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Closing the Circuit

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They made a very strange tableau in Tony’s elevator. 

Tony looked them over one by one through the security feed: Natasha first, looking the same as always, if slightly bloody around the knuckles. Then a tall man with a trustworthy face, his arms loose with exhaustion at his sides, wearing very broken, but still very interesting equipment on his back. Then Rogers, looking like his life had fallen apart at his feet for the second time. And then…

“He better be goddamn drugged to the gills, or he is not getting any farther into this building,” he said over the intercom.

“We got stuff from his old holding unit,” Natasha replied, looking up at the camera. “He’ll be out for at least three more hours.”

Tony sighed. “Yeah, okay. You’d better come up, then.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve said quietly. 

“...Yep, no problem,” Tony replied shortly, and cut the comm.

He took a mental tally as the elevator began to rise.

Nine. Nine, with some hard bargaining and a lot of luck. 

“Nine could work,” Tony said aloud. “Nice square number, nine.”

“Counting un-hatched chickens, sir,” JARVIS said.

“Hush, you.”

***

Three months previous:

Tony was in Stark Tower when SHIELD imploded. He listened to the reports JARVIS murmured from his hidden outposts in SHIELD headquarters as Pierce apparently got crazier and crazier, and then he pulled everything SI-related that he could out of the SHIELD mainframe before Natasha (crazy-ass Nat, could she not have been a little more selective about this?) plastered everything all over the web. It wasn’t perfect, and he was definitely going to have to deal with a lot more Stark-knockoffs over the next few years, but he’d take it. Anything was better than the designs for those goddamn helicarriers ending up in the hands of Hammer or someone even worse, Christ.

Pepper came to stand behind him, and together they watched the helicarriers fall from the sky on the national news. “Jesus,” she said reflexively, as the last one crumpled into the sea.

“Ten bucks says Fury’s still alive and orchestrating this,” Tony said.

“No bet.” Pepper glanced at her phone. “Ugh, they’re already asking SI for a statement. Any thoughts?”

“Uh, hear no evil, see no evil, smell no evil? This is gonna be a rough ride.”

“What did JARVIS find?”

“A lot,” Tony said grimly. “More than anyone wants. More than I wanted to know, definitely.” More than he ever noticed, which, dammit, how did he miss this? He felt vaguely sick.

“And he’s safe now?”

“Yeah. Extracted him as soon as things started getting really bad. There’s gonna be...there will be inquiries.” Tony looked up at her. “We’re gonna be put on the carpet, for sure.”

Pepper smiled slightly. “We always knew it would be a possibility, once you started getting involved with SHIELD.”

“Fucking Captain America, always taking the hardest road.”

“You don’t mind, don’t lie to me.”

“Hey, I mind. I’ve already wasted way too much time giving the finger to Congress when I could be doing productive things.”

“You love giving the finger to Congress.”

“I do. But not as much as I like building stuff.”

“Well, I think the key here is going to be transparency,” Pepper said, swiping through the contents of her tablet. “We have very little to hide these days anyway. The only difficulty will be keeping the military out of your designs.”

“As usual.” Tony sat back. 

“Any word on Captain Rogers?”

“Tracker says that he’s alive. That’s all. Same with the rest of the team—at least, the ones who haven’t found and disposed of the things. But I’m sure Natasha is fine.”

Pepper’s phone beeped. She glanced down at it. “Hill just got in touch. Think she’d do well in Human Resources?”

“I think she needs to be screened, interrogated, and then screened again before setting foot in an SI building. But sure, let’s take all the cast-offs from a company that just ate itself from the inside. Great plan.”

“Tony,” Pepper admonished, though not without a twist to her mouth that said she somewhat agreed.

“Yeah, better the devil you know, maybe. It’s your company, make the call.”

“I will, thank you, Mr Stark.” Pepper left the room, heels clicking neatly away.

Tony watched her go. 

“JARVIS, call Rhodey for me. I’ve got a favour to ask of him.”

***

Two weeks later, Tony’s phone rang.

“Ms Romanoff, what an unexpected pleasure.”

“Is it so unexpected?” Natasha said. She sounded more tired than he’d ever heard before, not even after the Chitauri.

“I mean, kinda?”

She sighed over the line. “It’s occurred to me that you might know a bit more about PR than I do.”

“You’re a spy,” Tony said, “I think you’ll do fine. Hell, you’re doing more than fine, I’ve seen the hearings on C-SPAN.”

“Tony,” she interrupted. “Are you busy?”

“Always, you know this. Do I have time for more things, however? Depends on what kind of things.”

“You still talk way too much, Stark. Here’s the thing. Cap’s on a road trip, trying to tie up some loose ends—”

“Oh good, he’s alive, thanks for letting me know. And you mean the Winter Soldier.”

“—I mean loose ends, this line isn’t secure, Tony—”

“—It’s totally secure, JARVIS has got this shit locked down—”

“—Whatever, that’s not even the point. Cap’s out, Fury’s gone, and all that’s left for now are a few ex-Agents being shunted around in government vehicles, one rogue task force who are doing their own thing and can’t be bothered with us, and a lot of CIA goons doing a terrible job of watching me.”

“What are you trying to say, Romanoff?”

“I’m saying,” Natasha said impatiently, “That I’d like a stable base of operations that isn’t a safe house the CIA can get suspicious about. One where I might be part of a united front.”

Tony exhaled. “That can be arranged.”

“I’m bringing Clint with me.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less. Your tails gonna make a fuss?”

“They think I don’t know they exist. I go where I like, so long as Washington knows about it.”

“Washington is definitely not going to like SI opening its doors to shady ex-SHIELD agents,” Tony began. 

Natasha’s silence was expectant. 

He smiled slightly. “Hey, Tasha.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Agent Hill?”

Natasha exhaled. “She’s not HYDRA. Why?”

“Oh, nothing. Tower’s open to you, whenever you want it.”

Her tone warmed, just slightly. “Thanks, Stark.”

***

The uproar over SHIELD’s dissolution was actually fairly slow, by modern terms—a dull roar that seemed to grow ever louder like an oncoming train. An info dump like the one Natasha just accomplished took ages to sift through; but sift, the internet did. 

It was not pretty.

“I can’t believe Fury managed to dodge this,” Tony complained. “What a dick.”

“Wait until they start outing sleeper agents,” Maria Hill said, exiting Pepper’s office with a file folder under one arm. 

“Good lord, you’re dressed like a real person. This is weird. Is this weird for you?”

Hill rolled her eyes, but Tony couldn’t help but notice how she looked far less at-ease in her pantsuit and heels than she ever had been in a jumpsuit and gun harness. 

“Tony, meet your new Manager of Human Resources,” Pepper said, stepping out from behind Hill. 

“Delighted, I’m sure you’ll manage our humans and our resources admirably.” Tony said. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” Hill said briskly. “I understand you run a unique company with some very particular needs, and I hope I’ll be able to facilitate that.”

Tony narrowed his eyes at her, and then looked over at Pepper. Pepper nodded.

“Sounds good,” Tony said, after a pause. “I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”

“I’m sure we will,” Hill said.

***

“Yes, I helped design the helicarriers that apparently were about to ruin a whole lotta lives. No, I did not intend them to be used like that. I designed the engines. I did not—I repeat, did not—design the guns, or the targeting systems. You can confirm that easily enough—it’s all online now, after all. No further questions. 

“No. Further. Questions.”

***

“My employees are being mobbed,” Pepper said, two days later. 

“Unavoidable. Tell them to say ‘no comment’ and give them hardship bonuses.”

“It would blow over more quickly if you just made a statement. Or if Natasha did.”

“She’s made enough statements, don’t you think?”

“Then Agent Barton—”

“Is really not good at those kind of things,” Barton said from the corner of the room. He was perched on the back of the coffee bar, boots carefully tucked away from any surface anyone might eat off of. Tony would complain, but according to Natasha, you didn’t mess with Clint’s sight lines, and Tony wasn’t prepared to push his luck so early on. 

(He and Natasha had initially moved in mostly by throwing duffle bags into Tony’s living room and not leaving for twenty-four hours. 

“Clint’s been living underground in Paris for the past six weeks,” Natasha had explained briefly.

“I haven’t slept in four days,” Clint had added. He’d rolled his head back to look at Tony over the back of the couch. “SHIELD, man. What the hell.”

“Right?” Tony had said, spreading his hands. “Fucked up.”

“Totally, bro,” Natasha had drawled. 

“I’m gonna sleep now,” Clint had said. And then he had passed out there on the couch. Natasha had then looked over at Tony like she was the proud owner of an obedient puppy. 

“He trusts this place,” she had said, pleased. 

“G’d sigh’lines,” Clint had mumbled, and then snored.

“Right,” Tony'd said. “I guess I’ll leave you to it.” 

...And that was that.)

“You’ve had the media training ever since the Chitauri, Barton,” Pepper said severely, “I really don’t think—”

“I’ll talk to them,” Natasha interrupted, “If it’s really such a bother.”

“You’ve already done a lot,” Tony observed lightly.

Natasha gave him a small smile. “Yes. I can do more.”

Tony nodded, after a second. “Yeah, okay.”

Pepper exhaled. “Can we go over a statement?”

“Sure,” Natasha said, and the two of them walked off together. 

“Ooh, wait, Pepper!” Tony called as they reached the doorway, “Did you call—?”

“Taken care of,” Pepper waved him off, and Natasha shot him a look before disappearing after her into the office.

They were all co-existing surprisingly well, Tony thought. It helped that they had a full fifty floors to distribute themselves through. Bruce was still buried in work, as always—his productivity had skyrocketed ever since Tony gave him work, the rest of SI’s biological research unit was scrambling to keep up with him. He had a floor to himself, and had only greeted newcomers with a faint smile and handshake before returning right back to the lab, so his presence was already familiar and seamlessly integrated. 

Then Clint had come in with Natasha, shell-shocked and pale, and after his long recovery sleep he immediately holed himself up his designated apartment, making calls on burner phones at odd hours but otherwise staying entirely off the radar. Natasha, by contrast, was a veritable boon, stepping into the spotlight with enough ease that if Tony hadn’t known otherwise, he’d have thought she’d been doing it for years. He made her apartment as beautiful as he could with Pepper’s help, and occasionally asked his food service to bring in apple sharlotka with his usual order.

So they were all in the tower now, but they weren’t precisely in each other’s space. For now, that was fine. 

Tony himself tried to keep well out of the way. He knew a calm before a storm when he saw one. 

***

He ran into Jane Foster at a conference upstate, fifty per cent serendipitously. 

(Maria Hill might have dropped him a line.)

“SHIELD was funding my research,” Jane said, grimacing into her glass of post-keynote wine. “I’ve been in London for the past eight months working with the residual energy from the pan-universal alignment, but now I’m pretty sure I don’t trust any of the staff with the data.”

Tony nodded. “Tough break. Has been for everyone. Hey, why don’t you take my card? If you feel like moving back to New York, we’d have a place for you.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you doing this for me, or for Thor?”

“Both,” Tony said honestly. More quietly, he added, “You can tell him that some of his other pals from the New York, uh, incident are there. We’re maybe trying to find our footing together.”

Jane considered him. “He could use some friends right now,” she said eventually. 

“We all could,” Tony agreed.

“I’d bring my team with me.”

Tony smiled.

“Good.”

***

Natasha started sending pizza to her CIA shadows that were parked three blocks down from the tower. 

The tabloids had a field day.

***

Clint came down to Tony’s workshop in the basement after several weeks and set his bow down on his desk.

“So I’ve been out of arrows since I got back from Paris and SHIELD crapped out.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Colourful way of putting it. I like it.”

“All the schematics for the stuff I’ve been using are online. I think I’m gonna need some new ideas.”

Tony waited.

“Natasha trusts you,” Clint conceded, after a pause.

“Does she? I can never tell.”

“Make me a new set of arrows, Stark.”

“Magic word?”

Clint rolled his eyes. “Please.

Tony picked the bow up delicately from the table. “Your wish is my command.”

He’d tell Clint about the shooting range in the basement later.

***

Pepper came by with a very serious-looking letter.

“Ew, Congress,” Tony said, taking the letter with thumb and forefinger and holding it out and away from him.

Pepper rolled her eyes. “We’ve been summoned.”

“Yeah, been expecting that. You’ve got the files all set up?”

“Yes, and JARVIS has put together a highlight package from the SHIELD leak. That should cover our bases.”

“Right. And the HYDRA stuff?”

Pepper raised an eyebrow. “We have nothing on HYDRA. I’ve scoured the entire company, top to bottom, and I know you know that JARVIS has done the same.”

“I am sorry, sir,” JARVIS added. “I have attempted to decipher any patterns or irregularities in Stark Industries’ employees, projects, and general activity from the past fifty years, and have found no evidence of anything that could be construed as related to HYDRA. As for the SHIELD data that I have been reviewing, the results are, and always have been, inconclusive. Then again, we had not established such specific parameters for my search in the past.” 

“Don’t be sorry, JARVIS,” Tony said absently. “There’s a limit to how much you can see, even if it’s more than I can.”

“It’s not in SI, Tony,” Pepper said. “I don’t think it ever has been.”

“But we don’t know,” Tony stressed.

“And that’s what Hill is for,” Pepper replied. “Are you going to go to the hearing?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “Just make sure I can go in with a clear conscience.”

***

“I talked to Dr Foster the other day,” Bruce said at one point, a little later. “She said you offered her a job.”

“Astrophysics has suddenly become a boom industry,” Tony replied, not looking up from the bioscanner he was tweaking. “Emphasis on the ‘boom’.”

“Uh huh,” Bruce said.

They worked for a few more minutes in companionable silence.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Bruce said finally.

Tony smiled at him, tight-lipped. “Me too,” he agreed.

***

“How are we to confirm your lack of involvement in HYDRA’s presence in SHIELD, Mr Stark?” Senator Jenkins asked, leaning heavily on his end of the desk. “How are we to trust you when you have repeatedly acted in disrespect of this nation’s government, and then dealt extensively with an international agency that has now been exposed as a terrorist threat?”

Tony inhaled. Exhaled. His hands stayed clasped loosely in front of him. “In regards to the most recent events, I guess you can’t know,” he said, shrugging slightly. “Did I lend a hand designing something I thought would keep Americans safe? Yes. Did that spectacularly backfire, and am I now even more gun shy about giving away my stuff, pun intended? Yes.” 

He licked his lips. Listened to a few spare snickers in the audience.

“Does the record also show, however, that my father was deemed a threat to HYDRA, and was killed for it? Yes.” He raised his voice over the growing clamour. “Have I always done my best to continue to run my company in ways I thought my father might approve of, were he to assess our changing times? Yes. 

“And so to answer your question, Senator, my answer is that you can’t know whether I or my company can be trusted, not for sure. Believe me, I’ve tried my damnedest, and I’ve found diddlysquat. I hope to continue finding diddlysquat. But I’m not giving you any more of my intellectual property to prove it unless you pry it from my cold dead hands. You can, however, be damn sure of one thing: I believe in my father’s legacy. And so should you.”

Tony was getting really good at dramatic exits of government property. 

Happy looked at him in the rear-view mirror of the town car as they pulled away from the senate building. “Nice speech, boss.”

“Thanks,” Tony murmured. “I might even have been telling the truth.”

Happy took him further out of DC towards the airport, car horns and stuttering traffic giving way to highway. Tony’s phone rang, and he only answered after making sure it wasn’t anyone SI or media-related. “Rhodey! How’s my favourite colonel?”

He listened for a long moment to Rhodey’s response, and then nodded. “Well, I guess we’ll see, then. Looking forward to it.”

He hung up, and closed his eyes. 

***

When he got back to New York, Natasha was gone.

“Dunno,” Clint shrugged, when Tony asked. “She got a call and said she had to go.”

“Fury?”

Clint eyeballed him. “Fury’s dead.”

“And I’m the Pope.”

Clint cracked a smile. “Yeah. But seriously, she didn’t tell me anything, only that she wasn’t leaving the city, and wanted her tails distracted. I planted some false trails, and then she was gone.”

“Fair enough.” The funny thing was, Tony was beginning to trust her, too. “Hey, I made some of those arrows you asked for—the prototypes should be finished rendering by now, wanna see?”

“Fuck yeah.”

***

Natasha was gone for two weeks.

Tony fielded increasingly frantic calls from the CIA, and was as unhelpful as was humanly possible.

CNN ran a news story about her going rogue once more, the ultimate traitor to every country she’d ever served.

Clint broke the television with an EMP arrow.

(Tony was only appeased when the arrow also managed to take out the power on the rest of the floor. The TV was dead, but Stark tech reigned supreme.)

Senator Stern’s trial began, and took the heat off of all of them for a bit.

Rhodey called twice more. Tony answered both times.

“Okay,” Jane Foster said, one week in. “Put me in Bruce’s lab, and you’ve got a deal.”

“Done.” 

Tony bought her plane tickets. 

And he waited. 

***

Now:

Two more weeks, and then, well.

“Rogers, long time no see. You could have called, you know. As you’re all too aware, I’m allergic to authority, so taking out SHIELD might have been a mighty fine time.”

Steve gave him a faint smile. “I might have been having some trust issues at the time.”

“Yeah,” Tony drawled. “Those can be a real bitch.” He nodded at the prone figure in Steve’s arms. “I assume he’s gonna need a secure room. Or at least, I’m hoping.”

“That’s probably best,” Steve said, but he didn’t sound happy about it. “He’s not really predictable at this point.”

“Yeah, and about as friendly as an angry wet cat in a sack,” the tall man muttered. 

Steve looked over at him, and then nodded at Tony. “Tony, this is Sam Wilson, he’s been helping me out. Sam, Tony Stark.”

“Yeah, I know who Tony Stark is, Steve,” Sam said. He held out his hand to Tony. “It’s good to meet you. Big fan of your phones. Also, the whole Iron Man thing is pretty sweet, I guess.”

“Thanks,” Tony said, “Big fan of that rig you’ve got there. What alloy is that? Last I checked the Air Force didn’t have anyone on contract for wings, and definitely not ones that nice. I mean, other than SI, obviously.” 

“It’s Wakandan,” Sam corrected, “Part of a larger government negotiation, so far as I’m aware.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “Must have been some negotiation.” He cocked his head. “Looks a little beat up, too, which is pretty damn surprising, considering the origins.”

“Yeah well, I can fix the small stuff myself, but unfortunately, Cap here doesn’t exactly go on normal-scale missions.”

Steve quirked a smile. “Wouldn’t want you to get bored.”

Sam rolled his eyes. 

Tony snorted. “Lemme know if you want a tune-up. I’m suddenly facing a dearth of contracts, given current circumstances, so I’ve got the time. Won’t be a familiar problem, but I live for a good challenge.”

“I may take you up on that.”

“Secure room, Stark?” Natasha prompted. Tony looked at her, and raised his eyebrows very slightly in inquiry. She inclined her head, a small but sure nod.

“Yeah. Let’s hope Bruce doesn’t mind us borrowing it.”

***

Bruce didn’t mind. “Two years, twenty-seven days without incident,” he said, smiling slightly. “Let’s hope the streak continues.”

The room was a lot friendlier than the glass case the helicarrier had housed. Padded, reinforced titanium walls, soothing music, and a projector screen for nature documentaries. “I’ll get a bed brought in,” Tony said. 

Steve set down his burden carefully in a corner, where Bruce kept a pile of fleece blankets. “That’s all right,” he said. “Hopefully he won’t need to be here long.”

Tony was sceptical about that, but he wasn’t about to say anything. “How’d you find him?”

“It wasn’t that hard, in the end,” Steve answered, not looking up. “Caught a glimpse of him on security footage in the Smithsonian. Figured he’d be trying to track down the person he used to be. I might not have had to tranq him, all told, but when we found him in Brooklyn I...might not have handled things as delicately as I should have. And Natasha may have gotten a little overenthusiastic in my defence.”

Tony made a mental note to give Natasha something nice. Maybe a new set of throwing knives?

“He’s got all these impulses to do with who he was, but no memory of why he has them,” Steve continued, seemingly needing to explain. “I’ve gotta try and give him some context.”

“And then what?” Tony said, as gently as he could manage, which wasn’t very, but still.

“Hope for the best, I guess,” Steve replied. 

Tony raised his hands in surrender. “Your call. Try not to let him kill us all in our sleep.”

Steve flinched. But he said, “I will.”

“Good,” Tony said. Paused, and then added, “You gonna stay with him until he wakes up?”

Steve just nodded, still looking down at the crumpled figure now sprawled on the floor. He glanced at Tony only very briefly, but he said, “Natasha was the one to suggest we come here. I wasn’t inclined, at first.”

Tony pursed his lips. “What changed your mind?”

“I saw what you said to the Senate.”

“Ah.”

“I’m sorry about Howard.”

“You’ve said that to me already, you know.”

“Yeah,” Steve grimaced. “But this is different, and you know it.”

“That I do,” Tony said heavily. He stood up. “I’m glad you were willing to take the chance, coming here. Take all the time you need.”

“Nat says that she and Clint have moved in.”

“Mm,” Tony affirmed.

Steve looked up at him steadily, assessing. “What are you trying to do?” he asked eventually.

Tony met his eyes and didn’t blink. “Do?” he echoed.

Steve’s gaze narrowed. “I’ll figure it out,” he warned. “But,” he slumped down against the wall, “I’ve gotta fix this, first.”

Tony shoved his hands in his pockets. After a long minute, in which Steve didn’t move or say anything, he said,“...Okay. Tell JARVIS if you need anything.”

He backed out of the room.

“The hell is that?” Clint said, peering through the observation window. Tony jumped.

“Jesus, Barton, you’re gonna give me a heart attack.”

Clint ignored him. “Who is it?”

Tony sighed. He was doing that a lot lately. “The Winter Soldier.”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “Nat used to tell me about him. Scariest mission of her life, she said, and you know that’s saying something.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, drawing it out. Then he took a breath. “He’s also James Buchanan Barnes.”

Clint stared at him. “What the fuck.”

Tony spread his hands again. “Right?” 

They both looked back into the room. Steve was settled on the floor now, knees drawn up. Barnes looked...not peaceful, but quiet. Not particularly dangerous, in oversized trousers and a ragged hoodie. His breathing was even. 

“When Nat took off, she said she was off to go help Cap do something stupid,” Clint admitted. “I wasn’t expecting this stupid.”

“Yep.”

“And you’re putting up with it?”

“Yep. United front, she said. And I agree.”

“Some front,” Clint muttered. “Just like that, huh.”

Tony nodded. “Yep. Brothers in arms, and all that, right?” He tried to make it sound less serious than it was.

“Sure, Stark.” Clint patted him on the shoulder. “Whatever gets you to sleep at night.”

“Hah.”

He really hoped he was doing the right thing.

***

(A few days later, though, he caught Clint hanging out in Bucky’s room. They were both sitting on the floor, Bucky tucked into the corner, Clint in a lazy sprawl, but the both of them had their shoulders locked up tight. Clint was talking, his hand lifted in a knife-like gesture, but he points it at himself, touching fingers to his breastbone in remembrance, and it’s pretty clear what he was talking about.

Tony watched for Bucky’s reaction. Bucky didn’t have one. Until Clint looked back up at him, and then he tucked his metal arm against his chest, and nodded slowly.

Tony left them to it.)

***

Sam Wilson was a righteous dude, with no time for bullshit. 

Tony liked him a lot.

“We’ve gotta make you an armour to go with those wings, I don’t like the idea of you out there with some shitty Kevlar and kneepads.”

“Be my guest, man, I’m not gonna say no. But don’t make it like yours, I’m not gonna be your cheap knockoff.”

“Darling, nothing I do is ever cheap.”

Tony’s workshop, bizarrely, was becoming a bit of a social hub. At the moment, Nat was in the corner, flat on her back with her feet propped up on the wall, stretching and sharpening knives simultaneously, and Clint was testing the strength on a new bow. Sam, meanwhile, seemed to just be enjoying the ambience or something, because he had his feet kicked up on Tony’s desk while Tony worked on the holographic blueprint for his wings and JARVIS took dictation. 

“Jeez, it’s a party down here.”

“Cap!” Natasha said, looking up from her knives. “You’ve re-joined the living!”

“Yet again,” Steve said drily. “It seems to be becoming a pattern.”

Sam looked over his shoulder to give him a look. “How’s he doing?”

Steve sighed. “He remembers things, more every day. But he’s not...he doesn’t feel them, I don’t think. I don’t think he remembers how to feel.”

“He hasn’t tried to kill any of us,” Tony observed. “I’m taking that as a win.”

“He hasn’t gotten orders to, so no,” Steve retorted. He exhaled. 

“He’s never going to be the same, Cap,” Natasha said gently. 

“No,” Steve nodded, even though it looked painful for him to do so. He looked down at the ground. “It’d be nice if he was a person again, though.” After a second, he shook himself, and looked at Tony’s blueprint. “That a new EXO?”

“Repulsor-powered,” Tony said, “I’m pimping Wilson’s ride, it’s gonna be great.”

“Don’t let him paint it red and gold,” Steve said to Sam.

“Hell no,” Sam said. “I intend to look way cooler than him.”

“Red and gold is my colour scheme anyway,” Tony sniffed. “You plebes just have no taste.”

Sam squawked indignation and the trash-talk could only escalate from there, even cracking a smile on Steve’s face.

A small part of Tony, deep under his ribs, seemed to settle, just a bit.

***

It wasn’t to last.

“Turn on the news,” Pepper ordered, striding into the living room while they were all lounged around, post-lunch. 

Tony took one look at her face and said, “JARVIS?”

The (newly-replaced) TV flicked on.

“—only know so far that there are thirty-six casualties and counting, at least four dead and seventeen in critical condition. The group behind the attack is unknown, but some have speculated, given the technologically advanced nature of the attacks, that this is the work of a splinter group of the now-notorious Nazi cult, HYDRA, who have been calling themselvesAdvanced Idea Mechanics, or AIM—”

“Son of a bitch,” Tony breathed. 

“Cut off one head…” Steve murmured, his jaw tight.

“SHIELD has had files on them for decades,” Clint said. “Nothing concrete, but nothing good either.”

“It is unclear, given the international waters the attack took place in, who will be investigating the attacks, and which peacekeeping force will be stepping in to ensure that such a tragedy cannot happen again,” the announcer continued. “If current theories are to be believed, and AIM is responsible, this could be the start of a series of attacks.”

“It will be.” 

They turned. Pepper stifled a gasp. Natasha, Clint, and Steve all stood up.

Bucky Barnes looked small in the doorway, which was a feat, all considered. But his shoulders were hunched in, his human hand clenched over the elbow of the metal arm, and the t-shirt he was wearing was too large, loose and overstretched around the collar. 

“Drone strike, carefully targeted merchant vessel, high casualties to cover up what’s being taken and what’s being destroyed,” he said, in a careful monotone that was scratchy with disuse. “Robotic extraction teams, piloted remotely, techno-anarchist agenda. They’ve been separate from HYDRA and ideologically opposite since 1988.”

Sam whistled low under his breath.

Tony narrowed his eyes at Bucky. “How long have you been able to bypass the security on your room?”

Bucky looked at him. “Since eight hours after I woke up.” He paused, and then said a little more quietly, “You look like Howard. I think.”

“Jesus, Buck,” Steve breathed. “Are you—”

“You’re going to try to stop them,” Bucky interrupted, like he hadn’t heard. He was looking between Steve and Tony, while also flicking glances at Sam braced against the coffee table, and Natasha and Clint with their hands hovering over where they kept their knives.

“Do you have orders to stop us from doing that?” Tony asked steadily.

“I did. Once.” He paused, gaze sliding away into the middle distance. “Those orders were fulfilled. 1991.”

Tony closed his eyes. 

A quick sound of puffed air broke the quiet.

Bucky jerked, clapping a hand over his neck. His expression didn’t change except to show maybe the faintest hint of resignation, even as his eyes closed and he crumpled. Steve darted forward to catch him. Tony looked up and stared at Bruce, who was holding a tranq gun unsteadily between his hands.

“You must be packing some serious stuff in that gun,” Tony said. His voice wavered, just slightly.

“Reverse-engineered the stuff Nat got from his holding cell,” Bruce said. “It’s done wonders for my personal sense of security.”

“Good shot, too,” Natasha said approvingly. “You’ve been practicing.”

Bruce shrugged a little awkwardly. 

“Thank you for looking out for us,” Steve said, “Though he wasn’t going to do anything.”

“We didn’t know that,” Tony said, swallowing. He took a breath, and then pressed on. “Though I admit I’m feeling a little better about him now, despite being extremely peeved that a traumatised, brainwashed supersoldier can hack my Hulk-proof room in less than a day.”

“If his information’s good, which I’m inclined to think it is, he might be damn useful,” Clint said.

Steve glared at him. “He isn’t a matter of use,” he snapped. He scooped Bucky into his arms, and headed away back towards the Hulk’s room.

Natasha smacked Clint in the back of the head. “Idiot,” she hissed.

“Just telling it like it is,” Clint protested, rubbing his head.

Bruce looked uncertainly at Tony. “Did I make the right call?” he asked.

“Yes,” Tony said firmly. “I would have done the same. So would Rogers, if he wasn’t dealing with his own personal kryptonite. This just...needs time.”

“Time we don’t have, if we’re gonna start taking on AIM,” Natasha said. She looked expectantly at Tony. “That is what you want us to do, right? That’s why we’re here.”

“Not AIM specifically,” Tony conceded. “But yeah.” It’s the first time he’s admitted it out loud.

“Avengers Initiative 2.0, woohoo,” Clint said only somewhat sarcastically, rubbing his hands together.

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Avengers Initiative?”

“It’s a thing,” Natasha said. “Like what happened here two years ago, except more on an on-going basis.”

“I hope you mean the part where you guys kicked ass, and not the whole alien invasion thing.”

“We’ve got no central authority,” Clint points out. “We’re all civilians now. We’d be vigilantes.”

“Yep. Working on it,” Tony said. 

Natasha looked at him. “Work faster,” she said.

Tony caught Pepper’s eye, and she nodded minutely. 

***

The media took the AIM angle and ran with it.

It was almost worse that, with every new scrap of evidence turned up from the shipwreck, they looked more and more right.

Bucky proved...disconcertingly forthcoming. Disconcerting mostly because he had apparently decided to drop the pretence of being confined to his room.

He showed up in the shooting range suddenly, while Clint and Tony were brainstorming crossbow designs, and said, “AIM destroys for resources.”

“Gah,” Clint said, and very carefully put down the gun he’d automatically snatched from the booth. 

Bucky appeared unaffected.

“Next strike will be within the next eight months, dependent upon what they gained from the wreck, and whether it’s part of a larger plan. If it was programming they were after, they’re next move will be materials. If they’ve gained materials, it’s either information or further equipment.” He frowned, and his metal hand twitched. “They rarely need materials. They manufacture themselves. They had an advantage. Blue.”

Clint blanched. “I am not a fan of blue stuff. We do not have a good history with blue stuff.”

“Eight months, huh?” Tony said. “What’s the shortest amount of time they might take?”

“Three,” Bucky answered. He looked down at his hands again. 

“Okay,” Tony said.

Three months. He had three months.

***

“How’re you really doing, Tony?” Rhodey asked some time later, after giving his now-customary report. At least he was there in person, this time.

Clean-up from the AIM wreckage was nearly done, and the media had mostly gone quiet in favour of a C-list celebrity’s sex-tape. Tony was seriously considering making a roster of desperate actors who he could bribe to make and release these things just for the sudden respite it gave him.

Didn’t stop the clock from ticking down, though.

“Same-y same, honey bear,” he said. He poured himself a whiskey and then held a second glass out, raising his eyebrows in inquiry.

Rhodey gave him a look, and raised a one finger in acquiescence. Tony poured a healthy single and handed it over. 

“You’ve got yourself some interesting company.”

“Yup. Pretty good houseguests, all told, though if Clint doesn’t stop leaving the milk out we’re going to have words.”

“They’re not exactly guests if all the things they own are parked here,” Rhodey pointed out.

“Residents, then, whatever. House probably isn’t really accurate either, I suppose, if you wanna get technical.”

“Tony.”

“Yeah?”

“Are you okay?”

Tony took a long sip of his drink. “Still terrified. I’ve been told it doesn’t go away easy. And this whole SHIELD debacle hasn’t really helped.”

“No, I wouldn’t think so.” Rhodey took a sip, and then spun a finger around in the air. “Is this helping?”

“Maybe,” Tony said. 

Rhodey nodded. “Okay.” He looked at his watch. “Hey, I’ve gotta catch the next plane out. You take care of yourself, huh?”

“Yeah, you too,” Tony said, and let Rhodey fold him into a hug. It felt good. It had been a long time since he’d had one that wasn’t from Pepper. 

“Off the record, I think it’s a good plan, even though I’m not always sure you’ve chosen the right guys,” Rhodey said into his ear. “I’m glad you’re not alone.”

Tony breathed out, and dug his hands into Rhodey’s back a little harder before withdrawing. “Glad to hear it. You sure you don’t want in on this action?”

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Uh, yeah. I get enough action being friends with you, thanks, let alone working with you on a constant basis. Also there’s that whole Air Force thing...”

“Yeah, yeah, fine, boring. Maybe we’ll even have the name soon, and then you’ll be jealous.”

Rhodey clapped him on the shoulder and stepped back towards the elevator. “That A is looking pretty damn lonely on your tower.”

“Yeah,” Tony murmured, looking into his drink. “It is.”

***

Steve and Sam went running every morning around Central Park, which inevitably led to communal breakfasts. As it turned out, Clint made superior chocolate chip pancakes. 

“Learned in Kosovo. Don’t ask,” he said, looking faintly ridiculous with morning beard and track pants falling down.

Natasha yanked at his drawstrings and laughed when he yelped.

Tony found that, for the first time in twenty-five years, he was starting to sleep on a regular schedule. He also found that he had to fight Clint for the first pot of coffee.

“You guys need to cut your caffeine down, do you know what that shit does to you in excess?” Sam said from where he sat at the island. 

“Lies,” Clint said, from where he had Tony in a headlock and was drinking straight from the pot.

“Blasphemy,” Tony said, scrabbling at his arm.

“Idiots,” Natasha said, fondly.

“You’ll only encourage them,” Bruce said to Sam. “They’ll drink two pots each now just to prove a point.”

Steve smirked into his glass of orange juice.

“Y’all are a bunch of weirdoes,” Sam observed. 

“One of us, one of us,” Natasha chanted under her breath, looking sidelong at him.

He made a face, but didn’t protest.

***

When Rhodey next called, he said, “There’s interest, but it’s gonna take some time.”

And Tony felt comfortable for the first time saying, “That’s okay. We can wait.”

***

“There’s a problem with my arm.”

Tony froze, and then had to work fairly hard at unclenching. “Um.” He swivelled in his chair.

Bucky stood in the workshop, hands at his sides. “Okay, so you can break in anywhere in the tower, good to know,” Tony said slowly. “Awesome. Great. What’s the trouble with the arm?”

“Falling re-bar,” Bucky answered, still no inflection. “Water got into the circuits. Wasn’t helped by the ones already shorted out from Romanova. Didn’t get fixed all the way right.”

“That what you knew her by, before?” Tony asked lightly, rolling himself over towards Bucky and grabbing screwdrivers and pliers along the way.

Bucky nodded. “Her file’s pretty long.”

“I know, I’m kinda jealous, to be honest,” Tony said. He peered at the arm when he got close enough. “Oh yeah, you’re fried. Not construction I’m familiar with, but I’m a genius, we can make it work. Come on over and sit down on the couch, this may take a while.”

Bucky looked dubious, but did as he was told. He sat stiffly, like he was expecting to be strapped into place. Tony looked at him for a moment, and then grabbed his full toolbox before flopping cross-legged down beside him, facing the arm. “What’s sensation like, with this thing?” he asked. “Is it going to hurt if I open it up?”

“It’s not...comfortable,” Bucky answered. He seemed puzzled by the question.

Tony sighed. “I am so not qualified for this. Okay, I’m going to give you local anaesthetic on your shoulder, it will hopefully block some of the pain receptors there so the feedback you get from the arm isn’t too much.”

“...Okay,” Bucky said.

Silently, Tony got to work. 

He didn’t realise how much time passed until Steve appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared with sandwiches. “You missed dinner,” he said mildly. 

“I off’wen do,” Tony said around a ratchet. 

Steve silently offered the plate of sandwiches to Bucky. Bucky stared at them like they were possibly poisonous, but then picked up a half and bit into it. It was...oddly cute. 

Tony decided to fill the silence. “Your friend’s arm has taken a beating.”

“Most of that was probably me,” Steve said.

Bucky shook his head. “Natasha shocked it.”

“Smart woman.”

Bucky finished his sandwich. Tony conceded and gulped down half of the other. Steve settled in the rolling chair next to the couch, apparently content to watch the work being done.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said suddenly.

Tony looked up at him, mid-chew. “For what, exactly?”

“1991.”

Steve froze. 

Tony took two breaths, and made a point of putting the soldering iron down carefully on the table. He exhaled slowly. “Tell me about 1991.”

“Target was Howard Stark, proven threat to—”

“No,” Tony interrupted. “What suit was he wearing? What did you wear for the gig, was it uncomfortable, familiar, unfamiliar? What was the make of his car? Did you watch it go off the road, did you feel the grit of dust go into your eyes from where the wheels had kicked it up as they screeched and the brakes failed? Did you hear my mother scream?” His voice cracked a bit on that last word, and both he and Steve flinched.

Bucky didn’t, though. He just looked at back Tony. “I don’t know,” he said.

Tony met his gaze evenly. “It’s an old hurt, and a complicated one,” he said, after a long moment. “And it was the fault of a ghost.”

He felt Bucky’s eyes boring holes into him as he turned back to the arm, clearing out burnt circuitry, pulling up panelling and blowing dirt build-up from between the joints. 

“I am a ghost,” Bucky muttered, after several minutes.

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “You’re feeling realer by the day.”

Steve let out a breath, and put a shaking hand on Bucky’s shoulder as he stood up. “Yeah,” he said thickly. “Feels pretty real to me.”

Tony didn’t have to look up to know that Bucky watched Steve exit the workshop, and kept watching until he was completely out of sight.

***

Steve returned later, when Bucky had retreated to god-knows-where.

“If you say you’re sorry again, we’re gonna have a problem,” Tony said. “I don’t want apologies from you, Cap, and I never have. Probably owe you a few anyway, so that makes it doubly unappealing.”

“I—yeah, okay.” 

Steve sat down on a bench, resting his elbows on his knees. 

“I keep underestimating you.”

“Don’t know why,” Tony said lightly. “You knew my dad, he was pretty substantial too, for all his flaws.”

“You’re better at the mask,” Steve said. “Sam said I should get better at reading those.”

“Sam’s a pretty smart guy.”

Steve nodded. “That he is. It’s why I wanted...”He drifted off. Tony waited. Eventually, he seemed to square himself. “Earlier, Bucky asked me to call him James. Asked everyone, really, but he told me to tell everyone.”

Tony winced. “Ouch.”

“It makes sense,” Steve said, in a strange, detached voice. “He’s not the Bucky I knew, or grew up with. Too much of him’s been blocked or cut out or erased.”

“Sam tell you that, too?” Tony said knowingly.

Steve looked at his hands. “Maybe. Like you said, he’s a smart guy. He’s probably right.”

“You can’t do it, though.”

“No,” Steve murmured. “I gotta hold onto something.”

Tony sighed. He sometimes forgot how young Steve was, what with him being sort of ninety-five and all. “You hold onto it, then. Maybe just not call him anything for now, though.”

“You’ll call him that, though?”

“Sure,” Tony said. “Winter Soldier’s a mouthful. And I mean that with no innuendo whatsoever, pinkie-swear.”

“I wouldn’t have taken it that way if you hadn’t mentioned it,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. 

“‘Swhy I said it,” Tony grinned. 

Steve shook his head. Tony said, “How’s he doing otherwise?”

“Well, apparently he’s self-aware enough to feel guilt,” Steve replied, looking at his hands. “And he remembers flashes. More and more little pieces. But I tell him things, about how we used to run in Brooklyn—or at least he’d run and I’d try and fail to keep pace,” Steve smiled, close-mouthed and crooked. “And he says he can tell that I’m telling the truth. He says he believes me. But that’s as far as he’ll go.”

Tony nodded. Unconsciously, his hand found its way to the scar tissue on his chest. “You go through that much, and it becomes safer to stay far away and not come back,” he said. 

“But you can come back,” Steve said, half-question and half-dread.

Tony tilted his head. “Sometimes. No matter what, though? It’s gonna take a long time.”

“Okay,” Steve murmured. “Okay.”

Tony watched him for a second, and then picked up the motherboard he’d been working on before, and started tinkering again.

Steve let him work for a few minutes, and then said carefully, “The Avengers.”

“Hmm, yeah,” Tony said, as lightly as he could. “It’s a thing.”

“I’ve been reading the news. People are wondering about us, now that SHIELD’s not around. Whether it was a HYDRA conspiracy or a SHIELD weapon, whether we were heroes or just a fluke.”

“You’d think defending the earth from the scum of the universe would be enough,” Tony commented. Then he glanced at Steve’s narrowed gaze and added, “Men in Black. You should see it, it’s pretty quality.”

“I’ll put it on my list,” Steve replied drily. “Tony. Why are we all here?”

Tony looked at him. “You know, I could have used your help when I was saving the President,” he said. 

Steve winced. “You didn’t ask. And I was—“

“You were away, it’s fine,” Tony dismissed. “You could have used my help on SHIELD. I have all sorts of intel on them, I had all the intel, well, except for the HYDRA bits which, wow, still mad at myself for missing that, what a shitshow, but my point is—“

“You could have helped,” Steve finished. “If I’d trusted you to do so.”

“Precisely. And I know why you didn’t, I’m not saying you made the wrong call, but.” Tony breathed slowly. “It’s selfish, really,” he said eventually, putting down the ratchet and sitting back. “I’ve been scared shitless for two years. I had panic attacks, did you know that?”

Steve shook his head mutely. 

“Well, I did. I still do, though it’s been a while now. And I’m pretty sure that’s owed to the fact that I have three assassins, two soldiers, and a Hulk in my house, who to varying degrees tolerate my existence enough to maybe care about protecting it once and a while. And yes, I know I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, I’m a fucking badass, you don’t need to tell me, but that doesn’t stop me from being fucking terrified, all the time. I want to be ready for what the future holds. I have to be. Else my whole futurist schtick is pretty worthless.”

Steve regarded him. “I have a feeling that’s a lot less selfish than you’re willing to admit,” he said.

Tony shrugged. “Bruce says so too, but I can’t say I see it.”

They sat in silence for a moment. Then Steve asked, “What are you waiting for, then? We’ve got AIM out there. Natasha likes you, for some reason—”

“Ouch.”

“—And together you guys could start something. She’s already put herself out there for it, and so have you. You could start working, like it sounds like you want to. I’d trust,” Steve smiles a little humourlessly, “At least, I’d trust this time that you’d be trying to do some good.”

“You’d trust Natasha,” Tony corrected. 

Steve snorted, but didn’t disagree.

Tony nodded, took a breath, and said, “Checks and balances. We’re not answering to anyone right now.”

“You’ve got Congress breathing down your neck—“

“Not good enough,” he interrupts. “We’ve gotta do this right. Accountability.”

“Accountability to who?” Steve responded, lifting his chin. “What organisation do you trust to oversee us? That you can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, has the best interests of this country at heart?”

Tony swallowed. “One that doesn’t exist yet.”

Steve clenched his jaw, the muscles in his cheek jumping. Tony pressed on. “Everyone in this building has trust issues up the ass,” he said. “And we all have ’em for good reason. But that doesn’t make us any more worthy of trust than the next guy who doesn’t play by the rules. We need support, and not just from the public.”

“The public are this country,” Steve countered.

“Yeah, and they don’t run shit,” Tony replied.  “They won’t protect us. They won’t prevent any of us from getting tossed down a dark hole, never to be seen again. Natasha might have thrown down the gauntlet, but if I’m going into battle on two fronts, I want to be armed with more than good polling numbers.”

Steve exhaled, a hard, tight puff of air. “I was under the impression that we were living in a democracy, or that at least we still mean to,” he said.

“Yeah,” Tony murmured. “We may have swerved a little off-track.”

Steve looked at him squarely. “I don’t see you doing anything about that.”

“I play the game, Rogers.” Tony scrubbed a hand across his eyes. “Doesn’t mean I don’t also try and negotiate the rules. You seem to prefer throwing out the rule book to editing it.”

“That’s not—“ Steve stopped. Pinched the bridge of his nose, and took a breath. “I’ve worked within an imperfect system all my life. I’ve accepted that. But we’ve gotta draw lines somewhere.” 

“You know where they are?” 

He sighed. “I hope so.”

Tony leaned forward. “Let’s be sure. Get a second opinion. Get a third. Hey, you know how many people are living in this tower? Quite a few, some of whom you might even like. And maybe,” he spread his hands, “Maybe I can find you a few more people to add to that list. You don’t have to agree with them.”

“Just listen, huh?” Steve said, quirking his lips. 

Tony shrugged. “The system’s broken, and it’s full of bastards. But that’s what we’ve got to work with.”

“That’s…actually not much different than before,” Steve conceded. He pressed his lips together, and then his shoulders slumped. “So. Checks and balances.”

“I’m working on it,” Tony said. 

“You mean Pepper’s working on it.”

“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.”

“That’s still a reference?”

“It is,” Tony confirmed. “Sometimes the classics are the best.”

Steve snorted. Then he stood up.

“Keep working on it,” he said, heading for the elevator. “And I’ll be there.”

***

The first knockoff repulsors started to show up on the market a month before Tony’s imagined deadline. 

Pepper dished out cease and desist letters right and left, but it was a losing battle. 

It did, however, smooth things over with Congress. 

“Given the amount of information already released through the SHIELD/HYDRA leak, as well as the circumstances surrounding Senator Stern’s arrest, all further documentary demands of Stark Industries by the military and the US government have been dropped,” Senator Jenkins said, a bit sourly. “However, we would still like to know how precisely you intend to provide us with on-going oversight specifically of Anthony Stark’s intellectual property, including the Iron Man armours, as supported by a company that still has non-combative government contracts and close ties to SHIELD.”

“Of course, Senator,” Pepper said, all razor edges and prim smiles wrapped in Balenciaga. “We would certainly be open to a reasonable amount of transparency, perhaps through a disinterested third party? I’d like permission to pursue such a third party, and propose a plan of oversight within the next few weeks.”

The panel murmured, heads bent towards each other. Pepper didn’t move.

“We find that acceptable,” Senator Walsh said. “You have two weeks.”

“Splendid,” Pepper said.

***

Jane arrived at the tower on a Wednesday, and she brought Thor in tow, as well as some...friends?

“Hi, holy shit,” a dark-haired girl with glasses said to Tony, upon entry. “You’re Tony fucking Stark.”

“That should, in fact, be my middle name,” Tony said agreeably. 

Jane darted in front of the girl apologetically. “Sorry, this is Darcy, she assists with stuff, and over there is Ian, he’s Darcy’s.”

A gawky guy who’d been staring slack-jawed at the tower jerked to attention and then waved.

“And you’ve met Dr Selvig, right?”

“Ages ago, conference in Vienna, I was trashed,” Tony said. “How’s it going, buddy?”

Selvig took a moment to look even more out-of-sorts than he had seconds before, and then nodded solemnly and said, “I’ve been worse. But that’s setting the bar very low.”

“I feel you, man,” Tony said, clapping him on the shoulder. “What’s say you all go down to see Bruce and get yourselves settled? He’ll make you tea, it’ll be like you’re in England again. Your rooms are all on the thirty-seventh floor; it’s between the labs and some general offices, so it should be fairly quiet.”

Selvig nodded slowly, and then more vigorously, and allowed himself to be steered towards the elevator.

Thor, who up until that point had been surprisingly subdued, stepped forward. “Anthony Stark. It’s good to see you again.”

“You too, big guy,” Tony said. He’d forgotten how massive Thor was, even in civilian clothes. “Thanks for not letting Earth get destroyed again.”

Thor inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “This planet has become precious to me. I should not like to see it succumb to darkness.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Tony said. “Which is why I have a proposition for you. Come on, let’s have a drink. You like beer, right? Or something stronger?”

“Jane has kept me in steady supply of something called PBR. It is not comparable to Asgardian ales, but I do not find it offensive.”

Tony winced. “Okay, let me do you and your taste buds one better.”

***

Thor listened carefully over two craft IPAs (deemed ‘most pleasing!’), and when Tony had finished, he nodded. “It is a good plan,” he said eventually, “If you can convince others to follow you.”

Tony smiled into his drink. “I don’t think I’ll need to. They won’t be following me, anyway.”

***

Apparently, the Secretary-General of Interpol was named Dominic Schiefley. Tony didn’t know this until his name showed up on his caller ID.

“Mr Stark,” Schiefley said, “I was hoping I could get a consult.”

Tony paused. “How did you get this number?”

There was a longer pause from Schiefley’s end. “A colleague,” he said.

“Uh...huh.” Tony sent a quick message to Pepper asking for her to clear his schedule. “Okay. Consult. Of course. Do you mind if I bring a couple of associates?”

“The more, the better,” Schiefley said glumly. “I have half the governments on earth breathing down my neck at the moment. Our technicians are the best, but I imagine you might have some expertise that we do not.”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Tony said. “But you’ll have to clear it with my other governmental consults.”

“Consider it done,” Schiefley said. “I’ll expect you within forty-eight hours.”

Tony ended the call and got Bruce on the intercom. “Hey Banner, want to go to Lyon for a long weekend?”

“What for?” 

“Interpol wants us for the AIM investigation.”

Bruce whistled low under his breath. “Yeah, all right.”

“You know who you really need on that?” 

“Jesus, you’re as bad as Barton,” Tony said, clutching his chest and turning to look at Sam in the doorway. “Who?”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “You know who.”

Tony groaned. “Steve’s gonna kill me.”

***

Steve didn’t kill him, but it was a near miss. “The entire world’s intelligence community is looking for him, and you’re proposing bringing him to Interpol,” he said flatly, arms crossed. Tony eyeballed the circumference of his biceps, and was very glad he decided to make this a group discussion.

“...Yes?”

“He’d be able to identify evidence in the wreckage way faster, given he knows what to look for,” Sam pointed out.

Steve gave him a wounded look, and Sam just shrugged in the universal ‘just telling it like it is’ gesture. 

“The Winter Soldier’s original identity isn’t on the web,” Tony pointed out. “His role in HYDRA is, as are all his missions, but it’d be hard to get a positive ID on him up close. I only recognised him because, well, Dad was a fan." Tony tried really hard not to sound bitter, and moved on quickly. "They’re definitely not going to be looking for someone waltzing into Interpol headquarters.”

“Or, I also have a spare mask hanging around,” Natasha said, cocking her hip and dangling a thin sheet of electrofibre from her fingers. 

“You kept that?” Steve said.

Natasha shrugged. “You never know.”

“I think maybe I get a say in this.”

Tony looked past Steve’s shoulder and nodded. “Yeah, I’d say you do.”

Bucky—James looked up at Steve as Steve turned to him, his expression complicated, and definitely not as blank as usual. 

Steve made a pained noise, but said, “Yeah. What do you want to do?”

James looked at him, and then off to the side. “I want to be useful.”

Natasha stepped forward, and said quietly, “Do it for the right reasons.”

He blinked slowly. “I killed your reasons.”

Natasha smiled slowly. “Did you?”

James frowned, then glanced back at Steve, and at Natasha again, and said, more clearly, “I want to help.”

Sam clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “We’ll guard the house while you’re gone,” he said brightly. “Right?”

Steve sighed. “Be careful.”

“Consult only,” Tony promised. “No action whatsoever.”

***

Famous last words.

It was uncanny to see James undercover, at first. Natasha hadn’t been kidding when she’d called him a ghost.

His stride was different, his bearing was different, even his voice became higher and more naturally expressive. 

He probably shouldn’t have started talking that way around Steve.

“Aaaaand we’re going,” Bruce said, dragging James bodily into the elevator, ignoring what was probably going to be the straw that broke Captain America’s back, and oh god, Tony was getting on that elevator ASAP and hoping to god that Sam Wilson was equipped to clean up that mess, Christ on a cracker.

“Is there a problem?” James (aka Dr James Myrtle Brown, shut up Sam, it’s hilarious, he’s Super Bad for fuck’s sake!) said, all cocky confidence and casual scientific disinterest. His mask was already in place, a mild-looking man with neatly combed hair and a clean-shaven jaw in addition to rounded cheeks and a weak chin. His eyes were the same, though, and that had clearly been a bad decision.

“Nope,” Tony said quickly, “We’re just gonna go now.”

Schiefley met them at the airport in Lyon, and he was not a happy man.

“Sorry I’m late,” he apologised, not very apologetically, “Things have been hectic. I’d appreciate if you could work as quickly as possible on this.”

“Dr Banner and Dr Brown,” Tony said briefly, “Both my employees and specialists in terrorist technology.”

“Sure,” Schiefley said, “Whatever you think is best.” 

He had sweat at his temples. It wasn’t a warm day.

Tony gave a look to Bruce, who returned it. This might not be the best situation they were walking into. Tony quietly sent a warning message to Natasha, and tightened his grip on his suitcase armour.

Examination of the evidence was fine. More than, really.

“Clearly HYDRA-made, AIM-adapted,” James said, fifteen minutes into their investigation. “The striations tracking the bomb’s trajectory here confirm that, as does the CDR—”

LOOK OUT!”

Tony and Bruce dove for cover. James just crouched and lifted his arm. Apparently, both strategies were pretty effective.

“HULK NO LIKE,” the Hulk cried. 

“Oh jeez,” Tony said quietly.

James looked back at him, the mask not doing anything to hide the sudden vacancy in his expression. It was pretty useless anyway—the blast had melted most of the synthetic glove he’d been wearing over the metal hand, and now it glinted like he’d gone full Terminator in the firelight. “Orders?” he said tonelessly.

Tony took a slow breath. “Neutralise the threat,” he said. “Protect the workers. Try not to kill anyone—we need members of AIM for questioning. I’m going to try and lock this place down.”

James nodded. Then he stood, grabbed a dead security guard’s gun, and exited the room.

“Shit,” Tony said. He unlocked the armour and shoved his hands into the waiting gauntlets. “Okay. Let’s go.”

***

Tony had not fully appreciated how fucking terrifying the Winter Soldier was. 

He would not be making that mistake again.

By the time the attack was over and the fires were out, James had sixteen AIM minions unconscious and handcuffed outside. He was also surrounded by what seemed to be half the employees of Interpol scattered in and around the EMT trucks, who ran the gamut from stony alertness to blubbering panic, depending on, presumably, how high up the food chain they were. 

“Thank you, oh my god, you saved my life, how did you...” A younger-looking man was clutching at James’ elbow. James looked hilariously uncomfortable.

Tony touched down in front of the crowd feeling singed, and let go of the two officers he’d managed to extract from the upper floors. They stumbled to their feet, mumbling their thanks.

“Where’s the Hulk?” Tony asked.

“Gone back to Banner,” James said, edging away from his apparent acolyte. He blinked somewhat rapidly. “That was...new.”

“Yeah, welcome to the modern world, I guess,” Tony said. “We have a buddy who’s sometimes giant and green.” 

A town car screeched to a halt in front of them. A well-suited woman with a strong jaw and steely eyes stepped out. “Whose idea was it to bring evidence here?” she snapped in an accent that was clipped and strongly French. She strode forward, completely ignoring Tony and James in favour of scanning the crowd. “Where’s Schiefley?”

“Ma’am, I lost track of him on the tenth floor,” one officer stepped forward. “He was headed to the secure elevator.”

“During a fire?” She seemed to gather herself. “I need two parties to secure the databanks and assess structural damage. Who are the first responders?”

“Uh, that’d probably be me,” Tony raised his hand. 

She seemed to notice him for the first time. Tony was kind of impressed—he wasn’t exactly hard to miss. “Iron Man,” she said flatly. “Any particularly reason you’re in Lyon today?”

“Schiefley, actually,” Tony said, flipping his faceplate up. “And something tells me he was up to something not-so-kosher.” Then he produced a thumb drive from a storage slot on the armour. “Also, you don’t need to worry about damage to your databases. I re-encrypted everything separate from the physical security measures that were targeted in the building, and made a backup.”

She snatched it out of his hands. And then she offered one of her own to shake. “Marlene Delgado,” she said. “President of Interpol. Your methods are not ideal, and I take extreme umbrage at the presumption, but I’ll accept it for now.”

“Thanks,” Tony said. “I feel like that might be high praise, coming from you.”

A very small smirk made its way onto her face. “Good instinct. Let’s talk. I think we have much to discuss.”

***

“Delgado?” Natasha said ten minutes later, voice tinny over the secure line. Tony was leaning as far from the agent sitting next to him as he could in the Interpol company car, propping his phone to his ear and looking out the window at the afternoon sky. Apparently there was a second, more secret Interpol office in Lyon. Tony was reluctantly impressed. “Agent Hand always thought highly of her, not that that means much nowadays. I’ll look into it.”

“Get Steve to investigate too,” Tony suggested, cutting a look at Bruce, sitting opposite and wrapped in a shock blanket. He nodded. “He’s a pretty good judge of character.”

***

An hour later, Tony got a call from an undisclosed number. “JARVIS usually blocks these,” he commented, picking up.

“Delgado’s all right,” came a familiar, low voice down the line. “And if you try and trace this line, I will end you, Stark, don’t think I can’t, nowadays. I’ll be in touch.”

The line went dead.

Tony stared at the phone. “Nice to hear from you too, Director,” he murmured. 

***

“It’s always the same, nowadays,” Clint complained, when they’d all finally made it to Lyon. “World domination through information. Also, who really wants to run the world? Look what it did to Fury, I think he used to have hair before Pierce hired him. Not that that’s a good example, considering, but—”

“No one really looks to terrorists for their rationality,” Steve pointed out.

“Also technically, since AIM are all techno-anarchists, they don’t so much want to dominate the world as free it by way of destroying it,” Tony added.

“Stark,” President Delgado said impatiently, “Would you care to introduce me to your...colleagues?”

“Sure thing, Ms President.” Tony made a sweeping gesture. “You’ve met Dr Banner and Dr Brown.”

“Dr Brown has gone by other names,” Delgado said, eying him. James shifted slightly. She sighed. “And apparently he saved two-hundred-odd of my officers today. Continue.”

“Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. Former SHIELD agents, Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton. Sam Wilson, formerly of the USAF. And Thor...he’s the, uh, God of Thunder?”

“I am a prince of Asgard,” Thor said. 

“That,” Tony agreed.

“...Right,” Delgado said. 

“Most of us have experience dealing with...abnormal threats,” Steve said earnestly. “We’d like to help.”

“And you were drawn here by Schiefley’s request to see you,” Delgado finished, looking at Tony. She straightened her shoulders, and addressed the table steadily. “Normally, I would be entirely opposed to such outside ‘aid’. However, I was in New York City two years ago in July. I was witness to...a great deal of what some of you did.  Consider me willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, at least temporarily.” 

“Right. Well. We happen to know a lot about AIM—“

“By ‘we’ he means me,” James added.

Steve shot him a quelling look that he seemed to ignore.

“—And by ‘we’ I mean him,” Tony amended. “We therefore have a sense of known associates and possible next steps.”

Delgado nodded, exhaled slowly, and then said, “You’ll coordinate with my investigators and form a task force. I want this cleaned up and AIM’s immediate threats neutralised as soon as possible. What do you want in return?”

Tony just raised his eyebrows innocently. “We’re just trying to pad our CVs at the moment, President Delgado. Good will goes a long way for us.”

“Ah. Polishing off that SHIELD tarnish,” Delgado said, not missing a trick. “Fair enough. Get this done, and you’ll have my endorsement, at least for a short while.”

“That’s all we ask,” Tony said.

***

(Tony carefully averted his attention after the meeting when Steve pulled James to a stop in the hallway and hissed, “Please don’t bring attention to yourself that way. You’re going to get yourself locked up where I can’t reach you.”

And James looked at him and said, like it was obvious, “It’s not anything more than I deserve.”)

***

“—Investigations surrounding the Interpol attack are being carried out by a specialised task force, and eye-witnesses are noticing some familiar faces therein. We already know that Iron Man was one of the first responders on-scene during the attack, but it seems some of his comrades-in-arms from the Battle of New York nearly three years ago have joined the investigation in the hopes of bringing the terrorists to justice. Controversy has been swirling around President Delgado’s choice of allies in this matter, but she has made statements assuring that the Avengers are working closely with her own staff to ensure all appropriate judgements and actions are carried out to the letter of international law. In the meantime, however, the terrorists remain at large...”

***

Phil Coulson called while Bruce, Tony, and Steve were looking through a holographic rendering of the wreckage of Interpol headquarters. Tony answered, extracting himself from the field of light and waving off Steve’s inquisitive look.

“You have Rhodes sticking his nose into business that isn’t his,” Coulson said without preamble. “Is it for the reason I think it is?”

“And what reason might that be, Agent Agent? Or, sorry, would that just be Mr Agent now?” Tony was maybe still slightly pissed that Coulson had apparently been dead for way less time than dead people generally were.

Coulson, however, was very good at silent judgement over the phone line.

“Maaaaybe,” Tony conceded, after a second.

“She’ll be a good addition,” Coulson said. “I’ll try and expedite the paperwork.”

“Okay good—wait, where are you?”

“Ethiopia. Don’t tell.”

“What? Why—ugh,” Tony said, as the line went dead. “That guy.”

“Problems?” Steve asked.

“No, I think one just got smoothed over, actually.” 

Steve quirked a curious smile at him, but didn’t press. Tony found it oddly encouraging.

***

AIM’s reach was long, far longer than they were prepared for. None of them were particularly surprised.

“If they split with HYDRA in ’88, that still gives them half a century’s worth of infiltration experience combined with a quarter century of practice on their own,” Natasha said. “We’ll maybe be able to stop this one project from going forward, but this is going to be an on-going problem.”

“One among many, no doubt,” Delgado nodded. “Don’t think Interpol hasn’t noticed the changes in our purview over the past decade. Schiefley should have taken better care, but I suppose it was my responsibility to make sure that he would when I hired him.”

(Schiefley, as it happened, had been found in several pieces amongst the wreckage. His phone had the stamp of AIM all over it.)

“We do, however, have one solid lead,” Steve said, pointing at the map. “This place is rubble now, but I’m willing to bet there’s a great deal to be salvaged. Plus, HYDRA hasn’t gotten a chance to clean it up yet.”

Tony peered at where he was pointing. “Isn’t that your old—?”

“Oh goody,” Natasha said. “I love going back to places where I nearly got blown up.”

“We’re gonna have to be quick,” Clint said. “That place is crawling with CIA, and I’m willing to bet SHIELD’s not the only organisation HYDRA’s managed to infiltrate.”

“Then let’s move,” Delgado said.

***

The old training grounds were a mess. But they came away with enough to go on. Namely, a fragmented, out-dated string of code that had once been the vessel for Arnim Zola.

Zola, or what was left of him, was not pleased.

“Look,” Tony said to the isolated interface the files containing Zola, “We don’t even want to do anything with HYDRA. HYDRA’s done. You’re done. We’re after AIM.”

“init_drive = {zola.74} VERSION ERROR;

int nblock  4632.&@)))..........{ YOU WILL GET N0THING//HAIL.HYDRA”

“You say that, and yet…” Tony replied, typing furiously,“Aha!

It was mostly gibberish, what Zola coughed up, but there was, again, enough to go on.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Tony murmured, “We have a winner.”

***

Only hours later, Rhodey called.

“She’s into it,” he confirmed. “Get us a flight, and we’ll be there.”

Tony stared at the gigabytes of data streaming in front of him, and nodded. “Tell her we’re gonna need her. ASAP.”

“You got it, Tones.”

***

AIM was global. This was no surprise. And like HYDRA, one arm cut off was likely to result in another two taking its place. But if they played their cards right, maybe they could make those new limbs mighty hard to grow.

Delgado gathered them all together in Interpol’s offices, Bruce and Clint and everyone, as well as the Interpol agents they’d been liasing with. When they were there, she looked over them steadily, and said, “We’re going to need to make a decisive move. It needs to be organised, low-risk, and thorough, both in its execution and its documentation.” She looked at Tony. “Frankly, I’m willing to take suggestions at this point.”

Tony nodded, and then picked up his phone and thumbed at it. “Pepper, you there?” 

Pepper’s face shone out on a separate screen. “Loud and clear, Mr Stark.”

“That candidate list. Could you send it over?”

Even thousands of miles away, Pepper’s smirk was unmistakable. “Certainly, Mr Stark.”

Tony set the phone down on the table, and it immediately lit up with dossiers. “I propose that we have an oversight committee. Nothing set in stone for this mission in particular, but as a trial run. You get your documentation, President Delgado, your dotted i’s and crossed t’s, and we get our street cred. These are people who, so far as I can tell, we can trust. Some of them are part of governing bodies, military, etcetera. Others are a little more…esoteric?” 

“I think you mean controversial,” Delgado murmured, eyes scanning rapidly. She didn’t look displeased, however.

“What was your process?” Steve asked. 

“JARVIS, mainly, though I realise that he wasn’t as helpful as he could have been in the past. Through no fault of his own,” Tony added quickly.

“Your understanding is appreciated, sir,” JARVIS cut in, causing no one but Delgado to twitch. 

“We’ve since altered our parameters to incorporate things we’ve learned from the HYDRA infiltration, as well as personal character judgements on the part of Ms Potts and myself, as well as what we thought you guys might lean towards given connections, past intel, etcetera.”

“You wrote algorithms for our thoughts,” Natasha summarised, though not with distaste.

“Well,” Tony allowed, “We made an attempt. But you guys have the last word, don’t doubt that. And if you think I’ve got it wrong, then feel free to say so.”

Steve nodded absent-mindedly. “Have you made approaches?”

“Only very tentative, very vague ones. With one exception.”

Steve looked up. “Oh?”

“Mm.” Tony didn’t elaborate further. 

“And you have opinions already, no doubt,” Bruce said, looking at Tony over the tops of his glasses.

Tony smiled slightly. “You know it.”

“Some of these could work,” Delgado said slowly. “It’s hardly a conventional group, but that could work in our favour.”

“I’ve categorised them by their possible positions,” Tony said. “Oversight, logistics, records—“

“I’m pretty sure you mean Pepper did,” Natasha interjected. Tony pouted at her, but didn’t disagree. 

“Who makes the final call?” Steve asked. 

Tony stared at him. The room got quiet. 

“You, Cap,” Tony said, after a long pause. “You make the call.”

Steve looked at him, enough to make him shift in his seat.  “Tell me who you’d choose,” he said. 

“No,” Tony replied. “I don’t want to bias the room, and besides—“

“Tell me,” Steve repeated, implacable.

Tony huffed. “You’re very frustrating, Cap.”

“So’re you,” Steve said, a little wryly. His expression remained serious, though. “Tell me this, then. Why’d you let us stay in the tower?”

Tony lifted his chin. “I’ve told you before.”

“Sort of. You said you wanted allies. People you could trust.” Steve sat forward, gaze intent. “Why us?”

“Battle of New York. Brothers in arms, and all that.”

“Then what about me?” Sam said quietly. 

“And me?” James added. 

Tony looked at them, sitting back. His fingers twitched.

“I’ve done the calculations,” he said eventually. He nodded at Sam. “Also, Rhodey’s heard of you, and I trust him.” He moved to James and Clint. “And I know victims of circumstance when I see them,” he said, and then moved to Natasha, “And liars who do so for the right reasons.”

She smiled slightly.

“And who do you know on this list?” Steve asked.

“Everyone,” Tony said immediately, because he did, one way or another. 

Steve nodded. “Tell me who you want.” Then he added (at the look on Tony’s face, no doubt), “I’ll tell you as we go along if I disagree.”

Tony pursed his lips, and glanced around the room. Delgado stood waiting, a touch impatiently, leaning with her hands flat on the desk. The rest of the group ranged around in varying levels of ease. Natasha seemed steady and sure, but that meant nothing, given her poker face, and Clint was much the same, with a touch of boredom. Sam looked interested, glancing between Steve and Tony with a bit more understanding than Tony was entirely comfortable with, all told. Bruce was fiddling with his pen, but his brows were raised just slightly in expectation.

Thor was smiling slightly, which Tony found a bit disquieting, to be honest. When he caught Tony’s look, he said, “We have already discussed this, Man of Iron. You know my feelings on this matter. If Steven is amenable, then I am as well.”

Steve looked at Thor askance. Thor didn’t change expressions.

And then there were Delgado’s people, standing off to the side. The first, Agent Partington, looked altogether impatient—wholly Delgado’s man, with little interest in the proceedings beyond the scope of his job. Tony wasn’t surprised; the guy had been perfectly efficient in his help tracking down the traces of AIM, but he’d made zero effort towards getting to know his team or be proactive. The other agent, on the other hand…

“You trust me, Agent Maximoff?” he said. 

The agent raised her head. “Me?” she repeated. “Why?”

Tony shrugged. “You have an outsider’s perspective.”

Her gaze sharpened. “Yes,” she said eventually. 

Tony couldn’t help it; he stared a bit. “…Really? Even without looking at the list?”

She shrugged, a slight smile on her lips. “I’ll chance it.”

He sighed, and looked back at Steve, who appeared altogether too smug. Then he sighed again, and looked down at the list in front of him. “Xavier first,” he said eventually. “He’s controversial, but his testimony’s kind of the best. And if we can get him to put his two cents in (which, who knows, I’ve only met him a couple times, and he’s a little hard to get a hold of), then T’Challa. He’s isolationist, sure, but that doesn’t preclude him interfering with us, and given that we’re about to make a global splash, I imagine he’ll want a say.” Tony nodded at Sam. “I also imagine he might like seeing his diplomatic gift being put to good use.”

He continued: “Franklin Nelson can round out the politicians and figureheads—he’s a good DA, and the mayor likes him. He’s got a good relationship with Washington as well, which is damned rare in a DA.

“Then the corporate players: Warren Worthington Jr.—a bit dicey in terms of his record, but he’s got clout and I’ve heard that some kind of incident with his son has turned him towards more esoteric work. Joy Meacham, of Rand-Meacham Inc., she’s had a few rough patches but she’s good now; Pepper likes her, they do business in Hong Kong, and Joy’s got a good relationship with both China and Japan, which is a bit of a feat.”

He took a breath. “And finally, the ringers.”

Natasha outright grinned. “How’d you find her?” she said. 

“Hawley? You don’t want to know,” Tony replied, flashing her a smile. “But she said she owes you one, which is good enough for me.”

“Hawley. As in Yelena Hawley?” Delgado said blankly. “She owes you?”

“I may have saved her life,” Natasha said, flicking her hair back. “World Security Council business.”

Delgado appeared to take a long, cleansing breath. “You’re not supposed to know about the WSC,” she observed, more levelly.

Both Natasha and Steve shrugged, pointedly looking elsewhere. Steve finally swung his gaze back to Tony though, and said, “And lastly?”

“This one’s a bit of a stretch,” Tony began, “Mostly because she says she only will agree to a diplomatic position if she gets to, and I quote, ‘get my share of ass-kicking in, too’.”

“She wants to join the team?” Steve said, raising his eyebrows. 

“I think you’ll like her,” Tony said, “And if you want someone in the U.S. Military with good standing and a hell of a lot of leverage, then look no further.”

Sam sat forward. “Do I know her?”

Tony smirked. “You might.”

Silently, the door at the far end of the room opened, and a guard stepped inside to murmur a message to Delgado. Delgado raised an eyebrow at Tony, and then nodded. “You sent her here?” she said to him.

Tony shrugged. “If the team agrees, we have our oversight committee, and we need to, as you said, hit AIM hard and fast, with all of the care and resources at our disposal. Might as well get a head start.”

Delgado nodded. She looked down at the candidate list. “I have no problems with whom you’ve suggested,” she said, after a pause. 

“I do,” Steve said. The room went quiet. He looked at Tony, and tilted his head at Delgado. “Why isn’t she on it?”

“Frankly,” Tony said, looking at Delgado, “I didn’t think she’d want to be. You, uh, have a lot on your plate, ma’am.”

Delgado looked at them all, and then drummed her fingers on the table.  “It’s a conflict of interest right now,” she said slowly. “I can’t be running this operation and overseeing it as well. But if it works,” she tilted her hands out from the table in a shrug, “I might be able to fit you in.” She looked down at herself, and then nodded. “If it means being ready for whatever’s next, I’ll do it.” 

Tony looked expectantly at Steve. “Any further objections?” he said, unable to entirely mask his disbelief. It couldn’t be this easy. It couldn’t.

“Nope,” Steve said, popping the ‘p’ slightly. “Anyone else?”

There was a pause, and then Bruce said, “I met Franklin once, when I was hiding out, after an, uh, incident. I hadn’t eaten anything in a few days, and needed to get just, you know, rice, and maybe some stock if I could afford it, so I went into a store where I knew the cameras were spotty. He knew who I was—someone, probably Ross, had filled him in, at least a little. He took a look at me—I was a mess, obviously. Hadn’t slept much, was staying in an unused warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. He said to me, ‘Rumours have you in Guatemala’.” Bruce shook his head, smiling slightly. “And then he said, ‘I’ll tell them you had plans further south.’ He bought me a box of tea and a bag of rice and walked out of the store.”

Tony exhaled. 

“I was sent to kill Xavier,” James said suddenly. He looked at Delgado. “Sorry.”

“I think we should probably just agree now that whatever gets said in this room doesn’t leave it,” Delgado said dryly.

James nodded, twitched, and looked at the tabletop. Steve’s hands had gone white-knuckled.

“I didn’t make it past the outer grounds of the school. The nullifying machine had a malfunction, HYDRA was never able to get it fully working. Xavier…sent me back. Before he did, though, he talked to me. In my head.”

“What’d he say?” Clint said, his voice tight.

“He said he didn’t have time to help. That he was sorry. That some things, people have to fix themselves anyway. He called me Sergeant Barnes, and wished me 'all the best',” James said quietly. “I didn’t understand him. It hurt, to hear him. I got away fast, reported to base. They tried to wipe me, lots of times after, but I never forgot that one part. Must’ve been something he did.”

This time, it was Steve who let out a shaky breath. He turned to Tony. “Good choices,” he murmured. “I’ll take ‘em.”

“…Really?”

“Careful, Tony, your low self-esteem is showing,” Natasha said, smiling.

Tony glared at her. 

Steve said, “Your last ringer, Tony. Let’s meet her.” He was smiling too, and for the first time, Tony saw how warm his smile could be. 

Delgado turned to the guard. “Let her in.”

The guard nodded. A few moments later, Sam made a triumphant noise, clapping his hands.

In the doorway, Colonel Carol Danvers grinned, Rhodey standing at her shoulder. “Hey, flyboy,” she said. “I understand you guys are in need of a friend.”

***

Carol Danvers, as it turned out, had been in the hospital for the last several months, having been sent jointly by NASA and the CIA to investigate an alien wreck, which had consequently blown up in her face, rather literally.

“On the one hand, it sucked,” she said, slumping down into her chair. “On the other, though, they owe me big time, as does the USAF for loaning me out without asking enough damn questions. Also, there might be some, uh, perks.” 

“Care to elaborate?” Steve asked. 

Carol smirked, and proceeded to lift Tony—chair and armour and all—into the air. One-handed.

“Put me down, woman!” Tony protested, flailing. Rhodey snickered. 

“Whiner,” Carol said. “There are other things too, but I’m still working it out. I figure, though, what better way to find out? Gotta fly before you walk.”

Sam high-fived her.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Delgado interrupted. “I think it’s time to make our plan of attack.”

Everyone turned to look expectantly at Steve. “Captain?” Thor said, raising his eyebrows.

Steve looked back at them all. “All right,” he said finally. “We’ve got a technophile terrorist threat, a narrow time line, and the whole world watching. This might be a trial run for us, but we've gotta make it count.

“Avengers, consider yourselves assembled.”

Tony sat back, and did the numbers. Rhodey wouldn’t stay, and there were other factors, other possibilities, but at the core… 

“Nine,” he murmured to himself. “Nice square number, nine.”

From where he was standing, the numbers looked pretty damn good.