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Redemption And Revenge

Chapter Text

The shield came down.

Tony heard an awful splintering, cracking, tearing noise, glass from the arc reactor shattering, metal caving in to meld with skin. The sound of broken things, of love and hate and everything in between.

It was agonising.

Betrayed by one you called a friend.

Everyone left. Didn't they?

Stane, Rhodey (I'm sorry, Rhodey), Dad, Mom, Pepper (who he still loves), Steve, Clint, Bruce, Natasha, Thor, Jarvis, everyone-

They're leaving. The two super-soliders. Tony managed to splutter out a last retort. 

Steve drops the shield. It hits the ground with a clang. To Tony's suprise, it's cracked. Tony can see his blood on it. There's quite a lot.

He should be worried about it. He can't seem to work up the energy.

He should also be worried about the blackness surrounding his vision. He's not, though. Too tired.

He was numb, until he realised he was really, truly going to die here, alone. Tony almost laughed.

The man with everything, but nothing.

Yinsen was absolutely correct in that regard, anyway.

He lay there in silence for a while.

There was...noise now.

That was new.

Tony could faintly make out colours. There was a lot of red. He wasn't sure all of it was blood, though. Not the right shade. He could smell a subtle perfume. Magnolia something. Beautiful, just like Pepper. Her birthday gift.

Did someone come for him?

Or is it a devil?

Funny, he's never been religious.

Whoever it was, they came for him, anyway.

That was nice of them. He's pretty lonely. Death's door isn't the most friendly of places.

He tried to stutter out a question, but he's too far away. Tony is floating away, in a twilight zone where it's tranquil, and quiet.

He could occasionally feel slight movement around him, but it's too distant.

Are those blurry figures... Dad? Mom? Jarvis?

He was fading fast now, and he knew it. 

"We're losing him!"

Tony made a choice.

No, you're not. I'm not lost.

I'm going, all by myself.

Thank you for trying, but I'm done. Finished. Fatigued. Tired.

Goodbye, everyone. I'll see myself out.

Tony slipped out quietly, stylishly, and is gone with a faint sigh.

Chapter Text

Pepper's heart wasn't broken.

It was completely destroyed.

There wasn't hairline cracks arcing through it, like you see in cartoon representations of lovehearts. Now, her heart was just shards, razor edges that dug into her like the shrapnel in Tony's chest.

Vision had traced the armour to Siberia. She, Vision, Rhodey, Natasha, and a team of doctors led by Dr Cho had taken the Quinjet to an abandoned bunker. It was freezing, at least, that's what everyone else said.

Pepper didn't feel cold. Until she saw where the fight had taken place.

There was blood everywhere. Most of it was dry, crimson flakes decorating the cold metal floor.

Some of it was still pooling from the destroyed Iron Man armour, right beside the bloodied, cracked shield.

Pepper had screamed and dropped to her knees, taking in the smashed arc reactor, the chestplate that had caved in, and the blood. The fresh blood, pooling around her elegant heels.

She was being shoved aside by medical personnal, Natasha and Vision holding her back. She fought them, like a captured wildcat, kicking and howling in distress. Natasha had held on to her, whispering reassurances softly as the doctors worked.

But even the Black Widow lost some of her composure when the dreaded words were spoken.

"We're losing him!"

Pepper strained against Vision and Natasha, Rhodey sitting in a nearby wheelchair. Tears rolled down their cheeks.

It wasn't meant to be like this. She had distanced herself to stop her heart getting broken.

What a fool she had been.

Finally, Dr Cho stood, and shook her head. 

"I'm sorry. He's gone."

Pepper's knees gave way and she crashed to the floor again. Natasha sank to the ground beside her, trembling slightly. Rhodey's expression was of grief and anger. Vision was much the same, except more lost, like an abandoned little boy.

The funeral was a few days later. Closed-casket. The body was too ruined for it to be anything but.

A lot had people had come.

Bruce had come back, head bowed in disbelief and guilt. A young boy named Harley was there, sobbing into his grim mother's shoulder. Thor was there, looking solemn, respectful and guilty, as did the Black Panther. Wolverine, Storm, and Professor X, good friends of Tony's, were there, casting sorrowful gazes at the casket. Spider-Man was there, absolutely silent. So was Dr Strange, who muttered something about "Missing his awesome facial hair bro." There was a lot if SI employees, especially from R&D. The Fantastic Four. Daredevil. She-Hulk. Captain Marvel.

Pepper made a speech, up on a podium decorated with ribbons and flowers. She was too numb to think about most of it. She looked a mess. Usually, she would care.

Strange lowered the black coffin into the ground, waving his hand with a cascade of purple sparks. Pepper still couldn't believe it. Natasha wept into Bruce's shirt. Vision stood there, looking lost. Rhodey let tears roll down his cheeks.

It's dark in here.

Shovels filled up the hole in no time. Her best friend (but he was more, god, why hadn't she...)was just gone. Thanks to Rogers and his precious Barnes. He was ten times the man either of them would ever be.

Where am I?

Well, Pepper was had news for the fugitive Captain. He wasn't the only one who had a dear friend. She would have her revenge. It would not be pretty. But it would be deserved.

I want out.

<¤>

Scott was beyond tired of being cooped up in with the Rogue Avengers.

T'Challa wouldn't talk to them, the couldn't leave the palace, he missed Nat, and Steve kept sulking that Barnes went bats, and froze himself again.

Scott was idly flicking through the news when he saw Natasha and Dr Banner. Natasha sobbing (?!) into Banner's black shirt, and the doctor looking horrorstruck.

What was wrong?

IRON MAN MURDERED BY CAPTAIN AMERICA screamed the headlines.

Scott stared at the TV. What the fuck?

FUNERAL OF A HERO.

ROGUE AVENGERS-WANTED FOR MURDER?

PUBLIC OUT FOR BLOOD AT THE DEATH OF TONY STARK BY CAPTAIN AMERICA.

CAPTAIN AMERICA- DECORATED HERO OR BRUTAL KILLER?!

Scott's eyes widened in horror and dread. 

No. This...this had to be fake. Grabbing a nearby tablet, Scott quickly searched for answers.

A few swipes later, and the truth was staring him in the face.

Scott blanched and threw the tablet away from him. He ran his hands through his hair, mussing it up repeatedly. This wasn't right, Steve said Stark had been fine...

He picked up the tablet again. There was photos. Tony didn't look 'fine' in any of them. He looked dead. Bile was rising in his throat.

Oh god. He had picked the team of murderers. And Iron Man had paid the price.

Scott went looking for Steve, murder on his mind.

<¤>

Steve was in the common room, playing a board game with Sam, Clint and Wanda when Scott stormed in, banging the antique door against the wall in his fury.

Everyone looked up, startled.

"Jeez, what the fuck man?" Sam asked, looking askance at Scott's face, twisted in fury.

Scott didn't waste any time.

"You. Murdered. Tony. Stark." he hissed, jabbing a finger into Steve's chest.

Clint barked out a laugh. "What?"

Scott turned around, and pointed a remote to the flatscreen TV on the wall.

A fifty year old man was standing in front of a coffin, with a grave expression on his face. People milled around in the background.

"...I am here, reporting live at the funeral of Doctor Tony Stark. As we all know by now, Iron Man was murdered in a Siberian bunker by a Mr Rogers and the Winter Solider. Millions have left flowers at Stark Tower today as a show of support for the company, and the true Avengers."

The scene changed to show hundreds of thousands of bouquets, cards, and Iron Man plushies lined up outside Stark Tower. Steve saw pictures of Tony's face, candles, signs thanking him.

"Hundreds of well-known superheroes and otherwise have come to the funeral, including the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Dr Strange, Spider-Man, and some well-known mutants, Wolverine, Professor X, and Storm."

"However, thousands of SI employees, and regular citizens have come forward, expressing their condolences. The world is in universal agreement; Tony Stark died a hero, and Steve Rogers lived as a villian."

Scott muted the TV, arms shaking.

Steve felt faint. No, that couldn't be true, Tony had been fine. A little banged up, but fine. And Steve wasn't a villian! He was just protecting Bucky. His friend.

So was I.

Sam looked appalled, and disgusted. Clint was pale, and he was sweating slightly. Wanda appeared indifferent.

"Steve...oh, fuck. Steve, what did you do?!"

Steve tried to defend himself against Sam's terrified gaze. "He was fine! The armour was a little damaged, sure, but-"

"HE WAS IN THE ARMOUR, YOU MORONIC BASTARD!" roared Scott.

Steve tried to speak but failed. Didn't they see? Tony's death was tragic, of course, but he was fighting Bucky...

Sam had his hands to his head. "Scott, man, what happened? How did we get into this?"

"I don't know," Scott admitted. "But I'm turning myself in."

"Don't you think you're being overdramatic?" asked Wanda calmly, with an air of boredom.

The room was silent with shock.

"What. Did you say?" gritted Scott.

Wanda shrugged. "So, the world lost the Merchant Of Death. Big deal. Would you cry for the death of a murderous dictator?"

"I don't believe this," Sam said in shock. "A man is dead."

Wanda scoffed. "The man that killed my parents! That orphaned me and Pietro!"

"Wanda," said Clint quietly. "I have a question for you."

She whirled, irritated. "What?"

"If your parents were murdered in a dark alley one night, killed by a man ordered to do so, who would you blame?"

Wanda looked confused that Clint was asking such a dumb, irrelevant question. "The man that ordered the kill, and the one that executed the crime, of course!"

"Okay. So, the man used a knife to do this. Who would you blame now?"

Wanda rolled her eyes. "The same people, obviously!"

"Would you blame the company that made the knife?"

"No! Of course...not..." Wanda trailed off, realisation crossing her face.

Clint nodded. "Except, that's exactly what you did. Now, I think Stark's an asshole, and Steve was right in all of this, but it wasn't fair for you to blame him."

Scott and Sam stared at them, aghast.

"I think I'm in shock. Tony Stark is dead, killed by Captain America, and all you can do is insult his memory! He was murdered, for heaven's sake!"

"Where is the proof?" retorted Clint.

"Here," a new voice said, quiet and deep. "Here is the proof."

King T'Challa stood in the doorway, flanked by two lithe female guards. He was holding a tablet. 

As they watched, he cast the video playing on his tablet onto the TV screen.

"This video has gone viral, Mr Rogers, and I'm afraid any dwindling support you may have had vanished when people saw this."

It was Siberia. Everything, caught from a  third person view. The video showing the unfortunate demise of Tony's parents. Tony's vicious attack. Bucky and Steve trying to defend themselves.

Except...it didn't look like that in the video. It was unaltered, that was true, but Steve hadn't fought with that predatory snarl on his face. He hadn't lunged with so much force. He hadn't.

Had he?

"Rogers. You lied. You claimed that Doctor Stark was in, not good condition, but he would be fine. Look at the end of this video, and tell me, does he look 'fine'?"

The video ended. Tony looked near dead.

"He died just as help arrived," the Black Panther said softly, but with no gentleness. "I believe Miss Potts and War Machine witnessed his death, as well as The Vision and Miss Romanov."

Wanda hissed out, "Traitor."

Sam cast her a disbelieving glance.

"You are wanted for murder, as well as several other crimes, Rogers. I will allow this no longer. You have five minutes."

Clint gaped at him. "Wh-what?!"

Scott and Sam walked up to T'Challa together. The king's bodyguards bristled and tensed, clutching their spears tighter.

"No need," stated Scott firmly. "I'm handing myself in."

"As am I."

T'Challa nodded approvingly. Wanda shrieked out a wordless complaint, then collected herself enough to say:

"What?! No! You can't turn yourself in! You remember the Raft? The collar? We can't be split up! Tell them, Clint!"

Clint tched. "She's right. You remember Ross? He won't have mercy. Or humanity."

Wanda looked smug. Scott shocked her by laughing right back and saying:

"Ross is fired. Gone. Vamoosh. Hope and SI hired lawyers and took care of it. You haven't even been watching the news, have you?!"

Wanda's pause was answer enough.

"Your Majesty, I'm done," Sam stated bluntly. T'Challa addressed the other three. "And you?"

They shook their heads, Wanda sneering cruelly, Clint bitter, and Steve stubborn enough to give a whole herd of mules a run for their money.

Princess Shuri will be so glad to hear of the rogue's departure. She hated them with a passion.

T'Challa sighed and turned to leave, Sam and Scott in tow.

"Oh, and by the way," he called over his shoulder. "Three and a half minutes now."

 He heard Wanda's unholy screech before the door swung shut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Where was he?

He didn't like it. It was far too dark. And small.

How did he get here?

Where was everybody else?

He was starting to get a little bit scared.

He opened his mouth to shout, to scream, to hear any sound-

But before he could panic completely, he fell back asleep again.

~¤~

"Miss Potts?"

"Vision."

"Please, I am growing gravely concerned. Leave the workshop for a little while. According to my searches online, this is not healthy behaviour."

"I'm fine, Vision."

No, she wasn't.

Pepper had locked herself in the workshop. On blackout mode. It was eerily silent. Vision had told DUM-E, Butterfingers, and U, as delicately as he could, that Tony had died at the hands of Rogers and Barnes. Nobody had seen the little robots since.

Pepper sat at a steel bench, blue holographs of Tony's latest projects floating around her. An Iron Man gauntlet lay with a screwdriver sticking out of it a few inches away. There was a cold cup of coffee, and the case that held his old arc reactor.

Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.

She wanted to be near him for a while. She went to his bedroom first, but the air seemed cold, like a tomb. Unlived in. The workshop was where he had lived, where he had thrived and worked.

She kept seeing him, out of the corner of her eye. A genuine smile. Eyes sparkling with mischief. Hands waving, caught in an inventing fever. Sitting on the ragged old couch he often slept on. Flicking through holographs. Tinkering with a new invention.

Pepper was aware of the Kübler-Ross Model of Grief. Five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Pepper knew she was in denial. After all, she half-expected him to slide out from underneath a nearby car any minute, screwdriver in his teeth and motor oil in his hair.

Pepper was never going to see him again.

She buried her head in her arms, and wept. The holograms danced around her.

~¤~

Natasha sat beside Bruce in the common room. Bruce was hunched over, lines etched into his face.

A couple of people sat near them. Hope van Dyke, Stephen Strange, Spider-Man, Harley Keener, Laura Barton, and finally, Thor. 

Laura and her kids, and Harley and his mother were staying in Stark Tower for an indeterminable period of time. Both were forced to flee their homes after the fall of SHIELD; they simply weren't safe any more. Pepper had invited them to stay in Stark Tower, and Natasha knew it was what Tony had been planning ever since the information leak.

Nobody had seen Pepper or Rhodey ever since the funeral ended.

Vision phased into the silent room, gliding through the wall. Very few people jumped, used to the android's habit of drifting through walls.

"Any luck with Pepper?" asked Hope, knowing the answer already.

Vision shook his head regretfully. Hope had become good friends with Pepper and Natasha, after the three discovered they had a lot in common.

Stephen leapt to his feet. "I can't stand this. We have to find that gang of murderous bastards. We can't be passive. They're dangerous!"

Thor nodded his agreement, face twisted in anger and loss.

"I know, Stephen," said Bruce, a sorrowful, tired expression on his face. "But what do you suggest we do? You have used your scrying stone. Wanda's powers disrupt that. Harley has tried hacking, and that kid's a genius. If he can't find anything..."

Laura was tense with pent-up rage. "I swear, when I find my former husband..."

"Is it official, now?" Natasha asked quietly.

Laura shook her head. "Nearly."

Laura was having a hard time finalising a divorce, due to Clint's absense. She had published the news in newspapers worldwide, at the instruction of her lawyer. If Clint didn't come back in two days, the courts would rule automatically in her favour.

They sat around in silence. 

"Y'know," Harley began, sniffing slightly. "The first time I met Tony, he broke into my garage, and demanded I make him a sandwich. I attacked him with a potato gun."

There was some suprised laughter.

"I wondered..." admitted Hope.

Bruce gave a fond smile. "That's nothing. The first time I met Tony, he walked up to me, shook my hand, congratulated me on a science paper, and then on the fact I could turn into a huge angry rage monster."

Bruce paused.

"And then he offered me a blueberry."

 More fond laughs, accompanied by some tears.

They told stories about their fallen friend well into the night.

~¤~

Friday hadn't known what to do.

The armour had been destroyed. Her creator, one of the only people who treated her like she had thoughts, and feelings, because she did.

And Boss was dying, and Friday had never been more scared in her brief existance.

The armour's speakers were pulverised. She couldn't talk to Boss. She couldn't tell him what she was going to do. What she had to do to save him.

So as Boss lay bleeding out in Siberia, Friday got to work.

In order to remove the arc reactor from his chest, Boss had injected himself with a dormant strain of Extremis. In order to call the armour to him using only his thoughts, he injected himself with nanites.

Using the nanites, and what little was left of the armour, Friday woke up Extremis.

Extremis activated shortly before help arrived, and started to immediately repair the internal damage, replenishing blood, and knitting together bone, but there was one problem.

The armour had been smashed into Boss's chest. Bits of the armour were literally inside him and Extremis couldn't remove them, causing unforseen complications.

To ensure the host remained salvagable, Extremis shut down the body temporarily.

To an outsider, Boss was dead. No pulse, fatal wounds, he wasn't breathing. His mind, however was safe. Extremis uploaded his consciousness onto the internet, and Friday protected it, creating every firewall and safeguard she knew around it. Friday saved his mind, as Extremis repaired his body.

However, due to the fact that the armour was inside Boss, Extremis mistook it for part of his DNA.

Boss was literally Iron Man now.

Friday hoped he wouldn't be mad at her. 

Saving him was her primary directive, after all.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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1...

Tony's eyes snapped open, a bright glowing blue.

~¤~

Eoin O'Connolly had been working in the graveyard for most of his life. It was morbid, he supposed, but for Eoin there was a certain pride in ensuring that the final resting places of many great men and women were kept tidy. Most graveyards wouldn't hire a groundskeeper, but the graveyard was a historic location, with a president, two prime ministers, a famous rock star being buried there.

And now, the latest addition. The monument to the late hero was suprisingly tasteful, but half-buried in tokens of gratitude. It was a shame, really, Eoin thought dispassionately. All those lovely expensive flowers, and they'll be dead in a few days.

Unlike many of his friends, Eoin didn't have much of an opinion on the Civil War. He was a firm pacifist, and could honestly see the reasoning of both sides. Still, any conflict that ended in death was not acceptable, in Eoin's book.

He usually stopped at the grave of Stark, sparing a thought for all the civilian casualties, as well as the superhero's.

Eoin turned to go, picking up some abandoned Coca-Cola can as he went.

He stopped. He heard a scuffling noise.

It was the middle of the night. The graveyard was closed.

Eoin suddenly remembered his original, childish fears about graveyards and midnight. He spun around, flashlight out.

"Who's there?"

The shifting noise continued, growing louder.

To Eoin's intense horror, the ground was shifting, right beneath Tony Stark's grave. 

You have got to be fucking with me. This is like a bad horror movie. It's fine, it's just the earth...shifting...

"Show yourself!" he yelled, arms shaking. He was well aware of how cliché he sounded. 

The ground stopped shaking.

Then a dirty hand, with well-manicured nails burst from the soil, scrabbling to get a grip.

Eoin was also scrabbling to get a grip. On his sanity.

Eventually, the hand pushed itself up, and the head and shoulders of a dishevelled man in a tattered suit, pupilless eyes glowing a startling blue. With inhuman strength, the man(?) heaved himself into a standing position, dry soil crumbling off him.

The man's eyes stopped glowing as he straightened and brushed himself off. He scowled when he saw the suit. 

"Gucci, Pepper, really? Jeez, you'd think that..."

The man looked up, spotting a paralyzed Eoin. The man looked panicked, before extending a hand and saying:

"Oh, um, hi. I'm Tony Stark, and I'd really appreciate it if you could tell me where I am?"

Eoin, in fairness to him, had been doing very well up until this point. He stared at the offered hand, from the man who just climbed out of his own grave, eyes glowing blue, and did what anyone would do.

"ZOMBIE!"

Tony stared at the rapidly retreating figure, and couldn't help feeling a little offended. 

He dropped his flashlight.

I see it, Boss. 

Tony leapt five inches into the air. "What the fuck, Friday!? WHY ARE YOU IN MY HEAD?!"

Sorry, Boss. You do know what happened, right?

Tony shook his head slowly. "No-oo..."

Well, you better prepare yourself. You're coming online right about-

Then, Extremis connected Tony to the internet.

Tony let out a cry of shock, and staggered backwards, nearly falling into his own tombstone. He clutched his head, eyes flashing blue frantically.

It was so much.

A tsunami of information flooded his mind, dates, codes, numbers, papers, videos, audio, everything. It was unchecked and wild, and too much.

Tony was distantly aware of Friday's worried voice in his head, but the noise, the-

And then suddenly, mercifully, it shut off from a tsunami to a trickle from a faucet.

Tony took a deep, shaky breath. "Fry, wh-what happened?"

Friday sounded remorseful as she replied: I'm sorry, Boss. You were dying, I had to...

Which was not reassuring, at all.

"Friday."

I awakened the dormant Extremis in your body, Boss. Please...you were going...I knew help wouldn't be in time...

Tony was silent.

Please don't be mad...

"Friday, why would I be mad?"

Tony could sense a vague sort of confusion coming from her.

Because Extremis! I know you hate it, but I did it anyway, and-

"Friday."

Tony's face burst into a beam.

"I am so proud."

...What?

"You saved my life, AND you thought for yourself! I don't believe it. You have, in such a short amount of time, evolved as much as Jarvis," Tony grinned. He could sense her joy. 

Really?

"Yes! And, holy shit, this is awesome! Am I able to connect to the internet?"

Yes. With a bit of practice, my systems indicate that you can control your connection to electronics and the internet.

There was another, more comfortable silence as Tony pondered what life would be like with Extremis.

"Friday?"

Boss?

"Thank you."

Friday gave the general impression she was blushing.

There is one small problem...

"What?" asked Tony, instantly wary.

The world believes you are dead.

"Shit. Fastest way to the Tower?"

Exit the graveyard and take a left...

"Thank you, Siri."

...There are lines you cannot cross, Boss.

Tony laughed and ran for the exit.

He was alive. It felt wonderful.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Pepper had left the workshop for a while. Not because she wanted to, but because while she had been wallowing in sorrow and grief, Rhodey had been in a very different, but equally negative state of mind.

Rhodey was sitting on the tower balcony, watching the faint stars. To Pepper's suprise, Laura was already there, talking quietly to the man in the wheelchair. Upon Pepper's arrival, Laura straightened, gave her a sombre nod, and strode back inside, the sleeves of her black blouse billowing like the sails of a pirate ship.

Pepper hugged Rhodey silently. Neither of them needed to speak. They stared at the stars, mostly hidden by pollution.

Finally, Rhodey said tonelessly, "You two were going to get back together, weren't you?"

Pepper hesitated and nodded. There was no use denying it now. "I still cared for him, I just was too scared for him, going off, being a superhero. I was proud. He knew that, didn't he?"

Rhodey was quiet, mulling it over. Pepper knew he'd be totally, brutally honest. That was just how Rhodey was.

"Yes. He knew that. He loved you."

"I love him."

Pepper's admission didn't shock Rhodey in the slightest. He bit back cruel, hurtful words bubbling inside him.

Bit late now, isn't it? What about when he was drinking himself to death after your breakup? Where were you then?

Pepper saw what he was thinking in his eyes. She blinked back sudden tears, then headed back inside.

Rhodey stared at the sky where the wormhole had opened, all those years ago, it seemed. So long ago.

~¤~

Pepper was retreating back to the workshop. As she got closer, she could hear faint music, bass resonating through the floor.

She keyed in her code. Friday had gone offline with the suit, so the tower had been A.I-less for days.

The music was louder now. Back in Black, by AC/DC, Tony's favourite band. The shit she had given him for it...

The doors slid open smoothly, and fuck, this was affecting Pepper even worse than she thought.

Tony stood there, suprised look on his face. He was evidently in the middle of getting changed, because his AC/DC T-shirt was half over his head.

Pepper was seeing things. Things that couldn't be there. The line 'I see dead people' came back to her suddenly, and she had to choke down a hysterical laugh.

What really hammered the point home was how Not-Tony looked.

His T-shirt was half on, revealing an unblemished, tanned chest, no scars, no arc reactor. He looked at least a decade and a half younger, almost exactly how he did when he and Pepper first met. There was no bags under his eyes, no stress lines creasing his face, no silver streaking his hair.  No bruises marring his arms, no burns littering his palms. He looked whole. Happy to see her, even.

"Hi Pepper," he said awkwardly.

Pepper let out a sad smile. Encouraged by this, Not-Tony gave a tentative one back. Her heart broke again.

"Look, Peps, I'm so sorry to do this to you-"

Pepper shook her head, and walked towards him, embracing him, knowing he'd disappear any moment, and she would be holding nothing. 

But he didn't.

Pepper could smell wet soil, like a walk in the woods after a storm.

She could feel smooth arms circling her waist.

He was warm, and solid, and real.

Pepper screamed and pushed him away, grabbing the screwdriver embedded in the gauntlet on a nearby worktable. Tony staggered back, obviously bewildered. "Peps? Are you okay?"

"You're real," she said, panting heavily.

"It would appear so."

That sounded like Tony, alright. Pepper couldn't resist a lopsided, terrified smile.

"You're alive."

"Yes."

"How?"

"Extremis and Friday," Tony answered promptly.

"Okay," Pepper exhaled, shaking badly. "Be sure to catch me, please."

Pepper fainted, and the last thing she saw before blackness overwhelmed her vision was Tony darting across the workshop, arms outstretched.

~¤~

Bruce climbed down the stairs carefully, using excess caution. He could have taken the lift, but he really didn't want to have to do this.

He reached the end of the stairs, planting his feet on the smooth floor. He walked over to a glass door, currently on blackout mode.

Tony's lab.

Bruce bit back the memories - "Look Bruce! The complexity of the coding is far superior-"

"Y'alright, Brucie-Bear? C'mon, let's go blow shit up. Always makes me feel better after-"

"So you suggest that the Pym particles, could potentially, be used as a-"

Bruce gritted his teeth and punched in the code. 

He was expecting a weeping redhead.

He was not expecting his late best friend to be sat on the workshop floor, looking two decades younger, and hugging his sobbing CEO. Pepper was on the ground, crying as she latched on Tony's T-shirt with a vice grip.

Bruce wanted to join her.

Tony glanced up, looked briefly shocked, and then let out a tremulous smile, shaky with unshed tears. "Hey Brucie-Bear."

"Is...is that you, Tones?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "No, it's Deadpool. Do I look like Deadpool? Oh, please don't tell me I look like Deadpool. That guy looks like his face got eaten by a wood chipper."

Bruce knew he should be very suspicious. This reeked of a trap. Most likely, this was a Skrull, or a robot, or even Loki, disguising himself as an Avenger again (long, awkward story, that Bruce never wanted to hear repeated.)

Bruce kept his distance, despite his legs itching to run to his best friend's side. "Who are you?"

Tony hugged his sobbing CEO a little tighter. "It's me, Brucie-Bear."

"Prove it," Bruce snapped, panic, and hope, and denial causing anger to flourish. Tony looked up sharply at his tone, then gave determined affirmative.

"What book does Clint keep on the Quinjet to read if he gets bored?"

"Clint can read?"

"Tony."

"Fine. Mort, by Terry Pratchett."

Bruce nodded his head once. "Okay, what's my favourite food?"

"That weird foreign curry you make that tastes great, but has the bathrooms full for days."

 

Bruce allowed a little bit of hope to blossom.

"Yeah...well, what song did you program SHIELD's speaker system to play non-stop after they tried to hack into Jarvis?"

"It's a small world after all, it's a small world after all, it's a small, small, wooooo-"

Bruce held up his hands, a grin creeping across his face. The terrible warbling stopped. "Okay, enough! Let me...let me do a DNA sample, and a blood test."

Tony simply held out his arm, beaming.

Thank god they were in the most sophisticated lab/workshop in the world, complete with all the needed equipment to ensure someone was who they said they were.

Twenty minutes later (SI technology was efficient) Bruce was hugging Tony right beside Pepper when everyone else came down, ready for battle, concerned at Bruce's long absence.

It was a regular puppy pile on the workshop floor, with even Strange's Cloak joining in the group hug, after verifying Tony's story, of course.

They stayed like that for a while, until Natasha slapped Tony across the face for scaring her, accidentally hitting Rhodey.

"How dare you-"

"Oww! Jeez, hit the wounded guy would ya?"

Natasha looked guilty.

"Sorry."

"No bother. Carry on."

Natasha did, and boy, did she remind Tony of a pissed Maria Stark.

"Anthony Edward Stark, how dare you scare all of us like that?!"

Tony gave a terrified smile. "Um..."

"Don't you ever pull that shit ever again, you hear me?!"

"Nat! There are innocent children here!" mock-gasped Tony, gesturing to Harley, face buried in Tony's shirt, and also to Peter.

"Fuck you, you asshole," mumbled Harley.

"That's my boy."

"So, Extremis saved you? Ingenious...and you say your A.I. triggered it?" mused Strange, sitting cross-legged in mid-air.

Tony nodded cheerfully. "Yup! Friday saved me. For all intents and purposes I still died though, so yeah."

"Mr Stark..." began Peter hesitantly.

Tony waved a hand at him. "Tony, Peter, it's Tony."

"Well, Tony... I don't mean to be rude, but you look a lot better, like, if y'know what I mean. Younger?"

"Are you saying, Spiderling, that I didn't look amazing before dying?"

"Yes, Tony. That is exactly what he is saying," deadpanned Strange. Tony shot him the stink-eye, before turning to Rhodey.

"Well, honeybear? Do I look... different?" asked Tony striking a ridiculously sexy pose. As much as he could with at least two people crying into his shirt.

Rhodey smiled, teary. "You look early thirties at most, possibly late twenties, and in peak physical condition. I have to admit, Tones, if dying is so good for you..."

Tony snickered, but his face was pained. "Yeah, no. Too soon, honeybear. How are the legs?"

Rhodey admitted, "They won't heal fully, but I'll be able to walk and stand eventually. In about two years, if I'm lucky. Doctors are optimistic."

"I'm so sorry, Rhodey."

"No apology needed. I made my choice."

Tony still looked horribly guilt-wracked. Bruce changed the subject faster than Quicksilver in a hundred metre dash.

"So, Tony have you noticed any side effects of Extremis?"

"Um."

Everyone's attention was on Tony, even a red-eyed Pepper Potts.

"Wee-eell."

"Go on."

"Icanconnecttotheinternetusingmymind," Tony rushed, words jumbling together.

Thor blinked. "Sorry?"

Tony took a deep breath. "I can connect to the internet using my mind."

Silence, only broken when Harley leapt up and exclaimed, "With your mind?! That is awesome!"

The tension dissolved as literally everyone in the room smiled at Harley. Because of his impressive intellect, vast knowledge of curse words, and devil-may-care attitude, it was easy to forget what age Harley actually was.

Tony in paticular, grinned. "Yes, Harley. Yes it is."

I would have to agree, Boss.

~¤~

Scott sat on the bench in the cell of the small African police department, hands loosely clasped as he picked at his nail. Despite being in a prison cell, he felt more free than he had in weeks, knowing his was doing the right thing. This way, he'd get to see his little girl. This way, he'd get to apologise to Hope.

Hope.

I'm sorry.

Scott had seen her distance Pym Technologies from him publicly, seen her denounce him. Scott wasn't mad. He knew he deserved it.

Sam evidently thought so too, seeing how he was in the cell two doors down from Scott.

They were waiting for word to be sent from this remote little African village T'Challa dropped them off in. They were waiting for trained, armed professionals to show up, and take them away.

Speaking of which, four guards crowded the narrow doorway. One of them beckoned with a finger. Scott followed, resigned. He felt like a condemned prisoner.

Scott was lead into a large interrogation room, except Sam was already there. He gave Sam a nod, and Scott was gestured at to sit.

They waited, talking occasionally, but only small talk.

Finally, a dark beauty strolled in the room, mocha skin flawless, and coffee curls perfect.

"Sorry to have kept you waiting," said the woman. Scott nodded, and shrugged, and tried to drag his eyes away from the woman's considerable pair of assets.

"My name is Angelica Hermes. I would first like to thank you for handing yourself in, and making it so much easier for the UN."

Sam smelt a rat.

"Thank you for making it easy for Hydra, as well."

Scott felt the tiniest prick and then, his energy disappeared, leaving him sleepy and tired. He heard a scuffle, to the left of him.

 Scott fell into a Black Hole born of exhaustion.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Clint used to perch on the very edge of things; a chair, a sofa, a roof, a table, anything. Full of frizzling energy, ready to go in seconds. Now, he lay slumped on the couch in the run-down motel, flicking absently through Lord Of The Rings. All of his vibrant spirit had fled, leaving a man who looked much older than he should.

Clint missed Laura and his kids, with all his heart. Seeing the divorce notice in the papers a few weeks ago had been upsetting, but not entirely unexpected. Clint loved Laura, he honestly did, but he knew their relationship was unsalvagable, toxic. He didn't want to expose his kids to that. He'd seen firsthand how it fucked people up.

Clint wasn't sure what to do.

Despite his reaction when confronted by T'Challa back in Wakanda, he didn't feel as confident as he had back then. He had fought alongside Tony, had played pranks and shared crappy Chinese takeaway. They are friends...

They were friends.

Clint had been avoiding Steve, and Wanda, especially. He had protected the kid after the death of her brother, but he was feeling more and more uneasy around her. The way her eyes had taken on a blood-red sheen when talking about Star-Tony's death was unsettling, to say the least. And the fact that Scott and Sam had left was very telling.

Truth be told, Clint would have gone back ages ago by now, tail between his legs, if it hadn't been for that damned divorce notice. As soon as he saw it, his stomach twisted, and he felt only bitterness. 

That night, he unpacked his previously packed case for running away. His hubris wasn't going to let him back down.

Natasha would be so disappointed. He remebered seeing her weep into Bruce's shoulder at the funeral, and his stomach lurched again, like he was on a plane for the first time.

He reached for a beer, and downed it like he was chugging back water.

He needed to forget, but something was holding him back from getting full-out, proper drunk.

You can still fix this. You can change it.

Clint emptied the bottle and reached for another one.

"No, I can't," he said aloud.

~¤~

Scott's head felt like college. His first two years in college.

Really, really hungover in other words.

He raised his head groggily. What happened?

Scott lifted a hand to scratch his nose, and found he couldn't.

His hands were stuck behind his back. Shit. Had he been arrested again? Oh god, no, he'd been trying so hard, Cassie would be so-

He froze, head finally clearing enough to remember.

Hydra.

Fuck my life.

Warily, Scott opened one eye, then another.

He was in a fairly standard cell. Walls, floor, locked steel door. Sam was slumped in the other corner, blood trickling from a head wound. Scott remembered hearing a scuffle before collapsing- Sam must have been injuried by that.

Scott was trying very hard not to freak out. He had read Captain America comics when he was younger, and always imagined what he would do if he ever came face-to-face with Hydra, plotting daring escapes, and fabulous rescues.

Somehow, he didn't think it would end the way his seven-year-old self had envisioned.

"Sam!" he hissed, as quietly as possible. "Wake up!"

Sam didn't stir. Scott repeated his name until he was forced to admit defeat. Scott leant against the wall, very uncomfortable. The iron bands around his wrists were attached to metal hoops set into the wall, so he couldn't even go over to see if Sam was even alive.

Someone will come for us...right?

~¤~

 "Okay, so enhanced strength..." Bruce noted, scribbling briskly on a clipboard.

Tony nodded. "I managed to punch my way out of a wooden coffin, and dig out of a hole in the ground, so yeah, I would say enhanced strength is probably the reason."

"And you can hear Friday in your head?"

 "Yup. She says hi, by the way. I really have to connect her to the tower..."

Pepper interrupted before Tony could go off into a 'science ramble'. "Anything else? This isn't going to have any negative effects, is it?"

 Bruce pondered for a while, than shook his head slowly. "Most likely not. In fact, tests already show that Tony will have impressive healing process, and will be considerably faster than most non-humans."

Harley looked up from the game of Monopoly he, Peter, Lila, and Cooper were playing on the workshop floor. Lila was winning, having just bankrupted Peter easily. The Spiderling threw his dog avatar on the ground in annoyance, knocking over one of Harley's hotels.

 "So, are you basically a super-zombie?" asked Harley innocently. A nearby Laura Barton choked on her coffee, spluttering with suppressed laughter at Tony's face. Bruce was snorting quietly too. Pepper wasn't even bothering to try hide her amusement.

"Why, you little-"

"There are children present!" singsonged Natasha, practically skipping into the room. 

"Don't you use my words against me, Romanov!"

 But he was smiling, Tony was, so Natasha counted it as a win. Everybody was a little bit giddy at the triumphant return of their previously dead friend, so she was excused a bit of fun.

She was still heartless! She was still the stone-cold assassin!

...Oh, who was she kidding.

Natasha walked closer to Bruce, pulling the flustered scientist into a tight hug. There were wolf-whistles, and shouts of 'Get a room!'

 "Why would they need to get a room, Mum?" Lila asked Laura, big eyes open wide in confusion.

There was a sudden, terrified silence.

Superheroes were brave, but they had nothing on Laura Barton.

 "Oh, just so they can hug in private," Laura replied easily, glaring at both Natasha and Bruce, who wisely got the message and scarpered.

Everybody in the room let out the breath they'd been holding.

Just then, Rhodey wheeled himself into the room, agonisingly slowly. Tony flinched at the sight of him, something that Rhodey did not fail to notice.

"I'm working on the braces. I promise, Rhodey, they'll be ready in no time," Tony rushed, much to Rhodey's exasperation.

"Tones, you literally just came back from the dead. I think you're allowed a brief break at the very least, ya moron," Rhodey sighed, with a long-suffering air.

They chatted for a while, Laura, Tony, Pepper and Rhodey, one of the kids piping up very now and then. Thor had left to see Jane Foster, promising to return soon. Hope had returned to manage Pym Technologies, and Strange had left to do vague, mystical things in different dimensions. 

"Actually, Pepper's right, Laura. Prosthetics could very well be a new direction for-"

Rhodey was interrupted by Tony's sudden cry of shock. He was clutching his forehead. His face was hidden by his hair.

"Oh shit...not good..."

Pepper was at his side in a heartbeat. "Tony, what's wrong?"

Tony lifted his head, and everyone unconsciously took a step back. Lila let out a little scream of shock. Peter's eyes were wide, and he stood in front of the younger kids.

Tony's eyes were an unnatural glowing blue, with darker strands floating through them, like information scrolling down a computer screen. His veins were visible, blue running through them, like wires on a circuit board. Coupled with how much healthier, younger, and stronger be looked, the actual effect was quite intimidating (read: bloody fucking terrifying.)

 "Hydra has Sam and Scott. They just posted a ransom note on the Dark Web. Friday alerted me, and it's genuine."

 Laura paled involuntarily. "Just Sam and Scott?" she asked, hating herself for how vulnerable and weak she sounded. Not Clint, is what she meant, and Tony understood immediately.

Tony nodded once. "Apparently, those two numbskulls got cold feet, and handed themselves in. Hydra kidnapped them while the police were waiting for backup."

 "You have got to be kidding me. I'm out of action, Vision is off trying to find the 'bots-"

"Relax, Rhodeybear. I'll go."

"Tony, yesterday you were dead."

"True, but I'm better today..."

 "Mr Stark?"

 Peter's voice was hesitant.

 "Spiderling, it's Tony."

"Right, sorry. Anyway, your amour is trashed. Destroyed. Most of it is missing, actuall- what the fuck? "

Liquid scarlet and gold metal curled around Tony's hand and arm, winding around the rest of his body, loose at first, but gradually becoming tighter, like a second skin. The strange substance seemed to exhale for a moment, then hardened, like clay being baked in an oven. In the end, a sleeker version of the Iron Man armour stood in front of them, eyes glowing the same blue as before. There was an act reactor, gleaming in the centre of the chestplate, but it was significantly smaller, and seemed more ornamental than anything.

Everybody stared.

 "Well," began the armour, in a robotic voice, " I didn't know I could do that."

 Everybody kept staring.

 "Yes, Friday, I know now. No, I'm not mad, baby girl - You saved my life, remember? I-"

Vision chose that moment to phase through the wall. The door slammed open, and DUM-E, Butterfingers, and U raced into the room like overexcited puppies, beeping crazily.

They lunged for the armour, nuzzling the gold plates legs with joy. Iron Man bent down, the armour retracting the same way it appeared. A slightly shellshocked, defenceless Tony stood there, and soon ended up on his back, laughing as the robots hugged him best as they could. Butterfingers fussed over him, while U shyly tapped his arm with his claw. DUM-E did victory circles around him.

 "Okay, okay! It's good to see you too. I know, I know, I shouldn't have scared you, I'm sorry guys-"

There was a quiet cough from Laura's direction.

"Scott and Sam?" she said pointedly, but not unkindly. Pepper shot her a dirty look, as all the bots seemed to wilt, and back away from Tony.

 "Oh, yeah. Sorry," Tony apologised, getting easily to his feet. "Friday's scanning for them now. I could do it myself, but my brain in still getting used to Extremis."

 "I'm sorry, but is nobody going to talk about the fact that your armour, cool as it is, is literally inside you?!"  Cooper asked, flabbergasted. "I mean, the health risks!"

"I appreciate your concern, Cooper," Tony said warmly, giving Cooper a fond look. "But even if I wanted to, I cannot remove it. Friday thinks it would compromise my internal organs beyond repair if I even attempted it."

Rhodey heaved another sigh, one that suggested I am so done with this hand-wavy science shit.

"So. Currently, Friday suspects Dumb and Dumber are in - wait for it -Scotland."

 Tony started snorting with laughter. Pepper rolled her eyes lovingly, and asked:

"Why Scotland?"

 "I don't know. But just picture a bunch of Hydra operatives in kilts and Red Skull playing the bagpipes."

 " ... "

 "...okay, that's pretty funny."

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After much discussion, it's decided that while Friday searches for an exact location and informs the Accords Council of the situation, everyone should get some rest. It was a long, emotional day for all present, and it's almost past midnight by the time the kids are rounded up, and sent to bed. Peter texts his aunt if he can sleepover at a friend's house, which isn't strictly a lie, and he and Harley run upstairs, snickering about some YouTube video. Laura herds Cooper and Lila to bed, and while the baby Barton takes some convincing, all the Barton family is asleep in no time.

1:14

Bruce is drifting off to sleep when a knock on the door drags him back to consciousness.

 "Who is it?" Bruce called softly, scrabbling for his glasses on the bedside table. He's instantly alert; years of being in the run will do that to a person.

The door creaked open. Bruce can't hide his surprise when he sees Natasha standing there.

Natasha is wearing a ridiculously overlarge T-shirt, covered in faux graffiti, and a pair of simple black shorts. Her hair flows over her shoulders, curly and untamed. She decided to let it grow longer some time ago, shortly before the Civil War. She's barefoot, and she was biting her lip anxiously. Bruce has never seen Natasha vulnerable before, and she's beautiful this way.

 "Nat! Are you alright?" Bruce peered shortsightedly at the joke digital clock shaped like a hot dog ( a gift from Clint, last Christmas). "It's one o'clock in the morning."

 "I...I had a nightmare," she said, seeming suddenly like a scared young child, after watching a horror movie.

Bruce pulled off the covers, sparing a moment to congratulate himself in the decision not to sleep nude tonight, and pulled Natasha into a tight hug, full of warmth. Bruce could feel her shoulders heaving softly, as she buried her head in his shoulder, head the muffled sobs, and found it hard to believe she had ever been a stonehearted assassin. If she ever had been, she certainly wasn't now.

They slept together, just slept peacefully, finding comfort in each other's arms.

2:28

 

Pepper stared at the ceiling.

It wasn't a particularly interesting ceiling, but it was better than thinking about her busy, busy mind, and her even busier emotions.

There was rage. Rage at the rogues, at Barnes, at Rogers. Relief. Tony wasn't dead, he was alright. Lingering traces of grief, she couldn't shake. Anxiety, the constant pressure of being responsible for something as big as SI. New feelings, that re-emerged when she saw Tony in the workshop, looking just as handsome as when she first met him.

She rolled over, tried closing her eyes, then gave up.

Pepper stood, pulled on an oriental silk wrap-around, and left her large, sumptuous room.

She didn't know where she was going, not did she much care. She just wanted to be away from the assault of thoughts and feelings. From the images of a coffin being placed into the earth. The blood staining the cracked shield.

She wandered through the corridors, the totally silent tower seeming larger at night, moonlight filtering through bulletproof glass windows. Until she heard something she never knew she missed.

A piano was being played masterfully somewhere nearby, sorrowful notes drifting down the hall towards Pepper. Hushed singing accompanied it, foreign words flowing in harmony with the instrumental. Pepper remembered the first time she had heard the Italian melody, one particularly difficult day for Stark Industries. Stocks had crashed spectacularly, and even though back then, when Pepper had been relatively to the job of Tony's PA, she had seen the duress he had been under. She had arrived at his Malibu house, toting a towering stack of documents when she had seen her employer, sitting quietly at the world-class piano, playing and singing reverently, lost in his own world.

That was the day she had fallen in love with him.

She had only heard him play four times; the day she fell in love, the night after Afghanistan, after The Battle Of New York, and after Ultron.

She padded cautiously down the dark hallway towards the door, spilling light and music from the inside. The door swung open easily at her touch.

2:50

He sat at the stool, fingers flying over the worn keys. Maria Stark hadn't been much of a mother, but she had at least taught him to play, and sing.

He couldn't sing well at all in English. It ended up sounding like some kind of awful parody of singing. But Italian was easy. Love songs, ballads, laments- he could sing them all in Italian. It was easy for others (the media) to forget he didn't have all-American roots. 

He pressed the keys to the rhythm, playing away the images.

Plink.

Blasted backwards by his own creation, staring at the twisted metal body-

Plink.

Being drowned in inky black water, shocks running through his chest-

Plink. Plonk. Plink.

Ice forming around his vision, staring at the bloodied, cracked shield-

Plink. Plonk.

The infinity that is space, falling through the loophole with alien carcasses-

Plonk.

His family lying dead in the stars after he failed them- 

...

His family leaving, betraying him- 

....

Waking up in the darkness, an enclosed coffin, buried alive-

.....

Soil falling through his hair, his ears, his eyes, his mouth as he struggled to reach the surface-

"Tony?"

 He blinked, came back to himself, stunned at the tears rolling down his unscarred, unlined face.

Pepper was kneeling beside him, concern and sadness evident in her face.

 "It's a lot easier to pretend during the day, isn't it?" he rumbled, voice deeper with grief. "Something about the night makes people more honest. More real. I've always thought so, anyway."

 She pulled him into her arms.

The entire tower is really keen on hugs, Tony thought absently.

 "I'm sorry," she said suddenly. Tony was confused. "For what, Peps?"

 " I left...because you were a superhero. And couldn't handle it. How selfish is that? "

Tony started to pull away. "No, Peps, you were right-"

 "No, Tony. I wasn't. And I'm sorry. And it was the stupidest thing I've ever done, because you were trying. You were changing, becoming an even better person, but I couldn't handle it."

 A brief pause.

 "I still love you," Tony blurted.

 immediately, he wanted to smack himself. He couldn't even manage a breakup gracefully, having to be so needy, and clingy-

And then Pepper kissed him.

Tony sat there in shock, arms still entwined around Pepper's back. She kissed him, and then pulled away, insecurity creeping into her eyes. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-"

This time, Tony kissed her.

"So you still love me, Peps?"

"I never stopped."

3:06

Vision could sleep, technically. He just...couldn't.

He floated to the roof, phasing effortlessly through multiple floors. In the distance, he heard faint music.

The sky was dark, only the occasional star to be seen. Clouds covered most of the celestial lights, blocking our the starlight. The moon was very clearly visible, a pale crescent.

Wanda had a necklace like that.

Vision was commonly assumed to have no feelings, no emotions. Capable only of perfectly logical thought.

If only he was so lucky.

If he was emotionless, he wouldn't have felt the spark he and Wanda had shared. He wouldn't have felt the betrayal as she slammed him through multiple floors. He would have been immune to the guilt of hitting Colonel Rhodes. He wouldn't have felt the grief as if for a parent, as he watched Tony die. He wouldn't have felt the rage, the inability to understand it all.

But then...

He wouldn't have felt this affection for his new family, either.

Still, Wanda was proving hard for him to get over. Vision was glad he had been removed from the Avengers Compound, which was possibly going to be destroyed. Too many haunting memories.

The red android floated there, staring at the stars. There was only a few in sight, but those that were in sight were burning bright.

Vision chuckled wryly. Perhaps I should write poetry.

Jokes aside, Vision gazed at the view, and felt better. He truly cared for Wanda, but he doubted if the Scarlet Witch felt the same. He wasn't as upset as before about it. Plenty of stars in the sky, after all. And some shine brighter than others.

3:41

"Spider-dude, you awake?"

Peter sat up with a yawn, rubbing at his eyes. "Cut it out, Harley, it's nope-o'clock in the morning."

 " ...I can't sleep."

 "Look, I'm sorry. But, there's nothing I can do about that."

 "There is, actually."

 Peter was getting slightly annoyed now. Okay, more than slightly.

 "What is it, then?!"

"Would you...would you mind leaving the light on?"

 "You're afraid of the dark?"

 Peter hadn't meant to sound so incredulous. Harley sounded defensive and embarrassed when he replied:

 "No! I just...I just...yeah. Yeah, I'm scared of the dark. That a problem?"

 Peter shook his head vigorously. "No, no, that's not a problem at all."

"Sorry... "

 "Sorry..."

 Mutual awkwardness reigned. 

 "I got locked in the school janitor's closet for two hours, in the dark by some assholes when I was nine," Harley admitted.

 Peter winced in sympathy. "Bullied, huh?"

 Harley rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "You betcha. Big IQ, little kid. Easy target."

"Yeah... That sounds familiar, all right," Peter said, thinking over the last few years.

Harley grinned. "I executed some wicked revenge plans, though. How 'bout you? Those webs of yours must be useful for tying bullies up, or something."

 "Revenge plans, huh?" Peter said thoughtfully. "You know, I know some pretty big bullies on the run..."

 Harley's face lit up. "Oh, fuck yeah! Do you think we could-"

The two talked for hours, and the light remained on.

4:13

Sam had woken up, head spinning. He felt awful, and his ribs were aching painfully, meaning they had been kicking him when he was down. Which was just mean.

Scott had finally fallen into an uneasy slumber, head drooping oddly, that was sure to hurt in the morning. He was across the small room from Sam, and the door was nowhere near either of them.

Sam had to wonder, how did he get into this shit?

Still, he was near blissful, painless unconsciousness when the door groaned open, the sound of a deadbolt being pulled aside.

A man stood there, holding a near-empty bottle of water. Sam automatically analysed him. 

Looks to be in his early forties, salt-and-pepper hair, green eyes, evidently strong, look murderous.

Not a hopeful assessment.

The man tossed the bottle into the cell, smirking as it bounced off Scott's forehead. He turned to leave.

 "What do you want with us?" Sam croaked.

The man whirled back around, surprised to see that Sam was awake.

 "It's not my place to say, fugitive."

 The man's voice was dangerous, cruel.

 "They'll come for us."

 The man looked shocked for a minute, then gave a roar of genuine laughter, slapping his calf as he shook with mirth.

 "Who will?" he finally managed to get out. "The UN? You're wanted fugitives. They don't care."

 "Cap will," Sam said firmly.

 At this, the man roared even harder, tossing his head back.

 "'Cap will.' Oh, that's fucking beautiful! Such undeserved faith! He'll come and save you two, will he? Just like he came to save Tony Stark!"

 Sam felt unease grow, like an alien parasite, in the pit of his stomach.

 The man gave Sam an almost pitying look. 

 "Look, kid, I don't know where your faith came from, but I would let go of it. Be easier in the long run. I'm afraid, fugitive, that the good Captain's feet are made of clay."

 The man shrugged as he closed the door.

 "Guess you should never meet your heroes, right?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

A dark shadow slipped into the room. Merely five minutes later, it achieved it's goal, and left again.

The chamber opened with a hiss, steam billowing out in small clouds. The temperature lowered. An alarm rang out.

But by the time The Black Panther, Shuri, and several guards had reached the chamber, both the occupant, and the one responsible for releasing it were long gone.

The Winter Soldier was unleashed on the world once more, but this time, no mercy would be forthcoming.

Or would it?

~°~

 Tony groaned, and rolled over, and came face to face with a sleeping Pepper.

Tony barely suppressed a very manly yelp of shock, and sat up abruptly in his large bed, staring at the red haired beauty, curled up into his side, hogging the covers (just like before).

The red haired beauty who dumped him less than a year ago.

All of a sudden, last night came back to him in a rush. Being haunted by memories every time he closed his eyes, going to the piano to play, seeing Pepper, kissing Pepper-

Tony's eyes widened, and he had to choke back a joyful laugh. This meant...

Pepper yawned, and stretched, accidentally brushing off Tony's arm. Her eyes opened, curious, and she saw Tony. She looked briefly confused for a moment (but not angry, thank goodness) and then she broke into a happy smile, sitting up and kissing Tony softly.

 "Morning."

 "Uh...I mean, um, hi Peps," Tony blurted, staring at her, gobsmacked. He was certain he was blushing like a teenage girl, which was ridiculous, I mean, hello, playboy here...

But he hadn't, for years now, had he? Even the media had stopped bringing it up, and that, that was saying something.

She laughed, a tinkling noise that made Tony's stomach flip. "Smooth as ever, Tony."

 "Hey! You wish you were as smooth as me," he protested, probably with a big goofy smile on his face, prompting another laugh.

 "C'mon, let's have breakfast. Bruce said Extremis might have the same effect as the super-serum, increasing your appetite. You need to eat. Plus, I think Nat's making pancakes."

 He flashed her a genuine smile. "Sounds wonderful."

 ~°~

Breakfast was a cheerful affair, with little Nathaniel Barton flinging food from his highchair, Bruce helping Natasha cook, the kids devouring at least three pancakes each, and Vision accidentally drowning his pancakes in maple syrup.

"Damn, Nat, these are delicious. The poison really adds a nice flavour," Tony teased, winking at her as he waited impatiently for seconds.

She swatted him with her spatula, and refused to give him any more pancakes, at least until Lila, bribed by the promise of chocolate, stole some for him.

Really, it was disgustingly domestic. Oddly enough, nobody minded.

Until Tony casually announced, "Okay, Friday says she has Lang and Wilson's location. The Accords Council has cleared Nat, Vision, Hope, Bruce, and Thor to go. They haven't cleared me, because, y'know, I'm dead. Officially."

 "How do you know- oh. Right. Extremis. This is gonna take some getting used to," mumbled Rhodey, mouth full of buttery pancakes. Laura snorted at his almost incoherent sentence.

 "When will we go?"

 "Once Nat's finished the latest batch of pancakes, and Thor and Hope get their asses over here. I've already texted on them, they're on their way."

 "I suppose you texted them with the power of your mind?"

 "How else do you text people?"

~°~

Everyone was suited up and ready to go.

In fact, they would have gone a long time ago if it hadn't been for the argument between Tony and the rest of the team, which was reminding him uncomfortably of...past events.

 "Look, you won't even know I'm there. Only backup, I swear!"

 "No way! The rest of the world thinks you're dead. Hell, you were dead until very, very recently."

 "Perhaps it is for the best that, Anthony, you do not come. Just this once."

 "Not you too, Point Break! Fine, see if I buy you that shampoo you like ever again."

 "Tony."

"I could go in my armour and use the Chameleon setting!"

 "Wait, is that what I think it is? Because, if it's a stealth armour that camouflages itself into the background, then that is awesome."

 "See! Harley agrees!" Tony pointed out triumphantly. "And yes, Harley, that is exactly what the armour does. Give that boy a purely hypothetical cookie! Purely hypothetical though, because I have a feeling Harley and sugar is a worse combination than gasoline and lit matches."

 Harley pouted, and folded his arms, sticking his tongue out at Tony, further proving Tony's point.

 The Black Widow looked at Tony, gaze coolly assessing. This wasn't Nat, who made pancakes, and flirted with Bruce. This was Natasha Romanov, all business.

 "You're going to come anyway." she said. It wasn't a question, just a mere statement of fact.

Tony nodded enthusiastically. "Yep!"

 "Fine. But you need to understand. You will not engage unless the situation is truly desperate. You will remain camouflaged. Understood?"

 There was ice in her eyes, a burning cold you did not mess with, and Tony wasted no time in replying:

 "I promise, Widow. Understood."

 Her gaze softened briefly, and then she gave a shark smile, petite white teeth bared. "Good."

 She turned to the others. "What are we waiting for?"

 ~°~

 It had all been going so well.

They had infiltrated the base in Glasgow (because why the fuck not?) easily. Natasha leading, Vision gliding through walls and subduing henchmen silently, Hope fluttering, tiny as a butterfly, but still beating the shit out of baddies. Tony followed them all like some kind of invisible guardian angel, flinching every time a blow landed, or a bullet just missed. Bruce waited in the Quinjet as backup. The Big Green Smashing Machine, unsurprisingly, didn't do stealth.

And that was when reinforcements arrived.

As far as Tony could tell, it was actually just really bad luck. An important Hydra operative arrived for... some random inspection of the base or some bullshit, but the important part was that he brought a lot of extra goons, because reasons.

Now, he was watching Vision increasing and decreasing his density by turns, causing knuckles to break, bullets to pass straight through him. He was doing great, but Tony was a protective bastard, and this was killing him.

He might as well find Ant-Douche and Cap's No.1 Biggest Fan™ while he waited for the battle to end. 

As he searched, he passed Nat, red hair plastered to her head with blood and sweat, brow furrowed, tasering Hydra operatives indiscriminately with her two beloved batons. Godamnit, he despised feeling so helpless.

Finally he found a likely cell, locked, with several deadbolts. Glancing both ways, Tony saw the passage was empty, and so quickly blasted the lock with a solid beam of blue. Pushing the door open slightly, he saw the two captives, chained to the wall. Honestly. Hydra were such barbarians. This wasn't the Dark Ages, after all.

Pushing the door open just enough to walk through, he watched with amusement as both fugitives snapped their heads up as the door opened. "Whatever games you're playing, you bastards, it isn't going to work!" called Lang, a defiant look on his face. Tony snickered. This was seriously weird.

He gave the bedraggled pair a quick once-over. Wilson evidently had been bleeding from the head recently, and Lang's face was bruised on one side, but other than those minor grievances, they appeared unharmed. Good. That would make this much easier, despite the fact that a small, dark part of Tony wished Hydra had been a little more rough. Just because he was rescuing them, didn't mean that Rhodey's fall, the airport, all of it was forgiven. Nuh-uh.

He walked as quietly as he could over to the Lang's cuffs at the wall, and got out his precision laser.

The look on Wilson's face was hilarious. Tony got Friday to take pictures. So many pictures.

 "Sam? What's wrong?" Lang asked, presumably bewildered at the rather amusing fish imitation Wilson was doing, mouth opening and shutting, completely gobsmacked. Well, Tony supposed, even he'd be a teensy bit surprised at chains randomly being destroyed.

 "Sam? What- Fuck!"

The chain broke with a neat snap, metal glowing red hot from the heat. It reminded Tony of Pepper's eyes when she had Extremis. He shuddered slightly at the memory, and the laser wobbled, coming dangerously close to Lang. He stood, flexing his wrists in amazement, the broken chains dangling from the cuffs on his hands.

 "Who's there?" Wilson asked, fully recovered, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Tony grinned at the look on his face, and moved over to burn quickly through his chains. Unfortunately, Lang reached out a hand, trying to figure out what was helping them. Tony leapt backwards, laser sawing through the wall and just missing Wilson's head.

Lang held up his hands on surrender swiftly. "Okay, right. No touchy. I get it."

 Wilson stood, and Tony rolled his eyes inside the armour at how slow they were. He opened the door wider, leaving a clear message.  Hurry up, idiots.

  And thankfully, they did. Not quite in time to reach Hope, to stop the bullet, but really, it was a close thing.

~°~

Steve was ready to go.

Hearing about Sam and Scott was awful, and it further proved his point about how corrupting the Accords were. He had been ready to organise a daring rescue as soon as Wanda came running into the room, saying that the two had been kidnapped by Hydra. The news had been enough to shake Clint out of whatever funk he was in these days, and both members of his loyal team were raring for action.

They knew where they were being held. Some place in Scotland. Clint had some basic hacking skills, so it was easy enough to recover the needed information. He did in a computer in a local library, and despite being under heavy disguise, Clint was certain that one of the librarians had recognised him. They'd have to move on soon enough anyway, lest the authorities discover where they are.

The only hard part- okay, the biggest problem was how to get to Scotland. They were in a cheap motel, miles away from an airport. Even if they did get there, they would undoubtedly be recognised by airport staff. Besides, they didn't have enough cash.

This was absurd. Heroes being unable to carry out their duty as protectors of the people, as teammates, all because of a lack of transportation? It was unbearable. Often, Steve wished Tony hadn't been so petty. He'd left the shield as a peace offering, wasted now he was dead, sadly. He regretted that now, as the shield was part of him. And Tony was gone, anyway, it was no use to him now. But surely, in his will, there was something about giving the Quinjet to them? He'd always assured them that if he died, they'd get the tower, the weapons. Steve had appreciated that, and had told him as much.

But now...nothing. No Quinjet, no private plane, no Wakandan aircraft, no Helicarrier.

How could he save the others? 

Could he save the others?

~°~

Hope had trained, ever since she saw the Wasp suit. Her father had grudgingly allowed, seeing that Hope was determined. She was even more so after seeing the airport footage. She was going to murder Scott, especially since he left his daughter, who had been heartbroken.

So, driven by sheer determination and stubbornness, she had become a very good fighter.

She knew how to distract and confuse her opponents, how to sabotage weapons while the size of a fly. She knew how to shoot, knew how to aim, knew not to regret it until it was all over. She knew how to punch, and where the weak points are.

But she didn't know how to fight as a team. 

She was back to back with the Black Widow at one point, who was shooting with cold precision, then she ran into Vision, or rather he phased through her. Most of the time though, she dipped and swerved, dodging enemy fire, changing size fluidly as water. Adrenaline flowed through her veins, and it felt good. It felt right. She felt closer to her mother than ever before.

And then things got even more shitty than before.

She took down one, punched another-and there was Black Widow, and she was surrounded.

This, Hope felt with some certainty, was a Bad Thing. If the Black Widow got shot, then Banner would definitely kill her. Plus, she liked Nat, and y'know, call her crazy, but Hope really didn't want amy of her team, her friends, to die.

So, she shot some, and the Black Widow shot some, and then a badly bleeding man got up off the floor from behind her.

Nat didn't notice.

As if in slow motion, Hope saw the barrel go up. She saw the safety flicked, the man's finger tighten. She saw the trigger twitch. 

Then she looked down, and saw the red, from where she had jumped in the way of the bullet. She swayed, nauseous at the sight. Also, the pain, oh, the burning pain.

Hope fell.

She felt the man who shot her slump down beside her, sticky and smelling the tangy metallic scent of blood. She felt gentle hands turn her over, slim hands probing her abdomen. Press on it, isn't that what you're meant to do? Stop the blood loss, or something.

 

Then, the Black Widow did, and Hope lost consciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony reached Hope and Natasha within seconds of the bullet, Lang and Wilson on his heels. He saw Natasha frantically trying to keep Hope's insides inside her, while holding off Hydra. He heard Lang's cry of horror from behind him, saw the Hydra goons spot them, the leaders yelling orders. Hope lay prone in the middle of it all, mercifully unconscious.

 "Fire!"

 Guns were trained on Lang and Wilson, unknowing that an invisible Iron Man stood in their way. They figured it out soon enough, though, when bullets pinged off nothingness back in their faces. Wilson had the sense to grab Lang, who was clawing his way to get to Hope, and yank him roughly behind cover. Lang's face was horrified, eyes trained on an unmoving Hope and desperate Natasha.

Natasha pressed hard on Hope's stomach, firing with the other hand. It was a miracle she hadn't been hit yet, but miracles don't last forever.

Friday, baby girl, you there?

Ready when you are, Boss.

Call Bruce. Tell him NOT to Hulk out, we need a doctor more than Big Green. He'd never get here in time to save Hope. Where are Thor and Vision?

Mr Odinson is currently at the other end of the building, and The Vision is occupied with a large number of Hydra operatives.

Well, I haven't done anything stupid for 24 hours now.

Boss...

Tony took a step forward, bullets rocketing off the armour, just like they had in Afghanistan. Those were the days, right?

The Hydra goons seemed a tad twitchy at an invincible, invisible foe. Good.

Kneeling down, Tony picked up Hope's bleeding form. He arranged her in his arms, tucking her to his chest, protecting her against Hydra fire. Natasha gave a quick nod, then took advantage of the stunned Hydra operatives, and began shooting with two hands, a gun in each. Their enemies recovered quickly, and began shooting at Hope again. Unfortunately for the heroes, one of the special bullets (armour-piercing rounds, great) made a hit.

A one-in-a-million chance.

It hit the control panel on Tony's armour, and managed to knock it slightly, crushing several wires.

A very visible Iron Armour fizzled into existence, looked down at itself, and said: "Oh, shit. Really?"

Natasha resisted the urge to facepalm, busy as she was.

Lang, despite feeling overwhelming fear for Hope, vaguely noticed Tony's dramatic, if accidental reveal.

Wilson's jaw dropped, along with every single Hydra agent's.

Hope just stayed curled up in a ball, bleeding badly, which okay, Tony really needed to focus on.

He fired up the repulsors, hovering slightly.

"You're dead," stuttered a Hydra agent. Aw, this guy was new to supervillany, wasn't he? Bless.

"I was," replied Iron Man, calculating the best way out of the building. "Then I got bored."

Tony blasted off, smashing through the roof.

There was a moment of stunned silence.

"Drama queen," muttered The Black Widow, reloading swiftly. She said it with a faint grin, though.

 ~°~

Bruce was waiting anxiously, tense as a bowstring (Clint...) and mildly green. Friday had alerted him, saying an Avenger was down, and on their way for emergency surgery. She didn't specify who, though, sounding almost distracted. Bruce didn't push, just prepped silently for surgery, with a brisk efficiency. All she'd said was that the injury was a bullet wound.

Please, please don't let it be Nat...

Immediately, Bruce hated himself for thinking that, but the desperate worry remained at the back of his mind. Friday said not to Hulk out, that they needed a doctor, but it was taking all of Bruce's (not inconsiderable) willpower not to go green then and there.

A red and gold blue swooped through the sky, swerving down into the open door of the Quinjet. Iron Man stumbled to a heavy stop, balance hindered by the fact that he was carefully cradling a small bundle of yellow, black and red.

Bruce didn't think the red was meant to be there.

Iron Man extended his arms, offering Hope, and Bruce gestured urgently for him to place her on the emergency operating table stuffed into the corner of the Quinjet. Iron Man did, uncharacteristically serious. 

 "Tony, out of the armour. I'm going to need your help."

 Bruce could tell Tony blanched. "Bruce - I don't know anything about -"

 "She's not going to survive unless I do something now, Tony, and it is impossible for even Strange to perform an operation of this -"

"That's it! We'll get Strange to help!" Tony said, snapping his fingers.

 "Strange's hands...he can't do surgery anymore..." said Bruce, already starting, distracted by working on Hope.

 Tony grinned, despite himself. "Me, and Strange have been pals for quite a while now, Bruce. Once I heard about his little accident, did you really think I wouldn't have tried to help a friend out?"

"You did not..."

"Oh, but I did. Healing nerve damage? Kinda tricky, but I managed...somewhat.  Now, focus on Hope. Fry, use the emergency contact for Strange, 'kay?"

"Got it, Boss."

~°~

Natasha leant against her seat on the Quinjet, blowing a loose strand of hair out of her face. Bruce sat next to her, quite pale.

"My god, that was stressful."

 "Agreed," huffed Thor, dropping his hammer heavily on the floor. It dented the floor slightly. It was a mark of how exhausted they were that nobody commented.

"I second that," said Vision, floating peacefully in mid-air.

 "Thirded," sighed Tony, emerging from a tiny, sectioned-off area of the Quinjet.

 "How's Hope doing?" asked Vision quickly, true concern showing on his face.

Tony shot him a fond smile, tired as it was. "Oh, Hope'll be fine. Not so sure about Stephen, though. He passed out on the floor back there from a combination of difficult surgery, and using healing magic as he went. Hope will recover much faster, thanks to it."

"The mage Stephen is slumbering on the floor?"

Tony snorted. "Out for the count, Point Break. I would pick him up and move him, but his Cloak is being very protective."

"That...is actually adorable," mused Bruce.

 Natasha gave Tony a half-hearted glare. "You do know that Hydra knows Iron Man is alive now, right?"

 "Well, not necessarily. They will likely conclude that Tony Stark is dead, and somebody else has taken up the mantle of Iron Man," Vision pointed out.

 "Well, they would have assumed that, if Mr Genius over there hadn't made several smart-alec comments about being resurrected because he was bored," Natasha said snidely.

Disapproving looks latched onto Tony, and he held up his hands defensively.

"Okay, maybe that wasn't the smartest thing to do..."

 "I should be mad," said Bruce, flopping onto Natasha, who actually allowed it. "But I'm too tired to work up any emotion, other than tired."

Thor got a puzzled look on his face, like a puppy trying to figure out where his favourite chew toy has gone. "But, the green berserker made no appearance in the battle! Why then, are you so exhausted?"

 "You ever try assisting with surgery, Thor? I keep telling you, I am not that kind of doctor, but nooooo-"

"Bruce-Bear, I love you, you're my science bro, but please, just go to sleep?"

Bruce stared at Tony for a minute before shrugging, and promptly passing out. Natasha stroked his hair gently, but stopped when she realised she was just smearing crusty blood in his curls, which-gross!

"Fry, autopilot. Home, if you please."

"Certainly, Boss. EST: 4 hours."

Tony frowned. "Huh. That long? Strange. I thought I'd upgraded it to go faster..."

The brief, exhausted silence was broken by a groggy voice from behind the partitioned-off area where Hope was.

"Whassat? Did someone call me?"

"Go back to sleep, Sorcerer Supreme," Tony whisper-yelled, mindful of the sleeping Bruce. His armour retracting, he slid against the wall into the floor, where he sat sleepily. Thor chuckled quietly.

~°~

Soldat, are you aware of your orders?

Yes.

They are?

Eliminate Anthony Edward Stark. No witnesses.

Excellent.

 

 

-Footage Deleted.

 

"Will we alert him, sir?"

"...no."

"Pardon?"

"I said, no."

"Respectfully, sir, I do not think-"

"I don't give a damn. We need to lure the Winter Soldier into the open. And upon discovering Stark's survival..."

"Sir, there are civilians in the Stark Tower. Children."

"If we tell Stark, he evacuates, and the Winter Soldier knows something's wrong, and we never see head not tail of him for the next seventy years! I know you don't like it, but it's a risk we are going to take. Stark's a loose cannon, anyway. He just came back from the grave, for fuck's sake! I saw the corpse myself. The bastard was dead. Even if the Winter Soldier managed to kill him, he'll probably just come back to be a further pain in my ass."

"...Their blood is on your hands. I want no part in this."

 "Fine. Take a vacation. Just do not interfere."

Like hell I won't.

"Of course, sir."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*Ringing...*

"Hello, Maria Hill, personal assistant to Miss Potts. How can I help you today?"

"I'd like to make an appointment with Mr Stark, please."

"I'm sorry, is this a joke? Mr Stark has passed on."

"Maria, it's me."

 " ...So it is."

"Maria."

"Coulson. What do you want?"

"I have a message to deliver."

"Then deliver it."

"I would rather...give it to Mr Stark directly."

"You better be shitting me, Coulson, you undead bastard."

"Maria, I'm sorry about SHIELD -"

"Message. Now."

"The Winter Soldier has been released from cryo by an unknown individual. He's coming to kill Stark, and whoever gets in his way."

"... I believe Mr Stark is available at 3.00pm, today, at his office in Stark Tower. Thank you for your cooperation. Good day."

"Maria, wai-"

 "Good day."

*Click*

~°~

Scott felt himself come back into consciousness slowly, easing his way in. He groaned, shifting slightly. He was facedown on a cool surface, but mercifully, appeared unharmed. His head felt like it was full of a thick fog, numbing his thoughts. Had he been drugged again? 

It was sad he had to wonder that.

Scott stayed perfectly still, and tried to focus. What could he remember? He remembered being captured by Hydra, being freed, Hope getting shot, and then carried off by-

Iron Man.

But...Tony Stark was dead.

Scott refused to feel guilty about that.

Perhaps, it was a drone? Or an A.I in the suit, either. Maybe Stark had been training an apprentice of sorts. After all, there was the Spider-thing to think of. He could only have been fifteen, at most. Maybe, Stark was training up a secret army of child apprentices, like in Harry Potter!

...

Yup, Scott had a concussion.

"Scott. I know you're awake."

Oh, Scott knew that voice.

"Romanov?"

"Sit up."

The tense female voice allowed no room for argument. Scott pushed himself upright with some difficulty, and turned to face the Black Widow.

Natasha Romanov. Scott barely knew her, but he had heard...stories. Stories from Sam, from Wanda. Never from Clint. Clint became hostile at the very mention of her name, and Scott wouldn't risk that.

She was very beautiful, in a cruel sort of way, with red hair that caught the artificial light from an overhead lightbulb. Her gaze was cold, her jaw tense with an anger Scott instinctively feared. She sat on a metal chair in the small holding cell he was in (again), her legs crossed. With a feeling of something approaching guilt, Scott noted her blood-splattered outfit, red hourglass matching the stains. She nursed her left arm subtly; Scott noted crisp white bandages circling her wrist.

Suddenly registering something, Scott leaned forward in a panic. "Hope! Is she okay?

Romanov stared at him for a long moment, analysing him. Her eyes seemed to cut into Scott, slicing through any lies he may have spoken.

Coming to some private conclusion, she relented, and said: 

"She will be, thanks to the combined efforts of Strange, Bruce Banner, and Iron Man."

Scott sat back. "Okay. Thank you."

She nodded.

There was an awkward silence. For Scott, at least. Romanov seemed perfectly comfortable.

"Sorry, y'know, for everything," Scott blurted. Her head snapped up.

Oh God, this is how I die, I don't want to die, oh, fuck, this woman is so fucking scary-

Scott only realised he was saying all this aloud when Romanov's mouth twitched upwards, the faintest of smiles. "Thank you for the compliment. At least I haven't lost my touch."

"Now, Lang. Where are the others?"

Scott took a deep breath-

Then, the door opened, and a grinning man poked his head around it.

Scott nearly pissed himself with shock.

Because that man was definitely Tony Stark.

He looked way younger, but Scott was an engineer. And say what you like about Stark, nobody could argue with the fact that he was a genius. He had been in engineering magazine, after magazine. Scott's old college has lectures devoted to his work. He looked the way he did when Scott first set out to be a mechanic.

"Hey Nat! Dinner'll be ready in half, okay? Laura is teaching Viz how to make Spaghetti Bolognese, so that should be good..."

Romanov sighed at him, but Scott saw the fondness in her eyes. "Tony, I am trying to get Lang to tell me where the others are, and yet again, you have ruined my professionalism."

Stark winked at her, then finally looked at Scott. 

"Hey, Lang, isn't it?"

The man's voice was pained, but well concealed under a devil-may-care tone. Scott felt himself sink into the floor a little.

"I -yeah, it's Lang. Scott Lang."

Stark nodded. "Hank's latest project. I'm Tony Stark. Guess we never really met properly, though I'm sure you heard all 'bout me from Hank and the others."

Scott flushed slightly. "Um..."

He had not heard complimentary things.

Stark let out a dry laugh. "It's fine. Hank always had a passionate hatred for my dad, and it passed down to me when he died. And I can only imagine the others' opinion of me."

"How are you still alive? Did you fake your death, or something?" Scott asked. "To gain sympathy with the public?

Wrong thing to say.

Romanov's right hand clenched into a fist. Scott heard a the sharp snick of a blade.

Stark gave a false smile. "No, Lang. I died, good and proper. Friday brought me back."

Scott nearly wet himself for the second time that day when Stark's eyes went an eerie, pupilless blue, and his veins became visible, glowing aqua, a network of wires underneath a flesh casing. Stark narrowed his eyes at Scott, warning. The room darkened, lightbulb failing.

"As I said, Friday brought me back."

Scott didn't dare to breathe.

" Most of me, that is."

Then, as suddenly as it started, everything was back to normal. Stark beamed at Romanov, who was gritting her teeth.

"Do come up for dinner, Tash. Bruce wants to see you there. And I'm pretty sure Pepper, Hope, and Laura are planning world domination, and I know you'd hate to miss out."

Romanov smiled at him affectionately. "Sounds great. I'll be there, I'm just finishing up now."

Stark acknowledged her with a nod, and the door swung shut.

Romanov continued smiling until the door closed, and Stark disappeared. Then, she lunged.

Scott found himself pressed against the wall, a blade to his throat. His Adam's apple bobbed uncontrollably. The Black Widow smirked, and leant into his ear. She was so close, it almost felt intimate. Her ruby lips brushed the fragile skin on his ear as she whispered:

"Listen to me, Mr Lang. I don't care what you think of Tony, that man died. It was painful, and at the hands of a friend. He did not deserve that. Tony has made mistakes. So, so many of them. I know that better than most. When I first met him, all I saw was an arrogant, self-centered asshole. And he used to be. But he changed. He tried, so hard, to change, to do the right thing. He wanted accountability, for the deaths, the men, the women, the children. If there is one thing me and Tony always agree on, it is that civillians, but children especially, must be protected. Hearing about that boy's death, hearing about the men who Barnes mowed down...well, it was why he pushed for the basic idea of the Accords.

But if nothing else, hear this: I left. Me and Tony argued, words were exchanged, and I left. I was bitter, and fuming, and it lasted all of an hour before I came running back, but too late to prevent Siberia. Too late to prevent the people who loved him from witnessing his death. Too late to prevent his death, full stop. 

And then he came back. And every second, I expect him to turn to me, kick me out, push me away, because I left him. I failed. We both failed each other, but Tony definitely came out worse.

But he didn't. He forgave me, just like that, despite the fact that my ledger is dripping with red. Because that is what he does.

We could have left you in that Hydra base, Mr Lang. Rogers wouldn't have come. Barton wouldn't have come. Maximoff wouldn't have. We could have left you there to rot. And you know what? I still can.

I disabled the cameras. Friday had no complaints. For all the council knows, you died in the escape attempt. Very sad, very unfortunate. Nobody would know.

I will only do that if you hurt any of my family again. This is a not a threat, but a warning. For the first time ever, Mr Lang, I have a family, and I will fight to my last breath to stop any harm from coming to them. Do not get in my way."

 

She released him, and Scott fell against the wall, gasping with shock.

As she left, she pressed a finger to her lips.

Do not speak of this.

Scott gave a tiny nod.

I won't.

She smiled wickedly. "By the way, Mr Lang, your friend, Mr Wilson is quite safe. I'm going to speak with him now."

She left. The door clicked quietly as it shut.

All Scott could think was: Poor Sam.

~°~

"How did you find us?"

 Sharon Carter dumped her bag on the wobbly table. "Hacked the FBI. You guys need to move. They know where you are"

 "Shit."

"Uh-huh."

"Who are you?"

"Sharon Carter. Former FBI Agent, and Peggy's granddaughter."

"You're Stark's cousin! Why should we trust you?"

 Steve looked sharply at Clint, who had an arrow nocked. "What? I didn't know that..."

Sharon laughed. "Yeah, well, that doesn't mean I gotta like the guy. Now, I don't have loads of fancy tech, or anything, but I do have something I think you're going to like."

"What?"

Sharon tossed a smirk over her shoulder."Someone who can give you loads of fancy tech."

Clint lowered his bow. Wanda's magic died. Steve clicked the safety on the Glock.

"We're listening."

~°~

The Winter Soldier would complete his mission. But first...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony strolled into the kitchen/living room, chatting animatedly with a sauce-splattered Vision, who was listening earnestly. Pepper smiled at him from her position in the ground next to Lila, Cooper, and Laura, all of which were drawing enthusiastically on assorted pieces of paper. Pepper herself held a chubby Nate, tickling him under his chin. The happy baby giggled, and Pepper found herself laughing in response.

It was all so beautifully surreal. Pepper was an organised, put-together, elegant woman, who was the CEO of one of the largest, most important companies in the world. Yet here she was, long hair down, high heels kicked off in the corner, holding a baby, beaming at her boyfriend, surrounded by friends and family.

Pepper had never been happier.

Natasha arrived, the door swinging open with a bang. Her stormy expression calmed as soon as she saw the peaceful tableau inside, and she made a beeline for Pepper. Pepper was a little surprised by this; she was sure the spy would have gone straight to Bruce, who was collecting plates from the cupboard while holding a conversation with Strange on Hope's wellbeing. Hope was currently plonked on the couch, fast asleep.

"Pepper."

"Natasha. What brings you over here?" Pepper questioned, her time slightly teasing.

Natasha slumped down beside her, head held dramatically in her hands. "Pepper, I must be getting old. When I threatened Lang and Wilson, I think they only nearly wet themselves twice. And they didn't even pass out!"

Pepper smirked devilishly. "Well, I'll just have to fix that, won't I?"

Natasha grinned, showing sharp teeth. "Your boyfriend had way too much fun threatening Lang, by the way. He made the lightbulb break and everything."

Pepper faked anger. "Well, if he broke anything else expensive, not even Extremis will be able to save him."

As she watched the Russian laugh, Pepper thought back on her first proper meeting with her; as Natasha Romanov, not Natalie Rushman.

The spy was cold, seemingly emotionless. Pepper had seen (stolen) footage of some of her missions. Tony had insisted she see it, so she knew what she was dealing with when they came to the Tower, ever the protective boyfriend. Each time the woman incapacitated, disabled, maimed or outright killed, her expression was the same; blank. 

Pepper had not been pleased that this killing machine was coming to the tower.

But seeing her interact with the team...either the woman was the best actress in the world (a distinct possibility) or she genuinely cared.

Pepper used to believe the former, until Tony told her of a certain interaction of his with the Black Widow.

Tony was leaning over his worktop table, studying the blueprints for his latest Iron Man suit, when Jarvis announced the arrival of a certain Natasha Romanov.

He was still recovering from arc reactor surgery, bandages criss-crossing his chest, and a small padded support was nestled where his arc reactor used to be. He really shouldn't have been working, but work was piling up by the second, and despite the doctor's insistence, he had escaped the hospital.

Natasha approached, quietly, but not silently, which told Tony plenty. The spy was unusually distracted and worried, and this in turn worried Tony. Anything that could worry the Black Widow was something to be concerned about.

"Stark?"

"That's my name, yeah."

"This is serious..."

 Tony paused, straightening slowly.

 "Please."

 Tony whirled to face her, and winced at the sudden movement. His hand immediately went to his chest, and Natasha's eyes followed it with something dangerously close to concern.

"Your che-"

"Is fine. You okay, Natashalie?"

Natasha didn't even stab him for the (admittedly a little mean) nickname, so Tony knew she was truly bothered. Closing down the holograms he had been fiddling with, he gently walked over to the spy and sat her down. Natasha just stared at her hands, crossed on her lap.

"Natasha?" he asked, voice soft and a far cry to the joking tone he had used not five minutes ago.

"You know some of what happened in the Red Rooms," she interrupted suddenly. Tony opened his mouth, feeling vaguely guilty, but she held up a hand to halt him. "No, I know you do. So does Fury, so don't even bother objecting."

Tony closed his mouth with a snap.

"You know of some of the medical procedures that took place. But what you do not know - what you cannot know -," she swallowed.

"I am incapable of bearing children."

Tony didn't move. Inwardly, he wanted to kill every single person that ever worked in the Red Rooms 'Project', but he knew ranting and raving wouldn't help, so his face remained blank.

"Until recently...this was never an issue, I never cared. In fact, in certain situations it was an advantage. But..."

Tony smiled sadly. "Bruce."

Natasha nodded painfully. "Even if he isn't...I never felt this way, and if it's ever a possibility, I would like to-"

Tony stopped her with a hand in her shoulder. "It's okay, Natasha, I get it. But, I hate to tell you this, I really do, but I don't know what I could do about it. Biology was never my strong suit."

"I was thinking maybe Extremis," the Russian admitted quietly.

Tony gave a slow exhale of realisation. "Ohh."

They sat in heavy silence for a moment.

"Do you know how they...did it? I mean, did they inject you with something, or remove your-"

"Injection."

Tony nodded slowly, a thoughtful expression in his face. "Okay. No promises, but I may be able to do something. I'm gonna need a sample of your blood, and run some tests-"

Tony was cut off by Natasha wrapping him up in a hug. It was slightly awkward, painfully clear that neither had much experience with genuine embraces, and Natasha was obviously trying not to further injure his chest. Tony stood there, in complete shock, as the world's second scariest woman (Pepper was always first in his book) wrapping her arms around him. When the terror wore off, he gladly returned it.

Of course, Clint walked in, and was so stunned at the sight of public affection from the Black Widow, that he knocked over a table of expensive experiments.

A few months later, Tony presented Natasha with a translucent serum. He also signed a contract denying having ever seen the Black Widow cry from sheer joy.

Pepper had been absolutely stunned when Tony told her the story, and decided to be a little more open towards her fellow redhead. Just a little.

Naturally, they became pretty good friends, the disaster with the Civil War actually bringing them closer together. It wasn't just Natasha and Pepper either. Hope and Pepper had always been fairly cordial acquaintances, and after she took up the mantle of Wasp, they became a lot friendlier, getting to know each other better. Laura knew Natasha, and had from the start. 

Speaking of Laura, everybody was worried about her. She had loved Clint, still did, if Pepper was honest. She could she the subtle anxiety in the glances Natasha sent her way, see the buried pain in Laura's eyes, in the lines of her jaw. The Civil War had been hard on everyone, but losing a husband to the law, and being left with three children? Ouch.

Pepper was ripped out of her absent musings by a yell of "Dinner!". She turned slightly, and there was Bruce holding an absolute vat of spaghetti. 

Tony tutted teasingly. "Brucie, tasty as that smells, I don't think that's gonna be enough."

Rhodey chipped in. "Yeah, we're dealing with Thor here, man."

In response, Bruce gestured grandly to two other vats of spaghetti behind him.

Laura wolf-whistled. "Speaking as a mother frequently left cooking: Damn, you're good."

Bruce bowed.

~°~

"This mysterious benefactor of yours is Hank Pym?!" Wanda exclaimed in disbelief. "But his daughter is a member of the 'New Avengers'! Why should we trust him?"

Sharon shrugged, and popped a neon pink bubble gum bubble with her teeth. She chewed it thoughtfully, oddly pointed teeth knashing the deflated, sugary balloon.

The hologram of the elderly man that was currently hovering above the wooden table scowled. "Correct, Maximoff. I am in fact, Hope's father."

Clint rolled his eyes, reeking unpleasantly of cheap alcohol. "This is such a shitty mistake."

Steve thudded his fist down on the table, ignoring the splintering sound. "Enough! I apologise, Mr Pym, but Wanda raises a good point. Why would you want to help us?"

Pym scowled. "Why would I want to help you? Because I'm not stupid. Starks have a history of screwing things up, and I don't want that womanizing bastard's team anywhere near my daughter. She got shot, for fuck's sake. I wake up, and get a phone call from some nutso magician saying Hope took a bullet to the side!"

Wanda frowned, shaking her head. "Typical Stark. Putting people in danger for his own selfishness. Even dead, his pathetic little fan club is still hurting other people in his name."

Clint muttered something that sounded vaguely like "He's dead, doesn't exactly have control of how his friends act," but Steve ignored him, focusing instead on Hank Pym's cold green eyes. "What are you suggesting, Mr Pym?"

Pym barely hesitated for a millisecond. "I'm offering you accommodation. Transportation. Weaponry. Pym Technologies is at your disposal."

"And what do you want in exchange?" Wanda asked rudely, arms folded. She couldn't mind-read holograms and it was irritating her.

"Disband the New Avengers. I don't care how you do it, just don't lay a finger on Hope. You touch her; all deals are off. I'm just keeping my daughter and country safe."

Steve considered for a moment. Wanda caught his arm, tugging at his bicep. "Steve, I'm not sure this is a good idea-"

She shrieked as his shook her off, the giant man turning to Hank Pym again. "Deal."

"Considering our opinions again, Stevie?" Clint snarked, but it was slurred and intelligible, so Steve just sent him a disapproving look. "Clint, you're drunk."

Clint shrugged. Secretly, he was rather proud of the fact. It was hard to get a super-spy drunk on cheap beer, but he managed it. Not like Natasha, who only got drunk on the finest wine.

Steve sighed, and glanced back at the hologram. "Thank you, Mr Pym. Rest assured, we will return the true heroes back to America. Your daughter will be safe."

The hologram nodded, and winked out of existence. Sharon hopped off the arm of the sofa, blowing more bubble gum. "Trust me now?"

Steve pursed his lips. "Not fully. But that certainly helped."

Sharon winked, emerald irises flashing. "That's the aim, honey. I threw my lot in with ya, now I'm gonna reap the rewards."

That sounded vaguely ominous to Steve, but he dismissed it.

~°~

The Winter Soldier, heavily disguised, walked quietly into a small shop. The owner looked up, white hair receding. His cheerful nametag read: Hi! I'm Stan Lee, in a sloppy scrawl. He leant over the counter, leering in an oddly friendly way. As in, it shouldn't have looked friendly, but somehow did.

Bucky thought that was funny. Winter didn't care. The man posed no threat, so Winter paid no attention.

Party pooper, Bucky thought. 

Winter would not dignify that with a response.

Selecting a few essential supplies that his new handler had evidently forgotten to give him took little to no time, even down an arm.

As the man added up his purchases, he nodded to his missing arm. "Army vet, huh?"

Winter stared, something that made Hydra agents run away in terror. The man did not seem even slightly bothered.

Bucky was impressed. Winter reassessed the man.

"I'll take that as a no. Say, 'ave you seen the news? Poor bugger, can't even catch a break after dying."

The clerk nodded to a rack of newspapers. Winter followed his gaze.

Grave Robbery: Body of Tony Stark Missing!

The body of the late superhero and billionaire, Tony Stark (Iron Man) has been stolen, after being buried not two days ago. The grave was dug up and defiled, and the coffin has been roughly smashed open. Curiously, the coffin appears to have been opened from to the inside, baffling authorities. Currently, there is no concrete leads on who could have committed this crime, but the general opinion of the public appears to be that Mr Rogers was responsible. However, there is no evidence to support this theory, especially as the nightguard on duty at the suspected time of the robbery is missing, Eoin O'Connolly (71). O'Connolly is currently wanted for questioning. If you have relevant information pertaining to this case, the NYPD urges you to come forward. 

-Extract taken from Christine Everhart's article, Vanity Fair.

Below the extract was a grainy picture of a ruined grave, soil torn up and small stones everywhere. In the very centre, was a polished wooden casket, huge sharp splinters emerging from a large hole in the middle. Yellow tape was strung around it. The picture below it, was of a grouchy old man, presumably Eoin O'Connolly. The final picture was of the 'late' Tony Stark, smiling while surrounded by the old Avengers Team.

Second from the left: the recently deceased Tony Stark, along with members of the original Avengers Initiative.

Bucky thought it was a shame, a man coming back from the dead to only be killed again by the Winter Soldier. As usual, he tried to dissuade Winter from finishing his mission. Winter ruthlessly swatted his feeble protests aside, taking full control once more.

Still, Bucky did have enough control to manage to persuade Winter into doing what he wanted more than anything. Winter agreed, and absently wondered when Bucky started getting so much control back.

"Well, son? Ya gonna pay?"

Winter seriously considered this for a moment before deciding that, no, it wasn't worth killing anyone this early.

...since when was he able to think like this, with a hint of humour? And sarcasm? And opinions? Since when did he have a personality?!

Where did Winter end, and where did Bucky begin?

~°~

"This just in, Tim- people are claiming they saw the Iron Man suit in Glascow of all places...reports are unconfirmed as of yet-"

~°~

Stephen Strange opened his eyes in shock, hastily removing his hands from the crystalline orb- 

 ~°~

Loki laughed at how pathetically easy it all was, how trusting mortals were-

~°~

Harley and Peter finished the last episode of Rick and Morty, Season 1, and were hussled reluctantly to bed by an overprotective Tony, while the rest of the team cooed from the wings-

~°~

The Winter Soldier made his way to Bucky's best friend, what he wanted more than anything-

~°~

-and Nate Barton did not sleep. At all.

 

 

Chapter Text

The mortal girl's form was absolutely pathetic. It was muscled and lithe, true, but the brain capacity was just...not there, and it was irritating Loki terribly, similar to an itch he just couldn't scratch. Now possessing someone like Stark, or Banner, however...

Maybe not Banner. The urge to just throw himself off that stupid tower would likely be too strong. Loki still hadn't forgiven that mindless beast for beating him into the floor during that embarrassing invasion attempt. Nobody ever accused Thanos at being good at tactics, and nobody ever was likely to. Being mind-controlled was a terrible nuisance. It was fun to do to mortals, though.

Ah, mortals. On the rare occasion they produced a person of actual note, their own peers wore them down, until eventually they were too buried in issues and self-doubt to be of any use. It would be amusing, if it wasn't so annoying. One of the main reasons this feeble realm was mostly ignored by the others.

And that, was where the problem arose.

Because, apparently nobody else in the entire World Tree had figured it out yet.

There were nine realms. Always had been. This kept things in balance, in order; it ensured the realms remained stable, and that the World Tree itself didn't topple into the abyss.

Thanos was coming to destroy Midgard, and normally, Loki wouldn't have cared all that much, until you factored in the obvious issue.

Destroying one realm totally, beyond all hope of salvaging it? That would do the exact same thing to all the others. And say what you want about Loki, he didn't want to die. Not...no, let's leave it at that.

This mortal world, Loki decided, needed the Avengers.

Unfortunately, they were fighting a ridiculous battle amongst themselves. Loki wasn't paying much attention to what it was about, but the end result was a few members of the Avengers were hiding in this wretched hive of scum, that they called a motel, and that Stark, who has been Loki's original plan, was dead. The world needed all the Avengers, needed the symbolism to rally other superheroes, mutants, and whatnot to the cause. So, Loki reasoned, get Captain America to lead the heroes into the war with Thanos. A great plan, indeed.

It...didn't seen to be working.

The Captain wandered around in a daze, the Witch's madness impressed even the God Of Chaos, and the Archer was just making Loki sad.

For Odin's sake, this was going to be a long, uphill battle.

Maybe he should just cut ties, go focus his efforts on the remainders of Stark's team.

And then, still in the form of Sharon Carter, he read the newspaper, absently popping bubble gum. Loki had grown rather fond of it.

IRON MAN SPOTTED IN GLASGOW! STARK'S GRAVE EMPTY!

 "My, my..." 

 ~•~

The agent, suit pristine and perfectly pressed, shoes clacking against the marble floor of reception, walked straight towards the young receptionist.

"I'm here to see Miss Pepper Potts. I'm afraid it's a matter of some urgency."

The brunette, somewhere in her early thirties, looked up with a firm, yet apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name. Do you have an appointment?"

The man sighed heavily. "I have an appointment for three, but as I said, it's urgent."

The receptionist shut the file of appointments with a snap. "I would apologise, Mr-?"

"Coulson. Agent Coulson," he said patiently.

She looked up with narrowed eyes. "Agent? I see."

She flipped the folder open again. "Come back in half an hour. Any messages for me to deliver?"

"Tell Miss Potts that Agent Coulson said the Soldat was coming for Lazarus."

Her eyebrows shot up.

~•~

They were having what Tony jokingly referred to as a 'Council Of War'. The entire group of superheroes (minus Thor, who had been called back to Asgard, again, and Spiderman, who had gone to school) sat around a circular table, that was currently projecting a map of the world, speckled in luminous red dots.

"Well, we know they're not in Australia, America, and we don't think they're in Europe," Rhodey listed, steepling his fingers.

Tony nodded, gauntlet twisting around his fingers fluidly. "The most probable location is Wakanda, but T'Challa is denying everything. Suspiciously, the princess known for being a big believer in the Accords and and adept at politics, has yet to say anything on the matter, which is ringing all kinds of alarm bells."

Natasha leant forward, eyes dark and shoulders hunched. "I've heard rumours that there's been a lot of tension in the palace lately between the king and his people."

"How do you know all this?" Tony asked, flinging his hands up in the air.

Stephen Strange stroked his goatee, staring at Natasha contemplatively. "Either she has some psychic ability, or she is, in fact, an all-knowing demon."

Natasha leered at him. Strange coughed uncomfortably. Pepper swallowed down a laugh.

Hope frowned in thought. "They have to have a patron, anyway. I know Barton has Shield training, so I can buy him being able to hide himself. But Rogers and Maximoff? No way."

Tony sat back casually, completely at ease. "I'm guessing Wakanda, but let's face it, Kitty isn't the only one with a bone to pick. Plenty of other, rich assholes could be hiding the Exvengers. Latveria isn't too far away from Wakanda, after all."

"Are you seriously suggesting Doom?" Hope asked, dubiously. "Why would he care?"

Tony shrugged. "I'm just saying, Kitty ain't the only possibility. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Hammer was supplying them just for the thrill, 'cause the name 'Stark' is like instant Hulk mode for him-"

Tony cut himself off suddenly, face paling. "The name 'Stark'."

There was a quiet hush.

Vision shifted uneasily. "My systems suggest it would take considerable resources and technology to hide for this long."

Rhodey glanced at Hope.

Bruce shook his head. "No, Tony. He wouldn't."

"What's going on here?" Hope demanded, but not angrily.

Tony snapped back into himself. "No. Bruce's right. It's nothing. As I was saying, Kitty's the most likely suspect. Who wants to go visit Wakanda? I've heard the temperature's perfect this time of year."

"You're not going, Tony," Pepper said firmly. "I need to you to help with the public's reaction to the fact that you are not, in fact, permanently dead."

Tony groaned. "Press conference?" 

"Press conference," Pepper confirmed.

Tony visibly wilted like a depressed daisy. Even his goatee seemed to droop. Bruce patted him sympathetically on the shoulder.

Pepper shook her head at the billionaire's antics, then glanced down at her clipboard. "I'll also need Bruce and Stephen. The rest of you are going."

 Both men looked up, faces like a deer caught in headlights. Something about Pepper's brisk efficiency scared people.

"Me?" Stephen said, and the same time Bruce said "Us?"

They cast each other suspicious looks. Tony clasped his hands over his mouth to keep from laughing. Rhodey watched with the air of a fully grown lion watching a young lioness gutting two clueless mice.

Pepper smiled archly. "I need you, Bruce, to tell the world you are officially part of the Avengers, and I need Stephen to confirm to the world that Tony is not, in fact, a LMD or a zombie."

Rhodey muttered, "You sure about that last one?"

Everyone present looked at him.

Rhodey did not look apologetic. "I'm just saying, I've seen him before he's had coffee in the morning."

There was murmurs of general agreement.

Tony folded his arms.

"Miss Afton wishes to see you, Miss Potts," Friday interrupted smoothly. "She says it's a message of some importance."

Pepper frowned. "Send her up. Tony, go hide yourself in a broom closet or something."

Tony pointed at her threateningly. "Fine. But I'm only doing because I want to, not because you said so."

"Quickly," Pepper admonished, but her voice was breathy with suppressed giggles. Tony bowed, a roguish grin on his face. "As you wish."

Bruce clapped. "Princess Bride, nice."

"I love that movie," Hope said dreamily. Rhodey gave her a high-five.

Strange rolled his eyes, and clicked his fingers. Suddenly, Tony was invisible.

"Cool," said a patch of midair. "You do know I can do that with my armour, right?"

"You're welcome," Stephen said haughtily.

The door swung open, a composed young woman peeking her head in. Elegant as she was, there was an unmistakable look of worry on her face. "Miss Potts? I'm so sorry to bother you."

Pepper brushed her apology aside. "Not a problem, Elena. Now, what seems to be the issue?" 

"I've a message from someone. An agent," she began.

The atmosphere changed.

"He said to say...Agent Coulson said that the Soldat is coming for Lazarus."

Everyone froze.

"That's it," Natasha said intensely. "That's the message, word for word."

Elena nodded, face pinched.

A muffled, "Well, shit," came from behind the Black Widow. She shifted her body, moving casually so that her elbow shot out. There was a muted whine and a thud, and Natasha grinned like an evil shark.

As Pepper appeared to be stuck, Rhodey nodded gratefully to the young woman. "Thank you, Elena. Now, is the agent who delivered the message still there?"

She nodded once more, ponytail bobbing. "I've sent Miss Hill out to talk to him."

Pepper looked up. "Miss Hill is in Japan, is she not?"

"She just got back, Miss Potts."

"Okay. Good job. Can you get security to detain this agent?"

Elena gave her assent, then slipped out. As soon as the door swung shut with a quiet click, Tony fizzled into existence with an explosion of orange sparks. "What are you doing, Pepper? If it really is a Shield agent, they won't hold back on my security."

"If it really is a Shield agent, and they're still in the lobby instead of hightailing it outta here, then they're probably not spoiling for a fight," Rhodey argued.

"She only mentioned one," Hope said quietly.

"Natasha?" Bruce asked in a whisper.

She didn't respond.

"Who's Lazarus?" Stephen inquired.

"Biblical figure who died, and was resurrected," Vision replied promptly.

 "Fuck."

"I would agree."

"Natasha?" Bruce said, louder this time. Her hands were shaking in her lap.

"The Soldat?" Pepper worried at her lip. Tony gave a jerky nod.

"Barnes."

"I thought he was in cryo?" asked Hope, face falling.

"Who knows with this author?" Deadpool snorted unkindly, then hurriedly ran out of the story. And good riddance.

"Sorry, Hope, but evidently not," Tony sighed. "Believe me, I'm just as disappointed as you."

"So, is this agent saying Barnes is coming after Tony?!" Pepper clenched her fists.

"Technically, it could also refer to Dr Strange," Vision pointed out. "He perished multiple times while in the time loop."

Stephen flinched. Rhodey shot Vision a look.

"Wait!" Tony called, looking anxiously at the white-faced Widow. "Everyone, shut up!"

"Natasha!" Bruce cried, reaching for the spy's frantically spasming hand.

The moment he made contact, she flinched and looked up. "I...sorry. It's just...Coulson? Is Phil alive?"

Nobody could answer her.

Natasha sighed, like a breath of wind, and left the room, stepping lightly on the balls of her feet. Bruce followed, but returned in minutes, minus Natasha.

"She said she needs time," he admitted, despondently.

He couldn't bring himself to meet any of their sympathetic gazes.

~•~

Tony marched out of the holding cell, an expression of fury engraved onto his new, younger, face.

 "Well?"

"It's him," Tony spat, disgust in his every word. "It's him, he's fine, he lied to us, it was all a stupid ploy to bring the Avengers together. Fury is still alive, Barnes really is coming to kill me and whoever gets in his way, and I am so done with the lies, Peps."

Pepper scowled. "I can't believe Phil...Fury, yes, but Phil..."

Tony dropped unceremoniously into a small armchair, running his fingers through his messy hair in agitation. "I can't believe it, either, but lucky for us, it's all fucking true!"

Pepper walked over the armchair, and began gently carding a hand through his hair. "I know. I'm sorry."

He deflated miserably. The stress lines that Extremis had taken had returned with a vengeance, and that wasn't fair. Tony had a second chance; she wasn't going to let anyone ruin it for him.

"And now we have Barnes to worry about," he muttered. "Can I go back to being dead now?"

Pepper's hand stilled, and she exhaled sharply. Tony rushed to reassure her.

"Oh shit- Peps, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean that-"

"Too soon," she murmured. "Way, way too soon."

She was expecting at least one joke in poor taste.

 "Sorry, I didn't mean it- It was only a joke, a really, really fucking bad joke- when am I gonna learn to shut my mouth-?"

 "When, indeed?" sighed Pepper, leaning down to kiss him. Tony shut up.

 "Huh. That worked."

 "Pepper, I swear, you tease-" But Tony was laughing, worry lines replaced with laugh lines. Mission accomplished. 

And though those few words, spoken so carelessly, pained her, it no longer sent her spiralling into a screaming match as it once would have. She had changed - for better or worse. Tony had tried to protect her, tried to keep her from this mad, lawless world of heroes and mutants. And he was right to, back then, she was foolish. She needed protecting, and Tony had, even as their relationship had shredded itself to pieces.

But Tony wasn't the only one who had changed. He had protected her; now it was her turn to protect him.

~•~

A lone figure stood at the huge, flawless window, a glass of the finest red wine swirling in her hand. Her hair was down, and there was, quite obviously, a gun at her side. It was unusual for anyone to be in this area of the tower any more - the archery range.

Hundreds of sleek, shining arrows, custom-made offerings, lined the room, carelessly discarded. A snapped bow was thrown onto a table, a dartboard shredded, a carefully created wristguard abandoned on the floor. The sour stench of alcohol, sweat, and an almost palpable bitterness violated the air. Such rage had exploded in this room, but Laura knew for a fact that nobody but Clint had visited in months. This rage had not come from her husband. This reckless, uncaring anger came from Agent Barton, from Hawkeye, from the thing the man she loved had turned into.

It didn't feel like she was pining for him.

It didn't feel like she was mourning him.

And Laura wished it did, but all it felt like was a bittersweet farewell. It pained her, some part of her that remembered their happy marriage, but also - and she felt terrible for even thinking it - she felt relieved. Now that she had seen the indiscriminate destruction, the casual disregard for innocent human life that Clint held inside him, she no longer needed to worry in private. Worry that one day he would snap, and do something he couldn't take back. Hurt an innocent, a friend, or even - heaven forbid - one of her precious children. Laura had worried for so long, that something would just break.

And now it finally had, it almost felt freeing. 

She was never going back.

Her kids were safe and protected. They adored everyone in the compound, had practically adopted Harley and Peter as older cousins. Cooper was happy learning to to hack and program computers, with the assistance of Tony and Bruce. Lila was blissfully contented with Rogers' deserted art supplies, sketching anyone foolish enough to sit down long enough. And little Nate, had learned to walk holding Pepper and Natasha's hands.

This was home.

Laura stared out the reinforced window, out at the bustling world. What would it have looked like, the view from here when the Chitari invaded? An early midnight torn open in the sky, grey mechanical mosquitoes flitting around Manhattan, armed with explosive stingers. Maybe a red, blue, and white speck appeared over there, perhaps a flash of gold and red flew past this very window. She would never know, know something that had torn Clint apart from the inside. Something that had forced together a living bomb.

Someone approached from behind her, not making any effort to conceal the noise they made. Light, dainty footsteps. Natasha?

Laura was surprised to see Hope Pym appear at her side, holding a glass of white wine. The younger woman stared out at the city, same as her. She spoke first.

 "I'm sorry for your loss."

 "And I for yours."

Apparently, nobody seemed to remember that Hope had been very close to Lang before the war. Laura hadn't forgotten. It was easy to see in the woman's face, whenever she thought nobody was looking. The same sense of pained confusion. 

Was a childhood hero really worth more than your family?

Was Captain America really more important than...me?

It hurt like a son of a bitch, but red wine helped. Or white wine, alternatively.

 "How's Cassie?"

Hope sighed heavily, still clutching her side. Dr Strange's magic worked wonders, but the superhero really shouldn't have been moving so much.

"Physically, she's safe. Her mother didn't want to come to the tower, understandably, but yesterday, Tony, through Pepper, helped me set up a safehouse for them. Emotionally? The poor child is heartbroken. Apparently, her darling father promised to try harder for his little girl. Pathetic, lying, piece of shit."

The venom in the woman's acidic time was startling, but it couldn't disguise the quiver in her voice. Nor did it mask the wetness on her cheeks.

"He's not worth your tears, Hope. If he makes you shed them, he's not worth them."

She laughed bitterly at the salt tracking down her pale face. "I know. A large part of me is disgusted at myself, but...damnit, Scott, I cared."

 "Mm. I cared for my ex-husband too."

Hope dried her tears. "God, I'm so sorry...me and Scott were only dating, and your husband..." 

Laura kept her eyes focused on the sluggishly moving clouds. "Hope, he made you hurt. And it came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, your boyfriend is wanted for murder, or at the very least, manslaughter. I, at least, suspected it was coming for a while."

There was silence, a thoughtful, serious, silence among the two women. So alike, yet so different.

Hope raised her glass. "To new beginnings."

Laura smiled, dragging herself out of her melancholy mood. "One second."

She yanked the gun out of her waistband, clicked the safety, spun and shot three times.

One shot snapped an arrow, the next pierced the dartboard, and the last shattered a bottle of beer on the table. Each one of them were perfect bullseyes.

Hope only raised an eyebrow, as Laura holstered the gun.

"Now. To new beginnings."

The glasses clinked together, red and white swirling as the women drank.

~•~

Harley finished his assigned schoolwork for the day, and immediately slammed his history text shut with a sigh of relief. Maths, science, buisness studies? No problem. History? Not so much.

 

He never wanted, nor needed to know when Columbus had left America for the second time. Blech.

Harley strolled into the kitchen, where Vision and Bruce were talking, with a lot of expressive hand gestures, at least on Bruce's part, anyway. Sherlock was on the giant TV on the wall. Ooh, The Blind Banker.

Harley settled down to watch it, noticing it was turned up ridiculously high. He reached for the remote, only to be stopped instantly by Vision and Bruce's identical looks of terror. Why was Vision scared? Bruce, fair enough, the man hulked out if he saw a large spider, but an android...

 "Um, guys?" Harley asked slowly, noting the way Bruce was cradling the remote protectively.

 "Er- how about we just leave the volume at the same level?" Bruce asked, rushing his words in a very suspicious manner. Harley narrowed his eyes. "Bruce? Viz?"

 "Erm," articulated Vision. Good god, was he blushing?

"Friday, turn down volume," Harley said, gazing curiously at the two.

"No!"

Too late.

Oh.

Well then.

Vision swiftly cranked up the volume once more. The guy who Tony swore was secretly Dr Strange continued speaking.

"Ah," said Harley carefully. "I take it Tony and Pepper are...improving industrial relations?"

"Oh, god," muttered Bruce, face buried in his shirt. "We are terrible caretakers."

"So terrible," Harley agreed mischievously. Vision groaned. Apparently, this was his first experience with acute embarrassment.

"I mean, I wonder what Laura will say when I tell her," Harley continued, picking casually at his nails, a devillish grin on his face.

He looked up innocently. If the two men had looked scared before, they looked downright petrified now.

"I believe you are bluffing," Vision stated, sounding not at all sure.

 "Am I?"

There was a pause.

 "Anything," Bruce said. Vision nodded fervently in agreement.

Harley kept the whoop of victory contained. "Well, maybe if you took all of us out for pizza, and ice cream, I could be persuaded to forget..."

Bruce stared at him with something like admiration. "You sneaky little shit."

"Swear jar!"

"Worth it!"

 

 

Chapter Text

Harley nearly got his way.

Bruce and Vision had caved, and attempted to take all the kids to a small ice cream parlour down the street. Supervising four excitable kids was extremely difficult, as it turned out, but they were superheroes. Which should have made things easier, but actually made things harder.

See, the thing was, Bruce? He could blend into a crowd within seconds. Vision was a floating, bright red android with a diamond embedded in his forehead. He was never not going to be inconspicuous.

And with the paparazzi screaming eagerly outside the doors, begging for a statement on Tony's body's 'disappearance', Bruce and Vision made it all of three feet before being forced to retreat. Understandably, the kids did not take that well, but were mollified by the simple promise of homemade cookies. To be completely honest, Bruce could have offered them bowls of pure sugar and there would have been no difference in both nutrition and quality, but they were happy, and the Hulk was too- he had been terribly vocal these past few days, furious at the near (real, Tin Man GONE) loss of his friend.

Contrary to what most people assumed, Bruce and Tony hadn't gotten on like the proverbial house on fire from the very start. Bruce had been wary of the selfish billionaire, the knowledge he had probably provided Ross with the weapons he hunted Bruce with originally lurking constantly at the back of his mind. The Hulk liked Tony, insisted the Tin Man was trustworthy, but Bruce, still deep in the throes of recrimination and self-hate, didn't listen. He did science with the man, reluctantly took a room in his tower, but kept him politely at arms length. The fact that it was rumoured Tony was an alcoholic didn't help matters, as Bruce's fa- Brian Banner, had been so much worse after a few drinks.

He had been drinking cheap whiskey the night he killed Bruce's mother.

So Bruce never really trusted the billionaire until about a month after New York. It was Doombots, or A.I.M., or Hydra, Bruce couldn't really remember now. Robots tended to blur together after long enough, even homicidal ones.

The Hulk tore through them like paper, power coursing through his emerald blood as he smashed, punched and pumelled his way through the monochrome army. Natasha danced in between them, slicing and electrocuting with her Widow's Bites. Tony soared through the sky above, laughing as beams of blue cut down robots where they stood. Arrows flew like raindrops, a shield cleaved through the mass, and lightning crackled, taking down fifty opponents at a time.

And the Hulk had been happy. These people were afraid of him, sure, but even his simple brain had been able to understand they weren't going to try hurting him. Back then, Bruce's main concern had been trying to communicate with the Hulk, so he was able to see what went on in battles, and even regain an element of control, and to his disbelief, it was working. The Hulk had responded happily, and even Bruce, who used to despise his alter-ego, began to wonder if the Hulk was the way he was because he was lonely and scared. Maybe he wasn't a monster, Bruce has thought.

Nowadays, he knew, and that was that.

But anyway, the team had been fighting, and the mood was light. These were some of the easier foes the Avengers had faced, and the general consensus would be that they'd be home in time for dinner.

And then something hit Hulk.

And the only thing the Hulk knew was that he was in an awful lot of pain. 

Bruce remembered struggling to regain control, fighting frantically to say that it was alright, just to stay calm-

He might as well tried to levitate an elephant.

The Hulk went truly beserk, roaring in pain and clutching his head. His teammates' voices rang in his head, and the Hulk howled harder, swatting away Steve as he tried to help. Colours blurred, too bright, sounds too loud and clashing with one another like a dissonant symphony.

Red and gold approached slowly, and the Hulk roared in pain at how striking the colours were, hurting his poor abused eyes.

The figured out later that the weapon basically caused an extreme form of sensory overload, especially sight. 

And then red and gold vanished, folding backwards slowly, and Hulk heard angry screams and shouts, and covered his eyes with giant green palms, shaking with rage.

And Tony reached out, very slowly, completely defenseless, and patted the Hulk's arm.

The Hulk looked down at him in astonishment, vision and hearing stabilizing gradually. Tony smiled up at him, looking completely at ease, but Hulk could smell the strong scent of not fear, but concern. Concern for him.

Bruce, nothing but a faint voice in the back of the Hulk's mind, could only stare in shock as his evidently suicidal colleague (friend, silly, puny Banner, friendgently led the Hulk over to a patch of shade under a tree, and sat down with him on the grass.

Yup, that was when Bruce had actually began to trust somebody.

The rest of the Avengers had followed shortly after, and Bruce had felt blissfully happy, falling slowly for Natasha and then a few months after hearing what Tony had done for Natasha, hopefully curing her sterility, finally having the guts to ask the woman out on a date.

The fact that Natasha was previously sterile never bothered him - Bruce never saw himself as the fatherly type, not after his own failure of a father. What did bother him was the fact she saw herself as a monster because of it. That made the Hulk, despite not fully understanding human anatomy, aside from the basics (the drippy red stuff stays on the inside of the tiny people, if it isn't there, then something's wrong) want to smash whoever made pretty spider sad.

And all of this, only to hear about the war, and Tony dying. Well. It was a lot to take in, but Natasha had been there every step of the way. And now she was hurt, because of the Agent that Bruce never really got a chance to know. In fact, the only thing he really knew about the man was that Clint, Natasha, and Tony had mourned him privately for months after New York.

Only to find out he was alive all along. 

It had to be a serious blow. Bruce had never really understood the weird relationship he had glimpsed between Coulson, Natasha, and Clint, but he knew it had been dear to all of them on some level. Evidently more dear to Natasha than Coulson, though.

After rather unkindly offloading the posse of children to Vision (he apologised sincerely, and the android said he understood) Bruce went hunting for Natasha. It took half an hour. 

Natasha was on the roof. She did not seem to care or notice the fact it was raining heavily. Instead, she was methodically firing shot after shot into the potted plants that lined the garden furniture - plants that a number of people, Bruce and Steve especially, had cared for. She was avoiding the ones Bruce has planted, Bruce noticed with a strange quirk in his heart.

Still. The fact remained that this was not healthy behaviour.

A responsible person would stop her immediately, and talk her through her issues, would embrace her and tell her she was okay. 

Their relationship had been sudden and strange, and even at the start Bruce suspected it would only cause hurt. The responsible thing to do would be to end it, focus on helping with Accords, and then just walk away. Walk away from it all. That would be the responsible thing to do.

Only...Bruce was so very tired of being responsible when it came to emotions and anger and lust and love. And yes, talking and being rational would likely work for a normal couple, with normal problems. But neither Bruce or Natasha were normal. None of their problems were, and attempting to treat them as such would be an insult to both Bruce and her.

So Bruce just held an umbrella over Natasha's head as bullet after bullet shattered ceramic pots, and destroyed withered flowers. As she shattered fragile memories and destroyed dying relationships.

They could always plant something new.

Tears ran down both their faces, mixing with rainwater, and then they were gone, splashing to the ground. They were gone. They were gone.

The past was gone, and it was time to nuture a new future, grown among the shards of the old.


Thor was uneasy.

He had wronged many people over his long life. Many, many people, mortals and immortals and beings in between. And he had not cared, nor even known he had truly wronged them. And he had tried so hard to change, but the stagnant, never-changing atmosphere of his home, though beautiful, and his father's masked cruelty...it had done more damage to him than he realised. Even now, his first instinct would sometimes be viciousness rather than mercy. Impatient demands instead of patient silence. 

He had tried so hard to change.

Midgard was strange, a vast contrast to Asgard. The mortal beings believed him dull because he did not understand some of their culture, brutish because of his warrior upbringing, and inattentive because he had never needed to listen before. His brother had always been there to listen for him.

Yet another person he wronged.

One of the cruelest wrongs one could deal another being, in Thor's mind, was lie to them. That masked your intentions, made you appear not a foe but a friend, all while preparing to drive a dagger in your victim's vulnerable shoulder blades. It was the reason the Captain's actions had shocked him so and alienated the man to him. It was the reason he had been so wary of the Widow at first, although he would not admit it.

Perhaps it was because of Loki that Thor felt this way. Loki would have eventually snapped, of course, even Thor knew that, closeted in the golden court of Asgard, but it may not have been so destructive, so bloody, if only he had been told the truth. If his differences had been acknowledged and celebrated, instead of publicly ignored and whispered about just loud enough to hear. If Asgard had been more open to change and newness.

Anthony had unnerved him at first simply because he was the embodiment of this. He described himself as a futurist (among many other things), and no definition was more apt. Thor didn't remember when, but he had eventually realised that there was a word for what Loki was, and it wasn't monster, villain, or freak;

It was futurist.

Loki had always been planning ahead, always able to see - what had Anthony called it? - the 'big picture'. He planned because he had to, because it was the only way to show he did care, he was worthy, and very often his plans had saved lives. Thor was not a futurist, and he accepted that, but the fact of the matter was, he needed one now, with the information he had just gained.

Thanos was coming, and Midgard was in his sights.

The Titan who would woo Death herself. It would end horribly, of course - almost all attempted romances with Death had ended graphically and bloodily (and there had been more than one might think). Death chose her own lovers and servants very rarely, and they were usually extraordinary mortal beings from all realms and galaxies, quick and bright and destructive as flames. She never engaged in a relationship with immortals, and she never allowed herself to be 'wooed'. The last being who tried, back when Odin was but a young god, had been tortured for all eternity in a prison of Death's making.

But in the process, the damage Thanos would do in his attempt would be brutal.

Should he tell the Midgardians?

It was not through any cruelty or arrogance that Thor would remain silent. He needed them, he was proud and mature enough to admit. They were good, brave, accepting and surprisingly advanced, and they had nobler warriors then some of Asgard. Some were very dear to him now, and the way they treated their young especially was much kinder and gentler than Asgardians. Thor was fully prepared to admit that his people could learn from Midgard, and likewise for Midgard.

But the burden they were under was considerable. The damage wrecked by their own heroes had destroyed hope, morale. The mortals had torn themselves apart through the middle, and they needed to unite if they were to succeed against Thanos. Time was of the essence, but if they were told by someone they didn't trust...

Thor closed his eyes and made his choice. 

One moon's cycle. If the Rogue members of his former team were not captured by one moon's cycle, then Thor would tell them all. If they were caught soon, he would tell them then. 

He believed he was doing the right thing, but guilt hung heavy in his stomach.


 

Pepper and Tony were curled around each other in comfortable quiet, revelling in the sound of the other's breathing and the almost inaudible sound of two heartbeats. It was a comfort and an anchor to both of them.

It had been a lot of fun. Thank-god-you're-alive-and-okay sex had to be the best there is, and the fact Tony not only looked twenty-seven but, well, acted like he was...that was fun too. Still, that was irrelevant in the wave of the new emotion that was crashing down on her-

Pepper had never felt the way she did right now before in her life.

Not love. She'd felt that for a while, and it was wild and deep and beautiful and it hurt, sometimes, but mostly it was the best feeling in the world. But it wasn't love.

Pepper searched her sleepy brain for an answer, and her breathing hitched as she realised it.

Acceptance.

She had accepted it. She had, sometime over the last few days, understood that Tony was going to put himself in danger, was going to be fatally wounded and come back fine, was going to pulled away from her, was going to leave her and go to battle to save the world. He was going to scare her, and hurt her unintentionally, and Pepper...She just didn't care. She accepted it.

The only thing was, she didn't want to have to. She didn't want to leave him to his battles, didn't want to have to watch on the sidelines. Something had woken in her, along with the acceptance. It might be madness. It might be the best kind of madness.

It might be the certain type of madness, the rush that Tony had described to her after he piloted the suit for the second time, before she made her dislike of it clear. It might be the adrenaline Natasha had said ran through her veins as she fought aliens in the broken streets of New York. It might be the bloodlust she saw in Rogers's eyes in the Siberian footage, but she didn't think so. It might be the protective roar of the Hulk, it might be the reason Peter had first fought alone, underage and in a cheap costume.

"To protect the ones I love and to make the world a better place."

"Tony?"

He hummed a response, wrapping his arms around her. The arc reactor dyed his olive skin an ethereal blue, and his hair was sleep and sex-mussed. 

"I want you to teach me. I want to fight. I want to do this right, legally and once you think I'm ready to be in the field. Please, Tony...I...I want a suit."

His eyes shot open.


 

The hot chocolate was rich and creamy, and Rhodey took a moment to just cup the warm mug in his hands and relax.

Now was probably not the best time to relax, but if he waited for a good time to relax, it'd never happen, so boom, world! Rhodey's relaxing, and fuck you if anyone says any different.

The braces on his legs gleamed in the weak light, and the kitchen was quiet. Suspiciously so. If Rhodey didn't know Vision and the kids were two floors down, playing Overwatch, Fortnite, and Call of Duty in Harley's case (the little shit was bloodthirsty as they came) he would have said that someone was going to prank him.

And that would be a really bad idea.

Rhodey felt like he was on a hair-trigger these days, ready to go off at any minute. Losing his legs had been awful, and dehumanizing, and Rhodey, who had prided himself on his independence from a very young age, was just...soul-destroying.

And then his best friend (his little brother) died at the hands of his childhood hero, and Rhodey got a lesson on what soul-destroying really meant. 

In Rhodey's earliest memories of Tony, he had always been smaller than everyone else, younger than everyone else. Even Pepper had only befriended him when he had his mask in full swing, when he was larger and louder and drunker than life. But Rhodey...Rhodey had met the tiny genius freshman with the huge brown eyes, drowning in overlarge sweatshirts and bitter coffee. Rhodey had met the kid who shrieked at spiders on the wall, who cried at Disney movies, who was far too smart and far too sad, who was crazy and erratic and loved openly without any walls. The kid who was underestimated, and excitable, and a damn good friend.

Rhodey missed that kid sometimes, but he had wouldn't give up Tony as he was for the world. They were closer than just friends, more like siblings. He'd heard people speculate that they were lovers, but just...no. That would be practically incestuous.

They were brothers, pure and simple.

Tony had been there for Rhodey at his first breakup (you're too good for her, honeybear, but I can go hack her papers if you like) and Rhodey had been there when getting out of bed was just too much (c'mon man, I care, I promise. Now, are we gonna go watch Beauty and the Beast or what?) and all of that had flashed through Rhodey's head as he watched his brother die in front him when the medics failed to save him. Not that he blamed the medics. It was nigh impossible to save someone who had almost been sliced in two.

And now he was back, and alive, and laughing, and Rhodey could still see him dying on the floor. Rhodey rubbed at his eyes tiredly. He needed help. They all did. But most of all, he just wanted some time with his best friend. He wanted him to be safe.

"You okay, James?"

"Hello, Laura," Rhodey acknowledged without turning round, just kept sipping his hot chocolate. "I'm fine. You need something in the kitchen?"

Laura sat on the counter. "I do not. What I do, however, need is to know why you're standing in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate in the middle of the day in spring."

"I like hot chocolate," Rhodey protested mildly.

Laura nodded. "It is lovely. But one only drinks hot chocolate in winter, in the evenings, or as a comfort drink. And it's only half two."

Rhodey sighed. "So, this is your way of asking what's wrong? Take your pick. Take your damn pick."

A jar was held out in front of him. It had coins and a twenty dollar note in it.

"What."

"Swear jar."

"What did I even say that could be considered a swear word? And there's no kids here!"

"It's the principle of the thing."

Rhodey grumbled, and dropped in a quarter. "Who's the twenty?"

"Hope."

"Really?" The young woman didn't seem the sort to curse excessively.

"She banged her funny bone." Laura folded her arms. "Okay, storytime over. Tell me what's wrong, and no expletives please."

There was a long pause that stretched on as Rhodey took another sip of his hot chocolate, letting the sweet drink burn the roof of his mouth and tongue.

"I miss him. I miss my best friend, my little brother, and how happy we used to be before any of this, and I hate myself for not seeing what the other Avengers were doing to him. I hate the way he dosen't trust...nearly everyone in this Tower. He cares for us all, yeah. He trusts us just enough to love us. But I can see it in his eyes.  He dosen't trust Nat not to betray him, he dosen't trust Pepper not to break his heart on him, he dosen't trust Bruce not to run when he needs him. And I don't know if he trusts me to have his back, and years ago I would never have seen mistrust or doubt in his eyes.

And that's just Tony.

I have trouble with Vision. And Nat. And Bruce. Vision because I know he feels guilty, and I know it's not his fault, but, the fact is, it still happened, even if I do have cyborg legs now. Nat because she's a double agent. That's her thing, and I'm terrified she's spying for Rogers and my family is going to end up hurt. Again.

And Bruce ran after Ultron when I was hoping he'd manage to bring Tony back from the brink where I failed. I was hoping he'd take responsibility after everything Tony did for him. He didn't even try. He didn't even explain to me what happened, because Tony wouldn't, couldn't. And I can't forget that. I can forgive it, sure. Forget it? No.

And Thor?! I can't meet his eyes! The dude grabbed a man that had known reduced lung capacity by the throat, a man that also happened to be like a brother to me, and I. Did. Nothing."

"You were in shock," Laura pointed out quietly, the first interruption she'd made so far. Rhodey scoffed. "I'm a solider. I'm trained to act. I shouldn't have stood there, gaping like an idiot, as Tony was being strangled by a Norse god! He could have died! What if Thor hadn't released him before he ran out of air! What if Thor squeezed too hard, and snap! Or he'd gone after someone else!"

"Stop torturing yourself," Laura said kindly but firmly. "James, you've seen horrible things. I...well, I don't understand per say, I'm not in your position. I've never been through what you went through. But I have-" Her eyes went distant and unfocused, like she was seeing a past that had been buried under grief and rage. "I have lost people through no fault of my own. You wonder afterwards, where you went wrong. You replay memories endlessly in your head. And sometimes...you could have done something different, something better. But mostly, in my experience, you couldn't have. Because it wasn't your fault." 

Rhodey was quiet for a while, digesting her words.

"I can't bring myself to trust half the people in the Tower-"

"And that's okay. To be honest, I'm surprised it's only half."

"I still care about them, though."

"Then that's all that matters for the moment."

"...Thanks, Laura."

 "You're welcome."


"Are you sure?" His eyes were wide with shock. "Are you really, 100% sure?"

Red and gold falling from the sky.

Red and gold shattered, dying on the ground.

"Yes."

Silver and crimson and black and gold.

Tony grinned at her. "Well, I suppose it's time my old suit got a redesign as well. Barnes won't know what hit him."