"Sir, Captain Rogers is on the line."
Tony stared down at the full glass of whiskey. It sat untouched. It had sat untouched for the last few hours or so.
When his usual monitoring programs on S.H.I.E.L.D. went quiet, Tony had not considered this event to be odd – S.H.I.E.L.D. periodically discovered his viruses, wiped them, and then Tony would wait an appropriate amount of time before sic'ing JARVIS on them once more.
But not today.
Today, everything was thrown like a grenade onto the Internet, exploding with earth-shattering force and shaking out darker conspiracies than Tony, for all his cynicism, had ever imagined.
"Put him through." Tony leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. "You're still kicking around, old man."
"Stark." Rogers' hoarse voice came through as though he was standing in the room. Tony would like to entirely credit his fabulous sound system, but the good Captain had a clear, ringing voice meant to be heard across a battlefield. "We need you."
"Rogers, I think we're past that now." Tony looked back at the kill order on the screen nearest him. A car accident, faulty engineering, no tampering discovered. Tony had designed some of the best engine and fuel systems on the planet as penance for his mother and father's deaths; he had inexplicably felt at fault and made up for it by revolutionizing automotive engine safety standards. "I take it that this latest clusterfuck is one of yours?"
There was a pause. "How much do you know?"
"Oh, I'm hazy on the details, but the Coles' Notes version tells me we've got no more S.H.I.E.L.D., maybe never had a S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury is dead – not that I believe that bullshit for a second – and Hydra took your heroic sacrifice and shoved it up all our asses."
Faulty fucking engineering. Tony's hands were bloodless as they clenched the armrests of his chair. Quite abruptly, the full glass of whiskey was shattering against the wall. Tony was standing up, his chest tight, and the mass of scar tissue pulling painfully along with his heavy breathing.
"Tony." He was fairly certain he had never heard Rogers say his first name more than once, and it sounded bizarre. It sounded like empathy, and he didn't want to hate Rogers for it because the Captain was one of the few who would be itching with the same disgust, the fucking rage over the fact this had all been happening under their noses – and Rogers would be feeling worse about it than Tony was, because he'd actually lost his life for this and it was all for nothing. "We took out a lot of them."
"Sitwell? Pierce?" The latter had been one of the big names, and Tony had met the man once, had shaken his hand. Had joked about Nick Fury being all-seeing with him. He stared down at his bottle of whiskey and contemplated throwing that too.
Tony nodded sharply to himself. "There's more, too many damn more that need tracking down."
The Captain went quiet there. "I know. I have one in particular I need to find."
"I've got a few specific names I'd like to add to that list." Tony breathed out slowly. "But first we need to make sure our people are in the clear. Natasha's going to be dealing with a lot of heat. And you, Captain, where are you right now?"
"Hospital. Got knocked around and fell from a Helicarrier."
Tony grimaced as he remembered walking through that hanger, giving those wide-eyed engineers some repulsor specs, and watching the teams scurry about to do his bidding. That was his technology in those fucking Nazi death machines. He could barely keep his meagre breakfast down while thinking about that fact.
He then frowned because the Captain was in the hospital? "What in the hell, Rogers? You barely needed more than an afternoon nap after New York."
"I should be out soon." The hoarseness was stronger now as he raised his voice, and then there was another voice, scolding in its tone as it said, "Hey Cap, ease up, you're gonna get us in trouble."
"Well, I don't think you've got much in the way of S.H.I.E.L.D. benefits covering that now," Tony said drily. He was already typing away. "But you do have a Stark with a bottomless bank account."
While in the process of wiring the money to the appropriate medical institutions and insurance companies, he happened to glance at the Captain's chart. Jesus. He'd been unconscious for hours with the mother of all concussions, broken a few ribs, inhaled half the Potomac, and been stabbed and shot in several places.
Tony's fingers flew furiously across the keys as Rogers protested, "Don't. It's not necessary, I have the money."
"Already done. Got three law firms on tap as of a minute ago, and I'm planning on hauling ass over there. Clearly, these types of things are my domain."
"Natasha won't accept your lawyers."
"She won't have to. She can handle her own statements, and my lawyers will handle the inevitable explosive aftermath." Tony was texting said attorneys and grabbing his coat as he made his way to the elevator. "I'll be there in an hour. Don't move."
There was a sigh, and then, "Got it. I'll be waiting."
"They want me at that Senate subcommittee hearing," Steve began.
"No," Natasha cut him off, sitting in a hospital chair while carefully removing her IV. Steve stared at her with open concern and disapproval.
"I think Cap wants you to keep the drugs, Natasha," Tony said as he tapped away on his phone, handling a barrage of questions from Pepper and his lawyers.
"I think that geniuses that have set the record for signing out AMA should refrain from commenting."
Tony nodded. "This is true, but I was not commenting on your poor decisions, merely pointing out that the Captain appears to object. Also, please don't stab me with that needle."
He watched Steve and Natasha battle it out silently for a moment, but soon they were smiling, and Steve was apparently yielding. Natasha pushed the IV stand away from her as she settled back more comfortably in her chair.
"Cap, there's a whole host of reasons why you may need to deal with the fallout at some later point, but right now, I need to handle it." Natasha looked towards Tony. "Stark, you can send them on the run-around, keep them off Steve."
"Been doing that since before the plane touched down," Tony said. The number of phone calls his publicist was wrangling at the moment truly boggled the mind – it matched, if not surpassed, the insanity of the day that Tony announced that he was the crazy asshole flying around in the suit. Pepper had her own team of people handling anything related to the company, including the not-so-discrete firing and arresting of planted Hydra agents. Tony was once again in awe of how incredibly adaptable she managed to be, giving the press nothing and acting blasé about the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been a terrifyingly powerful haven for war criminals. He expected an explosion the next time he saw her face-to-face, but at least he could honestly claim no fault in this one.
"They're going to want more than a statement or an appearance at a hearing," Sam Wilson cut in. Tony was already accepting his presence as a handy asset, and he could see how much Steve liked the soldier. Natasha respected the other man too, and that was a bright neon sign stating Avenger Material. "They're going to want him to do something about all this. People joke about Steve running for President, but I wouldn't be surprised if they ask him to take over the revived S.H.I.E.L.D., or whatever the hell they plan on creating to act as the new super-spy organization."
Natasha sighed. Steve shrugged. "I'll deal with that if it ever comes up, but I'm not going to waste energy thinking about it now."
The Avengers were going to have to be a full-time gig in the interim. Tony had been doing a lot of thinking in the past couple of hours; it had amounted to them, present Avengers and absent ones, filling as much of the crater that Steve had left behind when he obliterated S.H.I.E.L.D. as they could. The Avengers could stand alone, answerable only to the highest authority, and even if a new organization sprang up and Nick Fury rose up from the ashes to run it (Steve was blank-faced when Fury was mentioned, and Natasha flatly stated that he was dead, but Tony knew the one-eyed bastard was out there), the Avengers would remain separate.
"That isn't going to happen anytime soon," Tony said, leaving his current plans to be explained later. "Both the CIA and FBI are more than happy to take over and beat the snot out of the Nazi sympathizers. Steve is the Captain that everyone from grunt to general would follow into death and dismemberment" – Tony ignored the surprised look Steve gave him – "but he isn't going to start his own spy-op."
"No, I'm not," Steve agreed, flicking a quick smile in Natasha's direction. "It's not my kind of business."
"The priority is keeping them from throwing you in Guantanamo." Tony turned to Natasha, who blinked back at him, one eyebrow arched. "What? You're scarier than most scary things, but you don't think they're at least going to try?" he asked, raising his own eyebrows back at her.
"Not when they need me to round up the ones that got away – you can't tell me anyone else will be able to do it. And Hydra is not our biggest concern. There's more coming our way. Thor's little diversion in London should have made that obvious enough. They need me, they need Steve, they need you, Stark. We're not above the law, but I will make it very clear that it would be stupid to pretend that any of us is better off in whatever prison they think would hold us."
Which was all very true and not far from Tony's own line of thinking.
A new message cropped up on his phone. "That subcommittee meeting is being scheduled for late afternoon tomorrow," Tony told the room at large. "Natasha, I presume you're not going to want my army of legal badasses at your back?"
"I'm enough of a badass all on my own, thank you," she said politely. "And they all know it. No one is going to touch me."
"Right, so, I'll have someone ready to go and defend everything you're about to unleash on the committee – wanna give said counsel a bit of a heads-up before you do?" Tony waved his phone at her. "Really, you'd be doing me a favour. I'm the one they're going to bitch to about how much spin and legal bullshit they'll need to churn out."
"I live to do you favours, Stark – like that time I saved your ass from your own poison."
"Excuse you, you stabbed me in the neck, and then I created a brand new element," Tony immediately countered.
"That's a story that begs to be told," Steve said, smiling at them both. The bruises were already fading, but the cuts remained stark against his skin.
"I feel like I'm so normal compared to all of you," Sam said. "And I don't know what that means considering I've only met the all-human component of the Avengers. What are the Norse god and the Hulk like?"
"Jolly and green, respectively," Tony said with a grin. Natasha rolled her eyes, but her mouth was upturned, and Steve snorted quietly, but Tony heard him.
"Right." Sam gave a small chuckle, and then he took a moment to face Steve. "What are you gonna need from us, Captain?"
Steve looked over to Tony, and his bruised jaw clenched tightly before he spoke, "Just be ready. There's more out there than we can predict, and Hydra hasn't been totally wiped off the map." There was a hollowness to his eyes, and while Tony could relate to the feeling, he couldn't quite empathize with the source since it was one of those things someone had to actually experience in order to understand.
Natasha had given him an extremely perfunctory summation of the events surrounding the Winter Soldier. It was a betrayal, but not on the part of Barnes, and it was heartbreak, but not one that Steve could ever have anticipated or that Barnes could have prevented. It was a lousy set of circumstances and it seemed, to Tony, that Captain America was doomed to have his stand-up, can-do attitude forever tested by increasingly worse challenges. At what point would the good soldier lie down and accept his fate?
If the look in his eyes was anything to go by, not any time soon. That emptiness spoke of carefully restrained agony, but that restraint was ultimately a survival mechanism, and surviving was what Steve did best. Tony and the Captain appeared to have something in common after all.
"I'm gonna let you have your space, Rogers. You know how to reach me." Tony wiggled his phone in the air, and he pointedly looked towards the phone charging at Steve's bedside. "Wilson, it was nice to make your acquaintance, and please let me know when I can have a look at those wings. Natasha, lovely as per usual. Thanks for not stabbing me or rendering me unconscious."
"You're welcome, Tony," she said pleasantly. "Give Pepper my sincerest apologies for the mess."
Steve nodded at him, and it seemed he could spare enough energy to give Tony a somewhat gratitude filled expression before going back to concentrating on surviving another day.