Central Park after nightfall was supposed to be dangerous, but tonight, between the hundred of white candles, the tents, the tables with white linen table clothes, the paper lanterns swaying softly in the gentle September breeze, the string quartet playing tasteful classical music, and all of the chefs with foreign accents, it barely seemed like Central Park at all.
Peter's bowtie was too tight, and every time he got it loosened to the point that it was comfortable, MJ would retie it to make it choking again. MJ and Tony both looked nice, but Peter was pretty sure his tux didn't quite fit, and also that it was cheaper than any other article of clothing present, including the tuxes worn by the guys strolling around with trays of champagne flutes and unidentified substances piped inside pastry puffs.
Thank God for all the tents packed with gourmet chefs; if the tiny pastry puffs had been the only food available, Peter was pretty sure he would have either starved, or embarrassed himself by stealing an entire tray full. They hadn't had dinner before they'd come.
"Thank you so much for getting us invitations," MJ was saying to Tony. She was wearing a sleek green dress with black scroll patterns on the neckline and hem, and shoes with stiletto heels so high that they made her the same height as Peter. The fact that she could walk in them in wet grass with no apparent trouble was both unexpectedly hot and probably some kind of secret superpower. "The director and producer of Phantom of the Opera are both here, and if they already know my name when I show up to audition for the chorus, it will be a major in."
"If you want," Tony offered, "I could personally introduce you."
"Okay, now I understand how you get all those women to sleep with you."
"I already said I'd introduce you." Tony smiled. "You don't have to flirt. And don't say things like that so loudly; there are reporters here."
"I know," Peter said. "Usually I'd be one of them." He never thought he'd miss working for J. Jonah Jameson, but when you had a camera around your neck, you were virtually invisible at these kinds of things. Part of the furniture, like the waiter with the shrimp puffs (at least, Peter thought they were shrimp). As it was, he was sure people were staring at him and silently judging him. Two people had already asked him who he was, and then looked politely puzzled when he told them his name.
Most of the guests at the Central Park Conservancy Dinner were a lot more high profile than Peter Parker. Like, for example, Dr. Henry Pym.
At least, Peter was pretty sure the blond man hurrying up to them was Dr. Pym; he recognized him from the grainy, black and white stock photo that the Journal of Biochemistry always printed at the end of his articles.
"Hank." Tony grinned, extending a hand for the other man to shake. "I didn't know you and Jan were back from England yet."
"We got back a couple of days ago. What are you doing here?" Dr. Pym frowned. "You were in a hospital bed a week ago. You should be at home resting."
Oh, right. Because Hank Pym was also Ant-Man (or Giant-Man, or Yellowjacket, or whatever he was going by now), and had been one of the founding Avengers, and therefore would know that Tony Stark was Iron Man, and that it had been Tony who had nearly been killed last week when his armor had been hacked.
On second thought, maybe Peter had recognized him from one of the giant oil paintings in Stark Tower.
"Why are you even trying, dear?" a petite woman whom Peter assumed was Janet Van Dyne, also known as the Wasp, stepped over to stand at Dr. Pym's elbow. "It's not like he'll listen."
"I'm fine," Tony protested. "The hospital wouldn't have let me go otherwise."
Peter knew for a fact -- because he'd heard Tony and Cap arguing about it -- that Tony had actually checked himself out against medical advice. The doctors had wanted to keep him for two more days.
"You're Janet Van Dyne, aren't you?" MJ said, extending a hand. "I saw the showing for your fall line last year. It was brilliant."
Ms. Van Dyne shrugged. "It's dead to me now."
MJ smiled. "I guess a great designer never looks back."
Peter was pretty sure she was quoting The Incredibles . There were times when he really loved his wife.
"Speaking of brilliant," Peter said, "I thought your article on the effects of electronic impulses on pheromone production in argentine ant colonies was fascinating." Some of the principles had been similar to the ones he'd used to design his spider-trackers, and the article had helped him further refine them.
Dr. Pym smiled. "I'd initially planned to use fire ants for that study, but they wouldn't let me import them into Britain, even when I explained that the climate wasn't right for them to survive in the wild."
"See." Tony smirked at Peter. "And you were worried you'd be bored here."
"You set this up, didn't you?" Peter asked.
"Actually, I had no idea they were going to be here. I thought you were still in England," he added, to Dr. Pym and Ms. Van Dyne. "Are you back to stay or just visiting?"
"To stay, of course," Ms. Van Dyne said. She shrugged one bare shoulder -- her dress was a red and black silk off the shoulder thing. Even to Peter, who knew nothing about fashion, it looked expensive. The single large pearl that dangled just below her collarbones also looked expensive, as did the matching earrings. It must be nice to be rich. "After New York, Oxford was boring."
"Which lab do you work for?" Dr. Pym asked Peter. "Or are you one of Tony's new pet scientists?"
"I'm a high school science teacher," Peter admitted. It was mildly embarrassing to have to say as much in front of a guy who'd been nominated for a Nobel Prize; it was kind of nice that Dr. Pym had thought Peter was a real scientist, if only for a minute or so.
"I'm working on stealing him for my R and D department," Tony said, shrugging. "I dragged him along to this thing because I was worried that I'd be bored."
Peter saw Ms. Van Dyne's eyes narrow a moment before a voice from behind them said, "Really? I've never known you to be bored anywhere they were serving champagne."
Tony's entire body went stiff, and he turned sharply on his heel. Peter spun around to see what this apparent threat might be, and saw a big, attractive blond man in a wheelchair. He was smiling up at Tony dazzlingly.
"Tiberius," Tony said, voice strangled.
"Surprised to see me?" the man asked. He reached out and clasped Tony's hand in both of his, fingers locking around his wrist. If possible, Tony stiffened further.
"It's all right," the man went on cheerfully. "I can admit, I'm honestly surprised to be here myself. According to the doctors, they thought I'd never wake up." He still had his hands locked around Tony's fingers.
Tony yanked his hand free with more force than the loose grasp should have called for. "What are you doing here?"
Tiberius shrugged. "When my DreamVision Technology malfunctioned and put me in that coma, I ought to have been as good as dead. Instead I'm, well, not exactly walking around, but still damn lucky. The doctors say it was nothing short of a miracle that I woke up. Given that, how can I not take the opportunity to give something back to the city?" He gestured expansively with both arms. "And what better place to start than our lovely park?"
"Well, the school system could use some help." Peter said. He didn't know who this guy was, but he was rating an eight out of ten on Peter's smarm-o-meter. There was something about the wide smile he was giving Tony that was just... weird. Peter wasn't sure, but he thought maybe this Tiberius was flirting with Tony. Or at least, trying to.
"I see," Ms. Van Dyne said coolly. "Trying to buy your way back into polite society after an extended absence?"
"Why, Janet," Tiberius turned his smile on her. "you should know I've never had to buy my way into anyone's good graces. It's lovely to see you again, too," he went on. "I have fond memories of that weekend in Paris all those years ago."
"It's nice that one of us does."
"Why such a cold reception from two old friends?" Tiberius looked honestly hurt, but Peter was pretty sure he was faking it. "Tony, I hope we haven't had some kind of falling out. I can't remember anything from the months before my accident. The doctors say the DreamVision was influencing my neural functions. It's all a horrible blur." He looked down, frowning. "I'd hate to think that I might have alienated my oldest friend."
Tony was usually good at smooth-talking people -- or, at the very least, Peter had never seen him honestly lost for words -- but that had apparently deserted him, because now he was staring at Tiberius, face completely devoid of expression.
Dr. Pym and Ms. Van Dyne were also pretty much gaping at him. There was clearly some kind of history here.
"I have, haven't I?" Tiberius reached for Tony's hand again. "Come on, Marc Anthony, let me make it up to you."
Tony jerked his hand back out of the man's reach. "Your little games aren't going to work this time, Tiberius. I know what you really are, now."
Tiberius's smile faltered for a second, then returned, full strength. "I can see I'll have to work on you." He turned to MJ. "Miss Van Dyne and her escort I know, but I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure of your company before."
MJ gave him the stare she usually reserved for tabloid reporters. "You haven't," she said flatly.
"I didn't think so. I'm sure I would have remembered such a lovely young woman. I'm Tiberius Stone, and you are..."
Dr. Pym snickered audibly.
"It's been lovely seeing you, Tiberius," Ms. Van Dyne said, in a tone that implied the exact opposite, "but I'm sure you're just dying to get caught up with all of your old acquaintances, and it would be terribly rude for us to take up all of your time." She smiled at him sweetly. "I think I see Norman Osborn over there, and I'm sure Sebastian Shaw is hanging around the food tent somewhere."
"And I think Adrian Toombs is out of jail now," Dr. Pym offered.
He wasn't -- Peter kept tabs on that sort of thing -- but obviously this Tiberius Stone was a supervillain or ex-supervillain who had tangled with Tony or the Avengers. He just wasn't sure which one. The Avengers fought a lot of people.
The name sounded familiar, though. Peter was sure he'd heard it somewhere before.
Tiberius Stone offered them all one last toothpaste commercial smile. "I suppose I'll be taking my leave, then. I'm sure I'll see you later, Tony. Jan." He began wheeling himself away, the wheelchair leaving two long furrows in the wet grass.
Tony watched him go, rubbing at his wrist. "You know," he said wryly, "I think he scratched me with his ring." He looked pale, and kind of dazed.
Dr. Pym was right; he probably should be home in bed. Just a week ago, Peter had been sure that he was dead. He'd stopped his own heart to put his commandeered armor out of commission, and they hadn't been able to get it beating again until more than half an hour later.
The ambulance guys had had to haul Cap off of him in order to take over CPR, and it had taken four of them to do it. The part where Tony had looked dead had been terrifying enough all on its own, but Cap's expression when the paramedics had pulled him away from Tony had been its own kind of scary. "Scary" had never been a concept Peter had associated with Captain America before.
"You don't look that good," Peter pointed out. "Do you want to go home?"
Tony shook his head, visibly pulling himself together. "I promised I'd introduce MJ to that director."
"Oh, right, you're an actress, aren't you?" Ms. Van Dyne asked, turning to MJ. "If you want an introduction to some Broadway people, I know several. I'm in negotiations to design the costumes for one of the new productions."
"I think I might leave a little early," Tony admitted, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "The company here leaves something to be desired. That is," he added to Peter and MJ, "if you two wouldn't mind?"
"Can I go home with him?" Peter said.
MJ shrugged. "Sure. Thank you for coming in the first place. And not whining too much." She leaned over to fiddle with Peter's bowtie again, even though he'd very carefully not tugged on it this time and it couldn't possibly need fixing. It belatedly dawned on him that this might be an excuse to touch him.
"I could put the bowtie back on when you get home, so you can play with it more," Peter suggested.
MJ quickly withdrew her hand, but winked at him. "Go home," she said.
Tony had his cell phone out and was calling his chauffer. "Okay, I'll meet you in ten minutes."
"Good luck with the director," Peter said. "If he wants you to try out his casting couch, say no."
MJ whacked him on the arm. "You never know. I might say yes. I like men in tuxes. Ties are optional, though."
"Come on," Tony said. "Happy's going to meet us by the gate."
Score. This meant he got to take off the tie.
Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin were currently stranded on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean, facing inevitable death. However, since there were fifteen more books in Patrick O'Brien's apparently endless C. S. Forrester homage, Steve was pretty sure they were going to be rescued.
He was not waiting up until Tony came back from his party. He had just gotten caught up in his book, and stayed up reading; something he rarely had the time to do. The fact that he was reading in the living room where he'd be within easy earshot of anyone arriving in the elevator had nothing to do with Tony; it was simply a pleasant, well-lit place to read.
Frequently, if Tony didn't have a date to a particular social function -- and he hadn't, since Rumiko -- he would take Steve. This time around, he hadn't asked. As much as Steve might wish otherwise, he and Tony weren't actually involved with one another, and Tony was certainly under no obligation to ask him.
So Steve hadn't said anything, mostly because it would have been uncomfortable. Tony had no interest in men; his long string of girlfriends testified to that, and Steve knew it was selfish of him to want something that Tony couldn't give. After all, Tony had been willing to trade his life for Steve's; how could he possibly ask for more than that?
Things had... awkward, with Tony lately. He strongly suspected that Tony had been avoiding him, but couldn't entirely blame Tony for that, since Steve had spectacularly failed to notice that Tony was being mind-controlled and used as a weapon until it was far too late to do anything about it. If he had been paying attention, like he should have been, Tony wouldn't have had to stop his own heart. To save him.
Steve turned another page in his book. Stephen proceeded to explain the names and eating habits of every seabird on the island to Aubrey, which was probably fair trade for Aubrey's equally detailed explanations of the inner workings of various eighteenth century British Naval ships.
If he were completely honest with himself, he had to admit that he'd been avoiding Tony, as well. What could you say to someone who'd stopped his heart for you, whom you'd watched nearly die?
There had been a bit when he'd thought Tony was dead. It had taken nearly fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get there, but it had felt like much longer.
There was a soft chime from the elevator, and Steve heard the doors slide open.
"Come on, I know that guy is a supervillain," Peter's voice drifted around the corner. "Which one is he?"
Tony and Peter stepped in to Steve's line of sight from behind the fireplace. Peter had removed his tie and wrapped it around one hand, and Tony's tie was undone, hanging loose around his neck. Steve had always been slightly envious of how good Tony looked in tuxedos. He looked even better like this, with his collar open just a bit, revealing a flash of his collarbone.
"So," Steve asked, closing his book and standing, "how was the party?" He hadn't expected them back for at least another hour. He surreptitiously eyed Tony, looking for any sign of ill health. Tony hadn't been breathing when the ambulance had gotten there, and he'd left the hospital against doctors' orders. He didn't look like he was suffering any delayed reaction, though. "And where's MJ?"
Peter shrugged one shoulder. "She's still at the party; Ms. Van Dyne was going to introduce her to some theatre people."
Steve turned to Tony, frowning. He hadn't seen Jan since she and Hank had left for Great Britain. "I didn't know Jan was going to be there," he said. If he had, he would have asked for an invitation after all.
Tony offered him a small, slightly lopsided smile. "The English customs department wouldn't let Hank import fire ants, so they moved back. There were all kinds of unexpected arrivals tonight." From the tone of his voice, either his cousin Morgan had shown up to ask for money, or Sebastian Shaw had extended another invitation to join the Hellfire Club.
Peter snorted. "Like that creepy guy in the wheelchair who hit on you."
"Professor Xavier was there?" Luke said, stepping into the room from the hallway that led to the kitchen. Behind him, Jessica Jones snickered.
"No," Peter shook his head, "not a creepy bald guy. A creepy blond guy. He looked kind of like Cap, if Cap were in a wheelchair and had a goatee. And was skeezy and maybe a supervillain. He was practically drooling on MJ, too."
Steve felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. Peter's slightly incoherent description sounded unfortunately familiar.
Tony sighed. "Tiberius Stone was there," he said, sounding suddenly tired.
Jessica Jones frowned. "Isn't he that media mogul who owns half the television stations on the Eastern Seaboard and Barbara Walters' soul? I thought he put himself in a coma with some kind of experimental VR technology."
" That's where I knew the name from," Peter said, snapping his fingers. "He's the dead DreamVision guy. Jameson used to run editorials about how his video games encouraged teenage delinquency. Wait, he's a supervillain? Were they evil video games?"
"Knowing Stone, quite possibly." Steve said. He had vivid memories of the media smear campaign Tiberius Stone had subjected Tony to, as well as Tony's account of Stone's attempt to trap him in a virtual reality program and kill him.
Even before learning that Stone had been behind the sudden onslaught of tabloid attacks, Steve had thought there was something off about the way Stone had acted towards Tony. It had been obvious to him from the beginning that Stone was a manipulative bastard who invaded people's personal space incessantly. Tony, meanwhile, had insisted that "Ty" was one of his oldest friends, and was just a very tactile person. He'd continued to defend the man while reporters savaged him in every news magazine Stone published and every television channel Stone had a controlling interest in, right up until Stone had tried to kill him.
"Are you all right?" Steve asked, resisting the impulse to place a hand on Tony's arm. "He didn't try anything, did he?"
"Nothing to write home about." Tony's brief half-smile was cynical. "He's a changed man. He has amnesia. He wants to know what he's done to alienate me."
"What has he done?" Luke asked. "I don't remember ever hearing about this guy."
"Well, to begin with, he had his own parents murdered," Tony said flatly. "Everything else pretty much pales beside that."
Jessica stopped hanging in the doorway, stepping around Luke and going to sit in one of the leather armchairs. "Was he behind that smear campaign someone set you up for a couple of years ago? He owned most of those television stations, didn't he?"
"Yes." Tony's shoulders slumped slightly. "It's a long story."
"He's dangerous," Steve said. He folded his arms across his chest, thinking. "Do you have any idea how he recovered from that coma?" People did make miraculous recoveries sometimes, but there were rarely any coincidences when dealing with supervillains, even ones without code names and costumes.
"No. He's claiming it was a miracle. If I know him, he's angling for public sympathy." Tony took off his suit jacket and threw it on to the couch, then dropped heavily into the chair across from Jessica. "We're going to have to keep an eye on him."
He slumped forward for a second, rubbing at his face with both hands. "I'm going to go to bed," he said, through his fingers. He stood, and walked off to vanish around the corner of the fireplace, in the direction of the elevator, instead of his bedroom. He was going to go work on the armor, Steve knew. It was what Tony did anytime something was bothering him.
"So, he is a supervillain, right?" Peter asked, cocking his head to one side.
"I don't know, man, but I can't believe you left your wife at some swanky party full of old rich guys. Half of them are probably cruising for a mistress," Luke said, smirking.
Jessica raised her eyebrows. "It's a sign of trust, jackass."
"MJ can take care of herself," Peter said, "and I left her with the Wasp and Dr. Pym, so I figure she's pretty safe from the wiles of sketchy old guys."
Steve stared at the corner Tony had disappeared around. He should have gone after him, but what had happened with the armor was still hanging between them. He wouldn't have been able to think of anything to say, anyway.
"And then he said that he'd be sure to keep me in mind, which was a complete lie, of course, but it was nice to hear." MJ poured milk onto her rice krispies and stirred them around with her spoon, taking a bite. "I can't believe I got to meet Janet Van Dyne. I know she's the Wasp, but she's also one of the top ten most powerful businesswomen in New York City, and her designs..." She shook her head, gesturing expansively with her spoon. "I always wanted to wear one when I was modeling, but I never got the chance."
"Buy one, then." Luke shrugged, obviously less than interested in the conversation. He was feeding Danielle some kind of pale orange mush, and making faces at her to get her to open her mouth for the spoon. Steve was almost certain that he didn't realize he was doing it, since there was no way Luke would willingly look that ridiculous in front of everyone else.
"Do you have any idea how much an original Van Dyne costs?" Jessica Jones asked him.
Luke raised his eyebrows. "A lot?"
"More than a lot," MJ said. "You'd have to be a celebrity to afford one."
"You were totally the best looking woman there, and your dress came from Macy's," Peter assured her. He was adding cocoa powder and sugar to his rice krispies, which apparently made them taste just like Cocoa Krispies. Jarvis would have been utterly appalled.
MJ rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Peter. That was very helpful."
"What? You were."
Steve ate his breakfast in silence, listening to the conversation but not joining in. It was nearly seven-thirty; Tony should have been sitting at the breakfast table by now, sullenly clutching a coffee mug. He might not be a morning person, but he always tried to get in to work early these days. That didn't make him any more cheerful in the mornings, though.
Even if he had overtired himself last night, it wasn't likely that he would still be asleep; knowing Tony, he had multiple fancy alarm clocks specifically to prevent oversleeping. He had looked all right last night, but then, Tony had always been good at concealing ill health, and he'd gotten out of the hospital barely a week ago.
If Steve had to make a bet, he'd put his money on Tony's still being in the lab, overhauling his armor. He'd been obsessively checking it and rechecking it over the past week, as if afraid that someone would slip remote control devices in when he wasn't looking. And then there had been Stone's unwelcome return last night, and the fact that Tony always worked on his armor any time anything was bothering him.
Steve wondered if he'd even gone to bed. He ought to go downstairs and check. He could claim that he was bringing Tony coffee.
It always felt a little strange to ride an elevator so far down; Tony's workshop was in the tower's sub-basement, and the Avengers' living quarters were dozens of stories and six security checks above it. Luckily, the elevator was a fast one, so the coffee was still hot when he reached the bottom.
Tony was sitting on a lab stool, hunched forward over a workbench, doing something with a tiny welding pen, tweezers, and a very, very small piece of circuitry. He was wearing a regular suit in place of last night's tuxedo, the tie sitting on the bench side him, but going by the circles under his eyes, Steve had been right about the not sleeping.
Steve stepped forward, holding out the coffee mug. "Good morning."
Tony put down the welding pen and rubbed a hand over his face, closing his eyes for a second. "Is that for me?"
"I thought you might need it," Steve said, handing him the coffee. Since you've been up for twenty-four hours straight, he added silently. "I didn't expect Tiberius Stone to come back," he said tentatively, as Tony took his first sip of coffee, eyes closed and wearing the blissful expression with which he always greeted coffee after a long night. Steve could see the muscles in his throat move as he swallowed. "It must have been like seeing a ghost."
Tony opened his eyes, regarding Steve seriously over the rim of the coffee mug. "It was, but it's not like he actually did anything. I'm fine, Steve."
Tony was always 'fine.' "Look, last week was--" Steve began, knowing he needed to say something -- should have said something a week ago, in fact -- but still not knowing how to start.
"I don't know how I can apologize," Tony interrupted. He set the coffee mug down on the bench in front of him, staring into it. "I swore, last time, after Kang, that I would never let something like this happen again, and..." he trailed off, still staring intently into the dark surface of the coffee. "I could have killed you. I'm sorry."
"That's not-" Steve broke off, shaking his head. Tony wasn't making this any easier. "I should have noticed that something was wrong. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Completely," Tony said, in a tone of voice clearly chosen to shut down this line of conversation. "The Extremis could handle it, and I was only out for a little while, anyway."
Steve clenched the fingers of his right hand into a fist, jaw tightening. A little while? Hell, it had been thirty-seven minutes. Tony had stopped breathing, his heart had stopped beating, for thirty-seven minutes .
The Extremis's healing factor wasn't like Logan's -- it worked gradually, on a cellular level -- and none of them had known that it would be enough to keep Tony alive and undamaged.
"Stone didn't ruin the party for MJ, at least," Steve said, not wanting to talk -- or think -- about Tony's brush with death any longer. "She really enjoyed meeting Jan."
Tony's lips curved in a half-hearted smile. "So did I. Hank too. Now that they're back, we should have them over." He stood, picking up the tie and looping it around his neck. "I have to get to work; there's a meeting at eight."
"You know if you need anything," Steve started, "I-"
"Thanks for the coffee," Tony said. And then he was gone.
The giant wrecking ball whipped through the air, smashing a store's display window into powder. "What are you going to do, send us back to jail?" Thunderball flicked the handle of his makeshift weapon into the air again, then began swinging it around his head, like Thor spinning Mjolnir. He had always been fond of posturing, Tony reflected.
"I think we've already established the futility of that course of action," Thunderball continued.
And sneering. He was fond of sneering as well. The rest of the Wrecking Crew just liked smashing things. Thunderball liked smashing things, too, of course, but he was more annoying about it. He'd also tried to tarnish a perfectly good Bond movie by naming himself after it.
Dr. Eliot Franklin had been a brilliant physicist once; Tony had never been able to figure out why he'd decided that donning a bright green and yellow costume and joining a group of demolition-themed supervillains was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Usually, when scientists decided to turn to a life of supervillainy, they chose a more technologically advanced means of wreaking havoc.
Logan popped his claws, the adamantium gleaming in the bright sunlight. "Maybe this time we'll try sending you back in pieces."
The four members of the Wrecking Crew had broken out of the Raft during the mass escape last month. No one had seen or heard from them since then, until this morning, when they had reappeared as if from nowhere, and started destroying stores on 34th Street, grabbing anything they could take as they went.
Steve arched his body over backwards at the waist, letting the Wrecker's crowbar whistle harmlessly through the space where his head had been an instant before. Seeing that never failed to impress Tony; the only other person he'd even seen bend like that was Peter, and he had non-human physiology and a lot less muscle mass than Steve.
"You know," Steve commented to him, "it's times like this that I really miss Thor."
"You and me both," Tony said. He sent a stream of repulsor energy toward the Wrecker, hitting him solidly between the shoulder blades. It burned a hole in his green coat and staggered him forward a step, but didn't take him down. Tony hadn't expected it to; the Wrecking Crew might not be very creative, but they were nearly indestructible. "Spiderman, see if you can get that crowbar away from him."
"Sorry, a little busy here." Peter shot a webline at a nearby lamppost, and used it to swing himself up off the sidewalk just before Thunderball's wrecking ball slammed into the piece of pavement he'd been standing on. The sidewalk crumbled around the impact site, and Peter, now hanging upside-down from the top of the lamppost, sent twin streams of webbing at the giant steel ball, gluing it to the sidewalk.
Thunderball tugged at the chain, his face contorted in frustration. Peter's new organic webbing had more tensile strength than the old chemical kind, and only a few stands snapped.
"Let me help you with that," Logan said. He swiped at the chain with his claws, slicing the links in half.
Thunderball, who had been pulling at the trapped weapon with all of his considerable strength, fell backwards, sitting down hard in the street. The severed end of the chain snapped back to hit him in the face, hard enough to knock a normal person unconscious. "You're going to pay for that, you witless animal," he spat, bringing the back of one yellow-gloved hand to his split lip.
Steve threw his shield at the Wrecker, knocking the enchanted crowbar from his hand, and Tony hit the man with another repulsor blast, this time managing to actually send him to his knees. The crowbar hit the pavement with a clang, and was snatched away by a webline.
"I'm gonna kill you, you tin plated bastard," the Wrecker growled. He climbed back to his feet, taking a step towards Steve and drawing back a fist. "But first, you're going down. Remember when Thunderball broke your jaw? You're gonna wish you had it that easy this time. You'll be picking your teeth up off the fucking asphalt."
Beyond him, Luke was slugging it out with Piledriver, dodging punches from the man's oversized fists. Both of them seemed to be enjoying it. Bulldozer, the Wrecking Crew's fourth member, was clutching his face and whimpering; Spiderwoman had just sent a venom blast straight into his eyes.
Steve caught the Wrecker's punch on his shield; Tony had fought alongside him long enough that he noticed the small step backward Steve took as the impact staggered him, but he doubted anyone else did.
Tony shut off his bootjets, landing just behind the Wrecker, and tapped him on the shoulder, then threw a mailed punch at his jaw. He could feel the impact all the way up his arm, but all the Wrecker did was shake his head once and blink. Then Steve kicked his feet out from under him.
He hit the ground with a thud, and Tony reached down and slapped a small electronic device onto his chest, triggering it with the Extremis as he did so. The Wrecker convulsed once, tiny crackles of electricity running over the surface of his body, then went limp.
There was another thud from behind them, and Tony turned to see Thunderball sitting on the ground again, looking dazed. Bulldozer was standing over him, metal helmet knocked askew, face reddened, and eyes streaming tears, saying, "Sorry, sorry. I thought you was Wolverine."
Thunderball hit him across the knees with the remnants of his chain, then fell over sideways, out cold.
Steve exchanged glances with Tony, grinning broadly, and Tony found himself grinning back, even though he knew Steve wouldn't be able to see it, not with the helmet hiding his face. The satisfaction was short-lived, though; Steve had no reason to smile at him like that these days, after the hacker controlling Tony's armor had come so close to killing him. It was his feelings for Steve that had put him in danger in the first place. The armor had been responding to his thoughts, his subconscious cues, and it had known exactly what would hurt Tony the most.
By the time the police arrived a few minutes later, all four members of the Wrecking Crew were securely tied up with Peter's webbing. Thunderball, Bulldozer, and the Wrecker were all unconscious, and Piledriver was cradling his bound hands to his chest, complaining that Luke had broken his fingers.
The New Avengers stuck around long enough to see them loaded into an armored car -- it took three policemen to carry the Wrecker -- and then returned to Stark Tower.
Tony was silent on the way back, busy pulling up the profiles of all the Raft escapees via the Extremis. The Wrecking Crew never worked on their own; they didn't have that kind of initiative. They were always on somebody's payroll. He couldn't think of a single higher-level villain whose agenda would be advanced by knocking over jewelry stores, though.
Whomever had hired them, chances were he -- or she -- would have paid well enough to ensure their silence on the subject, so it was likely that they'd heard the last of them for several weeks at least, unless Bulldozer tried to sue Jessica Drew for temporarily blinding him.
Tony added the looming threat of the Wrecking Crew's possible employer to the ever-growing list of looming threats, which at this point included Tiberius, the unidentified person or persons behind the Raft breakout, Maria Hill and whatever she was doing with SHIELD, and Hydra, then went on with his day. He was therefore completely unprepared for it when Pepper and Happy burst into his office the next morning.
"I can't believe that scum," Happy was snarling. "Some people got no gratitude at all."
"Go find a television and put on channel fourteen," Pepper told Tony. "You're going to want to see this."
Tony set down the budget proposal he was going through and sorted through the myriad of muted datastreams he could sense with the Extremis until he found channel fourteen's morning talk show. When he opened up the datafeed, he found himself confronted with Tiberius Stone's somber face.
"As a native New Yorker, I find this incident especially painful," Ty was saying. Tony knew for a fact that Ty had spent half his life in Europe, and most of his childhood at school in New England, so what was he playing at now?
"What I want to know, John," Ty went on, "and I think I speak for a great many of us, is who will be paying for this wanton destruction?"
"The Maria Stark foundation has always paid for the worst of the damages inflicted on the city during altercations involving the Avengers," the host said. "I understand the city has already billed the foundation for the damage to the street and sidewalk, and funds are being given to several of the stores' proprietors to repair the destroyed storefronts."
Ty shook his head, frowning. "Yes, but the owners of those destroyed storefronts will be losing business while their establishments are under construction, and in this city, three weeks without business is a major financial loss. Who's going to pay for that?"
Once upon a time, Tony might have been surprised or hurt, but at this point, he couldn't even summon up the energy for anger. He'd been expecting something like this ever since he'd seen Tiberius at that party. Ty always preferred to attack from a distance rather than face to face. By tomorrow, he'd probably have leaked false information about Stark Enterprise's financial situation to the New York Times, and then Tony would have another crisis of shareholder confidence on his hands.
"I've been looking for a cause to devote my energies to ever since I woke up," Ty went on, his perfectly modulated baritone dripping sincerity, "some way to use this second chance I've been given to make a difference. This, this senseless destruction caused by superpowered arrogance, has given me that. These constant battles between criminals and vigilantes are simply proof that people should not possess such dangerous abilities or use them so freely, just as I shouldn't have used the DreamVision so carelessly. People will be hurt. The city, or possibly even the state government, should do something about this."
Tony dropped his head into his hands, suppressing a groan. Steve and the others didn't deserve the trouble this was going to bring.
"I am using my own money to further compensate the victims of this disaster, and the Reverend Arnold Hathart has started a charity fund to assist the victims of superpowered disasters."
"I wasn't aware that you were involved in any religious ministries, Mr. Stone."
Ty smiled self-deprecatingly. "Call it a side-effect of a near-death experience. I truly believe that my recovery is the work of a higher power. My doctors can't explain it to me; they insist that I should never have been able to wake up. I've been given a miracle, and I'm not going to let that go to waste."
Tony shut the datafeed off in disgust. Pepper and Happy were staring at him, Pepper with her nose wrinkled and Happy with his usual solemn expression.
"You got any idea how creepy it is when you do that, boss?" Happy asked.
"If I know Ty," Tony said to Pepper, "every news station in the city is about to call and ask for an official statement on behalf of the Maria Stark foundation. Make sure you don't give them anything other than the usual PR statement. We're not going to play his games."
"That creep," Pepper spat. "I can't believe he's doing this again." She strode over to his desk, high heels rapping out her irritation on the floor, and snatched the discarded budget proposal away from him, bending the cover leaf in the process. "I'll give this to legal. And tell them to get ready for somebody to sue us."
"Come on," Happy shook his head. "Nobody's actually going to start a lawsuit over this; they can't sue Stark Enterprises for something the Avengers did; they're not SE employees, and the Maria Stark foundation's a whole separate legal deal."
Pepper snorted. "Since when has that ever stopped anybody? By the time judge threw the case out of court, our stock would already be in the basement." She turned to Tony, and said plaintively, "You're sure we can't try the offensive tack this time?"
"And launch our own smear campaign against a philanthropist in a wheelchair?" Tony asked dryly, raising his eyebrows. "The press would really love us for that. Anyway, I think we're over-reacting here. He's not actually going after S.E."
"Yet," Pepper muttered darkly.
"He's obviously up to something with that phony born-again do-gooder crap," Happy said. "The only religion that guy's found is Sweet Jesus of Convenience. Don't forget about how he bugged your office and tried to kill you."
"Not much chance of that," Tony assured him. "But he's not actually making any accusations. He's just a concerned citizen who wants more accountability for superheroes. If we get defensive, we'll be playing right into his hands."
Unless Tiberius actually was sincere, and truly had lost the memories surrounding the DreamVision plot. Tony wouldn't have bet a plugged nickel on the chances of that being true, but it was possible .
After all, he knew better than anyone how people's personalities could be affected by technological mind control. Maybe that coma really had changed Tiberius; he seemed just as false and smarmy as ever, but Tony might be projecting his own knowledge of Ty's past betrayals onto his current behavior.
Or he could simply have changed his tactics, and decided to give up on his attacks on Tony Stark in favor of going after Iron Man. Thanks to the time he'd spent roaming around Tony's psyche with the Dream Vision, he knew perfectly well that Tony Stark and his armored bodyguard were one and the same.