For years now, every single piece of Tony Stark's personal technology has had a small progress bar displayed somewhere, ticking slowly upwards towards one hundred percent.
Ever so occasionally, someone will catch a glimpse of that bar, and ask Tony what it means. He never answers the question the same way two times in a row. It's the percentage, of all the women he's slept with, who have had c-cup breasts or larger. It's the percentage of how many conversations, of all the ones he's had to have throughout his life, have bored him to tears. It's the percentage of how many StarkTech devices can achieve eight hours of battery life or more without charging. It's the percentage of how many people who've seen the progress bar have asked him the same inane question about its meaning.
The progress bar existed long before Afghanistan, and ticked slowly upwards then too. Ever since Afghanistan, though, it's been ticking upwards just a little faster than it ever did before.
One day, Tony wakes up from dozing off after a one night stand to Jarvis' voice. “Sir,” Jarvis says, and Tony stirs, somewhat groggily, and sits up in his bed. It's harder to do than it ought to be—the man he slept with, the one whose name Tony can't remember, has one arm thrown across Tony's chest in sleep. Tony had every intention of having the guy fuck him again in the morning before he threw the guy out, but now he vetoes that plan—both because of the way the guy clings in his sleep, which Tony has always said is a sign of clinginess elsewhere, and because Jarvis' tone implies something important is going on.
“Jarvis?” Tony asks, something dangerous in his tone under the fatigue, because it's only six in the morning and this is the first time Tony's slept in two days. If Jarvis woke him for something unimportant, no matter how much Tony might normally like his AI, Jarvis has to know that his program will be scrapped and his code used to build a newer, better version. It happened to Dumm-E and Butterfingers, after all.
Jarvis, as ever, does not disappoint. “Ninety-five percent, sir,” he says, simply, and Tony bares all his teeth in a smile. Finally. “Shall I implement the plan?”
Tony considers that, turning over the possibilities and examining angles, and after a moment comes up with, “No, Jarvis. Let's wait on the last five percent.” Tony's waited for years already, with a patience he only has for creating things or destroying them—he can wait a little longer.
He gets out of bed, ignoring the half-aware protests of his bedmate. Sleep is the world's greatest waste of time, after all, and Tony's already awake. There's so much he has to do, and he knows exactly where to start. “It's about time I went and made friends with SHIELD,” he informs Jarvis, in the middle of dressing himself in one of his sharpest, best looking suits. Appearance is sometimes half the battle, and Tony doesn't like to lose.
“As you say, sir,” Jarvis says, and Tony knows that means the AI has already opened up the garage and started the engine of one of the cars Tony uses to make a statement. Good. It's little things like that that make Jarvis worth Tony's time, after all.
Tony only remembers his one night stand when the guy wakes up and calls Tony's name as Tony's halfway through walking out the door. He doesn't even turn around. “Jarvis,” he says, “get rid of him. Actually, make sure I won't be hearing from him again, would you?”
“Certainly, sir,” Jarvis says, in the mild, pleasant tone Tony programmed in for him specifically so that people would underestimate what Jarvis is capable of doing.
Behind Tony, the door swings shut without his hands ever touching it, and the faint sound of the movement of well-oiled machinery is audible through the door. Tony doesn't have time to stick around and see what Jarvis comes up with this time.
Oh well, he thinks, he can always watch the videofeeds later. They'll be good for a laugh, anyway.
Tony's never been really sure of who runs SHIELD. Nick Fury's the director, sure, but that doesn't mean Tony's stupid enough to take his eyes off of Agent Coulson. Something about the man's bearing suggests that a number of people over the years have in fact been stupid enough to make that mistake, and very few of them are still conscious enough today to regret it.
Nick Fury tried to kill him once—and by tried to kill him, Tony means sent one of his people to kill him. Natasha Romanov very nearly succeeded in poisoning him—palladium poisoning, cleverly enough, that seemed enough like the fault of his arc reactor that Tony might never have caught it in time if he hadn't replaced the palladium reactor with a vibranium one. When the poisoning didn't let off after that, Tony caught on fairly rapidly. Natasha Romanov managed to destroy an Iron Man suit almost entirely barehanded when he came after her, which Tony credits her for. Considering that she came out of that conflict with multiple compound fractures and one no-longer-functional eye, though, and that Tony got his antidote, he's willing to call them even. These days, they nod at each other when they meet in SHIELD's hallways, and though Tony doesn't doubt Natasha will try to kill him again if ordered, they still have some sort of strange mutual respect going.
He's always suspected that if Coulson wanted to have Tony killed, he'd come after Tony himself, and probably succeed. Like he said, little things like that make him more than a little unsure of who's the real power behind SHIELD.
Today, though, it doesn't matter. Tony's here to give SHIELD the only thing they've ever wanted from him. No matter where the power lies, Tony knows how to get what he wants from that power, this time.
Weapons. It's always weapons. Firepower is the currency of the dangerous, and when it comes to making weapons, nobody is even close to Tony's league.
“I'll write SHIELD on the side instead of Stark, if you like,” he says, grinning. Right now he can afford to be magnanimous. If he has to customize his bait to get a bite, what the hell, Tony's flexible.
Nick Fury bites.
Agent Coulson escorts Tony out of SHIELD headquarters, though Tony's not stupid enough to give Coulson his unprotected back. “Mr. Stark,” Coulson says, tone giving away absolutely nothing, “I thought, when you shut down the weapons department of Stark Industries, that there was a moral objection involved.” So, Tony hasn't passed his test yet after all. Interesting, that it comes now, in SHIELD's innocuous hallways, rather than in the seat of Nick Fury's power.
There was, in fact, no moral objection in the first place. The only objection Tony's ever had to building and selling weapons is that he refuses to arm anyone who can act against him. When Stark weapons made it into the hands of men who acted against Tony directly in Afghanistan, that was it. It wasn't as if he'd never considered where his weapons were going before that—no matter how subtle Obadiah thought he was, Tony was always smarter than his godfather where it counted—but, stupidly enough, Tony hadn't considered the consequences beyond those to his country and its soldiers (irrelevant). Tony wasn't stupid enough to make that mistake again.
Tony said there was a moral objection because it made him seem weaker, made his position seem shakier, and thus made Obadiah overconfident. Ever since Tony woke in that cave in Afghanistan with a magnet attached to his chest, Obie's time had been up, though Obadiah hadn't known as much. Tony said he had a moral objection because that gave Obie the excuse he needed to have Tony isolated, to get Tony alone, and Obadiah was only going to act if he thought Tony was too weak and too friendless to counter Obadiah's attempt.
It worked. Obadiah tried to take Tony's arc reactor from him in his own goddamned house, except he was stupid enough to use Tony's own sonic technology to do it. Tony wound up taking Obie's heart out of his body and leaving him laying on the floor, gasping out his last breaths the way he'd wanted Tony to. There was something poetic in that, Tony thought. Of course, it had been hell on Tony's flooring—but Pepper, by then, had people on call who were good with getting out bloodstains.
Agent Coulson, though, either knows that already or doesn't need to be told now. “My father told me something, once,” is all Tony says instead, and grins to show his teeth. “Morals are morals, and money is money. Guess which one he taught me was more important.”
It's the click-click-click of expensive, lethally pointed high heels against Tony's stairs that alerts him to Pepper's presence. He doesn't turn around to look at her, like he might have done once. Tony and Pepper have a sort of understanding, where both acknowledge that the other is perfectly capable of killing them, and also both acknowledge that if they were planning to, they would have already done it years ago. It doesn't mean Pepper's on Tony's side—or, really, that she's on anyone's side but her own—but it means Tony is very nearly safe with her, so long as being loyal to Tony benefits Pepper.
She says, “I thought you were done with weapons, Tony,” instead of hello. Tony doesn't look up from his schematics, but he does smile as he strips an inefficient part of his design away and starts piecing together a better one.
“Are you doubting me, Pep?” he asks, and rotates his design as he talks. “After all this time? I'm hurt.”
“Tony,” Pepper says, and stops there. Just his name, said flatly and firmly.
Tony sighs, and glances over his shoulder to meet her eyes. “Weapons are only a danger if you give people enough time to use them,” Tony says. It's more truth than he'd give anyone else.
Pepper's perfectly painted lips curl up into a smile. “It's that close?” she asks, because, while no one knows the whole truth of Tony's plan, she knows more than most.
Tony just points, automatically, at the progress bar. Ninety-six, it reads, and it's edging closer to ninety-seven even as they speak. “Any day now,” Tony says, and smiles back at Pepper. Then he looks away, back at his design. No matter how valuable Pepper is as an ally, this is currently priority number one for Tony.
Click-click-click, her heels go, and Tony only realizes Pepper's walking closer and not heading for the stairs when her breath ghosts over his ear. For one insane moment, he wonders if this is going to be when their understanding fails—but no, Pepper still benefits from having Tony around, if she puts a knife in his back now then she gets nothing. She's more than intelligent enough to know that, and, besides, Pepper's always far more elegant than this when she decides to end a life.
That knowledge lets Tony relax, and say, tone light, “Miss Potts?”
Pepper laughs, leans up, and presses a kiss to the underside of Tony's jaw, lips warm against Tony's neck. There's nothing sexual about it—sex has never been on the table between them, and Tony's always known that if he pressed, Pepper would rapidly change her mind about the value of Tony's continued existence—but it is something close to fond. Neither of them are accustomed to simple affection, but Pepper seems to be offering it anyway.
It only lasts a moment, and then Pepper steps away. “It's been a pleasure working with you, Mr. Stark,” Pepper says, her tone equally light. It's the closest thing to happiness he's ever heard from Pepper. “Now get back to work.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Tony says, and even he isn't sure whether he's joking or showing genuine respect.
Pepper's heels announce her exit where her voice doesn't, and Tony smiles one last time at his schematics before he focuses again.
Then, because something in the universe loves Tony, the program Howard Stark set up to find Captain America actually finds something. Tony knew that SHIELD had all but stolen that program from him years ago, and he was content to let them run it so long as it looked like a dead end. Now, though, it's become valuable to Tony again; so, of course, he has Jarvis initiate the lockdowns he put on the project years ago, and steals it back from SHIELD before they have a chance to get the coordinates they want. Please. He's Tony Stark—of course there was always a contingency plan.
SHIELD sends Natasha to his home, which is sort of a mixed bag of threat and willingness to hear Tony out, as messages go. “Natasha,” he says, when Jarvis quietly alerts him that she's in the hallway outside the room Tony's settled into, “come in. Would you like a drink?”
She comes in on silent feet, clearly no less deadly just because she's down an eye. Unlike Fury, Natasha doesn't wear an eyepatch—the striking contrast between the ugly scar over her ruined eye and the beauty of the rest of her face just makes her seem more dangerous, which Tony doesn't doubt was the point. “Stark,” she acknowledges, and takes a seat in the chair opposite Tony's when he indicates for her to do so. She doesn't accept a drink, which Tony fully understands, given that their relationship is built on poison and attempted homicide. “You know why I'm here.”
“Yes,” Tony says, and leans back in his chair. “You can tell Coulson to calm down, by the way. I have every intention of giving you those coordinates back. I just thought it was time for a little contract renegotiation.”
Natasha asks, tone completely unreadable, “Is there some reason I should be telling Agent Coulson and not Director Fury, Stark?” Tony just raises an eyebrow and doesn't comment. They sit in silence for a moment, and then Natasha asks, “You realize I'm authorized to kill you, of course?”
Tony smiles. “You're authorized to try. I'm up for round two if you are, Agent Romanov. Please remember that you're in my home, though, and I'm not exactly unprepared for aggressive intruders.” Natasha looks unconvinced, as well she should be; Tony isn't in the suit this time, and she's more than skilled enough to have learned from the first fight. She has to realize, though, that if she kills Tony, he's going to take her down with him. He might have to do it posthumously, but there are plans in place for that, too, and Natasha must know that. “Come on,” Tony says, “dead bodies are murder on hardwood floors. I promise I'm not asking for anything unreasonable. I'm still more valuable to you and SHIELD alive.”
There's another long moment, and then Natasha says, clearly not to Tony, “Did you catch all that, Agent Coulson?”
Tony grins. Yeah. He thought so.
Captain America's location nets Tony another zero on his paycheck, and, more importantly, the rights to build all of Captain America's armor and weapons from this point forward. Since SHIELD clearly isn't giving their shiny new toy away for any reason, that means Tony's access to SHIELD improves, just a little. It's enough.
He considers insisting on meeting with Captain America personally, just for the hell of it, but thinks better of it and doesn't ask. SHIELD can thaw him out themselves and deal with him, for all Tony cares. Tony remembers the stories his father told about Captain America—Tony knows better than to get on the guy's bad side, knowing what he's capable of.
America gets back its icon, and Tony's progress bar hits ninety-seven percent.
Captain America's return is what sparks off renewed talk of the Avengers Initiative, and this time, Tony even gets invited. Apparently this is what he gets for playing nicely in SHIELD's sandbox: a chance to be one of their pet superheroes.
Tony says no, and keeps saying no until he's told Natasha Romanov is being considered for a spot on the team, and then he starts saying maybe. Come on, fighting with the Black Widow instead of against her? Tony can't pass that up entirely.
Apparently maybe is enough for Tony to start nominally counting as an Avenger, because he gets called in on team business. SHIELD, apparently, wants a Hulk, and they want Tony to get him for them.
That, Tony says yes to. He's heard of Bruce Banner before, knows a little bit of the guy's story. It's about time he tracks the good doctor down.
Bruce Banner says, “No,” and suddenly goes from being a thin, tired looking scientist with black rings under his eyes to about twelve feet of green monster with rippling muscles and no compunctions against destroying random pieces of architecture. Gotta love gamma rays.
Oddly enough, of the two of them, it's the Hulk that finally listens to reason in the end. It takes Tony about three hours, four destroyed buildings and the vast majority of his ordinance to get that reason across, but, finally, the Hulk stays in one place long enough to listen to the rest of his proposal.
When, finally, big, mean and green turns back into Banner, Banner looks at Tony with something new in his tired eyes. “Alright,” he says, then. “Alright.”
“I knew we'd get along,” Tony says, and helps Banner up.
For appearance's sake, Tony brings Banner in as the Hulk, collared and chained and flailing dramatically in attempts to get free. The Hulk roars in Fury's face when he gets brought in front of him, loud enough that Fury's normally imperturbable expression flickers for a moment, and attempts one last lunge after Tony before he's dragged away. Tony never knew the big guy was an actor, but apparently Banner's more conscious in his other form than Tony was lead to believe. It helps. Fury and Coulson both seem to be giving Tony assessing looks, he gets a gold star from SHIELD, everyone benefits.
Suddenly, the Avengers are actually a plausible team rather than a pipe dream. Admittedly, the whole team is either drafted (in the case of Natasha and another SHIELD agent named Clint Barton, who Natasha apparently teams up with on occasion), dragged in against their will (the Hulk, rather obviously, and, more surprising, Captain America, who seems to have lost his patriotic fervor somewhat in the years he was frozen), or just unwilling to commit to the team in Tony's case—but still, apparently with superhero teams, five is the magic number that trips them over into legitimacy.
Tony...wonders. Considers making changes to his plan. This close to the end, he shouldn't even be thinking of something that could potentially reveal his hand, but he does wonder. Even Fury seems to realize how tentatively held together the team is, how tentative his control over them is, as when he calls them all together he ends the meeting by saying, “Let's hope you're never called upon.” He clearly means it to show that he isn't going to throw them into unnecessary conflicts, but Tony thinks he detects uncertainty there.
Like he said, he wonders.
“So, Natasha,” Tony says, because his curiosity, his willingness to take risks, has always been both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness, and he knows it. Once he starts wondering, he can't quite stop himself from trying. “I've heard something about a ledger of yours.”
If Tony had never taken out her eye, if Natasha had never tried to poison him and trashed one of his suits, she would have killed him then, he knows. Instead she says, her entire expression completely blank, her voice flat, “I've got red in my ledger.”
Tony chuckles, slightly. “Who doesn't?”
“Not like I do,” Natasha says, and Tony can believe her.
Then she says six more words, and Tony's wonder turns into something else altogether.
During a routine hand-to-hand training session, whatever deep anger has been churning in Captain America spills over, and Tony finds himself pinned to the ground, one arm twisted painfully behind his back. “Hey,” he says, “Cap, while I completely understand the desire to have me under you—”
He gets cut off mid-innuendo by the Captain pulling harder on his arm, hard enough for an involuntary sound of pain to leave Tony's throat. “You,” the Captain says, “are everything that's wrong with this world.”
Tony actually can't help it. He laughs, and keeps laughing, doesn't stop until he's actually disconcerted the Captain out of his anger and been released from the Captain's hold. “My luck,” he finally manages to get out, when Captain America is looking at him like Tony's lost what little sanity he might have had in the first place, and then he has the first honest conversation he's ever had with Captain America.
“Barton?” he asks, and Natasha just raises one perfect eyebrow.
“Don't worry about him,” she says. “I have that under control.”
Tony doesn't even think to doubt her.
The same day that Tony's progress bar ticks over to ninety-nine percent, a Norse god invades Earth, and more specifically SHIELD, and Tony feels the thing that's been building up in him crest. So. It looks like it's going to be time a little earlier than Tony expected.
He goes when SHIELD sends them off to track down Loki in Germany. Loki's got Barton, and sending the Hulk just isn't practical, so it's just him, Natasha and the Captain who get sent. Natasha and the Captain take a jet—Tony takes the suit. Between the three of them, they subdue the rogue god almost too easily.
No. Not almost, Tony thinks. Just too easily, point blank.
When big, blond and stormy comes crashing into their plane, Tony doesn't have the patience for him. This latest model of the suit was specifically designed to stand up to the Hulk, so Banner and Tony could have their little talk in the first place; it might not be enough to kill a god, but it's enough to put one down for a while. He leaves the guy—Thor, Natasha informs him later—unconscious in whatever forest they were flying over when Thor butted in, and catches up with the plane.
“Get ready,” he tells them—Bruce, Natasha, the Captain, people he never expected to call allies and apparently can, in this. “I just need to check on one thing, but after that...,” he trails off.
It's time, and they all know it.
“Hey, Pep,” he says, striding down the hallways of the helicarrier he designed, towards the Hulk cage he also designed. His phone is pressed close to his ear, and technically shouldn't be able to get reception up here. Tony's always been good at taking care of technicalities. “How would you feel about changing the world today?”
“I thought you'd never ask,” she says, and hangs up on him.
Loki's pacing the confines of his cage when Tony bursts in, and looks up at Tony. Briefly, so very briefly, surprise is visible on the god's face. Then it's extinguished, covered over with lack of interest and a faint edge of condescension.
“Right,” Tony says, and steps close to the cage, “I need to know what you're planning, right now.”
One of Loki's dark eyebrows raises, expression a mix of amusement, disbelief and that same condescension. “Why do you suppose I would reveal my plans to you?” he asks, and Tony doesn't have time for this.
“Alright,” Tony says, and then answers his own question. “I know you have a plan because no matter how clever you think you are, I promise you I'm smarter. You could have easily sent Barton, or one of your other minions, to that little soiree in Germany—I don't know how many people you currently have under control with that staff of yours, but I'm guessing from the fact that you're a condescending dick that you're also arrogant in general, and arrogant people tend to like having people around to do their bidding. I would know. So, presumably, you have enough manpower that there was no need to put yourself in the open. Therefore, you wanted to draw attention to yourself. Taking into account how easily you came with us when we cornered you, I have to guess you're here because you wanted to be here.”
“So,” Tony continues, “logically, if you willingly came to a SHIELD base, it's because there's something you want to do to or with that base. I sincerely doubt you came here to make friends with SHIELD, so I have to guess that you mean to either harm the base, or someone in it, or both. My one question is, who? Fury? Coulson? Or are your plans bigger than that?”
Loki, throughout all this, has kept his expression completely unreadable. “If you are as intelligent as you claim, and understand me so well as you think,” the god says, “then tell me yourself.” The grin he grins then isn't remotely friendly, and Tony might feel threatened, except that he's used to dealing with Pepper on a regular basis. Loki's got nothing on Pep when it comes to hiding danger behind a smile.
“You're ambitious,” Tony says, because really, who isn't? “You have bigger plans. My question is whether they're big enough.”
Loki's expression shifts, slightly, at Tony's phrasing. Tony can practically see Loki's mind whirring behind his eyes, can see the moment where the light behind those eyes changes. Almost challengingly, Loki finally says, voice all but a purr, “Your world is diseased. I mean to bring it freedom.”
“Oh,” Tony says, “well, if that's all—Jarvis?” Loki, whose face briefly shows confusion, opens his mouth to speak—Tony raises a hand to cut him off. “Not actually talking to you right now, important things to do and all that. Jarvis, look, ninety-nine percent's as good as we're going to get. Implement the plan, starting now.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis' voice comes, through Tony's phone speakers, and does as he's told, like Tony built him to.
Below them, all the world shuts off.
Tony doesn't have morals. He doesn't have a conscience. He's never cared if other people die, or minded bringing their deaths about himself, by his own two hands. This was never about that, about doing the right thing because it would make Tony feel better, or make him sleep easier at night.
Somewhere in the helicarrier, Natasha is drawing a pair of deadly sharp knives, or a gun, or just using her own two hands, and people are falling around her like ants. Bruce is letting his anger swallow him and the Hulk is roaring, is tearing off the collar and cuffs that never did what Tony claimed they did in the first place, and is charging off to be the force of brute destruction Tony knows him to be. Captain America, Tony doesn't know as well—but if he had to guess, he'd say the Captain was going straight for Fury, shield already braced against his arm. Coulson is Tony's main target, once he gets done here.
Somewhere far below, Pepper is sitting in Tony's workshop, manipulating the ninety-nine percent of the world's technology—every piece of StarkTech Tony's ever built, every weapon he's got left on the face of the planet, the electrical grids, the small cluster of servers that maintain the internet worldwide, nuclear reactors and electrically based security protocols and, hell, anything that ever worked based on a signal from a satellite—that Jarvis and Tony's systems have wormed their way into over the years.
Tony smiles and closes his eyes. He might not be able to see it, but he designed it all, planned it all over years and years of work and happy accidents. He knows exactly how beautiful it is.
Tony Stark is a monster, and that never particularly bothered him on a personal level, until one day he woke up and his brain suddenly decided to realize exactly what that meant.
Because Tony isn't alone, isn't one monster in a world of innocents—Tony is the norm. Tony is the product of a system that condones murder casually, that sees unwillingness to kill and manipulate and harm as a weakness worthy of death in return. Tony lives in a world that culls its weak and rewards its strong with more death, more violence, more need for strength. He lives in a world that treats all soft emotions—happiness, trust, love, friendship—as a death sentence for the bearer.
The worst part is, Tony loves that world. He loves that strength. It feels like freedom.
Intellectually, it occurs to Tony how absolutely fucking horrible that world is. It's a strange thing—the realization occurs independently of his instincts, independent of his emotions. He doesn't ever stop loving his world, he doesn't suddenly see the error of his ways and repent—but, suddenly, he recognizes, at least intellectually, that there is an error to his ways. There is a problem. The system is broken, and so what if Tony loves it? Love is a weakness. He can't let love motivate him, or he's admitting weakness.
It's an odd paradox: to abide by the system, and crush out his own love in favor of his rational realization, Tony has to break the system.
So Tony plans, spends years planning, to do just that. It's time for a change—and Tony's an engineer, a computer programmer. He was always going to do this his way.
Forced reboot. Take away everything that runs the world. Take away the electricity, take away the ability to share information over global networks, take away the guiding hand of SHIELD in the government—and, when this little part of Tony's coup is over, take away the government itself, by force. Lock people in their homes and workplaces, cut off their ability to get gas out of the pumps, make every electrical car incapable of starting, shut down the trains and the subways and the flight control towers, block the roads, keep people in the dark. Turn off all but one percent of the whole world.
Start fresh from scratch, from nothing, and see if there's any way Tony can do what he does best: destroy and then rebuild, better than the original was.
If anyone can do it, Tony and his unlikely bunch of allies can.
It's the right thing to do. Even if it makes Tony sick to do it—because he doesn't have the conscience Banner does, or the contradicting ability to both feel the soft emotions and be sharp like Pepper can, or the drive to do the right thing that the Captain has, or even a ledger full enough of red that he genuinely regrets it like Natasha does—Tony still knows that it's right.
Tony's brain wins out over his heart, like it always has, like it always will.
So here's Tony Stark, the monster, trying to repair the world.
The door to Loki's cage slides open as the power to auxiliary parts of the helicarrier cuts out, and the god of lies looks genuinely surprised. “What?” he asks, only half a question, and Tony gives himself a moment to feel smug that he's reduced Loki to incoherence.
“You said you wanted to free the world,” Tony says, and holds out a hand to Loki. “Well. I guess you're getting what you wanted. Welcome to the revolution.”