The rumors start almost immediately after Siberia. Whispers floating around that say the man in the armor these days isn’t Tony Stark.
There are reasons for them of course, for the rumors bouncing around the internet that Tony never really made it back from Siberia. They postulated that the billionaire met his unfortunate end out there in the frozen wasteland at the hands of Captain America and the Winter Soldier and that for some reason the Avengers left behind in the wreckage were covering it up. As with all conspiracy theories, the attempts from Stark Industries to quash the rumors isn’t really doing anything beneficial and each time a statement is released instead of a press conference with the missing billionaire the conspiracy grows.
The continuous lack of Tony Stark sightings since Siberia stays in the forefront of the public’s mind even as Secretary Ross gets impeached from office. Ross answers questions thrown out to him about the brunet – when did he see him last? Where was he going? Did he make contact at any point in time with Ross or his camp? – to which the former Secretary could only say that Stark had been as annoying as ever when he crawled into his helicopter to go rush to the aid of Captain America.
It would be the last time anyone saw him in any verifiable manner, and Ross was quick to throw out his own belief that Rogers and Barnes definitely ended Stark’s life and that the King of Wakanda would have them get off without recourse.
‘Mr. Stark has suffered severe injuries from his most recent outing as Iron Man and will not be able to make appearances at this time while he heals away from the public eye.’ Those were the words that Pepper Potts said with a neutral face and steady hands as she stared down the world demanding to see proof of life. The press conferences from Tony Stark’s old lover and current CEO and business partner calmed the world at first, but then the days turned into weeks which turned into months without any visual sign of the usually boisterous billionaire.
Proof of Life for Tony Stark! – Justice for Tony Stark! – Where in the World is Tony Stark?
The headlines practically wrote themselves, and no amount of comment or statement from ‘Tony Stark’ could sate them.
It wasn’t until the Iron Man armor rushed to the aid of the Fantastic Four in New York that then next chapter in that saga unfolded. The adoring fans and rampant cheers that erupted from the crowds once the scene was contained died down into pure confusion and rampant speculation when the pilot remained unusually camera shy, trading a few quips and doing a few trademark poses before taking off into the sky. He never once let the mask rise, he never once let them see the face underneath.
It isn’t Tony Stark piloting the armor. The first online discussion forum declaring this truth popped up minutes after the suit left the scene to be contained by law enforcement.
Tony Stark is dead, came next when a statement from the brunet was given out by Colonel Rhodes and Pepper Potts instead of the man himself emerging to handle the public’s concern.
Captain America killed Iron Man followed shortly after that, and once the idea had been given voice and a soap box, it was impossible to truly contain.
The accusations managed to follow Steve to Wakanda despite their separation from the world at large, haunting him at every corner. The Wakandan’s that he passed every day before T’Challa confined them to their wing would look at him with the same distrust that they looked at Wanda with. Murderer their eyes said and they gave him a wide berth as if just coming close to him would cause him to lash out and start killing again. With each passing day, Steve found it harder and harder to push away the legitimate concern that perhaps Tony had been in need of more assistance than Steve had thought he did when Steve left him on the ground and walked away.
“Stark’s just playing to the public.” Clint was quick to assure him. “He’s probably sitting off in one of his mansions, drinking a fucking mojito and laughing at the gullibility of the masses.”
“I don’t know man, why hasn’t he shown up for even just one event?” Sam asks. “A charity or something? It’s not like him to shy away from the cameras.” Steve can see the sideways glance that Sam sends him alongside the Wakandans. The glance speaks of a loss of trust that might never be undone. “I told him to go as a friend because I thought that he’d be meeting one.” Sam had snapped at him in anger once when they first arrived and Steve told the full story of what happened in Siberia. The break between the two of them had just created a festering wound that hadn’t healed and that both of them probably weren’t going to manage to heal with their silent, agreed upon understanding that they’d never mention it again.
“The armor is coded to Tony and Potts only. Maybe Happy, but the two of them have been present while the armor’s been doing its thing.” Natasha told him one night with a simple shrug. “It’s Tony piloting it. I don’t know why he’s doing his best hermit crab impression, but there’s no way that Stark died and that there’s some unknown third party piloting the suit. You know how paranoid he is. He even once told Fury that all of the suits that weren’t coded for Rhodes were designed to self-destruct upon his death. It’s him.”
Steve tried to believe her, but the fear nagged at him in the dark. He couldn’t close his eyes anymore without seeing Tony trapped beneath him, dark eyes wide in pain and betrayal as Steve slammed the shield down into his chest over and over again.
Steve can’t help but wonder if maybe…if maybe he really did leave Tony to die…alone and in the cold darkness so similar to the memory of space that Tony had confessed to him late at night still haunted his every waking moment.
“You will be returning to the Avengers Compound within the week.” T’Challa tells the whole group when he pulls them into an impromptu meeting within the living quarters that they’ve been holed up in for these last few months. “During that time, you will become wards of the Avengers Initiative and the Accords Council until your probation period has ended.” T’Challa slides several small packets to each of them. They’re summaries of the court cases, and Steve doesn’t fully agree with how the ‘truth’ that was sold inside the courts doesn’t resemble the actual truth at all, but somehow several fast talking lawyers have spun the ‘not truth’ into a story that the courts ate up and now Steve and the others have gotten everything they wanted since the start of this whole fiasco.
They get to go back home.
They get to be Avengers.
Sure, T’Challa’s been quick to remind them of the fine line they’ll be walking, the hoops that they’ll have to endure but how at the end of the day – if they’re smart and if they play their cards correctly – all of this will soon be a bad memory of poor choices and foolish hardheadedness.
Steve can’t fully put into words how much he hopes that’s true.
“Do you think Stark will actually grace us with his presence?” Clint asks when they’re on the plane ride back to the Compound, being the first to break the uneasy silence that’s descended upon them. “Or do you think he’ll continue playing the ‘am I dead or aren’t I?’ card?”
“Give it a rest.” Sam snaps, and Steve can hear the exhaustion in his voice.
“What? It’s a legitimate question.” Clint says with a shrug and a roll of his eyes. “I’ll bet you ten bucks he keeps pretending.” Clint smirks and leans closer to Sam, nudging the other man with his shoulder.
“Stop it.” Sam says pulling away.
“What the hell is your problem?” Clint fires back and Sam just shakes his head and looks out the window, opting not to engage with the other.
“Clint, leave it.” Steve tells him and his voice sounds far too close to Sam with the exhaustion winding through it. When did he get so tired? And when did he start feeling so old?
“What the fuck ever.” Clint mutters as he leans back in his seat. There are no more words shared between them for the rest of the plane ride. When they finally arrive at the Compound and step off of the plane Steve deals with a strange dichotomy where his legs feel like lead weights are attached to him while at the same time each step creates a feeling like a weight is lifting off his chest at the sight of home.
Tony’s nowhere to be seen, but Rhodes is. The Colonel is standing at the entrance to the Compound from the landing pad and he’s flanked by a beautiful blonde woman and a large dark skinned man with biceps that Thor would envy that Steve can’t place names to.
“Rhodes.” Steve greets and he tries to pretend that he’s not subtly searching the area for a brief glimpse of a certain brunet who might be hiding in the wings. There’s a tightness in the Colonel’s eyes that tells Steve that Rhodes knows exactly what he’s doing, and who he’s looking for, and Rhodes doesn’t approve.
“Rogers.” Rhodes replies, his voice calm and professional. “I take it the king briefed you all on your probation and what that entails?”
“Good, come with me then and we’ll get you settled away into your new living arrangements.”
“New living arrangements?” Wanda asks and Rhodes nods.
“If you can’t already tell from the outside, the Avengers Compound has undergone significant changes in structure and design. Your old rooms have been repurposed into a housing wing for Avengers members in need of a safe location to lay their heads for either a brief or extended period of time.” Rhodes says. “Your things have already been returned to your new rooms.”
“Where’s Stark?” Clint asks, looking around for the billionaire in a much more obvious manner than Steve did. “Too busy playing dead to come greet us?” Steve doesn’t miss the dark look of rage that crosses the Colonel’s face for a brief second before disappearing behind the neutral mask like it was never there, and it makes something in Steve’s stomach plummet at the potential reason for it.
No…Tony’s not dead. It’s a ploy, some kind of public relations thing or for some Avengers reason, but Tony’s going to pop out of a box any time now and turn the whole thing into his favor.
…Because he’s not dead.
Steve didn’t kill him.
“I am the Team Leader for the Avengers Initiative now, and there was no reason that I saw to involve Tony in these affairs.” Rhodes replies calmly.
“What, Stark too much of a special snowflake to waste on the likes of little ol’ us?” Clint presses and Rhodes gives him a sharp grin.
“Pretty much. Glad we’re all on the same page.” He says and there’s a razor’s edge of something – maybe hate, maybe a threat, maybe both – in his tone as he motions to the doors.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Natasha asks gently, clearly trying to negate the hostile air that’s popped up since Clint’s untimely poking at the bear and Rhodes glances at the two people with him and nods.
“Of course, I forgot how out of the loop you’ve all been in Wakanda.” Rhodes says. “This is Sue Storm. She’s a member of the Fantastic Four team, designation Invisible Woman.” The blonde inclines her head but there’s no kindness in her eyes for them. “And this is Luke Cage, a member of the Defenders team. More commonly known as Power Man.”
“No I am not, and please do not call me that.” Luke says with a roll of his eyes.
“I don’t know, I think the kids were right. It’s pretty catchy.” Rhodes jokes lightly with the man before motioning for them all to go inside again. “Now that introductions are over, let’s get this little reunion on the way shall we?”
“Where is Vision?” Wanda asks while they’re making their way through the building, glancing around each corner for a glimpse of the android and Rhodes doesn’t look at her when he responds.
“Vision is currently working outside of the Compound.” Rhodes says. “You will probably see him in a few weeks, and then off and on for a little bit after that.”
“Why?” Wanda questions.
“Vision is currently the representative and liaison for the American Avengers in Europe. He’s assisting Captain Britain and the others with their own team building and missions during this time and he’s handling the new branch of the Avengers Initiative on scene.”
“Captain Britain?” Clint snorts. “Fanboy much?”
“He really isn’t.” Rhodes says cryptically before motioning to their rooms. Steve thanks him and steps inside his new living arrangements. The room is so much smaller than the one before and Steve wonders if that’s intentional or just a side effect of however many rooms Tony’s decided to add to this wing.
Steve doesn’t say anything to Rhodes or question it. He’s just happy they’re home.