"Welcome home, Sir..." The way JARVIS' voice distorted then faded sent tendrils of icy dread and fiery wrath through Tony's blood, making his limbs lock and his heart clench. He remember, all too vividly, how JARVIS had been disabled by Stane. His chest throbbed with an emptiness though the arc reactor rested securely within.
"I am Iron Man."
There was a man standing in Tony's living room. Tall and bald, like Stane. The voice was different though, so he focused on that dissimilarity and forced himself to breath, to take steps forward, to fight against the panic blurring the edges of his vision.
"You think you're the only superhero in the world?"
If his throat hadn't closed up and his mouth suddenly dry, Tony would have scoffed and reminded this intruder to watch the news. He had just announced to the world that he wasn't the hero type, and he was pretty sure that being a hero was a prerequisite to be considered a superhero.
"Mr. Stark, you've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet."
The haughtiness snapped Tony out of an impending anxiety attack. He had had enough people patronizing him, treating him as though he was made of clay and attempting to mold him to their wills, for a lifetime. He was Iron Man.
"Who the hell are you?"
The man stepped into the solitaire light cast by the hanging lamp, standing behind the couch where Tony laid dying less than a day ago. "Nick Fury. Director of SHIELD."
"Huh." Tony thought back to the impassive man, Agent...Something, and the condescending just read it word for word note cards.
"I'm here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative."
The superiority made Tony irritated but the audacity to tamper with his tech, his JARVIS, made him furious. It was clear that they needed him, because Tony sure didn't need them. Tony did not respond well to intimidation – just ask the Ten Rings, or, don't, since they no longer exist – and this home invasion was as clear of a threat as any. "No. Get the hell out."
The breeze felt good in his hair and the sun warm on his face, Tony took another bite of his doughnut, savoring the small pleasures in life. While he still could.
"Sir! I’m going to have to ask you to exit the doughnut." A familiar voice shouted from below, a quick glance confirmed it was Fury, the most tactless spy in the world.
Boredom made Tony consider the request and curiosity prompted him to glide down. He could use some coffee to offset the frosting caked on the roof of his mouth.
"I told you I don’t want to join your super-secret boy band." Tony reiterated as he took a sip of his coffee, grimacing at the bitterness and loving every drop.
"No, no, no. See, I remember, you do everything yourself. How’s that working out for you?" Fury chuckled dismissively and Tony wondered what the spy hoped to accomplish by antagonizing the man they were obviously trying to recruit, given Fury's repeated efforts to seek Tony out.
"It’s... It’s... It’s... I’m sorry. I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot." Tony feigned a slur in his speech. "Do I look at the patch or the eye? Honestly I’m a bit hung over. I’m not sure if you’re real or if I’m having..."
"I am very real. I’m the realest person you’re ever going to meet."
Tony snorted, Fury was only real in the sense that he was corporeal though Tony supposed he would have preferred dealing with a life model decoy. At least he could shut those down. "Just my luck. Where’s the staff here?"
"That’s not looking so good." Fury reached over, invading Tony's personal space like he was somehow entitled to it.
Tony knew then that they planned to use the palladium poisoning as leverage, likely holding a possible cure as a bargaining chip. A crappy way to establish a working relationship. "I’ve been worse." He said through clenched teeth, muffled by the coffee cup next to his lips. "Get your hands off of me, we are done here." He knocked Fury's hand away with the coffee cup, uncaring that a few drops splashed and spilled.
Fury hissed as the hot liquid hit his skin.
Tony slid out of the booth and came face-to-face with Rushman – or whatever her real name was – from legal. The black bodysuit was a dead giveaway of her status as another SHIELD operative. These people really had no concept of subtlety. "You're fired." He snarled at her, pushing past her stunned face and through the door.
The Iron Man suit whirring securely around him as the faceplate came down. Howard was a founding member of SHIELD; if SHIELD had any information relevant to Tony's problem, then it was likely something found in Howard's previous research. It was an educated guess and reasonable leap, no one else at SHIELD could hope to match Tony's intelligence.
"JARVIS, call Agent and inform him I want all of my father's research sent to my house in two hours before I pull whatever funding Howard set aside for his pet project." With a flippant wave at the two spies gaping at him through the window, Tony took off with a roar of the repulsors.
Tony eyed the folder with disinterest, Avengers Initiative Preliminary Report. It was undoubtedly placed there as a ploy to pique his interest, because what sort of inept spy would leave a top-secret document out in the open? He shrugged and picked it up, might as well play along and see what sort of entertainment SHIELD had in store for him.
Fury entered almost immediately after Tony's hand touched the folder, confirming the theory that they were waiting for that exact movement.
"I don’t think I want you looking at that. I’m not sure it pertains to you anymore." Fury said, reciting his playing-hard-to-get lines with laughable delivery. "Now this on the other hand, is Agent Romanoff’s assessment of you. Read it."
Tony took it with an arched brow. He could predict what was inside with complete confidence – an unflattering overview of his character flaws, exaggerated for effect – because so far SHIELD only had one play. To belittle him until he needed their approval.
Disguising his snort as a grunt, Tony skimmed the information and read aloud the laughable assessment, pausing at the last section about recruitment for the Avenger Initiative. SHIELD was finally showing their hand. "I have to think about it."
"Read on." Fury smirked.
"No." Tony tossed the folder at Fury, pleased to see the other man scramble to catch it. "I thought about it, the answer is no."
"Sir, the telephone. I'm afraid protocols are being overwritten."
Tony gritted his teeth as Coulson's voice sounded through the phone. How dare they.
"Stark, we need to talk."
Tony pasted on his best media face, the one reserved for interactions with Christine Everhart. "You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark, please leave a message."
"This is urgent." Coulson snapped.
Tony was deeply unimpressed. These people clearly had no social skills or believed Tony had none. Or possibly both. It would explain why they thought hacking his system, breaking into his home, disparaging his abilities, and demanding his time would land them in Tony's favor.
"Then leave it urgently." The elevator door opened and Coulson walked out. "Security breach." He said flatly, turning to Pepper, devoid of previous humor. "That's on you."
"Phil! Come in." Pepper greeted, forced cheer to compensate for her displeasure at the surprise visit. She was a queen as politics and knew the value in keeping people feeling falsely comfortable, until she pulled the rug out from under their feet.
"Phil?" Tony wondered if it was a fake name or if Coulson's parents were that cruel to bestow him with a name that meant lover of horses. Coulson mumbled something but Tony wasn't paying attention, mind already compiling a list of jokes. "Uh...his first name is Agent."
Pepper extended an invitation like a good hostess, though her casual mention of celebrating was a sharp reminder of the lack of manners from their unannounced guest. It seemed to have gone over Coulson's head though.
"Which is why he can't stay." Tony stated firmly, a hint of iron in his voice.
"We need you to look this over." Coulson held out a file. "Soon as possible."
"No." Tony clinked his glass against Pepper's and took a sip of his champagne. She mirrored his movement. "I don't work for you and if you need my help, make an appointment."
Tony surveyed the SHIELD helicarrier, he hadn't planned on being there but he wanted to meet Bruce Banner and to do some surveillance himself. JARVIS kept a careful eye on SHIELD, especially after their multiple infiltrations, but more intel was always welcome.
"Iridium, what did they need the Iridium for?" Banner asked a room full of people who could not locate it on the periodic table.
"It's a stabilizing agent." Tony drawled, he always liked a dramatic entrance. "Means the portal won't collapse on itself, like it did at SHIELD. Also, it means the portal can open as wide, and stay open as long, as Loki wants." He ignored the stunned looks, including Coulson's, Tony had knowledge beyond what was in the paltry security briefing. He covered one eye. "How does Fury do this?"
A severe-looking woman answered. "He turns."
"Well, that sounds exhausting." Tony placed a button-sized implant under the desk, surprised and disappointed when none of the many spies in the room spotted it. "The rest of the raw materials, Agent Barton can get his hands on pretty easily. Only major component he still needs is a power source. A high energy density, something to kick start the cube."
"When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?" The same woman eyed him suspiciously.
"An hour ago. The packet, Selvig's notes, the Extraction Theory papers. Am I the only one who did the reading?" Tony shrugged, though a part of him was baffled by how easily people forget that he is a genius.
Captain America asked an unnecessary and obvious question. Tony tuned Rogers out as soon as he opened his mouth. Howard might have been Captain America's biggest fan but Tony was nothing like his father.
"He's got to heat the cube to a hundred and twenty million Kelvin just to break through the Coulomb barrier." Banner mused.
Tony perked up at the beautiful sound of science and intelligence. "Unless, Selvig has figured out how to stabilize the quantum tunneling effect."
Banner smiled, small and genuine. "Well, if he could do that he could achieve Heavy Ion Fusion at any reactor on the planet."
"Finally, someone who speaks English!" Tony grinned, reaching out to shake Banner's hand as Rogers babbled in confusion. "It's good to meet you, Dr. Banner. You're work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster."
"Thanks." Bruce looked down but not before Tony caught the glimmer of respect and amusement in the other scientist's eyes.
Fury stalked in. "Dr. Banner is only here to track the cube. I was hoping you might join him."
Tony pretended to ponder this, relishing in the way the vein on Fury's forehead was pulsing. "Hey, Big Guy." He elbowed Banner, who jumped at the contact but did not flinch. "Did they try to get you to join the Avengers Initiative?"
"No." Banner shook his head, looking confused and relieved at the exclusion.
"Then yeah, I'll help. But it's still a no to your super-secret boy band." Tony turned back to Fury, smiling with all of his teeth. "I have a successful solo career of my own."
Then Barton boarded the helicarrier and, well, it did not go well for anyone. At all.
Tony and Banner relocated to the tower after the disaster aboard the helicarrier. Neither of them had wanted to return to SHIELD. So they didn't.
JARVIS had tracked Banner's trajectory when the Hulk fell. Tony had left to collect the other scientist after repairing the damages to the engines, ignoring Rogers' command to stay put as though Tony was an obedient dog.
The less time spent in Rogers' presence, the better. The super soldier was full of judgmental taunts and did not hesitate to throw them like punches. Tony wondered, briefly, if Captain America took his cues from SHIELD or if that sparkling personality of self-righteousness was all his own. It didn't matter, ultimately, because they weren't friends and they weren't teammates, nor would they ever be.
Banner had been uneasy since the reveal of the reinforced containment cell and seemed more relieved to wake up midflight, flung over the shoulder of Iron Man, than he would be elsewhere.
After a quick shower and a change of clothes, the two of them reconvened in the penthouse to review the data gathered thus far.
"Loki's a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades, he wants a monument built in the skies with his name plastered..." Tony was rambling, pacing by the wall of windows overlooking New York.
Banner cleared his throat at the same moment Tony exclaimed in realization.
The Chitauri Invasion came and ended when Loki sauntered into Stark Tower only to be greeted by the Hulk. The scepter looked deceptively harmless in the Hulk's massive fist.
"Give it here, Jolly Green." Tony caught it easily when the Hulk tossed him the scepter with a snort.
"All of you are beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature!" Loki snarled, though the effect was cheapened by his upside-down position in the Hulk's grip.
"Puny God." The Hulk gave a little shake and laughed when Loki's hair swayed with the motion.
"You guys hang tight." Tony chuckled at his fully-intentional pun. "I'll be right back." With that, he blasted through the window with a hit of his repulsor, the glass shattering and raining down as he soared to the roof. He always liked a dramatic exit.
SHIELD apprehended Loki.
Tony cheerfully bid them farewell, wishing them all the luck in the world with their not-so-secret superhero club with all the sincerity he could muster. Based on what Tony had observed about SHIELD's operational approaches and Rogers' attitude, they would definitely need it.
"-we would like to formally extend an invitation to you and Iron Man to join the New Avengers."
"C'mon, you know you want to make Hank's blood pressure rise a few points."
Tony scanned the faces of the three people, superheroes, before him.
T'Challa, the Black Panther.
Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme.
Hope Van Dyne, the Wasp.
They were not the only members of the New Avengers, but definitely the ones with the most seniority and influence. Strange and Van Dyne were the driving force behind the D.C. Accords, a document establishing protocol and accountability for superheroes. It was proposed and approved within six months after multiple helicarriers crashed into the landscape of Washington D.C., causing millions of dollars' worth of damages, hundreds of civilian injuries, and one hundred and seventeen fatalities.
SHIELD had burned and HYDRA had risen from its ashes. Yet neither events had halted the arrests of Captain America and his accomplices, Falcon and Black Widow.
"You're not going put me in a prison. You're not going to put any of us in a prison because you need us." Romanoff had sneered as she was escorted out of SHIELD headquarters by armed agents. "We're the ones best qualified to defend this world."
That particular soundbite had made headlines across the world, spurring the debate about superhero oversight.
Reckless endangerment and destruction of property were two of the milder charges levied against the trio, with negligent homicides and treason topping the list. The release of highly classified and poorly encrypted personnel files had jeopardized multiple ongoing operations and threatened national security.
A jury found them to be guilty on all charges. The three were sentenced to life without possibility of parole at the Raft, under the careful monitoring of the D.C. Accords panel. Barton announced his retirement when his former teammates were convicted, choosing to spend the rest of his days working on his family's ranch and coaching a high school archery team that won the national championship.
T'Challa, crowned prince of Wakanda, had been the proponent for an international version of the legal document with wider inclusion and provisions for enhanced beings.
Tony had worked with all three of them throughout the ups-and-downs of the D.C. Accords ratification. Each had treated Tony with respect, appreciation, and honesty.
The only manipulation was switching Tony's coffee to decaf after 4:00pm so he would have an easier time falling asleep.
Assistance was offered freely, with no hidden costs attached.
Requests for Tony's time or help were phrased as such, not demands nor taunts.
None of them ever breached his personal space without permission and would never consider breaking-and-entering as an acceptable way to conduct a social call.
This was how a team should be.
Tony grinned, free and open and comfortable. "Yes."