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The Futurist

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Of course the Mansion would feel empty. There’s no one else there right now.

But hey, it’s Friday night. The cleaning minions have all headed home; Happy’s gone for the weekend, and Pepper … Is where she is. Perfectly normal to be alone, really. Plus, a bit of peace and quiet is a good thing.

Tony throws his briefcase on the floor of the big common room, the shield onto an armchair (no point trying to stand it up, it’ll just roll and make a racket)- and himself onto one of the couches.  He eyes the thing from where he sits -- all blue and red and silver, like a giant eye, staring. Maybe he should have left it at the compound? Nah. Howard Stark made it; Stark Mansion is where it belongs.

His fingers strum the side of the couch and he feels the urge to get up and pace. Is that what Rogers meant by “rattling around”?

God, this couch sucks. Romanoff always calls – called? -- the design ‘21ST Century Latent Sexist’ ; something about the seats being so deep that normal women can’t rest their backs without having their legs stick straight out. 

He tries to get comfortable, and fails. Maybe Romanoff has a point, even if her own yardstick for relaxed seating seems to be 20th Century Ratty Farmhouse. The sleek, square leather is hard as a rock, especially when your entire body is one giant fading bruise. Plus, every time you move, you slide. 

Screw this. He gets up and heads for the bar.

“Friday,” he says to the air above as he walks, “look into some new furniture for this joint, will you?”

“What do you have in mind, sir?” 

The pleasant female lilt conveys infinite patience, but it still jars a little. Missing that warm, English vibrato. What would Vision say if he were asked to give JARVIS’ voice back? Nod solicitously, or stare at him in silent, purple reproach?  He’s getting pretty good at that, actually. One of the reasons Tony left the compound -- to take a break from all that synthetic angst and rumination on past decisions. Only so much of that a man can take on a Saturday night. 

“Sir?” 

Right. Friday. Furniture. 

“I don’t know. Ask …” 

Well, no. Not a good idea, asking Pepper for interior decorating advice. She might take it wrong. (Maybe next week?) Tony huffs some air out through his nose. 

“Just find those gay guys from the TV, the ones who charge a fortune for taste, and let them go wild.” He pauses. “No plaid, though. And I will absolutely kill if I see a fringe anywhere. No fringes, you hear?” 

Honestly, Tony doesn’t really give a damn what the outcome will look like, it’s just that change is generally Good. Rhodey, when he gets out of rehab, will appreciate a softer place to sit. And Thor, if he ever comes back from Valhalla, will just have to deal with smaller chairs. 

Provided Thor does come back, the magnificent bastard. And decides to come here, instead of high-tailing it to whatever secret hiding spot Rogers has taken his little band of misfits. Surely Asgardians have an appreciation for law and order? Thor had clapped Loki into God jail with a pretty grim sense of purpose. 

Tony pauses for a second at the bar before pouring himself a double shot of the Ardbeg Perpetuum Limited Edition. On second thought, he makes it a quad, and plops in a single ice cube. Pepper might not approve, but she’s not here – and surely there’s a difference, between wanting to slow down one’s brain to walking speed and jumping off the wagon.

Besides, it’s been a seriously long and shitty week; Lord knows how many time zones he’d gotten under his belt. (And how many whacks.) The temptation to touch the still-tender bruise on his chest is overwhelming. 

Tony casts another look at The Shield, matte surface glowing softly in the indirect light: Vibranium. The same stuff Ultron had remade himself with, thanks to Ulysses Klaue‘s stash, and Wakanda’s new king uses for his cat suit.  Funny how life sometimes works, all circles and turns. Maybe some day that particular string of facts will amount to a workable theory. (Like, everything begins and ends in Wakanda?) 

Tony wanders over to the credenza, glass in hand, and idly studies the photographs Pepper put there at some point in a fit of nostalgia. Maybe she’d seen an article about decorating with black-and-white? 

His eyes slide off the picture of the two of them at some gala or other, Pepper glowing on his arm like the Hope Diamond. Instead, he focuses on a simple, black frame, slightly battered, holding a familiar sight: Howard and Maria Stark, on their wedding day.  

Howard looks like he’s just acquired shares in something that may either be a roaring success, or the end of Stark Industries as he knows it. Mom, for her part, has that adoring upturned gaze thing happening that went out with the 60s. (Pepper sure never had that. Or did she? Must ask Happy.) 

Maria’s neck is long and pale, adorned with a double strand of pearls that did not come from domesticated oysters. There’s a flash in Tony’s neural pathways then and suddenly he sees that car again, the road blurry in the dark and the rain. Everything is grainy and indistinct, in fact, except for the glint of that metal hand, reaching for the swanlike neck … 

He almost bites down on his glass, but stops himself in the nick of time and drains it instead. Staring at the empty vessel for a moment, he heads back to the bar for another shot. Good thing Pepper isn’t here to stop him. 

PepperMaybe he should have bought her that farm? Do farms make people happy? Laura Barton looked happy. Ish. (Imagine that, living with Hawkeye.) Did Pepper ever ask her for advice? 

Dammit. Over half a billion bucks spent on that confront-your-past holodeck, and the present still sucks. 

A sudden movement in the bar’s giant mirror sends a jolt through Tony’s well-primed adrenal glands, sharpening his senses despite the smoky peat on his tongue. 

Intruder? 

Nope -- the puffed up, swollen face staring back at him is his own: Anthony Edward Stark, fading black eye and all. The hell…. What was it Indiana Jones said? It’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Another swallow and the world is back in welcome, calming, soft focus. 

But the voices – they’re not stopping. Tony raises his glass in silent toast to the image in the mirror, even as the jeering gets louder. 

'Behold, the Futurist! '

Shit. Last thing he needs to think about right now is Barton, lying there on his bunk like some latter-day Steve McQueen, oozing reproach and contempt. No weapon in sight, and still hitting hard and on target. 

'Well, you knew they’d put us somewhere, Tony.'

Tony tries to swallow down the memory of Wanda, arms wrapped tightly around herself, and not for comfort. Strapped down and shivering, shock collar around her neck, eyes dead, she’d looked about fifteen. Not like the woman whose uncontrolled powers had summoned Ultron from his mind. 

The Ardbeg is good, but not that good; despite its best efforts, the image of Wanda in Ross’ chains keeps coming back. Damn you, Barton. Should have left her where she was: safe and away from all that shit that had come raining down. Wanda is way too young and … 

Unbidden, the picture of young Parker chases hers across Tony’s retinas, and is blinked back just as fast. We do what we need to do, even if it means letting children fight our battles. Especially if it’s for their own good. 

It was. Wasn’t it?

Parker seemed good with it all. Had fun, even. (Only one who did.)  All things considered, though, it should be Wanda’s voice calling through the Scotch, not Barton’s taunts. 

'Hi, it’s me, your conscience. We don’t talk much these days.'  

Who was it that’d said that? That wasn’t Barton, either. Must have been that other guy in the Raft? Dammit, it’d be a downright relief knowing whose mind fuck is triggering all those ghosts playing drumrolls in his brain … 

Tony sets the glass down, hard. Fuck the past. Time to deal with the Now. Take inventory. Assets and liabilities. 

So, everyone’s out of Azkaban now. At least it looks like everybody; CNN has been short on names and specifics, no doubt Ross’ doing. You don’t want the public to have a list of just which of its world savers had been clapped in that jail, or next thing you know, there’s a hashtag campaign. 

Tony wriggles his shoulder blades, trying to dislodge the bulls eye he’s sure is tattooed somewhere between them. Now that he’s out, will Barton come for him? And maybe bring Romanoff? 

Who knows on whose side the Black Widow had ended up; she’d just disappeared. Poof. Dissolved into smoke, after that little chat at the compound, and the stunt she’d pulled at the airport. 

'Did you just agree with me?'   'Oh, I want to take it back…'

And so she had. Pretty comprehensively, letting Rogers and his killer buddy go like she did. Probably also helped Cap spring her One True Buddy, Barton, and his little super-powered Sokovian protégée. Breaking into secure facilities had always been a Romanoff special; should have known better than to trust her – the only side she’s ever been on is her own.

So, Tony Stark needs to watch his back? From whom? Probably everyone they’d sprung. Widow and Wilson used to hang out, make brunch together at the Tower. Chances are, they didn’t leave that other guy behind, either, whatever his name was, the one who kept changing size. (Some brilliant tech there – smells of Hank Pym, and those rumors of his fabled particle. Should dig up Dad’s old notes on that …)

Tony feels the briefest of twitches at the corner of his mouth: The Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, turned Imperial Walker. That Parker kid’s sure got some moves.

Shit. Still flashing back, Scotch and all. (Scotch. Scotch … Scott. That’s what Shrinking Man’s name is: Scott. Scott Something.)

Now, Stark. Stick with the Now.  

Friday gives a discreet harrumph. Thank the Lord for minions with timing.

“Sir, the Secretary of State is on the line, again.”  Maybe not that kind of now?  “What should I tell him, sir?”

To fuck off? No, not good enough. Put him on hold again? Nope. The Secretary of State deserves better. 

“Tell him I’m passed out on the floor in a drunken stupor and will call him when I’ve woken up and finished puking. Or maybe during, if it's urgent.”

“Very well, sir.”

Ross is probably calling about the breakout, wanting to know whether Tony might know where his team … former friends might be. As if any of them would call the Mansion. What for? To arrange a post-mission debrief? A victory party? A sleepover? Not bloody likely. What had Barton said?

'You have to watch your back with this guy. Chance is, he’s gonna break it.' 

Irony is, Tony has a pretty good idea where they all might have gone: Barton’s farm. That little slice of heaven in Iowa, off the books and off the grid. (Of course, Friday kept the coordinates.) Home away from home, when Tony Stark’s mansion won’t do.

For a moment, Tony toys with the idea of calling Laura. That ought to be fun. “Hi, Mrs. Barton.  This is Tony.  Tony Stark?  Just checking whether the tractor still works?  And oh, by the way, thanks to me, your husband is now wanted in 117 countries, and General Ross knows you exist.  Mind putting him on the line for me if he’s there?

Fuck this.  

He flops back on the couch.  What now?  Feeling a tad masochistic, he clicks the TV on again.  BBC, MSNBC, CNN – crawlers still the same everywhere. Escape, yes, arrests, no: Raft inmates had outside assistance, says Secretary of State; Disappear without a trace.

Tony raises his glass at the screen in a little toast.  Well done, Cap.

Worldwide searches are in progress, of course.  No reward offered yet, but it’s only a question of time before someone opens their wallet.  How much is an Avenger worth, in 2016 dollars?  Sliding scale, depending on powers -- from Hawkeye to Scarlett Witch?

Right. People do tend to underestimate Barton.  The man does damage far beyond what people give him credit for. What had he said again, in that floating pokey?

'Criminals. That didn’t use to mean me.'

He’s not wrong, exactly. It doesn’t mean them. Didn’t. Until, of course, the Accords made a crime of being who they were.

‘Wait. Captain America is on a threat watch?’ ‘We all are.’

Shit. That was a long time ago. The voices are really starting to mine those old memory banks now. 

‘You may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.’

Tony resists the temptation to pour himself another Ardbeg for, oh, about 10 seconds. (When’d the bottle get this low?) 

CNN momentarily loses interest in chasing Avengers past and present, and is back to the usual garbage – a new ‘study’ promising everlasting life, provided people stop doing everything that’s fun. Some starlet, caught for drunk driving, promising charity work to atone for her sins. Some Congressman from a flyover state and a handful of NRA types are frothing about the UN Arms Trade Treaty, and how any Senator who votes to ratify this wanton act of vandalism can kiss their re-election chances goodbye, because The People Won’t Stand For That Sort Of Thing.

Bunch of foreigners, telling us what to do?” “Who the hell do those UN types think they are?” “Bureaucrats, trying to take away our guns? Our Second Amendment right to bear arms?”

There might have been a day when Tony would have sympathized with those sentiments, but today is not that day. The camera zooms in on the UN building behind the mouth breathers, all wavy flags and the sculpture of a gun with a knot in its barrel in the foreground. (UN headquarters in New York, of course, not Vienna; no evidence of a bomb here.)

Still…

The peat in the whisky tastes like smoke from a Northern wildfire; the liquid burns as it goes down Tony’s throat. The agitation on the screen continues, with words like “unelected, unaccountable, can’t dictate US policy!” spewing from the mouth of the NRA like bullets from the Winter Soldier’s guns. For a moment, Tony wonders just how Ross got the Senate to swallow those Accords, if the weasels that sit in it hate the UN that much?

And just how would Senator Stern have voted?

Come on Stark, get a grip and stop looking in the rearview. Stern is in jail. Yesterday’s man. Time to move on.

Wait. No. How would Stern have voted? Who is more of a threat to someone like Stern: The Avengers, or the UN? Aye, therein lies the rub.

“Friday?” 

“Sir?”

“How did the Senate vote go, on the Sokovia Accords? Breakdown by party?”

There’s a second’s break, while Friday checks the records.

“It didn’t, sir.”

“What do you mean, it didn’t.”

“The Accords were signed in Vienna only last week, sir. There has been no time to table them in the Senate.” 

That’s odd. Tony is not a lawyer – he just pays a lot of them to stand behind him with their briefcases, in case the suit fails or someone fucks up. But even without legal training, he’s pretty sure that the Constitution requires Senate buy-in for international treaties.

“How long does this sort of thing normally take?”

For the first time, there is something like a JARVIS-like snark in Friday’s tone.

“It depends entirely on how seriously the Senate takes the issue, sir. It took forty years to consent to the United States ratifying the Genocide Convention; less than four years for one on Terrorist Bombings – and that was not until six months after 9/11. But until consent is given and any necessary legislation passed, a treaty is of no legal effect in the United States.”

'Criminals. That didn’t use to mean us.'

Maybe it still doesn't?  Maybe ... it means Ross? If there’s no law making the Avengers' actions in Europe illegal in the US, what would that make their presence in the Raft -- unlawful detention? Kidnapping? (And Wanda's straitjacket -- torture?)

And what the hell is a Secretary of State doing in a floating prison anyway, in a black tac suit, yet? Tony is pretty sure that Colin Powell never turned up in Gitmo -- and he was a former general, too.  Shouldn’t Ross be out there, Making America Great Again, instead of locking up people who tend to save it?

For the first time since he left the compound, Tony feels his thoughts running in a familiar pattern: single direction, fast forward. 

'The Futurist.' Wasn’t that what Barton had called him? 'He knows what’s best for you, whether you like it or not.'

Truth is, when the present sucks and the past sucks worse, the future is not a bad place to go. Tony eyes Rogers’ burner phone. Would Cap actually answer, if he called? 

Well, there’s someone who always answers Tony Stark’s calls. 

“Friday?”

“Sir?”

“Tell Legal I want to see their head honcho first thing in the morning.”

The Ardbeg done, Tony pours himself an eighteen-year-old Glenmorangie and sniffs the glass. Sweet and citrusy nose, not even a hint of smoke.  He toasts the image in the mirror behind the bar and nods.

He can fix this.