Loki had a straight flush- and that’s when Tony Stark walked in and sat down at the poker table. “What’s the buy-in?”
Conversation was silenced for a moment, but their Villains Association code of ‘Never lose your cool unless it betters your position’ quickly kicked in and Doom said calmly, “$10,000.” After all, he wasn’t breaking up the place or delivering annoying speeches, so they might as well try and take his money in a civilized fashion.
Stark tossed cash onto the table and Magneto dealt him in. Conversation resumed, but more quietly and with a few subtle sidelong glances. Mordo strolled over and stopped beside Stark. “Tonight is scotch night. You prefer a single malt, I believe.”
As Mordo went back to the bar, Loki commented, “Slepnir did the cutest thing yesterday-” and was met by groans. “I’ve got pictures!” He yanked out his phone and brought them up. Stark held out a hand. “May I?”
Loki passed him the phone and Stark chuckled at the bucket on Slepnir’s head. Loki beamed.
Mordo came back with a shot glass, a glass of water, and a plate of brie and crackers. Stark politely thanked him and took a sip. “Very good. Glenmorangie Pride, if I’m not mistaken.”
“It is. An excellent year.”
“I always say that life is too short to drink cheap scotch,” Kilgrave commented as he drew a card.
“Unless you’re mixing cocktails,” Stark agreed. “Only a vandal would put a good single malt into a whiskey sour. But then, I’m a purist. You don’t even put ice cubes in single malt in my opinion.”
Red Skull nodded thoughtfully. “This is true. A blended whiskey is a much wiser choice for such drinks.”
Doom sighed. “Reed Richards-”
“Not again!” Mystique snapped.
Stark nodded in sympathy. “If he had the competence to match up with his ego, he’d be less annoying. He opened another damned portal in New York last week and we had to fix it.”
“Exactly! He has no common sense!” Doom said forcefully. “But then considering how stupidly he got his powers, one can hardly be surprised.”
Doom and Stark smiled at each other, and the game went on. Stark chatted with Doom mostly, but also enjoyed looking at Loki’s pictures of his children. All in all, it was a very pleasant game. Stark walked away with $30,000 and a promise to meet them in a few weeks.
At the next game (it was cocktail night), Stark arrived with a bottle in his hand. “The Macallan Select Reserve.” Mordo sounded pleased.
“I thought it would be a nice thank you for your hospitality,” Stark commented as he sat at the table.
“A delightful gift indeed,” Doom said cheerfully. “What are you drinking? The house specialty is a Mamie Taylor.”
“Sounds like a good choice to me. It’s been hellishly hot these last few weeks.”
Poker night went on, Stark talking with Doom about modifications to forced-air heating that might be useful to Latveria and Kilgrave about Italian cuisine. They both preferred to make their own noodles when cooking pasta.
It was the third poker night (Mexican, which meant pina coladas, and Stark brought fajitas) when someone finally broke and asked the question. Red Skull looked at Stark, ignoring the glares from the group and the snicker from Loki’s corner.
“Why am I here?” Stark repeated. “Let’s skip the existential jokes, of which there are legion, and come to the point, shall we? I’ve spent my life being treated like a villain for the serious crime of legally making and selling weapons, it seems like half the world is expecting me to become one at any moment, even my own superhero team threw me away to follow Rogers into exile. Why shouldn’t I be here?”
Loki actually spluttered. It was most embarrassing. The room went silent as glances telegraphed information across the table.
“Dr. Stark, you are not a villain. In fact, you are as far from being a villain as is possible,” Doom said kindly. “Despite your myriad traumas and betrayals, despite being reviled for doing the right thing, despite the fact that your so-called friend helped your parent’s murderer escape while nearly killing you in the process, you still get up each day and go out there and save people from their own stupidity as well as from others. You are, in point of fact, a hero.” Murmurs of agreement sounded around the table.
Stark looked genuinely stunned.“Wow. I-thank you.”
“And while this is a gathering held by the Villain’s Association, by unanimous consent we have agreed to officially extend you a formal standing invitation to poker night so long as you do not try to arrest anyone while here. In the outside world, all bets are off, but while we are here, we are civilized men- and women- who enjoy our civilized pleasures.” He finished, nodding to Madam Masque. She was drinking some of the Macallan Stark had brought last time, scorning fruity drinks.
“I accept with pleasure and agree to your rules,” Stark responded, taking a sip of his drink.
Loki promptly pulled out his phone. “Just see what Jörmungandr did last week!” Stark shifted so he could see the truly adorable image of a giant snake crocheting a baby blanket. “Very clever!”
The conversation turned to crochet, the appropriate construction of a vodka gimlet, and Richard’s latest idiocy. A lovely evening was had by all.
Several equally lovely evenings went by, and then Stark did not turn up. It was noticed, but not remarked on. His missing a second evening, however, was cause for comment and (though no one would admit it) worry.
“I’m just saying, if he was hurt SI wouldn’t want to release the news because stocks would tumble,” Osborn harrumphed, discarding a six. “You shouldn’t count Stark out until you see his corpse is my motto. Man’s come back from all sorts of disasters. Still, it would be polite to check on him. He is one of our poker group, and those bonds are important.”
Loki and Doom volunteered. After all, good poker players who not only appreciate excellent liquor and food pairings but also bring witty conversation and a sharp mind to the table are hard to come by, and- well, they liked him.
While hovering outside Stark’s penthouse, they were met by the melodious voice of an Irish maiden and the much less melodious sound of gun turrets rising from the roof. “State your business,” the maiden ordered.
“We are here to see Dr. Stark, madam. He’s missed our poker night twice. We were concerned for his wellbeing.”
There was a moment of silence. “Wait here,” she responded, a note of what might be confusion in her voice.
The turrets retracted after a minute. “You may enter by the main walkway, gentlemen. I am FRIDAY, Dr. Stark’s AI.”
“Thank you, Miss FRIDAY,” Doom said politely. Those who were rude to guardians and gatekeepers when entering a fellow poker player’s home should be shunned, after all.
Stark sat on the couch, his ankle in a cast. “Hey, sorry I had to miss things. I was in the hospital last meet-up and just got out today. My CEO would hunt me down with bloodhounds if I left. I’m sure she’s got a pack of bloodhounds somewhere on standby. Pepper’s efficient like that. Have a seat. Drink? Loki, I’ve got some excellent mead from that place in Maryland.” He carefully maneuvered himself off the couch, picking up his crutches.
Doom frowned. “We can come over to the bar.”
“No need. Meet U, she’s a dab hand at delivering things.” A robot rolled out of the corner and over to Stark, holding a tray in her- claws? Yes, they were clawlike, but quite dexterous. Doom was impressed.
They each accepted a drink from U, Loki his nicely chilled mead and Doom taking a gin and tonic. After polite thanks, she bobbed her head and returned to the corner after a pat from Stark. “May we ask what happened?”
Stark’s face darkened. “Rogers.”
“What is he supposed to be saving now? More people who don’t want him within shooting distance?” Loki sighed.
“They decided to intervene in a situation in Israel.”
Doom set down his drink very carefully. “Situation?”
“There was a hostage situation. They decided to step in and fix things.”
Loki moaned. “Let me guess. They had no intelligence, no equipment other than their weapons, no actual plan, and they decided to charge into a situation they knew nothing about and probably got the hostages killed. It’s just like watching Thor.”
Stark brightened slightly. “Fortunately, no hostages died and there were only a few minor injuries. You see, the hostages and the hostage takers had one thing in common- an objection to Rogers and his brand of stupidity. They combined to drive Rogers et al out of the building, and then the hostage takers surrendered to the authorities on the grounds that at least they weren’t morons. The authorities weren’t real happy with Rogers either.”
Loki and Doom dissolved in laughter at the mental image of enraged hostages and hostage takers beating up Rogers and his band of fools.
Once they recovered, Loki inquired, “How did this lead to your injury?”
“I went there at the request of the Israelis as an observer. They didn’t want anyone else interfering, and I totally understood. They already had enough problems with the hostage takers, plus Rogers and his bunch. Anyway, Scarlet Witch dumped an I-beam on my leg when I was pulling a kid out of the way of a building they collapsed while flouncing off. She’s apparently pissed off that I sent them to the Raft.” Stark rolled his eyes.
“But you did not send them anywhere- Ross did.” Doom responded, confused.
Stark gave an exhausted sigh. “They’re being led by someone who thinks the UN is a government. Critical thinking isn’t their strong suit.”
“Well, hopefully they will be rounded up soon.”
Stark shook his head, tilting the glass in his hand and watching the scotch shimmer in the light. “Nobody’s crazy enough to send more conventional soldiers after them, and I frankly don’t have the time or the team. For the former, I’m still dealing with fallout from the Accords after everything that’s happened. The UN are not happy bunnies right now. Neither is Germany or Romania. And in my copious spare time, I’m still the head of R&D at SI, and I have to keep up there because SI employs over three hundred thousand people. I can’t let it go under or they’re all screwed.
“And the latter? I’ve got Rhodey, Vision, Wasp, She-Hulk, and SpiderMan. Wasp, She-Hulk, and SpiderMan don’t have much combat experience. We’re down to me, Rhodey and Vision for people who know what they’re doing, and no way are the three of us going up against them alone. Not after last time. Rhodey’s barely recovered from that mess. It’s clear Rogers doesn’t care who’s hurt or killed as long as his precious Bucky is safe, and the rest of them fall in line with him. I’d love to get them off the streets, but I need to prioritize and work on what I can actually fix now.”
Loki and Doom exchanged glances. Further discussion was needed, but later. For now, Loki wanted to show Stark the latest pictures of Hel and Doom had Richards angst to express.
Upon their return, Loki and Doom looked at the room, their fellow villains all displaying curiosity and not quite hidden concern.
Doom filled them in on Stark’s injury. Frowns were seen around the table. “Should we send flowers?” Mordo inquired.
“It is the correct thing to do, though he might also enjoy some of that delightful pineapple ice cream we had three meetings ago. It is an appropriate offering to those in the hospital or otherwise under the weather.”
With little fanfare, money was collected from each member and the orders dispatched.
Loki walked to the center of the room and coughed politely. All eyes turned to him.
“My fellow villains, I call for an emergency meeting.”
“I second the motion,” responded Magneto, Mystique, and Mordo.
“Then I declare this emergency meeting of the Villains Association in session.”
Drinks were set down, plates abandoned as the group settled into meeting mode. “A member of our poker group has been attacked by outsiders. Not merely outsiders, but betrayers and thieves.
“At one point, we did consider extending membership to Rogers and his crew. We have since decided that they are simply not up to our caliber. Is that not so?”
“It is.” Everyone agreed.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are failures. They have no plan, no internal logic, and they have no real ability to do anything other than make a complete hash of things and cause problems and injury to others.”
“True. I’ve seen more competent bricks.” Madam Masque responded, as thoughtful nods and smirks were shared around the table.
“They are a blotch on our name, and they have injured one of our poker players, causing him further emotional distress and depriving us of his delightful company. Dr. Stark is unable to deal with them properly due to their actions against him. We must avenge him! It is up to us, the Villains Association, to end this scourge on society and on proper villain behavior.”
“A Hunt!” Osborn cried with glee. “We must Hunt down these fools and bring them in!”
The group cheered.
“So, it is agreed. We shall Hunt.”
“I have a question.”
“Baron Mordo, you have the floor.”
“What should we do with them when we catch them? We can hardly ship them back to the Raft, the damn thing’s sunk. And I don’t think any of us want those idiots wandering ‘round our lairs. They’re not housebroken. Not to mention their general stupidity might cause no end of mess and disaster.”
Loki smiled. It was a singularly sweet smile. “I have a plan for that.”
Two days after The Poker Night That Wasn’t, Tony woke from a remarkably refreshing sleep. It’s amazing what hanging around with polite and honest villains will do for your REM stages.
FRIDAY greeted him as usual. Not as usual, she said, “Boss, there’s a package for you outside. I think you’ll want to get it ASAP.”
“Do I have time to brush my teeth?”
“And comb your hair. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.” FRIDAY was clearly suppressing giggles. It was good to hear his baby girl sound so happy.
After his morning ablutions, Tony crutched his way over to the elevator and leaned against the wall as it slid smoothly down. Upon exiting the elevator, he found Pepper in the lobby. She had a hand over her mouth and her shoulders were shaking. “Pep, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said in a breathless voice. “Go see your gift.”
Tony looked at her carefully. She wasn’t in tears and she wasn’t orange or flamey, so whatever was outside probably ranked low on the disaster scale.
Happy fell in beside him, opening the door. A crowd had gathered, but they parted to let him through.
Tony still had no idea what would be out there. His thoughts ranged from a very small helicarrier to an elephant to a unicorn (though he hoped it wasn’t the latter as it would be terribly rude to out a virgin should there be any around). However, his idle speculations were wildly short of the mark.
Rogers lay bound and gagged in a heap on the ground, as did Barnes, Wilson, Maximoff (who had a very ornate collar on, apparently blocking her magic- much to her fury), Romanov, Lang (Tony had finally found out the man’s name from news coverage), and Barton. King T’Challa of Wakanda lay next to them. There was a thumb drive taped to his chest.
Tony promptly sent Happy to get a standalone StarkPad so whatever was on the thumbdrive couldn’t crash his systems. Upon inserting it, he saw several files. Opening the first one showed footage of the Sinister Seven living it up in a palace, apparently in Wakanda. Tony clicked his tongue. “So, someone’s been a naughty boy indeed. Harboring terrorists is not a great way to open your country to the world.”
Tony glanced down, ignoring the squirming and whining from behind their gags. Rogers had a card on his chest. It was a very nice card, with an extremely cute Belgian sheepdog puppy whose front leg was wrapped in gauze on the cover. Tony opened it and read the note within. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. Your get-well gift is compliments of the VA.
Tony very nearly joined Pepper in what he belatedly realized was hysterical laughter. He manfully suppressed the urge to cackle like a loon and instead asked FRIDAY to call the New York liaison office of the International Crime Court, as it had been decided previously that they were the appropriate people to prosecute Rogers and his group when they were apprehended. Also, the New Avengers were notified so that the street could be cleared. Traffic would soon be at a standstill, and there were enough people around who were annoyed with the fugitives that getting them out of there quickly was of the essence. Twitter was full of people announcing they were carrying around rotten tomatoes in the hope of being able to smack Rogers right in the face.
The New Avengers arrived to collect the captives, tossing them into a van with scant ceremony. Rhodey, who was now up and flying again thanks to Doctor Helen Cho’s Cradle and some cybernetic help from Tony, clanked over in full War Machine to see the card. “Damn. Never piss off veterans, Tony, they’ll get even. Rogers hasn’t been anyone’s flavor of the month in a while. Glad he’s dealt with, and his little band too. King T’Challa’s also going to be in big trouble. It just hit the news, and Wakanda’s going crazy. They want his head, or at least him in exile for harboring fugitives.”
Tony nodded. A great bellow of laughter was choked back- but just barely. He knew exactly which veterans he had to thank.
When the next poker night rolled around, everyone was pleased to see Stark walk through the door. They had all received bottles of their favorite liquor with a handwritten note the day after their get-well gift had been delivered. However, it was rather pleasant to be thanked in person. None of them were used to it.
There was much uproarious laughter when Stark told them what his friend- and law enforcement- had concluded from the note. “I just hope the VA doesn’t have any problems because of it. I did send them a substantial check, though.”
Mystique sighed. “You really are too nice for us. But, we like having you around.”
“I truly appreciate that. Who’s dealing?”
Doom sat down with a fresh deck. Madam Masque brought Stark a martini and some of Red Skull’s homemade hummus and pita bread, seating herself beside him with a smile.
“Tony, have you given any thought to gold?”