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Tony Stark had to make a choice – did he save the Avengers or did he save the hundreds of SHIELD agents and thousands of SHIELD support staff who weren’t HYDRA? In the end, the choice was an easy one. The Avengers were superheroes – super soldiers, super spies, gods even. They had the ability to save themselves. The agents and support staff were just people. Vulnerable, ordinary people doing their jobs to the best of their ability, who had been betrayed not just by the HYDRA spies within their midst but by two of their own, whose response to the problem was overkill instead of careful planning.

So that’s what he did. Between himself, JARVIS, his suits and those SI staff who were brave enough to place themselves in danger to rescue people, Tony worked to save as many as he could. Agents, support staff and their families. It was exhausting work, even with JARVIS’ help. Even with Maria Hill’s help. She’d been one of the first he’d picked up and she’d immediately turned to help once she realised what he was doing. She’d made it easier. The agents knew her and had responded to her commands, had trusted those Tony sent based solely on her words.

It took weeks to extract everyone, to reunite them with their families, to find new places, new jobs for them, to see to their medical and psychological care. (Because sometimes they hadn’t been quick enough and the extraction had not been from a shootout or a hostage situation but from the clutches of HYDRA and Tony knew that wasn’t something you came back from all rosy and clean.) Most of them asked to stay with Stark Industries. It left Tony a bit nonplussed and, of all things, bashful. Why would they want to stay? SI was just a tech company, not a super-secret spy agency. But apparently that was why they wanted to stay. They were a bit over the whole super-secret spy agency thing, especially when they found out why they’d ended up in so much danger.

Maria had laughed at him, actually laughed at him – kindly, gently and more than a little baffled that he didn’t realise how much of their loyalty he had won with his loyalty. No one else had come for them. No one else had lifted a finger to help them, to save them and their loved ones. But Tony had. And he hadn’t had to. He had no real association with SHIELD other than his ‘consultant’ status. Everyone knew that was just to keep him close so that the Avengers could have their toys and funding. He had no reason to save them or protect them and yet he had. The agents and support staff repaid that with their loyalty.

It took six weeks for Tony’s choice to bite.

Floors in the Tower that had been planned for Avengers accommodation had been hastily repurposed into apartments for some of the former agents and their families. Maria, Pepper and JARVIS had quietly reallocated funding that had previously gone to SHIELD (and from them to the Avengers) into relocation expenses, salaries for the new SI staff and to pay current and ongoing medical bills. Tony was busy placating governments who were a bit spooked by sudden shootouts in their streets or by Iron Man armour flying into their airspace without warning or by sudden explosions in what had been thought to be abandoned buildings or just by the revelation that HYDRA wasn’t as gone as everyone had thought.

It wasn’t until SHIELD issued credit cards were declined and SHIELD funded bank accounts were empty that the bite occurred for Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov. Sam Wilson still had his own credit cards and covered the bill but they had to stop then, unable to keep going without the kind of funding they were used to. Calls to Tony went to voice mail or were picked up by JARVIS who told them that ‘Sir is very busy. I will be sure to pass your message along to him at the first convenient opportunity.’

They turned up at Stark Tower. The huge A left from the battle of New York was gone and had been replaced by the eponymous STARK. It sent a shiver down their spines but they couldn’t say why. They walked into the foyer to be greeted by unfriendly looks and a hostile atmosphere. They didn’t know why until Natasha saw familiar faces glaring at her with hate and disdain. But the true cut didn’t come until they were declined access to the Tower and told to wait. They expected Tony, hurrying out to apologise for the mistake and usher them upstairs, but instead Pepper Potts walked out of the elevator. She was dressed in a business suit and wore power heels so high and so thin that they could genuinely be considered a weapon in their own right. Pepper walked on them as though they were the most comfortable of ballet flats, an intimidating message of its own right there.

“Captain Rogers,” Pepper said, cool and distant. “Ms Romanov.” She paused and arched an intimidating eyebrow at Sam. “I’m afraid I don’t know who your… friend… is.”

It was a lie. They could all see that it was a lie. She knew who Sam was but this was a power play and Pepper had all the power and she knew it.

“This is Sam Wilson,” Steve said. He looked nervous and uncertain. He always did around powerful women but Pepper had always gone out of her way to be soothing in the past. But this wasn’t Pepper greeting them. This was Ms Virginia Potts, CEO of Stark Industries, standing in front of them.

“Charmed,” Pepper said in a tone that said she was anything but. “How may I assist you, Captain?”

“Uh, we wanted to see Tony,” Steve said, still feeling knocked off balance by this unexpected version of Pepper that was in front of them.

“I’m afraid Mr Stark is busy,” Pepper replied. She offered nothing else, no reason, no excuse, nothing.

“It’s about the Avengers,” Natasha added when she saw Steve didn’t quite know how to proceed.

Pepper arched an eyebrow at them. “I wasn’t aware the Avengers were still active. They were a SHIELD initiative, were they not? SHIELD is defunct and I had not heard that the government had picked up the reins of the Avengers.”

They were all taken aback by that. “But Tony…?” Steve began.

“Mr Stark was not an Avenger,” Pepper said calmly. “He was a SHIELD consultant. His status was never changed. With SHIELD’s demise, all contracts are null and void. Mr Stark has no further obligations to either SHIELD or the Avengers beyond those of his choosing.” She gave them a wintry little smile. “And he has already made his choice there.”

Steve looked confused. “What?”

“Mr Stark is busy with the recent influx of employees at Stark Industries,” Pepper said primly. “Naturally, when he discovered how many innocent SHIELD agents, support staff and their families had been compromised and endangered by the release of information onto the web, he did all that he could to rescue as many as possible. They have proven to be remarkably loyal.” A small smug expression grew on her face. “Stark Industries will undoubtedly reap the benefit in the months and years to come.”

Both Steve and Natasha paled at the reminder of the consequences of their actions and Sam looked confused and worried.

“I’m afraid Mr Stark has his hands full,” Pepper continued relentless, “dealing with the various governments also affected by the SHIELD leak and the company’s planned movement into global security. Perhaps if you were to come back in a few weeks, once the furore has died down, he may have time in his schedule to meet with you.”

She paused then and pulled out her tablet. “I will, of course, let him know you dropped by to discuss the future of the Avengers but I doubt he has time for that right now nor would it be terribly appropriate. You’d be better off approaching the Secretaries of Defence and Homeland Security with the aim of gaining government funding and approval to continue. It would be highly inappropriate for a private company or individual to be funding a group like the Avengers.”

“But…” Steve sounded lost and confused. “Tony funded us before.”

“No, he allocated a certain amount of funding to SHIELD,” Pepper corrected. “How SHIELD chose to disburse that was up to them.”

Steve tried again. “He gave us gear.”

“Gifts,” Pepper replied. “Generously given free of charge because he chose to do so.” Her tablet pinged and she glanced down at it. “I’m afraid I have a meeting. I will pass on your message to Mr Stark at the first opportunity. It was a pleasure to see you again, Captain, Ms Romanov. And a pleasure to meet you, Mr Wilson.”

With that, Pepper turned on her heel and walked back into the elevator, nor sparing them another glance.

Natasha looked around the foyer. The number of people there had grown and all of them looked unfriendly. She nudged Steve. “Let’s go. We can come back later or find a better way to get hold of Tony.”

Steve nodded, still looking like a lost boy, and he and Sam followed her out of the building.