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The wrong call (all down the line)

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

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

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

Tony walks away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he starts making his calls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Tony says. “They do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony is afraid he does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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