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Proportionate Responses

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Proportionate Responses


Usually, Henry wasn't good at predicting what any given phone call from Tony Stark would be about. Tony had a habit of presenting unwanted houses or movie roles when you expected him to talk sense about how to save your team from flying apart, of asking for help while denying he was doing just this, of offering comfort when you expected him to throw a fit about stolen jets: of being unpredictable just because. But when he called just after electric power had been restored to Los Angeles, Henry, for once, knew what he was going to say, and said it first.


"You got Stane."


There was a short silence at the other end.


"The EMP kind of gave it away," Henry said, leaving out the fact that it short circuited more than Los Angeles electricity; it also robbed him of his own powers. Again. Just as it had done when Ezekiel Stane had used the Order as his personal toys to screw with Tony Stark. When two of their own had died.


When Henry had killed a girl who trusted him to save her.


"I figured you wanted to know," Tony said. His voice sounded hoarse, more reminiscent of those hour-long conversations after he had stopped drinking and was trying to make it through another night than of reassuring declarations about having taken a crazy sadistic bastard down.


"Is he dead?" Henry asked, not knowing what he was hoping to hear. He hadn't felt hate, true hate, for many people in his life. Certainly not before he became part of the superhero business. With the possible exception of Kevin Spacey, because if ever a role was written for Henry Hellrung, it was Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential, but there you go. It all seemed far away now; nothing like what he had experienced once he'd seen Stane's ridiculously masked face gloating down on them from a giant view screen while Dennis Murray died a slow and painful death.


"No," Tony said. After another slight pause, he added: "Do you want him to be?"


The thing was, with Tony you could never be completely sure that this wasn't a hidden offer instead of a question about feelings. You could be 95% sure, because Tony, despite the crap he sometimes pulled, really had some things he believed in, and not killing prisoners was one of them. As was accountability; hell, he had turned much of his life into a desert and ruined many friendships to prove that superheroes should not be above the law. But Tony was also a control freak with an occasional god complex. And he had this thing about gifts which maybe a part of you wanted, just not when he was offering.


"I want him to become a pathetic old timer in prison who cleans out the toilets," Henry said at last. "But what are the chances of that? Like you said, he's you-rich. I guess the lawyers are already fighting for the chance to represent him and get some of that money. We'll be lucky if he gets five years in a psychiatric ward, right?"


Holly had barely felt human after Stane had worked her over. Power shooting out of every pore, all the nightmares of Los Angeles channelled through her thin, shaken body. Her voice, crying. Make it stop. Oh Henry, make it stop!


He had never killed another human being before. He had known, in theory, that becoming a superhero in reality instead of playing one on tv would mean such a situation could arise, but Henry, with all of his optimistic nature and ability to buy into dreams, had been convinced that somehow he'd find a different way, always. But even in his nightmare scenarios, where he had to kill a bad guy because there really was no other way of stopping him from harming others, he had never imagined it would be a friend instead. A girl he had taken responsibility for.


We love you, Holly. The entire team loves you.


"He isn't just me-rich, Hank," Tony said wearily. "He's me. Me without any delusions of being a hero, and wholesale committed to the destruction business instead. When he tried to kill me, he said he was the future, and right now, I'm pretty sure he's right. So yes. If he lives, he'll probably be out again. And if we're lucky, he'll become the next Norman Osborn instead of the next Red Skull." There was a noise that was either a cough or Tony snorting. "Maria Hill asked me once how often the Green Goblin had to strike before he became Spider-mans fault. Because Spider-man never kills him."


By now, Henry's experience at AA, specifically his experience as Tony Stark's sponsor, was waving red warning flags at him like a cheerleader on speed. "Tony," Henry said carefully, "I can't give you permission to kill. Is that why you called me?"


He could tell he had hit a nerve by the way Tony exploded. "I called you because he put you through hell before branching out to the rest of the planet. I called you because you of all people deserve a chance to say I told you so. But you'd never do that, don't you? You're too. Damn. Nice."


"That's what the lousy New York Times reviewer complained about when he wrote I make an unconvincing you," Henry said. "Also, I don't tell you things, it usually works the other way around. What the hell are you talking about?"


"98 dead people in Tanzania. 58 dead people in Valencia. And a whole lot more who'd be alive right now if I hadn't told you Zeke Stane wasn't a one man Al-Qaeda and had gone after him with all I had instead, immediately after you asked me too, instead of spouting some bullshit about tasking proportionate resources."


Henry remembered that conversation. He also remembered vowing to go after Zeke Stane, along with the rest of the team, being given leave to do so, and how only months, just months, with new cases and the every day California madness had made that resolve peter out from a existence defining urge to some constant hum in the background while life went on. And he had seen just how dangerous Stane was up close.


"How long since you've attended a meeting?" he asked abruptly.




"Tony, I don't care whether you want punishment or absolution or whether you want permission to kill Zeke Stane. I'm not good with handing out any of this. Not my scene. But I think you need a refresher course about power and powerlessness, and I know I do, so get to Los Angeles and attend a goddamn meeting with me."


This time, the silence on the other end of the line was heavy with possibilities, one of which was Tony deciding the Initiative didn't need the Order anymore, and another Tony doing nothing of the sort but hanging up and retreating into his armor again for the next ten weeks. Henry wondered whether he should use the chance to ask about Pepper before that happened. He had heard she had been injured during one of Stane's attacks, but was on the way to recovery. If some part of him he wasn't so proud of didn't still feel Pepper had deserted them, jumping on the chance to work for Tony directly again instead of remaining with them in California, he'd have gone and visited her.


"Yes," Tony said finally, without adding anything. But that "yes" came across loud and clear. Henry exhaled, only then noticing he'd held his breath.


"And then use your resources to make sure Stane won't be able to afford anything but pro bono lawyers, okay?" he added. "You know you can count on us to help, right? We'll testify at the trial. And Kate can make sure whatever defense strategy they'll come up with to make him look better will backfire."


"You're assuming there'll be a trial," Tony said. "Never change, Henry. I'll see you in Los Angeles."


Afterwards, Henry sat in silence for a while, thinking about Dennis, Holly, and the nameless dead all over the world. Thinking about how good it would feel to call Tony back and say, you know what, I changed my mind. Kill the bastard. You'll be doing everyone a favour, especially me. Honest.


Instead, he called Kate, asking her to get the Order assembled. He had news to share.