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The High Road is Overrated

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Tony considers the headline in front of him and it honesty boggles his mind that people are actually defending him. There should be no world in which a war mongering billionaire should have a bunch of information leaked regarding his shitty behavior only for news outlets to say ‘aww, right after he got kidnapped?’ What they should report on is the casualties he’s caused, the way his weapons have affected several different countries, none for the better, and the way he’s not only been complicit in all of it, but he actively encouraged it. News outlets shouldn’t care about his feelings, they should care about his actions.

The good news is that reporter, the blonde he slept with shortly before Afghanistan, shredded his ass. Granted she ultimately came to the conclusion that his shutting down the weapons section of his company might show some kind of redemption for him despite his horrific track record but still. She seems to be the only one treating him the way he should be treated and it’s pissing him off.

The bad news is that upon looking into the company records he found out who, exactly, was responsible for the weapons he found in several areas they shouldn’t have been- like Yinsen’s village. He’ll find a way to deal with Obadiah soon, but for now he thinks this media mess should be cleaned up.

Pepper walks in with a newspaper in her hand looking irritated and Tony frowns, “what’s up with you?” he asks as she drops the paper on the table in front of him. She sets down her coffee and flops into her seat. “I can’t believe that some… some… asshole somehow leaked all that information on you and the company!” she says, shaking her head.

He frowns, “Pep, it’s all true, I don’t see why you’re mad.” He doesn’t mention that the only person even capable of breaking into his systems is sitting in front of her but that’s another problem. The only other person besides him that has even a glimmer of hope is Rhodey- he’s the only one smart enough and the only one who knows him well enough to get through the code and answer the questions. And even then he’s certain Rhodey wouldn’t be able to manage, not for months anyways.

Pepper frowns at him. “Tony, you’re barely back from spending three months in a cave and someone feels the need to exploit you?” She shakes her head, “that’s horrible,” she says with a surprising amount of venom in her voice.

“I spent three months in a cave living the life I’ve forced thousands of others to live before me and I got to come back to a cushy life, loads of money, and an assistant that is way too loyal. I appreciate it Pep but that was poetic justice plain and simple.” He earned that, he earned more than that, and now he’s damn well going to hold himself responsible for his actions. No one should wield the kind of power he had over people, power that he largely exploited for profit. And in the end he doesn’t even really have to face actual consequences, not really. He gets everything that made his life great back again and people sympathize with him over everyone’s lives he’s ruined. That’s fucking nuts to him.

“Tony,” Pepper says softly, “you’re being too hard on yourself. I know… I know that maybe some things went wrong but you’re a good man.” She believes it too, and he wants to believe her because he loves Pepper, has for a long time, but her words are the same as Rhodey’s and their love doesn’t make them true. They only think that because they know him personally.

He shakes his head, “Pepper good men don’t make money off war. Good men don’t want war to continue to make money. And good men don’t fund terrorists.”

“That wasn’t you Tony, I know it wasn’t,” Pepper says fast, determination high on her features like she’s prepared to fight him until he’s convinced she’s right.

“No,” he agrees and Pepper looks relieved for a hot minute. “But that doesn’t matter. If I’m so damn unaware of how the fucking company is running that I don’t notice terrorist groups being funded than the problem is still mine. My company, my responsibility.” His business partner, even more his responsibility but Pepper doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know Obadiah paid to have him killed either, but Obadiah’s turn will come soon. Right after he corrects all this media garbage.

“Tony-” she starts but he cuts her off.

“Just stop Pepper, and ask yourself why the hell you’re defending a man who let someone in his company fund terrorism while near single handedly fucking over several different countries with his weapons. There’s no defense for it Pepper- I was dangerously arrogant and everyone but me paid the price. Now people want to pity me like living through the pleasant version of what I’ve put others through isn’t what I deserved? Give me a break,” he snaps, shaking his head. He’s killed thousands and displaced thousands more and people think he’s the one who should get pity? Unbelievable.

“I’m defending you because I know you’re not a bad person!” Pepper tells him, irritated with his dismissal of her words. “You thought you were doing the right thing, I’m not entirely convinced you weren’t,” she adds.

Neither is Rhodey but the reason for both their opinions is along the same lines. “If protecting Americans means killing everyone else than I think we have a really fucked up country and an even more fucked up version of patriotism. War isn’t something anyone should make a profit off of full stop. This should not be a revolutionary statement.” It should be common fucking sense that profit based in mass murder is so wildly demented that any society that believes in it on a wide scale has failed. It should be a sign that the people in it have failed. And Tony refuses to fall back into a line of thought that allowed him to assume that his weapons were only killing ‘bad’ people.

Ultimately that’s subjective too- it’s not like everyone thinks Americans are the good guys and a lot of the time they’re right, so who was Tony really protecting anyways? He’s tired of coddling his own conscience, pretending to be right so he doesn’t have to consider what happens if he isn’t. He isn’t right, and now the whole world has all the dirty details. He refuses to lack that transparency again.

*

Rhodey hugs Tony unexpectedly mostly because he didn’t know Rhodey was back in town. “Um,” he says intelligently.

“Holy shit Tones, I am so sorry,” he says softly.

Tony frowns, “about what?” he asks. Because he’s looked into Rhodey’s military records and he’s made his fair share of mistakes but he also seems to have a habit of going off script to do what he wants. In an ironic twist of events that’s what seems to get him promoted- he’s better at decision making than his superiors, saves more lives, and generally gets the job done faster so he ends up replacing them. He can’t say he agrees with all of Rhodey’s calls, he finds quite a few of them rather abhorrent, but on the whole Rhodey is a decent guy. Its nice to know considering he hadn’t much wanted to find out how complicit his friend was in a lot of bad military calls.

“Obadiah, Tony,” Rhodey says like he’s confused. “Are you in shock or something because I feel like you should be freaking out. Did you even know before you saw the papers?” he asks.

He lets out a harsh laugh, “yeah Rhodey, how the hell do you think the papers found out?”

Rhodey winces. “I thought… thought that hacker was involved, the one who leaked all your company’s happenings over the last… since World War Two.” Yeah, not that Howard’s actions really matter much now but he felt it was necessary to start completely fresh.

“It was, sort of. I got an anonymous tip.” That’s what he told the cops when he handed over all the information anyways.

But, because Rhodey isn’t as stupid as the cops, he frowns. “Tony, my bosses are losing their shit right now. Your systems are uncrackable and obviously someone managed. Please tell me you’ve figured out who this guy is.”

He almost laughs because that’s fucking hilarious but he keeps it to himself. He shrugs, “nope, and frankly I don’t really care either.”

Rhodey’s eyes all but pop out of his head, “Tony, whoever this is is personally targeting you. This could be a huge problem,” he says.

“Than maybe I shouldn’t have had secrets to keep, Rhodey. Nothing that was released was falsified.” Why do things keep circling back around to this? Why are people showing him so much support for participating in such awful things?

“Tony,” Rhodey murmurs, reaching out and settling a hand on his shoulder. “I know you feel some kind of guilt but Obadiah is the one who sold weapons to terrorists, not you. And he’s the one who funded them, not you. And he tried to have you killed to prevent you from finding out. I think that tells me that he knew you’re a better man than he is and that you never would have supported something like that. You don’t deserve the backlash you’re getting,” he says softly.

Backlash? From whom? A few stray activist groups who get their asses flamed every time they point out that the hacker was right about him? They have no power, no real clout even if some of them are kind of loud about it. But as far as mainstream media goes he’s getting way more support than he deserves.

“I told Pepper this and I’ll tell you too- if I’m not paying enough attention to my company to know that my business partner is funding terrorist movements and supplying them with weapons that is still my problem, Rhodey. Stop trying to avoid holding me responsible for actions that are, in some ways, still my fault.” Its shocking to him the lengths people will go to try to avoid holding him responsible for the actions of his company. Like his ignorance somehow exonerates him from the crimes committed under his nose. If anything he thinks that makes his complacency worse.

Rhodey steps forward, reaching out and grasping his arm. “Tony. I’ve spent almost two decades by your side watching your relationships and what I’ve seen is that toxic people have a habit of attaching themselves to you. Obadiah spent years emotionally manipulating you. He’d take every opportunity to convince you he was right and you were wrong. I know Howard hurt you too. I don’t know how much responsibility you can hand to yourself when a lot of this is the direct result of you being abused for literally your entire life,” he says softly.

Tony shakes his head, “all it took was a simple look at finances and I would have known the numbers didn’t add up. I’m a fucking math genius Rhodey; it shouldn’t have even taken that for me to realize something wasn’t right. No one abused me into not seeing what was right in front of me fucking face.” He sees math that no one else does all the time, he’s made entirely new ways of doing math, and yet simple math escapes him? And Rhodey’s excuse is that Howard was a dick? No fucking good enough.

*

Stephen hadn’t intended to have an interesting day at work but when he heard Tony Stark was in the building he made it his mission to find the man. They’ve all seen the reactor in his chest and Steven wants to see it up close. Of course Stark is not all that pleased with it and neither is his coworker, who knows by now to stay out of his way. “Would you stop staring at my chest like it’s a piece of meat?” Tony snaps at him.

“Oh like you wouldn’t react the same way to a piece of technology you’ve never seen before. Is that contraption attached to your ribs?” he asks, trying to work out the logistics of how it sits in his chest. That’s a heavy plate, something needs to be supporting it and the breastbone is either gone entirely or quite a lot of it has been removed.

“None of your business,” Tony tells him, shifting so his arms are crossed over his chest.

“That’s got to reduce lung capacity, how much more difficult is it for you to breathe?” Stephen asks, unperturbed.

“It reduces lung capacity to seventy percent now stop staring at me,” Tony mumbles.

“You do know I’m a doctor right, its my job to stare,” he points out. And it’s not such a hardship either. Aside from medical curiosity Tony must spend a lot of time working out, and Stephen wonders how me manages that with a giant hole in his chest, and how do the muscles in that area work now with such a large impediment in the way? He itches to reach out and actually examine the area but he suspects that Tony would slap him for doing so.

“That’s nice, I don’t care whatever your name is,” Tony tells him.

“Strange,” Stephen tells him and Tony squints.

“What’s strange?”

“My name,” he says, frowning at Tony. So much for being a genius.

“Do I look like I give two shits and a snare drum about how weird your name is?” he asks.

Stephen gets the miscommunication then and rolls his eyes. “My name is Dr. Stephen Strange, moron,” he says.

Tony looks at him like he’s the one who messed up such a simple interaction and shakes his head. “That’s made up,” he says and Stephen blinks rapidly, wondering where the hell that came from.

“Certainly, that seems quite like a thing a world renowned doctor would do just to confuse some irritating billionaire for the hell of it,” he says sarcastically.

“That’s seriously your real name?” Tony deadpans before letting out a long sigh. “Wow.”

Well that’s quite rude, Stephen can’t help the name he was born with though he does wish his mother chose someone with a surname that wasn’t something children could so easily make fun of. Granted he still made it out with less damage than a lot of his other Asian peers given that his name, while odd, doesn’t immediately sound ethnic. He still resents that his own damn name is what children, and later adults before they learned to fear him, used to poke fun at him.

“Not like ‘Anthony Edward Stark’ is the greatest name on record,” Stephen mumbles. “What exactly powers that thing?” he asks, nodding to the reactor.

Tony gives him a dirty look. “Palladium,” he says and Stephen snorts.

“Might want to find a replacement for that soon unless you’re fond of the idea of being poisoned. Also those materials are absurdly heavy, why would you choose metal?” he asks, nodding at the clearly heavy chest piece. That has to cause pain, a lot of it, and he’s certain that it wouldn’t be able to heal right in the conditions Tony had been in. Hell, he’s not certain something like that could heal right ever.

Tony rolls his eyes, “I was in a cave with a box of scraps, I didn’t exactly have my pick of materials,” he points out.

“Well you’ve been home for almost eight months, I’m sure you could have found something in that time frame,” he says. “You’re quite known for your ingenuity and frankly I’m quite surprised you went with something so simple.”

Tony’s eyebrows shoot up and he blinks rapidly in obvious surprise, “excuse me? Simple? What the hell would you know about this chest plate anyways?” he asks.

Stephen smiles, pleased that his parents’ pressure to be an engineer has finally paid off. “Probably more than most considering I have a degree in the subject. Never was fond though. I do, however, happen to know that there are better materials to use for an implant like that that wouldn’t affect function and would lighten the load, so to speak. And I really can’t stress this enough- find something else to power that thing before it begins to poison you.” He’s rather shocked it hasn’t done that already or maybe it has and Tony isn’t displaying symptoms yet, that’s also entirely possible.

He gets little more than an irritated glare from Tony. “Anything else, doctor?” he asks, raising an eyebrow.

Stephen pulls a card from his pocket and hands to Tony, “in case you need the opinion of a competent doctor. Or if you just want to call,” he says, offering a winning smile before he takes off to go deal with some other patient that’s bound to annoy him.

*

Stephen doesn’t know a whole lot about that new hacker, the one that initially took a rather sharp interest in Tony Stark post return from Afghanistan, but he does know that whomever it is really doesn’t like the man. He found the media coverage of Tony’s business info dump interesting to say the least but the hacker found it offensive, going as far as to rewrite and rename every major news article that covered the subject. What had been particularly interesting is that the new articles replaced the old on every single news website and none of them seemed to be able to replace the hacker’s articles with the originals.

They also seemed unable to put the articles they’d written on that subject onto any major digital platform with the exception of one Christine Everhart’s article that had taken a rather scathing view of the whole thing.

Stephen found the whole thing strange- no pun intended- but had initially thought the hacker would fade into obscurity. Then all the business with Obadiah Stane came out. The media had been far more scathing to him, the man committed treason after all, but the fact that this appeared to be the same hacker that went after Tony had been suspect. That’s about when he notices the shift a little in how this hacker is perceived. At first they’d been an unwelcome intrusion into a beloved celebrity’s life, but now this person is exposing people for treason? They may be useful.

Personally he’s simply curious when the hacker will fade or be found out. How many times can a person risk jumping into someone’s business and getting out unnoticed before they’re flushed out? Starting with Tony Stark, who is probably the only person on this planet with a system that’s unhackable had been a very bold move though and it’s given the hacker an instant air of credibility. If even Tony Stark can’t keep them out no one can. People seem to be split on whether this person is malevolent or benevolent but Stephen doesn’t think there’s enough evidence to say either way.

“What is it that’s got your attention?” Christine asks him. He lifts the paper with the latest news on it and she sighs. “You and that hacker. What is it that’s got you so interested anyways?”

Stephen shrugs as he reads the latest person to suffer the hacker’s takedown. “Purely intellectual curiosity,” he tells her, turning the page to read the rest of the story.

“Intellectual curiosity in someone who’s airing everyone’s dirty laundry?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“This person did catch out a terrorist, Christine. They’re smart, very smart, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders where they came from and when they’ll get caught.” Who wouldn’t at this point? Someone who can break into systems that are off limits to even the smartest people in the world, and someone who manages to catch terrorists? That’s interesting for one, and for two all sorts of policing systems are chasing their tails, utterly lost on who is behind this. They’ve consulted Tony but he seems to have found nothing. That really only adds to the myth behind this hacker anyways, though he’s sure the FBI doesn’t appreciate it.

“Whatever. I think whoever this is is playing with fire. You don’t start releasing information on whomever whenever without consequences,” she points out.

Stephen nods, “well, Justin Hammer certainly knows that considering he’s now also on trial for treason. Turns out Obadiah wasn’t the only one selling weapons to terrorists.” He wonders if its purposeful that the hacker has now tanked the two most powerful weapon’s making companies in the world or if that was a coincidence considering Tony decided to stop making weapons on his own. Regardless, he’s interested for better or for worse.