12% number is for the lulz since that's a recurring theme in the MCU. Also, the percentage of HYDRA in SHIELD can't have been very high otherwise I suspect Fury would have figured it out sooner and without almost getting killed. So I may be overestimating the 12%.
2. No, Sanchez and Gordon are not HYDRA. They were both SHIELD but Sanchez nearly got killed and Gordon's family were killed and they've been stewing in their anger and bitterness for a fair while. It hasn't been good for them. Also, they were SHIELD and SHIELD did prove that they weren't above using dodgy methods, even someone coded as 'good' like Coulson. (Threatening to taze a guy with a high tech pacemaker? Yeah, that's not at all dodgy.)
3. Yes, Russia will eventually hand over Natasha to the UN. After they've got what they want. This may or may not happen in this fic. I haven't decided yet.
4. Also, I will confess to flagrantly stealing the line about Steve's dick from Stephen King's IT. One of my favourite books. I haven't seen the movie yet. It's on my to do list.
So, there's one more person we need to catch up with. If you remember, Scott Lang was having some serious second thoughts. Here's what he finally decides to do.
This is set at the same time as the ICC interviews with Tony and the others in Chapter 8.
Scott rubbed his forehead as he looked at the mass of paper on the desk in front of him. He hadn’t really thought about what reading the Accords might entail and he was thoroughly bogged down. From what the others had said, he’d thought they were only a few pages long and mostly consisted of ways for the government to control the Avengers but now that he looked at the tome sitting on the desk in front of him, he wondered where the hell they’d gotten that impression. And why he’d actually believed it in the first place. He’d never been involved in government stuff before but he had dealt with enough lawyers to know that any legal document was always as long and as wordy as the lawyers could possibly manage to make it. Sometimes he swore they got paid by the word.
He gathered up the copy of the Accords he’d been given and the copious notes he’d made about them and headed towards the main doors that blocked off access to their section of the palace. When he knocked politely, the doors were opened immediately by one of the guards outside.
“Um, hi,” he said to the woman staring at him with an unreadable expression. These women who guarded the doors – the Dora Mil-something, he thought they were called – scared the blue blazes out of him. He was pretty sure they could pick him up and break him over their knee whenever they damn well pleased and he really didn’t want to give them a reason to do so. He raised the papers he was carrying slightly. “I, uh… need some help. With this Accords stuff.”
He couldn’t read the expression that flickered over the woman’s face but then she was gesturing to him. “Come,” she said. “Princess Shuri left instructions that you were to be brought to her if you asked for assistance.”
Scott scurried along beside the guard. “Um, Princess Shuri? Are you sure we should be bothering someone that important with this? Shouldn’t I just speak to a lawyer or something?”
A faint look of approval flickered over the woman’s face. “She already agreed to assist. Under the circumstances, it was felt someone of sufficient rank should do so.”
“Oh,” Scott said. He desperately wanted to ask what the ‘circumstances’ were but suspected that this woman wouldn’t answer him. He got the sudden and very alarming impression that he was actually in some very deep, very murky waters and he wasn’t that good a swimmer.
They moved into a more populated area of the palace and Scott quickly noticed that the looks directed at him… weren’t precisely unfriendly but they weren’t exactly friendly either. They did put his metaphorical hackles up and his sense of apprehension deepened. It didn’t get any better when they stopped in front of a very imposing door and the guard knocked on it.
“Come,” came the quick response from inside and Scott was ushered into the office.
It looked like any other office Scott had ever been in, except for the obvious Wakandan influence in the decorations and the view of the jungle through the large picture windows. Behind the desk sat a woman who looked just as intimidating as the guards, though when she looked at him, she smiled politely.
“Mr Lang, please sit down.” She gestured to one of the chairs in front of her desk. “I am Princess Shuri, King T’Challa’s sister. How may I help you?”
Scott hurriedly sat down, barely managing to avoid dropping his papers. He didn’t notice the guard leave the room. “Um,” he said, sort of shrugging his shoulders to bring attention to his burden. “I’m… getting a bit lost in the Accords. I understand a lot of it but it gets a bit… legalese in places and that’s where I’m lost.”
Princess Shuri’s smile warmed a little, much to his surprise. “We expected that might occur, which is why I agreed to make myself available. Where precisely are you running into difficulty?”
Scott juggled his papers, nearly dropping them, then Shuri stood. “Come,” she said. “There is a table we can use over here.”
Scott got up and joined her at the table over in one corner of the office with a sense of relief. He spread out his papers and picked up the first set.
“Well, I… kind of started with the clauses about how the Avengers can be used, since that’s what everyone was complaining about,” he said. “You know, that we’d be used as attack dogs or something.”
“I see,” Shuri said encouragingly.
“And, well, it started off okay but I’ve gotten bogged down here,” he put the papers down and splayed them out so she could see his notes.
Shuri looked over them and then opened the Accords to the clauses in question. “The legalese does get rather dense in places, doesn’t it? Simply put, the UN Accords Council does not control the Avengers. These clauses govern what the Council can and can’t do. These ones what the Avengers… or any other Enhanced being or superhero… can and can’t do and these final clauses are about what will happen in the event of emergencies, reviews, grievances and other such minutiae.”
They leaned in and Scott explained what he’d already worked out and what he didn’t understand. Shuri then explained those parts, often patiently repeating things three or four times with slightly different phrasing until Scott understood. Finally, he stood upright and frowned down at the Accords.
“So, there’s no way the Avengers could ever be used as attack dogs.”
“Only if they allowed themselves to be,” Shuri replied.
“Huh,” Scott said. “So Ross couldn’t have used the Avengers in any way?”
Shuri looked amused. “Of course not. Secretary Ross is not even a member of the United Nations General Assembly, let alone the Accords Council.”
“So why did Stark do what he did?” Scott asked with a frown. “Why bow to Ross’ wishes if Ross doesn’t actually have any power?”
“Dr Stark was in a rather tight spot,” Shuri said. “While he, Colonel Rhodes, the Vision and Ms Romanov had certain protections from Ross given they had signed the Accords, none of the rest of the Avengers had the same. And as was said to my brother just this week, Secretary Ross is the kind of man who shoots first and says oops later. Dr Stark was attempting to appease Secretary Ross while trying to gain the same protections for the rest of his teammates, which obviously meant getting them to sign the Accords.”
“Oh,” Scott said with understanding.
That actually made some sense and it also made him wonder why Steve and the others hadn’t signed. One of the other clauses that had been in pretty plain English was the one that said that all signatories of the Accords had the right to propose amendments and that superheroes had the right to stand down if they felt that their rights were being infringed by the clause or clauses they were trying to get amended. In fact, if a superhero actually did that, the whole process was expedited and the hearing about the amendment had to be held within forty-eight hours. And Captain America standing down would have sent a pretty powerful message. Before anyway. Not so much now.
“So this thing with the ICC…?” Scott began. “It’s for real?”
“It is,” Shuri confirmed. “In fact, the members of the New Avengers who were involved are being interviewed by the ICC investigators today. My brother is going to the Netherlands for his interview tomorrow.”
Scott was actually startled. It somehow hadn’t occurred to him that the other side would really be interviewed. He’d thought it might be some kind of witch hunt or kangaroo court but if Stark and even King T’Challa were being interviewed then it had to be a genuine investigation. He winced. One that… he was probably not going to fair very well in when he thought about what he’d done at the airport.
“We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” he said soberly. “Us, I mean. Not you. The… ExVengers. That’s what they’re calling us, isn’t it?”
“Team Cap is the other term,” Shuri supplied then she nodded. “And yes, you and the rest of your teammates have broken a large number of laws. No matter what your reasons are, no matter if there is any justification behind them, that fact does not change.”
Scott nodded. Yeah, he got that. That was exactly the same thing that had landed him in prison for the Vista job. Most people congratulated him for what he did, feeling he had meted out a certain amount of justice for Vista’s shady dealings. But the fact remained that he had broken the law. He’d known that when he’d planned the job, when he’d carried it out and afterwards when he’d been arrested. In fact, his willingness to plead guilty and save everyone the trouble of a trial that would just prove him guilty anyway had earned him a lighter sentence.
It occurred to him that he was, right now, in exactly the same situation. Except he wasn’t on his own this time though. If he turned himself in, what effect would it have on the others? He’d never been a snitch in prison. Did he really want to start now? He frowned as he weighed that with the possible consequences of not turning himself in now that he knew what was happening. He could probably kiss his chances of ever seeing Cassie again goodbye. They weren’t great right now but at least if he stood up and took responsibility for his actions and didn’t try any lame excuses, he might have a slim chance of gaining favour with Maggie. Not that he really wanted Cassie seeing him in prison but… well, that ship had already sailed.
With all of that in mind, the decision was actually pretty easy. He didn’t really know the people he was with, he didn’t really know why they’d done what they’d done – which was his fault, he’d admit that – and they’d lead him into something which had definitely not been in the brochure when they’d recruited him. Even just the possibility of seeing Cassie again trumped any loyalty he might have held towards them. Part of him felt like it had died just to think that but he’d had a lot of time over the last few weeks to think about his priorities and sacrificing himself on someone else’s altar wasn’t one of them.
“Um, Your Highness?” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I think I’ve made a mistake.”
“Oh?” Shuri said, raising an eyebrow.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I said yes,” Scott admitted, feeling a bit stupid admitting that out loud. “I guess I was just a bit star struck by… you know, Captain America asking me for help and I…”
Shuri cocked her head slightly. “Yes?”
If she had been one of the panthers her people so revered, she’d would have been utterly still with just the end of her tail twitching. This was all being recorded, of course, both to provide evidence for Wakanda’s continuing good intentions and to ensure that Lang couldn’t later claim to have been coerced or had his words taken out of context. And they needed Lang to actually say the words out loud. They couldn’t allow his intentions to be simply implied.
Scott drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulder. Cassie. He was doing this for Cassie. He owed her everything and these guys nothing. He had to remember that. “I’d like to turn myself in.”
The smile Shuri gave him actually made him feel a little proud, which was odd but he wasn’t going to argue with it. It made the squiggly guilty feeling in his stomach go away a little.
“I am glad you have come to that conclusion,” Shuri said. The smile slipped off her face and she gave him a serious look. “You are aware that even by turning yourself in, you will not be able to escape the consequences of your actions?”
Scott nodded. “Yeah, I know. But we’ve made a mistake. I haven’t finished reading all of this…” He waved his hand at the Accords. “But I know that much at least. And…” He sighed and looked at Shuri with a miserable, rueful smile. “If I do this, my ex-wife might one day forgive me enough to let me see my daughter again. If I don’t, there’s not a chance in hell that will ever happen. Cassie means more to me than anything, even if I haven’t been very good at showing that.”
“You cannot change the decisions you made in the past,” Shuri said. “But you can, at least, show that you will do better in the future.”
“Yeah,” Scott said. “That. You made it sound much nobler. Can I use that? It makes me sound like I’m not a complete idiot.”
Shuri laughed and waved him back over to her desk. “You may. Now, we have to work out the best way of handling this. I think, for starters, it might be best to move you out of the wing the others are staying in. You will be discussing many things with lawyers and representatives from the Accords Council so it would be wise not to put you in danger from your… teammates.”
Scott grimaced. “Yeah. Barton’s been pretty volatile on the few occasions I’ve gone out and they’ve been around. I’m pretty sure he’d kill me if he found out what I’m doing.”
It gave him a few second thoughts but then he put Cassie’s face in the forefront of his mind. He suspected he was going to be doing that a lot.
“I will instruct the Dora Milaje to fetch your belongings quietly and we will put you…” She paused and thought for a moment. “I think we will put you in the Royal wing. I will have an apartment cleared. It will contain only the bare necessities and you will be guarded at all times.” She focussed on him. “You understand why?”
Scott nodded. “I’m a prisoner. The Royal wing is safe from the others but I still have to be a prisoner.” He grimaced and reluctantly said, “Wouldn’t it be better to… put me in a cell?”
“Perhaps,” Shuri said. “But a prison is an obvious target.”
Scott frowned then he realised what the princess was saying. If his… teammates thought he was being held prisoner and decided he was worth breaking out, they’d be looking for him in a prison, not in the Royal wing.
“The apartment will also be better suited to the number of people you will likely have coming to speak to you,” Shuri added. “They can come to you and will be able to see that you are contained and guarded.”
Scott nodded then his eyes widened. “Oh! The suit. The Ant-Man suit. It’s in my room. Could you… see that it gets back to Hank and Hope? I’m guessing that would be a good start.”
“It would be a very good start,” Shuri said. “Now, have you read the clauses in the Accords that cover law breaking, reviews and such like.”
“Uh, no,” Scott said. “Would I be covered by them? I didn’t sign.” Shuri raised an eyebrow at him and he smiled wryly. “I guess I’m signing the Accords as well.”
“You don’t have to but it would be wise,” Shuri replied.
“Right.” Scott sighed. “So about these clauses?”
Shuri got to her feet and waved him back over to the table. She diverted via the door to speak to one of the Dora Milaje standing guard outside then she joined him and they bent their heads over the Accords once more. This time Scott was definitely paying attention. His future depended on it.
One last little look at what other people are doing before we go back to Tony and find out what he's up to. This time, we see what's happening with the ICC and how they react to the ExVengers' statements.
“We cannot publish these,” Carine Strand said as she stormed into Dorn’s office.
Michel Dorn looked up from the report he was reading with a raised eyebrow. Someone who didn’t know him might assume he was annoyed at the interruption but Carine knew him well enough to see the amusement.
“And why is that?”
Carine waved the print outs of the statements they’d received from the ExVengers. “We’d be accused of creating forgeries and trying to undermine the rogues.”
Dorn set his report aside and leaned back in his chair. “And why is that?” he repeated, his amusement more obvious now.
“These statements make them sound delusional,” Carine replied, much of her indignation draining out of her. She dropped into the chair in front of the desk and held them out to Dorn. He took them and started skimming. It didn’t take long before he looked back up at her with a startled look.
“We are sure these are from the rogues?”
Carine nodded. “King T’Challa confirmed it. He told them that the email addresses he gave them were completely secure and could not be traced but of course his people are monitoring them. He even went the extra mile and got his people to check the actual computers they used to ensure they really typed them up themselves.”
Dorn looked back at the reports and read a bit more. He frowned. “Is Mr Rogers implying that the UN is a government?”
“Uhuh. And a corrupt one at that,” Carine said. She winced. “The Assembly’s going to love seeing that bit. And if you think his is bad, try Maximoff’s. That woman is rewriting history with every word.”
Dorn picked out the Sokovian woman’s statement and skimmed it. His eyebrows rose higher as he did and he shook his head. He riffled through the rest of the statements and looked over at Carine.
“We’re missing one.”
“Two actually,” Carine replied. “Lang is turning himself in. Princess Shuri is making sure he knows exactly what the Accords say before he goes any further or speaks to a lawyer or any of us so he’s neck deep in that at the moment. If all goes well, we’ll get a far better statement from him simply by exercising a little patience than if we demand one now.”
“Good,” Dorn said. “And the other one we’re missing?”
“Romanov.” Carine grimaced. “There’s been no sign of her. We asked Rhodes and Stark when we were in the US and they haven’t heard from her or seen her. King T’Challa reported that she certainly hasn’t tried to breach the borders of Wakanda. She’s in the wind somewhere and seemingly not inclined to surface any time soon.”
“Hmm, odd,” Dorn said. “Have our people make inquiries wherever and with whomever they can. Ask Dr Stark and Colonel Rhodes to do the same. After her display in Washington DC after the fall of SHIELD, she doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who would simply let this pass without trying to manipulate things in her favour.”
Carine nodded then she waved the statements. “What about these?”
“We will make a public appeal for the rogues to come forward and allow us to ask further questions,” he said. The amusement returned to his face. “Unfortunately, Carine, we cannot force anyone to make sense.”
“But you can’t make decisions based on statements that are so far from reality, can you?” Carine said with a frown.
“Yes and no,” Dorn replied. “In many ways, I have to take their statements as their version of events as they saw them. I can also have them assessed by a psychologist to give me some idea of what their state of mind might be.” He smiled fondly at her. “Carine, you know that witnesses can be unreliable. Ask twelve people what they saw and you’ll get twelve different versions of what happened with no guarantee that they are actually even remotely accurate.”
Carine relaxed and smiled wryly. “I know.”
“We have plenty of forensic evidence as well,” he continued. “Including CCTV footage and the recordings from the Iron Man and War Machine suits.” He paused. “Incidentally, has Dr Stark agreed to forward us the vision from the Iron Man suit from Siberia?”
Carine grimaced. Marco had briefed her on what Stark had said off the record and she’d been appalled. She’d then set that aside. She could be horrified in her own time. On the job, she was objective.
“He has,” she said. “It arrived this morning.”
“Good. Make sure no one other than myself and your team sees it.” Dorn sobered and frowned. “I have no intention of breaking my word to Dr Stark.”
Carine nodded. “Marco said he understood the necessity of telling you, even if he didn’t like it.”
“A pragmatic decision.” Dorn set the statements down on his desk. “I know the statements trouble you but whatever charges arise out of them, they will get their chance to challenge them in the right place – court.”
Carine sighed and rubbed her forehead. “How many of them are actually going to make it to court? I mean, Maximoff sounds insane.”
“They will be assessed,” Dorn said. He riffled through the statements again and raised an eyebrow at Carine. “And what about Sergeant Barnes?”
“He’s gone back into cryosleep, according to King T’Challa,” Carine replied. She hesitated for a moment. “You want his statement as well?”
Dorn contemplated that question. “Yes, though perhaps not just yet. According to Mr Clements of the Accords Council, the rogues are planning some mischief. If Sergeant Barnes is out of cryosleep, no doubt he will be dragged into it. So let’s leave him there until the rogues are sorted out. For his sake and ours.”
Carine nodded. “He’d have to be tried separately anyway. His case…” She sighed. “That’s going to be messy, even without knowing the details of what was done to him.”
Dorn nodded and leaned back in his chair. “That is true. A good lawyer will undoubtedly argue diminished responsibility for his actions as the Winter Soldier… with some justification, it must be said.”
“He wouldn’t be acquitted, surely,” Carine said, her frown deepening.
“Unlikely,” Dorn replied. “But it would see him most likely sent to receive the appropriate treatment in a suitable secure facility rather than sent to prison. I certainly wouldn’t argue against that too strenuously.” He sighed. “No, it’s his actions in Bucharest, Leipzig/Halle and Siberia that will make this very complicated. He was not, according to all reports we have seen, the Winter Soldier at those places and during the events that took place there.”
“Makes the cases against the others look simple in comparison,” Carine said with a sympathetic smile.
“Without a doubt,” Dorn replied. “They broke laws. Those laws can be defined and their actions detailed with evidence to support it. Simple. The only question is what their defence will be.”
Carine raised an eyebrow. “If their statements are anything to go by? We know best. We’re better than you. And the UN is corrupt so we shouldn’t listen to them.”
“They are making my job much easier than it could have been,” Dorn said with a smile. “If they actually had some legitimate reasons why they broke all those laws, I might have had a challenge on my hands.”
“I’m inclined to think it’s not about the Accords,” Carine said dryly. “Based on their statements, I don’t think any of them actually know what’s in the Accords.”
“Which also makes my job easier,” Dorn said. “I can prosecute them solely based on the laws they broke. I don’t need to bring up the Accords.”
Carine nodded then ran a hand down her face briefly. “Oh, Lagos’ Chief of Police is coming in tomorrow to discuss the incident there with us.”
Dorn nodded. “What time?”
“He’s due at ten.”
“Good. I have meetings tomorrow morning but I’ll make the time to drop in and meet him.”
“He says he’s bringing plans with him,” Carine said, arching an eyebrow at Dorn.
Dorn looked surprised for a moment. “Plans? Then the rumours are true? They knew about Rumlow?”
“I’m assuming so,” Carine said. “No one in their government has denied those rumours whenever they’ve been asked, even if they haven’t strictly confirmed them either.”
“Well, that should make things interesting,” Dorn said with a chuckle. “It’s surprising they haven’t gone public about it.”
“Apparently the Chief of Police is being accompanied by a couple of Generals from Nigeria’s military,” Carine continued. “I can’t get any indication as to precisely why but interestingly enough, there are some military officials from about half a dozen countries in The Hague for some sort of unofficially official NATO meeting.”
“How curious,” Dorn said dryly. “Their timing is impeccable.”
“I suspect it might be to our advantage to make ourselves available for any other meetings that might conveniently pop up,” Carine said equally as dryly.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dorn said. He leaned back in his chair and picked up the statements Carine had brought. “Back to this... I know you’re concerned about them but they won’t be the be all and end all. If the charges that are levied due to the statements prove to be erroneous, we’ll have them struck out.”
Carine grimaced then nodded. “Alright. Oh, Arabella and Ellie are heading back to the States tomorrow to interview Spider-Man.”
“Ah yes,” Dorn replied, his interest clearly piqued. “Dr Stark has been hedging around that interview, hasn’t he? Not to mention the entire question of who Spider-Man is.”
Carine nodded. “My suspicion is Spider-Man is underage. The airport CCTV footage doesn’t have audio but the Iron Man and War Machine footage does. He certainly sounds young.”
Dorn sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Please ask Ms Seeger and Ms Delafont-Bogard to make an appointment to speak to Dr Stark while they are there. If Spider-Man is underage, I would like an explanation as to why Dr Stark brought him along.”
Carine looked amused. “They’ve already requested that Dr Stark be present at the interview. If Spider-Man is underage, we will need an adult present anyway.”
“Excellent,” Dorn said with an approving look. “Though ultimately, since Spider-Man is clearly a superhero and enhanced, it is more of an issue for the Accords Council and Spider-Man’s parents than one for the International Criminal Court.”
“Do the Accords actually cover underage superheroes?” Carine asked.
“Dr Stark has raised the matter with the Council and it is being discussed,” Dorn replied. “It is a complicated issue but one that does need a solution. We cannot expect every enhanced person to be an adult going into the future.”
“That sounds like a nightmare,” Carine said with a shake of her head. She got to her feet. “But as you say, not really something we have to worry about.”
“Unless they break the law,” Dorn said with a smile.
Carine laughed and headed back out of the office. Dorn picked up the statement and started reading them properly, something that was punctuated by numerous shakes of his head, disbelieving noises and a great deal of note-taking.
Betty and Tony bond over how much they like Bruce, how much of a dick General Ross is and whether purple is a good colour for stretchy pants.
I know almost nothing about legal stuff so let's all just wave our hands and say, "It's the MCU." :D
Also, it's my birthday tomorrow so I'm going to give all of you a present and post two chapters! :D
Also! I'm kind of handwaving that the events of Thor: Ragnarok are happening somewhere in the universe around about the time all of this is happening. I have no idea whether that's where the movie is actually going to sit but I have plans for Bruce later so I kind of need him out of the way for now. So Ragnarok is happening somewhere and Bruce will be back at an appropriately plot important moment. I'm still working out whether I'm going to include something about that post-credits scene from Dr Strange with Stephen and Thor or just pretend it didn't happen. Not sure. I'll see how it goes.
Tony leaned back in his chair and looked at the screens scattered around him. When Betty had said she had plenty of information that could be used to bring Ross down, she hadn’t been kidding. There was stuff here dating all the way back to the original experiments that resulted in Bruce becoming the Hulk. Some of it was things Tony had already dug up but the rest of it… he stared and shook his head. He didn’t know how Betty had gotten hold of some of it but it was dynamite.
“Hey, FRI? Can you ask Betty if she can come here?”
“Sure thing, boss!”
Tony smiled fondly then turned to looked at the visual representation of the sound file FRIDAY had dug out of the information from Ross’ little foray into Rio de Janeiro to try and nab Bruce. He felt so proud of his girl FRIDAY when he looked at that sound file. It had been some ambient noise picked up by the soldiers’ microphones in their com units but FRIDAY had heard something more in it and isolated it, amplified it then played it for him. That sort of initiative and intelligence meant she was growing fast. He was so proud.
He poked the file and played it. The voice was deep and rumbling and very familiar. “Leave me alone.”
“Was that the Hulk?”
Tony swivelled around on his chair to look at Betty, who was frozen in the doorway, her eyes wide.
“Yup,” he said. “FRI found it. It’s from Rio.”
“Leave me alone,” Betty echoed softly as she came further into the room.
“Jolly green’s not a mindless monster,” Tony said. “But you already know that.”
“I do.” Betty smiled and perched on one of the stools. “So what did you need?”
Tony waved a hand at the screens surrounding him. “Where the hell did you get half of this? Some of it is classified up the wazoo.”
Betty’s expression was almost guilelessly innocent but there was mischief gleaming in her eyes as she answered. “From the General’s home computer.”
Tony stared at her then began to smile. “Uh… details would be good.”
“I got most of this before the General retired,” Betty said, her amusement obvious. “He was still living in the same house I grew up in. I snuck in and out of that house so many times that it was no hardship to do it again. Though technically I didn’t have to, I suppose, since I still have a key that he has never asked to have back and he’s never forbidden me from the house. It was just more fun to sneak in and back out again.” She shrugged. “And the General is… not particularly computer savvy. He’s still using the same password he used when I was a teenager.”
“You are a very devious woman,” Tony said, his smile widening into a grin. “I’m glad you’re on my side.” He hesitated for a moment. “I just wanted to check though… are you sure you want to do this? Once the ball starts rolling, there’ll be no turning back. And with all of this…” He waved at the holograms and computer screens. “He’s likely going to face a prison sentence, no matter what kind of favours he calls in. The illegal experimentation alone is enough for that.”
Betty was silent for a moment. “I’m sure,” she said finally.
“You’ll have to testify.”
“I’m willing to do that.”
Tony nodded. “Okay, then. FRI, add this to the stuff we already had and contact that government lawyer.”
“You got it, boss,” FRIDAY said.
Betty sighed and leaned one elbow on the bench. “It’s going to be a mess, isn’t it?”
“That it is.” Tony grimaced. “It would actually be easier if we could get Bruce to testify as well but… I genuinely can’t find him.”
Betty looked surprised. “Well… he’s always been good at hiding.”
“It’s not that,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “I mean, I believe you but no matter how good he is, FRIDAY would have been able to find him by now.”
Betty clasped both hands tightly together. “Do you… do you think he’s… dead?”
“No,” Tony said with confidence. “I think he’s alive. And with the news I received today, I… think I know where he is. Sort of. Maybe.” He waved his hand and brought up a new file before sending it over to a screen in front of Betty. “I traced him to Thailand then I lost him. But… there were reports of a disturbance in the night just outside the village I tracked him to. There’s an SI office in Bangkok so I sent a couple of local people out to the village. The people there weren’t much for talking but what they did say was that there was a light from the sky and a mark burned into the ground. They refused to describe the mark and they’d already dug it up and destroyed it.”
“So, who has him?” Betty asked.
“Well…” Tony frowned. “My first thought was Asgard since that description sounds a lot like the way Thor comes and goes via the Bifrost. But I’ve, uh…” He looked a little embarrassed then he smiled sheepishly at Betty. “Thor’s said a couple of times that Heimdall watches all, including those of us on Midgard, and we could always contact him via Heimdall in an emergency. So I’ve been… trying to get Heimdall’s attention for the last few days. And, boy, do I feel like an idiot saying that. Anyway. No go. Either he’s not paying attention, I’m not worthy of his attention or… I don’t know.”
Betty leaned forward with a frown. “You said that was your first thought.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, running a hand through his hair. “If it was Thor who came to get Bruce for some reason, I can’t believe that Bruce wouldn’t have sent some sort of message to me.” He smiled wryly. “I’m pretty sure he knows I’m keeping an eye on him.”
“You think it was someone else?”
“Yeah.” Tony threw his hands up. “I just don’t know who. Or why. Or where he might have gone.”
Betty looked at him for a moment. “You’re worried.”
“Yeah,” Tony admitted with a sigh. “I mean, I know jolly green is pretty much indestructible but…”
Betty nodded and he could see the worry in her eyes as well. “Yeah.”
Silence fell and they stared at each other, the screens and even the floor for a while. Then Tony cleared his throat and sat up.
“Right. Enough of that.” He pointed at Betty. “Your father. You ready to testify against him?”
Betty drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes. I…” She grimaced. “I can’t say I’m going to like it but… it’s been a long time coming.”
Tony nodded but before he could say anything, FRIDAY spoke up. “Boss? You have a call from Grant Lawson.”
“Put it through,” he said with a wave of his hand. “He’s the lawyer I’ve been talking to,” he added, sotto voce to Betty. She nodded but didn’t say anything as a man’s voice was heard on the other end of the line.
“Dr Stark? It’s Grant Lawson. I, er… this is quite the bombshell you’ve thrown at me.”
Tony smirked. “Isn’t it just.”
There was a sigh at the other end of the line. “Please tell me you got all of this legally.”
“He didn’t. I did,” Betty said.
“Dr Elizabeth Ross.”
Silence greeted that then Lawson cleared his throat. “Dr Ross. I see. How did you get this information?”
“Some of it is mine from the work I did for my father,” Betty said, grimacing briefly. “The rest I retrieved from my father’s computer. I had full access to his home at the time.”
“Right,” Lawson said dryly. “Okay. I can work with that. Are you willing to testify about the… experiments involving Dr Banner?”
“Yes,” Betty said firmly.
“And about the… events surrounding the… creation of the Abomination?”
“Yes,” she said again.
“Okay, good,” Lawson said. “I don’t suppose Dr Banner is willing to testify?”
Betty and Tony exchanged looks and Tony leaned forward. “We can try to find him and ask but I’d plan for things without him there. If we find him and he’s willing then that’s an added bonus.”
Lawson sighed. “Yeah, okay.” There was a momentary pause. “What about the Abomination? Blonsky? Do think there’s a chance he’d be willing to testify?”
“I don’t even know where he’s being held,” Betty replied, sounding baffled. “I couldn’t find it in any of the stuff I gave you.”
“The Abomination is being held in a secure facility in Nevada. At least, he was the last I knew,” Tony added. “But from what I’ve heard, he’s even less of a talker than the Hulk is. And he either can’t or won’t transform back into Blonsky.”
“So that’s a dead end,” Lawson said with a sigh. “Alright. I’ll work with what I have. More may come to light once we get the ball rolling. I’ll have to go to the Attorney General and I am going to have to speak to you, Dr Ross, about the attempted kidnapping.”
“Of course,” Betty said. “Whenever you want.”
“I’ll have my office contact you.” Lawson cleared his throat. “Anyway, thank you for the bombshell, Dr Stark. I’ll be in touch.”
“You’re welcome,” Tony said wryly before the line went dead. He looked over at Betty. “Well, there it is.”
Betty sighed and nodded then smiled at Tony’s obvious concern. “I’ll be fine. I hate that it’s come to this but…” She shook her head. “There are limits and I think even my mother would agree he’s gone way past them this time.”
They fell silent again and just stared at all the information displayed on the screens around them. Finally Tony shook himself into motion, causing Betty to give a start.
“This is all very maudlin but I have a better idea of how we can waste our time,” he said with a clap of his hands. He grinned at Betty and pointed a finger at her. “Stretchy pants. Jumbo size.”
Betty started laughing. “Only if we make them in purple.”
Tony laughed as well. “Deal.”
The Russians make a discovery at the Siberian base that is not going to make Tony happy. Tony then has a
great terrible... Tony has an idea. Time will tell what kind of idea it is.
The last thing Rhodes was expecting was a phone call from the Russian contingent at the Siberian HYDRA base. The New Avengers were very firmly staying out of that investigation, though the Accords Council had agreed to send a copy of any data they found to Tony, Betty and Hope to see what they could make of it. Rhodes knew Betty and Hope had started looking at the first lot of data that had come in but he wasn’t sure about Tony.
Still, being told by FRIDAY that there was a phone call for him, rather than Tony, from a General Salinsky was a surprise and after everything that had happened lately, Rhodes was filled with trepidation as he eased himself down into the seat behind his new desk, the servos in his leg braces whirring. He drew in a breath then picked up the phone. FRIDAY put the call through immediately.
“General Salinsky? This is Colonel James Rhodes.”
“Ah, Colonel Rhodes.” Salinsky’s Russian accented English had an air of strained joviality about it that made Rhodes’ metaphorical hackles stand on end. “It’s a pleasure to speak to you, though I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Better circumstances?” Rhodes said carefully. “Have there been more Winter Soldiers discovered?”
“No, thankfully,” the General said. He hesitated for a moment. “No, this is… perhaps both less serious and more serious. My men have been puzzling over a series of odd marks on the walls of the base. They didn’t seem to be very old but they couldn’t quite place what they were. This morning, one of my men finally solved the puzzle.”
He paused and Rhodes barely managed to contain a frustrated noise.
“Go on, General.”
“Cameras. Little, tiny, portable cameras that had been suction mounted onto the walls and then removed.” The General paused. “Whatever happened here between Dr Stark and Rogers and Barnes was recorded, Colonel Rhodes. It seems that HYDRA is not as dead as we all might wish.”
“Son of a bitch!” Rhodes bit out then he dragged his temper back under control. “My apologies, sir.”
“Think nothing of it, Colonel,” General Salinsky said with wry humour. “I said much worse when I realised the implications of this.” He paused again. “HYDRA will not keep those videos secret forever, Colonel. It would be best to prepare Dr Stark for that inevitability.”
Rhodes was silent for a moment. “I… confess to being surprised that the Russians would care. I thought you weren’t that happy with him right now.”
“We would have liked to have been warned about the Winter Soldiers lurking right under our noses, it is true,” Salinsky said. “However, he has signed the Accords. We can respect that. And if we wish to ask for the New Avengers’ assistance with matters in our country or with training our own team of superheroes, we would do well not to alienate either Dr Stark or yourself by allowing this to be an unpleasant surprise.”
That rather self-serving reasoning was actually what made Rhodes believe what the General had said.
“That’s… a fair point,” he said.
“We are not entirely without care for the rest of the world, Colonel,” the General said, his jovial manner returning.
They spoke for a few more minutes about the progress that was being made in the base then the General hung up and Rhodes did the same. He leaned back in his chair and stared unseeingly at the opposite wall. This was not good and Tony was going to hate it but Rhodes couldn’t see any way they could stop this from happening. HYDRA apparently had not only the video of the assassination of Howard and Maria Stark but they had actual video evidence of what had happened in the base. Rhodes knew it wasn’t so much a question of if they would release those videos as when they would do it. Whose reputation did they want to try and damage more – Tony or Rogers? Theoretically, from what Tony had told them, the videos should point sympathy towards Tony but whether that actually happened would depend on if or how they were edited.
He sighed and pushed himself upright, balancing himself against the desk until he was stable. Once he was sure of his footing, he headed for Tony’s workshop. There was no point putting this off.
When he got down to the workshop, he could hear the pounding of Tony’s music even through the soundproof glass. He tapped in his code and the door opened smoothly. The music immediately dropped in volume and Tony looked up and around, smiling when he saw Rhodey.
“Sugarplum! What brings you down here? The braces working okay?”
“Yeah, they’re fine, Tones,” Rhodey said as he walked over. “I’ve got some… bad news.”
Tony immediately put down the tool he had in his hand and swivelled around to face him properly. His expression was sober and just a little apprehensive. “What’s up? Rogers and his group…?”
Rhodey shook his head and decided not to try and sugarcoat this. Tony wouldn’t appreciate it and it would just drag out an unpleasant conversation.
“The Russian General in charge of the examination of the Siberian bunker contacted me,” he said. “They found signs that there were portable cameras in the bunker. There’s video of everything that happened between you, Rogers and Barnes so either HYDRA is more active than we thought and knew what was going on or Zemo’s plan was more in-depth than anyone expected. Either way, we can’t discount that it includes releasing those videos.”
Tony paled and sat down heavily on his stool. He swallowed hard. “Is he sure?”
Rhodey nodded and closed the gap between them. He leaned against the bench and let Tony lean in against him, seeking comfort.
“Yeah, he’s sure,” Rhodey said with a sigh. “They’ve apparently been puzzling over some marks on the walls since they got there and one of the General’s men just figured out what they were.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Rhodey paused for a moment. “What do you want to do?”
Tony snorted. “What can I do? You know what the internet is like. You put something up there, it’s there forever, especially something like this which is probably going to go viral in a millisecond. I probably could take it all down but not fast enough to stop people seeing it.”
Rhodey had been thinking about that all the way down to the lab. “Maybe they should see it?” Tony looked askance at him and he hurriedly continued. “I know, Tones. It’s personal and you don’t want them to see it and I agree but… it’s out of our hands now. If we try to remove it, it looks like we’re covering something up. We let it be seen and… well, unless they edit it, you’re the victim and it’ll show that, right?”
Tony shifted uncomfortably then pressed against Rhodey’s side some more. “Maybe,” he said reluctantly. “I… did throw the first punch though.”
“After you’d watched your parents murdered by the man who wasin the room with you and after Rogers had lied to your face,” Rhodey replied. “The only people who wouldn’t have sympathy for you there are either stupid or Cap fanboys. Not worth listening to in either case.”
Tony snorted. “I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I,” Rhodey admitted. “But we can’t stop them.”
Tony scrubbed his face with both hands. “Okay, so… we talk to Pepper and the PR department at SI. Get some sort of press release ready. Then… wait?”
“Not much more we can do,” Rhodey said.
As he watched, Tony froze and his attention turned completely inwards. Rhodey waited patiently. He’d seen this before and it always resulted in an idea that was either utterly brilliant… or utterly insane. The line was pretty thin between those two and Rhodey hadn’t always been able to tell which the idea was until he and Tony were sitting in a holding cell waiting for Edwin Jarvis to come and bail them out. It was always Edwin Jarvis, at least until he passed away. Neither of them had ever wanted Howard Stark, Obadiah Stane or worse, Rhodey’s Mama to be the one to do that. Jarvis just tsked at them and got them out. The others… Rhodey shuddered at the thought, even now.
“Zemo,” Tony finally said.
Rhodey blinked at the apparent non-sequitur and frowned. “What about him?”
“Maybe he can tell us what kind of videos are going to be released.”
Rhodey stared at Tony blankly. “Uh, you want to ask the guy who caused all that shit in Siberia whether or not he’s going to hang you out to dry?”
Tony nodded slowly. “Yeah, I do. And I think he’ll give me an honest answer.”
Rhodey swallowed down his first reaction, which was to call the whole idea crazy, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Okay… why?”
“Because I don’t think he was ever after me,” Tony replied. He grimaced. “He used me. Used my parents’ deaths. But I don’t think I was ever his target. I was just… convenient. He wanted to tear the Avengers down using Rogers, not me.”
“Why though?” Rhodey said, frowning. “He’s Sokovian, right? That’s what he was pissed off about. All of the Avengers were involved in the shit that went down in Sokovia. Why target Rogers in particular?”
“I don’t know,” Tony replied. “But I’d like to ask him.”
Rhodey sighed. “Tony…”
Tony waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah. I know all the arguments you’ve got about why this is a phenomenally bad idea and I don’t actually disagree. But I still think he’ll tell me.”
Rhodey gave him a long look. “You’re going to do this whether I agree or not, aren’t you?”
“Probably,” Tony said with a wry smile.
Rhodey sighed. “Yeah, okay, but I’m coming with you. I don’t trust that bastard.” He paused and looked thoughtful. “And hell, I suppose I’ve got a question for him too.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey said. “Like, how the hell did he know Rogers hadn’t told you?”
Tony quirked an eyebrow and looked intrigued, if slightly uncomfortable. “Yeah, that’s a damn good question. Let’s ask him.”
This is kind of a cliffhanger, isn't it? Ooops!
Tony and Rhodey have a chat with Zemo. It goes... well, it goes. Zemo doesn't lie to them but his answers aren't exactly what they wanted to hear. Then.... the videos come out, everyone and their dog has an opinion on them and thanks to Betty and Peter, Tony ends up being teased relentlessly, which is way better than having to deal with the videos.
Thank you all for the birthday wishes and the comments. I'm sorry I didn't get around to answering all of them but I was a bit busy last weekend and through the week.
Also, I'm sort of assuming that Spider-Man: Homecoming happened somewhere in the background. I haven't seen it (*gasp* I know! What am I doing????) but I've seen a lot of gifs on tumblr from it so I'm going to kind of handwave that it's kinda sorta happened in the background somewhere.
Oh, and next week, we find out what Christine Everhart has been up to... Oooooh!!
Zemo sat at the cold metal table, his expression placid. He smiled politely as Tony and Rhodey walked into the room and gestured with one of his shackled hands for them to sit. It had taken some convincing of both the Accords Council and the Joint Counter Terrorism Centre to allow them to speak to Zemo and it had finally only been permitted if the conversation was monitored and recorded. Given the Council and the JCTC had both been informed about the possibility of the Siberia videos by the Russians, Tony and Rhodey had agreed.
“Dr Stark. Colonel Rhodes,” Zemo said with a nod of his head. “I will admit that I was surprised to hear you wished to talk to me. I do hope it won’t be more tiresome invective.”
Tony wasn’t sure how he felt when he looked at Zemo. He wanted to hate him, to blame him for Siberia at the very least but when he looked at it objectively, all Zemo did in Siberia was show him the truth. Which, frankly, put him one up on Rogers and wasn’t that just the darndest thing.
“Nah, I’m over that,” Tony said, leaning back in his chair casually. “I just had a couple of questions.”
Zemo looked curious and gestured for Tony to continue. “By all means, ask away. I know I will be going to prison for the rest of my life. What reason do I have to conceal anything anymore?”
Tony decided to usurp Rhodey’s question first of all because he had to admit that the more time he’d had to think about it, the more curious he’d become. He doubted Rhodey would mind and he knew his friend would be quick on the uptake. “How did you know Rogers hadn’t told me about my parents’ murders?”
Zemo smiled faintly, looking distinctly unsurprised at the question. “I was watching the Avengers for a long time before I took action, Dr Stark. There was Captain America, scurrying here and there, all round the world, searching under every bushel and bucket and bale for his friend. His actions made perfect sense. For a long time, yours did not. You did… nothing in regards to Sergeant Barnes. You did not grieve for your parents, you did not rage, you did not search, you did not confront Captain America, you certainly did not stymie his search. In fact, you did nothing out of the ordinary. It took me longer than I care to admit to realise why that must be. That you simply did not know, that Captain America was concealing the truth from you. I entirely misjudged the depth of Steven Rogers’ cruelty.”
Tony shuddered and Zemo gave him a sympathetic look. “I know I too was cruel and I do apologise for that,” he said with a strange sort of gentleness in his voice. “I could pontificate and say that it was a form of kindness to tell you that which Rogers was concealing from you but I did not do it to be kind. I used the video as a weapon. I used you as a weapon. I will admit to that. I do feel some regret at causing you such pain. We are alike in that way – the loss of our families having permanently marked us. But at least you know now who and what Steven Rogers truly is. What measure of a man he is.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Tony said sourly as he rubbed unconsciously at his chest.
Rhodey gave him a worried look then picked up the questioning. “You were recording everything.”
His blunt statement – not a question at all – actually broke through Zemo’s placid calm for a moment and the man gave him a startled look before regaining his composure.
“I was,” Zemo said. He gave Rhodey a curious look. “May I ask how you discovered that? It is not yet time for the videos to be released.”
Rhodey’s expression hardened. “The Russians figured it out and told us. When are they going to be released?”
“Soon,” Zemo said, settling back into that placid calmness. “You need not be so concerned, Colonel Rhodes. I have no great vendetta against Dr Stark. I did initially but in the months after the disaster in Sokovia, I changed my mind.”
“Why?” Rhodey demanded.
“Because he came back,” Zemo said simply. “He took responsibility for his actions and indeed the actions of others and he did all that he could to help the people of Sokovia. While I do not like what happened, I can respect a man who does what Dr Stark did afterwards.” A darkness flickered across his face. “No, Dr Stark was never my target. The others were. The Avengers. The great Captain and his sycophants who gave no care to how they had left my country and my people.”
Zemo smiled, wide and smug. “The videos will be my last dagger hurled at Steven Rogers.” He sobered and inclined his head slightly in Tony’s direction. “I am sorry that they will cause you further pain, Dr Stark.”
“You won’t stop it,” Tony said flatly.
“No,” Zemo replied. “Or rather, I could not stop it even if I wanted to. By now, the release is inevitable.”
“Right,” Tony said. He got to his feet and stalked over to the door. Rhodey hurriedly joined him and they left without a backwards glance.
“Tones?” Rhodey said, placing a hand on Tony’s shoulder.
Tony stiffened under his touch then relaxed again. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not.”
Tony sighed as they got into the elevator. “No. It’s not. But it is what it is.”
Rhodey leaned against the wall of the elevator but didn’t say anything. There wasn’t much to say. Tony had hit it on the head. It was what it was. The videos were going to be released, now they just had to deal with them.
Unsurprisingly, social media went into meltdown.
Over in the lunatic fringe, diehard Captain America fans were up in arms, insisting it had to be a fake. They were countered by smug and obnoxious diehard Iron Man fans who were howling them down and causing internet brawls by claiming all sorts of things about Cap, most of which were erroneous at best and downright slanderous at worst.
In the mainstream, hashtags came and went, some persisting for a while then fading as others took precedence. Arguments swirled and ebbed before bursting into life as some new speculation took hold, was discussed, torn apart and discarded. The vocal talking heads in various news services across the world pontificated and ranted, changing their opinions like the winds. In their wake came more measured and sombre analysis as the videos were dissected.
In New York, Stark Industries released a brief statement confirming the truth of the videos and asking for privacy for Tony Stark at this difficult time. The first part of the statement was seized upon, the second part was almost entirely ignored. Thankfully, Pepper had anticipated this and more than the usual number of security guards were on duty in and around Stark Tower and at the gates of the Avengers Compound.
As the day progressed, things settled down somewhat and two hashtags in particular became prominent - #TeamIronMan and #NotMyCap.
At Stark Tower, the flowers began appearing around mid-morning. By mid-afternoon, there was a sea of blooms growing at a rapid place. While some of the notes attached to the flowers expressed support for Tony Stark, most were notes of condolence and sympathy for his parents. Periodically Stark Industries staff would move through the sea of floral arrangements, taking photos of some of the more poignant notes or the ones obviously from children before disappearing inside again. Commentators speculated that the pictures were being passed on to Tony Stark.
At the Avengers Compound, by the time early evening rolled around Tony was sitting on the couch, curled up into Rhodey’s side and all but engulfed by Stephen Strange’s cloak. Stephen had portaled in about half an hour after the videos had appeared online and was now sitting on the other side of Tony on the couch. Tony had his bare feet pressed against the sorcerer’s legs. He’d thought Stephen would complain about that but he hadn’t. Instead he had let his scarred hand fall to rest on Tony’s ankle, warm and oddly comforting.
Betty and Hope were on the other couch, scowling at the TV even though the current news show they were watching was largely leaning in Tony’s favour. Vision was in the kitchen, distracting himself by arguing with FRIDAY over a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Peter Parker, who had swung by shortly after school had let out, was currently stuck to the ceiling and twitching in agitation there after being banished from his perch on the back of the couch after fidgeting one time too many. It was a measure of the oddness of their lives that having a teenager stuck to the ceiling was considered completely unremarkable.
“Hi, welcome back. We’d like to welcome Dr Ernest Bagley to the program,” one of the talking heads on the TV, a pristine looking blonde in an immaculate blue suit, was saying. “Dr Bagley is an expert in the psychology of trauma and PTSD. Dr Bagley, thank you for coming in.”
“Not at all, Chantal,” Dr Bagley said. He was in his fifties at least and had the look of an elongated Santa Claus. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”
“You’ve had a chance to watch the two videos that are consuming the world,” Chantal said. “What’s your view on them?”
“They certainly made me wince,” Dr Bagley replied. “As you know, the official verdict on the Starks’ deaths was that it was a car accident… and if it hadn’t occurred so long ago, you’d have to expect some heads to roll in the wake of that particular video. Strangulation is not, after all, a normal cause of death from a vehicular accident. But that is beside the point. The official verdict was a car accident but a simple google search prior to today’s revelations would have brought up plenty of speculation about the cause of the accident, the most predominant one being that Howard Stark was drunk. He was known to be a heavy social drinker.
“An alcoholic?” Chantal asked.
“Unknown but largely irrelevant,” Dr Bagley replied. “One doesn’t need to be an alcoholic to be involved in an alcohol-related vehicle accident.” He cleared his throat as he got back on track. “We know from Tony Stark’s presentation at MIT recently that the moments before his parents left were still weighing heavily on his mind and that he argued with his father.”
Dr Bagley sat back. “Now imagine you are a teenage Tony Stark. You have perhaps a fraught relationship with your father – as many teenage boys do – but love your mother dearly and the last thing you did before your parents died was argue with your father and subsequently be sullen towards your mother. You can’t take back that argument or your sullenness. You can’t tell your parents you love them. You can’t help but wonder if your father was indeed drunk and smashed the car because of that.”
“Ouch,” Chantal said with a professionally sympathetic wince. “A lot of regrets there.”
“Exactly,” Dr Bagley said. “A nasty mix of emotions that you have difficulty dealing with because you are in the public eye. The Starks’ funeral was large and public. Tony Stark was forced to step up and take his father’s place in the company, albeit initially under the guidance of Obadiah Stane. He was still at MIT at the time, completing his studies. When you look at it objectively, when did Tony Stark have time to grieve properly, let alone come to terms with everything that happened just prior to their deaths?”
“Wouldn’t finding out the truth make things better?” the other talking head, a sombre African-American man, asked.
“It would, Jeff, if it had occurred in a calm, safe environment, surrounding by friends and loved ones,” Dr Bagley said with a nod. “Instead Dr Stark was forced to find out in a very harsh, unfriendly environment with the man who committed the murders standing right next to him. Compound that with Mr Rogers’ revelation that he had kept this information from Dr Stark and his initial attempt to lie about that and… well, Dr Stark’s reaction was unfortunate but entirely understandable. And predictable. And with Mr Rogers subsequently escalating the situation in the way he did instead of trying to contain it…”
There was a rather pained expression on Tony’s face. “Can we just… not? Please?”
FRIDAY muted the television, leaving everyone sitting there in a rather awkward silence. Then Tony snorted and extracted a hand from the cloak's depths long enough to wave it at them.
“Oh, go on.”
The silence continued then Betty cleared her throat. “So... how much of that was accurate?”
“You're more game than I am,” Hope said to her before Tony could reply.
Betty sniffed. “I've stood in front of a raging Hulk. I have no fear,” she said primly, amusement plain in her eyes.
“The Hulk likes you,” Hope pointed out.
“So does Tony,” Betty said, her lips twitching with mirth.
That comparison broke the last of the awkwardness and there was some muted laughter.
“You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to, Tony,” Betty said, directing a soft smile to the man in question.
Tony sighed. It had been a long, long day. Admittedly he’d spent most of it buried in his workshop after Stephen arrived but morbid curiosity had led to him asking questions of FRIDAY throughout the day so he’d had some sense of what was going on. And Pepper had sent him those pictures of the messages on the flowers at the Tower. That hadn’t been too bad actually. Some of them, the ones that remembered he was a person and not some sort of monolith, had been rather nice.
He had been contacted by a number of representatives from the Accords Council during the day as well. They hadn’t really wanted anything as far as he could tell other than to apparently… check in and make sure he was okay and express their sympathies. At least that was the way it had seemed to him and to FRIDAY when he’d asked her. It was odd but kind of nice too. They’d been a lot more genuine about it than he remembered people being when his parents had actually died.
T’Challa had also called. That had been a little less than nice, though that wasn’t T’Challa’s fault. The King had been very sympathetic without getting on Tony’s nerves – the man did understand what it was like to lose a parent under traumatic circumstances after all – but mostly he’d been calling to report that the rogues had seen the videos and there was… quite the commotion going on. T’Challa hadn’t been sure how it was going to pan out and whether they were going to believe the videos or Rogers but he had promised to keep Tony updated. His next call was going to be to the Accords Council but Tony had appreciated T’Challa keeping him in the loop.
“He was… pretty much spot on actually,” Tony said with a grimace. Rhodey’s arm tightened around his shoulders, the Cloak snuggled closer… if that was even possible and Stephen rather awkwardly gripped his ankle. “I have spent the past twenty-odd years blaming Dad. And myself. We’d argued… and Dad always drank more when he was riled up. And nothing riled him up more than arguing with me. When the coroner’s report came out sounding so bland, I just thought that Obie… Stane had paid them off to cover up Dad’s drinking and the fact it caused the crash. Stane never contradicted that the few times we spoke of it.”
Rhodey twitched and then said in a heavy voice, “Tones…”
“Yeah, I know,” Tony said unhappily. “It has occurred to me to wonder whether Stane was working with HYDRA or was even HYDRA himself. I… there’s still part of me that would like to think he wasn’t that bad, that it was just greed motivating him. There’s certainly no evidence he was in bed with HYDRA.”
There was a time when he wouldn’t have said anything like that in front of anyone other than Rhodey and maybe Pepper. He wouldn’t have sat here like he had been, letting the Cloak cuddle him and Rhodey and Stephen comfort him. He would have put on a flashy, obnoxious show of being okay, of being normal, and then hidden himself away in his workshop to lick his metaphorical wounds in private. He certainly wouldn’t have done this with Rogers and the others and he was fairly sure that wasn’t just his bitterness speaking.
It was a little scary, trusting people like this. Historically, trusting people had never really worked out well for him. In fact, discounting Edwin and Ana Jarvis, the only people he’d trusted and never regretted doing so were Rhodey and Pepper, which even he’d admit was a pretty sad and sorry state of affairs. But, after a lot of talking to Rhodey, he’d realised that his experiences with the ExVengers had given him some insight in how things shouldn’t be and this? How it was with Rhodey and Vision and Stephen and Hope and Betty and Peter? Was so very different and so much better. He’d allowed himself to start trusting them and so far it hadn’t come back to bite him on the ass.
“As much as I want to believe the absolute worst of him, I don’t think he was actually HYDRA,” Rhodey said reluctantly. “I’m willing to believe he sold to them though.”
“He probably did,” Tony said with a grimace. “Or at least he sold to people who either then onsold or gave the weapons to HYDRA. I’ve already tracked down a fair percentage of the weapons he sold. I started in the Middle East because, well… you know.” The others nodded. “But I shifted my attention to Eastern Europe after hearing Maximoff’s story.”
“He was selling there?” Rhodey asked.
Tony nodded then he snorted. “He was selling to practically everyone there but the actual governments. Not huge numbers though, nothing like he was doing in the Middle East. The Europeans pay more attention to that sort of thing and we haven’t screwed around in… and screwed up… their countries to the extent we have in the Middle East.”
“So there’s no way of knowing who dropped the bomb on the Maximoff’s home,” Hope said.
“No,” Tony replied. “Except to say it was not the recognised government of Sokovia nor was it any US forces. There were at least three different factions fighting in the country at the time as well as HYDRA mucking around and trying to twist things their way. It could have been any of them.”
“So Obadiah Stane was just an ordinary dick, not a neo-Nazi dick,” Betty said wryly.
Tony snorted with amusement. “Pretty much.”
A heavy silence fell and then Betty chuckled quietly. “You know, I saw the video of that BARF presentation you gave at MIT. It was disturbingly familiar, though you definitely pulled off sullen teenage angst better than I did. I went through a sort of emo goth stage when I was a teenager. The General hated it.”
Tony smiled just a little. “I thought we weren’t going to talk about our daddy issues.”
It was Hope who laughed then. “I think between the three of us, we go beyond mere issues and possibly move into volumes, even collections,” she said wryly. “Maybe even a whole library.”
“Am I the only one who had a normal upbringing here?” Rhodey said with amusement.
“I… do not really qualify for that question,” Vision replied from the kitchen, proving he had been listening.
“My childhood was fairly normal,” Stephen said with a grin.
“Mine wasn’t,” Peter piped up from the ceiling.
Tony jumped and stared upwards. He wasn’t the only one. “Jeez, kid. I forgot you were up there. Give an old man some warning next time. I have a heart condition, you know.”
He was smiling by the end of that and so was everyone else as they looked up at the fidgety teenager who was perched upside down on the ceiling. Peter looked a little sheepish as he flipped and dropped down into one of the spare chairs.
“Now that’s just showing off,” Betty teased.
Peter blushed and ducked his head a little, smiling at the good-natured teasing. “So Colonel Rhodes and Dr Strange are the only normal ones here. For a given definition of normal.”
“He is right,” Stephen said with a laugh. “Even if Peter’s home life were utterly normal, he still wouldn’t count because he’s a teenager and a superhero. James and I came to the weirdness later in life.”
“So what you’re saying is we’re all a bunch of weirdos, no matter how we got there?” Hope said with a gamine grin.
“Isn’t that a prerequisite for being in this line of work?” Rhodey said dryly.
Tony sniffed. “I’m not a weirdo, I’m a genius, a billionaire, a philanthropist and a playboy…”
“You know, I’m going to call you on that last one,” Betty said, all amused mischief. “I’ve been living here for a few weeks now and I’ve seen plenty of evidence for the billionaire, genius and philanthropist thing but playboy? Not so much. There has been a distinct lack of scantily clad women doing the walk of shame out of here in the morning.”
Tony raised an eyebrow and fought, mostly unsuccessfully, to control his answering grin. “First, if you think my playboy reputation hasn’t been well earned, you don’t pay enough attention to the tabloids. Second, who says it would be just scantily clad women walking out of my bedroom. And third, no one does the walk of shame out of my bedroom. They do the strut of satisfaction.”
The adults all fell apart laughing at that last bit except for Vision, who looked rather bemused, and Peter, who was looking at Tony with all the teenaged horror he could muster.
“I didn’t need to know that, Mr Stark,” Peter said faintly, drawing more laughter. “It’s like hearing about my Dad’s sex life. Ugh!”
Peter didn’t seem to realise what he’d said but the others watched with amused interest as Tony seemed to blue screen for a moment then stared at Peter in wonder. It was only when Rhodey started actually shaking with contained mirth that he shook himself out of his shock and elbowed him in the side.
“Buttercup?” he said plaintively.
“There, there, Tones,” Rhodey said with massive insincerity as he patted Tony on the shoulder and grinned.
“Hmph. See if I do anything nice for you again. Laughing at my perfectly reasonable distress,” Tony said, poking Rhodey in the ribs a few times then reorganising himself so he was curled into Stephen’s side. The sorcerer looked startled then rather pleased as he wrapped an arm around Tony’s shoulders.
“What did I do?” Peter asked worriedly.
“You just broke Tony a little,” Rhodey said with a broad grin. “You said he was like your dad.”
Peter just blinked and looked confused. “Well… he is.”
Tony made a startled meeping noise and buried his face in Stephen’s shoulder as the others laughed at him. The videos, the events in Siberia, the ExVengers, all of it, was all forgotten as they teased Tony and laughed.