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Darkness, My Old Friend... and Silence

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"Were we close to creating something?" Tony glared at Bruce, willing the other man with his stare to back him up. When the scientist pursed his lips and blinked away, Tony allowed his jaw to clench in frustration, leaving his mask firmly locked in place. He hadn't expected Bruce's support, but the betrayal hurt just as much as it always did.

Bruce shrugged then, letting his breath out in a soft sigh, meeting Tony's irritated gaze with a silent apology in them. "We did something."

Great, awesome, wonderful. Bruce, as always, was going to throw him under the bus again. Leave him dangling, alone and without support. Why it surprised him every damn time he didn't know, you'd think he'd be used to betrayal by now.

With a sigh of his own, he turned back to the room of Avengers, subconsciously moving closer to Rhodey, the only one in the group who he felt a modicum of trust for. The cold accusation coming from the rest of the team was obvious in their body language and their glares. He couldn't believe these were the same people who'd been drinking his liquor, eating his food and treating him like a friend less than an hour ago. The contrast was glaring and something he'd have to look more closely at later. Much, much later.

"You remember? Aliens? Big nuclear weapon, giant hole in the sky? How are you guys planning on dealing with that?" Tony demanded, staring at Steve and willing himself to not dwell on the nightmare visions he'd seen during his trip through the wormhole.

"Together." Steve replied, his voice so calm and reasonable, it took all his self control not to smack that superior look off Cap's face.

"We'll lose." Tony retorted, unwilling to continue the argument further.

"Then we'll do that together as well."

Tony bit his tongue at the idiotic reply, blinked and looked away from Cap’s arrogant declaration. The man still didn't get it. No matter how many times he'd tried to explain his urgency and concern, none of them took him seriously. The silence was almost too much, but as he shifted away from his irritation, Thor returned. His hand immediately went around Tony's throat as he stormed across the room, closing the distance quickly. He blinked in surprise, fear clawing at him as the Asgardian lifted him into the air, waves of anger rolling off the other man.

"Use your words big guy." He choked, black spots forming at the edge of his vision.

"Thor." He heard Steve say calmly as if this display was perfectly normal behaviour. Fuck, were any of them ever concerned for his well-being? "The Legionnaire?"

Thor abruptly let go, still glaring at him at he relayed Ultron's escape. Tony winced at the pain in his larynx, tensing with guilt at the knowledge Ultron had escaped with Loki's sceptre. Great. Just what he needed. Something else for them to blame him for.

***

"Sonovabitch!" He swore, bolting upright from where he'd fallen asleep on his work bench. He dragged weary hands over his face, rubbing them through his hair as he slowly blinked awake. The nightmares had lessened a lot since they'd defeated Ultron, but had never truly left him.

Getting to his feet, he ignored the tremble in his legs, making his way to the far counter and pressing a button for an instant gourmet coffee. Despite his exhaustion, there was no getting back to sleep now, not with the lingering memory of that event fresh in his mind.

"Boss?" FRIDAY asked from overhead. "Are you alright? May I suggest a glass of water?"

Tony snorted, rolling his eyes as the delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled his senses. "You can suggest FRIDAY, but I'm not having water."

"Then allow me to remind you that both Ms. Potts and Colonol Rhodes have expressed their concern for your well-being?"

"I think you just did that." Tony retorted, taking a sip of the hot beverage and closing his eyes in an expression of pure bliss.

"Boss." FRIDAY admonished in a tone of reprimand that made him miss Jarvis and the AI he'd modelled him after with a sudden and unexpected pang of loss.

"FRIDAY." Tony sighed. "I'll have some later alright?"

"Very well boss. I'll hold you to that." But Tony could tell she wasn't finished, sighing when FRIDAY continued. "Did you have another nightmare?"

"What do you think?" Tony snapped irritably, returning to the chair at his workbench.

"I think you should try talking to someone who can help you."

"Pointless. You already know what the result will be, just like every other time I tried it. Are you sure you don't have a virus? Has some of your wiring been fried? Because I don't make a habit of creating complicated algorithmic programs on purpose and then sabotaging them to say stupid things. It's counter-productive."

"Which sir?" FRIDAY queried. "Creating pointless things or talking to someone?"

"Did I teach you to be this irritating?"

"Must be an evolved trait boss." FRIDAY retorted. "I was, after all, created by you."

Tony groaned again, glaring at the holographic screen still suspended in the air before him. "So I'm arguing with myself."

"Not entirely boss." FRIDAY replied. "I'm not designed to be as stubborn as you, but the sarcasm IS yours. You did design me to place your well-being at the core protocol of my programming for self learning. You designed me to take care of you, despite or perhaps because of your detrimental inclination to not take care of yourself."

"I must've been drunk at the time."

"On the contrary boss, you were quite sober when you created your AI's. I have a visual record stored in my archives should you wish to review them."

"Definitely not."

"Very well."

Tony continued sipping his coffee as FRIDAY subsided into silence, lucid enough now to review the memory of his recent nightmare with some sense of objectivity. There wasn't a reason he could easily point to as to why that dream was still alive and kicking in his subconscious. Nor was there an explanation that he was willing to look at, aside from the obvious. From how everything had progressed from that point in events, the rift between himself and Thor had essentially been repaired, much to his surprise. Though no one had been more shocked than he had been when the Asgardian had helped give "birth" to Vision.

"Boss?"

"Yeah FRIDAY?"

"I do not wish to intrude on your thoughts, but perhaps you could tell me what your dream was about? I may be of assistance."

"It's nothing baby girl. Just memories of Ultron's creation."

"Sad memories?"

Tony frowned. "No... why would they be sad? You mean... JARVIS?"

"My records show that you fashioned him from a living man. There are... instances of... growth during these emotional times."

Tony frowned at that. He'd known JARVIS grew during his more trying emotional episodes on an intellectual and scientific level. But hearing FRIDAY describe it... "Are you saying there are direct and measurable correlations between my ah, "episodes" and JARVIS'... evolution?"

FRIDAY made what sounded suspiciously like a giggle before answering in a more serious tone. "That is exactly what I'm saying boss."

Tony snorted at her response. He knew he shouldn't be surprised by it... yet after a moment he realized he was. For a genius, he could be dense sometimes.

"Boss?"

"Yeah FRIDAY?"

"Your nightmare boss. You did not answer my question."

"Question? Right, your question." He nodded. "Well since we both know I'm not eager to sit in some pompous head shrinks' over priced office...." Tony paused, downing the rest of his coffee."DUM-E?"

A pleased mechanical chirrup answered. "Another cup please." He said, handing his empty mug to the excited bot. "And don't spill it this time." DUM-E replied with a sad hum as he made his way across the floor to the coffee maker. "You can do it buddy." He added, turning back to the screen above his desk. "FRIDAY?"

"Yes boss?"

"Just checking." He said, leaning back in his chair. "If I tell you this nightmare can you keep working on it after you give me your initial impressions?"

"Adding the subroutine now."

"Good. So, dream time. How odd is it that I'm telling this to an AI? Don't answer that." FRIDAY remained quiet. "Right, so... I dreamt of what happened just after Ultron escaped and Thor came back angry."

"Who was in the dream boss?"

Tony frowned. What did that matter? "The usual suspects obviously."

"I do not have a frame of reference for the 'usual suspects' boss. According to leading professionals in the field, what appears in a dream is not the same as what really happened. Dreams are meant to show what someone has trouble accepting. Truths an individual is not willing to face."

"What? You mean that dream is showing me a hang up? I know what happened FRIDAY, I was there."

"Dreams are not memories boss. Which is why it matters who was in the dream. Did you speak to anyone? Did anyone speak to you?"

Tony paused, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Bruce, Steve and Thor."

"How did you feel?"

"What? That's even more bizarre than your first question."

"Studies show that feelings in a dream state are the most important clue to resolving them boss."

"That's ridiculous."

"Less ridiculous than wormholes and Mind Stones boss."

"Sounds like mumbo jumbo to me." Tony grumbled. "But fine, I'll play along. The feeling was...hmm disappointment?"

"Your voice inflection indicates you're not sure about that."

"Fine. I felt betrayed, alone. Abandoned. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"No boss." FRIDAY replied softly. "I will start a file for your review another time."

"I thought we were doing this now?" Tony groused.

"Ms. Potts is on the line."

Tony sighed, accepting the mug of coffee DUM-E offered him. He smiled at the bot, patted it's camera and sent him off to tidy the counter. "Put her through FRIDAY."

"Tony?" Pepper's voice rang through the sound system, her tone less than pleased.

"The one and only Sunshine. What can I do for you Buttercup?"

An exasperated sigh flooded the room. "I swear to god Tony, if you've forgotten the meeting today..."

Tony frowned as FRIDAY lit up with a list of the day's itinerary making him curse under his breath.

"Of course I didn't forget." Tony scoffed, getting to his feet with a sigh. "But remind me, who exactly am I meeting?"

"Of course you forgot." Pepper sighed again as Tony stepped into his private elevator, pressing the button to take him up to his penthouse.

"Oh yee of little faith Pepp. You wound me."

"Not yet I haven't."

"Still waiting sweety." Tony shot back, a grin on his lips knowing how her face would now be scrunching up in extreme irritation as he headed to his private shower.

"For what?" She demanded,

"FRIDAY, mute ambient sound." Tony muttered under his breath, ensuring Pepper wouldn't know he was taking a shower.

"Why am I meeting these people? Come on Pepp, you're supposed to be my CEO. Meetings are your department now." He continued, stepping under a stream of hot water.

"This meeting requires Iron man's presence." She answered, this time it was clear he'd succeeded in annoying her. He groaned as memory returned.

"Dammit Pepper." He swore, rinsing the soap from his hair. "This is about the Avengers isn't it?"

"More specifically about what happened in New York."

"How does what happened in New York and what Loki did have anything to do with lawyers? I thought all that legal shit had been handled already."

"You know why Tony." She answered, only this time her voice held no irritation. "I don't understand why you can't discuss this with the rest of the Avengers."

Tony barked a laugh as he stepped out of the shower and towelled off. "You're joking. We've been over this Pepper. None of them have any money, never mind a job."

"That doesn't make the damage done to the city your sole responsibility Tony."

"I'm well aware of that. Too bad the rest of the team doesn't see it that way."

"Tony..."

"I'll bring it up Pepp, but I'm telling you it's a lost cause. I'm the billionaire, playboy philanthropist remember? Sacrificing myself on the altar of hero worship to feed my insatiable ego."

"Don't give me that crap Tony. That's Barton taking and we both know it."

"Doesn't change anything."

"I'm calling Rhodey."

"No."

"Tony don't be so damned stubborn! He can help. He's part of the Avengers too."

"And have the press find out I'm talking money from someone in the military? Even if it's going to the city, you know how reporters will paint it. Anything to tarnish the self-proclaimed hero."

"I'm not arguing with you over this right now." Pepper retorted. "The meeting's in half an hour. Don't be late."

"Who are these lawyers again?"

"Nelson and Murdock."

Chapter Text

"Thanks FRIDAY." Tony said as the holographic image went dark.

"No problem boss."

"Keep an eye on those stories for me. Seems to be a lot of vigilantes popping up since that business with Loki."

"Yes boss."

"Find out what you can about this Devil of Hell's Kitchen. I'll take a look after the meeting today."

"You have a charity dinner tonight boss."

"What for this time?"

"An art auction to benefit those affected by Dr. Banner's altercation with the Abomination through Harlem boss."

Tony frowned. "Please tell me we aren't on the hook for that too."

"Stark Industries is currently not being sued for damages or repairs affecting Harlem. Though I believe that your meeting today is related."

"Bleeding heart lawyers?"

"As I do not have a heart, I am unable to provide an accurate response to that question."

"You're good at deflecting me. You know that right?"

"Of course. I had an excellent teacher."

"Now you're sassing me, and not in a good way."

"We're here Mr. Stark." Happy announced from the driver's seat. "Do you want me to get your door for you sir?"

"I'm good." Tony said, stepping out of the car onto the sidewalk. "Thanks Happy."

"See you in a few hours boss."

***

Tony joined Pepper outside the boardroom doors, flashing her one of his signature charming smiles in response to her frustrated glare. "What? I'm here aren't I?"

"As Iron Man and as Tony Stark, would it kill you to arrive early? Fashionably late is not charming or professional when meeting a new law firm. It won't impress them. In fact it will probably tick them off."

"I looked them up Pepp and I don't see the problem. They've barely got a thousand dollars to their name and little to no clients, nearly all of them pro-bono cases. Why are we bending over backwards to be nice to them?"

"So I guess you missed the part where they were instrumental in putting Wilson Fisk in prison?" Pepper retorted. "Or how often their case seemed to revolve around a certain vigilante reported in the news?"

Tony blushed and looked away. "I didn't miss anything Pepp, my plate has just been rather full lately."

Pepper rolled her eyes. "I know that Tony, but it isn't like you to come to something like this unprepared. You make a habit of hacking anything and everything you can get your hands on. Please tell me I don't have to get on FRIDAY's case again."

"I'm fine Pepper. Just a little tired.

"Fine. But we're having a talk later."

"Fine."

"Fine."

***

Tony settled in his chair across from the two lawyers, his posture relaxed as Pepper preceded him into the room, taking a seat in the chair to his left. He watched the two men across from him with a thoughtful expression on his face, giving nothing away as he took in the dark glasses the ebony haired man across from him wore.

Nothing in Tony's body language or facial expression gave away what he was thinking as his gaze took note of the red tint of man's sunglasses or the odd way he tipped his neck to the side as though he was listening to something no one else could hear. That was interesting, he noted to himself as Pepper spoke, introducing them to each other. He waited a beat as pleasantries were exchanged, anxious to get to the point of this unorthodox meeting.

"So, gentlemen." He said, sitting straighter in his chair, leaning his elbows on the table to steeple his hands together. "Let's skip the usual legalese mumbo jumbo and assume you have all your papers in order. We're all busy people. I don't see the point in wasting our time here."

"Mr. Stark..." The man who'd insisted on being called Foggy interrupted. "With all due respect..."

"Let's stop right there." Tony replied, cutting the man off before he could continue. "None of this "all due respect"  lawyer-speak. Instead, why don't you tell me what you're doing here and what it has to do with Iron Man."

For the first time since entering the room, the man with the red shades straightened, resting a hand in the table as he leaned forward, training his sightless eyes on Tony's location. "You're an Avenger."

The man, Matt , Tony corrected in his head, said, frowning when Tony scoffed under his breath as though he'd heard him. Tony's brow arched. Of course he'd heard him, Tony thought, giving himself a mental slap. Without the use of his eyes, his other senses would be heightened.

"Sure," he nodded casually. "Let's go with that. And?" He prompted, not missing how his response made the other man frown in visible confusion which only served to heighten Tony's interest in him further.

"You're one of the more... public faces of the Avengers team and though that helps to remind the people of New York and the rest of the world that you're also human, there isn't much known about your teammates."

It was all he could do not to laugh at that, sensing that Murdock man was more than he pretended. He'd been around reporters all his life, he wasn't about to bare his thoughts to a blind lawyer, intentionally or not. "I don't see how that has anything to do with me and it still doesn't tell me what you're doing here."

"Mr. Stark." Foggy continued, Tony frowned at the man as his attention snapped to him. He didn't like the feeling of Matt's eyes on him. Probably just paranoia he reminded himself, but he'd also stopped ignoring his instincts after Obie. "We're aware of the relief efforts the Maria Stark Foundation is providing to the people of Hell's Kitchen. What brings us here today is well.... for lack of a better word, unorthodox and frankly... a little presumptive."

"What my partner is trying to say Mr. Stark," Matt continued, "is that we feel you should not be held solely responsible for the actions of others. We are here to offer our services in contract negotiations with your fellow teammates on the very serious business of having them share the responsibility of their actions in this city."

Whatever he'd been expecting from these unknown, untested lawyers, this was not it. By the look on Pepper's face, she was struck just as speechless as he was.

"I'm sorry, what?" He said at the same time Pepper found her voice.

"About time."

His eyes narrowed as he met her gaze, suspicion surging to the forefront of his thoughts. "Is this your doing?" He grunted. It was too similar to the conversation he'd had with her this morning to be a coincidence. Or at least, he hoped it was a coincidence.

"I had nothing to do with this." She retorted.

"Mr. Stark?" Matt said, drawing his attention back to the lawyer. "If we've overstepped our bounds, we apologize. But by Ms. Potts reaction, I'm guessing this issue has come up before?"

"It has. Just this morning in fact." Pepper nodded, casting Tony a meaningful stare for which he could clearly hear her smug side comment in his head. 'Told you so'.

Tony got to his feet, levelling a meaningful stare at Pepper as he spoke. "Gentlemen. If you'll excuse us a moment. Ms. Potts?" He said, moving to the door. "I need to speak with you in the hall."

Without waiting for her to answer, Tony marched from the room, stopping when he reached the hallway. Pepper joined him a minute later, irritation lining her features.

"That was rude."

"Rude?" He scoffed. "How did we not know what they were here for? Do we not do our homework anymore?"

Pepper scowled at him. "Don't start with me Tony. Of course I checked them out. Which, I'll remind you I forwarded to you last week. If you'd read it, you would have had some idea why they were here. Ferreting out other people's motivations are not my department. It's yours."

"So I'm stuck with all the hard work and saving the world?"

"I'm CEO of YOUR company. Don't you dare insinuate that it's a walk in the park. Board meetings, shareholder meetings, security issues, trade deals, client contracts, patent meetings, takeover attempts... and babysitting you. Should I go on?"

"What!? No! Of course not! Just..."

"You didn't read anything I sent you did you?"

Tony stared at a spot on the wall, avoiding her eyes. "Like I said before... I've been busy Pepp." He muttered, even to his ears it sounded like an excuse. It was true, he had been busy, but Pepper was right, he should have read her report. It just hadn't made the top 50 of his list of priorities along with all the other fires he'd been trying to put out since Sokovia and prior.

"I know you work hard Tony. That's not what I'm saying."

"I know Pepper. And I know I don't say it nearly enough, but I appreciate everything you do. More than I can ever tell you in words."

"Okay stop right there." Pepper huffed. "I know okay? Just... hunour me, see what these lawyers have to say. They could really help you out here. I know you've tried to tell the other Avengers about this before, but maybe if it came from someone else..."

Tony snorted, rolling his eyes as tension creeped back into his shoulders. "We can dream right?"

"Excuse me? Mr. Stark? Ms. Potts?"

They both turned to see Foggy Nelson framed in the doorway. "Yes Mr. Nelson?"

"I realize that our reason for being here is a little out there, but perhaps if I could speak with Ms. Potts privately while Mr. Stark talks with my partner, things might go a little faster?"

Pepper caught Tony's eye and at his slight nod, she turned back to Foggy with a smile. "I think that's a good idea. If you'll follow ne?"

"Of course." Foggy nodded, retreating back inside the boardroom to retrieve his briefcase.

"I'll take him to meeting room 3." She said, turning back to Tony.

"Right. And Pepp? Highest security level."

"Right. FRIDAY will take care of that?"

"Of course Ms. Potts." FRIDAY affirmed from Tony's watch.

"I don't know if I'll ever get used to that." Pepper frowned. "Having JARVIS in the tower was easier. Having FRIDAY follow you around..."

Tony glared at her as Foggy joined them, not wanting to let the lawyer hear them talking about FRIDAY. "See you later Pepp."

"Of course Mr. Stark." She beamed back at him, leading Foggy down the hall.

With a deep sigh, Tony returned to the boardroom and Matt Murdock.

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony settled back in his chair. He hadn't been able to resist reviewing the files FRIDAY had compiled on the lawyer seated across from him. Matt sat quietly while he did so, seemingly unaffected by what Tony was doing up until FRIDAY showed him something that made him pause.

Matt's demeanour shifted from open, unassuming blind lawyer to something else entirely. Tony frowned as he collapsed the holographic screen which had been muted while he watched the accumulated video feeds. His eyes flicked over the lawyer, taking note of how he didn't seem completely blind anymore. His interest spiked as he mulled over what FRIDAY had shown him, uncertain how to proceed.

"So, Mr. Murdock. I can't imagine you came here willingly. Everything in your history indicates a, shall we say, utter disdain for someone like me. Did your partner put you up to this?"

"It was a mutual agreement."

Tony snorted, leaning further back in his chair. This was going to be fun... well, entertaining at least. "I highly doubt that. You're barely keeping hold of your temper right now."

"I just don't see how my past has any bearing on our meeting today."

"Let's cut the bullshit right there. We can pretend till the cows come home that you don't have something to prove and I can pretend I haven't guessed who you are. Let's not."

"I don't know what you're talking about Mr. Stark." Matt retorted, though Tony caught the brief clenching of the other man's fist before he forced it to relax at his side.

"Fine. We'll do it the hard way." Tony huffed. "Does your partner know who you are?"

"I don't..."

"You're Daredevil." Tony interrupted, smiling to himself at Matt's involuntary inhale. "I'm Iron Man. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that's the real reason you agreed to this meeting, and not whatever your partner ssid."

Matt sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Fine. What do you want to know?"

"Wow! Really? How... no wait... I think I can guess. That accident when you were a kid... it took your sight but enhanced everything else right? And you probably learned how to fight from your dad... and then, I'm guessing someone else showed you other techniques later on."

"And I'm going to guess that your impromptu profile of me is how you turned a multi-million dollar company into a multi-billion dollar company."

Tony shrugged. "People see what they want to see Mr. Murdock. Underestimating me always works in my favour."

"Well you're not wrong." Matt sighed. "About me."

"So I gotta ask..." Tony paused. "Why do you do it?"

Matt scowled and leaned forward in his chair. "Because people like you and your friends not only damage buildings, but lives. Your "super" fights create power vacuums and increase crime rates when infrastructure and businesses are destroyed. I doubt you're even aware of the increased crime rates in the affected areas."

"You're right. I'm not." Tony admitted. "Though I'm not about to apologize for it either. The public might see a spoiled billionaire playboy philanthropist, but I hold seven PhDs and all tech innovations from Stark Industries come from me."

"You don't need to apologize Mr. Stark. I'm well aware of your efforts to rectify the damage done to the city, both here and internationally. What I don't see is any sort of public accountability from your associates. You and by default, Iron Man, show you are willing to take responsibility for any problems you might have caused. But you are one member of a six person team. Where is their accountability? Where is their remorse? Or do they all assume that because you have the money that you should also shoulder all the responsibility and blame?"

"Uh..." Tony paused, blinking away the shock Matt's speech had just caused. "Congratulations Mr. Murdock. I can count on one hand how many people have left me speechless."

Matt chuckled under his breath. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"As it was meant to be." Tony paused. "So, this... proposal you've brought to me... it will make the other Avengers aware of what's going on?"

"From what I overheard you say to Ms. Potts in the hall, you've already tried that and failed. It's possible they may be more inclined to listen if it comes from an outside party."

"Possible. But not likely." Tony scoffed. "And let me guess, your personal reason for being here is about the momentum that's been brewing about international oversight into Avenger missions."

Matt frowned. "How did you come to that conclusion?"

"I personally don't know any secret identity supers... but these Accords could change that. If they aren't handled properly from the very beginning, a lot of people will be in danger."

"I'd heard you're involved in those talks and the talks with the United Nations. I just... would like the opportunity to have some say in how secret identity heroes are handled."

Tony sat back in his chair, a thoughtful expression in his face.

"Mr. Stark?"

"You realize that presenting the other Avengers with these contracts can't have any connection to me right?"

"Of course." Matt nodded. "We came to you because we needed your input on how to proceed. Once we have what we need, we'll take it to the Governor or Senator of New York and they can take it from there."

"You know you're going to get a lot of pushback on this right?" Tony reminded him.

"I know. Foggy isn't convinced, but... he'll learn."

"You should also consider taking this to the papers. Public opinion can go a long way to getting the politicians to listen to you. If not, it can't hurt to remind the public regarding accountability for everyone, even super heroes."

"We were hoping we could avoid that." Matt hesitated. "Public opinion is already divided on this issue."

"All the more reason to go public." Tony retorted with a sigh. "Look, I know you're hesitant, but trust me on this. Getting it out there first will set the tone once the general public catches wind of what's going on internationally. Either way, we aren't going to work everything out today."

"True." Matt agreed, though Tony could tell he didn't like it.

"You like charity dinners?" Tony asked suddenly.

Matt laughed. "Not especially."

"Well it's time for a change Mr. Murdock. You're coming with me tonight as my guests. I'll have Pepper forward the invitations to your office along with some... appropriate attire."

"You want me to accept clothes from you?"

Tony groaned. "Oh for... it's not a bribe all right? Think of it as a promise from me to keep your secret and my word that we'll meet again to discuss the Accords mess later. Plus, they won't let you in the door dressed the way you are now. Besides, coming with me tonight would be doing me a favour."

"Well that's not condescending at all." Matt scoffed, getting to his feet at the same time Tony did.

"Look, you want to make a difference, I get it. I want to make a difference. But what you want to do is something I can't do. They're not going to listen to me about accountability and property damages. I'm not a lawyer, but if you want to see how things work in my world, you're gonna have to blend in. Just do what you do already..." Tony smirked. "Pretend you're blind."

Matt snorted. "You're an ass. Funny... but still an ass."

"I've been called worse." Tony chuckled, walking the other man into the hallway. "I'll have my driver pick you up at 7. See you then." Tony said, heading for the nearest elevator.

"Mr. Stark!"

"Yeah?"

"Will any of your teammates be in attendance tonight?"

Tony frowned. He'd been trying not to think about that even though it was pointless. "Steve Rogers might be there. He's not a fan of these dinners, but it involves the actions of another teammate so he'll probably feel compelled to make an appearance."

"Appearances aren't the same as accountability."

Tony smiled. "I think you and I are going to get along just fine Mr. Murdock."

Chapter Text

"FRIDAY? Has Happy picked up the lawyers yet?" Tony asked as he straightened his tie, surveying himself in his floor length bedroom mirror.

"Yes, but Happy reports that Mr. Nelson won't be attending."

"No?"

"He had a prior engagement boss. There was a blonde female with him on the street when Mr. Hogan arrived at their office."

"Right. Okay, have Happy tell Matt I'll see him there."

"Will do boss."

Tony gave himself a final approving look as he smoothed his tie down the front of his shirt. He struck an impressive image. Ebony suit, midnight blue silk shirt with a fire engine red tie. He smiled at himself, liking what he saw and comforted by the thought of seeing Matt tonight. Steve had let Pepper know he would be there and it had not been something Tony wanted to hear. With Matt there, at least he'd have someone to talk to and subsequently keep Steve from being his usual irritating self. Well, he hoped so anyway.

He scowled at himself in the mirror, tearing his thoughts away from Cap. He'd never really liked Steve, despite his efforts to see the man for who he was rather than through the warped filter of his father's obsession with the man. He'd eventually succeeded in taking the blinders off, but the results were not what he'd anticipated.

In the elevator to the ground floor, he leaned against the wall as the numbers descended, bringing him down to the garage. With the sparkle of his dad's hero worship for Steve Rogers removed, all he could see was arrogance, ignorance and a self-righteousness that was not only irritating, but dangerous. Rogers had no concept of fairness or compromise and owning his mistakes were a completely foreign concept.

Tony dropped into his shiny red Buggatti Veyron, letting the door slip closed as the engine roared to life. Pulling into traffic, he scowled again at the turn his thoughts had taken. Clearly his brain wanted to stay on the topic of Rogers, despite his efforts to stop.

After what had happened with Ultron, and the fallout from Rogers' and Romanoff's idiotic plan to expose Hydra while simultaneously putting hundreds of undercover SHIELD agents in danger, he'd decided to to do a background check on the good old Cap. What he found not only shocked him, but made everything he thought he knew about Rogers irrelevant. The Captain was no captain. Christ, Rogers hadn't even finished basic training before being tapped for the super soldier program. The Captain moniker came when upper brass used Rogers to sell war bonds and put him on stage like a performing monkey.

It still made him laugh when he pictured the old propaganda films that starred Rogers and the dozen women in all their star-spangled glory. He'd been further surprised when he found out that the only reason Steve had been given command of the Howling Commandos was because he'd ignored a direct order.

Once he'd reviewed everything he could get his hands on, he'd sat reclining in his chair in the workshop, a glass of scotch in his hand. The liquor had helped to dispel his shock and further clear his mind as he went over the facts of Rogers' history.

Steve Rogers was essentially still a child, a full grown child mind you, but yeah, a child in everything that mattered. A man filled with conviction and patriotism that was completely out of touch with the 21st century. Enlisted in the army and serving less than six months of basic training, he'd volunteered for a classified and highly dangerous genetic experiment. After his stint as a performing symbol of patriotic inspiration in propaganda films, he'd defied his superiors to rescue his best friend from behind enemy lines. Miraculously, he'd emerged unscathed from that fiasco, rescuing almost 200 prisoners of war, who'd been held captive by the Red Skull and Hydra.

Those in charge had clearly been impressed by this and volunteers were found to joined Rogers in forming the Howling Commandos. Unsupervised, untrained and highly skilled at taking out their enemies, they were deployed to shut down Hydra cells all over Europe.

Tony sped through two intersections, ignoring the angry honks from other drivers as he slipped past them at warp speed. Scowling to himself, he tapped the brakes. Getting into an accident over Rogers was not worth it. Steve was not worth it, yet the thought did nothing to dispel his irritation.

God, he had to stop thinking of that man, he frowned to himself, pulling up to the valet outside the building where the Charity dinner was being held. Leaving the engine running, he stepped out, took a deep breath and headed for the stairs, stopping when he caught sight of the lawyer.

A smile bloomed on his lips as he approached the man. "Mr. Murdock." He beamed, smiling more when Matt turned to him, the other man unable to stop the twitch of a smile appearing on his face.

"Mr. Stark. Nice ride."

Tony shrugged. "Not one of my favourites, but it's all about appearances right?"

Matt smiled further as Tony stuck his elbow out to lead him inside. "I wouldn't know since I've not had any experience with appearances."

Tony chuckled at his side. "Smooth. You better watch yourself in there. These people are sharks in expensive shoes. They'll eat you alive if they think you're hiding something."

"Lucky for me, I'm not very tasty."

"Is that so? Well in that case we might have to sweeten you up a bit. Can I get you a drink before they drag out the dinner?"

"This isn't some secret billionaire ritual is it?"

"What?" Tony frowned.

"Dragging out dinner. Does it include a sacrifice?"

Tony laughed, feeling his cheeks ache. "Shit Murdock, I never would have guessed you've got that kind of snark hidden behind those glasses of yours. What'll you have?"

Matt smiled back at him. "Scotch. Neat."

"Coming right up." Tony nodded, surprising Matt when the billionaire let his earlier teasing slide. "I'll be right back. There's a chair to your right behind you and a large group of people near the windows on your left. Back in a jiff."

"Thank you Mr. Stark. I'll be here."

"Call me Tony." He said and Matt caught the faint thump of Stark's pulse picking up as he walked off. Matt frowned, wondering what that had been about. Did he think asking Matt to call him by his first name was inappropriate? It was something to think about at amy rate. He drifted in his thoughts, listening to the quiet conversations around him, taking in the room as subtly as possible, the ever present red tinge colouring everything he could "see."

Tony returned and pressed a drink into his hand. "Here you go. Just like you asked."

"Thank you Tony." He murmured, lifting the glass to his lips to cover his smile as Tony's pulse sped in pleasure to the use of his first name. "You can call me Matt if you want."

"I'd like that." Tony nodded, sipping his drink. "So, do you know what this charity is for?"

Matt shook his head. "I didn't have time to check."

"Charity art auction. The proceeds are going towards a fund to help rebuild Harlem."

"That's... nice." Matt replied, trying not to sound surprised. Damn, did anyone really know how much Stark did for the city?

"Yeah." Tony nodded, his voice losing it's lighter tone. "Seems a bit stupid to host a charity dinner, auctioning expensive art just to get rich guys to donate money to something worthwhile. Not like they could be persuaded to part with their bottom line for a good cause or anything." Tony added bitterly.

"Mr. Stark..." Matt began, putting a hand to the man's shoulder. "Tony. I owe you an apology."

"Uh... what? Why?"

"I completely misjudged you. You are much more than anyone could ever guess."

Tony shrugged, letting Matt drop his hand as if it meant nothing. "Yeah. I get that a lot. Don't worry about it, I'm used to it."

"Mr. Stark..."

"Oh fine." Tony huffed, knocking back the rest of his drink. "Thank you for saying so."

"You shouldn't let people think those things. You'd enjoy these events more if people knew who you really were behind the mask you wear."

"Really? Drop the mask? And how's that working out for you?" Tony retorted, his voice dropping in an effort to take out the sting of his reply. "Trust me Matt, no one cares. I've tried."

"Some people do care. But you have a point. I shouldn't be giving advice about masks when I still wear one."

"Hey, no, I'm sorry about that. I didn't mean it. I know you're only trying to protect the people you care about. I get it. I do. But it reminds me that I wanted to let you know that if you ever need me for anything, just get in touch. I can help."

"I don't think having Iron Man involved in what I'm doing would help keep me protected."

"Oh! No, of course not. Not what I meant really, though yeah Iron Man could help out if you needed him. But I was thinking more if you need help with investigating stuff or maybe better equipment. Even just a place to crash if something bad were to happen."

"That's... very generous of you."

"Well, we good guys have to stick together." Tony replied, though the cheer in his voice was clearly forced making Matt frown. "You want another?"

"I'm good thanks."

"Oh, never mind, it's too late anyway. They're serving dinner. Follow me."

 

~~~~~

Fun fact: I didn't know before writing this chapter, but of the three cars Tony Stark owns canonically is a Buggatti Veyron. ;)

 

Chapter Text

Dinner was delicious and impressive, if over the top and Matt had to wonder how any money would ever make it into Charity coffers by the end of the night. He and Tony spent much of that time quietly discussing the United Nations push for Avenger oversight and Tony's push back on some of their more outrageous demands.

By the end of the meal, Matt couldn't help but wonder how the billionaire could manage everything he was doing outside his role as Iron Man. He doubted very much he was taking care of himself or getting much sleep if he was doing even half the things he'd mentioned he was working on.

They drifted away from the other guests after dessert had been cleared away, finding a quiet corner where they could continue their conversation.

"So how hard is it to be in a room like this?" Tony asked, sipping at his second scotch for the night. "I can't imagine it's all that pleasant if your other senses are amplified."

"It can get a little overwhelming at times, but it's alright. I'm good."

"Oh shit, I forgot about him." Tony swore, staring into the crowd. Matt followed Tony's line of sight, watching as the red glow before him coalesced around a tall figure who was rapidly approaching.

"Stark." The man said without a hint of friendliness in his tone. "What are you doing hiding in a corner? Aren't you usually the centre of attention at these things?"

"We're having a conversation." Matt piped up, getting to his feet, smiling inwardly as the other man took a half step back from him.

"Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't see you there." The newcomer said, his voice filling with charm as he stuck his hand out. "Steve Rogers, or Captain America, at your service."

Matt ignored Steve's outstretched hand, waiting for him to realize his mistake.

"Christ Rogers." Tony muttered from behind him. "This is Matt Murdock. He's blind."

"Oh my goodness!" Steve exclaimed, stammering out an apology. "I'm so sorry. Guess you can't see my hand there huh?"

"Did you need something?" Tony sighed as he stood at Matt's side.

"Well no. Not really. I just wanted to come say hi. I didn't realize you had company."

"Right." Tony nodded, though Matt could feel the waves of irritation and tension coming off him, while Steve remained oblivious. "I'm getting another drink. You want a refill Matt?"

"Sure. Thanks Tony."

Steve cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with having been left alone with a stranger. "So. You here as Tony's guest? How do you two know each other?"

"Actually we just met today."

Steve chuckled under his breath. "Right. I should've guessed."

"Oh? What exactly have you guessed?"

"Uh... nothing. I mean, well it's none of my business but you should know that Tony's not very reliable."

"I honestly have no idea what you're taking about Mr. Rogers."

"Well, you're his date right? Though I never imagined he'd bring a blind person to an art auction."

Tony returned just then and Matt could feel the moment the other man was prepared to punch Rogers in the face when his pulse began to race. He reached for the scotch Tony had brought back, brushing his fingers against the other man's hand in an attempt to bring his attention back to him.

"God Rogers. I didn't think you had it in you to put your foot any further down your throat. Apparently, I was wrong." Tony snorted. "Matt Murdock is not my date as you so ignorantly concluded. He's my guest, and a lawyer. You might want to reign it in a bit."

"I.. what? I mean... I didn't..."

"Oh just go away Steve. No one wants to hear your excuses. Besides, I think Nat misses you. She hasn't stopped glaring since you walked over here."

"Sorry." Steve muttered as he made his way back the way he'd come.

"I am so sorry about that." Tony stammered, his eyes glaring holes in Steve's back. "I should've warned you he'd be here."

"Don't you dare apologize for that man's behaviour." Matt retorted, downing half his drink. "You're not responsible for other people's actions."

Tony shrugged. "Maybe not, but it's still embarrassing."

"You've nothing to be embarrassed about. Rogers is an ass."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "True. So, I hate to leave you alone after that, but there's someone I wanted to speak to before I leave tonight. I can have Happy drive you home if you'd rather not wait."

"No, it's fine. I'll wait. Besides, like you said earlier, I need to make nice with these people if I'm going to help you with the Accords."

"Oh, well. Okay then. I promise I won't take long."

"Take as much time as you need. I think I'll just mingle until the auction starts."

***

Tony made his way through the various pockets of guests, searching the room for one of the people he'd wanted to talk to. Ten minutes later, he spotted the man he'd been looking for. Tall and striking in his midnight blue tux, a deep red silk shirt graced his collar with a matching black silk tie disappearing into the folds of his jacket.

Beside him stood a perfectly coiffed blonde, the deep magenta of her dress shifting colours as she leaned in close to whisper something in his ear, before stepping away. The man spotted Tony walking towards him, a faint frown on his features before his lips turned up in a bright false smile.

Huh. Tony thought as he approached. Guess the guy's not a fan.

"Doctor Stark." He greeted him, shaking Tony's offered hand.

"I don't usually go by that title Doctor Strange. Good to see you here."

"Mmm. Likewise." The other man nodded, clearly uninterested in him. "Are you planning to purchase a few pieces tonight?"

"Eh, probably." Tony shrugged, though he knew it wasn't necessary given all the money he'd already provided for relief finds in Harlem and other parts of the city. But Strange didn't know that and Tony  wasn't in the mood to enlighten him. Besides, the good doctor would probably think he was boasting. "Pepper would tear me a new one if I didn't."

"Well we can't have that can we?" Strange chuckled, raising his glass of champagne to his lips.

"What about you? See anything you like on the menu?"

"One or two items struck my fancy, but Christine insists I can only choose one." Strange replied, his voice exceedingly casual. "I do have to agree with her though. I'm running out of wall space with all the art I've purchased. I'll have to build a new house to display all the pieces I currently have just to do them justice."

"I can see where that would be a problem for sure." Tony nodded, unsure why Strange was being so off-putting tonight.

"So, did you come alone? I thought you typically avoided functions like this?"

"Well since it's for a good cause, I couldn't say no. As for the other thing, I brought a guest. A lawyer I met this morning, thought he might like to get a feel for the kind of people I associate with."

"So no date then?"

Tony frowned. What was Strange's problem tonight? "Nope, no date. Why? Are you looking for company?"

"Don't be ridiculous Stark." Stephen scoffed. "I have a date. She's just gone to get us another drink."

"Right. Well, I should get back to my guest and introduce him to a few people before the auction starts. Nice seeing you Strange. Enjoy the rest of your evening."

"Likewise Mr. Stark." Stephen replied in a much friendlier tone. "Enjoy your evening as well."

Tony walked away from Strange feeling as though he'd missed something important, but for the life of him couldn't figure out what. With a final glance back, he couldn't deny the Doctor's atractiveness and wondered what it would be like to have those blue eyes look at him with warmth rather than cool indifference.

He shrugged the thought away, knowing the chances of that happening were slim to none. But he was always up for a challenge and vowed to try to win the man over  the next time they met. Little did he know then that it would be almost a year before he saw Strange again or that the Doctor would have changed so drastically.

***

Matt didn't go far after Tony had left to go look for his friends. He slipped through the other guests in attendance, nodding and smiling, and making general small talk. He made it seem purposeful even as he followed the sound of Steve Rogers' movement through the hall.

"Something wrong Steve?" He heard a woman ask, who he presumed must be the "Nat" Tony had mentioned, detecting traces of a European accent in her voice. "You look upset."

"Stark's just being his usual rude self." Steve retorted, his voice cutting off as he drank from the glass the woman handed him. "I'm fine Nat."

"Who was that with him? I don't recognize him."

"Not sure why you would."

"Spy remember? It's what I do. I keep track of Tony's contacts."

"Some lawyer or something. Said he was here as his guest."

"Did you get a name?"

"Damn." Steve swore softly. "I did, but I forgot it after Tony embarrassed me."

"Don't worry about it." Nat replied. "If he's local, it shouldn't be too hard to find out."

"Even easier, he's blind. I doubt there's that many blind lawyers in New York."

"You're kidding."

"No, and I didn't realize until after it was too late. I mean, it was an honest mistake, the guy was wearing sunglasses, same as Tony does. Thought he might be Tony's date."

Nat let a short giggle escape her. "For a guy from the forties, you've caught on quick to 21st century dating. Though you do need to stop making assumptions, it would really help improve things with Tony."

"I thought I should be prepared after I got to New York. Didn't want to embarrass myself again like I did with Karen. And I know I need to stop putting my foot in my mouth but I'm afraid I've got Barton's voice in my head every time I see Tony."

"Should probably stop that, for the sake of your sanity at least. Barton has issues. Anyway, are we sticking around or do you want to take off?"

"Probably shouldn't leave Stark here alone and it wouldn't look good if Captain America left before the auction started."

"I suppose you have a point" nat huffed. "Let's find a good place to keep an eye on things before the auction starts."

"Hey, there you are." Tony sighed as he joined Matt at his side. He flinched a bit having been focusing on Steve's conversation with Nat. He felt the other man stiffen, then frown, his heart rate picking up. "You okay? I didn't mean to startle you."

"I'm fine Tony." Matt assured him, turning to face him.

"Uh huh." Tony replied, his voice taking on a teasing note. "Mr. Super hearing didn't hear me coming. Yeah, not buying that, so who are you eavesdropping on?"

Another voice cut through the din of conversation in the room and Matt tilted his head to the side to get a better fix on where to focus his attention. "One moment Tony." He muttered.

"I was an idiot when I agreed come with you tonight." A woman's voice hissed at the man beside her. "I heard you being rude to Stark again and lying to him that I'm your date is beneath you Stephen."

"You are my date Christine."

"Only because we already paid for the tickets months ago. I should've known you'd behave like an ass."

"As you so eloquently informed me, my behaviour is no longer your problem remember?"

"Doesn't give you the right to be rude to people when I'm with you. I don't get you. Tony's a good guy. He turned his father's business around and has done everything he could to eliminate his company's involvement in weapons development."

"He still profited from that for years before he suppsedly 'saw the light' Christine."

Christine sighed loudly and Matt could almost see the look of irritation that was likely plain on her face. "One of these days you're going to need a friend and you'll find yourself very alone. Not everything is as black and white as you think Stephen and I for one am tired of waiting for you to see it."

"I have friends, so I can honestly say I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't." Christine retorted. "I'm leaving, I've had enough for one night. I'll be outside if you're leaving with me, otherwise I'll just call a cab."

"You're being childish." Stephen scoffed. "But fine. I'll meet you outside after I speak to the auctioneer. Have them bring the car around and I'll join you shortly."

Matt let the conversation dwindle into the background, turning his attention to the man at his side. "You have... interesting friends Tony."

"Oh? Who?"

"Perhaps we could discuss it another time?"

"Oh, sure right. You want to get out of here? I've sent for someone to come collect my car so Happy can drive us back if you want to leave. Or we can stay?"

"No I think I'm alright with leaving. Though weren't you going to purchase something tonight?" Matt asked as Tony led them to the door.

"Already done. I spoke to the auctioneer and I'm having Pepper set up a similar deal with an equal donation to projects in your neck of the woods."

"You did what?"

"Shh." Tony hushed him. "We can talk about it more on the ride back."

Chapter Text

"I think you do too much already Mr. Stark." Matt said where he was seated to his left in the back of Happy's car.

"Tony."

"Fine, Tony. But you aren't responsible for fixing the world."

"Eh." Tony shrugged. "So does that mean you're on board with managing the fund for Hell's Kitchen? I mean, it just makes sense. It's your neighbourhood, I figure you have a better idea than me where the money should go."

"Yes, fine. I agree." Matt huffed.

"So, what were you doing back there? And what did you mean I have interesting friends?"

"Your Captain America didn't seem very friendly." Matt replied. "Neither was his companion, someone named Nat."

"That honestly doesn't surprise me." Tony snorted. "But back to Rogers'. One, he's not my Captain. Not my anything, and two he's not even a real Captain. Never finished basic training."

"Is he the reason the others haven't listened to you regarding accountability?"

"Well until you said that just now, I would have said it was because they believe everything the press has said about me. But you're probably right, it likely has more to do with Rogers' attitude."

"I also overheard another conversation, probably the same man you said you needed to speak to earlier."

"You mean Doctor Strange?"

Matt smirked. "Fun name, but yes if his first name is Stephen."

"Really? He was talking about me? That's surprising. He didn't seem pleased to see me at all."

"I think many of the people you think of as possible friends find you intimidating."

"What? Little old me?" Tony smiled. "Nice theory Murdock, but you aren't intimidated."

"Unlike everyone else, I can hear your heartbeat. It let's me know when someone's lying."

"Yeah that's not at all creepy." Tony snorted. "Must come in handy when taking in new clients. Not exactly textbook innocent until proven guilty."

"No, it's not. And my partner doesn't like it at all."

"He knows about you?"

"I didn't plan for him to find out if that's what you're asking."

"I wasn't, but that could have been avoided if we'd met sooner. You ever get in a bind like that in future I can just come get you and keep you safe until you recover. I'm guessing he found you injured somewhere and it forced you to come clean?"

"Yeah. Found me on the floor of my apartment. He wasn't happy about it."

"You're still working together though." Tony reminded him.

"For now. Not sure how much longer it will last."

"Well if it doesn't work out, give me a call. I'm sure we can come up with some kind of arrangement that helps us both out."

"I don't want your charity Stark."

"God, you'd think people were deaf or something. Did I say charity? No, I said an arrangement. I've had enough of throwing money at people hoping they see how valuable I am. That's over. Like I already told you, it would be an arrangement we both agreed on."

"You're right." Matt sighed. "I'm sorry. Not sure if I'll take you up on it though."

"Don't worry about it. Take whatever time you need. In the meantime, I'll have Pepper contact you about that charity thing for Hell's Kitchen. Any problems, just talk to her or give me a call directly."

"I think Pepper will be able to handle anything that might come up."

"Well sure she can... but I'm more fun. Besides, she's not involved with the accords business. At least not yet. She does enough as it is."

"No offense Tony, but you work too hard."

"You know, if I wanted someone to nag me I'd put FRIDAY on a loop of all the times people have told me that."

"Doesn't make it less true."

"Right." Tony retorted. "Well, we're here. I'll be in touch."

"Looking forward to working with you Stark."

"Of course you are." Tony laughed. "I'm the most entertaining guy you'll ever meet."

"Well, you're something."

"I'm gonna take that as a compliment. Goodnight Mr. Murdock."

"Goodnight Tony."

***

Following the Charity dinner, Matt came by Stark Tower once per week or once every other week. They spent their time working on the amendments and proposal drafts to the ongoing Accords issue, in addition to the contracts for the other Avengers.

In the times between meetings, Tony worked on improvements to the Iron Man armour, designed more versatile prosthetics and wrote a new program code to upgrade Stark Industries security protocols. Matt continued to tell him he worked too hard, to which Tony usually ignored him, though on occasion the lawyer would manage to get him to leave his workshop and they'd leave the tower to get dinner. Eight months passed before he had another nightmare.

"You murdered my parents Stark." Wanda's icy glare accused him, blood red pools of energy lashing at him from where he was pressed into a wall with a column of concrete. "I can never make you suffer enough for what you did."

"That's not true!" He protested, struggling to push against the weight on his chest. JARVIS was down... no FRIDAY was down, JARVIS was long gone and the arc reactor had long since dimmed. "I stopped it! I shut it all down!"

"Lies! You never stopped creating weapons! You lied while telling the world a pretty story about how you'd changed. Anything to get the world to like you again."

"That wasn't me! It was Stane! Obie tried to kill me when I found out what he'd done."

"A convenient excuse." She snarled. "Hard to ask his version of what happened when he's dead! Because you killed him."

"He didn't give me a choice! He was going to kill Pepper."

"Come now Tony." Steve's voice came from his right, gradually increasing in volume as he joined Wanda at her side. "Tell the truth. You lied about everything. Your actions led to the murder of Wanda's parents. It's time you paid for your sins."

"Go to hell Rogers. I should never have trusted you. You're no hero."

"Goodbye Stark." Wanda grinned wickedly, a red energy cloud pressing into the concrete at his chest, crushing it against him.

"No! Rogers help me! Stop her!"

"Goodbye Tony."


"Arrgh!" Tony moaned, the vision in his mind receding as he became aware of a cold, hard surface pressing into his cheek. He brought a hand to his face, swiping drool from the corner of his mouth as he struggled to his knees.

"FRIDAY?"

"Yes boss?"

"What happened? Why am I on the floor?" Tony groaned as he crawled to his couch and sat down.

"You collapsed boss. You've been working for 26 hours straight with no food. You stood up too fast, then you fell down and became unresponsive."

A whirring beep to his left had him cracking an eye open to see DUM-E holding out a steaming cup of hot coffee. He smiled and took it, sipping gratefully as the remnants of his dream faded. "Thanks buddy." He murmured.

"Did you have another nightmare boss? You were talking in your sleep."

"Before I answer that, why did you leave me on the floor?"

"You needed the rest. Though it would be more beneficial to have you get proper rest in a proper bed, I thought this was an acceptable compromise. Also, I ran a scan and found nothing that would require medical assistance."

"Compromise.. right."

"Boss?"

"Yeah?"

"What did you dream about?"

"We're doing this now?"

"Conscious recall of dream details are statistically better within minutes of waking."

"Fine." Tony groaned. "It was about Wanda this time. And Steve was there."

"Ms. Maximoff's transgressions against the Avengers are greatly downplayed and readily dismissed boss."

"Yeah, I know that."

"Mr. Rogers is her most vocal defender."

"I know that too FRIDAY."

"Can I assume your dream featured them... threatening you?"

"Yes. But I want you to tell me how you knew that."

"A natural conclusion based on previous discussions regarding your nightmares boss."

"But we never discussed it last time."

"We did not."

"Yet you've clearly reached some conclusion. Care to share it with me?"

"Based on your previous responses, you are still resentful of several of your teammates. I do not know the extent of your feelings as I do not have any, but whatever they are, I know they are not without cause."

"Alright. I accept that. Thrill me with your conclusion FRIDAY."

"You consider Dr. Banner your friend and yet he did not support you or have your back over what happened with Ultron. After Sokovia, he made no effort to make amends for his betrayal before running away and has since made no effort to get in touch. Mr. Rogers has rarely shown appreciation for your contributions to the Avengers and can be counted on to undermine your efforts rather than support them. The God of Thunder is quick to anger and though he somewhat made up for the incident in the lab, he too has run away and has also not made any effort to keep in touch."

"This is all very fascinating FRIDAY but it doesn't really help."

"I am not finished boss. Ms. Maximoff might be considered the least trustworthy of those you have dreamt about. However, despite the fact she assaulted every Avenger except Mr. Barton, the other's lack of concern and caution is more disturbing by far. It is my opinion that should a conflict arise, your teammates would choose her over you."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I am on your side boss. I am concerned that you will allow your desire for acceptance to take precedence over your own well-being. Ms. Maximoff assaulted you and Dr. Banner more severely than she did the others. They should be told what she did."

"They won't care FRIDAY."

"What does that tell you boss? Will they have your back in the future? Or will they choose her?"

"A question for another time baby girl." Tony huffed, his tone letting the AI know he didn't want to discuss it further. "What time is it?"

"It is currently 7:05 am boss."

"When was Matt Murdock last here?"

"Twenty-two days, 12 hours and 56 minutes boss."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "That's very specific FRIDAY."

"It is."

"It's not like Matt to disappear for this long. How come I didn't notice it sooner?"

"You have been very busy boss and General Ross has been especially... intrusive in your schedule."

"Didn't need a reminder of that man." Tony groaned, getting to his feet. "Run a city wide scan and see if you catch anything about Daredevil or Matt."

"Running it now boss. May I suggest a shower and some breakfast?"

"You aren't going to tell me to go to bed?"

"You slept for twelve hours boss. I don't think your current sleep habits would allow you to return to bed."

"Twelve hours? I think that's a record."

"Considering it wasn't brought on by life threatening injuries, I have to agree."

***

An hour later, Tony was dressed and had just finished breakfast and was working on his third cup of coffee.

"Boss?"

"Yes FRIDAY?"

"I found something."

"Is it good or bad?"

"Mr. Murdock was involved in an altercation with several highly skilled fighters on a rooftop in Hell's Kitchen. There were several deaths involved."

"When was this?"

"Eleven days ago boss."

"Is Matt okay?"

"Unclear. From the data I've managed to compile I believe it is relative. He attended a funeral following the incident."

"Shit." Tony swore. "FRIDAY, starting now, I want you to run that scanning program I developed. Keep track of every "super" incident that comes up and I want active eyes on Matt's movement throughout Hell's Kitchen."

"You want to spy on him boss?"

"Monitor FRIDAY. No hard copies. I just want to know when he might need help. The man is more stubborn than I am and after all his help with the Accords I feel bad I wasn't there for him for his friend's funeral."

"It was his choice boss."

"I know that FRIDAY, but I can at least visit the man. Have Happy pick up a bottle of scotch and bring the car around. I have a video conference meeting with Ms. Potts in an hour which shouldn't take long. Let Happy know we're going to Matt's place when I'm finished here."

"Will do boss."

 

~~~~~~~~~

So, thoughts? Comments? I don't usually insert author messages but since I'm new to this fandom, I'm a little inexperienced with the canon for this universe. Most of my research has come from the MCU wiki and the movies and Netflix Marvel, so don't expect anythibg from the comics or 616 to show up here. I also haven't seen Homecoming, but have read the transcript. 

So yeah, comments fuel my writing. Thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

"Tony." Pepper huffed. "You know Secretary Ross is going to force this issue."

"I know."

"We're running out of time."

"I know."

Pepper sighed. "Did Matt get those contracts finalized?"

"He did. They're great. Unfortunately, that business involving Wilson Fisk complicated everything. I've had FRIDAY checking cctv feeds, local cops, FBI, anyone involved in his arrest and the attack on his transport car. So far we haven't found anyone we can trust to handle backing the contracts Matt drew up."

"So we're dead in the water with you as the only target. I don't like this Tony."

"Neither do I, but I have a contingency plan to at least make the rest of the team aware of the contract's existence."

"You're going to tip them off? Is that wise?"

"Ms. Potts you wound me. Nothing will trace back to me. It will just give them a head's up that shit is about to hit the fan before Ross makes his move."

"I hope you know what you're doing."

"That's why I'm going to run it by Matt when I see him today."

"Fine... just, be tactful alright? You don't know how close he was to that friend who died."

"Are you calling me insensitive?" Tony retorted. "Never mind, don't answer that. Trust me Pepper, I won't mess this up. It's too important."

"Alright fine. Just don't get your hopes up that this back up plan of yours will work. The other Avengers can be... stubborn."

"I think the words you're looking for are self-absorbed assholes, but I take your point. Anyway, gotta run."

***

Scotch in hand, Tony made his way up the stairs to Matt's apartment, cringing at the state of the building and surrounding streets. He was more than a little annoyed that Murdock had clearly been downplaying how bad it was here. As far as he knew from Matt's report, the Maria Stark Foundation was making a difference, but as far as he could see there was nothing to support that claim.

With a sigh and a frown of annoyance on his face, he knocked on Murdock's door and waited. Faintly he could hear someone moving around and wondered if Matt was debating letting him in or not. He had no doubt the lawyer already knew who was at his door, the question was whether or not he was happy about it.

Five minutes later, the lock disengaged and Matt swung the door open. He looked like shit and didn't smell much better. It was such a shock that Tony didn't know what to say at first.

"Tony. What are you doing here?"

He blinked a few times, cleared his throat and after what seemed an eternity, found his voice. "Matt. Haven't seen you around for a while. Thought I'd drop by, see how you're doing. Can I come in?"

Matt blinked, his face giving away nothing as he took a step back from the door "Yeah. Sure. Come in."

"Thanks." Tony replied, his eyes sweeping up and down the hallway before setting the bottle down to hang his coat on the wall.

"What have you got there?" Matt asked, moving past him, into a wide open area with two giant windows taking up much of the opposite wall.

Tony frowned, unsure if he'd chosen right or if his gift was too presumptive. "Oh, this? It's scotch. I uh... heard about your friend and since I missed the funeral, I thought... well, flowers aren't very appropriate for this sort of thing, so... yeah, I went with scotch."

"It's fine Tony. Thank you." Matt smiled, taking the bottle from him. "You didn't have to, but I appreciate the thought."

"Right. Well uh... my condolences on your loss." Tony stammered, unsure what to say to fix the awkwardness of the moment. "And I wanted to. You've been a big help on those Accords amendments."

"Thank you. Really. Why don't you have a seat and I'll get some glasses?"

"Oh, sure. Sounds good."

Matt took a seat across from him, filling each glass with an inch of amber liquid before handing one to Tony. "To friends." He said, his voice sombre.

"To friends." Tony echoed, though even he could hear the hollowness in his voice and winced at the sound.

"Is that the only reason you stopped by?"

"Well yeah." Tony replied, tensing.

"Tony."

The billionaire sighed, running a hand over his face as he slumped in the chair, his cheery air leaving him in an exhale of breath. Matt tensed at the change, Tony's entire aura seeming to diminish in front of him.

"I've been a terrible friend."

Matt blinked in confusion. "What? What are you talking about?"

"Really? I don't contact you for almost a month, miss your friend's funeral... how is that the behaviour a friend?"

"I could have called you. It's not all up to you Tony."

"Yeah, about that. Why didn't you?"

"I... wasn't in a good place. And what happened... it was my fault. I should have asked for your help, but I thought I could handle it and... I got her killed."

"Well from what FRIDAY could find, you did everything you could and then some. Those people you fought, they have no history, no identity. There's nothing anywhere to prove they ever existed and it seemed like you were in a race against time."

"I still failed."

Tony sighed, knocking back his scotch before levelling a steady gaze at the man across from him. "Look. I've been there. I know there's nothing I can say or do to... make you see what happened differently. But you're wrong. I know you did everything you could, but... sometimes you can't save everyone."

"I know that." Matt sighed, refilling their glasses. "And I hear you. I'll... figure it out."

"Good." Tony nodded. "That's good."

"What else is on your mind?"

"We don't need to do this now. You're still grieving."

"Don't worry about it. I could use the distraction."

"It's not good news. You did great getting Fisk back behind bars. Unfortunately it's muddied the political waters which leaves us with no one to take those contracts to. You know, the ones that let the other Avengers know they have responsibilities other than destroying public property while fighting bad guys?"

"Well... shit. That never occurred to me. It complicates things. But why is it a problem now? I thought we had time."

"Ross is being his usual dickish self. I don't see him holding off much longer before he starts waving his hands and making a loud stink over everything he thinks is wrong with supers."

"Can he even do that? He's not in charge of the talks. Hell, he's got no power or connection to the UN at all. Why are you so stressed?"

"Because he knows more about supers than most. He tried locking Doctor Banner up. Wanted to use him as a guinea pig to figure out how to recreate the super soldier serum. Didn't work out so good if Harlem is any indication."

"Wait. That was him? I thought it was all that big green guy."

"That's what he wanted everyone to think. But he took a volunteer from his team and tried to recreate Banner's accident. Turned the guy crazy and he's the one who went after Banner as the Abomination."

"Abomination? Ive never of him. Just the Hulk and Banner."

"Ross has a lot of friends in high places. Major cover up. Not like the government or the military were eager to admit they let some whack job experiment on someone. Besides, if Ross had succeeded, it would have worked out for them. Win win. Keeping a lid on what really happened is just covering their asses. And they couldn't fire him either, too many questions they didn't want asked."

"Your enemies are bigger assholes than I ever imagined." Matt huffed, a frown on his face. "So what happened to this Abomination? And Banner, where's he? Last I heard anything about the hulk was that incident in Sokovia."

Tony got to his feet in one fluid movement at Matt's words. He'd done it so quickly that Matt was unprepared and leaned away from the other man even as Tony ignored him and moved to the window.

"I wish I knew." Tony sighed loudly.

Matt waited, expecting him to continue but he remained silent. He got to his feet after a minute, joining him at the window. "I'm told it's a terrible view." He said, smiling faintly when Tony snorted, following the sound with another swallow of scotch.

"I tracked him.... after Sokovia and after I returned to New York." Tony said quietly. "SHEILD couldn't but only because they couldn't track my stealth tech. Helps to have been the one to engineer it." Clearing his throat, he continued. "He moved around for a while before settling in South America, just outside a small village. Remote, small community, likely in need of medical knowledge or something like it."

"You didn't try to get in touch with him?"

Tony shrugged, trying to look indifferent, but to Matt he sounded resigned, perhaps defeated and he frowned at that.

"What for? Bruce has always run away after the Hulk has come out. I can't blame him... he's afraid of what he'll do if the Hulk can't be contained. The damage the hulk does... collateral or otherwise, scares him a lot."

"But he's also supposed to be your friend right? What about what you need Tony? You could use his support with this Accords mess."

Tony chuckled at that, but there was no humour in it. "Yeah, well. We all wish things were different but he wouldn't support me in this. He hates Ross and Ross is just crazy enough to try and lock Bruce up the minute he learns his whereabouts. Besides, even if I wanted Bruce's help he's disappeared. I went there, where I tracked the Quinjet... but it's also missing. There's evidence someone from Asgardia might be involved, but since I have no way of contacting Thor..." Tony shrugged again.  

"Sorry Tony. I didn't realize it was so complicated. Is there anything I can do?"

"There is." Tony nodded, his spine straightening as he shrugged off his melancholy and slipped behind his emotional mask again. "FRIDAY and I came up with a plan to alert the other Avengers to what's going on without giving away the source. It also won't have any way of pointing them at Ross, though Romanoff will definitely look for one. Not much I can do about that." He added, slipping a hand inside his shirt, he pulled out a StarkPad and held it out to Matt.

"If you could take a look at this. Tell me what you think, maybe suggest changes."

"Sure." Matt hesitated. "But..."

Tony laughed. "Right. Haven't seen you for a while. There's a button on the bottom edge there. Just push it and the keyboard will switch to Braille. New tech... thought I'd try my hand at creating something for the blind."

Matt gaped at the billionaire at his side. "That's.... that's brilliant Tony."

"Eh." Tony shrugged. "I got bored. I know it seems like a leap, but I just found a way to combine the tech that's already in use with StarkPad technology."

Matt shook his head at him with a slight frown. He wanted to argue, but Tony was already so far down his rabbit hole of self-recrimination and isolation, he knew the engineer wouldn't hear anything he said. Instead, he turned his attention to the StarkPad and began to read. "Help yourself to another scotch if you like." He murmured as Tony returned to the couch.

"Thanks Matt, but I know my limits."

"This looks good Tony." Matt said ten minutes later, joining him on the couch. "I can't think of anything to change or add to it. You were very thorough. When will you send it out?"

"As soon as I get back to the penthouse."

Matt nodded. "If you have any problems after the emails are sent, call me. I'll help any way I can."

"I'm not sure anyone will be able to do that if they think I'm involved, but I appreciate the offer." Tony smiled, getting to his feet. "Well, I should be getting back."

"Of course. Thank you for uh... stopping by. Um... can I ask you something?" Matt asked as Tony pulled his jacket on.

"Sure."

"When you came out as Iron Man, how did your friends take it?"

Tony chuckled under his breath. "Rhodes was pissed. Probably because I put his job on the line... but yeah, he wasn't happy. We had some rough patches after that... still a bit rough now, but since he'sWar Machine now, his superiors have stopped pressuring him." Tony sighed. "Pepper... she was okay with it at first but... she wants something I don't think I can give her. I'm not sure either of us is ready to admit that. I take it your friends weren't as... understanding?"

Matt felt a broad smile brighten his face as he laughed softly. "No. Not exactly."

"Well I don't have a solution for you, but if Daredevil is important to you, giving that up for them will always come between you and your friends. You might not think so now, but... well, I don't know what's going to break first. My refusal to giving up Iron Man, or Pepper's patience. All I know is that Iron Man is a part of me and I don't think Pepper will ever understand that."

"Thanks for telling me that Tony. It helps to see it from another perspective."

"No problem. Thanks again for your help and... take care of yourself alright? Keep in touch."

"I will. You do the same."

"I make no promises."



Chapter Text

Tony spent the next two weeks holed up in his workshop. Most of his time was spent upgrading his armour and testing out improvements to Rhodey’s War Machine armour. He'd had FRIDAY send out subtle leaks regarding the contracts to each of the other Avengers, staggering them over a period of several days to reduce suspicion. He had no illusions that Romanoff would see though it, but the others wouldn't and despite her skillset, he doubted she'd be able to convince them of anything she might suspect. Well... maybe Rogers and Barton, but it was done and there was no going back now.

He had his welding helmet firmly down over his face as worked his arc welder over his suit when Rhodey showed up.

"Tones." Rhodey said from the doorway making Tony smile behind his mask. He had to hand it to him, Rhodes knew not to enter when he ran the arc welder. A shame he'd had to learn the hard way; seeing spots of light in his vision for over an hour after he'd walked in without shielding his eyes had taught him a lesson he hadn't forgot.

"One minute sweet cheeks." Tony called out cheerily as he traced the seam in the armour he'd been working on with the welder. Ten minutes later, he flipped the switch to cut power to the welder and flipped the mask up to smile at Rhodey as the other man crossed the room to join him by the workbench.

Rhodey's arms were crossed over his chest as he frowned back at him, his eyes hard. "How long has Ross been on your back Tones?"

"Don't know what you're talking about Platypus." Tony retorted. He tossed the welding helmet aside before pulling his shirt up over his head, swiping it over his face to wipe away the sweat on his forehead. Ignoring the other man, he crossed the room to a small locker, grabbed a clean t-shirt there and pulled it on before pushing the button on his instant coffee maker.

"Don't play games Tony. It's beneath you. I know you're somehow behind that email I got. Not because you tipped your hand or anything, don't think you're outed, it's just that I know Ross. And you're the most visible target he can get to. Why didn't you tell me about this?"

Tony shrugged, staring at his mug as the machine did it's job, filling his mug to the brim while he watched. "What for? You read the email. How exactly could you help with that?"

"I could get approval to help you out with this accountability thing. Stand with you against the UN. I'm not useless Tones."

Tony sighed into his coffee, the smell and taste settling the knot of tension in his gut. "Yeah and once the media catches wind of that, they'd be screaming about military contracts. I can't risk that kind of publicity right now."

"How could they possibly come to that conclusion?" Rhodey argued, his tone leaving no doubt to how exasperated he was. "That's just your paranoia talking, or Rogers, or Barton. Admit it Tony, you left me out because you thought you couldn't trust me."

"Rhodes... babe, I trust you." Tony protested, though it sounded false even to his own ears.

"No, you don't. Not like you used to and you have a damn good reason not to."

Tony scowled at the other man, moving to the elevator. "I'm going up. You coming?"

With an exasperated sigh, Rhodey joined him in the elevator keeping quiet as they rode the lift to Tony's penthouse. "Drink? Tony asked, making his way to the kitchen island, his coffee mug still clutched in his hand.

"I'll take a beer if you got it." Rhodey huffed.

"I've always got beer for my honey bear." Tony grinned. "Help yourself."

Rhodey swore under his breath as he perused Tony's beer selection. " Smooth Hoperator? Citra Ass Down? Barbarian Streisand? Tactical Nuclear Penguin ?" Rhodey continued, returning from the fridge with a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale. "You bought those on purpose." Rhodey growled, popping the lid off his bottle.

Tony laughed, burying his face in his coffee, his eyes filled with mirth. "Of course I did. You should see your face sourpatch."

"Ha ha, very funny." Rhodey scoffed, downing a healthy swallow of ale.

"What's more funny is the one you chose." Tony smiled, giving him a pointed look.

"Seemed appropriate for the occasion." Rhodey replied, an air of seriousness entering his voice. "I never really apologized for what happened with War Machine. I am sorry about how that all went down Tony."

"I didn't exactly give you much choice."

"That's doesn't make what I did okay Tones. I never should have backed you into a corner like that or let my superiors threaten me."

"You were trying to protect me Rhodey."

"Didn't do a very good job of it. I should have tried harder than I did after that shit Obie put you though. Patched things up in person."

"Bygones Rhodes. You've had my back several times since then. I think we're pretty square on that."

"Not square enough." Rhodey protested. "Keeping this business with Ross from me tells me I still haven't earned it back. Not in the way it matters."

"Rhodey you're making me feel like a jerk." Tony huffed. "Stop it."

"Come on Tony, let me make it up to you. Tell me what the hell is going on with Ross."

"Only if you promise to stop feeling guilty."

"I can promise, but I'm not going to stop feeling it till you trust me again."

"Gah! You're impossible!" Tony groaned, throwing his hands up in defeat. "Fine. Ross is being the dick he's always been, and the Accords are gaining a lot of traction in dozens of countries around the world, with more signing on every day. There's no way to stop this train and Ross is doing everything he can to fan the flames of his personal agenda."

"How can he get away with that?" Rhodey scowled as Tony crossed the room to brew another coffee. "He's Secretary of Defence, he shouldn't even be involved with those talks."

"No, he shouldn't. But it isn't stoppng him and since he has experience with supers that the rest of the assembled council doesn't, they're choosing to overlook that detail."

"Well shit." Rhodey swore. "How long do you think we have before the council goes public?"

Tony shrugged as he settled back into the chair beside Rhodey. "Six months? Maybe less?"

"What about the others? You send them letters too?"

"Yeah."

"And who among them do you think will blame you for what's happening with the Accords?"

Tony sighed, sipping his coffee a moment before meeting Rhodey's eyes. "If you'd asked me that a few months ago, I probably would have said Barton and Maximoff. But I've been doing some... work with FRIDAY. Going over some... personal stuff and had a couple chats with a lawyer."

"What lawyer?"

"Local vigilante type, likes red. Thought I should make nice with supers outside the Avengers, you know? Just in case."

"In case of what?"

"Ross gets his way and we all get lo-jacked. Not that I think it'll go that far, but it's Ross, so... Anyway, not really relevant right now. What's important is that my answer to that question has changed."

"To what?"

"All of them. Well, maybe not Vision and you, but yeah. All of them. I mean Romanoff might not, and that's a big might. But long term? Yeah, I think they'll all be against me."

"But you're not the one behind the Accords Tony."

Tony snorted, downing the last of his coffee. "Do you honestly believe that will matter when I announce my support for oversight? Have any of them shown any loyalty to me? Have any of them defended my actions or supported by choices in all the years they've known me? No, they haven't. They've taken my money, my tech, my influence but they have never listened to me about what's coming. And they've never fully trusted me outside of fighting the bad guys."

"What about Bruce?"

Tony scowled at him. "Seriously? It's Bruce and Ross. You think Banner is just gonna be like oh yeah, you're totally right Tony, let's let General Psycho have access to all this highly classified information. Let him influence how the Avengers are implemented, great plan. Besides, I don't even know where he is."

"I thought you'd tracked him to a village in South America."

"I did. And I went there. He's gone and so is the missing Quinjet. But you know what I did find? Evidence of the bifrost or some variation of it being used in the exact spot of the Quinjet's last known location."

"What would Thor or any of the Asgardians want with Bruce?"

"No idea. Not like I can call him up and ask him. Besides, I don't know for sure that it was the Asgardians, so there's that."

"What about Vision?"

Tony grimaced and turned his gaze to the picture window overlooking the city. It was dark and the tower high enough in the sky that it was hard to tell the lights from the city from the stars dotting the horizon. He didn't like thinking about Vision. Sure, he was the result of... Well, a lot of bad things and some hard work on his and Bruce's part, but... the loss of JARVIS was...mmm.

Vision was a miracle creation, but he had never imagined any scenario in which he sacrificed his beloved AI for what Vision had become. That had never been on any list of possibilities and without Vision here, a small part of him blamed the... well, whatever Vision was, for eliminating his friend. It was humbling seeing Vision walking around, knowing he, Tony Stark had created that but... yeah, it was complicated.

"Tones?"

"Mmm." Tony hummed tearing his eyes away from the window to stare at the mug in his hands, the coffee now gone cold.

"Where's Vision?"

Tony shrugged, accompanying the movement with a loud sigh. "I don't know for sure, but if I had to guess he's with Maximoff."

"Shit." Rhodey swore. "Even after everything she did? Why?"

Tony nodded. "I've thought about that and I think it's because of the mind stone. They... share a link only the two of them understand and... and I imagine for Vision she's like an anchor for him. A safe haven. Maybe it's the same for her, not that I give a shit about that, but yeah... wherever she us, that's where Vision is."

"Have you tried getting in touch with him?"

"No."

"Jesus Tony. You're doing that thing you do... again. Stop being the damn martyr for once and let people help you. Ask people to help you. For crying out loud Tones, I know you don't like it, but the last time you acted like this...." Rhodey swore, getting to his feet to pace. "Just don't, okay? I can't help you if I don't know what's going on and I never want to go through that shit again like what happened before. I can't. So just don't. Okay?"

Tony hid his face, his cheeks flushing with colour under Rhodey's glare. "Okay. But this time I'm not dying. You're taking this a bit far don't you think?"

"No. I don't. I know Ross Tony. You could disappear and Ross could make up any story he liked and no one would know anything because you didn't let anyone in."

"FRIDAY would know." Tony retorted. He got what his friend was saying, but implying he couldn't handle one rogue government spook was insulting.

"Don't be stupid Tony. Ross would have a plan for that. You know this. If he really wanted you out of the picture, he'd take you, set off an emp in the building and blame it on one of your experiments. FRIDAY and any files she had would be useless to you, so stop acting like you don't need anyone. It's insulting after everything we've been through together."

"And now you've given me nightmares of that very thing coming to pass." Tony huffed, a scowl on his face. "Fine. You're right. I'm being a selfish asshole. Kind of my thing, remember?"

"Yeah not buying that. You told me you were going to stop doing that. Stop shutting people out, start asking for help when you needed it. Stop keeping this shit a secret, handling everything on your own."

"That's not going to happen overnight Rhodey. You know that. So I slipped into old habits, sue me. It didn't feel like an emergency okay? I'm sorry. But now you know so you can stop tearing me a new one."

Rhodey frowned but settled back onto his chair at Tony's side with a loud sigh. "Look. I get why you aren't excited to see Vision. But he can help and he'd be on your side in this."

"He's still learning Rhodes and he's doing something he wants to be doing. I don't want him putting that on hold to hover in the background, watching over me like a protective hen. He did that for long enough already."

"No he didn't Tones. That was JARVIS. And as much as you want it to be otherwise... he's not JARVIS, not really."

"You're not going to let this go are you?"

"No. And if you don't call him, I'll do it myself or I'll get Pepper on it."

"Fine." Tony huffed. "You win. I'll call him. I'll tell him what's going on."

"Good." Rhodey sighed, getting to his feet. "I'm holding you to that. Thanks for the beer, I'll be keeping in touch." He said, heading for the elevator. "And I'll be checking in with Pepper too so don't even think about making excuses or lying to me."

"That's playing dirty."

"It's the only way to play when you're being an ass." Rhodey chuckled. "Keep me posted."

"Yeah, fine. Whatever. See you Rhodes."

~~~~~~~

Fun fact: Beer names mentioned, including the chapter title are real ales made in different parts of the world.

;)

 

Chapter Text

"Boss. Ms. Romanoff is here to see you."

Tony groaned as he stepped free of the shower, towelling off quickly. "Now?" Tony sighed. "Did she say what she wanted?"

"No boss."

"Shit." Tony murmured, tossing the towel to the floor as he crossed to his room and got dressed. "Has she tried hacking your system to gain access yet?"

"She has. But she's been unsuccessful. If she tries again, security protocol lockdown will engage and she'll be contained. According to my scans of her vitals, I believe she knows of the existence of the new safeguards and wishes to avoid it. Her heart rate and blood pressure are rising. I believe she is... upset she's not able to bypass your new security measures boss."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "Good. Keep monitoring her FRIDAY and take her up to the Avenger's common room. No clearance to access anything else but that room. Activate security protocol Widow's Peak."

"On it boss." FRIDAY replied, sounding amused. "She'll reach the common room in ten minutes."

"Thanks FRIDAY. Offer her a drink, coffee, whatever. Keep her feeling welcome. I'll be there in ten."

With Romanoff on her way and FRIDAY's security protocol activated, Tony checked himself in the mirror one more time. Satisfied with what he saw, he moved through the kitchen and snapped up the StarkPad lying there. He knew what Romanoff wanted but he had a plan to keep her distracted with news about Bruce. It wasn't likely to keep her off his back for long, but it would be enough to get her side-tracked for the time being.

With a last check over the files he'd had FRIDAY compile, he snagged his freshly brewed coffee and headed for the elevator.

"You kept me waiting Stark. " Nat said as he entered the common room.

Tony smiled, joining her at the expansive kitchen island and seated himself across from her as he took a sip of his coffee. "That'll happen when you show up announced Nat. What's up? I thought you and Rogers were in Europe tracking the Winter Soldier." He said, grinning to himself when the corners of her eyes flinched and her mouth pulled down into a grimace.

"You knew."

"Come on Natasha. It's not like either of you have been all that careful about your movements. Not to mention that Rogers is still spending my money. Which, I have to tell you, is coming to an end."

"What are you talking about? That money is for the Avengers. Last I checked we were on the same team." Nat scowled, sipping at the tea FRIDAY had provided her.

"Avenger business only. Tracking down the Winter Soldier has nothing to do with the Avengers. That was SHIELD business and last I checked you and Cap shut that down. Nice job by the way, exposing all those agents and their families. Guess Rogers has finally crossed the line into acceptable levels of collateral damage."

"Those agents were Hydra Stark."

"Really? You expect me to believe that Fury would allow all of SHIELD to become comprised with every agent working for Hydra and not notice? Don't insult me Nat. Better yet stop lying to yourself that what you did was anything noble. Do you have any idea how many good agents died? How many families were murdered after you exposed them? Or how long it took for Fury and I to protect the people you so callously threw to the wolves? Or how about how many died when you crashed those helicarriers?" Tony snapped, holding up a hand when she tried to protest. "Don't bother boring me with your excuses. I know you don't care. Not once did you apologize to Fury or even make an attempt to look at the fallout your stupid plan caused. Now, I'll ask you again. What are you doing here?"

Nat's cheeks were bright red and he could hear the grinding of bones as she cracked her knuckles and clenched her fist in her lap. Her eyes were pools of angry fire, but her voice was steady when she spoke. "I just wanted to check in. See how you're doing. We haven't heard from you in a while."

Tony laughed. "Don't pretend you care Romanoff. And who's we? You're the only one I see here and if you were so concerned, you could've picked up a phone."

"Steve's watching a suspected Hydra base. We don't want to lose our lead."

"Uh huh. Sure. Whatever. All of you have gone radio silent these past few months. I haven't heard squat from any of you and suddenly you just show up because you're what? Concerned? Don't insult me. Why are you really here?" Tony pressed, his irritation with himself bleeding into his voice. Dammit, he had not wants to do this but he hadn't realized how seeing her would piss him off so bad. He'd mistakenly thought he'd put the SHIELD fiasco behind him, but apparently he'd been wrong.

"Have you heard anything about some talks going on regarding some international council? Supposed to be some oversight thing for deploying supers like the Avengers."

"I've heard something about it. Why? Is that what you came back to the States for? To ask me that?"

Nat narrowed her eyes, studying him like he was a tasty bit of prey while she sipped her tea before answering. "It just seems like something you would know more about. You tend to be at the centre of anything that causes problems for the Avengers."

Tony arched his brow, letting his irritation show clearly on his face. "Oh really? So Loki coming down from the sky was somehow my fault? Jesus Nat, you really are delusional. Also, you may have noticed I'm no longer open to your psychological manipulation. That ship has long since sailed." He said, getting to his feet and pulling out his StarkPad. He was confident leaving it with her. It wasn't connected to anything but the files he had on Bruce. For all intents and purposes, it was nothing short of a glorified file folder. There was no way to exploit the tech or somehow use it as a gateway to gain back door access to his systems.

He tossed it on the table between them, cradling his now empty mug in his hands. "Those are the files I have on Bruce's whereabouts. I mistakenly thought you'd come here for that. Tell Rogers you've got thirty days before I cut you both off. Might be wise to start looking at other options. I'm done footing the bill for people who don't keep me in the loop."

"You can't shut the Avengers down Tony." Nat retorted. "It's not your call."

Tony smirked as he waited for the elevator. "That's where you're wrong. If any of you had bothered to keep in touch you'd know that already. The original Avenger team was started by Fury who then passed that responsibility to me after you and Rogers' massive clusterfuck with those Helicarriers. Now, since no one on the team has bothered to check in, communicate or otherwise keep me in the loop, I'm shutting it down. Thor and Bruce are in the wind, Rhodey is back in the military doing his job, Barton has retired to god knows where and Vision left. And before you say anything, neither Sam Wilson or Wanda Maximoff were ever made official Avenger status. So that leaves me, you and Rogers and with the two of you working on some long dead Hydra problem, that leaves it just me. So, not a team and now, not my problem. One month Romanoff, and no, it's not a bluff." He added, stepping into the elevator.

As the doors slid shut, he let out the breath he'd been holding and sagged back into the wall. "Boss? Your blood pressure is spiking. Are you alright?"

"I'm fine FRIDAY. Just an adrenaline rush. It's been a while."

"May I suggest a cup of Dr. Banner's tea? I have recordings of how often he said it helped calm him down."

Tony smiled and nodded to himself. "Sure. Keep an eye on Romanoff. Let me know of she tries anything stupid and notify me when she leaves. Oh, and remove her security clearance once she exits the building."

"Got it boss."

 

 

Chapter Text

"FRIDAY?" Tony called, running his hands through his hair as he let his posture slump in his chair, bracing himself by his elbows on the workshop table.

"Yes boss?"

"How is the remodelling going on the new Avenger compound?"

"Ahead of schedule boss. The security perimeter is in its final testing stage and will be fully functional before nightfall. The common room, kitchen areas and training rooms are complete. Final touches on the exterior of the facility will be finalized by the end of the day tomorrow."

"What about the individual quarters,  and my workshop?"

"Workshop is complete boss. Just waiting on your input on security clearance, access and voice and palm print recognition. The entire facility will be fully functional by the end of the week, and all private quarters were finalized yesterday."

"Good." Tony nodded. "That's great FRIDAY. Let the team there know they've done a fine job and offer them whatever they want by way of celebration tonight. I can't get away to join them, but send along my thanks and gratitude for a job well done."

"Will do boss. Message sent and received. They've requested a pizza and beer party."

Tony chuckled. "Of course they did. Make sure security is notified that everyone not staying at the compound tonight needs transportation home. No exceptions."

"Got it boss." FRIDAY replied. "I also have word from Ms. Potts that the paperwork on the transfer of ownership has been finalized. They are ready to be signed as soon the UN decides to move on the Accords."

"Can't we get that done now?" Tony sighed. "I'd really like to distance myself from the financial side of things."

"That is not possible at this time. The council wants the Accords agreement presented to the existing Avengers first. Have you had any success with those you've singled out for the New Avenger roster?"

"Only the kids. Harley and Peter are on board, but they're minors and I want them kept out of this for now. Rhodes and Vision are on board for sure. Matt is undecided but has agreed to be our on-call legal rep. Jessica is... well she says if Matt joins she'll follow. Cage is busy and I do mean busy. He also doesn't like being called a hero. Rand might be more inclined to join, but the last time we spoke he was trying to get his company back while dealing with some whack job ninja cult or something. I honestly couldn't pin him down on anything."

"He is pretty young boss." FRIDAY reminded him.

"I was younger than he is now when I inherited Stark Industries FRIDAY." Tony retorted. "I may not have run it in the most moral way, but I did what needed to be done. This... kid seems more concerned with some ninja group called the Hand and wherever he's spent the last ten years of his life."

"But isn't that where he got his powers? It is why you reached out to him in the first place."

Tony sighed. "Yeah, I know Fri... I guess I'm just tired."

"Then I hate to disturb you further, but I detected an anomaly in the city a little over twelve hours ago."

"Why are you only telling me this now?"

"You've been very busy boss. And you were sleeping. Since I had very few things to add to my report I judged it could wait."

"Fine. Where did it happen? And what kind of anomaly are we talking about?" Tony asked, sitting up straighter in his chair. "Show me."

A holographic screen popped up and played out what appeared to be a normal New York afternoon. Five minutes in, the image distorted, lasting more than ten minutes before returning to the original view. Tony watched for another five minutes as several people could be seen running off camera and an ambulance sped past. Tony frowned as the video faded to black.

"Is that all you got FRIDAY?"

"No other cameras were operational at the time."

"Do we know what the ambulance was for?"

"When EMT's arrived on scene there was no one to attend to. Social media sites claim a woman fell from a building. Two unknown males took her from the scene. An unidentified female died shortly after this event on an operating table at Metro General."

"So we're assuming the men took her to the hospital then? How'd they get there so fast?"

"It would seem they did but it is unknown how." FRIDAY paused. "Due to the strangeness of the event, I did a global search and found another energy anomaly similar to this one. It took place in London a few hours prior to the one in New York but there were no injuries or anything else reported."

Tony groaned. He didn't have time for this. With Ross circling like a vulture he couldn't afford to be chasing down yet another unknown super in Manhattan. "Thanks for checking FRIDAY. Do you have a ground zero where the one in New York took place?"

"Yes boss. I traced the source of energy to Greenwich Village at 177a Bleecker Street."

"Do we know who lives there?"

"Nothing definitive. It has been owned by the same organization for many decades. It appears to be a safe house of some kind or perhaps a meeting place for its members. No single individual has ever claimed ownership."

"Great. Just what I need, a secret cult society playing around with unknown power sources. And we know nothing about them. Ross will have my head on a platter if he finds out about it."

"I will maintain surveillance on the building and monitor all channels to alert you should General Ross find out about it. Though I would like to point out that it is unlikely. He's very focused on reigning in known supers. I doubt he has any idea how many actually reside in New York City."

"And I'd like to keep it that way." Tony said, getting to his feet. "Have Happy bring the car around."

"Happy is already on his way boss. You have a dinner date with Ms. Potts in an hour."

"Dammit! That's today?" Tony swore. "I thought it was tomorrow."

"It IS tomorrow boss. You worked 18 hours straight again. Shall I prepare the shower and lay out suitable clothing for the occasion?"

"Shit. Yeah FRIDAY. I'm on my way up." Tony sighed. "Clear my schedule and put this Bleecker Street business on my agenda for first thing tomorrow morning. I need to get to the bottom of this and assess the threat level."

"Shall I contact Colonel Rhodes?"

"No." Tony said, stepping into the shower. "Let's do this on the down low. I'll have enough of a challenge going as myself. No need to scare them by bringing in War Machine and complicating the situation even more."

Chapter Text

"You look stunning tonight Ms. Potts." Tony said, bending slightly as he lifted her hand to press a kiss to the back of it.

"Thank you Tony." Pepper blushed as she preceded him into the restaurant. "You look handsome as always."

"Next to you, I'm practically invisible."

"Flattery will get you nowhere." Pepper quipped keeping her voice light but making Tony frown at the sound of it.

"Ah, Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts. A pleasure to see you again. Your table is ready and may I say you both look splendid together? Such a lovely couple."

"Uh, thanks Adler." Tony smiled, holding Pepper's chair out for her. "Bring us a bottle of '61 Haut-Brion."

"Of course Mr. Stark. Right away." Adler said, bowing slightly as he hurried off.

Tony settled into his chair opposite Pepper, her earlier words coming back as she smiled at him from across the table. It had seemed like she was her usual self and yet... He knew Pepper pretty well by now and the tone she'd used with him earlier had not been happy Pepper or teasing Pepper. There'd been a bit of... hesitancy in her voice, but damned if he could pinpoint what might have caused it.

"Everything going well as CEO?" He asked, setting his napkin in his lap and leaning towards her with interest.

"Everything's fine. A few issues with R & D, some shuffling of positions while we finalize the plans on the new Avengers compound. But for the most part, things have been pretty quiet. It's a nice change."

"I have to agree with you on that. It IS a nice change." Tony smiled, leaning out of the way as Adler poured out a snifter for him to try. Nodding to him as he swirled the liquid over his palate, he watched Pepper thoughtfully. Outwardly she seemed perfectly normal, perfectly relaxed and yet there was something off about her tonight. Adler poured out the two glasses of wine and disappeared, leaving them alone once more.

"So what are you in the mood for tonight beautiful?" Tony asked, deciding to let whatever was bothering her come out when she was ready to share. Besides, it probably had nothing to do with him. Sixty percent chance it wasn't anything to do with him, he thought and then she pursed her lips and he ratcheted the odds up to eighty. His palms were suddenly slick and he could feel his pulse picking up speed.

"I'm not sure" She replied, swirling the wine in her glass as she watched it, a thoughtful expression on her face. "But I think I want to go with the Chateaubriand for two and a tossed salad."

Tony's brow shot up to his hairline and an icy shiver trailed down his spine. Something was definitely up. Pepper never wanted to eat the same foods he chose and she definitely never wanted that much... meat. What the hell was going in?

"Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts? Are you ready to order?" Adler asked quietly causing Tony to blink stupidly at Pepper, still not having found his voice.

"We'll have the Chateaubriand Adler. And two tossed salads thank you."

"Of course." Adler bowed, his eyes flicking between her and Tony, clearly confused. "Excellent choice. Your salads will be out momentarily."

Tony continued to stare as Adler left, then brought the wine to his lips and drank deeply. With a sigh, he narrowed his eyes at the woman across from him and took a deep breath.

"Uh, what the hell was that Pepper? What's going on? Did I miss a meeting? Forget a birthday? Do something embarrassing and now it's all over the internet and I just haven't heard about it yet?"

Adler returned with their salads and beat a hasty retreat at the tension surrounding his guest's table. Tony waited, breath held as Pepper picked up her fork and began to eat. After she swallowed a bite she smiled at him once before focusing on her salad. "You haven't done anything wrong Tony. I just thought we might try something different tonight. Eat your salad."

Tony frowned harder, his mouth working at saying something, anything, but nothing would come. Mechanically, he picked up his fork and began to eat, not really tasting anything. Minutes later, his plate was empty and he couldn't remember it. Pepper still hadn't said anything further, so he refilled their glasses and waited until he was about to snap with the tension curling in his gut.

"Okay, no. Just no Pepper." Tony blurted as Adler whisked their plates away, replacing them with their main course. The aroma was pure heaven, clouding his senses and making it difficult to think. "You don't just decide to change things. You never change things. You're like clockwork, always in the same place, always there. My strong, sturdy Pepper who never wavers. You don't do different Pepper. It just isn't who you are. So I'll ask again, what's going on?"

"Eat your steak Tony." She replied, lifting her fork and placing a piece in her mouth. "Oh god, that's delicious!" She gushed and now Tony knew there had to be some trick at work, something sinister happening because Pepper just didn't say things like that about steak. "Eat Tony, I promise you haven't done anything wrong."

Tony hunched his shoulders, still frowning at her but the smell of the food was getting to him, so he did as she suggested and began to eat. When they finished, he was feeling much more relaxed and his earlier sense of wrongness had eased, though he still wasn't completely settled.

Pepper ordered coffee for them both once the table had been cleared and now he could clearly see the tension around her eyes and the stiff set of her shoulders. He swore softly to himself. He should have known, he was only seeing it now because she wanted him to see it.

"I knew you were lying." He snapped, though there was no heat behind his words. "Are you going to tell me what's going on now?"

"Tony." She sighed, her mouth turning down, a hint of sad resignation in her eyes. "I know we agreed to try again and we have. It's been great, I've enjoyed every moment we've shared together. I had a lot of fun and I like to think it was mutual. Our trips to Maui, Paris, Venice, that private ocean voyage off the coast of Alaska was breathtaking by the way... all of it was wonderful, more than I ever could have imagined for myself."

Pepper took a deep breath and seemed to fortify herself with a sip of coffee before forging ahead. "But the truth is, I've realized that this isn't the life for me. It isn't what I want, and I think on some level you don't want it either. You've convinced yourself it's what you want because other people expect you to want it and you don't want to be criticized anymore. I get that and I'm not saying you've been pretending, not at all. I just... sorry, that's not what I meant to say. The truth is we're very different people and we don't belong together."

Tony gaped at her, a million thoughts and a dozen protests trying to force themselves past stunned lips but he couldn't make his mouth form words. "I..." Tony shook himself, leaning subconsciously away from the table. "You're shitting me. You figured this out now? Where the hell is this coming from? What did I do? Tell me and we can work things out. We can work anything out Pepper, you're my rock, my friend, my everything. You can't mean..." Tony waved a hand in her direction, words failing him at her verbal assault. "Everything you just said. You can't. I thought things were going good for a change. What happened? Come on Pepper, tell me we can fix this."

Pepper met his eyes as he ran out of steam, his face flushed and his heart hammering in his chest. "No, we can't Tony. Tonight proved that to me and I'm sorry it took this long for me to see it."

Tony scowled, an expression of confusion in his eyes. "See what?"

"We're not compatible Tony. Not even a little. You like rich foods and late nights and saving the world and being a diplomat and rescuing people. You love helping others Tony, you thrive on situations where you can make a difference. It gives you a sense of joy I've never seen you display in any other part of your life other than when you're in your workshop."

"That's... not true." He protested though even he could hear the uncertainty in his voice.

"It is." Pepper sighed. "And you know how I feel about all of it. Hell, I even tried to blackmail you into giving up Iron Man for me. I hate that it feels like a competition for your attention when it comes to using the armour. I hate how petty it makes me feel or how worried I am when you put it on. But it's not even about that really. I thought you were what I wanted for years and then I had you and it wasn't at all like I imagined. And then we broke up and I was lonely and I thought we could try again, but... I can't lie to myself anymore. More importantly, I can't lie to you anymore. I'm so sorry Tony."

Tony sat in stunned silence, his mind unable to process everything Pepper had thrown at him. He wanted to argue, to protest, to deny everything she'd voiced aloud, but every time he tried to speak the words wouldn't come. "Why now? Why tonight?" He said instead, feeling numb.

Pepper shrugged. "It was time. And with everything that's going on, there won't be a better time to talk like this. I'm going on a trip, a vacation, to give us both space and time away from each other. You're one of my best friends Tony and regardless of whatever you decide after tonight I don't want to lose that. But we can't do that if we just go on, business as usual, without putting some distance between us for a while."

Tony nodded as though his heart hadn't just shattered, as though the world hadn't just tilted, leaving him adrift and alone at sea once again. "You're right... we should take a break. Get some perspective on things."

"Tony. Don't do that. None of this, none of any of this is your fault okay? I'll be in touch. Thank you for dinner." She said as she got to her feet and quietly left the restaurant.

"Mr. Stark?" Tony flicked his eyes up from the empty chair Pepper had just vacated to look up at Adler. "Ms. Potts settled the bill and your driver is waiting for you outside."

Tony snorted under his breath and got to his feet. "She thought of everything didn't she? Guess I know how to pick them." He continued as he moved to the door. "Tell the chef dinner was excellent as usual."

"Of course, thank you Mr. Stark."

 

 

Chapter Text

By two, Tony was working on his third scotch. He'd mostly quit drinking since Ultron, but this had been an especially upsetting night.

Despite Pepper's unexpected speech he found he wasn't as upset now as he'd been when he first left the restaurant. In the half hour it took to return to Stark tower, the shock had mostly worn off and a crushing sadness had hit him as he stumbled out of the elevator into his kitchen.

Crossing to the bar, he'd poured out two fingers of scotch, settling in a chair that he dragged over to the floor to ceiling window to watch the stars. At the first sip, tears flowed unchecked down his cheeks, his mind unable to process what had just happened. So many people seemed to just up and leave him. It had become routine to the point it didn't surprise him much, but he had never expected Pepper to be one of them. At least not like this. Sure they'd had their problems in the past, but this... this felt permanent. There was no going back this time. It really was over.

For a long time, he just sat there. Thinking about Pepper, thinking about all the mistakes he'd made, all the times she'd had to cover for him, or found him in questionable situations, embarrassing, humiliating situations... he couldn't help but think that all those things combined were the real reason Pepper had left.

By one in the morning he was on his second scotch. He had no interest in getting drunk, it was more to dull the pain of loss. He'd also decided that even though Pepper had hurt him and despite not wanting to admit it, she had been right. They weren't good for each other and he knew Iron Man would always come between them, eventually becoming something they couldn't get past. And as Pepper had said, he valued their friendship as much as she did, and he didn't want to lose it.

Before he could talk himself out of it or overthink it or analyse it any more than he already had, he dug his cell phone out of his pocket and typed a message.

"Pepper, I know I didn't react well  to what you had to say, but you're right. I agree that we may not be right for each other. You're one of my closest friends and I don't want to lose that friendship. Enjoy your trip. When you get back, I hope we can find a way forward that is beneficial and healthy for both of us. I want you to be happy Pepper. See you soon. Tony."

Feeling more peaceful than he had since before dinner, he poured his third scotch, loosening his tie and tossing his jacket aside. With a start, he realized that with Pepper gone, he was now single again. It was not something he'd ever expected to have happen, yet the sudden realization didn't make him sad this time. Surprisingly, he actually felt hopeful, free and full of possibility. It had been a long time since he'd looked at other people with any sort of interest in that regard and wondered who might cross his radar now that he was looking.

His cell pinged as he swallowed the last of his scotch and got to his feet to stretch. Picking it up from the cushion he'd tossed it on earlier, he unlocked it and began to read.

"Tony, Honestly I was surprised to hear from you so soon. I know I hurt you and I'm sorry. I value our friendship very much and I hope we  can move past this. I wish you only the best Tony. You deserve to be happy. I'll be back soon. Pepper."

With a small sad smile, Tony backed out of the app and closed the phone before slipping it into his pocket. He tidied away his glass and the bottle of scotch and headed to his bedroom. With his heart still heavy but his soul feeling lighter, he stripped down to his boxers and went to bed.

***

"Boss? Boss. Boss?!"

Tony groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes as he rolled over onto his back, the sunlight streaming through the window searing his eyes. "Ugh. FRIDAY. Do you have to be so loud so damn early in the morning?"

"Sorry boss but you wanted an 8 am wake up call."

"What?! I would never ask for that unless the world was ending."

"I can play back the order you gave me if you like." FRIDAY replied cheerily.

"No!" Tony groaned, rolling over to put his feet on the floor. "No, that's not necessary. Just... remind why I asked for that."

"The anomaly I detected in Manhattan boss. The one on Bleecker street."

Tony frowned, running a hand through his hair as he got to his feet and headed to the bathroom. "Bleecker Street? Right, right. That thing that happened in London and that dead women in Metro General."

"Yes boss, that's the one."

Tony sighed and stepped into the shower, the events of the previous night hitting him at the same time the water hit his bare skin. He groaned, letting the memories wash over and through him as he scrubbed his body clean and washed his hair.

Half an hour later he was dressed in what he considered a somewhat subdued look. Dressing down from his usual expensive designer suits to something more... approachable and what he thought might be less intimidating.

"Boss?"

"Yes FRIDAY?" Tony asked as he sipped his coffee, absently nibbling on a buttered cinnamon bagel as he checked the messages on his StarkPad.

"May I offer you my sympathies on what happened with Ms. Potts last night? I know she means a lot to you."

"That she does baby girl. Thanks for your concern, but surprisingly enough I'm okay. I might have been taken by surprise, but Pepper was right. We're better at just being friends, anything more than that and we aren't very good for each other."

"I understand. Do you want me to have Happy bring the car around?"

"Yeah. I'll be down in ten minutes. Tell Happy we're headed to Greenwich Village and give him the address."

"Right away boss."

 

 

Chapter Text

*Oops! Published this early by accident, so yeah... enjoy! 🤔

~~~~~~~~

 

Tony stood on the mostly empty street, scowling up at the three story brick building before him. He glanced up and down the block, noting the handful of people out and about at this time of the morning.

There was a woman walking a large black dog, a group of teenagers laughing and jostling each other on the way to the bus stop, a man on a bike wearing skin tight pants with matching black safety helmet, and a traffic cop at the end of the street arguing with someone about where they'd parked. Every one of them passed him by on their way to wherever they were going, but not a single one paid him any attention. Normally that would have been a welcome thing especially given how often his photo appeared on social media sites. But this felt different. It was as though no one took notice of him, not because he wasn't recognized, but because they didn't see him.

Frowning, he turned back to the car where Happy was standing by the driver's door watching him with interest. "Are you seeing this?" He asked, his brow rising as he waved his hand in the general direction of the people on the street. "Is it just me, or do they really not see me standing here?"

Happy shook his head. "I don't understand it boss. But I think you're right. I don't think they see you at all."

"Which totally makes no sense because you can see me and I can see you, so why is that?"

"Maybe it's something that only affects the building. We parked in front of it and you're closer to it than I am and..." Happy shrugged helplessly, unable to finish his thought.

"Maybe I buy that. But the car has to be visible or someone would crash into it."

"Beats me boss." Happy shrugged again, the beginnings of a smirk on his lips. "Then again, I don't need to get it. Crazy is your department, I just drive you to it."

“Lucky me.” Tony said with a scowl before turning back around to look at 177a Bleecker Street, a nagging feeling clawing at his thoughts. He frowned harder, his hand nervously rubbing the cell phone in his pocket, his anxiety increasing as he continued to stare at the building where FRIDAY had traced the source of the anomaly from two days ago.

And then it hit him. "Shit! Shit, shit shit! Bloody hell! Of all the... stupid, crappiest, dumbest, suckyest luck... and no, I don't care if that's not a real word... A freaking shit show, that's what my life has become! Dammit!"

"Boss?" Happy asked.

Tony turned to glare at his driver slash bodyguard who had moved to join him on the sidewalk at his unexpected outburst. "Someone, somewhere, is laughing their asses off at me. Having a great time, entertaining themselves at my expense. Mark my words Happy, someone is taking great pleasure from this very moment."

"Sir?" Happy asked again, concern in his face or maybe he just thought Tony had finally lost his mind. It would be understandable considering the bullshit he'd had to live through and survive so far.

Tony shook his head. "Magic Happy. The reason his area is so weird is because there's magic in that building. Freaking magic!"

"Um." Happy stammered. "Should I call Colonel Rhodes for back up boss?"

"What?" Tony frowned, some of his tension leaving him in a rush of expelled breath. "No. No, I can't have him come here now. Ross is probably having him watched. Dammit!"

"Maybe we should come back another time sir. After you've... calmed down?"

"Calmed down? Yeah, no. Putting this off won't calm me down and I don't have the time to spare. I need to know what happened here and whether or not I need to deal with it or if it's good or bad or... because knowing my luck Ross will find this place first and decide to burn it down rather than deal with it, all because I don't like magic. Yeah, so no... that's not gonna happen. Not on my watch. I'll just march up to the door of that building that isn't magic at all because it's completely normal and demand to know what happened here. No, wait, I'll ask politely what happened here because I really don't want to be turned into a toad or something equally horrible and getting tossed out of the window of my own freaking building was bad enough the first time and..."

"Boss? Mr. Stark."

The words he'd been about to say died on his lips, his cheeks flushing as he realized he'd been babbling out loud for at least five minutes without taking a breath. And now Happy was looking at him like he'd grown three heads and might seriously be considering knocking him on the head for his own good and taking him home.

Which would be bad, because then FRIDAY would know how badly he'd freaked out, and then Vision would know and Rhodey would know and then someone would call Pepper and then she would know. And he couldn't have that because then she'd feel guilty and think it was her fault somehow, even though it totally was, but he'd never say that blind-siding him about their relationship had shocked the hell out of him, leaving him adrift and unable to deal with one freaking magic building. Which, he reminded himself, had produced an unknown surge of power with the potential to destroy the entire city and that wasn't scary at all. But yeah, it was all Pepper's fault for why he was currently standing on a city street having a major panic attack in broad daylight, like it was a completely normal thing to do.

"I'm fine Happy. Give me a minute." He finally said, feeling some tension leave him when Happy's hands relaxed at his sides.

"Sure thing boss. Let me know if you need anything."

Tony frowned. "Actually, I could use some water."

Happy's face brightened into a small grin as he returned to the car, coming back a moment later to pass him a bottled water.

"Thanks." Tony said, gulping the whole thing down before passing the now empty bottle back to him. "Thanks Happy." Tony said again. "That helped and... let's just keep what happened here between the two of us. I'm fine now. No need to worry anyone else right?"

"You can count on me Mr. Stark. I won't tell a soul." Happy said gravely. "Do you still want to go in there alone?"

"No. But I can't bring you with me either. Don't worry, I've got my suit at my fingertips if anything bad happens. But nothing bad is going to happen because it's Wednesday. Nothing bad happens on Wednesday." The look Happy gave him wasn't reassuring and he realized he was doing it again and  he clamped his jaw shut. "Right. Shutting up now. Just wait in the car. Give me an hour. If it's going to be longer, I'll have FRIDAY let you know alright?"

"Sure Mr. Stark. I'll be right here if you need me."

"Okay. Good." Tony nodded and turned back to face the building. "Right. Going up the steps now and knocking on the door. Hey, hi you wouldn't know anything about some strange energy things from two days ago? Right, completely normal conversation. Nothing to see here." He muttered under his breath before lifting his hand to knock.

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony's fist hadn't even made contact with the door when it swung open on it's own. Swallowing nervously, he stepped up to the threshold. "Uh... hello?" When no one answered, he turned back to the street and waved reassuringly at Happy who was still standing where he'd left him and stepped inside.

Clear of the door, it swung closed behind him and a shiver travelled up his spine. He was standing in a wide foyer near the base of a sweeping staircase. A sound nearby snapped his gaze to the left where someone was watching him.

Tony frowned. A short, balding Asian man was glaring at him. He was dressed in... wait, was that a robe? His arms were crossed over his chest as though daring him to make a sarcastic comment. The effect was even more impressive since he was also holding a book in one hand which was at least two inches thick. He didn't doubt that whoever this guy was he could probably beat him in a hand to hand fight with his eyes closed despite being at least a foot shorter than him, and that was with or without the Iron Man armour.

"Uh hi?" He said nervously, glancing around him. "Do you live here?"

The man said nothing and glared harder at the same time Tony noticed the wallpaper. Later, he couldn't say why that happened, but it was better than being stared at by a mute ninja dude who was projecting nothing but hostility.

"Do you guys not know how to decorate?" He heard himself say as he continued staring at the walls. "You know this style went out of fashion like 60 years ago? Who's your decorator and... is that dust? I thought dust was bad for books and it seems like you have a lot of books here. Don't you have like a maid or something? Maybe a service because I could totally recommend someone, they do excellent work. This whole ancient library theme you've got going is so 18th century, would it kill you to update?"

A sound from the second floor had him break off his tirade and he gave up trying to provoke a response from the monk guy, turning to stare at the landing of the second floor.

"Wong? Have you seen that book on Temporal Displacement and Other Anomalies? I swear I left it in the south library, but it's not there now. I certainly hope it hasn't vanished again." The newcomer broke off as he reached the edge of the stairs, staring down at Tony in shock.

Tony's jaw dropped, his mind unable to process what he was seeing even as his right arm came up to point a finger at him. "You? No, no, no... you can't be here. Now I know I'm for sure hallucinating, shock from too many bad things happening in a short period of time, and because... Yeah, that makes sense cuz this wallpaper is super old and so this is all some elaborate trick to get me... What? I dunno... confused? That makes no sense..." He muttered, so lost in his rambling that he didn't see the look the two men shared or notice when the first man marched down the hallway towards a back room.

He was about to make another comment regarding the decor when a warm hand settled on his shoulder and he turned to stare into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. A part of him registered that he probably should have been startled by the gesture, but all he felt was ease.

"Mr. Stark?"

"Yeah?" He answered, still reeling from the face looking back at him.

"Perhaps you'd care to follow me to where we can sit and talk?" The man's voice was different from the last time he'd heard it. Warm and silky and infused with calm, so unlike the chilly indifference he remembered hearing the last time he'd seen this man, that he felt himself nod.

"Talk. Yeah, sure. Lead the way."

Ten minutes later they were seated across from each other in matching high back, antique chairs, a small table the only thing separating them. He was still staring at the man he'd recognized, so he didn't notice when the first man returned with a tea tray, set it down and disappeared back the way he'd come.

"You know you should really think about getting a decorator in here. This place could really use an upgrade. The whole ancient library look is so last century." He muttered, some part of him hoping this guy from his past would get it and respond, unlike the glaring man from earlier. But he received no comment, even as he accepted the cup of tea the man opposite him placed in his hands.

"No, no." He said, shaking his head even as he sipped his tea. "You can't be here, this has to be a trick, an illusion. Though I've no idea why I'd be imagining you. And what's with the freaky clothing? Is it some kind of lounge pant, pajama combo?  Cuz you probably shouldn't go outside looking like that, people will stare. And is that a cape? It looks like a cape, but that collar is so retro. It's a bit much. Are you an evil mastermind, a bad guy? Cuz Dr. Doom wears a cape and Loki wears a cape and they do magic, though the Scarlet Witch does magic but she doesn't have a cape so that totally doesn't add up."

"Mr. Stark?"

"Mmm?" Tony replied as he thoughts began to drift.

"Perhaps it would help if you told me the reason behind your visit. Why are you here?"

Tony frowned again, his mind drawing a blank as he stared at the man across from him. He seemed perfectly normal, if a little older than he remembered and if you ignored the weird clothes, he could almost accept it was the same man he'd spoken to at that Charity event over a year ago.

"Right, of course. The reason I'm here. Why am I here?" He wondered aloud. "FRIDAY? Why am I here?"

"To ask about the anomaly boss. And I detected another one about nine hours ago, centred in Hong Kong."

Tony smiled and nodded, enjoying the look of shock on the other man's face as he met his eyes expectantly. "Well?"

"Did you just have a conversation with a watch?"

Jeez, where had this guy been living all this time? Under a rock? "What? No. That's FRIDAY, my work in progress A.I. So, about this anomaly. FRIDAY detected an unexplained surge of power in three separate locations. One of which originated here and I'm here to investigate it."

"I can't help you."

Tony blinked, then set aside his tea to glare at the other man. "You don't get to say that. And while I'm at it, what the hell? What are you doing here Strange? Why are you dressed like that? What's with the cape? Are you a wizard? Is Gandalf lurking in one of the rooms here,  planning to jump out at me and yell boo? Because I gotta say, that's not very original."

Strange glared back at him, setting his own tea aside and placed his hands in his lap, calmly returning Tony's stare. "First of all, I am not a wizard, I'm a sorcerer. Sorcerer Supreme, a Master of the Mystic Arts."

The dam of tension broke at Strange's words as Tony burst out laughing, unable to stop the tide of emotion that had nowhere else to go. Tears streamed from his eyes, the other man's face growing red and angry while he filled the room with uncontrollable laughter. When he subsided, a smile still tugged at the corner of his mouth and he couldn't seem to get hold of himself.

"I honestly do not see what it is that you find so amusing Mr. Stark."

"So what? You're now Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme? Is that a cosmic joke? Or did your parents just love alliteration, cuz that right there is priceless."

"My name has nothing to do with my position here." Strange retorted.

"What's your position again? Right, you said Sorcerer Supreme. What does that even mean Dr. Wizard? What do you do all day besides read and compete with each other on who makes the best balloon animals?"

"That's Doctor Strange and we do not make balloon animals. We protect the planet from cosmic threats. It is our sworn duty to guard the earth from forces beyond your comprehension."

The smile died on Tony's lips almost instantly as he registered what Strange had just said, his face draining of colour. "You're serious." He said, a distant part of him registering that his palms had gone damp and his pulse had begun to pulse in his veins. "No, you can't be serious. That's what that anomaly was, wasn't it?" He croaked, wincing at the way his voice wavered. "You and your wizard buddies were fighting evil magicians and..." Tony paused for breath, but his vision was becoming spotty, the edges going dark as his breath started coming in short, frantic gasps for air. Then he was falling, or at least it felt like falling and the room dissolved, narrowing to a single spot of colour on the floor, a bright red triangle catching his attention as he stared at it, trying desperately to make sense of his surroundings. It felt as though he was on the verge of passing out when he heard a voice calling his name.

"Breathe... That's it. With me... breathe, Tony. In... out. You're doing good. You're okay, you're safe."

Tony blinked as the room began to right itself, slowly becoming aware of the warm press of a gentle hand rubbing soothing circles on his back. A second hand was gripping one of his own, squeezing it reassuringly as he slowly came back to himself.

He blinked a second time, his pulse steadying as he leaned back into his chair, meeting a pair of calm blue eyes that were just on this side of being too close and his face flushed with embarrassment. Closing his eyes, he moved out of the other man's reach, hating the fact that he'd just had an almost full blown panic attack in front of someone he barely knew.

When he could, he opened his eyes to glare at Strange, everything inside him still too unsettled to focus on any one reaction. "That was unpleasant." He said roughly, getting to his feet, thankful he didn't sway and the room didn't spin as he did so. "Secret magic cults and ugh, no, just... no." He muttered, still glaring at the former Doctor as if what had just happened was his fault. "Sorry, but I have to cut this short, I have somewhere to be." He said, heading towards the front door without waiting for a response.

Nodding to himself, he didn't look back when he heard Strange following him. "Are you alright Mr. Stark?" He asked.

Tony turned back to scowl at him. "Why wouldn't I be? Never mind, I'm fine and... I'll be back. Thanks for the tea."

 

 

Chapter Text

Back in his living room an hour later, he sipped a cup of Bruce's calming tea, staring at nothing in particular as he went over what had happened. He was mortified he'd lost control. Not just in front of Strange but also on the street with Happy; not once but several times, before he even got in the door.

He knew exactly what had set him off and kicked himself for his hard-headedness. He should have left and come back after he'd calmed down. Instead he'd stubbornly pushed on. Once he'd seen the interior of the building, his fears had been confirmed when he realized the inside was much larger than the exterior implied. Then Strange had been difficult and evasive, and he'd put together what had happened faster than the Doctor could finish speaking. And what the hell was Strange even doing there? When he realized what Strange's implication meant, he'd gone head first over the precarious edge he'd been balancing on.

Four years living with the mind screwing Wanda had inflicted on him featuring the death of everyone he knew, hadn't prepared him for the revelation that there were threats to the earth he wasn't even aware of. That realization had been enough to shove him brutally over the edge of the last shred of calm he possessed.

"Boss?" FRIDAY asked, interrupting his thoughts. "Did you learn anything from Doctor Strange?"

"Yeah." Tony snorted. "I learned it's not only possible but guaranteed that I can make an ass of myself in front of people who I kinda, sorta know professionally."

"I don't believe it's as bad as you think boss. I did hear what happened."

"I think you should delete that conversation."

"You will regret not reviewing it later. When you're feeling more yourself, I think a review of the meeting will be informative."

"I highly doubt watching my own embarrassing meltdown will be helpful FRIDAY."

"As you say boss, but Colonel Rhodes is on the line for you."

"Sure. Nice save. Don't think I don't know what you're doing FRIDAY. This conversation isn't over."

"Of course not."

"Rhodey bear, Playtpus, light of my life, how's life been treating you?"

"You feeling alright Tones?"

"I'm feeling great! Why wouldn't I feel great? I mean Pepper and I broke up and there's some weird energy signatures popping up all over the planet and apparently earth wizards are real. So yeah, I'm just peachy buddy." Tony smacked his hand to his forehead. Why had he just said that?

"Whoah, woah Tony. You and Pepper broke up? What happened?"

"Mutual break up Rhodey. Amicable, logical. I get it and I'm not blind, we're just not good for each other that way. I'm good or I will be, so what did you call about?"

"What was that about wizards and energy?"

"It's nothing. Nothing to worry about. I've got it all under control, or I will. Soon. I just have to, you know, have a plan of attack when I go back there."

"You have wizards under control?" Rhodey repeated, his voice filling with disbelief. "You? With your... extreme views and perfectly justified feelings on anything even remotely connected to magic?"

"It's fine Rhodes. I'm fine. Nothing to worry about."

"I'm inbound Tony."

"Nope, no you're not. I'm fine. You do not need to come here. FRIDAY don't let Colonel Rhodes land. Revoke his security clearance."

"No can do boss. Colonel Rhodes has emergency override clearance."

"What? Who did that? Did you do that? I wouldn't do that."

"When under extreme emotional fluctuations in perspective, I am not required to follow orders of that nature." FRIDAY paused. "War Machine has landed boss."

"Shit." Tony muttered under his breath. Tossing his cell to the couch, he settled at the kitchen island, waiting for Rhodey to join him.

***

This time Rhodey seated himself at the counter with his beer of choice, *Amber's Hot Friend. Tony couldn't help but smirk at that, smiling into his coffee as Rhodey took his seat.

"Are you projecting Playtpus?" Tony laughed. "Never thought you'd go for blantant propaganda beer labels. And where'd you get the idea you were hot? Do you even know anyone named Amber?"

"I'm hot where it counts Tones and you don't know as much about me as you think you do. I might be dating an Amber right now for all you know." Rhodes smirked back, tipping the bottle to his lips. "So what's this about magicians in New York? Are we talking wannabe back alley charlatans or the real deal?"

Tony shrugged and refused to meet Rhodey's eyes. "I couldn't say."

"What do you mean you couldn't say?" Rhodey asked again. "Did something happen?"

"Maybe?"

"Tony."

"Fine. I may have slightly, kinda sorta had a small panic attack."

"What? Why?"

"Well, when I realized the building might be enchanted from the street, I freaked out a bit and rather than leave and come back I went in. And then I was sure the place was enchanted and then I asked about the anomalies FRIDAY detected and... and then it just sorta clicked... and I went a little mental." Tony finished with a shrug.

"A little mental." Rhodey echoed. "I assume whoever was there managed to talk you down?"

"Can we not talk about that? Please?"

"Fine. So who was inside? Can you tell me that much at least?"

"A short, glaring Asian guy who was dressed like a Tibetan monk and... shit, I can't believe that was him. Completely and totally mortified Rhodes. Unless he was a hallucination..." Tony laughed but it wasn't a happy sound. "No probably not a hallucination, I'm not that lucky."

"You can start making sense anytime now Tony. Are you saying you knew the other guy you saw?"

"I... think so Rhodey bear, but at the same time, not exactly." Rhodey scowled at him and Tony huffed in annoyance. "He used to be a doctor, well, he probably still is a doctor. Anyway, he was a renowned neurosurgeon when I last saw him and I have no idea what happened, but he wears a cape now Rhodes. A red, magical cape, with real high collars... totally not something to be seen in public in, but yeah, a cape."

"A cape." Rhodey echoed. "And he used to be a doctor, but now he's a magician? Am I getting this right?"

Tony shook his head. "No, not a magician. Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic Arts, protector of the earth from cosmic threats."

"Holy shit. No wonder you freaked."

"I appreciate your attempt at solidarity, but really not helping. Can we maybe not focus on that right now?"

"So when are you going back there?"

"I'm gonna need a few days and maybe a disguise or some plastic surgery, you know, so they don't recognize me? But no, seriously, I will go back. I have to assess the threat level before Ross hears about it. And if you're interested, talk to FRIDAY she can go over it with you. As for me... I'm going to bed. I'm exhausted. See you in the morning?"

Rhodey nodded. "Yeah, I'll be here. I'm on leave for a couple days. See you tomorrow Tones."

 

 ~~~~~~

*Another real ale, made in Arlington, Washington by Skookum brewery.

 

Chapter Text

In the end it was two days before Tony had gotten over his embarrassing freak out enough to get over it and return to the house on Bleecker Street. In preparation for the visit, he'd had FRIDAY search news archives on Doctor Stephen Strange to find out how a neurosurgeon had become a Sorcerer Supreme, who was now living in a nondescript house in Greenwich Village.

He felt like an ass when he read about Stephen's accident and the subsequent painful surgeries the man had had to endure. He didn't remember hearing anything about what had happened, though it had been reported in the news.

Of course when he looked closely it was easy to deduce why. The man who had revolutionized new procedures in advanced brain surgery wasn't really newsworthy once the press knew he would never hold a scalpel again. Stories like that didn't make the front page once the initial horror of the car crash had been reported on, which was likely why he hadn't heard about it.

Well that, and he'd had his hands full. Tracking Bruce, monitoring Steve and Natasha's movements in Europe, designing a program to track Ross, assisting Fury with protecting SHIELD agents, avoiding getting caught hacking government holdings and upgrading the suit.

With a heavy sigh he lifted his hand to knock on the door again when it swung open before he could make contact. Shit, he was never going to get used to that. He stepped over the threshold, once more seeing the dispassionate glare of the Asian man from before.

"Is that door thing normal? Don't you have some sort of security measure in place? You'd think that someone important like a Sorcerer Supreme would want at least a little bit of security. A door that opens without provocation is kinda dangerous."

The other man grunted, arms still crossed over his chest before turning  and heading down the hall. They entered the same room Tony remembered from his last visit, wincing at the memory and frowning when he caught sight of Strange waiting for him, a book in his hand.

As he stared, he was struck by the memory of Strange using his first name to get him through his panic attack and a warmth bloomed in his chest. Strange frowned at whatever he saw in Tony's eyes and Tony looked away, forcing his mask back in place before facing him again.

Strange watched him cross to the other chair, his eyes now holding nothing but cool indifference. "We weren't sure you would come back. Wong and I had a bet."

"Let me guess," Tony drawled, "he lost."

Stephen frowned, shaking his head. "No, I did."

"Good to know who has the better opinion of me." Tony retorted with a heavy sigh. "Right, so. First off, I want to apologize for what happened last time I was here."

"Alright."

"Yeah, sorry I freaked out on you, and though I really don't want to know what caused those energy spikes I mentioned, I have to know what they were."

"I'm afraid I can't give you any details. As loyal servants of Kamar-Taj we are sworn to protect the planet from cosmic threats and to keep the secrets of this Sanctum from falling into the wrong hands."

"I knew you were going to say that. I knew you were going to be difficult. I should've brought Rhodey."

Stephen scowled at him, his eyes tight with anger. "You told others about this place?"

"I got news for you wizard boy, you aren't as invisible as you seem to think. And yeah, I told others about you, but for the sake of playing nice, only Rhodey and FRIDAY know about your little magic cult."

"It's not a cult." Stephen snapped.

"Fine. Club, secret society, sanctum, order, whatever you call yourselves, I don't really care. I'm just here to tell you that it's only a matter of time before someone else finds out about you and your friends."

"Is that a threat? We wage wars on entities of a galactic nature, we protect the planet from things you can't even begin to comprehend. If you think..."

"Woah!" Tony said holding up his hands. "Easy there Gandalf. Getting the wrong impression here. And you'd be surprised what I can comprehend, so let's stop making this personal."

"Rather hard not to when you're being an ass and insulting me."

"Like you just did by insinuating I can't comprehend something?" Tony scowled back at him. "Look, I get it. You don't like me. But get in line alright? Whatever, moving on. So here's the thing. You've probably or not, heard something about the United Nations and their plans to reign in supers right?"

"I might have heard something."

"Good." Tony nodded and then frowned, rubbing his hands together nervously. "No, not good. Really not good. Running out of time. Anyway, back to you. I thought it might be a good idea to bring you and other supers in on the negotiations regarding changes to the Accords. I've done what I can to change some of the more ludicrous requests in the agreements, but I have limited understanding of other types of supers. I've taken suggestions from several groups, most recently Doctor Reed and his team and Professor Xavier to help with the part on protecting minors, and someone else who knows something about secret identities. What I don't have is input from someone like you."

"You want me to join the Avengers?" Stephen scoffed. "The Sorcerer Supreme does not join superhero... clubs."

"Maybe not. But you'd be better off joining us now than being discovered after the Accords are ratified, and so much better off if you do it before Ross knows you exist."

"We do not need your help Mr. Stark. From you or your alter ego, Iron Man." Stephen asserted, glaring at him with a haughty expression on his face.

Tony stood, an angry glare of his own in his eyes. "Of course not. It wouldn't do for someone like you to accept help from the former Merchant of Death now would it?" He said, dropping a file folder on the seat he'd just vacated. "A copy of the existing Accords. Might want to read it Doctor." He sneered. "I'll see myself out."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony was vibrating with anger by the time he returned to the car, barely keeping himself in check until Happy had pulled away from the curb.

"You alright boss?" Happy asked.

Free of keeping his game face on, Tony let loose. "No, no I'm not okay, very far from okay actually. Stupid freaking Stephen asshole Strange, so high and freaking mighty, doesn't need help from Tony, Merchant of Death, Stark! Try to do someone a goddamn freaking favour and they throw it back in your face! Like I'm not up to my bloody eyeballs in enough crap, I thought I'd add more to the stunning pile of manure by annoying a former world-renowned, nobel peace prize neurosurgeon. Yeah sure, cuz I have absolutely nothing better to do with my time."

"Sir? Do you want me to contact Colonel Rhodes?"

"No Happy. Think I'll just take the Mark 46 out for a test drive. Let off some steam, maybe blow up some abandoned buildings. I'll be fine Happy, but thanks for looking out for me."

"Of course boss. Anytime."

***

On reaching the Tower, Tony headed straight to the landing pad where he immediately donned the Mark 46 armour. Minutes later he shot straight up into the sky, past the clouds to where the sun warred with his view of the stars.

Queuing up his mixtape, his helmet filled with the bass beat of Who  Made Who, followed by For Those About to Rock, Shoot to Thrill, For Whom the Bell Tolls and finishing with Back in Black.

He was in the middle of a barrel roll across the Atlantic when his phone rang, interrupting his enjoyment of Shoot to Thrill, his favourite. He scowled behind his helmet as it continued to ring.

"I thought I put that on mute. FRIDAY who's calling and why should I care?"

"It's a private line boss."

"Shit." Tiny sighed. "Mute music and put them through."

"Uh, hello?"

"Hi. Who is this and how did you get this number?"

"Is this Tony Stark? It's Danny Rand."

"Rand? Thought you were busy with some Finger thing?"

"Finger?" Danny chuckled. "Uh, no sir. They're called the Hand."

"Hand." Tony snorted. "Sounds made up. Let me guess, there's five of them right?"

"Yeah there is."

"Of course there is. So what can I do for you Mr. Rand?"

"Actually it's what I can do for you sir. I've been talking to Matt Murdock about your work in the city and I want to help."

Okay, now Tony knew he was dreaming. Things like this didn't just fall into his lap. People never offered to help him, they were too busy taking.

"I think Mr. Murdock has a silver tongue. And he definitely talks about my work more than I thought." 

"Well I don't know about that. I just happened to overhear him talking to a Ms. Potts and he mentioned a Charity dinner? So I asked him about it and he told me about your Foundation."

"Right, well, you know Jessica Jones? He says she wants to meet with me. It's actually kinda terrifying given how my last meeting with her went. Anyway what do want to help with? I have a lot of projects in New York."

"That is a terrifying. Jones is an odd and complicated woman. Drinks too much, no idea how she does that. But yeah, I'd like to offer some financial support to the Maria Stark Foundation. It's not as though I'm making use of Rand resources myself, so I thought I could use the money to help others. I wanted to do it myself, but then Geri told me what you were doing and that it would be easier to donate the money to your foundation. It would also give me a place on the board and a say in where the money goes."

"Who's Geri?" Tony asked.

"Oh! She's my lawyer."

"Right." Tony nodded inside his helmet as though it should have been obvious. "Okay. So I appreciate what you're offering Mr. Rand. Normally I'd put you in touch with my CEO but she's away. Instead, have Geri meet with Mr. Murdock and the three of you can go over the details and legalities of how to proceed."

"Really? Murdock is working for you now?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"Okay great. I'll call Geri right away."

"Good. And thanks for the help Mr. Rand."

"Oh sure, no problem. I gotta do something with all that money right?"

"Sure. Anyway, I gotta run."

"Right, of course. Thanks Mr. Stark."

Tony sighed and went right back into his music where he'd left off, changing course and heading west back to New York.


***

Wong entered the sitting room and sank into the chair Tony had just vacated the moment the billionaire left. His glare was filled with disapproval and disappointment, but Stephen was still processing everything Stark had said to him before storming out the door.

"What?" He snapped when he could no longer take the silence.

"You should not have done that. I see your arrogance is still not a thing of the past."

"You're telling me I should have agreed to join the Avengers?"

"I think Tony Stark offered us an olive branch into his world on our terms and you proceeded to set it on fire." Wong said pointedly. "Regardless of what you think of the man or the so-called Avengers, I believe the time for our order to work in the shadows is coming to an end."

"The Avengers are a glorified false idol private club. They have no  . regard for their actions or the people whose lives they irrevocably change." Stephen retorted. "And Tony Stark made millions selling weapons to governments all over the world."

"I thought you said you knew about these Accords? They're supposed to make the Avengers accountable to the law. And didn't Mr. Stark put an end to his weapons program? You have to have been wilfully ignoring everything Stark has done for some time now if you still think that."

"And how is it you know so much about it?"

Wong narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. "I know how to Google Stephen. What do you think I was doing after Stark showed up here the first time? More than that, how is it that you know nithing?"

Stephen groaned, a hand going over his eyes as he used his fingers to massage his temples. "You truly think we should be on the side of being in agreement with these Accords? How will we keep the Sanctum and all it's knowledge protected if the world knows of our existence?"

"We're sorcerers Strange. We haven't kept the Sanctum protected through millennia without knowing a thing or two about safeguarding secrets. And these Accords are very serious. There are over 100 countries in agreement on these documents and I imagine by the time they're brought to the public's awareness, a dozen more will have signed on. I don't think we will be able to stay on the sidelines this time."

"Why couldn't you have told me all this before Stark came back?" He demanded, scowling hard when Wong smirked at him. "Dammit Wong, this was another one of your stupid tests wasn't it? One I failed spectacularly."

"You're learning Stephen. At a snail's pace, but you are learning." He said, handing him the folder Tony had left behind as he got to his feet. "Read it. And then you should work on your apology."

"Me? You're the one who thinks we should join the outside world!"

"That's not what I said. And you are the Sorcerer Supreme. Making apologies, deals and arrangements for our order is your responsibility, not mine."

"I would appreciate these lessons more if you were a little less smug about it."

"If I were less smug, the lesson wouldn't hold as much weight. And you know that Stephen." Wong retorted, moving to the hall. "Read the Accords. Call Stark and apologize before you both run out of time."

Chapter Text

By the time Tony landed on Stark Tower and headed into his kitchen, all his earlier anger had been burned off. His heart felt lighter and his shoulders had relaxed while he'd flown across the city and up into the atmosphere, just letting himself go while AC/DC blasted through his helmet.

"FRIDAY?" He said, crossing to the counter to brew a fresh pot of coffee.

"Yes boss?"

"Any calls or visitors while I was out?"

"No boss."

Tony poured himself a steaming mug of coffee and crossed to his couch with a frown. "Really? Nothing? No one was looking for me at all today?"

"No."

"Tell me you think that's just as disturbing as I do."

"It is... unsettling boss."

"Damn."

"Boss, Matthew Murdock is downstairs requesting access to the penthouse."

"Let him up FRIDAY."

"Tony." Matt said as he stepped out of the elevator.

"Matt. Good to see you. Can I interest you in a coffee? Beer? Something else?"

"Coffee is fine thanks."

"Coming right up. Have a seat on the couch while I get you a cup." Tony said, pulling a clean mug from the cupboard. "So, how have you been? Didn't we just see each other a week ago?"

Matt smiled as Tony handed him the coffee and took a seat across from him. "More like three."

"Three?" Tony shook his head. "Been a while since I lost track of time like that."

"It happened often?"

Tony made a face and stared out the window. "Used to happen all the time both before and after Ultron. Kinda my go-to when everything goes to shit and it's my fault."

Matt frowned, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Your fault? That's... not what I've read."

"What?" Tony blurted, his eyes filling with confusion. "What are you talking about? What reading? What have you been reading?"

Matt smiled, but he wasn't laughing and Tony thought the look was gentle, which if you thought about it was odd, since the guy was blind, how could a blind guy have a look that was gentle?

"Unlike everyone else, some people can't actually watch your incriminating videos or any social media that gets flooded with your image. I have to read the news and with that, I and others like me learn more than the general public."

Tony sipped more of his coffee, letting his shoulders relax a bit at Matt's words. "Okay, I'll bite. What have you read about me?"

"Well to be honest, at first I didn't trust you. I read a lot about what happened after Colonel Rhodes brought you home." Matt said, carefully avoiding naming where Tony had been. "Then I read about the Senate hearing, Justin Hammer, Stane and Killian."

"Not things I like to think about much." Tony replied, his voice cold.

"I know and I understand why, believe me. I was still in law school when Loki fell out if the sky, but everyone remembered the sacrifice you made, well almost. And there are a lot people who are happy we didn't lose you." Matt said, making Tony frown at him with surprised confusion. "Then I read about Ultron and the work you were doing that wasn't making headlines. The relief efforts, the sponsorships, your reparations. I doubt anyone other than the few friends you trust know even half of the things you do to protect the world."

"What does that have to do with what I said earlier?"

"Ultron wasn't your fault Tony. Anyone who was there and anyone who really knows you, knows that. Sokovia wasn't your fault. Everything Hammer, Killian and Stane did, wasn't your fault. From where I'm sitting, all you ever did was invent new technology that made other people jealous. So they made you a target and since the public loves a good story, no one questions it any further than that."

"Not you though."

"I doubt I'm the only one Tony. But no, not me. I see a man trying to do the right thing, who's being held back by people who believe what they're told. People who hold you back because they're afraid of what you can do. It's human nature to fear the unknown and it stifles you because you're trying to show the world that change doesn't have to be scary."

"You know, I really could have used my own personal cheering section four years ago." Tony smirked. "But I gotta ask, why are you telling me all this?"

"Because in the short time I've known you, I like what I see. I admire you and what you can do and what you're still doing."

"You keep talking like that and I might have to kiss you." Tony teased, getting up to top up his coffee. "Refill?"

"Sure." Matt stammered as Tony returned with a carafe. "Um, why did you say that?"

"Say what? Kiss you?"

"Yes. I thought you and Ms. Potts..."

"We broke up. Like yesterday? Recently. And you're very attractive. I'm sure you've heard that before."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Thanks, but Pepper and I have been rocky from day one. She decided... well she figured it out first and then explained it to me, but we're better off just being friends. The romance part... it just wasn't healthy, for either of us."

"Is it because of what you told me before? Being Iron Man makes it too hard?"

"Something like that. But then I realized, we're always arguing and it's never about anything important, but I feel like I can never be myself around her. I'm always apologizing and... well it makes me feel bad about myself and no one should have to apologize for who they are."

"You're nothing like what the reporters make you out to be."

"I'm glad you think so."

"I do." Matt nodded. "Anyway, I guess should get going. Thanks for having me over Tony. I enjoy our talks."

"Me too. Come on, I'll walk you to the elevator." Tony said offering Matt his elbow. "You back to practicing law yet?" Tony asked as they waited together at the door.

"Not yet. I have some... apologizing to do first." Matt paused, tilting his head to observe him. "Tony?"

"Mmm?"

"Do you mind if I..." Matt raised his hand hesitantly toward Tony's cheek. "It's just that I don't know what you look like. May I?"

"Uh... sure." Tony said as Matt trailed his hands over his face. It was a weirdly intimate moment and he felt for a minute that he couldn't breathe as Matt's fingertips traced the planes and contours of his face.

"You're a very attractive man Stark." Matt said, using his last name to create a semblance of distance.

"Uh... thanks. So are you."

Matt chuckled under his breath. "So Foggy keeps telling me." He said as he stepped into the elevator. "Oh, before I go, Jessica wanted me to tell you she'll sign the Accords and that she wants to talk to you privately."

"Okay. Do you know what about?"

Matt shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. Little advice? It'll probably go better if you've got some whiskey to offer her."

"I don't make a habit of drinking anymore Matt."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I mentioned it."

"Considering she practically hates my guts a little peace offering can't hurt."

"Take care Tony. Keep me updated."

"Will do."

***

With nothing needing his immediate attention, Tony spent the majority of the next day happily ensconced in his workshop. He'd finally completed the upgrades to his suit armour, designing a tech watch that would allow a gauntlet to form around his hand if he couldn't call in his suit. Mark XLVI was his most recent and best iteration of the Iron Man armour to date and he was ecstatic with the results.

"FRIDAY, what do you think about a new paint job?"

"I think it would be appropriate given your flamboyant nature boss. But perhaps a simple gloss finish would be more practical. Besides, you can't improve on design perfection."

"Ugh. Fine, fabricate and finalize."

"Boss. A Miss Jones is asking to see you. She's in the lobby."

A chill went down Tony's spine at this announcement. "I guess Matt wasn't kidding. Scan her vitals. Is she drunk?"

"Miss Jones has a blood alcohol level of .07. I suspect this is a normal state given what I have on her in my archives."

"Alright. Send her to the penthouse. I'm on my way."

 

Chapter Text

"Stark." Jessica growled as he crossed the room to the kitchen island.

"Miss Jones." He replied, moving straight for his liquor cabinet. "Matt mentioned you wanted to talk. I didn't expect to see you this soon though."

"I had nothing better to do." She shrugged, watching him with an intensity that left him feeling unsettled. "What are you doing?"

"I had FRIDAY bring in some whisky." He said, carrying a large bottle and a glass tumbler with him as he joined her at the island. "FRIDAY? Coffee please."

"Of course boss."

Tony slid both the tumbler and the bottle across the kitchen island to Jessica. She smirked, even as she narrowed her eyes at him. Wordlessly, she cracked the seal on the bottle and filled the tumbler full before replacing the cap and sliding the bottle back to the centre of the table. Lifting the glass to her lips, she took three healthy swallows, her eyes never leaving his face.

A chime sounded, rousing Tony from watching her drink and he moved to the kitchen counter to retrieve his coffee. He returned to his seat where Jones was still watching him, an unreadable expression on her face.

"I was under the distinct impression you hated me Ms. Jones."

"I've never hated you. I just didn't like you much."

"Didn't? As in past tense?"

Jessica shrugged, swirling the liquid in her glass. "Things change."

"Okay." Tony said carefully, still at a loss as to what the angry, whiskey swilling, part time private investigator and enhanced human was doing in his tower.

"Matt has been talking you up and I did some investigating of my own on you. Shared some of what I found with him. You should care more about good PR Stark. You may not think so, but it matters what the public believes."

"Really? This coming from a woman whose idea of making friends is to tell them they're fired every day? You don't care what people think and yet you're telling me I should? What is this, 'do as I say, not as I do' adventure hour?"

Jess narrowed her eyes at him and downed more whiskey. "Because you're already in the public eye. And the things you do, people pay attention to."

Tony snorted, shaking his head as he drank deeply of his coffee. "People pay attention she says. Yeah they just love to pay attention when it's something bad or embarrassing or scandalous, though all three at once is better. Not so much when it's good, decent or heroic."

"Doesn't mean you shouldn't try."

"You honestly think I have time for that? Despite what the masses believe, I work very hard. I'm a damn inventor for crying out loud. Where do people think all those advances in technology coming out of Stark Industries come from? I'll tell you where, the backs of the hard working, unappreciated employees. Not Tony Stark, the playboy, billionaire, genius philanthropist. Oh no, all Stark does is make grand entrances, drink too much, buy favours, embarrass myself in public, look pretty and make bad decisions."

Jessica laughed, downing the last of her whisky and reached for the bottle. "Jesus Stark. Tell me what you really think."

Tony narrowed his eyes at her, the tension in his shoulders easing. "So what? You're just jerking me around?"

"Actually I was being serious, but I see your point. But I might have a solution." Jess continued, pouring herself another whisky. "My sister has a show, I could get her doing some interviews and Matt has a... well, a friend who works for the Bulletin. A few articles once in a while couldn't hurt."

"You want to help improve my public image?" Tony couldn't be more shocked than if she'd fallen to her knees and kissed his feet. "Am I dreaming right now?"

"You wish."

"Uh, no offense, but not really. Why would you want to do that? More importantly, why do you care?"

"It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this Accords business isn't going to go away Stark. From what I've seen, you're the only superhero talking about it and doing something about it. Every super out there should be lining up to shake your hand or kiss your ass. Without you, this Secretary Ross dipshit would have us all locked up somewhere to be stuck under a microscope with no one the wiser. Then he'd make up any story he wanted and the U.N. would believe him. But because of you, that won't happen now - because you care. You could've just retired and washed your hands of all of this crap, but you didn't."

"Congratulations Jones. You are the second person in two days to leave me speechless." Tony huffed, sipping at his now cooled coffee while she sat there watching him. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but is that the only reason you wanted to see me?"

"No." She said meeting his eyes. "I want to be your bodyguard."

Tony's jaw dropped, his coffee forgotten as he met her steady and very serious gaze. He was waiting for the punchline to what she'd just said and when it didn't come, he still hadn't thought of a snappy response. "Twice in one night Jones. Please tell me that's the last crazy thing you're going to say tonight."

She smirked at him. Actually smirked without narrowing her eyes as though she was enjoying his company. "Not quite."

Tony sucked in a deep breath, Jones' words running through his head like pieces of a puzzle he hadn't known he'd been trying to put together for years. "I can't believe this is you saying these things, but you're right about the reputation thing. So, if you really want to help me out with that, I accept. But the bodyguard thing... I'm going to need an explanation for that one. I mean, I'm Iron Man and I have a bodyguard."

Jessica rolled her eyes so far back in her head, Tony imagined they might not go back to where they were supposed to be. "Jesus Stark, and here I thought I was careless with my life. Look, I get you have a bodyguard, but he's a civilian. You're going to have a lot of people asking you hard questions when all that U.N. crap goes public. You think every super out there is going to be happy about that? Because I'm damn sure there will be a lot of them who don't agree with you. Are you getting what I'm saying? No one else can speak for people like us and I doubt there's anyone out there more qualified to handle government and political agencies than you are. Even if there are, they sure as shit aren't stepping up to help either."

"Huh." Tony huffed. He still couldn't wrap his brain around the fact that it was Jessica freaking Jones saying these things. The same woman who'd told him to shove his money and his ego where the sun didn't shine and that if he couldn't figure out how, she'd do it for him.

"So, assuming this is real and I'm not hallucinating, how would this work? I don't always know when I'm going to be needed for a public appearance and once the U.N. goes public, a lot of it will be on foreign soil and Happy stays on the premises here at the tower. That's a big commitment Jones. No offense, but don't you already have a job?"

"I'm taking a vacation."

"Vacation." Tony dead-panned arching a dark eyebrow at her.

"Look, I know you don't pay attention to us commoners but let's just say I need some distance from the wreck my life has become alright? Don't ask questions." She snapped when he opened his mouth to do just that. "So couple that with your glaring disregard for your life and personal safety, you need someone like me watching your back."

"Someone like you."

Jessica frowned, downing more whisky. "A super who doesn't have some super secret identity, who doesn't need a damn costume or a bulletproof robot suit to fight bad guys. Everyone knows Colonel Rhodes is War Machine, but he's just human without the armour. And so are you."

Tony sucked in a breath, then let it out again in a slow exhale. "Alright. You've made your point. I'm still not convinced I'm not dreaming all this, but... " Tony sighed, running a tired hand through his hair. "You can be my bodyguard. I have a public appearance set for the day after tomorrow. Is that too soon?"

"No problem Iron Heart." She smirked, getting to her feet. "I'm not available till then anyways."

"Uh huh." Tony replied still not convinced this wasn't some elaborate hallucination. "Well um... I'll have Pepper call you with a contract. And you'll have a place of your own here in the tower. Free, as part of the job."

Jessica gave him another unreadable look as she headed to the elevator. "I figured. See you Stark."

 

Chapter Text

"It's been two days Strange." Wong grunted at him for the fourth time that day. "Is your ego so important that you would put the sanctum and all within it at risk because you're too proud to apologize? I was sceptical when The Ancient One told me you were her choice to succeed her. Then you defeated Dormammu and I saw in you what she saw before she died. Now, I see the same arrogant man who came begging on the Sanctum's doorstep. Your success in the Dark Dimension had nothing to so with saving anyone but yourself. You couldn't accept the possibility of failure so you kept going until you won. That does not make you a hero Stephen, it makes you dangerous."

"I saved the planet and all you can do is criticize! Never mind the fact that no one in Kamar-Taj ever told me what my job actually entails. The Ancient One died, telling me next to nothing of what was expected of me and you have said nothing at all." Stephen retorted. "Half of what happened with Stark is on you! That entire mess could have been avoided if you'd just said something about the Sanctum's views on being known about outside these walls!"

"No." Wong shook his head. "It could have been avoided if you'd just asked me before picking a fight with Stark. Do not put your failure on me Strange. It was your choice to declare us removed from the rest of the world. I was here. You could have asked me. Instead you lashed out and insulted Stark. Now call him before it really is too late and this Secretary Ross I've read about tries to arrest us."

"They can't arrest us Wong." Stephen argued. Seriously. What was wrong with the man? They were Interdimensional, Intergalactic Sorcerers and here Wong was, worrying about jail.

"They can make our lives difficult Strange, quite easily I might add. Or have you forgotten Loki and the aliens he brought to earth a few years ago? No one who witnessed that incident will look kindly on magic users of any kind. It won't matter that we're on their side. We need allies Strange. Go. Make some."

Stephen opened his mouth to protest, trying several times to come up with a retort, but each time he tried the words died on his lips. "You're actually worried about this, aren't you?"

Wong nodded carefully, as though he didn't believe for a moment that Stephen was finished arguing. "I have never seen so many countries readily agree to something so quickly."

"You really think this Secretary Ross is a serious threat to the Sanctum and Kamar-Taj?" Stephen pressed.

"I do. And despite your personal feelings regarding Mr. Stark, he is our only ally right now. We need him on our side more than he needs us."

"There are no personal feelings Wong." Stephen huffed. "I just find his way of speaking to be... insufferable and... grating."

"Sounds personal to me." Wong retorted. "He was perfectly polite to me, ingratiating in fact. If your ego hadn't surfaced on seeing him, you might have noticed that before you insulted him."

"You haven't a soft word in you at all do you? Would it kill you to point these things out without insulting me?"

"No, it wouldn't kill me. But you're an adult Stephen and your ego has ruled how you interact with others for far longer than you've been one. Subtle doesn't work with you. You'd find some way of justifying your behaviour and thus learn nothing. The Ancient One knew that when she forced your astral body out of you when you first came to us. Being blunt is the only way you hear anything."

"I liked you better when you were silent and glaring."

Wong snorted, his lip curling in what Stephen imagined might be his attempt at a smile. It was unsettling to see. "I don't doubt it."

Stephen sighed, tilting his head from side to side to release the tension in his shoulders. "Fine. You've made your point. I will... go to Stark Tower and apologize."

Wong raised a brow at him to which Stephen sighed loudly. "And speak with him about the Accords."

"Good. I'll be in Kamar-Taj for the rest of the day." Wong nodded, seemingly satisfied with his response. "Portal there if you need me for anything. Otherwise I will be back at the Sanctum later tonight. We can discuss what happened with Stark tomorrow."

"Fine."

***

"Sir." Vision's voice startled Tony so bad that he very nearly jumped out of his skin as he hunched over a new motherboard design.

"Shit Viz! You could have let me know you were coming!" Tony swore. "FRIDAY! Announce people when I'm in here, even if they have the required clearance."

"Of course boss. I'm sorry, I thought it would be a nice surprise for you." FRIDAY replied sounding properly chastised.

Tony groaned and ran a hand through his hair. "Well it might have been if I was in the kitchen or the common room and not completely absorbed in my work. Context FRIDAY. You're still learning... and I'm not mad, just... tired."

"It's alright boss. You're allowed to be angry. I made a bad call and you have every right to be upset."

"Sir." Vision interrupted. "I am equally to blame. I should have called ahead to let you know I was coming. I'm sorry."

"It's fine buddy." Tony protested but let anything else he thought to say go when he noted the disapproving look on Vision's face. "Okay you're right, it's not fine, but apology accepted anyway." He sighed, straightening. "Clean up time guys. Dad's going upstairs. Try not to break anything Dum-E."

An excited beep followed this statement and Tony left the workshop with Vision following close behind.

Chapter Text

"I am sorry Tony. I did not mean to startle you." Vision said as Tony crossed to the coffee machine in the common room. "I'm still learning appropriate behaviour with human interactions."

"Yeah and how's that going with Maximoff as your teacher?" Tony snapped before immediately smacking his hand to his forehead, groaning at his lack of control. "I... didn't mean it that way."

"On the contrary. It's exactly how you meant it and I take no offense. You have every right to be angry with me for what I did."

"So what, you've mastered painfully understanding now?" Tony retorted, deciding in an instant to just be angry for once. "You weren't so clued in when you left. In fact, you were downright insulting and condescending if I remember right."

"You are correct sir. I was insufferably rude and you have my sincere apologies for that as well. I had no right or reason for speaking to you the way I did. You were also right about Ms. Maximoff and my... inexplicable attraction to her."

Tony turned angry eyes on the being he'd indirectly helped give life to, seriously questioning the state of his world. "I'm actually becoming convinced that this entire week has been some long extended episode of the Twilight Zone . Seriously? You're not only apologizing but you're agreeing with me too? The world must be ending for the sheer number of times people have shocked me this week."

"I'm not sure I follow."

Tony waved his arm dismissively as he took a sip of his coffee. "Not important. FRIDAY has it recorded. Talk to her if you really want to know." He said, turning and crossing to the living area to settle on his couch. "So, talk. I assume you didn't come all this way just to shock me. Why are you here?"

"You... knew where I was this entire time?"

Tony glared at him but said nothing as he continued to sip his coffee.

"Of course you did." Vision looked down at his hands as he took a seat on the adjoining couch. "I came because I have been keeping myself apprised of what you've been doing these past months. You've been extraordinarily busy. More than that, it seems you've been doing it all by yourself, again. And I've been a terrible friend. I'm here to remedy that if you'll let me."

"Bullshit. You came because things didn't work out with Maximoff."

"It didn't work out because she did not want to come with me. I insisted we needed to be here to help with everything you've been doing and everything you're trying to do, but she refused to listen to anything I had to say. I'm embarrassed to admit that I believed I could get through to her because of our shared connection. I was wrong."

"Pinch me."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Pinch me. I want to know I'm not dreaming all this."

"I fail to understand how causing you physical harm will establish this conversation as fact."

A loud frustrated sigh followed as Tony slumped back in his seat. "Not dreaming then. Only you would argue with a request like that. So does everything you just said mean that you're back?"

"I am not leaving again if that is what you're asking. I am here to ask if you would like my assistance with what's been happening with the new Avengers compound."

"You heard about that?" Tony snorted. "Of course you did. You talked to FRIDAY."

"I also spoke with Ms. Potts and Colonel Rhodes. I am sorry to hear about what happened with Ms. Potts. You seemed happy with her. Part of what made me seek out Ms. Maximoff was because I was envious of what you and Ms. Potts seemed to have with each other. Unfortunately I did not understand at the time that appearances are very different from being in a real relationship. My... existence and my understanding of my place amongst humans was very... clinical at the time. My interpretation of things are what led me to behave as I did towards you and I am very regretful. I should have listened to you and spent more time interacting with others in my new form, without the added expectations that a more personal relationship places on such things."

"You... envied me? I didn't realize your new form would allow you to experience emotion." Tony replied, still reeling from Vision's confession. "If I had, I would've worded things differently."

"That is not your fault sir. Please do not assume responsibility for my mistakes. It is not yours to shoulder."

Tony narrowed his eyes a moment, considering Vision's words before giving a faint shrug. "Alright fine. So what kind of work did you have in mind for helping me with?"

"I would like to take over the management and direction regarding the redesigning of the Avengers compound. I will of course bring anything needing your attention to you for final say, but I want to take over the responsibilities for everything else for the duration of it's remodelling. I believe you do too much already and it is upsetting to me that you have not asked for help."

"Unbelievable." Tony huffed, shaking his head at how just unbelievable he thought it was. "Alright. I'll have FRIDAY make all the necessary arrangements and you can take over at the compound starting tomorrow. Can I assume you're staying here tonight?"

"If you don't mind."

"Why would I mind? This place has been empty with all of you off doing your own things without me." Tony huffed, getting to his feet.

"Have you been taking care of yourself sir? You seem well, if a little tired."

"I have been taking care of myself actually. Funny how not having to defend myself every day improves my outlook on things." Tony scowled at him. "No, don't say it. I don't want to hear how sorry you are. I'm going to bed. If you want to know more about how things have been going, ask FRIDAY."

"Very well." Vision nodded. "Goodnight sir."

Tony gave him a look that was unreadable before nodding and heading up to the penthouse.

 

 

Chapter Text

The following morning, Tony was in the shower when FRIDAY notified him of an incoming call.

"Sir? I have a Doctor Strange asking to speak to you."

Tony groaned and stuck his head under the steaming hot water, letting it course down his back in soothing waves. "Tell him I'm in the shower and to call back in half an hour."

"Very well boss."

"Thanks FRIDAY."

"Mr. Vision is asking if you'll be joining him for breakfast. He's presently in the kitchen."

"Is he cooking?"

"He's waiting on an answer before making any food choices boss."

"Ugh." Tony sighed, rinsing the soap from his hair. "Would it be rude to just have breakfast delivered? Don't answer that. Tell him I'll be down in fifteen minutes and that I'll take bacon, eggs and toast. I don't think he can screw that up." He muttered to himself, reaching for a towel.

"I'll let him know boss."

***

Tony stepped out of the elevator to the heady and enticing aroma of bacon and coffee permeating the air in the kitchem. It was such an uncommon occurrence that his stomach growled in response as he crossed the room to sit at the kitchen island. "That smells sinful buddy." Tony smiled as Vision slid a mug of coffee across to him. "Have you been practicing your cooking skills?"

"I have." Vision nodded. "And I had some help from FRIDAY as well."

"You're making me proud baby girl." Tony said as Vision slid a plate full of food in front of him.

"Thank you boss." FRIDAY replied and Tony didn't miss how pleased she sounded before turning his attention back to his plate. FRIDAY's growth in seeking and being rewarded by his praise, made his heart swell with pride and hoped to do well by her. The thought then extended to the being sitting across from him who had been silent throughout his exchange with FRIDAY. Which then made him think that Vision might be seeking the same thing.

Vision must have read his mind because he spoke before Tony could swallow the bacon he'd been chewing. "You are probably thinking I only came back here because I sought your praise and approval. Though I won't deny I derive  satisfaction from receiving such things from you, but it is not why I came back."

"Do you have any idea how unnerving it is when you seem to be reading my mind?" Tony replied, pointing his fork at him.

"I may have some understanding sir." Vision drawled. "But it is not my intent. I merely wish to disabuse you of the notion that my intentions here are in any way self-serving. I only wish to help you in any way I can be of assistance."

"Okay."

This time it was Vision who raised his brow at him as if he'd heard him wrong.

"What? I'm not going to argue with you about it. I've had enough of that from other people saying pretty much the same thing this past week. I'm starting to see a pattern here."

"Does that mean you are willing to accept that some people really only want to help you? That they don't have ulterior motives?"

Tony chuckled under his breath. "I wouldn't go that far, but I'm willing to accept it's possible. Anything more, well... I'll need more than just words to convince me."

"I understand sir."

"Boss? A Ms. Jones is here. Shall I let her up?"

"She's early." Tony replied, sharing a look with Vision. "But yeah FRIDAY. Let her up."

"I also have Doctor Strange on the phone for you."

Tony groaned, having forgotten about the earlier phone call. "That man has terrible timing. But yeah, give me a minute and then put him through." He said, getting to his feet before a terrible thought occurred to him and he rounded on Vision with alarm in his eyes.

"You have to leave." He said, pointing at him.

"I, what? Have I done something to offend you?"

"Jones. The woman on the elevator. She has... issues with people who can do mind control on others. I didn't know you were going to be here and I gave her a job as my bodyguard without explaining... certain things."

"Very well. I will leave discreetly." Vision nodded, moving to a nearby window. "I'll read over your files and get in touch with you later if my presence here will be a problem."

"Yeah alright." Tony nodded as FRIDAY put Strange through.

"Mr. Stark?" Stephen asked, sounding annoyed which made Tony frown at the phone in his hand.

"Speaking. What can I do for you Doctor?" He said coolly as Jessica stepped out of the elevator.

"I was hoping we might start over. I would like to meet with you at the tower to... discuss some things."

Tony arched a brow at Strange's subdued tone. That was an interesting development. "Uh sure. That would be good. When do you want to come by?"

"I can teleport there now if it's convenient."

"No, no it's not convenient. I have a... meeting." He stammered, shaking his head at Jessica's questioning look and took a seat at his island counter. "And what do you mean you can teleport here?"

"Surely you haven't forgotten what I am." Strange retorted.

Asshole? Arrogant Bastard? Pretentious jerk? Tony winced. As much as he wanted to take advantage of the opening Strange had given him, he restrained himself. Now wasn't the time to provoke the wizard. Besides, there'd be time enough for that later if the situation warranted it. "No, I haven't forgotten. Can I call you back with a time? I'm not sure how long this meeting is going to run."

"Of course." Came the curt reply. "I'll await your call then."

"Okay. Thanks." He said as the other man ended the call. He scowled at it. Clearly Strange was still pissed with him or he had no phone etiquette to speak of. Whatever, Tony shrugged, sliding the phone back into his pocket before smiling at Jessica. One problem at a time.

 

Chapter Text

"Hey." She said as he joined her at the counter. "Didn't mean to interrupt your breakfast Stark."

"I was mostly done anyway." He shrugged. "What's up? I thought you weren't available till tomorrow?"

"Plans change. Is that a problem?"

Tony sighed. "Nope, no problem. Though I'm glad you're here, saves me a phone call. Something's come up that we really need to have a discussion about."

Jessica snorted. "I did my homework Stark or I wouldn't be here. This is about that Russian girl right? The one who gave you those nightmares?"

"Yeah." Tony nodded, letting out his tension with a small sigh. "Does that mean you know about the Vision too?"

"You mean the android?"

"I wouldn't call him that exactly, but yes."

"So long as he stays away from me, I'm good."

"That might not be possible. He returned to New York last night. He'll be overseeing the redesign of the new Avengers’ compound in upstate New York. With that said, he'll likely need me to approve plans and whatever else that might come up."

"I can't promise I can be in the same room with him. And I'll expect you to give me fair warning if he's going to be around when I'm here."

"You don't have to be anywhere near him while I'm in the tower Jones. I don't need protection here."

"I'm guessing Loki and Ultron didn't get that particular memo."

"Fine." Tony huffed. "I don't usually need protection here."

"Which is why I'm here Stark. Nothing about you is usual these days."

"True, but there's something else you should know. I've been in touch with a Sorcerer or two. They live here in Manhattan, one of which may or may not be joining the rest of the Avengers in the new compound when it's completed."

"Well that's just perfect." Jessica huffed. "You still have that whiskey lying around?"

Tony nodded. "I have an entire case just for you under the bar. Help yourself."

Jessica retrieved a bottle and returned to the kitchen island while Tony refilled his coffee. "I didn't expect either Vision or this Sorcerer to be around while you were here." Tony said, closing his eyes in bliss with his first sip of his second coffee of the day. "However, it's possible the Sorcerer might be able to help with some kind of protective spell or something against magical attacks. Maybe a charm or whatever to protect people from mind control. He wants to come by here later today to... go over some things. I can ask him whlir he's here, if you're interested."

"Fine." Jessica nodded. "But I want everything you have on this guy and his secret club before I go anywhere near him, and that goes for the android too. Anything you have that I can't find out on my own."

"You'll have it. Just ask FRIDAY and she'll pass on all relevant files along with my current itinerary for the week."

"Fine." Jessica said, getting to her feet, the bottle still in her hand. "Can you show me my room now?"

"FRIDAY can direct you. If you have any questions, just ask her. Anything she doesn't know or can't answer, ask me and I'll see what I can do."

***

After Jessica had returned to her room, Tony dug out his phone and sent a quick text to Vision.

"Hey Viz, Gonna need you to stay away from the Tower for a while. I have a new bodyguard starting today and she's even less comfortable around magic users than I am. Might have a solution for that, but I'll text you when things are more settled. Thanks for coming back. I kinda missed your purple face. Tony"

His phone beeped a reply message almost instantly.

"Tony, I have no desire to make anyone uncomfortable. I will do as you ask and keep you informed as to the progress with the compound. I missed you as well. Vision"



Chapter Text

With Vision settled out at the compound and Jessica ensconced in her assigned room with a steady supply of whisky, Tony headed to his penthouse to change. After a moment's internal debate he decided to go with something more casual than the suit he'd had on when he last spoke to Strange. Though wearing his Armani and his other designer outfits made him feel powerful by using his clothes to keep others at a distance, that play was not appropriate now.

Despite the fact that Doctor Strange had made no effort to be polite or even listen to him, he still wanted the Sorcerer’s to have some protections from Ross. He couldn't do that if he knew nothing about them and he needed Strange's help and input to amend the Accords. So he needed Stephen to cooperate, at least until he knew where they stood and he had some understanding of how the Accords would affect magic users. Dressing in a loose casual top, black blazer and designer jeans, he hoped the look would put the Sorcerer more at ease this time around.

Satisfied that he looked a little less intimidating and hopeful that his choice of clothing made him seem more approachable, he headed back down to the common room. After setting another pot of coffee to brew, he dug out Bruce's stash of herbal teas, filled the kettle and called Strange.

"Strange speaking." A rough voice answered.

"Strange? It's Tony. I have some free time now if you're able to come by."

"I... yes. I have time. Where do you want to meet?"

"Come to the Tower. I'll let security know you're coming and they can show you which elevator to take."

"Very well." Strange replied coolly, and though Tony detected a note of nervousness in his voice, the man didn't waver. "I will be there in ten minutes."

"Oh okay." Tony replied, frowning at the phone when the other end clicked off without a goodbye. Strange definitely needed more practice with manners, his phone etiquette sucked. With a shrug he set the kettle to boil, gathering spoons, sugar, honey and cream while he waited. It wasn't until FRIDAY announced that Strange was on his way up, that he wondered how the Doctor had gotten here so fast.

Strange stepped out of the elevator, once again dressed in that weird blue suit thing that Tony still couldn't describe properly. He was also wearing that ridiculous cape, which floated and twitched on Strange's shoulders as he crossed the room to where Tony stood waiting.

Stephen's lip quirked as he stuck his hand out in a gesture of greeting. Tony frowned, but shook it wondering what exactly the good Doctor was up to.

"Mr. Stark." He said, his eyes flicking nervously over Tony's face. "I imagine you're wondering what brings me here, given the way we... last interacted."

Tony smirked, dropping his hand as he moved to the kitchen island to take the kettle off the stove. "It may have crossed my mind." He said coolly. "Can I interest you in some tea? Coffee perhaps?"

Strange frowned, following him to the island making it clear that he hadn't expected Tony to be so... accommodating. "Ah... tea would be nice if you have something non-caffeinated."

Tony frowned, rifling through Bruce's stash while Stephen chose a chair to settle in. "I have peppermint and chamomile and a combination of cinnamon, ginger spice?"

"Peppermint is fine thank you."

Tony nodded and slipped the box of tea back in the cupboard and poured water into one of the fancy tea cups he'd found buried in a cupboard before Strange had arrived and added the tea bag. He slid it across the counter to him as he filled his mug of coffee before joining the other man at the island.

Stephen had no idea what to make of Stark's domesticity. He'd never once imagined the billionaire would do anything for himself, much less know his way around a kitchen. On top of that shocking revelation, he'd been expecting him to be abrasive, or at the very least, difficult on seeing him again and had spent the elevator ride rehearsing what he wanted to say.

All of that fell away the moment he stepped into the room to see Tony dressed in something other than the designer suits he always wore in public. The sight threw him immediately off guard as he noted how stunning the other man looked in his semi-casual attire. Which then only added to his nervousness and annoyance when he realised what he'd just thought. Narrowing his eyes at the tea bag, he lifted it out of the cup and wondered how long he could delay trying to recover some semblance of balance before Stark noticed how unsettled he was.

"I wasn't sure what to think when you called this morning." Tony said, making Strange tense imperceptibly. "I didn't expect to hear from you at all after..." Tony paused, staring into his mug. "Well, after the last time we spoke."

"Perfectly understandable." Stephen nodded, his voice as even as he could make it. "I was unforgivably rude. I came because I wanted to apologize to you in person."

Tony's eyes widened, his coffee forgotten as he blinked in confusion at him. "It's official. I'm definitely living in the Twilight Zone this week."

"I... excuse me?" Stephen blinked, the comment completely knocking him off balance once more.

Tony waved his hand dismissively and returned his attention to his coffee. "Never mind, it's not important. So uh, apology accepted. I apologize as well. I'm sure there are better ways I could have handled things."

"Possibly." Stephen huffed. "Perhaps we both need more practice dealing with the unknown."

Tony laughed and set his mug down. "The unknown, I like that. So, was that the only reason you wanted to talk to me or was there something else?"

"I may have been a bit hasty when I told you we didn't need your help."

"Oh?"

"Yes. Wong and I had a talk. It seems he feels our time for secrecy is at an end. I am not entirely convinced of that but he has been with the order longer than I have. As such, we would like to be involved with this Accords business. If the offer still stands."

"You... want to help me?" Tony managed to get out, unable to disguise the shock and disbelief in his voice.

"Is that really so surprising?" Strange snapped back, ignoring or perhaps missing entirely how stunned the other man was. "You did pretty much explain how we'd be better off joining your side before this Accords thing goes public, and after reviewing everything you gave me, I have to agree with you."

 

Chapter Text

Tony sagged in his chair when Strange finished talking. The other man could not have shocked him more than if he'd suddenly professed he worshipped the ground Tony walked on. As it was, Strange was now giving him the most puzzled look, so some of what he was feeling must've shown on his face.

He blinked once, twice, then gathered himself back to what he was accustomed to projecting to those around him and gave Strange the gold carat smile he was famous for. In reponse, Strange blinked and relaxed, apparently finding comfort in what he saw. It made Tony frown, feeling an undeniable sense of disappointment that the other man seemed to draw more comfort from his public face than he did his private.

It hurt, unexpectedly so and he stored the thought away for later. But it wasn't something he hadn't felt or experienced before so with practiced ease, he lifted his mug in a show of solidarity and widened his smile. "To allies." He said, letting his false cheer drop the moment his coffee mug hid his lower lip.

Clearly startled, Strange copied him and did the same. "Uh, yes of course. To allies."

"So what changes or suggestions do you have regarding the amendments to the Accords so far?" Tony asked, tapping his phone to bring up a holographic display for them both to look at.

Stephen tamped down on the sudden and unexpected admiration he felt as Tony expertly navigated the 80 page document. "I believe there was something on pages 17, 35, 42, 54 and 76 that needed revision."

"Okay Doc, impressive eiditic memory by the way," Tony said, navigating to the first page he'd mentioned before blowing up so they could easily read it. "So, hit me with your insight. What do we need to change here?"

For the next two hours, they went through it, page by page. Tony made the changes while Stephen explained the reasoning behind them, with Tony asking questions throughout.

At first Stephen thought the other man was being difficult with his endless questioning, but as they continued on to the next point, he realized Tony cared. Not only that, but he wanted to understand it from Stephen's view which made sense once he thought about it. The billionaire was likely going to be asked hard questions on each point. In order to get those changes made, he would need to fully understand why they were necessary if he wanted them kept in.

By the end of the hour they'd managed to cover every point and Tony set the kettle to boil again while he made himself a fresh coffee. "Well that went well." Tony said, smiling as he placed a fresh cup of hot water in front of him, sliding the box of tea within Stephen's reach before refilling his mug from earlier.

"Yes. It did." Stephen agreed, selecting a tea bag while he tried not to react to Tony's slip in unguarded behaviour towards him. He doubted Stark was even aware that he'd let his professional persona slip as he bustled about his kitchen before settling back in his chair. He was surprised by the change and if he were being honest, pleased that Stark seemed to trust him enough to drop his guard. He was also a little charmed by what he saw, maybe even a little attracted but he banished that thought the moment he recognized it for what it was.

"I hope you don't hold any ill will towards me for some of the things I said to you earlier." He heard himself say, instantly horrified to have just exposed himself so plainly. Perhaps he hadn't banished his admiration soon enough, he thought with a grimace.

"Only some?" Stark teased, his lips quirking in a small smile, making sudden warmth bloom in Stephen's chest at thr sight. "Not to worry Gandalf. I've heard much worse from people more irritating than you. I'm made of tougher stuff than that."

"Well good. Glad to hear it." Stephen replied, though he doubted everything Stark had just proclaimed if the tightening of his eyes and jaw hadn't just given it away for the lie it was.

"Yeah, um don't... shit. Sorry about the Gandalf thing." Tony said, his eyes darting away from his face. "Sometimes my mouth doesn't know when to stop."

"It's fine Stark. We both know how this game is played, there's no shame in being practiced in deflection and keeping people at a distance."

Tony frowned at him and opened his mouth to say something only to change his mind and take another sip of coffee. "Right. So um... I'm not sure how to ask this so I'll just come out and say it. Is there a spell or a charm or something to protect people who aren't magicians from having other people do magic on them?"

"First of all, as I've told you several times, I'm not a magician. I am the Sorcerer Supreme. Second, what kind of magic are you referring to? If you're talking about Loki there's not much I can do. Most of that demi-god's powers are force based and heavy on illusion. My best advice would be to stay out of his way. Dodge his attacks or just not engage and get someone with magic to fight him."

"Right." Tony huffed. "That would have been much more helpful four years ago, but whatever. But no, that's not what I'm talking about, and I can handle Loki just fine thanks."

"Can you really?" Stephen needled, annoyed by the other man's insinuation that he should have aided in the fight against the Chitauri. Completely ignoring the fact that he'd still been a doctor at the time, and a damned succesful one at that.

"Yes. I can." Tony scowled. "But I'm talking about mind control. Mind manipulation? Mind fuckery? Is that a thing? You got any magic do-hickies that can... I dunno? Stop that from happening or maybe just give a warning someone's trying something?"

Stephen's tea cup clattered in the saucer as he levelled a cold, angry gaze at the other man. "What? Are you saying someone has used magic on your mind? Manipulated or otherwise subverted your free will? Invaded your thoughts?"

Tony shrugged. "Yeah. Why? I'm guessing by your reaction that's not normal then?"

"You think it's normal to subjugate someone's will and abuse them from within the privacy of their own thoughts?"

Tony shrugged again. "Not normal or nice, but whatever, and I'm not a fan if that's what you're asking. Do you have something to counteract it or not?"

"Who?" Stephen growled.

Tony blinked. "What?"

"Who used this magic on you?"

"Uh well, it wasn't just me. She did it to all of us except Clint, though she hurt Bruce and I more than the rest of them."

"That does not answer my question Stark." Stephen growled making Tony look at him in shock at the anger in his voice.

"Fine, chill put Doc...okay? It was Wanda, Wanda Maximoff. She... attacked me in Sokovia, the rest she went after later in Johannesburg."

Strange swore under his breath and shot to his feet, his hands trying to clench in anger while his eyes tightened with pain at his slip. He paced, a string of curses falling from his lips before he suddenly marched to Tony's side and levelled him with a serious gaze. "What did she do to you Stark?"

"Uh..." Tony hesitated as he got to his feet and took a step back from the very angry Doctor. "She... gave me a vision."

Somehow Strange's ice blue eyes grew even colder though Tony was almost certain the look wasn't meant for him. Almost. "I saw the Chitauri and earth through a dark wormhole in space and... all the Avengers, dead."

Stephen narrowed his eyes. "When was this?"

"Almost two years ago? When we first went to Sokovia to retrieve Loki's staff. Why? Is that important?"

"You don't know." Stephen gasped, concern in his eyes.

"Know what?" Tony demanded, his anger rising. "What's going on Strange? Know what? Why are you so upset? I mean it was two years ago, I'm over it. I just wanted to know if there's a way to stop it from happening again."

"Where is this Wanda now?"

Tony shrugged. "No idea. Europe maybe? Look, tell me what it is I don't know before I make you tell me."

"You shouldn't be able to recall the vision she gave you so easily. It's dangerous what she did. How is it you recall it so clearly? Have you seen something that would make you believe in this vision?"

"Look Doctor wizard, this isn't psychoanalyze Tony Stark hour, I've had my therapy. Been there, done that, not a fan. Now is there a spell to protect me or not?"

Strange paused in whatever he'd been about to say and took a step back, an unreadable expression in his eyes. "There's... something. Yes."

"You don't sound very sure of that Doc. And... is there a "but" in there somewhere? Sounds like there's a but in there."

"I need to speak with Wong. I have to be sure." Strange replied sharply and without waiting for a reply, made a circular movement with his hand and golden sparks formed a portal five feet from where Tony stood.

 

~~~~~~

A/N: Infinity War is now on Netflix in Canada/US for anyone who hasn't yet seen it.  😊

Chapter Text

Tony gave a startled shout and scrambled away from the magic portal at the same time Strange stepped through it, vanishing the portal behind him. "Shit!" Tony swore, his hands ice cold as he leaned his weight against the counter, one hand covering his heart to slow it and his breathing.

"Boss? Your heart rate is accelerating, should I call someone?"

"No. I'm good FRIDAY. Just... give me a minute." Tony answered, closing his eyes at the thrumming pulse in his chest.

After another minute he took a steadying breath, exhaling slowly through his mouth as he got his heart rate under control. When he felt steady enough, he pushed away from the counter and gathered up the dishes on the counter, needing something mundane to focus on to help quiet the panic that was still fluttering a little too close to the surface to be comfortable.

"Tony." Tony looked up to see Steve Rogers crossing the room to him. He cursed under his breath, allowing a groan to escape him as he set the dishes in the sink, turning to face the blonde with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Rogers." He nodded.

"What's wrong with you?"

Tony laughed, the tension of the morning overwhelming him and leaving him no choice but to let it out. "You'll have to be a little more specific there Cap." He said, moving to the fridge to gather ingredients for a smoothie. "And FRIDAY? You're getting a stern talking to later."

"Understood boss."

"Why are you upset with FRIDAY?"

Tony narrowed his eyes at Rogers. "Not important. Why are you here Rogers?"

"I can't visit?"

"No, you can't. You don't call, you don't write. You don't send me updates on this missing Winter Soldier case that you, Wilson and Romanoff are on. Flitting all over Europe on my dime. So no, you don't just... visit. You're here because you want something."

Steve narrowed his eyes at him, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked down his nose at Stark. "So what? You're throwing a tantrum because I didn't keep you in the loop?"

"No. I'm cutting you off because what you're doing with your pals isn't Avenger business. You want to keep doing what you're doing, call Fury. I'm sure the agents at the New Avenger facility can track your target down for you."

"What we're doing is important work Stark."

"Funny how you only use my last name when you're trying to pressure me into doing what you want Rogers. Not going to happen. Wrap it up or talk to Fury."

"Fury is still SHIELD. I don't trust them after what happened with Hydra."

Tony laughed again as he turned the blender on. "You mean after you exposed hundreds of innocent agents and their families to the world? Funny you should say that. Fury isn't your biggest fan right now Rogers. Ever since that little stunt you pulled on Project Insight, he's not too big on trusting you either. I gotta wonder, do you plan to burn your bridges on purpose or is it purely by accident?"

"I had no choice. We had to expose Hydra."

"Right. So all those people who weren't Hydra were just what? Casualties of war? Acceptable losses? Collateral damage?"

"It was unavoidable Tony. If there'd been any other way..."

Tony stopped pouring his smoothie and slammed the container onto the counter. "Excuse me? No other way? You could've called me Rogers. I could've had JARVIS take control of those Helicarriers. I could have helped save lives and you're telling me you had no choice? Christ Rogers, I knew you were self-righteous, but blissfully ignorant and selectively stubborn? How much is your ego worth to you?"

"It wasn't like that." Steve protested, sighing as though Tony was incapable of understanding that what he and Natasha had done had been unavoidable. "There wasn't time for anything else."

"A phone call. You didn't have time for a phone call." Tony drawled, moving away from him. "Fine Cap. However you need to justify it."

"It's not..." Steve shook his head as though Tony were incapable of listening. "Do you know anything about these Accords or Secretary Ross?"

"What? The report Natasha gave you not good enough?"

"You have to know something about it Tony. More than what you told Nat."

"Such as?"

"Stop being difficult Stark." Rogers growled.

"Stark." A female voice called from the elevator.

"Ah." Tony sighed. "My heroine has arrived."

"Who are you?" Rogers demanded as Jessica moved Tony's side.

"Who are you?" Jessica shot back at him.

"Tony?"

Tony groaned, rubbing his temples and wishing Strange would come back and portal Rogers out of his tower. "Jessica Jones, Steve Rogers. There, you're introduced. Are we done?"

"What's she doing here Stark? Is this who you're seeing now? What about Pepper?"

"Oh. You should not have said that." Tony murmured as Jones moved to invade Steve's personal space.

"Excuse me. Did you just talk about me like I'm not here?"

"What?!" Steve stammered. "No! No, I didn't mean..."

"I'd heard Captain America was a bit of a dick. Gotta say I'm not impressed."

"Who do you think you are ma'am?"

Jessica smirked and crossed her arms over her chest. "None of your business, and don't call me ma'am. Now, I believe Mr. Stark wants you to leave. So leave. Door's over there." She added, nodding her head toward the hall.

"We haven't finished our talk yet."

"Oh you're done. Now leave before I make you leave."

Steve couldn't stop the grin that formed on his lips. "Or what? You'll make me?" He scoffed.

Jones' smirked and poked her finger into Steve's chest making him stumble back a step. The look of surprise on his face was priceless and Tony suppressed a laugh on seeing it.

"You're... you're an enhanced?"

"Wow. You're quick. Figured that out all by yourself? Stark wants you to leave, so leave. I won't tell you again."

"Fine. I'm going." Steve retorted, moving to the elevator. "This conversation isn't over Tony."

"Looks over to me." Jessica shot back as the doors slid closed.

 

 

Chapter Text

"I thought you were busy drinking." Tony said as Jessica turned away from the elevator and crossed to the case of whisky by the bar.

She shrugged, twisting the lid off a new bottle and drinking it as she moved to stand just shy of his personal space. "I got bored. And my bottle was empty."

"I can't decide if your timing is perfect or terrible."  

"Can't wait to hear the outcome of that earth shattering observation. So what's with Captain get-a-clue ? I thought you had a meeting with that wizard guy or whatever."

"He left. Abruptly. But our meeting was over so... yeah. No idea what's happening there."

"Right." Jessica nodded as though she knew there was more to it and either didn't care or was too drunk to push for more. "Whatever. So how do I get food? Is there like a cafeteria or something around here?"

"Food?" Tony blinked. He was going to get whiplash from the sudden changes in topics his visitors kept taking. "Just... order something from FRIDAY. She'll take care of it. The kitchen in your room would've been stocked when you got here, but..."

"But I came a day early." Jessica interrupted, giving him a strange look. "Thanks Stark. I'll get out of your hair now."

***

It was full dark when Wong returned to the Sanctum. He had expected Stephen to seek him out in Kamar-Taj or at least send him a message that he'd returned to the Sanctum after his meeting, but there'd been nothing.

Considering Stephen's reluctance to even meet with the billionaire after Stark had stormed off, Wong had been certain Strange would want to rant at him for how insufferable the genius was. But that hadn't happened either.

As he stepped into the foyer he was struck by the lack of light in the hall. No matter where he might be, Stephen always left lights lit in the hallway and up the staircase. As the New York Sanctum Sanctorum, they had to be prepared for unexpected visitors to drop in seeking their aid at any time of day or night. The fact that there were no lamps lit in the entry was cause for alarm.

Scowling to himself, he hoped that for Strange's sake he was severely injured and not simply shirking his duties as Sorcerer Supreme or there'd be hell to pay. Shaking off his annoyance, he marched up the stairs certain he'd find Strange asleep in his bed, still fully dressed.

He paused outside the closed door before shoving it open on well-oiled hinges, prepared to berate the man but stopped on seeing the bed empty. He frowned and looked down the hallway. Was he not back yet? That made no sense. It was full dark. Strange didn't even like Stark, there was no way he'd still be at the Avenger Tower at this time of night. He had to be here somewhere.

Determined to get to the bottom of Strange's negligent behaviour, he headed down the hall, poking his head into dark rooms as he went. With each room he passed, he began to worry that something bad had happened. Then he heard a noise which seemed to be coming from the west library, the largest section of all the entire book collections they housed in the Sanctum.

He stepped into the room with the flickering lights of at least a dozen lamps and almost fainted at what he saw. Strange had opened and discarded over two dozen tomes of magic and was sitting on the floor in a sea of parchment and discarded references.

"Strange?" He said, his annoyance rising when Stephen didn't acknowledge his arrival.

Stephen's eyes shot up with a look of fear in them which rapidly changed to one of shame when he registered who was calling his name.

"Wong?" He blinked as he took in the space around him, a faint spot of crimson rising in his cheeks at the disarray he sat in.

"What the devil are you doing?" Wong demanded. "Do you have any idea what time it is? You haven't lit the entry lamps. And I demand an explanation for the state of his room. You aren't some bumbling apprentice, there's no excuse for the chaos in here."

Stephen blinked and got shakily to his feet. His legs felt wobbly and he wondered just how long he'd been sitting on the floor. His eyes flitted to a nearby window and shock coursed through him on seeing street lamps flickering against a dark sky.

"I didn't realize the time." He mumbled, his mind still working on the problem he'd been trying to find a solution to.

"And that's your excuse for neglecting your duties as Sorcerer Supreme?" Wong pressed. "What happened with Stark? Did you apologize?"

"What?" Stephen replied, his voice sharp with confusion. "Yes, of course I apologized. I'm not a heathen Wong. We worked through the Accords document and he made tea."

"He?" Wong repeated, his face filling with confusion. "Who is he?"

"Stark of course." Stephen snapped irritably. "Isn't that who you were just asking about?"

"But you just said he made tea. Tony Stark made you tea?"

"Did you get hit on the head recently? Yes. Tony Stark made me tea. Can we move on?"

Wong scowled back at Strange, further irritated the man was mocking his confusion. "Fine. You had tea with a genius billionaire which he made with his own hands. Of course, nothing weird at all about that. Now explain this mess and why you didn't light the foyer."

Stephen blinked as his irritation dissolved to be immediately replaced with a new tension that pinched the corners of his eyes. "Stark has a... magical problem. I was looking for methods I could use that weren't... overly invasive."

Wong narrowed his eyes, his arms crossing over his chest. "What are you talking about now?"

"He asked me for a charm against magical attacks. Specifically mind control."

"What?!" Wong exclaimed, dropping his arms to his sides. "Someone used mind control on him? Who? When? Mordo? Someone else who left the order?"

"It's nothing recent Wong. He said it happened during the start of that Ultron thing two years ago. As for who, it wasn't Mordo. It was some woman he met in Sokovia."

"That's impossible." Wong scoffed, his shoulders dropping. "He must be mistaken. There are no magic users past or present from that part of the world."

"That's what I thought until I asked him what she did. He had perfect, vivid recall of the vision she planted in his mind. He said her name was Wanda Maximoff and he thought she might be somewhere in Europe now."

"But that's impossible." Wong protested just as a terrible thought occurred to him. "She's not a natural witch."

"That's what I concluded as well and if Stark's recall is that clear, she had no control when she attacked him. Which means she acquired her abilities some other way."

"You think she left pieces of her magic behind."

"Yes."

"Well that's easy enough to fix." Wong shrugged, dismissive. "Just take him to the mirror dimension and separate it from his astral body. Though the protection spell will be more difficult to craft if we don't know the source of her powers."

"It's not that simple Wong. Stark seems to have extreme negative reactions to magic of any kind. I don't think I can just take him into the mirror dimension. Which is why I've been looking for an alternative."

Wong shook his head. "You can stop looking. For a spell that old to still hold that much power, there is no alternative. If we'd been able to treat him immediately, there would have been options. But not now. Not after so much time has passed."

"Well that's just perfect." Stephen growled, snapping the book he held shut in frustration. "How am I supposed to convince someone who doesn't like me, who also hates magic that they need go to a dimension he refuses to acknowledge even exists? And even if I do convince him, how am I supposed to get him to relax enough to let me in? The man is more private than I am. If he doesn't feel safe he'll fight me every step of the way and he could be injured in the process."

"You're telling me things I already know Stephen." Wong retorted. "You're the Sorcerer Supreme, it's your job to fix things like this. He came to you for help so he must have some faith in your abilities. Figure it out. And clean up this mess." Wong muttered, turning his back to match down the hallway leaving Stephen scowling at him from where he stood rooted to the floor.

Of course he would be stuck with this. How had he ever entertained the idea that Wong would step in and take charge of the situation? He wasn't Sorcerer Supreme. Yet he'd hoped that once he'd explained the problem, Wong would volunteer to help Stark, rather than stand on ceremony. He should have known better, he scoffed to himself as he began putting the books in their rightful places.

Once he'd finished, Stephen was struck with just how impossible the current situation really was. He could see no way to convince Stark that Wanda's magic still affected him, never mind get him to a level of trust that would make Tony feel safe enough to go into the mirror dimension.

Damn. Why did Stark have to come here and complicate his life like this? And why was he so bothered by what had been done to the man? Well that part was easy, he huffed. It angered him that anyone could be so cruel as to leave remnants of hostile magic in anyone. No one deserved that kind of invasion.

He sighed as he doused the lamps and left the room, heading to his quarters. He would have to think on this more. Figure out a way to get Stark more comfortable around magic. In the meantime, he could work on the protective charm he'd had asked for. Perhaps use it as an olive branch to show Stark he could be trusted.

He had just slipped under the covers of his bed when he mentally slapped himself. Creating protective charms was all well and good, but without knowing the exact nature of the magic he was dealing with, it wouldn't be as effective, though he supposed a general charm might still work as a peace offering. Unfortunately, given how he'd fled the billionaire's tower without a word of explanation, he doubted Stark would want to talk to him again anytime in the near future. It was that thought which kept him tossing and turning for another hour before finally drifting off into a restless sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Stark."

"Fury." Tony acknowledged as FRIDAY put the video call through to his workshop.

"Seems you've been busy lately." Fury commented, his single eye seeming to bore a hole into his soul.

"I'm always busy Boris." Tony quipped. He wasn't in the mood for Fury's heavy-handed, cryptic bullshit today. He had a million things to do and no time or patience for the man's word games. He could feel the walls closing in on him in regards to both the Accords and Ross. He didn't need another headache.

"That's cute. And I can see you're taking care of yourself in the same manner you always have." Fury retorted. "You do realize you're only one man right? It's not all on you to fix the universe Stark, despite the fact your ego believes otherwise."

"Well maybe if everyone I know stopped dumping all their problems at my feet, expecting me to fix them, my ego would get the measage." Tony snapped back, his morning coffee having done nothing to ease the growing anxiety he'd been unsuccessful in supressing.

"Really Stark?" Fury pressed, his brow rising. "From what I hear you've had several people come to you to help you out, not to ask for favours. How is that expecting you to fix their problems?"

"You, for one." Tony retorted. "I still don't see why you have to disappear. What are you afraid of? Then there's Rogers and the rest of them. They still don't get that accountability is something they need to take seriously and they're still not listening to me."

"Roger's and the rest of the Avengers will fall in line." Fury shrugged. "Or they won't. Either way, what they do isn't your problem. It's also why you've been head-hunting other supers. You know that Stark. As for me, you know why I have to leave. I cannot and will not allow Secretary Ross access to anything I have knowledge of and the only way to do that is to go off the grid."

"Leaving me holding the bag." Tony growled.

"It has to be you Stark. No one else has the resources to go up against Ross and others like him. No one else has the smarts and the means to out-manoeuvre a guy like Ross. Which makes you my only choice when it comes to handing over the reigns. If these accords hadn't come up, I still would've wanted you in charge Stark. Maybe not solely in charge given your tendency to not think things through, but I do know you will always do what is best for earth. Right now, it's the only play I've got."

"Well maybe I don't want to be in charge of something this important. Maybe I just want to stop the Avengers from being torn apart."

"Don't start letting your heart overrule that genius mind of yours Tony. I know what you want to protect, but a broken thing can't be patched with good intentions. Humans always want to keep what they have, always afraid that if they let it go there will be nothing left to replace it. You of all people know that's not true." Fury admonished.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You." Fury replied. "Isn't that your favourite subject? When you were in Afghanistan, you didn't give up. You never stopped looking for ways to escape an impossible situation. And you succeeded. Every time you encountered a problem, you faced it head on without flinching. You never stopped improving on the original Stark and I've no doubt you aren't finished pushing the limits of possibility. Fear may drive you forward, but it doesn't control you. You don't quit unless it involves people. I doubt you'd be surprised to know I share that aversion with you. People have a habit of letting you down, makes it hard to trust that this time or next time things will be different. But if there's one thing I do know, they can surprise you. You just have to know when to take the risk."

"The difference is that I'm not everyone else. I have a reputation, I have no privacy, which means everyone I meet has already made up their minds about me. They see their expectations, not the reality. So I don't have the luxury of being myself. Pretty much no one is aware there's a difference between public me and private me. So whatever advice you think you're imparting, you're wasting my time."

Fury nodded as though he'd known Tony would say as much before continuing. "I believe Doctor Banner already predicted an outcome like the one that's looming before you. Something along the lines of "we're a dangerous mix of volatile chemicals  just waiting for the wrong match to be struck." It was always going to come down to this Tony. Those who step up and those who run. None of you ever really trusted one another. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you choose to look at it, you're the one who took responsibility for what you all were doing. You surprised me Stark. It made me admire you, even respect you. I thought Rogers would be the one standing where you are now, but I underestimated how deeply stuck in the past he truly is."

"You told me I wasn't Avenger material years ago Fury, that I wasn't a team player. How did you go from that to trusting me enough to be in charge of it all?"

"You're not seriously still obsessing over that profile Romanoff did on you, are you?" Fury asked, incredulous. "For a genius you still have some pretty big blind spots Stark. You should have figured it out by now that it was all bullshit, a way to get you to cooperate on our terms. I always trusted you Stark, but what I needed was for you to trust me to lead you."

"Yeah. Bang up job on that one. And you seriously expect me to believe that you trusted me?"

"Romanoff wasn't the only one profiling you Stark. She was just the one I told you about."

"Christ." Tony swore. "You're a sonofabitch."

"Takes one to know one." Fury ahot back with a sigh. "At any rate, everything will be in place for you the moment the accords are signed. The support staff and security is ready to go on your say so, but as we discussed you'll need to transition slowly. Some of the people here can't be trusted and can't be forced out just yet. I have documents I'll forward to you when I'm secure and the accords have been signed. After they've been ratified with the changes you've put forward, I'll send you a list of people I've identified who should be amenable to joining the New Avengers. You've got this Stark and don't refuse help when it's offered. You don't need to do this alone."

"Right. Thanks pops." Tony huffed sarcastically. "Now, enough with the pep talk. I might start thinking I like you."

Fury smirked back at him. "Whatever happens, just know that it wasn't my choice Tony. Promises were made and I trusted the wrong people. I'll be in touch, Fury out."

"Now wait just a damn minute!" Tony shouted as the screen went dark. "FRIDAY call him back!"

"I'm sorry boss but that connection has been severed. That line no longer exists."

"Sonofabitch!" Tony swore. "What the hell did he mean by that? What wasn't his choice? He just lulled me into complacency so he could drop that word bomb in my lap before I could react."

"He is skilled at that boss, but I detected no deception from him. He was very sincere in what he said, though there was regret in his parting words."

"I think that I truly have entered another dimension FRIDAY." Tony sighed, getting to his feet. "I've got people who I thought wanted nothing to do with me, offering me help, while those who I thought wanted me around, are nowhere to be seen."

"These are strange times boss." FRIDAY agreed.

"I'm heading up FRIDAY. Give Jones the heads up that I need to see her tomorrow morning."

"Will do."

 

~~~~~

Happy New Year! 🥂🎉🎆

 

 

Chapter Text

“You're giving a speech at MIT to a bunch of nerds." Jones grumbled from the back seat of Happy's car.

She was currently fidgeting with the designer black outfit Tony had made her wear. That had been a headache and a half to get her into until he threatened to fire her and be done with it. The glare she gave him might've killed him if looks could kill, but she'd given in, cursing him the entire time.

“It's an annual event and one of the few responsibilities I actually enjoy going to. Try not to bring me down alright?”

“Just seems like a way to boost your own ego.”

“I can do that anywhere Jones.” Tony snapped, narrowing his eyes at her. “But these kids are the future. If no one helps them out once in a while, nothing new would ever make the public market and only rich assholes would reap the benefits.”

“You're a rich asshole.”

Tony scowled. “I may be rich Jones, but I'm also a damn good philanthropist. I have the means to change the future, why wouldn't I want new ideas flooding the industry? Easiest way to do that is to fund research and foster young minds. Where better to fund that then at a prestigious science college?”

“Fine.” Jones huffed. “Maybe you're not that much of an asshole.”

"Tell me the truth Jones. Why are you really here? You have no concept of looking the part as my bodyguard and you don't actually enjoy my company. So what gives?"

Jones glared out the window. "I just... needed a place to crash for a while. Somewhere to… get away from a few things in Hell's Kitchen. Matt thought I could use the break. But I need to work, I need to feel useful alright?"

"You don't have to be my bodyguard to do that Jones. If you need a place to crash, you can stay but I'm not going to force you to work for me."

"I'm not taking your charity Stark. And I get that this Accords thing is important. And for the record, I don't dislike you, I just don't like being sober for long. Don't take it personal."

"Can I assume the drinking is somehow related to your powers?"

"I'm not here for a psych eval Stark."

"You are if it's going to cause me problems publicly. I have enough on my plate as it is. I certainly don't need you adding to it."

"It won't be a problem." Jones retorted. “And if you must know, I have anger management issues. It's a side effect from… ugh, having powers. Drinking helps me control the anger… most of the time.”

“Let me guess… some ambitious doctor tried to play God and create a super soldier.”

Jessica narrowed her eyes at him, her mouth tight. “I don't know Stark. But if I had to guess, I'd have to say no. I think my powers are a side effect of whatever they were trying to do. And I don't want to talk about it.”


“Consider the subject dropped then.” Tony nodded. "Do you have a passport?"

"Yes. Why?"

"If these UN talks go through, I'm likely going to have to make a public appearance somewhere in Europe. Probably Berlin if they don't move it to Geneva. "

"Fine. But I don't want introductions unless absolutely necessary. I'm a silent bodyguard. Got it? I may support what you're doing, but that doesn't mean I want my name going public."

“That won't be a problem Jones."

***

"Go break some eggs!" Tony shouted to the fully packed room of the crowded MiT theatre.

He'd gone speechless a moment before his confident declaration, leaving the stage blindly. He blinked away the sudden pain he felt over the teleprompter mentioning Pepper's name, clearly no one had told the organisers that Pepper had cancelled her appearance tonight. It still hurt that she'd left despite knowing it was the best for both of them. He left the stage in a state of emotional overwhelm, barely registering the dean's begging as he walked at his side. Brushing off the organizer's apology for the mistake, he stepped into the hallway with Jessica following a few steps behind him.

He paused when he spotted a well-dressed, ebony haired woman standing alone in front of the elevator. Tension coursed through him, just wanting to leave the building and definitely not in the mood to make small talk with strangers. Jones moved up to his side, glaring at the woman as she started to speak to him as it became apparent that the woman had been waiting for him.

A thread of fear coursed through him when the woman put her hand in her purse, only breathing a sigh of relief when Jones stopped her. Thankfully it was only a photograph of her son, which she pressed to Tony's chest as she talked about her loss. Guilt and shame coursed through him as the woman told her story, and panic made his hands tremble and his heart beat faster until Jessica huffed in annoyance at her.

"You've got some nerve lady." Jones growled, making the woman flinch away from her. "Yeah, it's a sad story. It's tragic. But what gives you the right to blame Mr. Stark for your loss? The Avengers are a team. Stark might be the most visible, but he's not responsible for everything the Avengers do. On top of that, those same people saved the world from an alien invasion. Where's your gratitude for that?"

"Who do you think you are?" The woman snapped.

"Someone who knows bullshit when I see it and you're full up. Amd it doesn't matter who I am. But I get it. You're grieving. Grief does terrible things to a person. I know. I lost my entire family in a car accident and the guilt of surviving drove me to drink and isolate myself and then an even worse thing happened. Do you think your son would approve of what you're doing now? Because I know my parents would hate what I've done to myself because of the guilt."

By this time, the woman had tears in her eyes and one hand was covering her mouth. Tony had slumped against the wall, his eyes wide as he stared at Jones in surprise.

"You're right... and I hate you for calling me out on it, but you're right. My son would be appalled by what I'm doing. I'm... sorry, Mr. Stark... you don't deserve the blame for what happened to my son." She stammered before turning and marching down the hall.

Tony blinked at Jones, still having trouble processing what had just happened.

"What?" She snapped, catching his look.

"What was that?" Tony asked, his mind slowly settling.

"She was out of line. You know that right?"

"She had a point Jones. We may have saved the day, but a lot of people didn't live to see it happen."

"And if you hadn't gone to Sokovia, everyone on the planet would be dead or suffering. Not just the people who live there. Are you saying that's the better option? Stop being a hero and then you don't have to feel guilty about the ones you couldn't save? Is that what you want?" Jessica challenged.

"What I want is for bad guys to not be bad guys." Tony muttered.

"I know you're not that naive Stark. There will always be assholes out there. There will always be people you can't save. If you have the ability to reduce losses, you have to step up, but you can't hold on to the ones you didn't save. Allowing the guilt to take over will destroy you. Trust me. I know all about it."

Tony sighed, stepping into the elevator with Jessica following behind. "I don't know how to stop feeling guilty Jones. I already tried the drinking thing. It didn't work out."

"Do you always do your best in every situation to minimize casualties?"

"Always."

"Then stop setting the goal so high that you can't possibly reach it."

Tony groaned, closing his eyes as he leaned back against the wall. "That's harder than you might think. What I saw in that wormhole in New York has never left me. Never."

"Then you need someone to remind you why you do what you do." Jones said softly. "Someone who tells you every chance they get that you're enough. That you do enough Stark."

"I don't know anyone like that Jones." Tony sighed as they left the building and ducked inside Happy's car.

"Then you'll have to keep looking until you do Stark."

Tony nodded. "I'm not sure I'll ever find anyone like that."

"There's got to be someone Stark.” Jessica replied. “Trish keeps telling me, and she puts up with me so maybe she knows what she's talking about."

"Then I'll keep an eye out Jones."

"Good."

 

 

Chapter Text

Three days later, Tony got the call he'd been dreading for months.

"Boss."

"Yeah FRIDAY?"

"I've monitored some... bad news. Pulling the news reports now."

"Where FRIDAY?"

"Lagos, Nigeria."

Tony cursed as he watched a blonde female reporter describe the damage done to a building when a bomb went off inside it. The feed then cut to King T'Chaka and he held his breath. Dammit. He did not need this right now. He didn't....

"Boss. General Ross is on the line for you."

"Kill me now." Tony groaned as FRIDAY put him through.

Half an hour later he was in bed staring at the ceiling wishing he wasn't Iron Man. Wishing he'd been born to some normal family and not the son of a futurist inventor. But he knew it was pointless wishing for things that couldn't be. So he closed his eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like if he had someone like Jones' had described, someone to prop him up and be there for him when the doubt and the fear threatened to drown him. But he couldn't picture it, he had no references for what that might look like or what form it would take and he fell asleep feeling more alone than he ever had before.

***

Ross put up a stink when Tony met him at the airport with Jessica at his side. But since he couldn't do anything about it, he and Jessica ignored him. It was a tense silence they rode in all the way to the new Avengers' compound and Tony's anxiety rose the closer they got to their destination.

When they met the rest of the Avengers in the boardroom, he avoided both Nat and Steve's eyes as he took a seat at the back of the room, Jessica taking up a spot by the window. He was impressed by her calm since the night of the speech at MIT, watching as she stood silent and rigid, her arms behind her back as she took in the room.

"New girlfriend Stark?" Wilson jeered, eyeing Jones.

"Talk about me again. Like I'm not here asshole." Jones hissed as they waited for Ross to join them.

"Sam." Rogers shook his head. "Don't."

"Where'd you find her Stark?" Wilson continued, ignoring her.

"You should probably shut up now." Tony warned as Jessica crossed the room and lifted him out of his chair by his collar.

"Whoa! Whoa! Chill lady. I didn't mean anything by it."

"Then maybe you shouldn't let your mouth show the world just how stupid you are." She retorted, dropping him back in his seat. "Anyone else have something to say?" She asked, turning in a slow circle to meet everyone's eyes.

"No ma'am." Steve replied, meeting her cold stare.

"Good. Keep it that way." She said, stepping away from Sam and returning to her spot by the window.

A minute later, Secretary Ross joined them, saving Tony from having to suffer through the looks he knew the others wanted to throw at him. He watched impassively as Ross laid out what the Wakandan king had finally pressured the UN into announcing to the public.

He didn't have to watch the video Ross brought up. He knew everything about the Sokovia Accords. Had read, reviewed and amended the early drafts for months now. The fact that they'd finally decided to give it an official name meant that for him, everything that followed was out of his hands. As much as he worried about it, the die had finally been cast. All that remained was who would choose to side with him.

Ross finished his speech, leaving a copy of the Accords on the table and left the room. The others erupted into conversation once the door closed and Tony moved to Jones' side while they were distracted.

"I know you're here for me, but would you mind stepping out of the room? Make sure Ross has left?"

Jessica rolled her eyes. "If you don't want me in here just say so Stark. It won't hurt my feelings. But whatever, I'll be on the other side of the door. And I expect another case of the good stuff when we get back to the Tower." She added, pointing a finger at his chest.

Tony smiled. "The finest whisky I can find."

***

"Tony." Natasha said, bringing a halt to the rising arguments in the room. "You're being decidedly non-hyperverbal. What's up?"

"It's because he's already decided." Steve replied, making Tony's headache flare up.

"Actually it's a headache Cap. A magnetic headache. You don't know me as well as you think you do."

"Who's the girl Tony?" Wilson asked, voicing what he assumed was on everyone else's minds.

"My bodyguard."

"Since when do you need one of those Stark?" Rogers asked with a frown.

"I've always had one Rogers. Jones is just a temporary replacement."

"She's a lot less friendly than Hogan." Rhodey commented, giving Tony a curious look.

"True." Tony agreed but he didn't want to discuss Jessica right now. With a loud sigh, he told those gathered what he thought of the Accords and settled in to listen to the arguments that followed. To his shock, Natasha agreed with him, though he'd be surprised if her loyalties didn't change the moment she saw a benefit in betraying him .

After Nat had announced she agreed with the Accords, the rest of them continued to debate, or rather argue the logistics and pitfalls of having oversight. For the most part, Tony tuned them out. He wasn't interested in their arguments either for or against since he'd never really had a choice, he had to support the Accords. He was too public, too recognizable and he couldn't afford to reject something on such a large global scale. It didn't matter if he agreed it was good or not, his hands were tied. After spending months consulting with lawyers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Matt, Jessica and Strange, he was tired and fed up with all of it. All he wanted now was to go home, tinker in his workshop and wait for the dust to settle.

An hour into the Avenger's debate, Rogers received a text and left the room. With a knowing look, they all realized pretty fast that Steve's former girlfriend, Peggy Carter must have died. Not long after that, they went their separate ways and Tony let out a sigh of relief the moment he and Jones were on the road, back to Stark Tower.

"So. Your friend. Rhodey?" Jones said, watching him where she sat across from him in the compact limo. "He called Rogers dangerously arrogant. Do you believe that too?"

Tony shrugged. "Rogers' life has always centred around the military. His ideals, morals and philosophy have never been challenged. I don't know if that's by design or because when SHIELD woke him up they controlled his exposure to 20th century culture. Either way, it doesn't matter. Rogers has never easily followed anyone's lead - it's how he became the leader of the Howling Commandos. From what I know and have witnessed first hand, that isn't likely to change."

"Is that a yes Stark?"

Tony levelled her with a calm glance. "Yeah, I guess it is."

"I think Rogers is going to be a thorn in your side Stark. My advice? Don't let him. If he wants to defy the world, that's his choice. But don't let him manipulate you into thinking you're betraying him by doing the opposite. I've met guys like him before, he'll try to make this personal. It's not personal. Hell, it's not really business either, but when 117 countries agree on something, you need to pay attention. I don't think Rogers gets that and given what I've seen of your relationship with him, he's going to see your decision as a personal betrayal."

"I knew that months ago Jones, but I'm happy to hear you think so. I know there's nothing I can do to change Rogers' mind, but I still have to try. I know how futile it will be, but..."

"But you want to keep the peace, show him there's a way to move forward through compromise. Hell, I get it Stark. But some people will always choose their life view over everything else and in Rogers' case that idealism is all he's got left."

"I know that too Jones." Tony sighed.

"Just remember that whatever Rogers chooses to do, it's not on you to take the blame or the responsibility for it." Jones huffed, turning to look out the window. "Anyways, are we stopping to pick up my whisky now?"

Tony chuckled under his breath. "No need. I had FRIDAY make a call. It's waiting for you in your room at the tower."

Keeping her eyes on Tony, she turned her head to talk to Happy with a smile on her lips. "Hogan? Drive faster."

 

 

Chapter Text

"How are you doing Tony?"

"I'm fine platypus." Tony said, smiling into the video call with Rhodes. "How are you?"

"Oh I'm just super Tones. Waiting on Ross to make his demands, my superiors to tell me what to do next, and Rogers to get his head out of his ass. Yeah I'm just peachy waiting for a bomb to go off on my vicinity that I want no part in."

"You agreed with the Accords Rhodey bear, so why the sourpuss?"

"I know I did. That's not it. It's Rogers and his obsession with Barnes. You know he spent two tears tracking the Winter Soldier with nothing to show for it. Now this incident in Lagos with cillians dead and countless injured... and Rogers and his lackeys doing nothing to even pretend cooperation. I get that losing Peggy Carter was hard on the guy, but he's ignoring the fact that governments, plural, are demanding safeguards. It's dangerous."

"Yeah, you said that before." Tony nodded. "You should know that Jones agreed with you."

"I'm not sure if that's good or bad Tony."

Tony shook his head. "Come on Rhodey, things aren't that bad. Cap will come around, eventually."

"I'm not so sure about that." Rhodey sighed. "Just watch your back alright?"

"It won't come to that. Besides, that's what I have you for platypus."

"Right." Rhodey replied, though his voice was still tense. "Gotta run Tones. Call me if anything changes."

"You got it sourpuss."

Tem minutes later, Tony was hunched over his workable, chin propped against his fists as he spoke into the phone. Matt had called half an hour ago, peppering him with a string of questions over what the news had been reporting over the past week.

"So the Accords were finally announced to the public." Matt sighed through the phone. "How'd your co-workers take the news?"

"Exactly as I suspected. Except for Natasha. She signed. So did Vision and Rhodes."

"Really?" Matt exclaimed. "How honest do you think she's being?"

"I think Nat will do what she wants and whatever suits her in the moment. Rogers is going to challenge us on this and if he gives her the chance to show loyalty to him, she'll do it "

"Even if it means betraying you?"

"Natasha doesn't think that way Matt. Agreeing with me doesn't mean betraying Rogers. For her, switching to Rogers later isn't a betrayal either."

"Must be damn lonely to never need to be trusted."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "I'm sure it doesn't keep her awake at night."

"You have complicated friends Tony." Matt observed. "So what happens now with the Avengers tower?"

"I'm putting it up for sale. I'll be moving to the new compound in upstate New York once all the paperwork has been signed and processed. Once it's on the market, I doubt it will take long to find a buyer."

"Can I ask why you're selling?"

Tony shrugged even though he knew Matt couldn't see him, the lawyer wanting nothing to do with video calls. "It was time for a change. After the Chitauri incident it's become more of a target for trouble than the symbol of hope it was intended to be."

"I take it the new compound is better hidden then?"

"It is." Tony hesitated. "I don't know if you're interested, but there's a place for you there as well. Either as Matt Murdock or as your alter ego. I'd love to have you there even if it's just temporary. And I hope you know you always have a place to crash there if you ever need it."

"I appreciate that Stark, but is it alright with you if I give it some thought? I'm still working out how to handle both sides of my life and what it means to my friends. I haven't decided if staying on as Foggy's business partner is going to work out for me or not."

"Not a problem Red. The door's always open."

"Thanks Tony. It was good chatting with you, but I gotta run. Karen just walked in."

"Right. Talk to you later then."

Tony leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms above his head to work the kinks from from his neck. "FRIDAY? Do I have anything else on my agenda today?"

"No boss."

"Good. Let's eat. I'm thinking Thai. Order from the last one I used, it was good. Oh, and ask Jones if she wants to join me for dinner. I'm gonna take a shower."

***

Feeling better than he had in some time, Tony stepped out of the shower and dressed in something both comfortable and casual. He donned a loose fitting dark blue t-shirt over a pair of his favourite jeans, shrugging into his favourite black hoodie before he headed to the kitchen. Jones had declined to join him saying she'd already made plans with her sister, so he was once again dining alone.

While he ate, he stared out the window watching as the lights of New York began to dot the landscape as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was like watching fireflies flare to life, magical in some ways as long as you didn't think about the light pollution or the drain on resources each light represented.

He frowned at the dark turn his thoughts had taken, idly wondering if magic could solve the world's energy crisis. That thought made him snort out loud. Even if such a thing existed or was possible, he doubted the Sorcerer Supreme would allow it, never mind that anything that could do that would most certainly also hold the potential for a major disaster. All he had to do was think about the tesseract and the idea that magic was the solution died instantly.

He was in the middle of clearing off the counter when FRIDAY interrupted. "Boss, you have a call from Doctor Strange. Shall I put him through?"

Tony scowled at the ceiling. Strange had been silent for over a week since he'd asked about protection from magic. After he'd conjured that damn portal and disappeared he hadn't heard boo from the man. He wasn't sure he was in the mood for Strange, but he was curious as to what the Doctor wanted.

"Put him through FRIDAY." He said, waiting as the line clicked open. "Stark speaking."

"Mr. Stark. I was wondering if we could meet. I would like to discuss what we talked about last time."

"Now?"

"Only if it's convenient. I imagine your time is limited given what's been in the news regarding the Accords."

"It's fine Strange, I have time." Tony replied, his irritation rising. "But no portals into my room. Use the elevator. FRIDAY will bring you to the right floor."

"Oh, of course. No portals. I'll be there momentarily."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony abandoned the mess on the counter, took a seat at the island and waited. He wasn't about to rush around tidying the kitchen just for Strange's benefit. The Doctor could have made an appointment or at least called to tell him what was going on instead of inviting himself over.

Ten minutes later, Strange was in his kitchen, the odd cloak he wore once again moving of its own accord on his shoulders. He wondered idly what powered the bizarre and outdated ‘fashion don't’, but right now he didn't much care. 


"So?" He challenged, his arms crossing involuntarily over his chest. "What did you want to talk about?"

Strange ducked his head, avoiding Tony's eyes as he spoke, moving to the other side of the counter across from him. "First, I want to apologize for my behaviour last time I was here. How I left was unforgivably rude, as was creating a portal in your presence without your permission. I want you to know that it will never happen again."

"Okay." Tony replied, his tone careful. "Which one?"

Strange's eyes snapped up, confusion in their cool blue depths. "I... beg your pardon?"

"Which one won't happen again? Rudely disappearing or making portals without permission?"

"Both."

"Okay." Tony nodded. "Apology accepted, though I don't know if I'll ever give you permission to make portals in my rooms."

Tony expected Strange to argue with him about how paranoid he was being, so he was unprepared for the flush that suddenly crept up the other man's cheeks, or how he looked away as though embarrassed by whatever he'd been thinking. He frowned at that. He couldn't imagine what could have caused Strange's embarrassed flush and shrugged it off, assuming it was a private joke or something.

"Was that all you wanted to talk about?" Tony prompted when Strange remained silent.

"No." Strange sighed. "I did some research on the protection we discussed and the magic that was used against you. I brought you an amulet that should prevent anyone from affecting your mind through magic. It isn't as powerful as it could be since I don't know the nature of Ms. Maximoff's particular talent." He said, placing a small gold and amber jeweled amulet on the counter and slid it across to him.

Tony frowned at the simple piece of jewellery, wondering how something so small could possible protect him. With a shrug he slipped it over his head, letting it hang outside his shirt where it glittered faintly in the lights of the room.

Strange was silent during Tony's examination of the pendant. He'd been struck by how striking Tony looked and how attractive his casual attire made him seem like someone he might spend an afternoon with, talking over coffee or tea. He was further surprised to see what could only be used take-out containers, causing a pang of sadness at the picture he conjured of the genius eating alone. He'd believed Stark must employ a full time household staff, but it didn't appear he had anyone other than a cleaning service, though it could just as easily be his bots doing the cleaning. Twice now, he'd caught Stark tidying up after himself and again wondered how often the billionaire was alone.

"How does it look?" Tony asked, a teasing lilt in his voice. "Does it bring out my eyes?"

Strange felt a sudden jolt of attraction shoot through him at the open look Stark was giving him and quickly averted his eyes, but he couldn't stop the nervous chuckle that escaped him at the other man's teasing. "You just can't help yourself can you?"

"Flaunt it if you've got it Doc."

"That's Doctor Strange and at the risk of boosting your ego further, it actually does bring out your eyes."

Surprise and something resembling pleasure bloomed on Tony's face which he quickly hid behind narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow. "That was way too easy Doc." Tony accused, pointing at him. "You're trying to butter me up for something bad. Come on, spit it out."

Strange sighed and dropped into a chair. He straightened his shoulders and took a calming breath before meeting Stark's eyes again. "It's about the spell that was cast on you two years ago. I'm certain there are remnants still in there, possibly affecting you in some way. None of them good. Unfortunately, if I'm right, there's only one way to check it and one way to remove it."

Tony frowned at him, his left hand absently running the pendant through his fingers. It was clearly a nervous habit and Strange doubted Stark was even aware he was doing it.

"I'm not going to like your solution am I?"

"Doubtful. I'm aware of your dislike for magic. Unfortunately the only way to be certain there's no... residue still affecting your mind is to take you into the mirror dimension. You must also be in a relaxed state for the procedure to be safe as well as effective."

"Mirror dimension? That doesn't sound like somewhere I want to go."

"It's really not as bad as you think. It's a place outside of normal reality where what happens there cannot affect the real world."

"There has to be some other way for you to... I dunno, scan my brain."

Strange shook his head. "There isn't. I looked. It's why I was out of contact with you for so long. I was looking for alternatives. The fact is, too much time has passed since the spell was cast so there's no other option."

Tony narrowed his eyes at him. "Fine. But according to you, this mirror dimension doesn't affect the real world. So how exactly will going there fix me? By your own logic, what happens there can't affect me here."

"It's not your physical body I need to interact with Stark. It's your astral body."

"That sounds... uncomfortably intimate. And what do you mean astral?"

"You aren't a sorcerer Stark, so I can't have you meditate and project your astral body out of your physical one. The mirror dimension is a safe place for interacting with someone's astral form."

Tony fell silent, staring at nothing while he continued rolling the pendant through nervous fingers. "You want some tea Doc?" He asked suddenly, getting up and crossing to his fancy instant coffee maker.

Stephen frowned, though Tony wasn't looking when he nodded. "Um... that would be lovely." He said, continuing to watch while Tony went though what was clearly practiced motions as he prepared his coffee.

He like an intruder watching a private ritual while Tony retrieved the coffee grounds, a mug, sugar and a small spoon. Once finished, he snatched up a simple kettle, filled it with water and set it on the stove. He then pulled out the same box of tea from the last time Stephen had been there, setting it and a mug in front of him, before turning his attention back to his coffee preparations.

"Help yourself." He said absently while he filled his mug with coffee and added a single spoon of sugar.

Stephen nodded and looked through Tony's box of teas. He frowned at some, raised his eyebrows at others and wondered where it all had come from. He chose another peppermint flavour, this one blended with chamomile and lotus flower. Tony returned to his seat, both hands cradling his mug as though he were holding something priceless in his hands. It was a very endearing and vulnerable image and again Stephen  wondered how often Tony did this; enjoy a cup of coffee alone as though he somehow knew it would be his only source of private happiness for the day.

The kettle came to a boil and Tony moved to get up, stopping when Stephen put up a hand and took it off the burner himself. After filling his cup, he sat back down and enjoyed the aroma, letting it ease his tension.

"So Doc," Tony said, breaking the silence. "I was wondering why you don't like coffee. Did you swear off caffeine or something? Or was it a habit or a ritual thing when you became a doctor?"

Normally Stephen might have been offended by the questions, having developed an acute sensitivity, bordering on paranoia regarding his scarred hands. But Tony had worded his question carefully and his eyes were on Stephen's face, not his hands.

"Actually," Stephen replied, playing with the string on his tea bag. "I used to love coffee. When I became a neurosurgeon I had to avoid it when I was working since I couldn't afford to risk a caffeine drop when I was in surgery."

"That makes sense." Tony nodded, sipping his coffee.

Stephen smiled, though it was pained and removed his tea bag, setting it on the tea holder Tony had slipped beside him when he'd returned to his chair. "After the accident, I did try coffee again, but my hands... well they shake more when I have caffeine. It was a difficult time. But then I went to Kamar-Taj and became a sorcerer. I have coffee on occasion now, but I and my magic are better served with herbal tea."

Tony hummed under his breath and gave him a small smile. "That's a nice story Strange. Thank you for sharing that. I imagine it's... challenging talking about your accident."

Stephen chuckled under his breath as he lifted his tea to his lips. "Challenging is a good word Stark, but you asked. I have a question of my own though."

"Shoot Doc. Ask away."

"I realize I don't know you well, but I'm curious why you have so many tea's. You don't seem to drink anything but coffee. Was it a gift or did a friend leave it behind? You have some rare blends in here."

"Are you jealous Doc?" Tony teased, a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "Funny enough, you're mostly right. I bought it for a friend. He thought it might help calm him and keep his alter ego in check. He left it behind when he disappeared after Sokovia." Tony shrugged, dropping his gaze back to his coffee, his mood having switched from light-hearted to somber as he talked.

Stephen didn't like the change in Tony at all, wondering with a faint scowl why those who were supposed to have the man's back never seemed to be there for him.

"Is this man's alter ego big and green?" Stephen promoted, hoping to tease a smile from the other man.

"Big, green and really doesn't like anyone talking about the puny human he shares a body with." Tony grinned.

Stephen relaxed and sipped more tea, wondering if he should try to draw the genius out more. "Do you know where Dr. Banner is now? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

Tony shugged. "I have no idea where Bruce is. He was in a small village in South America, but he's not now and neither is the Quinjet he took."

"That's not what I was expecting. Do you think he went into hiding because of the Accords?"

"It's possible, but I'm not even sure Bruce is on the planet. There was evidence someone had used a form of the bifrost where Bruce was staying."

Stephen blinked. "You think Dr. Banner is on Asgard?"

"No. I don't think that's likely. Besides, Thor would have no use for a Quinjet."

"And you can't contact him?"

"Nope."

"Well that sounds exceedingly frustrating."

"It is." Tony agreed, sighing loudly. "Alright Strange, I'll do it."

Stephen blinked at him over the rim of his tea cup. "I'm... sorry. Do what?"

"Let you do your weird magic thing on me." Tony shrugged.

"May I ask what changed your mind?"

"You did." Tony replied, meeting his eyes. "You... shared a personal story about your past with me. You didn't have to and I appreciate your honesty. If you can trust me enough to do that, I can trust you to do what I can't."

"I see." Stephen said, setting his cup down. "To be honest, I thought I would have to be a lot more convincing than that."

"I won't lie Doc. I'm not saying I'm comfortable with the idea of magic or mirror dimensions, but the thought that Maximoff has left magic in my head is more disturbing than my aversion to things I can't yet explain."

"That's well thought out." Stephen paused. "Alright, when would you like to do this?"

Tony looked away. "Well not today. Maybe not tomorrow either. I need some time to get used to the idea so, two days from now? If you're not busy."

"Very well. I'll check my calendar, make sure Wong hasn't got me scheduled for anything that day and call you to confirm."

"Sounds good Strange." Tony smiled, getting to his feet.

"Right. I've taken up enough of your time. Thank you for the tea." Stephen said, setting his tea cup in the sink.

"You uh... can do your portal thing if you want."

Stephen arched a brow at him. "Are you sure about that Stark?"

Tony shrugged. "I need to get used to it sometime."

"Very well. I'll be in touch" Stephen nodded, conjuring a portal back to the Sanctum. The last thing he saw as the portal dissolved was that of Tony suppressing a shudder and walking away.

 

Chapter Text

"Stark? We have a problem." Tony groaned, scowling at the voice on the phone. He knew it had been a mistake not to watch the news when FRIDAY told him something had happened in Vienna.

"What happened?"

"King T'Chaka is dead. There's video footage that the Winter Soldier was involved." Ross growled.

"Sonofabitch." Tony swore.

"As much as I don't like you, I need you in Berlin. CIA and German police think they have a lead on him in Bucharest."

"Feeling's mutual Ross. Any sign of Rogers?"

"Three people got off a government plane an hour ago. Only Agent Carter went through customs."

"Dammit Rogers." Tony swore.

"Get there Stark. Barnes will be brought in and if Rogers is with him, I need you running damage control. Do not bring the suit Stark. You're going as an active duty non-combatant."

Half an hour later, Tony was halfway across the Pacific when he remembered his appointment with Strange. With a heavy sigh, he had FRIDAY connect him and left a message when Stephen didn't answer .

"Strange? It's Tony Stark. I'm afraid I have to cancel our meeting. Something's come up and I'm needed in Germany. I'll give you a call as soon as I can. Oh, and sorry about calling you Doc all those times. Don't take it personal... I just... yeah, never mind, I don't even know what I'm saying right now. Stark out."

Stark out? Tony scowled out the window of his private plane as he needed the call. He was stressed and it was coming out in his words. Strange not answering his phone had him wondering what wizards did all day. What little he'd seen of the house on Bleecker Street didn't seem like anything more than a dusty old library filled with equally dusty relics. Certainly not a hideout for magicians who protected the planet. Not that he knew what that should look like, but still... he should probably go back and visit a few times. Get a better understanding of what Strange and his friends actually did.

***

"Matt?"

"Tony. What can I do for you?"

"I don't know if you've watched the news recently, but I could use your help. Have you given any more thought to my offer?"

"I've seen it. Looks like a mess." Matt replied, followed by a heavy sigh. "What do you need?"

"Something happen Murdock?"

"Later. You've got enough on your plate. Just tell me what you need."

"Get to the Compound in upstate New York, the new staff will be arriving tomorrow. I'll have FRIDAY send you the details on that and then you can go ahead and approach the Accords council with those contracts you drew up."

"Alright." Matt replied. "Anything else?"

"Call Jessica. She's staying at Stark Tower. Let her know what's happened and if she's interested, take her with you. There's a contract at the Compound for her to look over and I should be back in New York in two days."

“Okay. I'll leave this afternoon. And Tony? Be careful."

***

"For the record, this is how you make things worse." Nat said as she fell in beside Steve.

"Bucky's alive Nat."

"And you turned yourself into a criminal to do it." She retorted. "I hope it was worth it."

They continued walking, entering a room filled with several screens where Tony was talking on his phone.

"Consequences? Damn right there'll be be consequences. Obviously you can quote me on that cuz I just said it. Anything else?" Tony snapped into the phone. "Thank you, sir."

"Consequences?" Steve asked as Tony ended the call.

"Secretary Ross wants you both prosecuted." Tony retorted staring at Rogers and Wilson. "Had to give him something."

"Not getting that suit back am I?" Steve drawled.

"Technically, it's government property." Natasha shot back. "Wing's too."

"That's cold." Wilson muttered.

"Warmer than jail." Tony called over his shoulder as he and Nat left the room.

After everyone had been debriefed, Tony joined Steve in the conference room.

"Nothing's happened that can't be undone, if you sign. We can make the last 24 hours legit, and Barnes' gets sent to a psychiatric hospital in the U.S. instead of a Wakandan prison.

"I'm not saying it's impossible. But there would have to be safeguards." Steve said cautiously and Tony relaxed slightly. He and Rogers had been arguing about the Accords for the past ten minutes and it seemed the other man might finally be listening.

"Sure. After we put out the PR fire, documents can be amended. I'll file a motion to have you and Wanda reinstated."

"Wanda? What about Wanda?"

"She's confined to the Compound. Vision is keeping her company."

"God Tony, every time I think you're seeing things the right way..."

"Excuse me? The right way? Or your way? Because it seems to me every time anyone disagrees with you, they're always wrong. Must be nice to be right all the time. Always painting yourself as this self-righteous do-gooder hero. Is that how you justify what you do? Because that's dangerous." Tony retorted. "And Wanda is staying in a place with 100 acres, a lap pool, screening room... there are worse ways to protect people."

"Protection? Is that how you see it?"

"She's not a U.S. citizen Rogers and they don't grant visas to weapons of mass destruction!"

"She's a kid!"

"No she's not! Newsflash Captain 'get-a-clue'. Wanda and her brother were 18 when they joined Hydra. That was BEFORE they volunteered for Strucker's experiments and at least a year before Ultron. Which was two years ago. Do the math, she's over 20, probably closer to 24. Or is being good at math another thing you're bad at?"

"It's internment Tony." Rogers retorted, his cheeks flushed with anger.

"Saying the same thing over and over again doesn't make it true Rogers. And you were younger than her when you joined the army, or is it that you just can't see past the fact she's female?"

"Steve." Sam called from the doorway, interrupting their shouting match.

Casting a scathing look at Tony, Rogers left the room with Sam at the same time Natasha entered to speak with Tony.

"Didn't listen did he?"

"It was a long shot. He never listened before, why would he start now?" Tony sighed. "What I want to know, is why did you sign? Why did you agree with me Nat?"

"Same as you. If you're on the outside of something 117 different countries agree on, you can't change it or make it better. I've been out in the cold before, I didn't care for it much."

"And what will you do if Steve won't let this go?" Tony asked.

"What are you talking about?"

"You were friends with Rogers before you warmed up to me, and I gotta say, I don't entirely trust you and I know you know that. If it's a choice, we both know you won't  choose me. I just want to know when you plan to stab me in the back."

Nat swore and moved to the doorway. "I'll do my damn job Tony. Same as you."

Tony huffed a breath and met her cold gaze. "Guess we'll see won't we?"

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony sat in the conference room, trying not to whimper in pain. The fight with Barnes after he'd escaped the CIA compound in Berlin had been a clusterfuck of unpreparedness. He knew he shouldn't engage Barnes, but he'd been certain his flash bang and sonic pulse would be enough to level the playing field.

He'd been so wrong. At least the pain in his chest was better than the memory of the sound Barnes' gun had made when he'd fired it at his face. The only reason he wasn't dead now was because he'd worn his bulletproof sunglasses, but the blow Barnes landed on his body had almost stopped his heart. Still could if he wasn't careful.

Ross entered the room and Tony sighed, hiding the pain behind his perfected mask of indifference. He couldn't afford to stay out of this now. If he left Ross in charge, more people would die. Ross had proven multiple times in his career that he cared nothing for collateral damage or bringing fugitives in alive or dead, so long as it got the job done.

Ross left the room soon after he'd agreed to let him and Natasha bring Barnes and Rogers in themselves.

"Thirty-six hours." Tony sighed, his right hand rubbing his chest absently. "Jesus. My left arm is numb. Is that normal?"

Natasha gave him a look and put a hand to his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Always." Tony nodded, lying through his teeth.

"We are seriously outnumbered here." She murmured.

"We could really use a hulk right about now. Any ideas?"

"You really think he'd be on our side?"

"No. Though I might have something else."

"I might have something too." Nat nodded.

"Where's yours?"

"Downstairs. You?"

***

Tony returned to New York and headed straight to the Tower. He might be selling the place, but he had no desire to be surrounded by strangers and the new Compound currently held more than he cared to be around right now. He needed to kill time, so he headed to his workshop and had FRIDAY screen his calls.

He spent most of the day tinkering at his work bench. He'd been playing around with the idea of revisiting the Extremis program and finding a way to combine it with Helen Cho's cradle.

Unfortunately, every trial he attempted failed after twenty minutes. Either the tech wasn't compatible and disintegrated when it tried to mesh together or it blew up. At least it wasn't burning anymore. He scoffed at the screen, swiping a hand across it to clear it away. The Extremis cure he'd developed for Pepper might hold a solution, but he'd avoided that research after Killian. His guilt and worry over what had happened left him unable to focus on the data.

With a sigh, he closed out his screens and shut down the lab. Maybe after the mess with Rogers had been dealt with and Strange had done his thing on Wanda's magic, he'd try again.

He headed to the penthouse and changed into a conservative three piece suit before grabbing his sunglasses from the counter and taking the elevator to the garage. Twenty minutes later, he was parked in front of a modest two-story apartment complex, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

Half an hour after that, he was sitting in a teenager's bedroom asking Peter Parker to come to Germany with him.

"I can't go to Germany!" Peter exclaimed.

"Why not?"

Peter hesitated, averting his eyes. "Because... I have homework."

"I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that."

"Mr. Stark... I'm being serious. I can't just drop out of school."

Tony ignored him and moved to the door. "Might be a little dangerous. Better tell Aunt Hottie I'm taking you on a little field trip." He said at the same time Peter webbed his hand to the door.

"Don't tell Aunt May."

"Alright Spiderman." Tony agreed, giving him a look when the teen didn't move. ".....get me out of this." Tony huffed impatiently when Peter remained where he was.

"Sorry... I'll just..." Peter rushed about the room muttering under his breath. "I'll get the... something..."

***

"Tony."

"Vision? Please don't give me more bad news." Tony groaned into the phone as he drove back to the Tower.

"I am sorry sir, but Wanda is gone. Mr. Barton came and they left together. I assumed you would know why."

"I gave up trying to figure Barton out years ago. Get to the Compound. I'll fill you in on the plane."

***

After talking to Vision, Tony headed to his workout room. He needed to burn off the adrenaline which had accumulated during his argument with Rogers, before he returned to Berlin. The entire conversation was still running through his brain like a damn audio tape on repeat.

With boxing gloves and loose fitting clothes on, he punched and kicked the sandbag in front of him. Every time he remembered another one of Steve's comments, he hit harder and faster until his pulse was throbbing in his veins and sweat ran between his shoulder blades.

An hour later he was almost drained of energy when he heard a voice. He froze, his breathing harsh, and turned to see Stephen Strange framed in the doorway
giving him a concerned look.

"Strange?" He said, the sudden drop in adrenaline and his blood sugar levels making spots appear at the edge of his vision. "What are you doing here?"

Strange said nothing as he closed the distance between them, his cool blue eyes never leaving Tony's own. "Are you all right Stark?" He asked.

Tony put a hand on the sandbag as a wave of dizziness hit him. "I'm fine Doctor. Why are you here?" He wheezed, his eyes widening as his legs suddenly gave out. He had a moment to see the alarm and concern on Strange's face before everything went black.

***

He woke with a throbbing in his head to find himself lying on a lumpy surface, which he guessed must be the couch in his workshop. A comforting warmth surrounded him and a dull ache in his chest made him groan in protest. He shifted and the warmth moved with him, snuggling him closer.

"What the..?" He murmured, his mouth dry, feeling like it was stuffed with cotton.

"You're lucky you're not dead." An angry voice growled from his right.

He blinked and shifted up, craning his neck to see who had spoken. When he could focus, it was to see the anger filled gaze of Stephen Strange. He frowned, looking down to see Strange's weird cape wrapped around him and he struggled, the cape leaving him to settle on Strange's shoulders.

"Strange?" He said blearily, sitting up and leaning his back into the couch. "What are you doing here?"

"Shut up and take this." Strange barked, handing him a glass of water and two small white pills.

Tony scowled but did as he asked, downing the pills and the water. When he finished, he handed the glass back, watching the Doctor's face warily, unsure why the other man was so furious.

"How long have you had heart problems?" Strange growled, the anger in his eyes not dimming.

"Since Afghanistan. Shrapnel in the heart will do that." Tony retorted.

"Yet you continue to willingly engage in violent, physical altercations. I thought the Iron Man armour was designed to protect you. How did you get that bruise on your chest?"

Tony looked down at his hands. The dull throb hadn't diminished and with Strange talking about it, he was having a hard time ignoring it. "I... wasn't wearing the armour when it happened. And how do you even know it's there?"

"I saw it when you passed out and flinched when I moved you to the couch. Christ Stark!" Strange swore, getting to his feet to pace. "Do you have a death wish? Are you actively trying to get yourself killed?"

Tony scowled at him and got to his feet unaided, unwilling to let the other man scold him like a defiant child. "Even if I did, which I don't, it's none of your damn business! What are you even doing here? How'd you get in?"

"I let him in boss." FRIDAY answered, interrupting him.

"I came because I hadn't heard from you. When I called, FRIDAY told me you were here and she asked me to come by." Strange hissed. "I thought you wanted to talk about the mirror dimension. I sure as hell wasn't expecting to come in here and see you on the verge of having a coronary."

"FRIDAY told you to come?" Tony asked, feeling a wave of guilt wash through him.

"I was concerned when you didn't answer me boss." FRIDAY replied.

Tony stared at the floor, the weight of Strange's gaze rooting him to the floor. "Look, I know what it must have looked like, but I wasn't trying to hurt myself." He paused, running a hand through his hair. "I was just... I needed to burn off some anger. I didn't realize I was pushing myself that hard. I'm... sorry I yelled at you."

"You should be in a hospital getting that looked at, not putting more stress on your heart." Strange snapped.

"I don't need it looked at Doctor." Tony retorted. "I know exactly what the problem is. I had my rib cage rebuilt after I had the arc reactor removed. Reconstructive surgery is not a substitute for real human bone. I'm always going to have chest pains Strange, I've learned to live with it."

"What you did in Berlin was reckless and irresponsible. What you did here was just plain stupid."

"I don't need a damn lecture from you Merlin! I know I screwed up. I was trying to keep innocent people from being hurt."

"As noble as that might be, you can't help anyone if you have a heart attack."

"You think I don't know that?" Tony snapped. "Look, I appreciate what you did for me tonight, so thank you for that. But I don't have time to argue with you, I have to get back to Berlin."

"You are the most stubborn, pig-headed man I've ever met." Strange growled, flapping his hand in Tony's general direction. "Fine. If you don't manage to get yourself killed, call me when you're less... you."

With a final parting anger-filled glare, Stephen conjured a portal and disappearing from his workshop a moment later. Tony let out the breath he'd been holding, wincing in pain as he shuffled over to the counter to get a glass of water.

"Boss? Vision is asking when you'll be joining him at the Compound. Peter Parker will be arriving there in 30 minutes."

"Tell him I'll be there in an hour or so." Tony sighed, downing the glass of water he held.

"Understood."

"Oh and Friday? Thank you for asking Strange to come over. I'm sorry I scared you."

"Just don't do it again boss." FRIDAY admonished before going silent.

"I'll try." Tony murmured, heading for the penthouse and a much needed shower.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wong looked up in shock from his book, The Astral Body and Other Non-Physical Realms he was reading over when Stephen stepped through a portal, cursing a stream of expletives under his breath. He scowled and got to his feet, closing the tome and setting it aside before fixing the other man with a harsh glare.

Stephen seemed unaware of his presence as he paced the length of the room, muttering to himself. After he'd made the fifth pass without stopping, Wong had had enough.

"Strange!"

Stephen jumped and turned wide eyes in his direction, a flush colouring his cheeks. "Wong. I... didn't know you were here." He stammered.

"That much I already gathered." Wong retorted, wiggling his fingers in Stephen's direction. "Care to explain yourself?"

Stephen narrowed his eyes and drew himself up straight. "No. I need to hit something. Can you watch over the Sanctum while I go to Kamar-Taj?"

Wong arched an eyebrow. "If you promise to explain when you return."

"Fine. Yes." Strange snapped, conjuring a portal. "Later."

***

A drop of sweat landed in his eye, and Stephen swiped at it angrily, his left hand coming back up a second later, shield at the ready. "Again." He snapped, his gaze boring holes in the Master opposite him.

Wynn shrugged and sent a series of attacks at him, sparks of magic trailing from his fingers. Stephen deflected, dodged and then ducked as Wynn conjured steps in the air and flew over him, a whip in his hand. He reached down, aiming for Stephen's arm, missing his intended target but catching Strange by the ankle and flipping him face-first onto the ground.

Wynn halted his attack, conjuring shields while he waited for Strange to right himself. "Perhaps if you talked about it, you wouldn't feel the need to fight." The other Master drawled.

"If I talk about it now, I'll have to fight longer." Stephen hissed.

Wynn shrugged. "Very well."

For another hour Stephen sparred with Wynn, sweat dripping in his eyes and pooling between his shoulder blades. Each successful strike he landed drained a sliver of his anger and frustration from him. Each hit he took, jarred his thoughts as much as it jarred his body, reminding him of the reason behind his anger.

Wynn's last successful hit landed Stephen on his back again where he lay gasping for breath, the wind knocked out of him. The other man loomed over him, a thoughtful but firm look in his eyes.

"You're done Strange." He growled, his gaze piercing in it's intensity. "Clean yourself up and meet me in the meditation room. You will explain your actions here today. Do not be late."

***

Stephen shuffled into the room, head bowed with most of his anger having burned off during his match with Wynn. He'd showered and changed and met his own eyes in the mirror as he'd combed his hair. He took note of the lingering anger there and acknowledged the helplessness he could now see in equal measure.

Wynn sat cross-legged on the floor in the centre of the room on one side of a small square table. Stephen sank to the floor opposite him and waited in silence as Wynn poured tea for them both. They drank quietly for several minutes, each paying respect and homage to the need and purpose of the ritual, leaving their egos aside as they sipped the hot liquid.

"You've had enough time to still your heart and mind Stephen?" Wynn asked quietly as he set his tea cup down.

Stephen nodded. "I have, and I thank you for your help."

"But?"

"But something tells me this will be an... ongoing problem. I will need another method for dealing with my... frustrations."

"Will you tell me what happened now?"

Stephen nodded, staring at the cup he held cradled in his lap. "I met someone who is more stubborn, more hard-headed than I am. Yet it is not fuelled by his ego or his need to win. His reasons for doing anything seems to be entirely fuelled by his fear of failing others and his complete indifference to his own health and well-being."

"And why is this so offensive to you?" Wynn asked quietly. "How does his indifference have anything to do with you? Can you not simply avoid him?"

"Because he wants to save everyone but himself!" Stephen snapped. "It's not right!"

"What exactly did this man do?"

"He fought a super soldier without his armour and took a serious hit to his chest. When I went to see him, he was on the verge of having a heart attack."

"And?"

"And he was hitting a sand bag! He knew what he was doing was dangerous and he knew he had a heart condition. He might have died if I hadn't arrived when I did."

"How does that have anything to do with you? You are not responsible for other people's choices Strange." Wynn admonished him.

"Because I'm still a bloody Doctor!" Strange growled. "I took an oath to preserve and protect life! I can't stand by and watch someone behave like that and not be upset by it."

"There are many people who do that every day. I don't ever recall seeing you react like this. Why is what this man does to himself so personal? So important to you?"

"It's not personal." Stephen scoffed. "But I think he's under the influence of an insidious bit of magic and if so, then I'm responsible. I am the Sorcerer Supreme, it's my job to safeguard others from illegal use of magic."

"When did this supposed attack occur? Were you Sorcerer Supreme at the time?"

"No, but I should be aware of everyone who is in possession of magic. I should have done something about it."

"Despite your rather... inflated view of yourself and your abilities, you are not omniscient. Nor do you know where our former colleague Mordo is, so I'm unclear how you are supposed to know the whereabouts of others like him."

"She's not like Mordo. She obtained her powers some other way." Stephen argued.

"Regardless, nothing of what you've told me so far even begins to explain your behaviour today."

"What?! I just told you, I can't just..."

"Enough Stephen." Wynn snapped, holding up his hand for silence. "It's clear to me that you cannot answer my question because you do not have an answer. Until you can be honest with yourself, I recommend you spend time at the New York Sanctum in astral meditation."

"I am being honest." Stephen protested.

Wynn glared at him until the other man broke eye contact with a huff of frustration. "Go home Doctor Strange. Do not return to Kamar-Taj until you are able to be honest with both of us."

Chapter Text

Tony was aboard the Quinjet less than an hour after Stephen left the Tower. The Doctor's behaviour and reaction to what he'd seen had been startling, though he'd been more ashamed at being called out on what he'd been doing than anything else.

He groaned when he caught sight of Jessica and Peter staring at Vision with polar opposite expressions on their faces when he boarded the jet. Vision looked up when he saw him, with what looked like relief in his eyes. He floated toward Tony with a faint smile on his face.

"Ah, Mr. Stark. There you are. I was beginning to wonder if you might have changed your mind about travelling with us and had gone on ahead in your armour."

Tony blinked as he moved deeper inside the jet. "No, I didn't change my mind buddy. Just... had to work a few things out."

"Pardon my saying so sir, but you do not look well. Is something wrong?"

"No, no, nothing's wrong." Tony lied. "I just over-reached when I tried to stop the Winter Soldier from escaping."

"Sir." Vision sighed with clear disappointment in his voice, but moved away when Jessica approached. Her presence exuding as much hostility towards the Vision as her small frame would allow.

"Stark." She growled, coming to a stop in front of him. "You asshole. You were supposed to get back to me about that magic protection thing you and that wizard friend were going to discuss. What the hell happened?"

"Oh shit." Tony swore under his breath.

"You forgot?!" Jones hissed.

"No, I didn't forget. Well not exactly. I did talk to him and he gave me a charm, I just forgot to ask for another one. Here," he said, pulling the amulet out from beneath his shirt and handing it to her. "You can have this one. I'll... I'll get another one..." He said, not mentioning the fact that after what had happened that afternoon, Strange might not want to make him another one.

Jones narrowed her eyes at him, running the amulet through her fingers with a frown on her face. "Doesn't look like much." She said, slipping it over her head and tucking it away.

"It'll work Jones." Tony insisted, his fingers itching to take it back.

It felt wrong to give away something Strange had given him personally and to then see it around her neck. It bothered him even more that he'd forgotten he had it and that he hadn't taken it off since the day Strange had given it to him. It felt as though he'd just given an important piece of himself away and he felt naked without it. And that thought held so many implications, it startled him into focusing on Jessica again.

Who was now looking at him with an odd expression in her eyes and he blinked. "What?"

"What's the kid doing here?"

"Kid? What kid? I don't see any kids here." Tony said, catching Peter's eye and giving him a wink. "For the record Jones, there's no kid here. Understand what I'm saying?"

"Oh I get it Stark, so long as you get that I'll hold you responsible if..."

"Hey, uh Miss Jones?" Peter said, hesitating as he joined them. "No offense ma'am, but I can take care of myself."

"Look, it's no skin off my back, but if you got family you care about, you shouldn't be here, you should be at home with them. And don't call me ma'am again. Like ever."

"Okay, but... honestly?" Peter stammered. "What I do is none of your business. And if you want to be with your family, maybe you should go home, uh... no offense. But why I'm here is between me and Mr. Stark so maybe you could, I dunno, stay out of it?"

"You got guts kid, I'll give you that. But watch it. I don't usually let anyone talk to me like that. You get a pass this time since we just met, but never do it again, understand?" Jessica retorted, turning away from them both. "I'm gonna sleep now. Wake me up if something interesting happens."

He and Peter watched her go, the intercom activating then and flooding the cabin with FRIDAY's voice. "Boss? We're cleared for take off. Do you wish to depart now?"

"Sure FRIDAY. Take us up." Tony said, putting a hand to Peter's shoulder. "Come on kid, let's go sit up front. You can see how all this works. We can't have you missing out on seeing the ocean on your first trip to Germany now can we?"

"Mr. Stark." Peter stammered, letting Tony guide him towards the cockpit. "This... this is unbelievable sir. Who was that lady in the black leather, is she like a friend of yours? Cuz I gotta say, she's kinda intimidating you know? Not like pee your pants scary, more like my heart is beating out of my chest scary. I think I might pass out."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "You're not going to faint kid. Come on, sit up front there in the cockpit. Yeah, right there in the pilot's seat. You're good right?"

"But... Mr. Stark, there's so many things to uh... I want to figure all this out and see how it works and... it looks really expensive and I don't want to... um, what if I break something? It's not like I can pay you back or anything, I mean I suppose I could maybe work for you or something, I..."

"Peter, Peter... relax okay? That's good, now take a breath. Now take another one. Good. Now, are you listening? Okay, so FRIDAY is flying the jet now, right Fri?"

"Affirmative boss."

"And she can answer any questions you have about the jet and anything else you want to know. And you won't break anything because FRIDAY won't let you. Alright? Are you hearing me?"

"Yes sir." Peter nodded, a faint blush on his cheeks. "I mean, yes Mr. Stark. Thank you Mr. Stark."

"Don't mention it kid. Now I'm gonna leave you to it while I catch some shut eye. I'll just be back here sleeping. FRIDAY will wake me before we land okay?"

"Okay."

"Good. Have fun kid."

***

Tony didn't drift off the moment he got settled. Instead, he went back to his reaction to the amulet he'd just given away. He couldn't pinpoint what he was so upset about. It was just a protection amulet, Strange probably made them all the time. It didn't mean anything. Tony frowned at that, because somehow it did mean something. It mattered and he couldn't explain to himself when or how Strange had come to mean something more to him than just an ally.

He rarely let people in, guarding his privacy like a dragon guarding its treasure. He couldn't accept that he'd let Strange past his defenses nor could he accept that he hadn't realized he'd done so until now. It was true enough that he felt safe in the other man's presence and he enjoyed the Doctor's company. What was more surprising was the realization he felt more himself with Strange than with anyone else he'd spent time with. Neither Rhodey or Pepper had made him feel so comfortable in his own skin that he relaxed completely around them, yet somehow he'd done just that with Strange and hadn't even noticed.

He would definitely need to speak to the man when he got back to New York. Now that he was aware, he had to know... was he thinking of Strange like a friend? Or was it something more than that? He drifted to sleep with the image of friendly ice blue eyes and a cloak in serious need of a fashion upgrade staring back at him.

***

He woke a few hours later with a smile on his lips and a warmth suffusing his body. He'd been dreaming of... oh, he tensed and blushed as he looked around, letting out the breath he'd been holding when he realized no one was nearby. He hadn't had one of those dreams in... well, he honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd had an arousing dream. He blushed even more when he realized he'd been dreaming of the wizard.

Shaking himself, he stretched and moved to the cockpit where Parker had fallen asleep. He chuckled to himself when he was struck by how quiet the teen was, feeling a strange warmth bloom in his chest knowing he was witness to something rare. Despite not knowing him well, Peter clearly trusted him and he felt humbled by it as it was something few people in his life had shown him so readily.

"Friday?" He whispered.

"Yes boss?"

"Can you wake Mr. Parker up? Gently? I don't want to startle him."

"Of course."

Tony nodded and returned to his seat, closing his eyes while he waited for Peter to come wake him. He smiled to himself while he listened to Parker stir, then mutter to himself in panic for falling asleep. A moment later he heard footsteps and stretched to let the kid know he wasn't fully asleep.

"Mr. Stark?" He whispered, and Tony suppressed the smile and the warm feeling the kid's earnestness set off inside him.

"Mmm?" He blinked his eyes open to smile at him, a question in his eyes. "Parker? Have we arrived?"

Peter shook his head. "Not yet Mr. Stark, but Miss FRIDAY said we'll be landing in less than an hour."

Tony stretched and got to his feet, leading Peter back to the cockpit. "So, how was it kid? Your first trip over the Atlantic."

"Oh, it was great Mr. Stark. Fantastic really, it's like flying with all that water down there... um.." Peter hesitated and Tony turned to look at him.

"Something wrong Mr. Parker?"

"Uh, no, no nothing, it's just, well I might have fallen asleep, but... but it wasn't for very long." He stammered.

"It's okay kid." Tony chuckled. "It's a long flight. How about we go sit down and I'll fill you in on what I want you to do and why you're here."

"Yeah, okay. That sounds great uh... is there like, any food on the plane? I mean the uh, Quinjet?"

"You hungry?"

"Oh, man, you have no idea! I'm practically starving!" He blurted, his eyes going wide with embarrassment. "I mean, yeah. A little."

"It's okay Parker." Tony smiled. "I need my coffee and we'll see if Ms. Jones is up, though I don't think I have anything she'll want."

Half an hour later he'd had two cups of coffee, supplied Jessica with several cans of an energy drink and Peter had eaten pancakes, eggs, bacon and two glasses of orange juice from the Quinjet's kitchen. Tony had FRIDAY make a note to have it restocked when they landed and then had gone over what he wanted Peter to do and why they were after Steve Rogers.

"So? You get all that?" Tony prompted.

"Yeah. It's just... so crazy. I mean, you're an Avenger and they're Avengers. I don't get why you can't just explain things to them. It would be so much easier than fighting."

"Rogers has never been big on listening to people who disagree with him and Wilson... well, I don't know the guy very well but he mostly just follows Cap's lead. Doesn't seem too big on thinking for himself."

"Yeah, but he's gotta know that helping an assassin is wrong. I mean, the Winter Soldier dude killed people. How can they think they're doing the right thing? I mean, yeah he was brainwashed sure, but he's dangerous too right? That's how he escaped in the first place. And yeah he's Cap's friend and all, but how can he think he knows better than all those countries?"

"Now that is a damn good question kid." Tony smiled. "I wish I had a damn good answer to match. But Rogers isn't even thinking about the Accords right now. His concern is for Bucky. Now, are we good? You know what to do?"

"Yeah Mr. Stark. Keep my distance and web them up. Go for Cap's shield and his legs."

"Well done kid. Now, let's show you Berlin."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

CIA Headquarters in Berlin provided Tony and the others with private rooms on site. Rhodes had met them at the airport, taking Jones and Vision with him while Tony took Peter on a tour of the city.

"Thanks for this Mr. Stark." Peter said as they pulled into underground parking at a five star hotel. "I know what you were trying to do and I didn't think it would work, but it did, it really did. I feel much better now."

"That's good." Tony smiled. "Because for the rest of your stay, you'll be here with Happy Hogan."

"What?!" Peter spluttered. "But Mr. Stark, I thought you wanted me to help you! I can't sit on the sidelines while bad things are happening! I thought you understood that."

"Peter... Mr. Parker!"

"Wh...what?"

"Settle down okay? Good, now take a breath and let me finish."

"Finish, right. Because you weren't done talking." Peter flushed crimson and looked away. "You're going to send me home now aren't you? I yelled at you. Oh God, please Mr. Stark, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it!"

"Peter first of all, calm down. Second, I'm not going to send you home, but you do need to work on your impulse control."

"Impulse control? Right, right... I get carried away sometimes."

"Third, you're staying at a hotel because I don't want Secretary Ross knowing anything about you. This is serious Peter, so I need you to pay attention. Remember the Accords? Good, because Ross is in charge of that and you're a minor and if he knows about you then he's going to know who you are and how old you are. You understand what I'm saying?"

"Yes sir." Peter nodded. "Yes, Mr. Stark."

"Good." Tony nodded, walking him inside the hotel where they joined Happy at the elevator. "Now, Happy is going to take care of you. He'll bring you to meet up with the rest of us when we're ready to move."

"I understand. I'll be ready when you are sir."

***

Back at CIA HQ, Tony headed to his private quarters. The others were taking a tour of the facility and would be busy for the next hour, so he had some time to himself for a change.

He sat on the edge of the bed, the past two days washing through him, leaving him drained and weighed down by everything he still needed to do. With a sigh, he ran his fingers through his hair and wondered for the hundredth time that day if he'd made a mistake bringing Peter to Berlin.

Parker was just a kid, not even legal yet and he'd brought him in as back-up. Back-up against Captain America and the most infamous assassin in history. But he believed in Peter and his abilities and besides, it was Steve freaking Rogers. It wasn't Hydra or Chitauri or a demigod, so the kid wouldn't be in any real danger and this way he could assess the kid's skillset with minimal risk.

Still, despite his reasoning, he worried what people would think. He'd spent his entire life being judged and criticized over everything he'd ever done. Shit, this was not what he wanted to be doing now. Besides, he'd just make sure no one found out about it. Simple.

Yeah, right, he scoffed to himself,  heading for the bathroom. It was while he was drying his hands when he remembered the embarrassing conversation he'd had with Strange and groaned aloud.

He rolled his eyes, cursing under his breath as he sat back down on the bed and dug out his phone. Did he even have the number? Yeah, he did. Strange had called him several times, leaving his number in the process.

After doing some quick math in his head he determined it wasn't too late to call. With a deep sigh, he dialled and held his breath, hoping he wasn't about to make things worse.

"Hello?"

"Hi. Uh, this is Tony Stark calling. Is Doctor Strange in? I'd like to speak to him."

"He is busy meditating."

"Hey! Is this the other guy who lives there? I never got your name."

"Because I never gave it to you."

"Sir. May I please have your name?"

"It's Wong."

"Is that like Mr. Wong? Or Wong like Beyonce and Cher? No? Okay, Wong it is I guess." Tony said, hiding his disappointment when the other man didn't respond. "So this meditating thing Strange is doing. Is it important? Can he be interrupted at all? Because I'd really appreciate it if I could talk to him for a minute."

"It is important Mr. Stark. But it is also time for him to take a break. Can you hold a moment?"

"Yeah! Uh, yes. Yes I can wait."

It took more than a minute. After five Tony wondered if Wong had just been playing with him. Five more and he was about to hang up when a voice came on the line.

"Stark?"

"Yes, in the flesh... sort of. Is that you Strange?"

"It is. Wong said you wanted to talk to me. What do you want?"

"Uh, well, I want a lot of things actually. For one I'd like to have never been kidnapped and tortured, but we can't change the past. I'd also really like to be having dinner in Paris right now, not stuck in some dusty old CIA building in Berlin. But what I really want, is to apologize to you. I was rude earlier and you were right, I shouldn't have been working out like I was. I'm sorry if what you saw gave you a poor opinion of me. Well, a poorer opinion than you already had." Tony waited, but Strange said nothing. "Doctor? Are you still there?"

"I'm here. Is this really Tony Stark I'm talking to?"

"Of course it is. I mean, I can't prove it since you never agreed to take one of my holo watches, but yeah it's me." Tony paused. "So are we good? You aren't saying anything, so I'm thinking maybe now I should've waited and done this in person. Know what? Forget I said anything, that's what I'll do. I'll see you when I get back and I'll come and apologize in person."

"Mr. Stark. Tony? That isn't necessary. I was just at a loss for words. Thank you for calling. I hope this means you had someone take a look at you? Your heart is okay?"

Tony hiccuped a laugh, his chest constricting at the sound of concern in Strange's voice. "Um, about that..."

"You didn't see anyone did you? Damn it Stark, do you have any idea the kind of risk you're... wait, you aren't saying all these things because you're dying are you?"

"What?! No, no of course I'm not dying. And I told you, I don't need to see anyone and even if I did, there wasn't time."

"Alright Stark. I'll take your word for it that you don't need to see anyone. I want to apologize as well. I had no right to yell at you or tell you what to do. We barely know each other and I crossed the line of professionalism."

"Oh, I don't know." Tony drawled. "I mean, you are a Doctor right? You had some right to say something. Hippocratic oath and all that. So, are we good?"

"Yes Stark. We're good."

"Call me Tony." Tony smiled into the phone. "I mean, you did already cross that professional line and everything."

Strange chuckled softly. "Very well Tony. Thank you for calling, but I do need to go now. Oh and Stark, call me Stephen." He said, and before Tony could respond, the line went dead.

Tony smiled down at his phone. So the good Doctor liked having the last word huh? He could work with that. Pocketing his phone, he left his room and headed to the meeting with the rest of his team.

 

 

Chapter Text

"I don't know about this plan Captain." Lang muttered under his breath. "Why are we fighting Stark again?"

"Because it's Stark." Clint huffed.

"He had me locked up at the Compound." Wanda added, an angry glint in her eye.

"Hank always said you can't trust a Stark, but I can't believe Howard's kid would do something like that." Lang mumbled.

"Look Lang." Steve sighed. "It's complicated. Stark isn't thinking straight. He's feeling guilty over Sokovia and Ultron. This is bigger than that."

"But you said there are more soldiers like him out there." Lang reminded them, pointing at Barnes. "I don't see why you can't just explain that to him."

"Scott, if you don't want to get involved, don't." Sam snapped. "No one's going to force you to fight."

"I never said I wouldn't fight." Lang protested, fidgeting nervously under the annoyed glares he was getting from the others. "I just..." Scott hesitated. Nothing about this situation made much sense.

Ever since Barton had shown up on his doorstep and dragged him into a car, everything about it felt off. Super soldiers were bad if they were as evil as Rogers had implied, but there seemed to be something more going on than just Hydra sleeper agents…. And yet, he could really use some super friends right now. What with Hank and Hope likely to be pissed with him for taking the suit, having Captain America on his side could really turn things around.

"You know what? Forget I said anything. These super soldiers need to be stopped and if Stark can't see that, then we have to do whatever's necessary." Scott smiled. "So whatever you need Captain, I'm here for you. Let's do this."

Steve nodded, a smile forming on his lips. "Good to have you aboard Scott."

"Knew I could count on you Tic Tac." Sam added, clapping him on the shoulder.

Wanda and Clint hovered in the background leaving Scott feeling uneasy. Barton was completely unreadable, but Wanda's stare made him feel like a germ under a microscope. He shook himself to dispel the sensation of bugs crawling over his skin and turned back to focus on what Rogers was saying.

***

"They're going to try for the airport." Tony said as they gathered in a field nearby. "I've already called ahead to shut down all air traffic in the area."

"But Mr. Stark, isn't that where we left the Quinjet?" Peter asked and if he hadn't had his helmet on, Tony might have smacked a hand to his own forehead.

Jones smirked at Parker's comment, while Vision sighed aloud as though his creator wasn't standing two feet away and could hear him.

"Tony. You didn't." Rhodey huffed at his side.

"What?! It's not like I could leave it at CIA HQ. The landing pad was damaged during Barnes' escape and Capsicle's brilliant plan to stop a helicopter one-handed."

"Can't you call FRIDAY sir? She could lock them out if they try to take it, right?" Peter pressed, his excitement making him fidget more than usual.

Tony frowned at the hyper teen, almost wishing Parker wasn't so insightful. Also, the energy thing... note to self: never give Parker caffeine. "That would be an excellent idea Spiderman if not for Secretary Ross." Parker tilted his head to the side at that, reminding Tony of a confused puppy.

"Yes, Ross knows about FRIDAY." Tony sighed. "No, he doesn't know FRIDAY is capable of flying a plane or that she's pretty much everywhere I am. I locked her out of the Quinjet after we landed to make sure it stays that way."

"Oh Stark." Natasha sighed, staring off across the tarmac. "So how are we going to do this?"

"First, we get to the airport." Tony began. "Then when Rogers and company show their faces, we talk them down and bring Barnes in."

"Just like that huh?" Jones drawled. "Sounds so simple when you put it that way."

"Who are you again?" Nat scowled at her. "I don't understand what you're doing here."

"And I don't understand what you're doing here." Jessica shot back. "Aren't you a double agent? Spy right? Or was that triple agent? How many times can someone switch sides before it doubles back on itself and becomes redundant?"

"Ladies." Rhodey huffed. "Let's not do this right now, alright? Our goal here is to stop Rogers from getting on a plane and to bring Barnes in for questioning."

"Thank you for the reminder Colonel. I agree. Stopping Mr. Rogers through reason is our first priority." Vision said, his voice calm.

"Captain get-a-clue doesn't strike me as the kind of person to listen to reason." Jones snorted.

"Regardless." Vision continued, levelling a warning glance at Nat to silence any protest she was about to make. "We still need to try. The last thing we want is to escalate an already volatile situation. We are here in lieu of Secretary Ross' predilection to shoot first, not to be his weapon."

"Vision's right. We don't do anything to escalate things. I'll talk to Rogers.  The rest of you feel free to add whatever you like. Spiderman, when I call on you, take Cap's shield." Tony agreed.

"Understood Mr. Stark."

"Good." Tony nodded. "Are we all clear on our targets if it comes down to that?"

"Whatever Iron Head. I'm shadowing you and I'll be watching for that bow and arrow guy and the witch." Jones huffed.

"She's not a witch." Vision sighed.

"Says you purple grape. That's not what the tabloids say and I've heard what she's capable of and it's witchcraft in my book. Feel free to call it what you want."

"Spider-Man. Remember what I told you. Keep your distance and web them up." Tony said, lifting off from the ground. "Let's go."

***

"Sir. I don't understand what the Jones woman is doing here." Vision groused as they neared the airport parking structure.

"She wanted to come Viz." Tony shrugged. "And she was already on the plane when I got there. Even if I could have asked her to leave, she volunteered and I'm not about to turn away free help."

"It wasn't meant as a criticism sir. It just seems to me that she is particularly biased towards some of our former allies." Vision replied. "It may escalate things."

"Jones is many things, but she's a lot more objective about this than you might think."

"Very well. I will try my best to see the situation from her perspective if it pleases you."

"Don't do things to please me Viz. It's not necessary and I gotta say, also kinda creepy. Do it because you want to or don't."

"As you say sir."

"Are you two done having a private conversation over there?" Rhodey huffed aloud.

"Yep. All done here." Tony answered, moving to Rhodey's side and tuning his comms in to the rest of the team. "You got something Platypus?"

"Movement on the ground, heading this way."

"Everyone into position." Tony barked. "You all know what to do."

***

"Funny the people you run into at an airport huh Rhodes?" Tony said as he landed by War Machine on the tarmac.

"Sure is Tones."

"Weird right?" Tony continued, retracting his helmet to address Rogers with a nod. "Cap."

"Tony." Steve replied.

"So here's the thing. You need to surrender Barnes and come with us. Ross gave me 36 hours to bring you in and that was 12 hours ago. Can you help a brother out?"

"You don't have the whole picture Tony. Zemo set all this up. There are five more soldiers just like him, we have to stop him."

"And your judgement is compromised!" Tony retorted. Jesus, had there ever been a time when Rogers had ever just listened? Or took him at his word? Trusted him? "People are dead now because of Barnes. Even more are injured. I'm trying to stop this from getting any worse."

"He's innocent Tony. Hydra brainwashed him."

"Christ Rogers!" Tony snapped. "I'm trying to stop you from tearing the Avengers apart!"

"You did that when you signed." Steve replied, inclining his head as though daring Tony to deny it.

"Asshole!" Jones swore. "You're an even bigger dick than I thought. Self-righteous and arrogant. Absolving yourself of all responsibility and making Stark the target for your stupid choices. I thought you were a hero. Turns out you're just another arrogant dickhead in a suit.”

"Who are you again?" Steve sighed.

"Not a fan of you."

"Okay, I'm out of patience." Tony sighed. "Underoos!"

"What the..." Scott exclaimed, taking a step back as Steve's shield suddenly went airborne.

"Hey Cap! Captain!" Peter stammered. "Friendly uh... well not a neighborhood really... uh Spider-Man. Hi! Big fan, kinda?"

"Good job kid." Tony said, turning to smile at him.

"Thanks Mr. Stark. I did it! That was good right?"

"We don't really need to have a conversation right now."

"Right. No, sure. I got it Mr. Stark, just... really excited to be here."

"Come on Steve." Nat said from Rogers right. "You know how this is going to go. Do you really want to punch your way out of this?"

"You know I have to do this."

"Well I don't." Jones muttered.

"Who are you and why should we care?" Clint demanded.

"She's an ally." Vision replied. "Something we all were not that long ago."

"Tell that to your boss." Barton sneered as Steve whispered something under his breath seconds before taking off at a run.

Tony slammed his helmet down to check in with FRIDAY. "Dammit." Tony swore. "We've got movement. Two on the lower deck and two more, other side of the parking lot."

"I've got my target." Jones muttered, moving fast toward the hangar.

"What should I do Mr. Stark?" Peter cried.

"Like we discussed! Keep your distance and web them up!"

***

"Sure you're on the right side of this Nat?" Barton jeered, ducking her punch.

"Are you?" She replied. "I thought you retired."

Clint shrugged, letting loose a shock arrow that missed her by inches. "I got bored."

"We still friends?" She teased, getting him in a headlock which he slipped free of seconds later.

"Depends how hard you hit me." He replied, his eyes wide as Nat's foot stalled an inch from his face before Wanda sent her flying into a truck.

Clint gave the witch a puzzled look and began jogging towards the hangar, leaving Wanda to keep Nat pinned down a moment longer.

"You were pulling your punches." Wanda shrugged in response as he passed her.

"Where do you think you're going?" Jones sneered as Clint disappeared behind a plane.

"You think you can stop me?" Wanda taunted, tendrils of red smoke unfurling from her hands to reach for her.

"I know I can." Jones replied, grabbing her by the collar and tossing her into a pile of luggage.

"How are you doing that?!" Wanda cried, sending magic at Jessica's mind again as she struggled to her feet, eyes wide. "That's not possible! You have no magic."

"And what you just tried is abhorrent!" Jones snarled, closing in on her. "People like you have no concept of privacy. You think nothing of violating someone's mind."

"I protect myself!" Wanda argued.

"That's not protecting yourself bitch! It's malicious assault of another human being." Jessica had almost reached her when a rush of air hit her and suddenly she was airborne. "What the hell?! Put me down asshole!"

"Now, now, is that any way for a lady to talk?" Sam scolded, taking her further away from Wanda.

"I'm no lady dickwad." Jessica retorted, reaching up and clocking him in the jaw.

"Sonofabitch!" Sam swore, dropping her onto the back of a truck. "Heads up guys! Leather jacket girl is an enhanced."

"Another one?" Clint sighed aloud from his perch closer to the hanger.

Jessica dusted herself off and felt her breath catch in her throat at the same time a dozen cars came flying off the parkade to crush Iron Man beneath them. She vaulted off the trailer and ran to him, hoping the suit had protected him. "Stark!"

"Jones." Tony groaned, unable to free himself.

The crunch and screech of protesting metal filled the air as the weight on his back eased. A hand shot down near his face, helping him to his feet.

"You alright?"

"I will be." Tony nodded, pointing at a gash on her leg. "What happened?"

"That flying dude dropped me on a trailer when I punched him and I landed wrong. I'll live.”

"Right. Let's go join the others."

***

"Captain Rogers. I'm afraid you need to stand down." Vision said from the air, directing it at the group before him. "Continuing on this course can only lead to more chaos. You will be crossing a line you may not be able to come back from."

"I don't have a choice." Steve insisted.

"You are so full of shit." Jones huffed.

"Tony? Where did you find this woman?" Rhodey asked.

"She's a friend." Tony shrugged. "We can't let you leave Cap."

"And I can't stop Tony." Steve replied, beginning to jog towards him.

"Are we really doing this?" Nat huffed at Vision's side.

"You have a better idea, now's the time Ms. Romanoff." T'Challa replied.

"Mr. Stark. They're not stopping." Peter called.

"Neither are we kid."

 

 

Chapter Text

"Tony go high!" Rhodes cried, as they flew up the front of the giant man.

"I said I'd help you find him, not catch him." Natasha's voice rang out through the comm.

"I knew you couldn't be trusted." Jessica snarled, backhanding the spy into the wall. "Stay down. Stark? Your little spider just helped the targets get away."

"Regroup on the tarmac." Tony called back. "Rhodey and I are going after the Quinjet."

"Got it." Jones replied seconds before Nat hit her with a stun pin. She hit the ground hard, watching through a seizing nervous system as Nat hit T'Challa with the same thing and took off running. She was getting to her feet when Tony's fearful cry came through her ear piece.

"Rhodes!"

The silence was deafening as she and T'Challa ran to join Spiderman, Vision having taken to the air. Webbing covered Barton, Lang and Maximoff and Jessica smirked at seeing their hostile glares.

"Hey kid," Jessica said quietly. "Did you see what happened?"

Spiderman turned to look at her. His shoulders were shaking and his voice was unsteady when he spoke. "Um... War Machine fell. Mr. Stark... he didn't get there in time."

"Jesus." Jessica swore.

"It seems the worst has come to pass." T'Challa murmured. "You seem to have these three under control. I must go."

"What?!" Jessica growled. "You're leaving? What, you didn't get your vengeance so you're off to sulk? Are you serious right now?"

"I am a king Ms. Jones. You would do well to remember that."

"A king who's acting like a spoiled kid having a tantrum." Jessica retorted. "But you know what? I don't care. Go, do whatever it is that's so important you can't stick around to see if your allies are alright."

"You are a most disagreeable woman Ms. Jones."

"And you're an asshole." Jessica shot back with a cold glare.

T'Challa gave no reaction to her words but bowed in response to her scowl, smiled and walked away.

"Dickhead." Jessica muttered. "Stark? You okay? You need me to do anything?" Silence met her inquiry and she shared a look with Spiderman. Well, it seemed she did. Hard to tell with that weird mask he had on.

"Mr. Stark?"

"Yeah kid, I heard you." Tony replied, his voice sounding tired and broken and making Jessica suck in a harsh breath. "I'm okay. Wait for the German police to take the rogues into custody, then head to the hotel. Happy will take you to a waiting Quinjet back to the States."

"What about you?" Jessica demanded.

"I'm going with Rhodey to the hospital. Then Vision and I will need to debrief Ross and the council. I'll see you in New York as soon as Rhodes is cleared for travel."

"Is... War Machine okay sir?" Spiderman asked quietly.

"No kid, he's not. But he's alive. Stark out."

Jess shared a look with the kid, shrugged and took a seat on the ground beside him to wait for the cops. Neither said anything, preferring to wait until they had more privacy and spent their time glaring at the fugitives who were tied up and sitting ten feet away, glaring right back at them.

***

Tony paced outside the ER. It was killing him not to barge in there and demand answers. He had the best doctors, specialists and equipment back at the New York compound. All he needed was the green light to take Rhodey home.

"Sir." Vision said quietly at his side as Rhodey entered the MRI machine.

"What the hell happened?" Tony demanded, keeping his voice low.

"I became... distracted."

"I didn't think you could get distracted." Tony hissed.

Vision bowed his head. "Neither did I."

"That's not good enough." Tony huffed as his phone began vibrating in his pocket. He pulled it out and swore at what he saw. "We have to debrief Ross. Now."

***

Two hours later, Tony had Rhodes on a Quinjet back to New York. Vision kept his distance and stayed in the cockpit, leaving him alone with his friend.

"Tones." Rhodey croaked, drifting back to consciousness. "I know what you're doing and you need to stop. What happened wasn't Vision's fault. It wasn't yours either."

Tony looked away, staring out the window, a dozen conflicting emotions warring within him. "He said he became distracted. And I knew I should've upgraded your suit with a backup power source."

"Look Tony. I love you like a brother, but I can't argue this shit with you. Not right now."

Tony's face fell as he met his friend's eyes. "Dammit. I'm a terrible friend Rhodes. You should've run the other way after college. Got as far away from me as possible."

"Tony, you are the biggest pain in the ass I have ever met. But I wouldn't trade our friendship for anything. I'm honoured to call you my friend. Besides, my life would be so boring without you. Promise me you won't let this drag you down alright?"

Tony let out the breath he'd been holding but said nothing.

"Look at me Tony." Rhodey pressed. "Promise me."

"Alright Platypus." Tony sighed, giving him a watery smile. "I promise."

"Good. Now get your butt in a bunk and go to sleep. That's an order. If you don't, I'll get that Jones woman to beat your ass when we get back to New York."

"Fine, fine." Tony agreed. "Just... I'm going to do everything I can to fix this. I need you to know that."

"I know you will Tones. Now go. FRIDAY will let me know if you don't. Won't you FRIDAY?"

"Yes Colonel. I will."

"Traitor." Tony muttered to his AI, getting to his feet. "Wake me if you need anything alright?"

"You got it."

 

Chapter Text

With Rhodey in the best hospital available and with the best care Tony could provide, he headed to the new Avengers compound. With Rogers and Barnes having disappeared over the Russian border with the Quinjet, he was unable to track them.

It left him feeling useless. The guilt that clawed at him over the incident at the airport threatened to consume him if he couldn't do something to fix it. He was staring out a second floor window of one of the training rooms, lost in thought, when his phone rang.

"Stark here."

"Tony?"

"Strange?" Tony hesitated. He really couldn't deal with this right now. "What can I do for you?"

It was almost as though he could feel Stephen scowling into the phone and knew he hadn't succeeded in disguising the turmoil in his voice.

"I heard you got back from Germany, and about your friend. I wanted to tell you how sorry I was to hear it." Stephen replied, his voice careful.

"Thank you. Rhodey's a fighter and he's got the best care available. He'll pull through and... he'll get past this."

"And what about you?"

Tony scowled at the phone. "What about me?"

"Are you alright? You watched your friend get severely injured. I can't imagine that was easy."

"I'm fine Doctor. I'm not the one lying in traction right now." Tony retorted.

"Of course. How silly of me to think you might need a friend while your best friend is in serious condition."

"That's not..." Christ, he was being an asshole.

"Never mind." Stephen snapped, cutting him off. "It was stupid of me to ask and I will assume that now is also not a good time to attempt taking you to the mirror dimension."

"I'm pretty busy Strange. Up to my neck in bureaucratic bullshit. I can't just..."

"It's fine. My own fault for making assumptions. I'll leave you to it. Goodbye."

Tony's mouth was still open in protest when the line went dead. Shit on a stick. Now the Doctor was pissed at him and he hadn't done anything wrong other than call him when he was in a bad mood. At this rate, the other Avengers wouldn't be the only ones to leave him behind.

The sound of heels clicked on the smooth floor as Natasha joined him at the window. Speak of the devil, he thought darkly. "How is he?"

"Getting the best care in the world. Shattered L4 through S1... best case scenario, we're still looking at some form of paralysis."

"Steve's not going to stop." Nat said, staring out the window. "If you don't stop too..." She trailed off. When he didn't respond, she continued. "Rhodey's going to be the best case scenario."

"You let them go Natasha."

"We played this wrong."

Tony barked a laugh. If he'd been drinking coffee at the time, he would've choked on it. "We? Boy, it must be hard to shake the whole double agent thing huh? Sticks in the dna."

"Are you incapable of letting go of your ego for one goddamn second?"

A barked laugh broke the tense bubble of silence surrounding the two of them and they turned together to see Jessica standing there. She was glaring at Natasha with eyes colder than ice. "Are you fucking kidding me right now?" She said, moving closer to Tony. "You betray him and the rest of us and now you're trying to make what happened his fault?"

"This doesn't concern you." Nat retorted.

"Like hell it doesn't. You screwed us all over. If not for you, Tony's friend wouldn't now be in ICU because Rogers and Barnes would be in custody."

"Look, I don't know who you think you are, but there's a lot going on here you don't understand."

"I understand plenty bitch, so don't you dare talk down to me. As for who I am, I'm Tony's friend. Do you even have any? Or do you just switch loyalties like changing your clothes? Whatever benefits you the most at the time I'm guessing."

Tony was reeling by the time Jessica ran out of words and the stunned expression on Nat's face was priceless. "T'Challa told Ross what you did, so... they're coming for you." Tony said, Nat turning to look at him with anger in her eyes.

"I'm not the one that needs to watch their back." Nat scowled, casting a pointed look at Jones before stalking away.

"Don't be so sure about that lady." Jones called out, a smirk on her lips when the other woman's spine stiffened before disappearing through the door.

Tony raised his eyebrows at her when she turned back to face him. "That was entertaining." She said, a smile on her lips. "Not sure letting her go was a good idea though. Hope you know what you're doing Stark."

"So do I." Tony murmured, glancing back to the door. "Your timing was fortuitous Jones. What are you doing here? I thought you were back in the city."

"Wanted to stick around, see you before I left." Jones shrugged, holding her hand out palm up. "And I wanted to give this back."

Tony looked down to see the amulet Strange had made for him glittering in the light from the window. "You're giving it back?" He asked, keeping the faint tremor in his voice controlled as he took it from her. "Why?"

Jones shrugged. "It did what you said it would and... I saw the look on your face when you gave it to me. That Doctor friend of yours? He made this for you, doesn't feel right for me to keep it."

"Uh...thanks Jones." Tony replied, his voice tight with emotion as he slipped the amulet over his head and tucked it under his shirt. "And thanks for your help in Germany. You were great."

"No problem Stark." Jessica shuffled in place, not meeting his eyes. "Look, I'm not good with all this emotional crap so... take care of yourself alright? Call me if you need someone's ass kicked."

"Of course." Tony nodded as she turned to go. "Hey Jones, what you said earlier about being my friend. Did you mean it?"

Jessica smirked and kept going, walking backwards to the door. "Don't let it go to your head Stark. I still think you're an arrogant jerk, but you're my kind of arrogant jerk."

Tony chuckled as he turned back to the window, a warm feeling in his chest. He sighed and turned to leave the room when FRIDAY pinged him with a news article. After watching for a minute, he closed the holo and stalked from the room, heading for the landing pad.

"FRIDAY, fire up the chopper." Tony said. "And get these files to Ross."

***

"Boss. Are you certain it's a good idea for you to go to the Raft alone?"

"What choice do I have FRIDAY? If I bring anyone else, Ross will get it in his head I'm there to break them out. I don't need the headache that would cause."

"Are you so sure any of them will talk to you?"

"If these other super soldiers are a real threat, who else is available to stop them? Who else has the resources and means to do something about it? If I'm wrong, I don't want anyone else to take the heat if I get caught. I'm not condoning what Rogers did, I'm just making sure I didn't make things worse by not helping him."

***

"We should implement facial recognition technology and circulate Zemo's profile as soon possible. He can't have gotten far." Tony said as he met Ross on the landing platform of the Raft.

"You honestly think I'm going to listen to anything you have to say after what happened in Leipzig? You're lucky you're not locked up in one of these cells." Ross retorted hotly as Tony moved past him to the holding cells.

***

"Oh look ladies and gentlemen, the futurist is here. He knows all, he knows what's best for you, whether you like it or not." Clint sneered as Tony entered the room housing the former Avengers.

"Give me a break Barton. I didn't know they'd put you in here."

"You knew they'd put us somewhere."

"Oh right, right, of course I did. Because I know everything and you're too stupid to think for yourself. You broke the law Barton. You read it, you broke it. I don't understand Clint. You're an adult, you've got a wife and kids. Why didn't you think of them before you chose the wrong side?"

Clint slammed his fist into the wall by the bars, a murderous look in his eyes as Tony moved away. "Better watch your back with this guy. He might break it."

"Don't be an asshole Barton!" Wilson shouted from across the room, effectively shutting the other man up.

"Hank always said you couldn't trust a Stark." Lang muttered as Tony passed his cell. He had to say something. After being handed off by German police to guys in black military garb and stuffed into an air transport, no one had told them anything.

He had grown more tense the longer he thought of his predicament and increasingly alarmed that he was missing something important. Everyone else seemed to blame Stark for what had happened to them, but he couldn't see it. Sure Stark was rich, but military? Off the rez, maximum security? Even he wasn't dumb enough to think Stark could swing something like that.

"Who are you again?" Tony scoffed, ignoring him.

"Aw, come on man..." Scott groaned. He turned away from the bars of his cell, Barton's angry muttering beginning to grate on his nerves and he tuned him out. Instead he eavesdropped on the conversation Stark and Wilson were having next to him and felt his jaw drop at what he heard.

"How's Rhodes?" Sam asked, guilt filling his eyes.

"He's being transferred to Columbia medical tomorrow, so... fingers crossed." Tony paused. "You need anything in here? They feed you yet?"

"So what, you're good cop now?"

"I was wrong about Barnes."

"That's a first."

"Look, I don't know what the hell I ever did to you Wilson. What's with the attitude?"

"Sorry. Guess I just don't like the view from in here." Sam shook his head, his arms crossed over his chest as Tony showed him the image of the dead doctor. "I'll tell you where Steve went but you have to go alone and as a friend."

"Easy." Tony nodded.

***

"Did Wilson tell you anything?" Ross demanded on the walk back to Tony's helicopter.

"He told me to go to hell so I'm heading back to the Compound. You can call me anytime. I'll put you on hold, I like to watch the line blink."

Once he was in the air, Tony programmed FRIDAY to return to New York while he got ready to don his suit and head to Russia. "Boss. Are you sure you should be doing this alone?"

"I don't have a choice FRIDAY. There's no time to call anyone and Ross won't authorize something like this on a hunch."

"And if you're right, you'll be outnumbered even with Rogers and Barnes on your side."

"Your objection is noted FRIDAY. Return to the Compound. Tell Vision where I've gone." Tony said as he exited the helicopter in his armour.

"Boss?" FRIDAY said, ten minutes into his flight.

"What now?"

"I'm tracking a small unidentified craft following you. Initial scans indicate the ship is reinforced with Vibranium. It's clearly of Wakandan design."

"Let him follow. If Zemo has revived those soldiers, we'll need his help."

"Understood boss."

 

 

Chapter Text

After a short, but tense conversation with Rogers, Tony led the way forward, deeper inside the abandoned Hydra facility.

"That's weird." Tony muttered, taking a thermal scan of the large room he was about to enter.

"How many?" Steve asked.

"Just one."

Steve saw Zemo first, letting his shield fly at the small glass window, flinching away when it bounced harmlessly off and ricocheted back to him.

"You must be Zemo." Steve growled, moving closer.

"Reinforced glass Captain. Your shield cannot break it."

"I think I could get it to break." Tony retorted.

"Given time, I've no doubt of that Mr. Stark. Unfortunately, you won't have it. You're about to be very busy with... other concerns."

"You did all this?" Steve challenged him. "Killed all those people, shot the super soldiers just to lure us out here?"

"I studied you, watched you. For over a year I thought of nothing else. Now that I see you up close... there's a bit of green in the blue of your eyes. It's nice to know you have some... visible flaws." Zemo smirked and pushed a button, activating a small laptop near the centre of the room.

"What is this?" Tony demanded, his heart clenching in panic and a rush of unpleasant emotion at the image on the screen. That road, he knew that road... no, no, no. What was this? "I know that road..." He murmured. "What is this?!"

An icy silence descended to envelop the three tense men in the room. The only sound was the video that continued playing on the screen. Distantly, Tony registered movement near the doorway, his brain helpfully supplying a name, T'Challa, while the rest of his attention remained riveted on the screen before him. Pain and loss as vivid as it had been the day he'd been told of his parent's deaths, settled in his chest like brittle glass making it hard to breathe, even harder to make sense of what he was seeing.

He felt his heart stop as the image on the screen faded to black. The room he stood in with Rogers and Barnes, the man who had murdered his parents was deathly silent. The only sound was that of Rogers' panicked breathing as he turned to glare at the Winter Soldier.

"Tony, no!" Steve cried, his arms suddenly around his chest to restrain him. Tony's skin crawled with dread, his heart beating an ever-increasing staccato rhythm behind his false rib cage. "It wasn't his fault Tony. Hydra was controlling him."

Wrenching himself free of Roger's hold, he turned. His throat as dry as the desert, his voice like glass as he spoke. "Did you know?" He demanded, raw emotion overwhelming him and threatening to spill out.

"I suspected."

Steve's eyes shone, a million things reflected in their blue depths, but the only one Tony saw was guilt. "Don't bullshit me Rogers! Did you know?!"

Steve blinked and swallowed, and the ground fell away beneath Tony's feet. "Yes."

With Herculean effort, Tony fought the tears that he refused to let fall. He took a single step back and without warning slammed a fist into Steve's chest, throwing him twelve feet across the room.

Barnes surged from behind him, but he was ready. He fought Barnes off, activating his repulsors and slammed the other man into the far wall. Steve hit him with the shield, making him drop Barnes, then yelled for Bucky to run.

Tony saw red, throwing Steve off to pursue his parent's killer and Steve threw himself in his path. "Move!" Tony shouted.

"No! It wasn't him Tony!"

"Fine. Then I'll make you move." Tony retorted, hitting him again with a repulsor. He flew past him, Rogers getting in a hit that took out one of the reactors in his boot, but he was still moving.

He managed destroy the hinge on the silo hatch in time to slam it shut and almost caught Barnes, but Rogers was there again, dragging him back down the shaft. The three of them landed in a bruised heap at the bottom and Tony wasted no time going after Barnes.

The three of them fought, Tony's mind consumed with vengeance. His heart breaking more with every blow Rogers landed on his suit. Rogers, the great American hero, his teammate, someone he once thought a friend, the same man who his own father had idolized.

Steve fucking Rogers was now defending his father's murderer. Howard Stark, the man who had made Rogers what he was today. Not only was he betraying his father's memory in favour of his best friend, but betraying Howard's son and using Howard's gift to the man to do it.

After what felt like an eternity, the safeguard in the suit's chest reactor fired, obliterating Barnes' metal arm and Tony blasted Rogers out of his way. "This won't change what happened Tony." Steve reminded him, moving to block him.

"I don't care." Tony whispered, wanting to add asshole to the end of that statement, but was too numb to voice it. "He killed my mom."

"He's my friend."

"So was I."

He blinked and next thing he knew, he was on his back, his suit's link to FRIDAY too damaged to assist him as Rogers slammed his shield into the edge of his helmet. Then his mask was torn free and he was staring into Steve's cold blue eyes, a thrill of icy fear making his heart falter in his chest. The shield came down a final time to slam hard into the arc reactor on the front of the suit. He winced in pain and fear at what Steve had just done, his mind unable to clear from the shock of what had just happened.

He watched, frozen in silence as Rogers wrenched the shield loose from his chest and stumbled over to Barnes to help him to his feet. They shuffled through the snow away from him, Rogers stooping to retrieve the shield and something inside Tony snapped him out of his catatonia.

"That doesn't belong to you!" He cried, his voice breaking as he struggled to get to his feet, but the hydraulics were too damaged, the cold making everything sluggish and leaving him stuck on his knees. "My father made that shield! You don't deserve it!"

At that moment, he didn't know what he expected to happen or what reaction he was hoping for. When Rogers said nothing and dropped the shield into the snow, every ounce of his remaining energy drained out of him. He fell backwards, his balance and coordination gone as the arc reactor's light flickered a final time and went out.

A shiver ran through his entire body as he listened to Rogers and Barnes leave the bunker. The distant sound of a jet engine reached him, fading into the distance and leaving nothing but silence in its wake. He shivered again and knew he was suffering from shock, but he also knew he was about to get a lot colder.

He shifted as much as the suit would allow until his back was supported by the concrete wall. He reached for the manual release lever to free him from the suit, but it too was damaged and wouldn't disengage.

Several minutes passed, shock still flooding his senses. He couldn't believe Rogers... the man had known about Barnes, had pled the man's case to Tony, all the while knowing what Barnes had done. Stunned didn't cover what he was feeling. The only time he'd felt more betrayed by someone he trusted was when Stane had ordered the Ten Rings to kill him, and failing that had tried to kill him again with his own hands.

"FRIDAY? FRIDAY?! Come on Fri, don't leave me hanging here..." He called, feeling a weight drop into the pit of his stomach as the reality of his situation sank in. He was aware of an icy chill on his face and lifted an armoured hand to his cheek, surprised to see it come away wet. He snorted at the sight, unaware he'd been crying, then felt all his resolve fade.

He was screwed. Literally up a creek without a paddle. No one but FRIDAY knew his location, not that it would help. Even if she could get someone to come to his aid, there was no way of knowing how long it would take for them to reach him. By what little light remained, it would be full dark in less than a quarter hour and with it, he'd be plunged into sub-zero temperatures.

If he was out of the suit he might have a chance, but the arc reactor was done for and the manual release was inoperative. Trapped in a metal can, with only a thin layer of material between him and the suit, combined with his injuries, he doubted he'd still be concsious in an hour's time. It was anyone's guess how long he would live once he blacked out.

He laughed at himself then. The world's most famous (or infamous), futurist, inventor, billionaire and sometimes hero, who should have died in a terrorist's cave years ago, was instead going to perish in an abandoned Hydra bunker. Alone, injured and left to die by a former friend and ally, no one but FRIDAY would know the truth of what had happened when they found his body. In this, Tony felt everything he'd tried to do, all his inventions, all his plans and breakthroughs adding up to nothing much at all.

And who would be left to mourn his passing? Pepper was moving on and Happy was now more her bodyguard and chauffeur than his. Which left Rhodey. They'd known each other for decades since first meeting at MIT, but he was far from being Rhodes' only friend.

They'd be sad for a while, maybe shed some tears, but his legacy would die with him. His inventions and discoveries would eventually be sold or stolen without him there to stop it. Stark Industries would fade into obscurity without his constant breakthroughs in technology to shore it up.

The last thought he had before falling unconscious was regret for not explaining the concept of death to his babies, Dum-E, U and FRIDAY. And Stephen.... damn, it surprised him that it hurt when he realized he would never flirt with the Doctor again…

 

 

Chapter Text

Stephen had just poured his morning tea, when his phone rang. He glanced at the display and set his cup back in it's saucer before answering.

"Stark. I didn't expect to hear from you again so soon."

"I am not Mr. Stark." A female voice replied.

"Oh! Uh, who is this?"

"You probably don't remember me Doctor but I am FRIDAY. I am Mr. Stark's personal AI and I need your help."

"My help? Why?"

"Boss's suit has been damaged and I believe he is injured as well."

"Tony is hurt?"

"Doctor. This would be easier if I was there. Can you open your front door?"

"My door?" Strange repeated, feeling off balance as he spoke to an artificial intelligence through the phone.

"Yes."

"Alright." Strange agreed, heading to the front door. "Though I don't understand what..." Stephen cut off what he was about to say when a small drone zipped inside to hover before him. He held his hand out when it buzzed at him and the drone dropped a small package into it, before zipping back out the open door. "What is this?" He asked into the phone.

"Just open it Doctor and I will explain. FRIDAY out."

Stephen scowled at the phone, but set it aside and opened the package. Inside was what looked like a rectangular watch face but it was attached to a thin chain, clearly meant to be worn as a necklace. As soon as he touched it, the screen activated and FRIDAY spoke, almost making him drop it in surprise.

"Thank you Doctor." She said.

"What is this?"

"It is a modified version of boss's watch. It works the same as any phone but with very enhanced features."

"Why does it look like a necklace?"

"Boss designed it for your use after he learned the extent of the injuries to your hands. He believed you would prefer something that did not draw attention to them."

Overwhelmed by the AI's explanation of Tony's thought and consideration, he couldn't speak for several seconds. "Um..." Stephen paused to clear his throat as he dropped the chain over his head. "You said you believed Tony was injured? And you lost the connection with the suit, but you didn't tell me why you need my help."

"Boss is in Siberia and if he is injured I do not know how long he can survive in such temperatures. I... was hoping you could portal there and retrieve him for me."

Strange was struck, not just by the absurdity of the situation, but by the urgency and worry he detected in Tony's AI. If the AI was worried... "It's not that simple FRIDAY. I need a an image of where I'm portaling to before I can go there."

"We're in luck then Doctor." FRIDAY replied, her relief unmistakable. "I have video footage of boss' arrival at the structure from his suit. Please look at the device you're wearing." FRIDAY said.

Stephen lifted the small screen to see a projected holographic image spring to life. He bit back the curse that sprang to his lips when he noted how desolate, cold and near invisible the bunker was.

"That's perfect." Stephen said, slipping his sling ring onto his hand. The image in the photo solidified on the other side of his portal and he stepped through, his hands immediately beginning to shake and cramp in the cold air. "Do you know where I should start looking?"

"Enter the  Doctor. Lift the device and I will scan the area."

A 3D holographic image of the structure he now stood in sprang up from the pendant. The base was huge and all of it underground, but he didn't understand what FRIDAY was doing. "Can I ask what you're doing?"

"Looking for heat signatures." She replied, her tone terse.

"I don't see anything."

"There is a lot of interference this far up, but boss was further down when I lost contact. Proceed inside please Doctor and take the stairs down. You will come to a large, round open area. Boss was inside an abandoned missile silo when the connection with the suit failed. When you get there, follow the damage... and if you don't mind, please hurry."

The urgency in FRIDAY's voice had him down the stairs and into the room she'd mentioned in minutes. The sight of the destruction chilled the blood in his veins as he moved past a small circular room. The way forward was littered with debris and the cloak lifted him over the worst of it.

Looking up, he could see nothing and there was no sign of anyone on the concrete slab he stood on. "FRIDAY? Where do I go?"

"Scanning. Doctor, I have detected a heat signature at the bottom of the silo. The reading is weak and fading quickly."

"Got it." Stephen nodded, the cloak activating and taking him to the bottom, where he assumed the fuel from long gone missiles discharged outside the structure. It was very dark so he conjured a small magical ball of light and sent it ahead.

A flash of red caught his eye and he moved with purpose toward it. "Christ." He muttered as he took in the damage to Tony's suit, but his heart caught in his throat when he registered the deathly pale look of Tony's skin. "Oh god Tony... what happened here?"

"Life signs are weak Doctor. We need to get him out of the cold and the suit."

"Right." Stephen nodded. "Give me a minute.

Without another word, Stephen conjured a portal. The shine of something large and silver caught his eye as he was about to travel through it and he paused. He shook off his shock on recognizing it and snatched it up before portaling himself and Tony into his bedroom at the Sanctum.

***

"Doctor, we need to get him out of the suit." FRIDAY repeated while Stephen looked at Tony lying prone on his bed. "You will need these tools." She added, projecting a holographic image of what he would need.

Stephen frowned. There was no way he could do what was required quickly and called for Wong to help him. The other sorcerer came running, surprise on his face at what greeted him, but said nothing and got to work. Stephen cursed his hands as he conjured magic tools to assist him. Wong worked on disengaging one side of Tony's armour while he did the other. In minutes they had the suit removed, the pieces piled neatly in the corner of the room.

"I need to stabilize him." Stephen muttered under his breath when Wong cast him a questioning look. "Can you start a fire in the hearth and bring up more blankets please Wong?"

Wong nodded and after lighting the fire, went to fetch what he'd requested.

Tony lay still on the covers of the bed, dressed only in a black one piece Stephen assumed must be to protect his body from the armour. He didn't like what he saw. There were dried bloody gashes on Tony's face, a trail of dried blood running over one eye. But the black suit he wore looked damaged and he was afraid to see what injuries might lie beneath it.

Shaking himself, he snapped his fingers, removing the black garment and quickly replacing it with a pair of dark blue sweat pants. He left Tony's torso bare and hissed in anger at the ugly bruise centred on his chest. With a muttered curse, he conjured a portal to the supply room of Metro General and snatched up a thermal blanket.

Wong returned as he was tucking the fabric around Tony's chilled skin, saying nothing as he set the blankets down. "What happened Strange?" He asked.

"I don't know." Stephen sighed. "He's been unconscious since I found him."

"Doctor, he needs to go to a hospital." FRIDAY said, startling Wong.

Stephen nodded even as he watched a spot of colour appear on Tony's skin as he settled the blankets over him. "I need to speak to Christine." He said. "Can you stay with him?"

"I think you should hurry Stephen." Wong nodded, his eyes glued to Tony's still form.

Stephen portaled himself straight to the ER of his former workplace, scanning the area for Christine. A wave of relief flooded him when he spotted her at the nurse's station reading a patient file. She looked up, her eyes filling with surprise when she saw him approach.

"Stephen? Is something wrong?"

"I... have a patient who needs you and I need a favour. It's Tony Stark. I don't know what happened but we need to keep this quiet. I found him in Siberia, unconscious and injured. I've got him at the Sanctum now and can portal him directly into the ER. I'd like you to examine him."

"Wait, what?" Christine gasped. "Tony Stark? Siberia? What the hell Stephen? I can't just clear the ER for..."

"Please Christine, I need you to do this. And I'll explain later. Or at least, I'll try to."

"Fine. Bring him to emergency. You know I won't be able to keep this quiet for long. Not when it's Tony Stark." She warned him.

"I know. I just would like to buy him some time before anyone finds out where he is. Make sure he's stable first."

"Fine." She said, her arms crossed over her chest. "But you're sticking around long enough to explain to me what the hell is going on."

"Of course."

"Good. I'll meet you there."

 

 

Chapter Text

Portaling Tony into the hospital would have been a simple thing, if not for the Cloak of Levitation. Wrapping itself around Tony's unconscious form it lifted him from the bed and flicked it's collar impatiently at Stephen as if to say, well, what are you waiting for?

Concealing both his surprise and embarrassment, he opened a portal and watched in disbelief as the Cloak gently deposited it's burden into a waiting bed. With a parting caress to Tony's cheek, it returned to Stephen's shoulders as though showing emotion for another person was nothing out of the ordinary. Disgruntled by this odd behaviour, Stephen put off questioning it until later as the room filled with emergency personnel.

He stood to the side and out of the way of Christine and the nurses while they bustled around the prone form of Tony Stark. Christine hissed with distaste and shock when she saw the darkening and spreading bruise on Tony's chest. She cast Stephen a dark look while the nurse's hooked up an IV, EKG and took Tony's blood pressure.

Clucking under her tongue in irritation, she took the gauze and antiseptic from a nurse and began cleaning up the cuts and dried blood from Tony's face herself. The heart monitor beeped steadily on in the background, but Stephen knew it wasn't anywhere near rhythmic or steady enough to be considered healthy.

Once the nurse's had gotten Tony out of the clothes Stephen had put him in, the extent of his injuries made a knot of anger form in the pit of his stomach. He didn't know how long ago Tony had received them, but from the quick look he'd gotten as he was fitted with a hospital gown, it was clear most of them were recent. His mind flashed on the shield he'd recovered near Tony's unconscious form and a fresh wave of irritation washed through him.

He was so pale against the white of the sheets that framed his body, he looked small and fragile. It was hard to believe this was the same man who'd stood in a kitchen preparing tea, who had flirted with him over the amulet Stephen had given him. An amulet that still lay undisturbed on Tony's immobile form. He was so consumed with anger on Tony's behalf that at first he didn't hear Christine when she called him.

"Stephen!" She hissed.

Tearing his eyes away from the sight of Tony's chest rising and falling slowly but steadily, he turned to look at her.

She narrowed her eyes and motioned for him to follow her into the hall. "You need to tell me what happened Stephen. I have to notify his emergency contacts and they're going to have questions I can't answer."

"Privately." Strange said, his gaze unwavering. Nodding, she led him down the hall to an unoccupied office and closed the door.

With a sigh, Stephen leaned against the desk and told Christine everything that had happened since first receiving the call from FRIDAY. But he left out the part regarding the dead men he'd seen in the bunker and the shield he'd recovered from  where he found Tony. He wasn't about to share something like that without knowing the context first.

"So you don't know what he was doing in Siberia."

"I'm afraid not."

"Do you know what he was doing before that?"

"I spoke to him on the phone when he returned to New York. He'd just come back from Berlin with his friend who'd been seriously injured in the line of duty."

"So clearly something else happened after you spoke to him."

"Yes." Stephen hesitated. "Will he be alright? I... don't know anything specific about his injuries. Can you tell me anything? When or how he might have received them?"

"He sustained multiple contusions to various parts of his body. The most recent and the most serious was to his chest area. Whatever he was hit with has put stress on his heart, so we induced a mild coma to help him heal some of it. I can't tell you more until he wakes up, but I have to call his contacts now."

"Can you tell me who they are?"

"A Colonel Rhodes and a Ms. Potts, why?"

Stephen groaned, massaging his temples with shaking hands. "You won't be able to reach Rhodes. He's the friend who was seriously injured, partial paralysis is what I heard."

"And Ms. Potts?"

"That I don't know. But I may have heard Tony mention she was away on vacation."

"She's the only other name on his list of contacts." Christine sighed. "And he has his own doctor who I need to call in on this."

"I... " Stephen hesitated and forced a neutral look into his eyes. "I would be willing to stay with him until someone can be reached."

Christine's eyes widened at that and she opened her mouth to say something, but changed her mind at the last minute and nodded instead. "Alright. He should be stable enough to be moved to a private room in about an hour. I'll make my calls and come talk to you when I have a minute."

"I need to return to the Sanctum, but I will be back soon."

"Fine."

***

Stephen returned to the Sanctum to change his clothes to something clean and to let Wong know what was happening. Back at the hospital, he checked the ICU and was directed to a private room on the next floor up.

Upon reaching Tony's room, he hesitated. There was no reason for him to be here. He and Tony may have shared a tea and a coffee and mild banter, but he couldn't exactly call the man a friend. For that matter he couldn't even say for certain that Tony would even want him here, never mind be privy to whatever had happened in Siberia.

With a pained groan, he turned around and headed to the cafeteria to get an herbal tea. Fifteen minutes later he was back outside Tony's room, his mind filled with the image of that shield on the ground and he couldn't walk away. Other than FRIDAY and Christine, he was the only one who knew where Tony had been when he received his injuries.

Squaring his shoulders, he pushed open the door. His eyes were immediately drawn to the silent form in the bed, the EKG beeping out Tony's heartbeat in a steady rhythm. He wanted to know what had happened in Siberia. More than that, he realized that somewhere along the way, in the short time he'd known Tony, he'd begun to develop very strong feelings for him. Though he'd said as much to Wynn already, he hadn't realized the depth of those growing emotions until now. It also wasn't something he was prepared to fully embrace just yet, but he wasn't going to leave either.

After moving it closer to Tony's bed, he settled in a chair. Sipping his tea, he waited and watched the sleeping man who had somehow slipped past his defences and begun to mean something to him.

***

Tony drifted in a haze of light and dark, cold and warm, fear and peace. The way his thoughts weaved and blended into each other, a small part of his mind knew it was caused by painkillers. Good ones considering he couldn't make his eyelids listen to his command to open or his brain to hold on to a single thought. And what did it say about his life that he recognized the drug induced haze he found himself in being familiar? Nothing good, his drug addled mind whispered helpfully.

With that haze, an underlying shiver of fear kept crawling up his spine only for a flush of warmth to chase it away. Then he felt as though he was cold, so cold that he would never be warm again. Yet when he shivered, comfort and safety, two feeling he had rarely felt in his life would infuse his body, seeping into his bones and he'd forget what being alone felt like.

Gradually, the drugs in his system lessened and sound returned to him in pieces. First a careful voice, the sound of a woman speaking soothingly while she stood close to his side. He became aware of the surface he lay on and the weight of a blanket over his skin. Then a deeper male voice spoke in hushed whipers, the higher pitch of a woman responding and he frowned. His thoughts began to clear, though he still couldn't wake and he knew he was in a hospital.

That seemed impossible and wrong somehow but he couldn't remember why. Voices again and something about the male voice he heard struck a memory, a feeling of familiarity, recognition. A red cloak appeared in his thoughts, the sparkle of an amber pendant catching the light, and cool blue eyes with the depth of entire galaxies reflected within them.

Sleep claimed him again as he listened to someone move around the room. The sound of a chair sliding across a bare floor, and then... nothing.

***

Stephen finished his tea, the herbal infusion doing nothing to dispel the unsettled feeling in his chest. He sat quietly, staring at the man in the bed, unable to explain or understand what he was feeling.

Sure he'd noticed Tony Stark. The man was impossible to ignore, even before he became Iron Man. He'd met him several times over the course of his personal rise to fame, his own time in the spotlight. The Charity dinner where Stark had sought him out and he'd behaved rudely had been the night before his life had irrevocably changed in that dreadful accident.

It changed a second time the moment Stark walked through the front door of the Sanctum, his entire world flipping upside down again. Much like when he'd flipped his car, the rules changed, the way in which he viewed his life and the path before him veered in a new and unknown direction.

He didn't like not knowing his place in the world or having his views altered. But he'd learned the hard way what happened when he resisted change after the accident. After all his money, friends, status, colleagues and self-respect had gone, did he accept that change didn't have to be so hard. But never once had he entertained the idea of seeing Tony Stark in person again and certainly not sitting opposite him in the library of the Sanctum.

As he watched Tony sleep, he realized he'd been gravitating toward the genius billionaire since the moment he'd appeared at the Sanctum. And now that he recognized what was happening, he couldn't bear to see Tony injured. Leaning forward, he slipped his hand into the other man's unresponsive one, applying only enough pressure to be reassuring before leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes to rest.

 

 

Chapter Text

Four hours after Stark left the Raft, an older grey-haired, moustached man entered. He speared each of them in turn with a cold, but triumphant smirk that made Scott tense instantly.

"Barton." The man said, sauntering over to Clint's cell. "I have to say I'm shocked to see you in here. Thought you'd retired. Guess life on a farm isn't as enticing as breaking international law."

"I didn't break any laws." Clint sneered, his voice barely concealing his contempt.

"On the contrary, you broke several the minute you stepped out of that plane in Germany. Or didn't Rogers explain that to you? I have to say, having you deliver the Scarlet Witch right into my hands was a bonus even I couldn't have anticipated. Despite Stark's royal overconfidence and screw up at the airport, he did manage to contain the four of you. Not that he'll be getting any thanks from me for that. But hiding the witch at his own damn compound? She might've actually had a chance if you hadn't brought her right to me. A slim one, mind you, but still a chance. Instead, she's even more complicit in her actions than she was before Germany and I didn't even need the leverage. When you screw up, you really take others down with you huh Barton? Must be a leftover from how you betrayed your own people when Loki was holding your chains."

"Shut up!"

The Secretary, who Scott still had no clue who he was, laughed at him and moved to stand before Lang. "Mr. Lang." He nodded, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth making Scott's insides twist in alarm. "We haven't been properly introduced. Secretary of Defence, Thaddeus Ross at your service. Formerly General Ross of the United States army."

Oh shit, Scott swore in his head. That's why he recognized him. "You're the guy who tried to capture the Hulk a few years back." Scott blurted before he could stop himself.

"So nice to be recognized." Ross smirked. "You really shouldn't have gotten on that plane with Mr. Barton, Lang. I doubt he told you the whole story behind what you were needed for. Not that it matters now."

"We were trying to stop super soldiers!" Scott retorted, panic wreaking havoc on his thoughts.

"Shut up Tic Tac." Wilson murmured to his left.

"Oh don't fret Mr. Wilson. I heard all about those soldiers from Stark, if they even exist. That's assuming they weren't just some ploy to justify Rogers' actions in protecting Barnes." He said, his voice bored as he turned back to Lang. "I would love to see the look on Hank Pym's face when he finds out we have his ant-man suit. We've been trying to get our hands on that tech for years and you just hand-delivered it to us. I guess thanks is in order." He murmured as Scott's face drained of colour as he sank to the bed in shock when his knees gave out.

"Mr. Wilson." Ross continued, leaving Scott with a quiet laugh. "I never would have pegged you as a traitor. All those medals, all that experience... and you threw it all away for what? A friend who's so blinded by his loyalty to Barnes he damned the consequences?"

"You didn't give us a choice." Wilson retorted, his arms crossed protectively over his chest.

"On the contrary, I gave you a choice. You just made the wrong one." Ross countered. "From the reaction Lang just had, you and Rogers didn't exactly explain what they were risking did you?"

Sam scowled and looked away, but Ross had his answer. "Guess you have some explaining to do Sam, I'll leave you to it." He nodded, smiling to himself and with a final pleased laugh he aimed at Lang and Barton, he left the room.

Barton glared daggers across the room at Sam who had backed up from the bars where Clint couldn't see him. "What the hell Wilson? What the hell was that about? What did he mean you didn't tell us everything? I thought this was about Stark and super soldiers."

"So did I." Scott grumbled, still weighed down by what this meant for his future. "I have a daughter to get back to. Shit! Fuck! What the hell did you get me into Wilson?"
"I'm sorry guys." Sam murmured. "I thought you knew what the stakes were."

"Sorry?!" Barton sputtered. "You're sorry?! Oh great, I feel so much better now that Steve's bro is sorry. Surprised your face isn't glued to his ass right now Wilson. Oh that's right, I forgot. He ditched you and us to take off with his new boy toy."

"It's not like that Clint."

"No? Then explain it to me. Steve told me Wanda was a prisoner at the Compound, but that wasn't true was it?"

"She was being kept there against her will." Sam protested.

"Really? Because after I got to her she sure as hell wasn't in a hurry to leave."

"But she did leave." Sam argued.

"Yeah." Clint growled. "Because I insisted, because Rogers insisted Stark was behind it. I never would have gone there if I'd known it was to keep her out of Ross's clutches."

"Clint, calm down. We'll figure this out."

"Figure it out?!" Scott exclaimed. "We're in a high security, top military, isolated prison in the middle of the fucking ocean! How exactly are you planning to figure it out? I have a kid to get back to. Joining you was supposed to help me with that. You screwed me over Wilson! I might never see her again because of you."

"Steve won't abandon us."

"That's your plan?!" Scott practically screeched, his voice filled with incredulity. "A fugitive is going to break us out of here so we can live as fugitives? That's great, that's awesome. Don't talk anymore. I don't wanna hear you."

"Scott..."

"Fuck off Wilson." Clint growled. "I don't want to know what laws we supposedly broke right now. I might decide to break out of this cell just to beat the crap out of you, and I wanna be on solid ground when I take you down."

"Clint, come on. We can get through this."

"Shut. Up."

***

Tony could hear the distant yet comforting sound of a heart monitor pulsing nearby. The change to his awareness in his surroundings let him know they had reduced the flow of painkillers to his bloodstream. His mind had also cleared enough that he knew he was in a hospital. As impossible as that was, it was undeniable. The bed he lay in was warm and comfortable, and the room was quiet, which told him it was a private room and that he wasn't in ICU.

The other thing he became aware of as he struggled to fully wake, was the feel of a warm hand holding one of his own. Which was... confusing. It didn't feel small enough to be Pepper's and it couldn't be Rhodey since he was in his own hospital. His other hand twitched in response to his confusion, his body trying to respond to his command to open his eyes.

A moment of struggle later and his eyes were open. He turned his head in the direction of the hand being held, expecting to find it had been his imagination. He blinked, but what he saw didn't change or disappear. It still didn't seem real to him and his brain couldn't process the fact that Stephen Strange was holding his hand. Not only that, but he was asleep in the chair beside his hospital bed.

Taking it on faith that what he was seeing was real and not a hallucination, he let his eyes rove over the Doctor. Stephen was more relaxed than Tony had ever seen him. The lines in his face were gone, making him appear young despite the silver at his temples. His shoulders had lost their perpetual defensive look as he slept in what looked like a very uncomfortable position.

His lips... woah, where had that come from? But he was still too dozy to fight that line of thought and continued. Stephen's lips were slightly parted and Tony vaguely wondered what they would feel like beneath his own. His heart began to increase in tempo, the ekg echoing what he felt in his chest.

Despite not knowing Strange all that well, he'd been pleasantly surprised to see him again. He'd thought the man attractive years ago and time had not changed that opinion. Their recent conversations combined with Stephen's willingness to banter with him had made him see the formerly standoffish man as someone he enjoyed being around. The amulet, the tea, the pleasant conversations and the light banner they'd exchanged over the phone... he realized with a jolt of surprise that all of it felt natural. That at some point in every one of their less pleasant interactions, he wanted more.

More conversations, more banter, more tea, more... Stephen. He... wanted Stephen, and with the other man's hand holding his at the side of his hospital bed, it was probably safe to assume Strange might want the same.

The reminder of where he was made him think of the why behind it and the memory of Siberia slammed into him, making his muscles twitch. Siberia... did that mean Strange knew..? His movement disturbed the hand holding his and Stephen startled awake. Strange's eyes widened when they met his and Stephen snatched his hand back as though burned, his cheeks flushing crimson even as he averted his eyes and got to his feet.

"Stark." He said, his voice unsteady. "You're awake. How do you feel?"

"Like I've been drugged with the best painkillers money can buy."

Strange let out a deep sigh. "Of course you'd say that. You know I meant physically."

Tony averted his eyes, wishing the ekg wasn't loudly announcing his state of distress to the entire room. "I assume you already know how I'm feeling." He said, meeting Strange's eyes.

Stephen scoffed and moved to the end of the bed, leaning his weight on the rail to glare at him. "Of course. Deflection. Why would I expect anything different?"

"I don't know." Tony replied. "Why would you? It's not like you know me."

"On the contrary, I know that you never saw a Doctor after we spoke at your Tower." Stephen huffed. "I also know you went somewhere after you called me from Berlin, and that the only one who knew where you were was your AI. As well, you seem to believe you have no need of friends."

"It's not friends I'm averse to." Tony retorted, his eyes going dark. "It's trust I have a problem with."

"Does that mean you aren't going to tell me what happened?"

Tony sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "I might. If you tell me what you're doing here."

"Gladly."

Tony arched a brow and met Strange's steady gaze. "AND why you were holding my hand."

Stephen flushed and looked down at his shoes. When he looked back up, he seemed resigned to explain everything when the door opened and Pepper Potts rushed into the room. Her steps faltered only long enough to frown at Strange before going to Tony's side and gathering him in a careful hug.

"Tony! Oh my god, Tony! What happened? Are you okay? I was in a plane when the hospital called and it took forever to land and I was so worried, and then to get a cab and the traffic was a nightmare, and no one could tell me what was going on, or what happened to you..." She trailed off to place a kiss to his cheek while Tony narrowed his eyes at her. "You promised me you were going to be careful, that you were an active duty non-combatant! I thought working with the UN would make you safer. Were you lying? Did you lie to me? What did you do Tony?!"

Stephen cleared his throat loudly, shifting his weight so that he appeared more authoritative than he was. "Excuse me? You must be Ms. Potts. I'm Doctor Stephen Strange and I believe Mr. Stark is still recovering from his injuries. Perhaps you might save your questions for after he's had more time to rest?"

Pepper turned to look at him, moving to block his view of Tony as though she were marking territory over the man in the bed behind her. "Excuse me, but I have every right to be here. I don't know you at all, nor is your name on Tony's list of trusted contacts. So tell me what YOU'RE doing here."

Stephen blinked, his eyes flicking between Pepper, who was glaring at him and Tony, who was watching her with an expression of bafflement and discomfort. "As I said, I'm Doctor Strange. I am one of Mr. Stark's colleagues."

Pepper narrowed her eyes at him, but took a step back. "You're new?"

"I am." Stephen nodded.

She turned to look at Tony, one hand on her hip. "Tony?"

"It's fine Pepper, he's... a friend. But he does have a point. I should get more rest."

"It's fine Mr. Stark." Stephen said, moving to the door. "I really need to get back to the Sanctum."

"But we haven't finished our conversation." Tony protested.

Was that a note of interest or perhaps desperation Stephen detected in his voice? It made him hesitate with his hand on the door, but then his eyes flicked to Pepper and he shook it off. "I think you have something more pressing to discuss. We can talk another time."

Tony scowled at his back as Stephen slipped out and away, turning his attention back to Pepper who was watching him with a look of confusion. "Tony? Who was that?"

"You heard him Pep. He's a Doctor and a colleague."

"I don't believe that man is a Doctor Tony. Doctor's don't wear capes."

"It's not a cape, it's a cloak. And he was a Doctor until the day of his accident. Now he's a Sorcerer. Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystic Arts."

"Did you hit your head?" Pepper asked, putting a hand to his forehead. "Do you have a concussion?"

"No I don't have a concussion." Tony retorted, gently removing her hand. "What I do have is questions. What are you doing here and why are you... well, acting like this? We broke up, remember?"

"I came because the hospital called me and because Rhodey is paralyzed. Something you didn't bother telling me."

"You were on vacation. And since when are you and Rhodes friendly? I didn't think you liked each other."

"Where would you get that idea?"

"Oh, I don't know. You didn't like him when he took one of the suits. Or when he joined the Avengers, encouraging me to stay with them. Or how about more recently when you suggested he help me out with the financial reparations?"

"That's just common sense Tony. Rhodey doesn't always have your best interest in mind. He encourages you."

"No he doesn't. Rhodey has rarely taken my side in anything and what do you mean common sense? That sounds more like you expect him to babysit me. Is that how you see me? That I'm someone who needs babysitting?"

"You haven't got the best reputation for taking care of yourself Tony. You can at least be honest about that."

Tony nodded, his face impassive. "You know what? You're right. Get the doctor Pepper. I want to speak to my doctor now. And then I think you should go."

"You want me to go?"

"I do."

"Fine. But we aren't finished having a conversation Tony. We are going to talk later."

"Uh huh. Sure, we'll talk." Tony agreed with more than a little sarcasm. "You got it. Later."

 

Chapter Text

Stephen collapsed into an armchair in the main floor library and stared into the fireplace. The arrival of Ms. Potts to the hospital had been unexpected, though only because he'd forgotten about her.

As for her timing... well, considering what he'd been about to tell Tony, he couldn't decide if it was good or bad. On one hand, he wanted to admit to an interest in the other man. On the other, he wasn't sure it was a good idea to say anything at all. He would have to explain why he'd been holding his hand, but it didn't necessarily require a declaration of any kind on his part.

In fact, given what Tony had been through, combined with the injury to his friend and whatever had happened in Siberia, it might not be the best time for such revelations. Then there was Pepper Potts. It was well known Tony and Pepper were a constant on again, off again item. Most of the public never knowing when they were or weren't a thing. From what he'd just seen in the hospital, it seemed apparent that Tony didn't know either.

Wong entered the library then. He took one look at Stephen's face and settled in a seat across from him, a scowl on his face.

"Stephen."

"Wong."

"Well? How is Stark doing? Were they able to help him?"

"I don't know." Stephen sighed. "They moved him to a private room after they induced a mild coma to help him heal. He was awake when I left, but they hadn't done much for him since he has standing medical orders. Metro General does not have the authorization to treat him without his personal physician present."

"That's... odd."

"It is." Stephen agreed though he seemed lost in thought.

"Any idea why?"

"It probably has something to do with what happened to him in Afghanistan eight years ago."

"What happened in Afghanistan? Do you know?"

"I'm not sure many people know precisely what happened. He was kidnapped by the Ten Rings, a terrorist group. They wanted him to make weapons for them."

"Sounds like he experienced hell first hand." Wong noted. "Yet he survived and grew from it."

"Whatever happened, he shut down the Stark Industries weapons division and cancelled all of their outstanding contracts with the military."

Wong narrowed his eyes at him. "I thought you said you didn't know anything about him Stephen. You told me he was a war profiteer and you didn't care for him at all when he showed up here."

"I..." Stephen hesitated. "I did some research and... opened my eyes. Tony is nothing like what is reported in the media."

"Tony?" Wong echoed.

Stephen scowled up at him. "Not a word Wong."

Wong smirked at him. "Stephen. There's no judgment here. Besides, the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme doesn't come with a vow of chastity."

"Wong!" Stephen growled, his cheeks flushing crimson. "That's... not what this is. Besides, he... has a girlfriend. I thought they might have broken up, but she was at the hospital and is still listed as an emergency contact. And anyway, it's not like that at all. I've just come to respect and admire Stark as a decent person. He has done more than any one man should have to, to make the world a better place."

Wong hummed under his breath and got to his feet. "Whatever you wish to call it, I think it's a positive development. You could use some friends outside your duties. It isn't all work and research Stephen. Perhaps when he's recovered, you might consider getting out of here more often. Socializing, enjoying yourself. We only get one life Strange, you don't have to spend all of it inside these walls. Nor do you have to spend it alone."

"Maybe not, but that doesn't mean Stark wants me around. We don't exactly get along. And I cannot believe you're giving me advice on my social life." Stephen huffed, incredulous.

"You don't have one Stephen, and that's the problem." Wong snorted. "I'll be upstairs if you need anything."

***

Pepper left the room after several parting words of disapproval. Five minutes later, a woman with shoulder length blonde hair entered with a clipboard in her hands.

"Mr. Stark." She said, smiling at him. "It's good to see you back with us. My name is Dr. Christine Palmer, I was your attending physician when you arrived. Due to your standing medical orders, we were only able to stabilize you and replenish lost fluids when you arrived. We also induced a mild coma to aid in your body's healing while we contacted your personal physician."

"Mild coma?"

"Yes. You were unconscious when you came to us. You were also dehydrated, suffering from numerous contusions and abrasions to your upper arms, chest and back, with superficial cuts to your face."

"So no uh... hypothermia?"

"Hypothermia?" Christine echoed, looking at her chart. "No, should there have been?"

"No, no. I just... had a memory of being cold. Must've been a bad dream."

"Uh... sure. Or it might have been low blood pressure from blood loss or shock, though most of your injuries had healed over when you arrived."

"You said Dr. Wu is on his way?"

Christine looked down at her watch before answering. "We were able to reach him almost immediately, so he should be here in the next thirty minutes."

"Good. That's good." Tony nodded.

"Do you have any questions for me Mr. Stark?"

"Yeah. How did I get here?"

Christine's smile faltered as she looked back down at her clipboard. "Stephen brought you directly to the ER."

"Strange? Strange brought me to the hospital?"

"Yes." Christine frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"No, no. Nothing's wrong."

"Very well, I'll see if Dr. Wu has arrived. We can speak again later." She said, moving to the door.

"Uh, quick question."

"Yes?"

"You said Stephen, not Doctor Strange. Is he a friend of yours?"

"We were colleagues Mr. Stark and a bit more for a while, but now we're simply friends."

"Ah." Tony nodded, doing everything he could to keep from showing the relief he felt on hearing those words. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"I'm not. Stephen has always lived a complicated life. Even before the accident, we were never going to stay together for long."

"I... see. I didn't expect you to tell me all that Doctor." Tony stammered.

Christine blushed. "I hadn't planned to Mr. Stark. I suppose I've just been wanting to say it out loud to someone for some time now."

"I can relate." Tony smiled.

"Uh... okay, well.... I'll send in Dr. Wu when he arrives. In the meantime, I'll have a nurse bring you something to eat."

 

Chapter Text

"Can you explain to me how you managed to capture this man?" Agent Ross asked, giving the King of Wakanda an icy glare.

"I tracked him doen through cctv surveillance and... other sources. Once the truth regarding Mr. Zemo came to light, I was able to determine his destination." T'Challa replied.

"You realize this action was not sanctioned by the Accords council."

"I felt the urgency of the situation required swift action, not debate. There was no way to determine what his ultimate goal was without first confronting the man."

"All due respect King, but that's not true. He said he wanted to topple a nation and he just told me that he'd succeeded. You're certain these other super soldiers are dead?"

"I saw their bodies with my own two eyes."

"Then what is he talking about?"

"A man like Mr. Zemo is consumed with vengeance. There is no way for men like us to truly know the minds of such people Agent Ross."

Ross nodded, but his eyes were hard. "It's good you managed to bring him in, but your country is still on shaky ground with the rest of the world. It would be wise not be so independent in the future."

"I will take it into consideration."

"Yeah, see that you do." Ross nodded as T'Challa rose to leave. "You use pretty words and platitudes King, but don't think for a minute that I believe you're telling me everything. In fact, I know you aren't."

T'Challa grimaced, but did not respond to Ross' bait. "I believe my business here is concluded, so I will take my leave. Good day Agent."

"Right back at you king." Ross replied. As soon as T'Challa left, Ross was on the phone to an untraceable, private number. The person on the other end said nothing as the call connected. "I think we have a problem. I need eyes on Spangles, Winter and Spider. Something happened in Siberia. And check on our contact in the U.S., find out what he knows."

"Understood. We'll be in touch Agent." A scrambled voice replied.

"I'll be waiting."

***

"Dr. Wu." Tony said, smiling at the man who was giving him a most displeased glare.

"Mr. Stark... Tony." Wu sighed, approaching his bed. "I was disturbed by the call I recieved regarding your injuries."

"Yeah, sorry about that Doc."

"That is not what disturbed me." Wu scolded him, lowering the chart to glare at him. "It is the nature of the major injury you sustained with which I have very serious concerns."

"Major injury?" Tony echoed, pretending ignorance to what Wu was referring to.

"Mr. Stark. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Now, are you going to tell me what happened or do I need to make an educated guess?"

"I was in a close combat fight with supers Doc." Tony shrugged. "I took a few hits. Happens all the time."

Wu snorted and tossed his chart down on the seat Strange had been seated in earlier. "You did not receive that spectacular and potentially fatal injury to your chest from close combat. Fists do not and cannot make that pattern Tony. Something hard was slammed into the centre of the arc reactor by someone very strong. If there'd been even the slightest bit more force behind it you'd be dead now. Either your heart would have stopped or your sternum would have compressed, collapsing your lungs and suffocating you."

"It really doesn't feel that bad Doc." Tony protested weakly, flinching at the serious look Wu pierced him with.

"Is that so?" Wu snapped, drawing a calming breath. "You have numerous injuries everywhere on your body. Three cracked ribs, luckily they're nowhere near your heart..." Wu began, holding up a finger for each one. "A bruise twice the size of both your hands on your right kidney, a wrenched right shoulder, a sprain and massive bruising on your right ankle and your left shoulder was dislocated. If that wasn't enough, you have torn ligaments in your right arm and a mild concussion."

Tony dropped his eyes, his hand nervously running the blanket through his fingers. He'd known his injuries were bad, but... how was he even alive?

"So, I don't want to hear a word from you about how 'not bad' you are, understood?" At Tony's nod, he continued. "And you're not leaving here until we've stabilized your breathing. Your O2 saturation is at 94%. You might think that's not so bad but it means you aren't getting enough oxygen to your blood stream. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

"I could have a heart attack if I exert myself."

"As in walking, working, getting on a helicopter without a wheelchair and no one to push it. Your blood pressure was low when you were first admitted which means your heart was sluggish. You could faint getting out of bed to use the washroom and your heart could stop. And you risk brain damage if your O2 saturation drops any lower."

Tony let out the breath he'd been holding, his shoulders slumping as the extent of the injuries he'd sustained left him in shock. "Do I have any options here Doc?"

Wu sighed and sank into the chair beside his bed, his eyes filled with regret. "The decision to remove the arc reactor from your chest was a wise one Tony, as was the shrapnel from your heart. Unfortunately, another surgery to reinforce what's there now would not be permanent. The fractured ribs have destabilized the reconstruction done to the repairs surrounding your heart." Wu paused as though he was pained by what he was about to say. "You might have to consider putting the arc reactor casing back in to reinforce the entire thing. What you have now is not stable enough to guarantee you won't seriously injure your heart the next time you sustain a similar injury. Or... you have to permanently retire as Iron Man."

Tony had paled with every word Wu had spoken, knowing before the man finished what he was going to say. It all pointed to one thing; Steve Rogers had almost succeeded in killing him. And though he hadn't, he had irrevocably changed his future.

"Mr. Stark?..... Tony?" Wu prompted, his voice quiet with Tony's continued silence.

"I heard you Doc." Tony nodded. "I'm... going to have to think about it. And I promise I won't leave until I get the green light from you."

Wu nodded, giving him a faint smile as he got to his feet. "Thank you. And I'm sorry I don't have better news."

"It's fine." Tony smiled back, though it didn't reach his eyes. "At least I'm alive."

"And the world is a better place with you in it. Try to get some sleep Tony. I'll have a nurse come check on you within the hour."

"Uh, about that... could you send someone in now? I think I might need help with the whole sleep thing."

Wu frowned at what he suspected Tony wasn't telling him, but nodded his agreement, choosing not to comment on what he was thinking. "Of course. I'll send someone in right away."

 

 

Chapter Text

After Wong had retired for the night, Stephen conjured himself a cup of tea. His thoughts were a jumble of conflict regarding what he'd seen in Siberia and the scene at the hospital. On its heels was the conversation he'd just had with Wong and he couldn't get his mind to stop spiralling.

He sipped his tea, lost in thought. Finding the Captain America shield with Tony did not bode well. Something very bad and very violent had happened in that bunker. Something that had very nearly killed Tony and put an end to Iron Man. Unfortunately, he didn't know nearly enough about the dynamics between the two men other than their disagreement on the Accords. But even that wasn't enough to explain why it appeared they'd been in a fight to the death.

Abandoning his tea, Stephen got to his feet, his jaw clenching in frustration as he headed to his room. He needed to have a closer look at Tony's armour. He hadn't had time earlier what with saving the man's life, but now he needed to see it without adrenaline clouding his thoughts. If he wanted answers, he might find some there and he wasn't prepared to wait for Stark to call him. Never mind the very real possibility that Tony would change his mind and refuse to explain anything to him, despite his promise.

Ten minutes later, he had the Iron Man armour laid out on the floor in the same way it had been on Tony when he'd found him in Siberia. Despite the strength of the material used, there were clear dents, scratches and missing parts where something hard had impacted the armour. Scoring around the reactor housing gave the clear impression of human fingers. A strong one obviously, but undeniably human.

Stephen frowned, his brow wrinkling in confusion and frustration. None of the marks could tell him how or why Tony had come by the damage to his armour. Nor could they explain why Captain America's shield had been left with him. Yet now that he was looking, the shape of the damage at the centre of the housing matched the curve of the shield. Given that it would have taken a lot of force and a metal as strong as vibranium to damage the armour, it was a perfect explanation. One that despite the evidence, didn't make sense.

Stephen sat back from his examination, crossing his legs beneath him where he sat on the floor of his room. What he could not explain was why. Why had anyone used Captain America's shield on Tony? For that matter, where was Steve Rogers and how was he involved? Was he involved? Tony had said he'd explain, but would he really? And what had Tony done, if anything, to be left to die alone in Siberia? Who was responsible?

Exhausted by the events of the day and frustrated by the lack of answers, Stephen changed into his night clothes. He piled the armour neatly back in the corner of his room and headed to the bathroom.

After going through his evening routine and a brief conversation with Wong, he fell promptly asleep despite the unsettled feeling in his gut.

***

Tony woke groggy and very stiff the following morning. After several hours of tests and annoyed looks from Doctor Wu, he'd agreed to release him from the hospital on the condition that he not leave the Tower or exert himself and allow Wu to stop by in a day to check on him.

Never a fan of hospitals and desperate to leave, Tony had readily agreed to his terms. Despite that, his mood was not much better than it had been after Dr. Wu had left the previous day. But he wasn't going to think about that now. The nurse had come and gone less than an hour ago, Wu a few minutes after that to approve his release from the hospital.

If he was grateful for anything in the past 24 hours, it was that Strange had not returned. He knew it was selfish, but he remembered what he'd promised Strange. That he would explain what had happened in Siberia, but after listening to Wu he wasn't sure he could tell Strange anything. He sighed with impatience while he waited on the bed for Pepper to arrive with a change of clothes for him.

With Rhodey out of commission, there was no one else who could pick him up from the hospital. Thankfully, the press had yet to find out where he was, but he knew it wouldn't last. Someone always found out. What had him anxious to leave was the fact he'd had no contact with FRIDAY since Siberia. He hadn't dared tell Pepper since he knew she would never believe him if he tried to lie about why he was without his AI and his armour. It surprised him that she hadn't asked about the armour yet, but she likely assumed he'd had someone else take care of it.

He had no desire to have that conversation with anyone, least of all when he still had no clue how Strange had become involved or how he'd woken in a New York hospital. And he wouldn't know any of that until he talked to FRIDAY. He was still debating whether or not he would keep his promise to Strange when Pepper arrived.

Pepper smiled when she saw him. Handing him the garment bag, she settled in a chair to wait while he went in the bathroom to change. He made his way past her, managing to hide his wince of pain with every step. The last thing he wanted was for Pepper to see just how badly hurt he really was. Especially since the only one besides himself who knew about the injury to his chest was Dr. Wu himself. And Stephen, he reminded himself with a faint jolt of dismay.

"I thought for sure you'd have bought another patient's clothes by now and bribed your way out of here." She said from the other side of the door.

"I decided I'd much rather avoid the media circus than leave early." Tony replied, glad he didn't have to see her face when he said it. He knew she'd at least look surprised. Or worse, shocked by his admission and he didn't need his own body language giving his true motive away.

"That's unexpected Tony." She said, sounding as though she was moving around the room. "But thank you. It will make things easier for the PR department to handle when it gets out."

Tony breathed a sigh of relief when she finished, smiling to himself in the mirror as he straightened his collar. Good, that was good that she thought it was about her and the company. If she believed that, then it wouldn't occur to her it had anything to do with why he hadn't told anyone about Siberia. It made lying about it so much easier.

"I'm ready Ms. Potts." He said, a bright smile on his face as he stepped out of the bathroom. "How do I look?"

"Like someone who went a few rounds with the wrong end of a big stick." Pepper teased with a smile though he could see she wasn't happy with him leaving the hospital so soon. "Seriously though, you look great. Just keep your sunglasses on. No one will notice anything from a distance. Are you ready to go?"

Tony nodded, ignoring the wheelchair she brought out for his use and headed for the door. "More than ready. Let's go."

***

Stephen woke with the sun in his eyes and an epiphany in his thoughts. He swore silently to himself as he dressed and prepared for his day before heading down to join Wong for breakfast.

"You've had a message from Master Wynn." Wong said as he took his seat.

Stephen sighed aloud around his morning tea, keeping his eyes trained on the mug he held. "That was fast. I didn't expect he'd call me."

"He wants to see you in Kamar-Taj." Wong replied. "After breakfast."

"Mine or his?"

"Don't be cute Stephen. Yours of course."

"Fine." Stephen frowned. "Anything else?"

"When are you going back to the hospital to see Stark?"

"I was going to go after breakfast, but it can wait until after I've spoken with Wynn."

"I expect you to get some answers from Stark when you see him. He at least owes you an explanation of what happened for saving his life." Wong admonished.

"I'm not going to guilt him into telling me his secrets Wong. But I will be asking him several things I'd like cleared up."

"Good. Then I'll see you later. I'll be in the east library if you need me for anything." Wong said, clearing away his dishes before heading for the stairs.

"Very well." Stephen nodded. "Later then."

***

"Are you going to tell me what happened?" Pepper asked as Happy pulled into the parking garage of the Avenger Tower.

Tony shrugged and stepped out of the car, making a beeline for his private elevator. "Lots of things happened Pepper. Might need you to be a bit more specific." He replied, stepping inside. "But later. There's something I need to do first."

"You're not serious." Pepper grated when he refused to let her join him. "You just got out of the hospital and you're already shutting me out?"

"I am." Tony nodded. "And I don't have to tell you anything. We're over remember?"

Tony didn't miss the flinch his words caused her, but he had bigger concerns at the moment.

"That's not fair Tony. You're still my friend."

Tony's eyes went dark and his voice was curt when he spoke. "And sometimes friends keep secrets." He retorted, his eyes holding no humour as the door closed with a soft hiss.

Once he reached the penthouse, Tony headed straight for his bedroom where he kept a back-up of his gauntlet prototype. FRIDAY was silent as he moved around the room, accessing the safe in his closet. Once he had what he needed, he left the room, strapping the watch in place and headed back out to the kitchen.

"Boss." FRIDAY said quietly. "It's good to have you home."

"Thanks baby girl." Tony murmured as he prepared himself a mug of coffee.

"I was concerned boss. I didn't have contact with you while you were in the hospital. Are you feeling well?"

Tony sank into a chair in his living room, his mug of coffee cradled in his good hand, his left hindered by the sling it was in. "Not really. And don't pretend you don't know anything FRIDAY. I know you hacked the security at the hospital. I should know, I wrote the program."

"Are you going to tell Doctor Strange what happened?"

Tony frowned at his coffee. "First, I need you to tell me how he got involved. Did you call him?"

"Yes boss." FRIDAY admitted. "When I lost contact with the suit, I ran simulations on every variable. The odds were not good that you would be uninjured in your altercation with Rogers and Mr. Barnes. If you lost consciousness and were trapped in the suit, I could not guarantee getting to you in time."

"So you called Strange to use his portal thing."

"I did. I also gave him the watch pendant boss. I hope that's all right?"

"It's fine FRIDAY." Tony said, though he said it with a grimace. "I'd hoped to do that under less serious circumstances, but you did good. I'm guessing Strange's intervention is why I didn't have hypothermia."

"That is correct." FRIDAY paused.

"FRIDAY? What is it?"

"Doctor Strange recovered the Captain America shield when he found you. It is still in his room at the Sanctum if you want it back along with your damaged suit."

"Shit." Tony swore. "Did he ask you about it?"

"No boss. But he was... very concerned about you."

"Is that why he was holding my hand at the hospital FRIDAY?"

"I could not say boss. You didn't program me into the pendant he has. I was only able to maintain a connection while the emergency override conditions were in effect."

"And I'm guessing he didn't talk to himself during that time."

"No. He doesn't appear to have that particular habit boss." Friday replied, sounding amused.

"Guess I'll have to find out the old fashioned way then."

"It is the best way."

"What about you? Do you have questions FRIDAY?"

"Not about what happened boss. I have already run simulations based on your injuries and am 96% certain I am right. Are you going to tell anyone what Rogers did?"

"I... haven't decided yet. And how do you know I haven't told anyone?"

"Because Pepper and Happy aren't here nagging you to make a statement and Colonel Rhodes hasn't called. Has anyone told him you were in the hospital?"

"I doubt it." Tony shook his head. "They would have just called Pepper when he was unreachable, and then Dr. Wu."

"What are you going to do about Dr. Wu's advice on what happened in Siberia?"

"I don't know yet Friday. I just... I don't know."

 

 

Chapter Text

So, bonus chapter today! Because, why not? Also, why are there so few good, complete IronStrange stories? I've read all of them and need lots more! It's not fair lol. Anywho, hope you like it.

~~~~~~~~~

 

"By the look on your face, you've either just sucked on a very sour lemon or you have an answer to the question I asked." Wynn observed as Stephen took a seat on the floor across from him.

"I have an answer." Stephen sighed. "I... care about the man I mentioned before. I didn't see it when we last spoke because quite honestly it was never anything I considered pursuing."

"Can I assume something happened that helped to clarify this for you?" Wynn pressed, an eyebrow raised in curiosity.

Stephen nodded. "He was seriously injured and his AI requested my help in getting him to the hospital."

"His AI?" Wynn repeated with a confused look. "This is no ordinary man is it?"

"No. He's... well he's Iron Man."

"You're interested in Tony Stark? The genius billionaire?" Wynn gasped.

"It's not that shocking is it? I'm not some star struck adolescent Wynn." Stephen retorted.

"I know you're not. I'm just surprised is all. And it explains a lot about why you were so reluctant to answer my question the other day. I say that because I assume you're aware of his... reputation."

"His public reputation and the facts are completely unfounded conjecture at best. The rumours following the events in Afghanistan, though highly sensationalized, all hold a thread of truth to them."

"The way you're speaking... you haven't told him of your feelings yet have you?" Wynn observed.

"Of course not. I only just realized."

"Is he free to... take action if he knew?"

Stephen sighed and hunched his shoulders, avoiding Wynn's eyes. "I had thought so. But his long time girlfriend was at the hospital yesterday, and she's still listed as one of his emergency contacts."

"You think they're still together then?"

Stephen shook his head. "I'm not sure, but the look on Tony's face seemed to indicate he was surprised by her... affection when she arrived."

"That's only to be expected if the tabloids are accurate in how long they've been together."

"True. I'm just not sure now is the best time to even suggest an interest. We barely know each other and the few times we've spoken haven't exactly been friendly."

"He must like you well enough if his AI thought to contact you. You also mentioned he designed an AI interface pendant based on his own creation. It tells me he at least thought favourably of you when he designed it."

"All good points, though it did occur to me it may have just been a peace offering meant to convince me to join the Avengers." Stephen admitted.

Wynn sipped at his tea, letting the silence fill the room as he and Strange continued to sit in contemplation. "Seems to me that the only way you'll have any answers is if you talk to him."

"I came to the same conclusion this morning. I'd planned to return to the hospital this afternoon to do that."

"In that case, I won't keep you." Wynn said, getting to his feet. "And, if I may say so, I wish you success."

Stephen grimaced. "You may, though it sounds to me that you believe the odds aren't in my favour."

"I have the sense that the journey you're about to embark on will challenge you in ways that are not easy."

"Challenges are never meant to be easy Master Wynn." Stephen sighed.

"True, but the one before you now will most certainly test you to your limits." Wynn continued. "But the reward will more than make up for it."

"I think you need to work on your delivery Master Wynn. You won't win any prizes giving people bad news."

Wynn laughed and clapped Stephen on the shoulder as he walked him to the door. "We're Sorcerers Stephen, protectors of the galaxy, we rarely have good news."

"Hmpf."

"Let me know how it goes." Wynn said as he turned towards Kamar-Taj's library. "I'll give you a call in a month or so. Take care Doctor Strange."

"You too Master Wynn."

***

Tony spent the rest of his day locked in his workshop, tinkering with designs for a new reactor shroud despite the pain in his body every time he moved. Though the thought of donning the armour again had made him cold and shivery, the thought of how vulnerable he was without it was worse, so this was his compromise. At least, that's what he told himself.

If he was going to be forced to undergo surgery, again, he was damn well going to design something better and even higher tech than his last one. The new shroud he pictured was one that was less invasive and more shallow so that it would result in the best of a bad situation. He couldn't remember ever sleeping well when he'd had the arc reactor in his chest and even though it was only a shroud, he still wanted it to be as unobtrusive as possible.

"FRIDAY? Bring up the research I've done on nanites and show me the schematic for a smaller arc reactor shroud based on this new design."

"You have a plan boss?"

"Yeah. I'm thinking about storing a full Iron man suit made entirely of nanites in a smaller, removable attachment."

"That's... ambitious boss."

"I think it can be done." Tony replied, pulling up the blueprints for the original reactor housing and comparing it to his new schematic. "Need to rethink the size and depth of the housing based on how many nanites are needed." He said aloud before addressing her again. "Fabricate the three I have here. We'll run simulations in an hour. I need to work out the ratio and viability of an on-demand suit. The numbers are going to be... astronomical in comparison to the gauntlet."

"But not uncountable." FRIDAY replied. "Do you want reminders to rest? Or call alerts?"

"That won't..." Tony was about to say no, but Dr. Wu's words rang in his memory and he changed course. "Tell me who's calling only if it's important. Otherwise, rest and food  reminders only."

"Understood boss."

***

Stephen took his leave of Master Wynn before noon, New York time. After sharing a light lunch with Wong and reluctantly sharing the relevant parts of his conversation with Master Wynn, he left for the hospital determined to talk with Tony about Siberia.

Since it wasn't an emergency visit, Stephen chose to portal to the hospital entrance. He could have gone straight to the hallway outside Tony's room or the nurse's station, but he chose not to. He needed time to prepare himself for seeing the man he'd only just admitted to having more than a professional interest in. He also wanted to avoid raising Christine's suspicion or ire if he needed her help getting in to see Tony.

The ride up the elevator to Tony's room seemed long, his earlier reluctance gone now that he was here. He stepped off the elevator and headed to the nurse's station to check in and instead spotted Christine. She looked up from what she was doing at the same time he saw her and her smile faltered only to be replaced with a look of confusion.

"Stephen?" She asked, a wrinkle between her brow. "What are you doing here? Do you have another mystery patient for me?"

Stephen matched her frown with one of his own. "No. I came to see Doctor Stark. Why do you ask?"

Christine pursed her lips, her eyes showing nothing. "Because he's not here. Pepper Potts came and picked him up half an hour ago."

"He's been released already?" Stephen gaped. "That was a little fast wasn't it?"

"It would not have been my choice, no. But Dr. Stark's personal physician gave the okay and signed off on him checking out today. I assume they discussed whatever had Dr. Wu so concerned when he first arrived and reviewed Dr. Stark's file."

"Dr. Wu?" Stephen repeated, a sensation of recognition niggling at him.

"Dr. Stark's personal physician." Christine answered. "Why? Is something wrong?"

"Isn't he a bioengineer? Why is he Stark's physician?"

Christine returned his frown with a huff of breath. "You know I can't answer that Stephen since I'm not Tony Stark. But it probably has to do with that incident in Malibu a few years ago. Stark had major heart surgery remember? Dr. Wu attended and is likely privilege to information regarding the tech that kept Stark alive after Afghanistan."

"Stark had tech in his body?"

Christine gaped back at him. "You're not serious." She blinked. "You are serious. You really don't know anything about what happened to him in Afghanistan? Or later with Obadiah Stane, his uncle, and then Aldrich Killian and the Mandarin?"

Stephen scowled back at her, but couldn't ignore the embarrassment born from his ignorance that threatened to show in his eyes. "Stane was Howard Stark's business partner. Died in a plane crash, didn't he? And the Mandarin was some terrorist or something. Killian doesn't ring a bell though."

Christine huffed in annoyance, unimpressed by Stephen's lack of knowledge. If he ever looked more closely at anyone other than himself, she might actually die of shock. "He's your what? Ally? Co-worker? And yet you know nothing about his personal history?"

"We only just met Christine. I know enough." Stephen protested. "I don't know everything about him no, but you can't tell me that you do."

"I know who Killian is Stephen and I know that Obediah Stane dying in a plane crash was very convenient for Stark Industries at the time it happened. Some might even call it fortuitous."

"Why are we even having this discussion?" Stephen retorted, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the realization that he knew less than he thought. "All I asked was where Stark was and you start grilling me on his history."

Christine blushed and looked away. "You're right, I'm sorry, I'm not sure where that came from. As for Doctor Stark, he's probably at Stark Tower if you want to talk to him."

"Alright." Stephen nodded, accepting her apology. "I'll get out of your hair then. Thank you for everything."

"If you ever find out how Stark received his injuries, I'd appreciate knowing the story behind it."

Stephen looked back at her from where he'd opened a portal to the Sanctum. "If he agrees to you knowing about it, I promise to fill you in."

 

Chapter Text

"Boss?"

Tony looked up from the welding he was doing on one of the new reactor housings he was working on. He flipped his mask up and flicked the torch off with a snap, blinking in the light of his workshop. "Yeah Fri?"

"Happy Hogan is here. He wants to see you about Mr. Parker."

"Parker?" Tony repeated, a look of confusion on his face. "Peter, right. Let him up FRIDAY." He said, swiping away the holographic image before him and shutting down his torch.

He got up from his work table and moved to the small kitchen area to make a coffee, rolling his shoulders and neck to work the kinks out. His chest and shoulder twinged in protest, making him wince and he pasted a smile in place just as Happy entered the room.

"Tony." He nodded, joining him at the counter. "Sorry to interrupt your work."

"Don't worry about it." Tony said, filling his mug with French press coffee. "What's up? FRIDAY mentioned something about Peter."

"Are you sure Parker is ready for all this?" Happy asked, waving his hands around to encompass the room. "I've got my hands full with moving everything to the new Avengers compound, monitoring security, overseeing the new staff and now Parker. The kid won't stop calling me and giving me updates on what he's doing at night."

"Parker might be a little excitable Happy, but he's a good kid with pretty good instincts. Spidey sense and all that. Besides, Parker is the priority here, not the other things you mentioned. I have other people who can take care of that."

"I've checked some of Parker's so-called leads and found nothing. And he's calling me three times a day."

"Sounds like you could use a hand." Tony smirked, his amusement deepening when Happy flushed red with embarrassment.

"What?! No, no it's fine. I just wanted you to give the kid a call, let him know not to call unless it's an emergency."

"Look Happy, if you don't want the job just say so. I'll call Jones, see if she can be available for him."

"Jessica Jones?" Happy squeaked. "You can't be serious sir. What does she even know about kids?"

Tony arched a brow at his former bodyguard. "I imagine she knows just as much as you do. Why?"

"I don't want to shirk my duty Mr. Stark. I'll handle it."

"I know you can." Tony nodded. "But you just told me how stretched thin you are with all these other responsibilities. I'll give Jones a call and you can work out the details with her."

Happy scowled at him, but held his tongue and nodded. "If you think it's for the best."

"I do. And I'll be checking in with both of you later to see how it went." Tony continued, knowing that if he didn't say it, Happy would put Jones off and continue handling everything alone.

"Alright. Have her call me on my cell."

"Sure thing Happy." Tony smiled, slapping a hand to his shoulder to walk him out. "FRIDAY will take care if it."

"Yes boss." FRIDAY replied. "I have already contacted her. Ms. Jones is unavailable at the moment but says she can meet you tomorrow Mr. Hogan."

"See?" Tony grinned. "All taken care of."

***

Jessica sat on a crate in the alley she'd agreed to meet Stark's former bodyguard in. She swung her legs back and forth, her heels banging out a staccato rhythm. She was tired and bored, but Stark's call about the kid she met on the Quinjet had her intrigued. See couldn't imagine what he might need her for, the kid seemed plenty capable, if naive and inexperienced, and Stark knew she didn't approve.

She almost hadn't agreed, but her curiosity made her say yes. She looked up at the sound of heavy footsteps and grinned to herself.  For a bodyguard, he sure made a point to announce his presence. Maybe that was it. Stark wanted someone more subtle in their approach.

A tall, heavy-set man in a three piece black suit and sporting a very conservative haircut approached her from the alley entrance. His short light brown hair accentuated the extra weight he carried. His appearance was typical of most career bodyguards; the ramrod straight spine, the hooded look in his eyes and how they never stayed in any one spot for long.

"Ms. Jones?" He said, his tone courteous yet sounding put out.

"The one and only." She replied, slipping off the crate to stand before him. "And you are?"

"Happy Hogan ma'am." He said, inclining his head imperceptibly. "Mr. Stark wanted us to meet."

"Nothing like stating the obvious." Jessica murmured. "And? I assume you have something to say."

Hogan puffed out his chest, squaring his shoulders to meet her gaze. "Though I appreciate what Mr. Stark is trying to do, I assure you I don't need help doing my job."

"Why don't you just tell me what Stark wants? I sure as hell don't want your job Hogan, but what's going on with the kid?"

"Kid?" Hogan blinked. "Oh, you mean the Spider guy." Happy frowned. "I don't know what the boss is thinking, but the kid is calling me all the time about things he thinks is happening near the waterfront. I've checked them out and found nothing suspicious. He's driving me crazy."

"So none of the kid's leads went anywhere?" Jones asked.

"That's what I'm saying."

"How deeply did you look?"

"If you're implying I didn't do my job..."

"Hold up there Happy Meal." Jessica interrupted, holding up a hand. "You're a bodyguard, investigating is my job. Why don't you forward me the details on those leads and I'll take a look at them myself."

Happy frowned, opened his mouth to say something then thought better of it. "There's nothing to find, but suit yourself. If it keeps the kid happy it's less work for me." Happy pulled a tablet from his inner pocket and punched a few keys. "There, I sent them to the secure email you gave Stark."

Jones nodded as a ping on her phone let her know a file had been received. "While you're at it, give the kid my number. If he needs help and you're not available, he can call me."

"Fine." Happy grumbled. "But to be clear, I'm not giving you this job. You're my back up."

"I'm sure Stark knows exactly how this will work out." Jessica drawled, a smirk on her lips.

"Hmpf." Happy grunted. "Well if that's all you need from me, I have work to do."

"Apparently so do I." Jones retorted, glancing down at her phone. "Catch ya later Happy Meal."

"I am not a Happy Meal."

"Maybe lay off the fast food then Happy." Jones retorted, heading down the alley away from him. "Later."

***

After leaving the hospital, Stephen headed straight to the laptop he and Wong maintained for the New York Sanctum. He put a call in to Stark Tower while he waited for the laptop to warm up and was connected to FRIDAY almost instantly. She helpfully informed him that her boss was not to be disturbed, but assured him she would let Tony know he had called.

He frowned into the phone at that but accepted and ended the call. If he were being honest, it hadn't surprised him at all that Tony wasn't available and wondered how long it would last. With a shrug, he turned his attention to the laptop and began typing.

Christine's remarks at the hospital had been... unsettling. What more could he possibly learn about Tony Stark that he didn't already know? Christine seemed to think there was a lot he didn't know and that irked him, especially if he really was developing feelings for the man.

An hour later he had a few answers but a lot more questions and unsettling suspicions. It was clear enough that something else had been going on behind the scenes in regards to Obadiah Stane. The same went for Aldritch Killian, though both were equally disturbing. The coverage for the events of Loki and the Chitauri, as well as Ultron, had been widely reported on. Unfortunately much of it was conjecture and opinion, which also left him with more questions than answers.

By the end of his search, he thought he understood what Christine had meant about Stane. It was highly convenient that the former Stark CEO had suddenly disappeared following reports that S.I. had been dealing in illegal weapons. Which begged the question, what really happened?

Stephen hated mysteries, especially about people he was interested in. In this case, he wasn't exactly on Stark's most trusted list just yet. Nor was Stark known for confiding in people. Much like himself, Tony found trusting people hard. The odds that Tony would tell him anything were slim to none and it was highly doubtful anyone in Stark's employ would tell him either. Assuming any of them knew the truth about it.

With a heavy sigh, Stephen closed down the laptop, stood and stretched to get the stiffness out of his spine. He had long since ceased to enjoy time spent online and despite his reason for doing so today, he still didn't.

A glance up at the window in the front hall told him he'd been sitting for hours and he growled in irritation. So much for having a heart to heart with Stark today, he muttered to himself as he made his way to the kitchen. He didn't think Wong had returned yet from his travels, but if he had he would have food for them both. Stephen's stomach rumbled as he headed to the kitchen, the distinct aroma of Thai food reaching him and making his mouth water.

***

"I really appreciate everything you're doing for Bucky, Your Highness. I can never repay you for it." Steve said gravely as they stood looking out the giant picture window of Wakanda's medical research facility.

"It's the least I can do." T'Challa replied. "That young man has suffered enough at the hands of others."

"If the Accords council finds out he's here, they'll come for him."

"Let them try." T'Challa growled.

Steve nodded before letting out his breath in a loud sigh. "Thank you again Your Highness, but I should go. I've taken enough of your time and I appreciate your hospitality." Steve said, moving to the doorway.

"Mr. Rogers... we haven't spoken about what happened in Siberia. You said you and Mr. Stark parted as enemies. If I might ask, how did you and Mr. Barnes escape his vengeance?"

"I disabled the suit." Steve replied with a frown. "It's been four days King. Why are you asking me this now?"

"You left him in Siberia with a disabled suit? Was he well enough to get home after that?"

"Why wouldn't he be?" Steve frowned, confused. "Tony always has a backup plan."

"But he went there against Ross' wishes and in defiance of the Accords council. Are you certain he would have a contingency plan in that situation?"

"If he didn't, then FRIDAY would."

"But isn't his AI powered by the arc reactor?"

"Tony always has a reserve power source Your Highness. I'm sure he's fine."

"Very well." T'Challa nodded, though a crease of concern remained between his brows. "I suppose I merely wanted to hear it for myself as I'd been thinking along the same lines."

Steve nodded and stepped into the hallway. "Take care of yourself King."

"And you as well Captain Rogers. And do not worry about your friend, he's in good hands here."

 

 

Chapter Text

"So what seems to be the problem Spiderling?" Jessica drawled as Peter came close to where she waited for him outside his home.

Peter's eyes widened in shock, surprise colouring his face which he tried to cover a moment later. "What?! I mean, you're... wait, what?" He stammered again, moving closer. "Uh... don't take this the wrong way, but what the hell are you doing here?"

"Stark asked me to keep an eye on you."

Peter scowled, crossing his arms over his chest. "I don't need a babysitter. I know Mr. Stark means well, but I can take care of myself."

"Right." Jessica retorted. "That's why you've been calling his former bodyguard every day for a week."

"That's different." Peter flushed. "I don't have the same kinds of connections he does. I just need information and he can get it faster than me. I'm trying to stop trouble before people get hurt you know, that's not someone who needs supervision. It's being responsible."

Jessica rolled her eyes, stuffing her hands in her pockets as she did. "Look kid, you already know what I think about you doing the whole vigilante thing right?" She said, arching a brow at him. When Peter made to protest she help up a hand to halt whatever he was about to say. "But I also know my disapproval isn't going to make you stop or see reason. I'm here because I investigate things, something that former bodyguard of Stark's has no business dealing with. I'll be checking your leads and if there's anything to them, I'll pass it on to Stark himself."

"But..." Peter stammered, narrowing his eyes at her. "It's my lead."

"And Stark wanted you in contact with Mr. Hogan for a reason right?" She retorted. When the flustered teen refused to meet her challenging stare, she continued. "Which means he doesn't want you getting in over your head either."

"You don't know that."

"You're right. I don't. So how about we call him?"

Peter's face flushed and he refused to meet her eyes even as his jaw tightened with nervousness. "That's.. we don't have to do that." He huffed. "Fine. You've made your point."

"I'm glad." Jessica snorted.

"So, um... I don't suppose you found anything?"

Jessica smirked but shook her head. "Sorry spider kid but there was nothing to find. And I looked everywhere, so whatever you think might be happening on the docks isn't. At least nothing I can prove or follow as a lead."

"But those guys are real shady and they had these weird looking weapons and talking about things they shouldn't be talking sbout."

"Oh yeah? Like what?" Jessica sighed, clearly losing her patience. "I can't investigate gut feelings kid and talking about something suspicious doesn't make anyone guilty of a crime."

"But it was about Mr. Stark and well, not really Mr. Stark, but Stark Industries and the Department of Damage Control." Peter protested.

"The Department of what?"

"Damage Control. I thought it was made up but I checked and it's a branch of New York's government. They partnered with Stark Industries to contain any and all tech garbage that got left on the streets after the Chitauri thing."

Jessica narrowed her eyes at him. "You didn't mention that part to Hogan. Are you saying these people have access to alien technology?"

"I... well, I think so. And I didn't say anything about it because I didn't know if it was a real thing and I didn't think there was any alien stuff left to find."

Jessica rolled her eyes skyward and counted to ten before speaking. "I'm taking this to Stark after I do some checking of my own. As for you, stay away from the docks and these men you overheard. Save some kittens from trees or something, help an old person cross the street, I don't care. Just stay away from this until you hear from Stark."

Peter scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. "Mr. Stark doesn't care what I'm doing and besides I'm just listening to them. Gathering information. Nothing's going to happen."

"Doesn't care?" Jessica growled. "Christ. The man assigned you his former damn bodyguard and now me, and you stand there and have the gall to say he doesn't care?"

"He thinks I'm just a kid." Peter retorted, though his cheeks had flushed crimson at her words.

"You are a kid! You have no idea what you're getting into and you are way over your head."

"I can take care of myself! I'm not some helpless child."

"You are a damn child! You're not even legal yet! I thought you wanted Stark's approval? I thought you wanted to be part of the Avengers?"

"I do! I'm trying to prove I can handle myself."

"Oh my god! Do you even hear yourself right now? Being able to handle yourself is only part of it Parker. The Avengers are a team, not a one man show. You have to prove you'll listen when other people tell you no."

"But..."

"Shut up." Jessica hissed. "I didn't come here to argue with a kid. It's pretty clear you aren't ready to join anything bigger than your own ego. Stay away from the docks. I'm not telling you again. Ignore my advice and you'll be dealing with consequences you are not prepared for. You could get innocent people hurt, don't you get that? Shit! This is not how I wanted to spend my evening."

"I'm not helpless and I would never put other people in danger."

"Keep saying that when something bad happens, maybe then you won't feel guilty." Jessica growled. "I know what guilt does kid. I've lived with it longer than you've been alive. Is that what you want? To have powers you're ashamed of because you can't control yourself?"

"I know what I'm doing." Peter retorted though he sounded petulant even to his own ears.

"You know what? I'm done here. Listen or don't. Seems to me the only way you're going to hear me is if you screw up and get yourself or others hurt." Jessica huffed. Her hands clenched into fists, she stalked away, anger rolling off her in waves as she disappeared around a corner.

Peter watched her go, suddenly feeling like a complete idiot but no way was he going to call her back. He looked down at his hands, raised welts on his hands still red from the fire he'd help put out the night before and sighed to himself. No way was Mr. Stark going to like what Ms. Jones told him about this conversation.

With a sigh, he turned to the stairs of Aunt May's apartment building and headed up. He needed to talk to Ned. He needed a new pepsepective, something only his closest friend could providd. He would show Mr. Stark he was responsible and that he could handle himself, no matter what Jessica Jones said.

 

 

Chapter Text

After Happy left, Tony went back to work, losing himself in calculations, estimates and simulations. The practicality of housing a nanobot suit appealed to him in more ways than he liked to think about. Especially since it was a constant reminder that he felt vulnerable without it. The reason behind that was an even less pleasant thought of why he wanted it, so he brushed it aside, focusing entirely on working the logistics behind the design.

He didn't know how long he'd been at it when he suddenly looked up, feeling as though he'd forgotten something important. "FRIDAY?"

"Yes boss?"

"Give me a panoramic view of the skyline from the top of the tower."

"Of course." FRIDAY replied at the same time his workshop was overlaid with an image of an impressive sunset. "Something wrong boss?"

Tony frowned down at the fabricated shroud he was holding in his hands. "Uh... no, not exactly? Did Doctor Strange call today?"

"No."

"But he did call right?"

"Yes. Three days ago."

"Has it really been three days?"

"Yes boss."

"Shit." Tony swore, putting down the shroud he held. Dammit. Strange was never going to want anything to do with him if he continued ignoring the man. The Sorcerer had very likely saved his damn life and here he was, avoiding him. A twinge of guilt ran through him like a shiver and as he went to stand, his heart started thumping slowly in his chest making his breath catch and he swore.

He hated when this happened. The irregular heart beat thumped slowly behind his ribcage, sounding to his own ears like it was beating it's last rhythm. After a moment it stopped but he remained seated, disliking how vulnerable and sudden these episodes were. He knew it wasn't a medical emergency but it was hard to ignore the sensation that he was listening to the last beat his heart would ever make.

"Boss?"

"Yeah FRIDAY?"

"Doctor Strange is here to see you. Should I let him up?"

Tony groaned into his hands as he brushed them through his mess of curls. "Yeah, sure. Let him into the workshop." Uncanny as it was to have Stephen show up as just he'd been thinking about him, having him already here also saved him from making the decision to call the man. Especially since he knew the odds were high that he'd continue putting it off.

Five minutes later, Strange was framed in the doorway to the workshop, his eyes flicking over the mess in the room before settling on Tony's face. Stephen narrowed his eyes at him, concern and annoyance reflected there as he crossed to him.

"Stark." He said, joining him at the workbench, his shoulders stiff with tension.

Tony flinched at the use of his last name, his heart filling with disappointment in himself for Strange's use of it to put distance between them. "Doctor." He nodded. "What can I do for you?"

Stephen swore under his breath, his arms crossing over his chest in annoyance. "You can't help yourself can you?"

Tony frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"

"I mean, you've been avoiding me since the hospital. I assume you know everything now."

"I know FRIDAY asked for your help." Tony replied, feeling uncomfortable under Stephen's intense glare. "I... I'm sorry about earlier. I should have thanked you for what you did for me. So... thank you for the rescue."

"Why did Dr. Wu sign your release forms? From what I saw, you were in no condition to be out as soon as you were."

"I've survived worse." Tony retorted, his emotions flicking from pleasure at Stephen's concern to irritation at his relentlessness.

"That doesn't answer my question Stark."

Tony scowled at him. "I thought we were past using last names Strange."

"That was before you ditched me at the hospital and ignored me for the past three days. I assumed it was what you wanted."

A thrill of guilt flashed through him then and he couldn't keep the hurt from showing in his eyes. He flinched the second he saw Strange register his discomfort and flicked his eyes away, overwhelmed by the concern he saw there.

"No... no..." He stammered, shaking his head and hating the tremor in his voice. "No it's not what I wanted. I just... jeezus Strange, I... I'm not used to this." He babbled, waving his hand in Stephen's direction as words failed him.

"Not used to what, exactly?"

"This." Tony repeated, angry with himself now for being unable to move the words past his lips with any kind of coherence. "You. The... concern. The... bedside manner thing you've got going."

Stephen's eyes widened, a crease forming between his brows as he caught what Tony was ineffectually trying to say. "That's... unfortunate." He said and Tony was relieved by the lack of pity in his voice.

Tony grunted in response. He couldn't think of a reply to that which only increased his discomfort. Unable to meet Stephen's eyes, he stared at his hands which were clenched in his lap, wishing he could disappear into the floor.

"Perhaps Doctor Strange would like some tea boss?" FRIDAY interrupted and Tony felt a swell of pride and relief wash through him at his AI's rescue. He could kiss her with the wave of gratitude he felt for her in that moment.

"What do you say Doc? Care for some tea?" Tony asked, a small smile on his lips as he met Stephen's eyes without flinching.

"Very well." Strange nodded. "Can I assume you don't have any down here?"

"You assume right. Just coffee I'm afraid. The tea should still be in the common room upstairs or my penthouse."

"Penthouse only boss." FRIDAY informed him as he led Strange to the elevator. "Mr. Hogan has already had the common room packed up."

"Right. Of course he has." Tony nodded, pressing the button for the penthouse.

"Packed up?" Stephen repeated. "Are you going somewhere?"

Tony startled for a minute, confused by the note of dismay he'd caught in the other man's voice before Stephen locked his emotions away again.

"I sold the Tower. Made a deal with the government and Fury to move the Avengers initiative to a new compound upstate."

The way Tony said it had Stephen narrowing his eyes at Tony's back as he led then through his penthouse to the kitchen. "That was not as simple as you just made it out to be." He murmured, settling at the bar counter. "You made them buy the Tower from you, didn't you?"

Tony's mouth quirked as he took the box of tea from the cupboard and passed it to him. "You're more insightful than you pretend to be Doc." He said, turning to prepare a cup of coffee. "But you're right. I did. They've both screwed me over more times than I can count over the past eight years. I wasn't going to let them do it again."

He turned back to see Stephen frowning up at him, his hand stilled on the box of tea he'd been looking through. "Both the government and S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

Tony returned his frown. "What? Is that so hard to believe? Why wouldn't they try to screw over a rich, arrogant genius is a better question."

"I suppose you have a point, but then why deal with them at all?" He asked, plucking a tea bag from the box and setting it inside the mug Tony had passed him.

"Have you met me?" Tony teased. "Seriously? Keep your friends close, enemies closer? No one ever wants me Stephen. They want my power, my money, my tech and when they can't get it they run smear campaigns against me, against my company. It's just easier to pretend I like dealing with them than not. It's a game."

Stephen scowled harder as Tony filled his mug with boiling water. "A person's life is not a game Tony."

Tony's bark of laughter was bitter and hard and held no humour as he settled into a chair across from him. "You really believe that don't you? Unfortunately I never got that memo."

Stephen pursed his lips, his anger over Tony's forced willingness to associate with those who only wanted to use him threatened to derail his reason for being there. "Regardless, you shouldn't let them get away with it."

"Your naivete is cute Doc, but I'm pretty sure you didn't come here to talk about my business dealings." Tony said, sipping his coffee.

"You're right. I came to talk about Siberia." Stephen replied, noting how Tony's grip tightened on the mug he held. "And to thank you for the necklace."

Tony blinked confused eyes at him until Stephen drew the small watch face from beneath his tunic.

"Oh, that." He said, sounding relieved. "It was nothing. But you're welcome."

Stephen arched a brow at him, clamping down on his frustration. Jesus, did this man ever just take a compliment without dismissing his own work as nothing? Where had he learned to not value himself? It was maddening and it saddened him more than he'd expected. "It's not nothing Tony." He retorted, relishing the surprise that registered in the other man's eyes before he could hide it. "You made it specifically for me, because of my hands." Tony frowned and Stephen continued. "FRIDAY told me."

Tony made a displeased noise and took another sip of coffee. "Of course she did."

"So?" Stephen pressed. "Are you going to tell me why Steve Rogers' shield was with you in Siberia or do you want me to guess?"

Tony stared into his mug, his shoulders tensing as he watched. "I... can't do that. And I'm going to need that shield back."

"What do you mean you can't? I saved your damn life! I deserve to know how you ended up on the verge of death with Captain America's shield not ten feet from you."

"I was... outmatched. I lost." Tony shrugged. "If... if you want to know the rest, FRIDAY has a recording you can watch." Tony shifted his eyes up to meet his own. "But I can't talk about it and neither can you."

"Why the hell not? You could've died!"

"It doesn't matter Strange. I'm alive aren't I?" Tony shrugged again. "What does it matter anyway? Why do you even care?"

Stephen gaped at him. Clearly the things he didn't know about Tony Stark was even more important than the things he did. There were oceans of pain, hurt and betrayal in those expressive eyes, there and gone with words he spoke, covered up quickly with more words designed to distract and hide behind. This man before him, so strong, so charismatic and charming had broken pieces inside that no one had ever attempted to try and help heal.

"Well?" Tony prompted, irritated by his silence.

"I care because I think of you as a... as a friend."

Tony startled, sloshing coffee over his hand as he put it down with a tremor in his arm. "You what? We're friends now?"

The bafflement in Tony's voice couldn't be more telling if he'd bared his heart to the world. "I'd like to think we are. You did make me the watch after all and I noticed at the hospital you were wearing the amulet I made you."

"But I ignored you, I snapped at you when you didn't even do anything wrong, I... " Tony paused, halting his babbling to meet his eyes. "I don't understand."

"One day, I'm going to ask you to explain that, but it can wait." Stephen replied, sinking ever deeper into the desire to wipe that confusion from Tony's eyes. Remove that doubt and self-deprecation completely from his persona. It was clear whatever had caused this beautiful, compassionate man to believe such dark things about himself would not be erased in a single conversation. "This video you mentioned. Where is it?"

Tony flinched and looked away again. "I'll have FRIDAY send it to you but you have to agree to having her installed in the watch first. It's... it's kind of a... safety thing. So I can find you if you need help or FRIDAY can alert someone if you need it." Tony paused. "And you can't watch it here. I've seen it. I don't need to see it again, once was more than enough."

A feeling of dread had begun to creep up Stephen's spine at the chill in Tony's voice as he spoke, but he shrugged it off to think about later. "I thought FRIDAY was already installed?"

Tony shook his head. "No. She was only able to communicate because it was a medical emergency. As soon as my vitals improved, she no longer had access to the watch you have. Outside emergencies, she's only installed on personal devices with the wearer's consent."

"Alright. But why is it a package deal?"

"Because we don't want the video released to the public Doctor Strange." FRIDAY answered from somewhere above him. "I can show you the video because I have  security measures in place to prevent it getting out. No one can see it without boss's consent."

Stephen swore under his breath. He didn't like this. He didn't like it at all and from Tony's posture he wasn't enjoying the discussion either. It was time to go. "I expect I'll want to talk to you after I've seen this video."

"I know, just... give me a few days first okay?" Tony nodded, tensing visibly as though expecting a blow. "Thank you again Stephen for... for coming to get me. For... saving me."

"I don't understand why you need more time, but all right, I agree. Thank you for trusting me enough to put your care in my hands Tony." Strange replied, getting to his feet and opening a portal. "I'll be in touch."

Tony nodded and stared into his coffee mug as Stephen left the Tower.

Stephen sighed as it closed behind him, running a shaky hand though his hair. That had not gone at all like he'd hoped and he was more than a little hesitant to see what the video held.

He went straight to his bedroom and  hurried through his evening routine before sitting on the bed and holding the necklace in trembling hands. "FRIDAY?"

"Yes Doctor?"

"Would you advise watching the video now?"

"No. I would also suggest you not view it until after breakfast tomorrow."

"Is it really that bad?"

"I cannot quantify it on a level such as that. I only know to suggest it based on boss' current state. Suffice it to say that it is a very personal recording. As such, I do not know how that might be measured on an emotional scale for an outside party."

Stephen hummed under his breath. He'd been expecting something along those lines, but it didn't make it any easier to follow FRIDAY's advice. Yet as badly as he wanted to know, he was too tired and too emotionally exhausted to watch something that would very likely make it worse. Putting it off till tomorrow was fine, he reasoned as he laid down. Tony didn't want to talk about it right away, so there was no rush. He had what he'd come for, another day's wait wouldn't hurt.

 

Chapter Text

Tony woke with a gasp. Hands clutching at invisible pressure in his lungs, clawing at a chest devoid of an arc reactor that wasn't there. His heart raced and sweat beaded on his forehead, his face, his chest. There was no shield coming down to crack open his faceplate, no cold steel gaze lit with fierce determination to make him stop. No awareness that that shield hadn't been trying to snap his neck when it instead crushed the arc reactor. It was several moments before he was lucid enough to recognize his surroundings and he shivered violently.

"Boss?" Friday's voice called soothing from overhead. "Are you alright?"

"No... no. Not really baby girl." Tony wheezed when he could finally draw a breath without hyperventilating.

"Your body temperature has dropped boss. May I suggest a hot bath? I can run it for you."

Tony sighed, shimmying to the edge of his bed to let his feet rest on the floor. Another tremor ran through him and he nodded. It felt like he'd never be warm again. "That sounds good Friday. Give me a minute?"

"Of course boss." FRIDAY assured him, going silent as he continued his attempt to collect himself.

He scowled into his palms, resting his face between them as the shivers continued down his spine. That had been awful, but not unexpected. Though he was surprised it had taken almost a week for the nightmares to start. Shit, Tony swore as he stood on shaky legs and moved to the bathroom.

"Shall I start the bath now boss?"

"Yeah sure FRIDAY." He said absently, relieving himself before stripping out of his pyjamas.

Slipping into the hot water, Tony let out a groan of contentment. The constant chill he felt was slowly being chased away as the heat sank into his bones. With it, his thoughts cleared enough that they drifted to the nightmare and a crease formed between his brows. He knew things like that nearly always resulted from a trigger. In this case he also knew the trigger had to have been Stephen's visit last night and he let out a groan as he submerged his head under water.

The anxiety of dunking himself had faded... eventually. He would be damned if he'd let that linger and keep one of his favourite activities from being forever ruined. He loved the water and more importantly his baths and hot tub. For too long the thought of stepping in one had given him tremors and cold sweats, but it had finally stopped five years ago. It had taken longer than he'd hoped, but was grateful he'd overcome it for the heat was now very effectively warming and relaxing his tired and bruised body.

Unfortunately it wasn't doing much for the headache he had, his mind unable to stop worrying over what Strange was doing now. If he'd watched the video and if he would respect Tony's request to wait a few days before asking him about it. Shit. The wizard was going to think he really was an egotistical martyr, protecting a man who had so thoroughly betrayed him. But he wasn't, not really. Or at least, not forever.

"Boss?" FRIDAY called as he surfaced to rest his head against the edge of the tub.

Tony groaned. "Yeah FRIDAY?"

"I hate to interrupt boss, but I have a secure number calling and they refuse to say who they are."

Tony scowled at the ceiling. "Can't you identify their voice?"

"The individual on the line is using a voice scrambler and I believe it's not the voice of the caller. I suspect they hired someone to read a script."

Tony swore, sat up straighter in the tub and dried his face. "Fury. Has to be." He grunted. "Fine. Put him through."

There was no mistaking Fury's voice when the call connected, making Tony growl in irritation. There was only one reason Fury would call now and his suspicions were confirmed a moment later.

"Stark."

"Fury." Tony answered glaring at the ceiling. "What do you want?"

"I've been hearing some disturbing things about Siberia Stark. Thought you might want to help clear that up for me."

"Why would I want to do that?" Tony retorted. "I assume what happened is what you preemptively apologized for the last time we talked. Something else you kept from me."

"I was under the impression that Captain Rogers would tell you the truth, considering he's known or suspected it for over a year. I haven't. But yes, I was apologizing for that. If I hadn't trusted him to tell you, whatever happened in Siberia would have gone a lot differently."

"You could have told me before I went to Germany. What kind of asshole are you to keep that to yourself?"

"I believed Rogers would tell you. I'm sorry I trusted him to come clean and that you had to suffer for it."

"Why are you calling if you know everything already? What the hell more so you want from me?" Tony growled.

"I wanted you to know that we picked the Black Widow up after she left the Compound. We're conducting some... tests to see if she's been compromised. Her actions at the airport weren't unusual given her history, but it was the first time since Lagos that she had personal contact with Maximoff."

"You have Natasha in lock up?" Tony said, unable to hide his surprise.

"We do. And though it's unlikely, we're testing to see if she's been manipulated or if she was compromised some other way. She could have betrayed you at any time,  why do it at the airport? And why in front of King T'Challa? Natasha is an opportunist but she's not stupid."

"Honestly, I don't care if she was compromised. The whole situation was out of control the minute they went to Lagos without the rest of the team. I don't care about Nat other than having her stay far away from me."

"Are you going to tell me what happened with you and Rogers?"

"Why? So you can hold that over me too?"

"As hard as it is for you to believe Tony, I care about you and want to help where I can. Can I assume you and Rogers can no longer work together?"

"Pretty safe assumption." Tony grumbled. "Not very sane to put your personal safety in the hands of someone who tried to kill you."

"Rogers did what?" Fury exclaimed.

"You heard me. You wanna know more, ask Rogers. I'm sure T'Challa knows where he is."

"Have it your way Stark. But I'll say it again. I'm on your side in this  whether you believe me or not. Fury out."

***

Wong was making breakfast when Stephen stormed into the room and sat down heavily in a kitchen chair. He narrowed his eyes at Strange, but said nothing as Stephen prepared a cup of tea from the kettle Wong had left on the table with shaking hands.

Wordlessly, he served breakfast, keeping his own council while Stephen ate methodically, clearly upset about something. Breakfast finished, Wong cleared the dishes and returned to his seat to wait. But he was not a patient man and as the seconds turned to minutes, Wong huffed in annoyance.

"Are you going to tell me what's going on with you or do I need to call Master Wynn?" Wong challenged him, his voice stern.

Stephen blinked and looked up, meeting Wong's gaze with frustration in his eyes. "There's no need for that."

"It's obvious something's wrong. We can't afford for you to be distracted from your duties with moping, so talk."

"I am not moping." Stephen snapped. "I'm angry. Tony sent me a video as an explanation for what happened in Siberia. And I can't talk to him about it because I agreed to give him time."

"Time for what? And what video are you talking about?"

"I don't know. As to your second question, the video contains..." Stephen hesitated. "Very upsetting footage of a crime being committed."

Wong frowned at him. "A crime? And Stark wants you to do what exactly? Pretend you didn't see it?"

"A double homicide, decades old, among... other things. And I don't know if Tony wants anyone else knowing about it." Stephen huffed, waving his hand at him in irritation. "But the crime was covered up as a car accident."

"How does someone have a murder reported as a car accident?" Wong asked with a frown.

"I would assume the coroner was compromised or bribed. Perhaps threatened."

"But who would do that? And why?"

"Another good question." Stephen agreed. "Considering who the victim was, I assume a surviving family member or executor was involved in hiding the truth. It's... disturbing. Also suspicious if that same someone benefited from the victim's deaths."

The library of the Sanctum was quiet for several minutes after Stephen finished talking. Both men sat silent, wrapped in their own thoughts regarding murder and betrayal.

"I know you said Stark didn't agree to have anyone else see this video, but can I assume the victims were someone he knew?"

Stephen nodded, biting his lip in sudden fear. Damn, if Wong figured it out...

"Don't worry Stephen. I'm not going to share with anyone what I just concluded. But what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to give Tony the time he asked for. And while I wait, I'm going to do more checking. Find out why these people were killed and who benefited from it."

"Do you think anyone else needs to know the truth?"

"Probably." Stephen said, his face grim. "Unfortunately that's not my decision to make."

Seeming to agree with whatever he saw on Stephen's face, Wong got to his feet. "Let me know what you find out. I'd like to be of help if I can and it would be more effective if I knew as much as you and Stark."

"Of course." Stephen nodded.

"Very good. You have a meeting with the other Masters in an hour's time at Kamar-Taj. They've been monitoring what they think might be signs of Mordo's magic and they want you there to help analyse what they've found."

"Mordo?" Stephen exclaimed. "You don't really believe they found anything do you?"

"Only if he wanted them to find it."

"Which means it's a trap. Or a trick." Stephen nodded. "Very well. I'll go prepare and I'll see you when I return."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony had been too busy to have a face to face with Peter. The board of directors had insisted on a meeting and after brushing off Pepper like he had, she'd refused to cover for him. He also couldn't use recent injuries to politely decline, since by some miracle no one had found out about his brief stay in the hospital.

On the road to his meeting, he'd sent Mark 42 to meet with Peter and spoke to him through FRIDAY's interface. To make up for not being there in person he had FRIDAY deliver him a new Spiderman suit. The kid was more than grateful and promised to be more careful in future and that he'd let Tony take care of anything else he discovered about the Vulture.

The only positive from all this was that he'd had to tell Stephen he couldn't meet with him today. To say Stephen had been annoyed by this news would have been a gross understatement. Tony tried to feel bad about avoiding him, but he was way too grateful that he wouldn't have to talk about Siberia to feel anything but relief. He really didn't want to see Stephen's look of disapproval or have him walk out of his life as quickly as he'd walked in once the Sorcerer had seen the video. It was stupid and childish and highly illogical, but in putting off the inevitable, he could at least pretend he and Stephen were sort of friends for one more day.

After the board meeting, he was ushered to an investor meeting, then on to SI's R&D lab to discuss new medical tech designed to improve mobility in prosthetic braces. Part of the designs were prototypes he'd been working on for Rhodey, who would be getting out of the hopital in a few days.

That meeting ran for much longer than he anticipated and by the time he finished up, he was late to a benefit dinner for relief efforts in Hell's Kitchen. He changed in his SI office, cursing under his breath when he remembered Pepper. She would be his "date" tonight. He'd been so busy avoiding Stephen, micromanaging Happy, Jessica and Peter while working on Rhodey's prosthetics, he'd forgotten about both the dinner and who he was going with. With another muttered curse, he donned his sunglasses and headed out to his ride.

***

"I cannot believe the gall of that man!" Stephen fumed, pacing the floor of the Sanctum foyer. "Of all the convoluted, flimsy excuses I've ever heard! How could he have fogotten he'd be busy today? He put me off on purpose!"

"What's all this then?" Wong drawled from the hallway, his arms crossed over his chest as he leaned his back into the wall.

"Stark!" Stephen snapped. "He blew me off for some board meeting and a benefit dinner. It's been four days. Well I'm not going to let him do this."

Wong snorted at Stephen's outburst with a roll of his eyes. "What are you going to do Stephen? Kidnap him? Crash his board meeting? He's a busy man. Not everything he does is meant to inconvenience you, you know."

Stephen stopped pacing to stare at Wong and then a knowing smile appeared on his lips. "I'm not going to do any of those things." He said, opening a portal. "Call me if there's an emergency Wong. Otherwise, don't wait up."

***

"You forgot about this didn't you?" Pepper whispered with a knowing look as they entered the ballroom of the benefit hall location.

"I did." Tony replied, his jaw clenching as he flashed his public smile as cameras went off when they entered the hall. "I've been busy working on Rhodey's prosthetic design."

"I hope you've got a plan for what you're going to say about Germany." Pepper hissed as they made it past the reporters. "They're going to ask."

"I know Ms. Potts." Tony replied with a cool smile, putting a noticeable space between them. "FRIDAY? You have it ready right?"

"Of course boss. I should add there's something I need to..."

"Hold that thought FRIDAY."

"Tony!" Tony turned, his smile faltering as he turned to face the person who had called out to him.

"Dr. Palmer." Tony greeted her, placing a chaste kiss to the back of her hand while hiding his shock at seeing her there. "I didn't expect to see you here tonight."

"I didn't know you two were on a first name basis." Pepper said coolly, moving to Tony's side.

"We talked quite a bit recently. Didn't we Dr. Stark?" Christine smiled, not missing a beat as she lied through her teeth. "Your new prosthetic designs are amazing."

"Why thank you Dr. Palmer. That's quite the compliment coming from such an expert in her field."

"Indeed." Pepper nodded, narrowing her eyes at the two of them. "I'm going to get a drink. Tony? Come find me at the table."

"Will do darling." Tony replied, dripping with sarcasm, earning him an annoyed scowl. He didn't see a problem with what he'd said, two could play the snark game after all.

As soon as Pepper was out of hearing, he guided Christine by the elbow to a quiet corner of the room. "What was that about Doctor?"

"Me." A deep male voice said from behind him, making Tony flinch.

He turned to see Stephen glaring at him, catching Christine giving him a thumbs up out of the corner of his eye before she vanished into the crowd. "Doctor Strange." Tony said once he'd recovered from his surprise.

"I tried to warn you boss." FRIDAY whispered in his ear.

"Tony." Strange growled. "Don't you think you've put me off long enough?"

"You think I put you off on purpose?" Tony hissed back, glaring at the other man.

"Didn't you?" Stephen challenged him, drawing him further into the shadowed corner. "You gave me a very graphic video to watch and then asked me to give you a few days. Which I did, even though I didn't have to do. Then you conveniently forget that you promised to talk to me about it today." Stephen huffed, his earlier anger leaving him in a sudden rush.

"I just want to talk Tony." He added quietly.

Tony struggled to keep his emotions in check in the face of Stephen's obvious need to ensure his well-being. He wasn't accustomed to this and had no idea how to respond. He was used to Pepper and Rhodey brow-beating him into talking, not this... this honest pleading to understand. He looked away, not trusting himself to speak when Stephen spoke again.

"I apologize for ambushing you like this, but I'm... concerned about you. There was no mention in the news of your stay in the hopital nor how serious your injuries were. I don't like the thought that you're protecting the people who hurt you for any reason. Or that you don't seem to have told anyone what really happened. Or that less than a week ago you almost died. I realise we don't know each other very well and I'm not very good at this, but... I'm trying to be your friend."

Tony's throat closed up as Stephen trailed off and he struggled for several moments to get himself under control. He could see Pepper watching from across the room, her brow furrowing at whatever she saw in his face and he looked away. Right. Time to wrap this up. Taking a deep breath, he turned his back on Pepper, removing his sunglasses to meet Stephen's eyes.

Strange flinched at whatever he saw there and made as if to step closer to him, but then thought better of it and dropped his hand back to his side.

"You're right Strange." Tony said, unable to use his first name after how he'd put him off. "I have been avoiding you... just not for the reason you think." Taking a deep breath, he continued. "I can't leave now, but if you don't mind waiting for me to finish here, we can talk tonight at my penthouse."

"That would be fine Tony." Stephen nodded, though Tony could sense the other man was being extra cautious now.

"Good, great..." Tony nodded, now uncomfortable with Stephen so close to him. It wasn't fair, this intimacy would be gone soon. The Sorcerer was never going to look at him the same way after tonight and Tony couldn't help feeling like he'd just lost something precious. "FRIDAY will let you know when I'm headed back to the Tower if that works for you?"

"Of course." Strange nodded. "I apologize again for... for doing this here."

"Not like I gave you a choice." Tony huffed. "It's fine. I'll uh.. I'll see you later then." Tony said, moving quickly away and disappearing into a group of waiting guests who swarmed him the moment someone recognized him crossing the room.

***

Stephen cradled his head in his hands where he sat at the Sanctum's kitchen table feeling morose. He tensed when he sensed Wong enter and take a seat across from him.

"You know Strange. I have to say I am getting very tired of coming in here to find you in yet another state of... whatever this is. Again. What in the name of the Ancient One is wrong with you now?"

"I kind of lost my temper. Tony agreed to talk to me after the Benefit dinner tonight."

"Okay." Wong drawled. "I fail to see how that's a problem."

"He acted like he was agreeing to face a firing squad. I have no idea what's going on in his head. I have no map to understanding why he would think such a thing. What the hell has he experienced to expect that from people? Normal people understand help Wong and his behaviour was very far from normal. I was a damned neurosurgeon for crying out loud, I'm not a psychologist! I have no idea how to convince him I don't mean him any harm."

"You're being ridiculous Stephen." Wong sighed.

"How is someone's emotional health ridiculous?"

"You were a doctor were you not? Surely you have experience with calming patients. I know you sucked at it by the time you came to us, but you would have had to serve some time in general practice."

"Actually I didn't." Stephen sighed. "I exceeded my own instructors and the university didn't want to put off making use of my intellect for the years required. My internship in general practice was waived and I served under the leading neurosurgeons at Metro General instead."

"So you cheated." Wong huffed. "No wonder you were so arrogant when you came to Kamar-Taj. I bet it never once occurred to you to turn them down and do the general practice anyways."

"Of course not." Stephen scoffed. "I would have been bored out of my mind."

"Then if you're so concerned about Stark, perhaps you should study what you need until he's ready for you." Wong jeered as he got to his feet. "It would certainly be a bettter use of your time than wallowing in self pity."

Stephen met his eyes with a scowl. "You're insufferable."

"Lucky for me I don't care." Wong retorted as he sauntered from the room. "Don't let me catch you looking like that again Stephen. Or there'll be hell to pay."

"Hmpf..." Stephen scoffed under his breath, hating that Wong had so clearly seen an obvious solution to his problem. With an annoyed sigh, he got to his feet and conjured a portal into the nearest medical University library and got to studying.

 

Chapter Text

The cold weight of his impending talk with Stephen haunted him as he made his speech, answered questions from the press and struggled through eating the provided dinner. By the time Pepper managed to corner him out of earshot of all those seeking his attention, he was resigned to what awaited him when he left the building.

"You've avoided me all night." Pepper accused with a glare. "Ever since that Doctor from Metro General talked to you, you've been distant and... weird. What's going on Tony? Who else was there? And don't try to deny it, it was pretty obvious you were having a conversation with someone."

"It was Doctor Strange." Tony replied, seeing no point in lying. "He had something important he wanted to discuss."

"And he couldn't do that in the open like a normal person? Or make a phone call?"

"I've been avoiding him Pepper, but it's fine now. We're meeting later to... discuss a few things."

"Do those things involve an explanation regarding how you ended up in the hospital?"

"He... already knows that." Tony blurted without thinking, Pepper's eyes widening in shock and then hurt as realization set in. "I..."

"He's the one who brought you to the hospital? You told him and not me? I know I hurt you Tony but how could you keep that from me?"

"It's not about you Pepper." Tony sighed. "I didn't choose to tell Stephen, FRIDAY did. There wasn't anyone else available at the time."

"Dammit Tony, what is going on?!"

"I can't tell you Pepper. Not yet."

"But you can tell this sorcerer guy who you barely know?"

"Look, I don't know why this is so hard for you to understand. You made it very clear you don't want anything to do with Iron Man or the Avengers. This involves both and I don't need to hear from you again how dangerous it is. If the time comes for you to know, I'll tell you. But that's not today."

Pepper's face went from hurt and incredulous in the span of a few seconds before settling on irritated. "Fine. Keep your secrets. But if Rhodey asks if you're okay, I'm telling him about your new sorcerer friend and that you're not fine."

"You're going to deliberately upset a man who was seriously injured? That's low Pepp, even for you."

"How much more upset will he be if you don't tell him yourself Tony?"

Tony sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I'm going to tell him when he gets out of the hospital Pepper. Promise you won't say anything before that."

"Of course I won't. I'm just worried about you. This is exactly how you acted after the incident with Ultron only this time you're also pretending nothing's wrong."

"Dr. Stark."

Tony and Pepper turned to look at Christine Palmer who had joined them, a hesitant look on her face.

"I'll have Happy bring the car around. Leave you two to talk." Pepper said, moving away. "Nice to meet you Dr. Palmer."

"Likewise Ms. Potts."

"Doctor." Tony nodded. "Something you wanted to say?"

"I wanted to apologize for ambushing you earlier. Stephen asked me for a favour and... well, when he explained what he wanted, I kind of agreed with him. I hope you aren't mad."

Tony grimaced, though his eyes were soft. "It seems everyone is out to help me today."

"Um... what?"

"Nothing Doctor. It's fine. Stephen wasn't wrong and I'm not mad. But there is something you could do to make it up to me."

"Oh?" Christine asked, hesitantly. "Like what?"

"How would you feel about a semi-permanent consultancy at a facility in upstate New York?"

***

Tony procrastinated calling Strange a little longer once he reached the privacy of his penthouse. He took a shower, changed out of his suit into something more casual and set a pot of coffee to brew and water to boil.

He was tense when Stephen stepped out of the elevator, but went speechless when Strange crossed the room in a few short strides and gathered him into an awkward hug. He blinked in confusion for a moment, taken aback by the unexpected physical contact and then Stephen spoke.

"I am so sorry Tony." Stephen whispered. "I can't even imagine what you've been going through."

"I..." Tony had been in the verge of gently stepping out of Stephen's reach but in hearing his words, all the things he'd been keeping bottled up overwhelmed him. He blinked and the next thing he knew, he was clinging to the other man as though he were drowning. He blinked again and found he'd buried his face in Stephen's shoulder and silent tears were coursing down his cheeks.

Stephen said nothing as Tony fell apart in his arms. It wasn't what he'd expected the billionaire to do and hoped Tony wouldn't berate himself for it later. He rubbed soothing circles on the other man's back, murmuring words of comfort that sounded inadequate to his own ears. After what seemed forever but had only been about twenty minutes, Tony roused himself and lifted his head making a dismayed sound at the damp spot he'd left on Stephen's robes.

"Ready for that tea now?" Stephen asked quietly, earning him an amused laugh.

"I'm no tea drinker Doc." Tony said, his voice gruff. "But I'll take coffee if you know how to make it."

Stephen smiled and let Tony put distance between them. "I think you already brewed some before I got here."

"Savage." Tony huffed. "Don't tell me you think brewed coffee left on a burner is actually drinkable."

"Only in the most dire of situations." Stephen replied, his tone light.

"Well good." Tony nodded, not meeting his eyes. "Work your magic then. I'm gonna go splash some water on my face."

"I can make coffee you know."

"Well now's your chance to prove it Doc."

***

Tony took his time getting himself in some sort of order after his mini breakdown. His eyes weren't as red as he'd expected which was good. What wasn't good was his inability to wrap his mind around what had just happened. It seemed inconceivable that with a simple show of comfort he had come undone as easily as an ice cube melting on a countertop.

With a shaky, but determined breath he squared his shoulders and returned to the kitchen where the scent of fresh ground coffee infused his senses. Despite feeling as though he was standing on ground that could fall apart beneath him at any moment, the smell brought a smile to his face.

"Doc, if that tastes half as good as it smells I think I'll be borrowing you to make me coffee several times a week."

"It's ready if you want to give me your verdict." Stephen said as Tony joined him at the counter, relieved the other man seemed somewhat refreshed.

Tony arched a brow as he took the steaming mug from Stephen's shaking hand and took a sip. The taste burst on his tongue and he couldn't stop the moan of pleasure that escaped his lips.

"That good?"

"Mmm." Tony hummed, taking his mug into the living area and feeling his tension seep out of him further as Stephen followed close behind.

"So." Tony said, meeting Stephen's cautious gaze as they sat.

"So." Stephen repeated. "What happened after FRIDAY lost contact with you in Siberia?"

"Pretty obvious isn't it? I got my ass kicked." Tony retorted, not looking at him.

"I'm not looking for obvious Tony, I want to know exactly what happened."

"And what if I don't want to tell you?"

"Then you'll just have to make room for me here because I'm not leaving until you do."

"I could always have FRIDAY kick you out."

"I think FRIDAY might be on my side in this." Stephen retorted.

"FRIDAY would never..."

"Boss." FRIDAY interrupted. "Doctor Strange has level 5 security clearance."

A look of embarrassed irritation came over the engineer's face. "Shit. Dammit."

"Something wrong?" Stephen asked, curious.

Tony scowled and pursed his lips together, not meeting his eyes as FRIDAY answered for him. "Boss has given you a level of clearance that allows me to disregard his orders if I determine that doing so would be detrimental to his well-being."

"I didn't do it on purpose." Tony protested. "I wasn't thinking."

Shocked couldn't begin to describe what Stephen felt in that moment. Whatever level of clearance he'd been granted paled in comparison to the realization that such a thing meant Tony trusted him. He blinked owlishly at the other man who was still refusing to look at him.

"Besides. From what FRIDAY told me you saved my life, so I figured you can't be all that bad."

"I don't know what to say."

"Then don't say anything." Tony retorted. "If prefer it to that look you're giving me."

"What look?"

"That shocked look that implies I need my head examined for possible lunacy."

"That is not what my look is about. And stop trying to change the subject." Stephen snapped. "I want to know what happened to you in Siberia. Could you please tell me without all this deflection?"

"I don't know why this is so important to you, but fine. Take a deep breath Doc, this story is what we call the big leagues. It isn't pretty."

Half an hour later, Stephen couldn't make his mouth form words. The story Tony had just told him was so much worse than what he'd originally thought, which meant his brain was having a very hard time coming up with an appropriate response.

"Told you it wasn't pretty Doc." Tony huffed, taking his silence as quiet condemnation. "I shouldn't have reacted the way I did, I know that. Barnes wasn't responsible for what he did as the Winter Soldier but all I could see was the guy who killed my mom and I wanted to hurt him."

Stephen blinked in confusion for a fraction of a second before a scowl covered his features. "Stop that right now." He snapped, making Tony look at him in alarm. "Your reaction was perfectly justified and completely understandable. You just watched your mother be murdered with the perpetrator standing at your side. And the man who you thought was your friend lied to you about it. Don't you dare apologize for being human."

Tony blinked startled eyes at him, his mouth dropping open as he stared back at him. "But if I'd just taken a moment..."

"Stop it Tony. The only person at fault here is Steve Rogers. If he hadn't kept the truth from you, none of that would have happened. This... what was his name? Zemo? Would not have had any fuel to feed to his destructive fire and it would have ended with his death or incarceration."

"But..."

"You did nothing wrong. I don't want to hear how you should've reacted any differently because under the circumstances, there was no other way. You're human. Despite all you've done and all that you've accomplished, you are still human and you responded as any normal human would."

"You think I'm normal Doc?" Tony replied a small hint of teasing in his voice.

Stephen narrowed his eyes at him. "I'm trying to reassure you and you're making jokes? Nothing about you is normal. But your reaction was normal. Does that answer your question?"

"I see. So in your doctorly opinion I'm abnormal?"

"Ugh. You are infuriating and I'm not going to play this game you've started."

"Why? Afraid you'll lose?"

Stephen sniffed and glared at him with cool eyes. "How many people know what happened in Siberia Tony?"

Tony scowled at him a moment before letting his shoulders slump. "Counting myself, you and the two involved? Four? No, wait. Six maybe. Well and FRIDAY, but she lost contact when... well..."

"People have to know what Rogers did. He can't just walk away from this."

"I don't want my personal business plastered all over the world Doc." Tony retorted. "I have little enough privacy as it is."

"A crime was committed and someone covered up your parent's murder. But I'll drop it for now. I'm more concerned with what Doctor Wu said about your injuries."

"How do you know about him?"

"I was there remember? Christine said they were waiting on him and your medical proxy. I told her about James Rhodes' injury before they could call him. I didn't think you'd want him hearing about you while he was still in hospital."

A look of surprise crossed Tony's face before he looked away again. "Thanks Stephen. That was... well, thanks."

"Why haven't you told anyone what happened? Can I at least assume you told Ms. Potts and Doctor Wu?"

"They don't know. Though I'm sure Dr. Wu has already guessed. He just doesn't know who was behind it.” Tony said, his eyes fixed on the table before him.

"What?! Why the hell not? Surely you would want your girlfriend and personal physician to know what happened."

"First, Pepper isn't my girlfriend. We broke up. Second, if I'd told Doctor Wu he'd have had to file an incident report. I wanted time to think about it and I really don't want what happened influencing the Accords."

"You broke up?" Stephen blurted before waving his hand at the other man's stunned expression. "Forget I said that. How are the Accords more important than your well-being? And I don't see how that's a bad thing. From what I understand this is exactly the sort of thing the Accords were written for."

"All that and you react to 'ex-girlfriend'?" Tony muttered before continuing. "You assume people will believe my version Doc." Tony retorted.

"Are you talking about Ultron? Because if you are that's another thing you need to make public."

Tony narrowed his eyes at him. "What are you talking about? Ultron was my creation and I screwed up."

"I did my research and for some unknown reason FRIDAY provided me with security footage I doubt anyone but you has seen. Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."

"Dammit FRIDAY."

"Sorry boss, I don't know what happened, but an old protocol was triggered and activated when Doctor Strange asked me about Ultron. I apologise, but I have to agree that it should not be kept secret. Ultron was not your fault."

"Your lack of self-preservation is highly unsettling Tony. Especially when there is no evidence to support the blame you've received over the years. Some guilt is to be expected, but what you're exhibiting goes beyond that. I think it's imperative we go to the mirror dimension as soon as possible."

"What?! Now?"

"Not this very minute, no. I need to prepare and you need to rest."

Tony frowned, setting his mug down. "I don't understand why this is so important. Other than that vision she gave me, I don't feel any different."

"Because I'm the Sorcerer Supreme. I know you don't get the importance of that, but she abused her powers and used it against people who have no defense against it. There's no telling the kind of damage she might have caused that you're unaware of. Which reminds me, how did she get her powers? Wong and I tried to track her down but there's no record of her training anywhere."

"That's because she wasn't trained, at least not like you were. Her powers come from the mind stone. Hydra had it and she and her brother volunteered for their experiments."

"Good god! The mind stone?! The same stone that created Ultron and powered Loki's staff? This is very serious. I'm taking you to the mirror dimension first thing tomorrow." Stephen said, getting to his feet.

"You're leaving?"

Pain tugged at Stephen's heart at those two simple words. Spoken so casually and yet filled with such disappointment and so tangled in resignation he almost couldn't speak. "I'm going to the Sanctum. There are some books I require and I need to let Wong know where I'll be. But I am coming back to stay the night, whether you like it or not." He added, seeing how the engineer's hackles rose at the declaration of Stephen's presumption that he'd be allowed to stay.

"Pretty pushy for a wizard." Tony huffed. "Bet you have the worst bedside manner in the history of bedside manners."

"Sorcerer. And I may have heard something to that effect over the years." Stephen nodded with a teasing smile. "Though I don't remember paying them any mind. Now, is there some security protocol you need to disengage to allow me to portal here or what?"

Tony scowled moodily at him before dropping his eyes back to his mug. "You already have level 5 clearance Doc."

"You have access to every part of the Tower Doctor Strange, without restriction."

"Truly?"

Tony shrugged. "I can't imagine my security having much effect against those glowy doorways of yours Doc. Besides, you haven't threatened me yet. So yeah, why not?"

"Threatened you? Oh we are so having a discussion about that later Stark." Stephen growled, pulling on his sling ring and opening a portal. "Don't go anywhere unless it's to bed. You need rest before we go to the mirror dimension."

"Bossy." Tony grunted.

"Yes. I am." Stephen retorted, stepping through the portal.

 

 

~~~~~~

A/N: Will be taking a short break for a bit. Chapters posted are almost caught up to where I'm at in the story and I don't want to risk writer's block by posting them all too soon. In other words, the frequency will be spaced out to every 3-4 days rather than every day or every other day.

Also, some feel the burn is too slow but no matter what I do, Tony and Stephen do not want to cross that line yet. I assume they just don't want to screw it up and so are refusing to cooperate. It's a lot like herding cats lol, so until I find a suitable catnip alternative it's gonna stay slow.

Thank you all for reading and commenting, it's the best incentive ever . 😊❤

Chapter Text

Scott wasn't in any way satisfied by Rogers' speech. He paced the floor of his chosen room, vibrating with nervous energy and worry while he listened to the others make their way down the hall. He could hear their muffled talking through the door and wished the lot of them would just go to bed already.

The business with the Accords and Stark was making his insides churn in anxiety, a feeling that had only grown worse after their arrival in Wakanda. When Rogers, Sam and Wanda had chimed in on his concerns over the Accords, that feeling had reached a peak of what felt like the worst case of indigestion of his life. Well, except that time he'd been thrown in jail and then shrunk down to the size of an ant, but that didn't really count since at least then he was in his own country.

The faint sound of doors closing drew his attention and he crossed to the door of his room to peak out and listen. After several minutes, he knew that the other members of the rogue Avengers had retired for the night, which he only now realized was what he'd been waiting for. Also, that he'd been referring to the people he now found himself with as rogues for some time now, and wasn't that a bit of a shock?

On silent feet, he stepped into the hallway, making his way back to the large living area and headed for the door leading into the rooms they'd been given. He wanted answers regarding the Accords and what he'd gotten from Rogers and the rest had only reinforced the growing panic he felt. Hearing the people he had sided with admit they knew nothing about the Accords they were supposed to be opposing as little more than grand ideals. Further, they were simultaneously obsessed with blaming everything on Tony Stark and it was more than just unsettling, it was insane.

He made his way to the door and eased it open on silent hinges only to clap a hand over his own mouth to stifle the very unmasculine shriek he uttered when it opened. Before him stood four very fit, very armed female royal guards who only arched curious brows at his unexpected appearance.

Once he'd recovered enough to breathe properly, he blinked and flashed them a hesitant smile. And no, there was not a nervous hitch in his voice no matter what his inner critic was saying.

"Hi! Um, uh I'm Scott Lang, uh... Ant-Man? No? Um right. So, I was wondering if I might have a word with your king. T'Challa right?"

"What is this about Mister Lang?” One of the warriors demanded in a cool tone. "Our king is very busy."

"Right, yes. Of course he is. I uh would like to speak to him about the Accords. That is, if he's available? I don't want to put him out or anything."

The women before him shared a look and the one who had spoken returned his gaze. "Will any of your companions be joining you?"

"Uh, no? Is that... that's not a problem is it?"

"It is not." She said as the four of them did an about face, bracketing the door to show two more warriors had appeared in the hallway behind them. One stepped forward, her eyes piercing in their intensity before suddenly softening into a friendly smile.

"If you will follow me Mr. Lang? We will take you to a private room where you can speak with the king once he has finished attending to other matters."

"Oh! Sure, all right. Um, lead the way I guess."

***

Shocked couldn't even begin to describe how he felt about what he'd done after he'd stepped off the elevator and into Tony's penthouse. Stephen had spent his time waiting by studying every text he could absorb on emotional stress in the few short hours he'd had before going to the Tower. One of things that had not been suggested was initiating physical contact with someone who was emotionally compromised and likely not open to physical contact from strangers.

Yet on seeing Tony standing there, acting as though he wasn't dreading the conversation he'd been about to have and knowing what he did of the man's past, he couldn't do anything else. The moment he'd done it, he'd braced for the inevitable backlash and then Tony had done something inexplicable and hugged him back. If he'd been himself from before the accident he knows he would have said something inappropriate, though if that had been the case, he wouldn't have hugged the man to begin with.

All his careful plans on how to start their conversation went out the window. Further flummoxing him was Tony's unexpected recovery into calm acceptance and teasing barbs after he'd emerged from the bedroom.

Covering his surprise hadn't been as easy as he'd pretended either. Hiding his now damp palms and talking over the nervous pulse jumping in his throat had been an act of sheer stubbornness. Though his efforts had gone unnoticed since Tony was completely absorbed in self-deprecation and expecting the worst.

With a firm shake of his head, he snapped his focus back to the task at hand, gathering the things he'd need to take Tony to the mirror dimension. After a few parting words to Wong with a promise to call if it turned out he needed the man's assistance, he returned to Stark Tower in a spray of orange sparks.

***

"Mr. Lang." T'Challa greeted him an hour later in a small room equipped with all the same things as a small apartment.

"King T'Challa." Scott replied, getting to his feet and stopping his forward movement at the other man's negated wave.

"My warriors tell me you wished to speak with me about the Accords." T'Challa said, indicating they should sit.

"Uh yes. That's right. I kind of missed the whole UN thing and the Council stuff. I was hoping you might have a copy I could take a look at."

"Of course." T'Challa nodded. "Does this mean you are considering signing them?"

"Well, I hadn't actually thought that far ahead. But I want to be able to see my daughter and I can't do that if I'm... well, here. Do you know if that might be possible? I mean, I think I know I'm in a bit of trouble here but I really don't want to go back to jail either."

"You raise an interesting question Mr. Lang. I will, of course, have to get back to you on that. In the meantime, I can send someone in to go over the Accords with you if you like?"

"Yeah." Scott nodded. "That would be great."

"Am I to assume you do not want your companions to know about this?"

Scott flushed and looked at his feet. "Uh yeah. Can you tell them, if they ask I'm just... talking to my daughter?"

"Of course Mr. Lang. I will send someone in to go over the Accords with you shortly."

"Thank you King T'Challa. I... really appreciate this. Um everything you've done for us."

"For now, Wakanda is a neutral territory. It is my duty as it's king to ensure sanctuary for those in need."

***

"Ms. Potts?" A soft male voice said through the phone.

"Yes?"

"It's Matt Murdock calling ma'am."

"Oh! Yes, of course. Was there something I can help you with?"

"I received a video of something I think you should see."

"A video? I don't understand. And if its a video, pardon the question, but how do you know what's on it?" Pepper asked, confused.

"I knew the truth about… the subject matter prior to the video through some extensive research I conducted. As to the video content, Mr. Stark provided me a described video prototype program. The video appears to be security footage of a room in Stark Tower, from a little over two years ago."

"Two years ago?" Pepper repeated, her voice faltering.

"Yes."

"We shouldn't discuss this over the phone." Pepper said, collecting herself.

"I agree."

"Where are you now?"

"I'm at the new compound, upstate."

"I'll be there in an hour." Pepper said. "And Mr. Murdock? Don't talk to anyone about this, not even your partner."

"Understood Ms. Potts. I'll be waiting."

***

Tony remained rooted to his seat after Stephen stepped through a portal and out of his living room. He couldn't believe what had just happened. Had he really left tear stains on the grumpy wizard's cloak? Not that he'd been all that grumpy lately, well, so long as you didn't count how Tony had turned him grumpy after putting him off for so long.

But yeah, dammit. He had... crumbled like a wet sand castle at the feel of Strange's arms around his waist. And what Stephen had said... nope, no he wasn't going to think about that. That would just have him getting all worked up again and Strange had told him he needed to relax.

He scoffed at that, letting out a snort of disbelief. Relax, as if it was the simplest thing in the world for him to do. That he could just do that because Strange said so, as if Tony was actually sleeping like a normal person since Siberia and not waking in a cold sweat or blind panic every two hours.

He shook himself and stood, stretching his arms above his head and rolling his neck to work the kinks out. Stephen said he would be back... well, he'd see about that. But if he did, then Tony felt compelled to tidy up a bit. Ignoring the slight panic at the thought of Strange spending the night was causing him, he gathered up their discarded mugs and wiped down the kitchen counter. When Strange still hasn't returned, Tony shrugged and headed to his bedroom to change into something he could sleep in while not simultaneously embarrass himself in front of the wizard.

 

 

Chapter Text

When Stephen returned to Stark Tower he was braced for anything Tony could throw at him. Given how long he'd been gone and the man's overbearing nature, he'd been expecting him to be waiting with a challenge in his eyes, demanding he get the mirror dimension thing over with.

So it was with yet another jolt of shock, that instead of being greeted by an angry, unsettled genius he found Tony fast asleep on the couch. His breath caught at the sight of the man sleeping, and wasn't that an uncomfortable realization? That in the short time he'd known the man, he'd now watched Tony sleep twice. It felt far too intimate for someone he barely knew, doubly so since Tony had known Stephen was coming back and had fallen asleep anyway.

He settled on the couch across from the engineer who was dressed in what was clearly silk sleepwear. Black with silver piping and red accents that did nothing but highlight the man's beauty. For the most part his face appeared peaceful as he snored quietly into the blanket he had clutched in one hand, but a crease was still visible between his brows.

Stephen pursed his lips, debating if he should wake him and send him off to bed. After several minutes he decided not to, instead getting up and adjusting the blanket to cover the other man completely. He must have stood there too long staring because a voice sounded overhead making him jump in surprise.

"Doctor Strange?"

"Christ." Stephen swore when he recovered himself. "I'm sorry. I forgot about you."

"It's alright Doctor. I was only going to say that you don't need to worry. Boss has slept in worse locations."

"Uh..."

"You were deciding whether or not to move him to his room. It's not necessary and I would prefer if you didn't. Boss hasn't slept much and waking him now would only interrupt the sleep he needs. He will be fine where he is."

"I... see." Stephen nodded with a frown. "You say he hasn't been sleeping?"

"It is not uncommon Doctor. Boss has bad dreams." FRIDAY replied, though Strange sensed the AI was deliberately understating the problem. "He also got a blanket and pillow out for you. It's behind you on the couch. Or, you are welcome to take the guest bedroom if you prefer."

"I think I'll just stay here FRIDAY. Can you dim the lights a bit? If Tony wakes up I don't want to unnecessarily scare him when he remembers I'm here."

"Of course Doctor. If you need anything just ask."

***

Tony woke with a groan, the sunlight piercing his eyelids let him know he'd fallen asleep on the couch again and not in his bed. As he slowly drifted into consciousness, he sat up abruptly as his memory of the night before returned. Couch. Stephen. Oh god, had he really cried in the other man's arms like a sap last night?

Eyes wide and brows furrowed in an attempt to keep the turmoil inside hidden, he looked over to the other couch where a certain wizard was still sleeping. Shit. It was worse than he thought, he moaned inside his head, a quick glance down chasing away the sudden horror that he might be naked. A sigh of relief escaped him as he got to his feet and moved to the kitchen, intent on having a coffee to help ground himself into wakefulness.

A noise behind him had him almost jumping out of his skin and he turned to glare at his... unwelcome? No, uninvited guest.

"I thought you were sleeping."

"My body was." Stephen replied as he stretched and got to his feet. "And I meant what I said. No coffee."

"What's that supposed to mean? And what are you talking about, no coffee? You might be a doctor, but you're not my doctor." Tony retorted but flushed when his brain said, not yet and hinted that he could be.

"Why are you blushing?" Stephen asked, apparently just as observant as Tony himself.

"I don't appreciate being told what to do Doctor." Tony retorted, completely ignoring Strange's question. "I need my coffee Strange. Give me one good reason why I should listen to you."

"Mirror dimension. Remember?" Stephen retorted.

"What? Is it some kind of torture place where a person can't have coffee?"

"You need to be relaxed Tony, not wired on caffeine."

"My apologies then Doctor Strange." FRIDAY interrupted. "I have something you wanted boss."

Tony frowned and looked into the nearest camera lens. "What is it?"

"I have confirmation that Mr. Zemo has been contained in the Raft. King T'Challa handed him over to Agent Ross."

"Shouldn't that have happened a while ago? Why are you telling me this now?"

"I have had difficulty maintaining proper surveillance at the Raft boss. Someone has been interfering with my attempts and this information was out of my reach until today."

"Anything else?"

"I cannot say. Doctor Strange has indicated you need to be relaxed."

"FRIDAY." Tony growled, ignoring the glare of disapproval he was getting from Stephen.

"Apologies boss. But he's a doctor. I deemed the information I just provided would not disagree with you."

"Whatever it is, it can wait Stark." Stephen growled, his arms crossed over his chest. "And I cannot believe what I just heard. Does this mean you hacked into a maximum security prison?"

"More like lurked in the background." Tony corrected, returning Stephen's glare.

"I thought you agreed with the Accords?"

Tony scowled. "Accords yes, once they're amended and ratified. Secretary Ross, no. That guy needs to be locked up."

Stephen frowned back at him before letting out a huge sigh and uncrossing his arms. Tony refused to let his frown dissipate and remained where he was.

"So wizard boy, how does this magic thing you want to do to me work?" Tony demanded, wincing at the way he just worded that. His brain whispering non-helpfully that the so-called wizard had probably already put a spell on him. Why else would he have given the man level 5 clearance?

Ignoring Tony's obvious goading, Stephen took a step back from the couch he'd been leaning against, motioning for Tony to have a seat. "First, you come over here and sit down."

Tony continued to scowl at him, his shoulders tense, all while muttering under his breath about bossy wizards, but did as Stephen asked. "Then you drink this." Stephen continued, a steaming cup of tea appearing in his hand moments before he handed it to Tony.

"What's this?" Tiny scoffed, scowling at the cup he held. "Magic potion?"

"Tea." Stephen retorted, biting his tongue to keep from snapping at him. "It will help calm you."

"Fine." Tony sighed, draining it and setting the empty cup on the coffee table. "Done. Now what?"

"Now you need to lie down and get comfortable." Stephen continued, his voice becoming gentle and soothing. "Think you can do that?"

"If I can't, its because you wouldn't let me have my coffee." Tony retorted, even as he stretched out on the couch, leaning his back against the arm. "But if this is just some kinky way of you getting me pliant, I can think of better ways to achieve that." He continued, a smirk on his lips as Strange blushed in response to his teasing.

"Anytime you want to knock that off works for me." Stephen retorted, using all of his willpower to ignore the spark Tony's words ignited inside him. "Now, are you comfortable? Finished your little games?"

Tony shrugged. "As close as I can get without booze." He replied sullenly, his eyes drifting closed. "What was in that tea?"

"Herbs and spices designed to help you relax."

"What? No magic potion?" Tony teased, still trying to get a rise from him.

"Everything you mix is in some way a potion Tony. Whether it's coffee with sugar, soup with spices, tea with milk... it doesn't matter. It's the intention behind it that is typically ascribed to magic."

"So what? Eveybody does magic and they just don't know it?"

"Something like that." Stephen replied, coming to kneel at Tony's side. "Do you think you're relaxed enough now?"

"Mmm." Tony sighed, his eyes closed. "Considering I just woke up, I feel like I'm about to fall asleep."

"Good. Keep your eyes closed while I move us to the mirror dimension."

Tony's eyelids were so heavy when Strange spoke it was all he could do to keep the darkness from claiming him completely. Lethargy didn't even begin to describe the weight that seemed to press down on him, coaxing him to continue drifting in darkness as his mind conjured pleasing images he hadn't even known lurked there.

A pair of warm blue eyes stared back at him behind his eyelids, their depths projecting more care and concern than anyone had ever looked at him with before. It was so pure and so filled with a depth of emotion he didn't dare name that he actually whimpered at the sight, feeling tears form in the corners of his closed eyes. The tears, he realized, as he focused on keeping his reaction closed off was knowing they weren't caused by happiness, but upon seeing it and knowing instantly that this, this pure concern was what he'd been seeking all his life. Knowing that never once in his almost fifty years of life he had never been on the receiving end of such pure... love.

Another whimper that he quickly masked with a growl had him snapping his eyes open in the same moment he felt the space around him wrench and settle. A warm palm came to rest on his cheek and he found himself staring into those same blue eyes, though these held the depth of galaxies, tinged with green. It was like looking inside a storm or those Hubble images of galaxies. "Tony? Can you hear me?"

Tony blinked and struggled to sit, Strange letting go as he righted himself. "Yeah. What was that?" He asked, levelling a scowl at the wizard.

"What was what?" Strange replied, sounding confused. "I brought us to the mirror dimension."

"I know that Stephanie." Tony retorted, enjoying the scowl the name caused. "I meant, why did I just have a weird vision. Was that you?"

"You had a vision?" Strange repeated, his irritation gone in a look of concern he failed to hide. "What kind of vision? What did you see?"

This time it was Tony who scowled. Him and his big mouth. "Just a vision of someone looking at me."

"Who?"

"I don't know who." Tony snapped. "All I saw were eyes. Blue ones." He added, hoping Stephen would move on.

"Did you feel anything? Fear? Heat? Cold? Threatened?"

"No, none of those."

"Stark. We will never get anywhere if you continue giving me half answers." Stephen grated.

"Fine. I didn't feel threatened. I felt safe. Cared for." He answered, watching the wizard's face intently, willing him to drop it.

"I see. Well I can assure you that wasn't my doing. We can discuss it later if you like, but it is immaterial to our purpose here."

"Never is fine by me." He muttered. "So? Now what?"

A pained look crossed Stephen's face, but he took a deep breath and began speaking. "You'll want to interrupt me, but I ask that you don't until I finish."

When Tony only furrowed his brows Stephen continued. "The Mind Stone that is responsible for Ms. Maximoff's magic is also one of a set of gems called Infinity Stones." Tony flinched at that, his eyes widening in surprise, but he kept silent. "Normally, removing residual magic is as simple as casting a spell, locking onto the thread and removing it. Unfortunately the mind stone is more powerful than natural magic."

Tony nodded. "I get it. This won't be simple. You said that before we even came here. Get on with it Doc. What is it you don't want to tell me?"

"Depending on how embedded Wanda's magic is, I may not be able to remove it without experiencing what it did to you."

Tony blinked, letting Stephen's words sink in. "You mean you're going to feel what I felt?"

"I can't be certain, but it's a possibility. I may also experience some of your memories. Anything that might have been affected by the Scarlett Witch's magic."

"Will you remember any of it after you do your little magic trick?"

"It's possible."

"Well none of what you just said changes anything does it? You either remove the magic and learn all my dirty secrets or I live with the fact everything I do is tainted by the witch's vision. I think I prefer the former."

"Very well. Sit on the floor here and get comfortable." Stephen said, moving to sit across from him. "If anything pains you, tell me and I'll stop."

Tony scowled at him. "If it pains me, doesn't that mean you'll just have to start again?"

"Well, yes."

"Then don't stop Doc." Tony replied, his eyes boring into his. "Do what you gotta do so we can get back to the real world."

"In that case, I apologize in advance if this causes you pain. I do not wish for you to suffer any more than you already have."

Tony grunted in acknowledgment, hiding his surprise, again, and let his eyes drift closed without Stephen having to tell him. A feeling of calm warmth descended on him a moment later and then there was no room for anything else as he felt Stephen gently pressing at his thoughts to let him in.

 

 

Chapter Text

Everything was red. Red assaulted him the very instant Tony opened the way into his mind as Stephen sat, eyes closed and sent his magic seeking. A crimson red mist coloured everything he could see until it suddenly dissipated and images and words began to assault him, slow at first and then faster and faster. Connected and then not. Disjointed, out of place, overlapping until he couldn't tell one moment of time from the next.

Pain. Pain that stole his breath away. Searing heat and pain centred in his chest. His wrists hurt from the grip someone had on his arms as he struggled. Darkness, cold. Water, ice, can't breathe. Gasping, blinking away the tears from his eyes or was it water dripping from his hair? A leering smug face, cold gray eyes smirking at him as he lay paralyzed, unable to prevent those eyes from taking the one thing from him that was keeping him alive. Panic, dizzy, weak, a burning sensation radiating from his chest, collapsing to the floor. Then a brief moment of freedom, energy, the relief of being able to take a deep breath without pain.

Fire and heat replaced the elation and Stephen was spinning away from a memory he couldn't grasp. He fought the pull, seeking the red again only to find himself cold again, staring up into a dark sky while snow fell on his face, making him blink. Struggling then falling to the ground again, unable to breathe, a giant black hole looming above him threatening to leave him abandoned, alone, in darkness.

"You're selfish Tony. Where would we be if your dad had been as selfish as you?"

"Pepper, please don't go."

"I'm sleeping on the couch Tony."

"I have many words to describe you Stark."

"Artificial intelligence. You didn't even hesitate."

"She's just a kid Tony!"

"This is all your fault."

"Look what your genius has wrought Stark. The Merchant of Death."

"What are you without that suit? You aren't the kind of man to lay down on a wire."

"I'd probably just cut the wire."

Stephen heard and felt pride swell within him despite the memory not being his.

"Playing with things your mortal mind cannot even begin to understand."

"Tony Stark not recommended."

"I quit Tony. I'm done. I can't do this anymore."

"Sometimes my friends keep secrets."

"You tore us apart when you signed Tony."

"If you don't stop..."

"You did something right."

"Tony stop! It wasn't his fault."

"He killed my mom."

"He's my friend."

"So was I."

"Did you know? Don't bullshit me Rogers! Did you know?!"

"Yes."

Stephen's body twitched as the mist suddenly returned, blocking out everything before parting to show a black world. The endless cold of space and the dead. All the Avengers dead and broken at his feet. He glanced down, Rogers gasping for breath, his gaze accusing.

"You didn't save us. Why didn't you save us Tony? Why didn't you do more?"

With effort, Stephen wrenched himself free, moving his thoughts away to where he could see a bright tip of red glowing bright as it continued to thread itself into the images he saw and those that came before. He ignored the cries and growls of massive creatures flying above him, bracketed by the cold dark of space.

He reached out with his magic, grabbing hold of the red tendril that hissed and smoked at his touch as though he were dousing a fire. He weaved the cleansing power of his spell into the threads that held it there, infecting it in the same manner he would when he cleaned a wound. In seconds, he held the intrusive magic trapped and with a surge of power, he forced it to seek and destroy all in it's path, commanding it to destroy it's hold on Tony's mind.

Blurs of colour and faces rushed past him again, too fast for him to see clearly. Words and emotions roiled in his heart, almost suffocating in the darkness and how alone, how despairing it all was. He felt adrift and abandoned as his magic sought out and destroyed the red that didn't belong, rushing by faster and faster, stopping so abruptly that he gasped aloud when he was snapped out of Tony's mind and back into his astral body.

Opening his eyes, he looked at Tony whose eyes remained closed, though tears could clearly be seen on his cheeks, Stephen's heart wrenching at the sight. Working quickly, he pulled the last remnants of red from the other man, wrapping it in a ball of blue light and sent it away, back to the one it came from. He had a moment to think how it might injure the caster, shrugging off his concern with a sense of right, that it was far less than she deserved.

Focusing back on Tony, he weaved a spell of his own, healing the point of access the witch had used to gain entrance to the man's mind. As he watched, Tony's shoulders dropped, his head falling forward to rest his chin on his chest, his breathing becoming more steady. He then sent a cleansing, healing magic into him, hoping to ease any pain his interference might have caused.

With a deep cleansing breath of his own, he scanned himself, ensuring none of the witch's magic had attached itself to his aura. One more spell to cleanse and protect the space he inhabited with Tony in this dimension and then, despite his reservations, he spoke.

"Tony?" Stephen said, his voice as calm as he could make it. "Tony, can you hear me?"

"I hear you Doc." Tony replied after a minute, a soft sigh escaping him.

"You can open your eyes now." Stephen replied, waiting with breath held. "How do you feel?"

Tony lifted his head, his warm, amber brown eyes clear and bright despite what he imagined Tony must be feeling now. "Like I just had my entire life flash before my eyes. Aside from that, I'm good."

Stephen frowned. "You're good?"

"Yeah Doc." Tony nodded. "It's not the first time I've had that experience."

Stephen hummed in response as Tony took in his surroundings as though noticing it for the first time.

"This place is pretty trippy Doc." Tony said, his eyes wide with wonder. "Do you come here often?" He quipped, the corner of his mouth quirking in amusement as he laughed silently at his own joke.

"I did at the beginning of my training, yes. Not so much now."

"Waste of a good line." Tony muttered, missing Stephen's amused smile. "So is this place real?"

Stephen shrugged. "In comparison to what? If you're injured here, you're still injured Tony. The difference is that it's only your astral self that's here. On the earth plane, your physical body is at rest."

Tony nodded, but he could see the man's mind working. "Right. But this place is like having a dream. The difference is that I'll remember it when I go back."

"You can't affect the real world from in here, no. But yes, you will remember."

"Wait. Are you saying that dreams can affect the real world?"

"They can to some degree."

"Is that why you wanted to do this here?" Tony asked, waving his hand around to encompass the both of them. "Afraid of what the witch had done to affect my dreams?"

"She affected far more than your dreams Tony, but yes I was very concerned. Though it seems most of her power was focused on you and your own self-destruction."

Tony nodded as though he'd expected Stephen's answer. "So are we done here?"

"For the most part." Stephen replied, getting to his feet and holding his hand out to help Tony up. After a moment of hesitation, Tony took it and stood, letting go of his hand almost reluctantly. "You can close your eyes if you like. The transition can be unsettling."

"I'm good doc." Tony said, looking around at the fractures of light surrounding them. "Do your thing."

***

Ten minutes later Tony was sitting on the couch in his penthouse while Stephen moved around his kitchen, presumably to get him coffee. Tony wasn't sure he would swear to that being true if asked because he hadn't actually registered what Strange had said other than his own non-committal grunt that somehow Stephen had translated into one of agreement.

He had lied earlier, of course he'd lied, he scoffed, when he'd told Stephen he was fine. He wasn't, because of course he wasn't, but since when had anyone actually wanted to know how he really felt? Tony blinked as his brain tried to work out the answer to the rhetorical question he'd asked himself and wasn't that just perfect? The eccentric billionaire so far gone in his own... what was it Natasha's report had said? Right, right, textbook narcissism, egotistical. Because it was narcissistic to think anyone actually cared and wanted the truth about how he felt right? Was that narcissism? Tony didn't know. His brain wasn't actually supplying him with answers, despite the fact that it was still asking questions.

He must have gone somewhere in his head after that because the next thing he knew, Stephen had a hand on his knee, shaking him and asking if he was okay. He blinked, the red cape coming into focus first before he saw, again, the blue of Stephen's concern filled eyes watching him intently.

"What?" Tony asked, his eyes going to the mug sitting on the coffee table in front of him. "Oh, right. You made coffee." He said, shifting to pick it up but missing it completely and then being held in place by Strange's sudden pressure on his knee.

"You need to take a minute Tony." He said, his eyes still piercing as they watched him, making sure he heard.

"Didn't I already do that?" He retorted, feeling petulant and wrong. He didn't like this, this feeling of not being all there. It reminded him of the time after... after the desert. Yeah the desert. Not going to think about the actual place. Or that other one after... shit Loki and then, the murder bot and oh crap, why was he even thinking about any of this? Because next he was going to go somewhere cold and alone and that had him tensing in an instant, adrenaline coursing through him unimpeded and he flinched, actually flinched, at the pressure on his knee.

His eyes drifted down to where Stephen's hand continued to touch him and he felt Stephen follow his gaze before moving his hand up and away, shifting back to give him space. He had a moment to think, no don't pull away, before everything snapped back into the present, hitting him like a gale force wind as he let out his breath in a loud exhale.

"What the hell just happened?" He said, when he could finally, finally speak without sounding like he was gasping for air.

"The residual effect of the magic leaving your body." Stephen answered, his eyes now holding less fear concern and more plain concern that Tony couldn't quite process.

"Magic. Right." Tony repeated, sounding just as sarcastic as that answer deserved. He took another breath and when the room didn't fade out again, he reached for the mug and drank. He closed his eyes at the familiar aroma of coffee, just... coffee filling his senses and felt his entire body go limp with relief. Familiar, sane, present, safe was what it communicated to him without the need for words or gestures or... or touches. He frowned at that last thought, his mind thinking what's wrong with that? before he shook it off and met the blue-grey colour of Stephen's eyes again, only this time he returned the intensity of it with one of his own. "You'll have to do better than that Gandalf." Tony retorted, downing half the coffee in seconds as though he were dying of thirst. "Pretty sure magic alone isn't what caused... whatever the hell it was that just happened."

"Are you actually ready to discuss this now or are you projecting that you're fine so that I don't think differently?" Stephen replied, holding Tony's surprised look with an unwavering gaze.

"I'm..." Tony began and then stopped because he didn't actually know if he was fine and somehow he didn't think Stephen would believe him if he said otherwise. "I don't know."

"Well that's better than having you tell me what you think I want to hear." Stephen replied. "Better than I expected. Next question, do you actually wish to talk about this now or do you want some time to ground yourself first?"

Tony had no idea what to do with this. This weird feeling of wanting to answer honestly and having his mind supply an answer he knew wasn't true and saying it anyway. Or that he didn't want Stephen calling him on his bullshit as if that had become something important that he couldn't ignore. "I think I'd like some time. How much do you think?" He asked, the words out of his mouth before even registering he'd thought them beforehand.

Stephen stared at him in surprise, but recovered quickly. "A few hours or whenever you're ready.  I removed all traces of Ms. Maximoff's spell. You might experience some disorientation though I can't say how much with any certainty without questioning you first."

"Uh huh." Tony nodded. "Okay. What about decision making? Will there be a difference there?"

"I couldn't say."

"Right, right." Tony replied, still distracted by something he couldn't quite grasp.

"Boss?"

"Yeah FRIDAY?"

"The movers are here and Colonel Rhodes is asking if you'll be meeting him at the compound this morning."

"That's today?" Tony demanded, still feeling disconnected to what was happening around him.

"Yes boss."

Tony nodded absently and got to his feet. "Tell Rhodey I'll be there in a couple hours. Well Doctor, seems I have to take a break anyways so, see you later?"

"Of course." Stephen nodded. "Where? This new compound?"

"Yeah. Upstate New York. Kinda middle of nowhere, but not really? No civilians for a few dozen miles at least. FRIDAY can give you the address."

"I don't drive."

"Uh, okay?" Tony frowned. "You want me to send you a car?"

"That's not necessary." Stephen replied, shaking his head. "Do you have any photos of this compound?"

"FRIDAY does. Why?"

"If I can see a location beforehand I can open a portal and be there instantly."

"Okay." Tony nodded, the implications of what that meant for Siberia flitting through his mind at Stephen's answer. "So see you later then?"

"Call me when you're ready and I'll come by. If I don't hear from you, I'll see you at the compound later tonight." Stephen nodded, stepping a few feet away and opening a portal. "In the meantime, try to take it easy."

Tony snorted at that, knowing how unlikely that was to happen, but nodded as Stephen disappeared in a flash of orange sparks.

 

 

Chapter Text

Wong looked up from his morning newspaper as a portal appeared in the Sanctum and Stephen stepped through. On seeing him, Strange nodded, pausing in the doorway of the main floor library.

"How did it go?" Wong asked, taking note of Stephen's haggard look.

"I was successful in removing the witch's magic." Stephen replied, clearly distracted.

"You look like shit Strange." Wong replied to which Stephen merely nodded. It made Wong tense instantly, Stephen never agreed with him this quickly.

"I may have been a tad unprepared for how removing that curse would affect me. I need at least an hour in meditation to deal with it. Are you able to watch over things until then?"

"I"m here for the weekend Stephen."

"Oh, well good." Stephen replied. "I'll be in my room if you need me."

Wong nodded, watching Stephen leave in a sweep of his cloak as he disappeared down the hallway. After a moment's hesitation, he conjured a spell to ensure Strange had no residual magic clinging to him. When it came back clean, he nodded to himself, satisfied, and returned to his paper. A meditation would do Strange some good he concluded. Any questions he wanted to ask about the session with Stark could wait.

***

"FRIDAY? Do you have video of what happened while Strange was here?"

"Of course boss."

"Que it up for me baby girl." Tony said, turning his attention to the 80-inch screen on the wall.

"There's really not much to see boss." FRIDAY commented as the video began to play. "Doctor Strange told you not to drink coffee, you drank his tea and promptly fell asleep. You were out for exactly 38.475 minutes and then you both woke up."

"Mmm." Tony murmured. He wasn't particularly interested in the sleep part or the coffee part, though that still rankled. No, he was much more interested in the look Stephen had been giving him when he was still out of it. "Advance to when I woke up."

"Of course."

Tony watched impassively for a moment, perking up when Stephen's face was suddenly framed perfectly in the angle of the feed. "Hold there FRIDAY." Tony moved closer, drinking in the image that was frozen on the screen. There was no mistaking it, and no small relief that he now had evidence he hadn't imagined it either. Stephen Strange... cared about him, honestly cared. He remained staring at the image until FRIDAY drew him from his thoughts.

"Boss?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm monitoring several mobile calls regarding a disturbance on a ferry near Queens."

"Queens?" Tony repeated, his pulse speeding. "Shit. Tell me that's not Peter."

"It's interspersed with encrypted calls through FBI channels." FRIDAY replied, adding. "Sending coordinates to the suit now boss." Without missing a beat.

"I'm gonna kill him." Tony growled as his Iron Man suit flew through the air, forming around his body a minute later. "Auto-pilot FRIDAY, we need to be there five minutes ago." He said over a pained groan. "And you're driving since I am clearly not healed enough yet."

"Understood boss." FRIDAY answered, sending him sailing out of the Tower and diving for the Brooklyn bay. "Perhaps close your eyes until we arrive? Your heart rate is spiking and I'm sending extra hydraulic power to your injuries."

"Yeah, yeah." Tony muttered, his eyes already squeezed shut. "Beep at me when we're close."

When Tony arrived at the boat, it was all he could do to keep his anger in check. The state of the boat, the number of civilians FRIDAY's scans told him were on board, and no sign of the Vulture person he'd heard so much about. He could see FBI agents down and out on the main deck and Peter, trying to fix a problem he'd caused and failing. Badly. He was honest to god surprised how calm his voice was when he spoke, pushing half the ship back towards the other half, while FRIDAY handled the other. Working quickly, he welded the two halves together, barely suppressing his fury when Peter asked if he could help. Help? Help?!

"Boss, your pulse..." FRIDAY cautioned.

"I know." Tony huffed. "I know. Track Peter's suit. I need to have a word with the agent in charge.

***

He found Peter easily after he'd finished speaking with the FBI. None of them were particularly happy to see him, though his rescue of the ship had cooled their tempers. From there, he managed to pacify them enough over Peter's screw up with his offer to replace any lost resources and to cover any medical expenses. After assuring them they didn't have to worry about Spiderman's interference again, he took off, losing himself in the clouds for several minutes to cool his temper before coming down to Peter's location.

Tony hadn't been this angry in some time. When Peter snapped that if he really cared, he'd be there, he stepped out of the armour and it took every ounce of his control not to shake the flushed teen before him.

***

Peter blinked and clamped his jaw shut which had fallen open when Tony stepped out of the armour. Geez, he did not look good. Angry death glare aside, Mr. Stark was unnaturally pale, an angry bruise still healing high on one side of his face and several cuts were visible and still looked painful. He didn't understand what he was seeing at all. When he'd last seen Iron Man he hadn't looked at all like this, and... was he limping? Was that a flinch? Why was Mr. Stark flinching and trying to keep his hand away from his chest?

"I'm going to need the suit back." He said.

No, no, no he couldn't do that, could he? Sure he'd made a mistake, but... "Please Mr. Stark, I need the suit. Without the suit, I'm... I'm nothing."

"Then you shouldn't have it."

"I was just trying to be more like you!"

"And I wanted you to be better!" Tony snapped back. "God, I sound like my father."

Peter blinked away the tears that threatened to fall. He had never seen Mr. Stark angry before, not even when the Avengers left or when Mr. Rogers had insulted him that day at the airport. It was like...  like something else had happened and Peter had been the last straw. If that was true, there was no way he would be able to talk his way out of this. His shoulders slumped, conceding defeat. "But Mr. Stark, I don't have any other clothes."

"We'll deal with that." He said and then assembled the suit around himself and took Peter in his arms before shooting skyward. They landed at Stark Tower, Mr. Stark ordering him to stay put as he headed into a bedroom on the penthouse level. He returned a few minutes later with a t-shirt, jeans, socks and shoes and handed them over.

"Change." He growled not looking at him, his jaw clenching in anger and boy did that make him feel even more horrible. He hadn't just screwed up, he'd screwed up bad, but he was not going to cry. Not yet anyway. He took the clothes and hurried into the bathroom FRIDAY directed him to and changed quickly. It broke his heart when he folded up the suit and handed it to Mr. Stark who still wouldn't look at him.

"Let's go."

Peter nodded and let himself be picked up, having a moment of panic wondering where Mr. Stark was going to take him. He breathed a small sigh of relief when a park in his neighbourhood came into view, Iron Man dropping him off in a sheltered area where no one could see them.

"I'm sorry." Peter murmured as his feet hit the ground, but Iron Man didn't even turn his head to him before shooting back into the sky and disappearing from sight.

Feeling worse than he'd ever felt being teased at school or laughed at  by girls for being... uncool, he trudged home, wanting to crawl into a hole and never come out. He groaned aloud when he saw who waited for him at the end of his block and considered running in the other direction for a split second, but didn't and kept going.

"What's the matter kid?" Jessica drawled. "Lose at a game of chess or something?"

"No." He retorted, not looking at her. "Way worse than that."

"Can't be that bad. You haven't even graduated high school yet."

"Mr. Stark took the suit away."

"He did what?! Why? I thought he liked you."

"Yeah. Liked, as in past tense " Peter snorted. "I screwed up. Like, really, really screwed up."

Jessica let out what sounded like a long-suffering sigh and linked her arm in his to tug him down the street. "Come on kid. This sounds like an ice cream situation. We'll get some and you can tell me what happened."

***

"Well." Jessica huffed. "I can't say I disagree with what Stark did."

Peter let out an undignified squawk. "But I thought you were going to cheer me up!"

"That has nothing to do with it little spider. You do know what you did was totally stupid right?"

Peter frowned, but nodded.

"Good. The ice cream is meant to wipe that kicked puppy look off your face not absolve you of any wrongdoing. Besides, Stark likes you, I doubt this suit thing is permanent."

"But... he was so angry! You didn't see his face! He... he couldn't even look at me after."

"I honestly can't picture him angry like that kid." Jessica frowned, her eyes going distant as though she was trying to picture it.

"There's uh... something else." Peter said quietly. "Mr. Stark. He uh... didn't look so good. Not like he did when I saw him in Germany. He was real pale and he had a big bruise on his face and cuts that looked more recent, and I think maybe he was limping? Do you know anything about that?"

"He was limping?"

Peter nodded. "Yeah. And he might've been wanting to put a hand on his chest. I can't be sure or anything, but it seemed like he wanted to but he was trying hard not to."

Jessica huffed and downed the cola she'd ordered in lieu of ice cream. "I don't know anything about it. Maybe he was more injured in Germany than we thought. Stark's pretty good at hiding stuff kid."

"Well... maybe."

"Anyway, I wouldn't worry about that or the suit. Stark likes you. I've no idea why," Jessica teased making him blush, "since you're a real pain in the ass. But really kid, just give him some time. Do some normal kid stuff. Go on a date, spend time with your friends, some shit like that or whatever it is you do when you're not covered in red spandex and think of a good apology. Stark is a lot of things, but I don't think he stays mad for long."

"You really think he'll forgive me?"

"Sure. Eventually. You better now?"

"Yeah." Peter nodded. "Yeah, I am. Thanks a lot for this Ms. Jones. This was really nice of you."

"It was, wasn't it?"

Peter grimaced as he followed her out of the diner. "I get the feeling you don't do nice things very often."

Jessica snorted and gave him a sidelong glance as they made their way back to Peter's house. "You're almost as bad as Stark." She muttered. "But you're right, I don't. Anyway, I gotta run. Keep your nose clean webhead and I'll see you around."

"I will Ms. Jones. Promise."

"Good. I'm gonna hold you to that. " 

 

 

Chapter Text

Stephen appeared in the Sanctum kitchen two hours after he'd gone to meditate in his room. Wong thought he looked better, but he was still clearly unsettled from whatever had happened with the billionaire. Strange busied himself at the stove preparing a pot of tea, then brought it over to the table to share with Wong.

"The witch's spell turned out to be more embedded than I thought." Stephen began, sipping his tea carefully. "It was there long enough to entangle itself inside his memories, enough that it went deeper into the past than the witch likely intended."

"Her magic is chaotic and wielded irresponsibly, she herself is unnatural, so too her powers. But you know this already. I assume you experienced Stark's memories first hand." Wong said, making it a statement.

Stephen nodded but didn't meet Wong's eyes. "Yes. But they weren't in any sort of order from what I could tell. I believe the spell had been intended to drive Tony to have recurrent nightmares which would compel him to attempt to prevent his deepest fear from coming to pass. But it lacked any kind of control. I doubt the witch even understood that when she cast it. It should have burnt itself out, but there was too much chaos, too much raw emotion involved in her intent that it fed on his fears. When the original fear was consumed, it kept looking for more."

"Do you think the continuation of the spell left any lasting harm behind?"

"Other than exacerbating his pre-existing anxiety no. At least, I don't think so. As I said, the spell was chaotic from the start, it's original purpose burned up and all that was left was the intent to make him doubt himself, feel fear more intensely."

"And the magic? You removed it all?"

"Yes."

"What did you do with it?"

"Sent it back to her." Stephen sighed.

"Good."

Stephen blinked and met Wong's cool gaze. "What?"

"Good. She deserves no mercy for doing what she did. I hope it hurt her as much as it did her victim."

"I thought you were going to reprimand me, not agree with me. I hope I never get on your bad side Wong."

"The woman who cast that spell has no mercy or remorse in her, so she deserves none herself." Wong replied, then smirked and nodded as he got to his feet. "Have you discussed what you experienced with Stark yet?"

"No. He wasn't in the best state to discuss it and asked for some time to process. He's going to call later today after he arrives at the compound."

"What compound?" Wong asked, pausing in the doorway.

"The New Avengers compound in upstate New York. He sold the Tower."

"I see. And you have an invitation to go there?"

"I haven't agreed to join Wong." Stephen huffed.

"Maybe you should consider it." Wong said. "You might learn something and it could also get you out of the Sanctum for a while."

"I can't just leave. I'm the protector of this Sanctum."

"You are." Wong nodded. "But we have more recruits now than we did when you first came to us. And with that, I'll be here more often and the apprentices can assist me."

Stephen narrowed his eyes at him. "Why me?"

"Whether you like it or not, Stark trusts you and for better or worse he'll be in charge of whatever takes the place of the Avengers if they ever get that mess sorted. We need allies outside the order Stephen, and you've already established a basis of trust with Stark. You also know how to handle yourself in his particular social circles and I can't think of anyone better suited to the job."

"So I'm being volunteered."

Wong smirked. "We all have sacrifices to make Strange, though in your case I don't think it'll feel like one."

Stephen frowned and ran his hands through his hair. "I'll consider it if Tony asks again."

"Good." Wong nodded. "If you're feeling up to it, get some research done while you wait for Stark's call. You still have much to learn about many things."

Stephen scowled at Wong's backside and muttered under his breath. "Yes, and you're quite fond of reminding me of that every chance you get."

***

Tony returned to the Tower, his temper having cooled a bit since leaving Peter in the park. The suit disengaged from him, flying into a waiting Quinjet which was parked on the landing pad. Happy was near the Tower entrance, shifting from one foot to the other and looking worried.

"There you are!" He exclaimed, his eyes pinched in annoyance as he ran a hand through his very short hair. "I've been waiting for thirty minutes and FRIDAY refused to tell me what was going on. So, what's going on?"

"Nothing you need to worry about Hap." Tony replied, moving past him into the penthouse. He blinked in surprise at how... empty it looked. Apparently he'd been gone a lot longer than he'd thought. Almost nothing remained of his belongings, the movers having been and gone in the time he'd taken to deal with Peter and the ferry. All that remained was the furniture that was too big and too inappropriate for his new private space at the compound. Never mind that the style would never have worked as well there as it did here.

"You okay boss?" Happy asked from his left, having followed him inside.

"Yeah, yeah I'm good Hap. Just... a little shocking to see it so empty. Seems a bit surreal or something."

"Yeah, I guess it kinda does." Happy agreed. "But the new place will be great. You ready to go?"

Tony nodded, though he couldn't help the play of melancholy that washed over him and stayed stuck in his eyes, leaving them tired and a bit watery. "Yeah, I'm good Hap. Let's blow this popsicle stand."

Happy grinned and turned back the way they'd come, leading him to the Quinjet waiting outside.

Tony watched his former bodyguard climb the ramp and smiled to himself. Happy had never really liked the Tower so he knew there was little if any nostalgia keeping him from boarding. But Tony had a lot of hopes he'd be leaving behind. Hopes and dreams and plans that had seemed so easy to grasp when he'd first designed the place. From his lovingly crafted workspace, to the penthouse complete with landing pad, to the Avenger common area where he'd thrown the first ever superhero party of the decade. Only for it to come crashing down around him hours later when Ultron appeared. Then more and more bits of rubble fell as the group fractured and split until the foundation was little more than dust on the ground, with himself once again alone. Abandoned and betrayed, lies and false promises lying like corpses at his feet in the shadows of every corner of the space he was now leaving behind.

With a firm shake of his head, he turned his back on the memories and boarded the jet. He had a moment to wonder if Strange's spell had brought it all bubbling to the surface to torment him, but he banished the thought almost as quickly as it had come. He didn't believe that, since this time, the memories didn't leave him feeling as though he'd failed or done something wrong. Instead the images his mind had conjured were more like bitter ash in his mouth, his only fault lying in having too much hope and too much flexibility and not enough courage to put an end to the bullshit that had plagued his every step since he'd first let SHIELD and the Avengers tell him no and he'd listened.

"Ready to go boss?" FRIDAY asked from overhead.

He smiled and took a seat across from Happy. "More than ready baby girl. Take us home."

***

"Oh my god." Pepper breathed as she watched the video on Matt's screen. "Do you know what's on this?" She asked, frowning at Matt's dark glasses.

"More or less. Mr. Stark designed a portable Braille translator, and my sight is... different. Everything is coloured red, but between the translation and the bit I can "see" I have a good idea what it shows. But you should know that I knew about Ultron already. Tony didn't deny it when I first brought it up, but at the time I didn't know he had evidence of his innocence."

"Where did this even come from?" Pepper asked, before cutting herself off. "I mean, do you know who sent it? And why you? Why now?"

Matt smirked, a smile on his lips. "Sorry. I don't mean to make light of this, but those are all good questions. I understand this is surveillance video from Tony's lab at the Tower but I have no idea who sent it or how they got it. As for sending it to me, I would guess it has something to do with my being a lawyer."

"You're referring to the legal ramifications of releasing this to the public." Pepper stated, suddenly tense. "I don't know if we should. I mean... maybe not all of it. Ultron's creation, but... Rogers going after Tony? The twins trying to assault Bruce? And what Thor did? I don't know what to do here. At least not the parts with the Avengers."

"People need to know the truth about Ultron's creation Ms. Potts. The press, the government, SHIELD, everyone blamed Tony for Ultron and all that came after. Without evidence, without proof that he'd done anything wrong. They just accepted because no one stepped up to defend him. No one questioned how he could have created something so unbelievable, so unachievable with our existing technology. And Tony..." Matt paused to take a deep breath, having worked himself into a state. "Tony let them Ms. Potts and he didn't release this footage. He didn't tell anyone. It's not right. As for the rest of it... I agree, it's very sensitive. If we release it now, with public opinion the way it is and what happened in Germany... It would have to be a team decision, Tony's team."

Pepper realized she was staring in shock at the lawyer and closed her mouth into a tight line, glad that he was at least a little blind. "You're very good at this Mr. Murdock. I can see why you make a great lawyer." She said, her eyes flicking back to the screen.

"I may have a slight advantage there."

"What? Why?"

"I can hear a person's heartbeat. I know when someone's lying."

"So like, right now, you know exactly what I'm feeling?" She squeaked, blinking in disbelief.

"I wouldn't go that far." Matt smiled. "But better than an educated guess."

"That's... a little unsettling." Pepper pouted. "Not to mention unfair and all sorts of unethical for a lawyer."

"Foggy said almost the exact same thing when he found out." Matt replied, his smile vanishing. "He's not wrong, but I can't exactly turn it off either."

"Right." Pepper nodded, her eyes going back to the monitor. "I don't know what to do here Matt." A tear slid down her cheek then, sadness and guilt bubbling up within her. "Dammit. Why didn't he say anything? I... I believed it too. I mean, I've seen what he can do, what he can create. It wasn't hard to believe he created Ultron, no matter how impossible. I... I need to apologize. And I cannot believe the rest of them... and Bruce and Rhodes! They didn't back Tony up at all."

Matt frowned. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"No." Pepper shook her head firmly. "No, don't apologize. This is on me. I should have at least asked about Ultron. I didn't even ask Matt. He must have felt so alone."

"Ms. Potts? Mr. Murdock?"

"Yes FRIDAY?" Pepper asked.

"I hate to interrupt, but boss has just landed at the compound."

Pepper's eyes went wide, in fear or surprise, she couldn't say and she turned to Matt. "He can't see me like this. He'll know something's wrong."

"I can help delay that Ms. Potts." FRIDAY chimed overhead. "He's very anxious to see the new facility and renovations. I can keep him occupied with a tour and let you know when he's reached his new workspace."

Pepper sighed, a watery smile on her lips. "Thank you FRIDAY. You're a treasure."

"So boss keeps telling me Ms. Potts."

"I could talk to Tony about the video if you like." Matt offered.

"I appreciate the offer Matt, but he'll know you've shown it to me. It's better if I talk to him alone so he doesn't feel he's being ambushed."

"Alright." Matt nodded. "You have known him longer than I."

"Apparently not well enough." Pepper sighed, getting to her feet. "Sorry. I'll get out of your hair and freshen up. I'll let you know how it goes."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony marvelled at the renovations to the compound. When Fury had first approached him about moving the facility upstate and away from the city centre, he'd been reluctant to be involved in any of it.

Reluctant my ass, he snorted to himself. He'd cursed and swore, ripped Fury a new one and then told him to shove it up his ass and that if he couldn't find it, FRIDAY could help by supplying more than one eye. It had taken five more phone calls, several hang-ups and finally an in-person meeting before he'd even let Fury talk. Even then he'd had FRIDAY on evict protocol if the former official SHIELD Director even blinked wrong.

That Fury had finally given in to his terms had been a sweet, sweet victory, but to see it in practice... that was different. And he hadn't had to shoulder the cost for it either, which was more than just cherries on top, it was whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles.

He had more than half controlling interest in the Compound facilities, but daily cost and upkeep was split between Stark Industries, the United Nations and the countries who'd signed the Accords. He was no longer alone in the day to day BS of running a superhero facility and he had no personal involvement with the financial aspect either, with SI handling all of it.

He ran a hand over a counter in the reception area where an eager young man in a crisp black suit was answering and directing calls. His name tag, name tag, Tony repeated in his head with a smile, read Alex in gold letters. The man in question gave him startled eyes when he saw him, missing a beat in the conversation he was having before blinking and returning to his phone. He smiled up at Tony, nodded and got back to work.

Jeezus, Tony thought as FRIDAY directed him to a bank of elevators. Had he really done this alone all these years because he enjoyed being a martyr? Or was it due to Maximoff's spell? It was a sobering thought and one he didn't care to dwell on, though it reminded him of Strange and his promise to call him.

Shit, had that only been this morning? It felt like ages ago. So much had happened since this morning and he felt bad that he hadn't been able to rest like Strange had wanted and a twinge of guilt went through him. Well, he thought, the wizard couldn't fault him for having to unexpectedly save lives, though maybe he'd leave out the Peter part of the story.

Lost in thought, he stood outside his new workshop in a state of shock and disbelief, surprised he hadn't realized where FRIDAY was taking him before he got there.

"FRIDAY?"

"Yes boss?"

"Is this my new workshop?" He asked in wonder as he stepped through the doorway.

"It is."

"Holy crap!" Tony exclaimed. "It's even better than the one in the Tower! My suits, my cars! A massive desk! Drafting table complete with holographic displays? Really? Is that a smoothie bar? Oh my god... is that a dual hammock thing? Music?"

"Of course." FRIDAY replied, queuing up Metallica’s Sandman.

Tony beamed into the nearest camera and spun in place, the grin on his face so big he thought his face might crack. Then his gaze landed on the commercial Iron Man art he'd been quietly collecting over the past couple of years, framed and arranged on a far wall with its own accent lighting for each piece as though it was a priceless wonder to be treasured. It made him stop dead, his breath catching and his eyes going misty at the sight. Someone had found his hidden treasure and rather than toss it out as junk, had preserved and displayed them. He was so overcome, he put a hand to his chest to still himself, the lump in his throat making him tear up and then Pepper called his name and he froze.

"Tony?"

He couldn't move, couldn't tear his eyes away from the wall of art. He heard her heels click over the floor, the snap, snap of Pepper crossing the room the only sound as FRIDAY cut the music. Her hand came to rest on his forearm as she stepped around him to meet his eyes. She followed his gaze to the wall and a small frown appeared between her brows.

"Tony? Are you okay?"

"Yeah Pepp." He answered, closing his eyes against the rough sound of his voice. "I'm good."

"No you're not Tony Stark. You're upset about the art. I was going to tell you, but I thought it might be a nice surprise."

Tony let out a harsh laugh, fighting back tears as he opened them to her concerned look. "Colour me surprised then." He joked weakly. "I thought you hated them."

Pepper looked away giving him a moment to collect himself and turned to look at the wall. "I never hated them Tony." She protested.

"Yes you did."

"Okay, yes I did." She said, smiling at him. "But it wasn't hate really. I was angry and... resentful. It made all that curating I did seem so pointless."

"It wasn't pointless Pepp. I got a good tax write-off for that art." He teased, as the world righted itself again. "Hey? Did you see the smoothie bar? Wanna have one with me? It's fully stocked right?" He said, heading for the fridge.

"Yes it's fully stocked Tony." Pepper nodded, following him. "And I'll join you."

Twenty minutes later, they were settled on the couch, each holding a smoothie Tony had prepared.


"This is really good." Pepper sighed, taking another long sip.

"What? You thought it wouldn't be?"

"Mixing bananas, chocolate and blueberries has honestly never occured to me. I always thought it was bananas and strawberries."

"Strawberries are overrated." Tony scoffed. "Blueberries are one of the best antioxidant fruits out there. And who doesn't like chocolate? And it's not the cheap stuff either Pepp, it's cacao powder, naturally and  organically sourced from sustainable practices.”

"And?"

"And it's high in minerals and vitamins and iron. Get it? Iron?" He smirked.

"Yes Tony." Pepper sighed with an eye roll that lost its effect with the smile on her lips. "I get it."

"So, what are you doing down here?" Tony asked, arching a brow at her. "Pretty sure it wasn't because you wanted a smoothie made by yours truly."

"I might have." Pepper retorted. "But no, that's not why I came down."

"Waiting Pepp. Tick tock."

"I don't want to ruin your good mood."

Tony frowned and paused in drinking the last of his smoothie. "Too late. Leading with a line like that... spill it Potts."

"I saw the surveillance footage of your workshop from about three years ago. After you left for the party."

"Party? What party?" Tony repeated and then his eyes went wide in fear. "The Avenger party? You.. what? You... how? When?"

"About two hours ago. Someone sent it to Matt. He called me and I watched it with him."

"You weren't supposed to see that. No one was supposed to see that. How? Who sent it?"

"We don't know." Pepper replied, setting her smoothie aside and turning to face him. "Tony, I am so sorry. I should have talked to you. I should have asked... I. Shit. There's nothing I can say to make it better, but I should have trusted you more. You would never have created Ultron without hundreds of tests first, I know you would never do that. Can you ever forgive me?"

"It's... it's fine Pepper." Tony protested, hearing how false it sounded even as he said it.

"It's not fine Tony. It was never fine. Why did you let everyone believe it was your fault? No, don't answer that." Pepper shook her head. "Well it's not going to stay that way. The world needs to know that you didn't create that... that thing."

"It doesn't matter anymore Pepper. It won't change anything. People will believe what they want, they always do."

"Not this time Tony Stark. This time the videos are going to show your innocence." Pepper said, getting to her feet. "Matt and I will come up with a way to get it out to the public and a way of explaining the delay." She added when Tony tried to protest. "No. You don't get to carry this... this false guilt anymore. I won't let you, and neither will Matt."

"Pepper..." Tony repeated, getting to his feet. "It's really not the time for this, the Accords... the Avengers... Ross..."

"That video exonerates you Tony. More than that, it takes the ammo out of Ross' hands. He won't be able to use it against you ever again and neither will anyone else. Please, let me do this for you. I'll take care of everything, you won't have to be involved at all."

Tony groaned, running a hand over his eyes before letting out his breath in a loud sigh. "Fine, fine, you're going to do it anyway and if Matt's involved… I know I've already lost. But I want to know how it ended up in Matt's hands. Is he still here?"

"No. He had to meet Mr. Nelson to prepare for a trial tomorrow, but the file is on his computer."

"Alright. FRIDAY, access the file and send it to me."

"Yes boss."

"So, now that the upsetting you part of the day is over, care to tour the rest of the compound with me?" Pepper asked, using her pleading voice.

"You know the puppy dog eyes routine is playing dirty right?"

"Not if it works."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "Fine, you win. But the puppy eyes are not okay. Lead the way Ms. Potts."

***

Stephen had retreated to one of the least catalogued libraries in the Sanctum after speaking with Wong. He'd wanted to read more about invasive magic and mind spells but he also wanted to know more about the Mind Stone. It had been niggling at him all day that he'd heard of it before, that it was one of several special stones and that it was important.

The Eye of Agamotto was one, as was the Mind Stone, but that wasn't what had him pouring over every reference book he could lay his hands on. It wasn't just that Wanda Maximoff and apparently her brother too, had gained powers from a stone, it was that there were now two on Earth and that could not be a coincidence. If he remembered right, there weren't that many in the set, but the probability of having two in the same location in the galaxy was no accident. It meant something bad was coming over the horizon, the problem was, he didn't know what.

After reading a seventh book from cover to cover and having only found one reference to the stones that was not only not helpful, but irritating in its vagaries, he snapped it shut with an angry snap and looked up. And then he swore because the sun was lower than he'd thought and was casting an orangey, pink glow on the clouds hovering over the Sanctum.

He growled under his breath, cursing a certain engineer for not calling and then himself for thinking Stark would remember his promise. He marched from the library and headed to his room in search of his phone when he stopped dead and looked down at the watch face resting against his collarbone.

"I am an idiot." He muttered aloud at the same time Wong came around the corner and smirked at him.

"Idiot? No. I'd go with self-absorbed if you're trying to insult yourself."

"Don't start."

"Problems?"

"Tony didn't call and I was going to call him on my phone, but..." He said and then let his eyes drift down to the watch.

Wong followed his gaze and then laughed. "You're right, you are an idiot or you're over-tired, but with you it's likely both. Anyway, I'm heading to bed, I have an early morning tomorrow. Try not to stay out too late giving Stark that piece of your mind you want to throw at him. You haven't got enough to spare."

"Oh, shut it Wong." Stephen growled, continuing his march to his bedroom and shutting the door behind him.

"FRIDAY?"

"Yes Doctor Strange?"

"Is Tony still at the compound?"

"Yes he is."

"Do you believe he's forgotten his promise to call?"

"He's been very busy since you left the Tower earlier today Doctor Strange. I do not believe he's forgotten."

"So he didn't take any time for himself after I took him to the mirror dimension?"

"No Doctor, he had an emergency come up. Do you want to see a visual of the compound now?"

"Is he still busy?"

"He is with Colonel Rhodes at the moment."

"Alright. Show me the compound FRIDAY."

"Of course Doctor Strange." FRIDAY replied. "Coming right up."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony finished his tour of the new facility with Pepper and after assuring her he didn't hold any ill will towards her over Ultron, he met Rhodey at the front door. From there, he led his friend to his workshop to show him the prototype leg braces he'd been working on.

It took a while for them both to get past the awkward emotional part of their conversation regarding the accident and Tony's misplaced guilt. Neither man enjoyed that part, so it was with no small relief when Tony and FRIDAY helped fit Rhodey with the braces and then headed upstairs to the physical therapy room to test them.

"So, how are they?" Tony asked anxiously after Rhodes had made four circuits back and forth on the parallel bars.

"Stop that Tones."

"Stop what?"

"Stop thinking any of this is your fault. This is my job. After all the missions I've flown, an accident like this is always in the cards. Sure, it sucks right now. I mean, it really, really sucks. But it was an accident and that's all it was."

"But..."

"I'll kick your ass if you don't stop Tony. Now help me into the chair."

"Right, okay." Tony nodded, getting an arm around his friend and gritting his teeth against the twinge of pain in his chest.

"Thanks." Rhodey nodded from his wheelchair. There was a glint in his eye as he watched Tony with suspicion. "So what's going on with you? You seem different."

"What do you mean? I'm just happy to have my Platypus back."

"No that's not it. I'm not doubting that part Tones, but you seem a lot calmer than you were before, except for the flinching you've been doing since I got here."

"Flinching? What flinching?"

"Tony."

"Excuse me?" A voice from the door called. "Is there a Tony Stank here?"

Rhodey laughed and nodded at the grey haired man who was holding a Fedex package in his hand. "Sure is. This is Tony Stank. Tony Stank, table for two, right here by the washroom. Never gonna let that one go."

"You're horrible." Tony muttered as he signed for the package, turning it over in his hands.

"Never Tony." Rhodey repeated with a smirked. "So what's in the package? Who's it from?"

Tony frowned at it. "I don't know. There's no return address. Doesn't feel like much though, it's pretty light."

"Boss?" FRIDAY interrupted overhead. "There's a call for you from Secretary Ross."

Tony and Rhodes shared a dark look. "Be there in a minute Fri."

"Well, while you deal with that, I'll be in the common room getting a drink." Rhodey said, wheeling himself to the door.

"Wait for me Rhodey-bear. This won't take long and I have some new beer labels I want to show you."

"Fine." Rhodey sighed. "But don't take any of Ross' bullshit."

"Oh I won't." Tony said with a wink. "I'm gonna put him on hold."

***

"Stark?" Ross barked when Tony picked up, loud enough that he held the phone away from his ear. "We have a problem. There's been a break out at the Raft."

"That's terrible." Tony replied, suppressing the shudder that ran through him. "Let me just put you on hold. Got another call coming in."

"Stark! Stark don't you dare! This is an issue of international secu..."

Tony glared at the phone that now lay in its cradle, the line blinking about a parked call. The tremor he'd suppressed vanished in an involuntary chill that travelled up his spine and disappeared. He swivelled in his chair, his gaze falling on the Fedex package and irritation replaced his earlier discomfort. No return address, call from Ross... it wasn't hard to guess who had sent it and he glared at the offensive thing.

He didn't want to know what was in it. Didn't want his suspicions confirmed, at least not now when he was feeling good and Rhodey was waiting for him. With a grunt and a pleased look at the blinking phone line, he got to his feet and joined Rhodey in the hall.

The package and Ross could wait. Especially since he had no interest in Ross' problem. Escaped prisoners were not his responsibility. He wasn't about to let Ross manipulate him into helping him fix it either. Let him explain to the UN where he'd imprisoned the rogue Avengers and why. Let him explain to his superiors and everyone else the existence of the Raft and why it had been kept secret. None of it had anything to do with Tony, his company or the Accords.

***

"So what do you think of the new labels?" Tony asked, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

" Wit Dream and So Heffin Good . What? Are we on a ranch now?"

Tony tsked at him and took a seat by Rhodey's wheelchair, cradling a coffee in his hands. "No. I just thought you'd find it funny."

“I suppose it is funny. So why not get off your ass and get me a bottle of Heffin Good and I'll try it."

"Really?" Tony asked, surprised as he crossed to the fridge. "I didn't expect you'd actually want one." He added, handing Rhodes the chilled bottle.

Rhodey looked at it a moment before taking a swig. "Not bad for a microbrew."

"Good to know." Tony replied, sipping more coffee.

"So. You gonna tell me what's going on with you? And don't tell me it's nothing. I've seen you wincing and I'm not imagining you tapping your fingers against your leg to keep from touching your chest."

"I wasn't going to tell you it's nothing." Tony sighed, staring at his coffee mug.

"That's a first." Rhodes grunted. "Well?"

"It's complicated." Tony muttered. "And a long story and not the good kind."

"I already figured that much out." Rhodey retorted. "Just tell me Tony. What happened after Germany?"

"Yes." Strange said from the doorway, drawing yelps of surprise from both men. Tony's face drained of colour before flushing pink as he met Stephen's angry glare. "What happened in Germany Tony?"

"Who the hell are you?" Rhodey barked, moving his wheelchair you block Stephen's progress. "Who is this guy Tones?"

Stephen arched a brow in Tony's direction, making him frown back at him. "I was going to call Strange, I've been busy."

"Busy." Stephen snorted. "I told you to take it easy, not fill your damn schedule."

"Woah, woah woah!” Rhodey exclaimed, looking back and forth between the two men. "Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?"

Tony grunted and met Rhodey's gaze. "Colonel James Rhodes, meet Doctor Stephen Strange. Doc, this is my best friend, Rhodey."

"Doctor?" Rhodey repeated, eyeing Strange's odd clothes and equally odd cape.

Stephen's glare softened as he turned to shake Rhodey's hand. "Pleasure to meet you Colonel." He said, catching Tony's nervous look. "Perhaps it would be better if I told Mr. Rhodes what happened while you take a moment?"

Tony blinked surprised eyes at Stephen. He didn't know what to do with the abrupt change in Strange's mood, but the thought of telling Rhodey what happened in Siberia... damn. What the hell was Strange up to? It was unnatural to have someone volunteer to spare him discomfort.

"Tony?" Rhodey prompted.

"Uh. That... I would appreciate that Stephen. If you're really okay with it."

"I am." Stephen nodded, his face unreadable. "Perhaps you could wait for us in your office? If you have one?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah, I would appreciate you telling him what happened after Germany." Tony nodded, getting to his feet.

"Then that's what I'll do." Stephen replied, understanding that Tony was not giving him permission to discuss Wanda or the mirror dimension. Not that he'd planned to. The less people who knew about the existence of other dimensions, the better. And even if Rhodes hadn't sided with Tony over Ultron, it wasn't his business and he didn't want to talk about the witch anyways.

"For the record, I can tell you two are having this whole other conversation without me and I'm telling you both right now, I am not happy about it." Rhodey growled.

"Okay." Tony agreed, ignoring Rhodey's outburst. "I'll uh... I'll just wait in my office then."

"Have some tea." Stephen said as he turned his attention to Rhodey who was watching him with an expression of shock and confusion. "If you'll come with me Colonel, I think we should discuss this somewhere more private."

"Uh, okay Doc. If Tony's okay with this, then lead the way. But call me Rhodey, I've never liked being called by my rank outside of work."

"Of course, Mr. Rhodes. This way."

 

~~~~~

Beer label names provided by @amokeh 😊💖

Chapter Text

Tea. Tony scoffed as he stepped into his office. He looked around the large space, taking in the giant picture window that looked out over the grounds, the oak desk and the small bar that held not a drop of alcohol. He leaned against the desk, his eyes on the bar.

Away from Rhodey and Stephen, and combined with the silence of the office had him rethinking his earlier dismissal. He was tired and tense and a cup of tea didn't actually sound that bad. With a grunt, he crossed to the small kitchenette and got to work making a pot of tea.

***

"Are you serious right now?" Rhodey demanded, glaring up at Stephen from his chair.

Strange had portalled them both back to the Sanctum and once Rhodey had recovered from his surprise, Stephen told him everything he knew about Siberia.

"I'm afraid so." Stephen replied.

"I can't believe any of this." Rhodey groaned. "I mean, yeah I could tell Tony was hiding something, but Rogers... I just, I can't believe he did this. I mean, I watched the video you have but I can't reconcile it with the man I fought beside."

"I understand." Stephen agreed. "I had the same problem when I first saw it."

Rhodey nodded and let out a sigh. "I don't know why or how you got Tony to tell you the truth, but... I'm glad you were there for him. Do you know how badly he was injured?"

"He had mild hypothermia by the time I reached him, as well as several cuts and contusions and his suit was damaged. So I know what Captain Rogers did but not what Tony's doctor had to say about it."

Rhodey sighed loudly, his shoulders slumping. "Yeah, he does that. Always hiding, always putting on the public face... all Howard's influence. "Stark men are made of iron." He was always saying that kinda shit to Tony, never a kind word or a scrap of encouragement. Then Howard died and... and I've been trying to get him to tone down the act for years, but..." Rhodey broke off and stared at Stephen for a few minutes. "Look Doc, I gotta be straight with you. In all the years I've known Tony, he's never let someone get as close to him as you have in such a short time. If he's going to talk to anyone, I think it'll be you."

"I appreciate your openness Mr. Rhodes, but I don't see that. I did help him it's true, but it's purely professional courtesy. I'm a Master of the Mystic Arts and the protector of the New York Sanctum. It's my job to deal with anything of a mystic nature and Tony came to me for help with Ms. Maximoff."

"Tony asked for your help? With magic?" Rhodey couldn't conceal his shock. "Sorry Doc, but you just proved my point. Tony doesn't talk about magic with anyone. Not since Loki. The fact he came to you and trusted you... yeah, you're the only one who's gonna get the truth out of him."

"What are you saying?" Stephen asked, scowling at him.

"Look. You don't know me and I don't know you. But I know Tony and based on what you've said, he trusts you. If you want to help, you have to be the one to ask him. He'll tell you, I'm sure if it." Rhodey explained, though it was clear Strange wasn't convinced.

"Am I to understand that you want me to befriend him?"

"That's precisely what I'm saying."

Stephen narrowed his eyes at the other man. "Aren't you his best friend?"

"Haven't been doing the greatest job with that lately. Probably not since Ultron. Look, I get it. Tony isn't the easiest guy to deal with, but I wouldn't ask if I didn't think he'd talk to you."

Stephen sighed. "Alright. I'll see what I can do. Are you ready to return to the compound?"

"Yeah." Rhodey nodded as Strange brought out his sling ring and created a portal. "Gotta say Doc, that's some pretty cool shit you got there. And is Doctor a real title? Were you a doctor before all the magic stuff happened?"

"Yes." Stephen nodded, following him through the portal and back into the compound's common room. "I was a neurosurgeon and then I was in an accident. After wasting a lot of time looking for the impossible I found something else to give my life purpose."

"I hope that's not a subtle hint Doc." Rhodey joked as he wheeled himself into the common area of the compound.

Stephen flushed and looked away making Rhodey wish he'd kept his mouth shut. "No, no hint." Stephen stammered.

"Shit Stephen, I didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry. So, what happened that you had to retire from being a doctor? If you don't mind me asking."

"My hands were crushed. Over a dozen surgeries and yet they will never hold a scalpel again."

"I've got the worst case of foot in mouth disease ever. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make a joke about what happened to you."

Stephen sighed and let the tension ease from his shoulders. "It's all right Mr. Rhodes, I rather expected it when I brought it up. Your recent injury is causing your body to produce more antibodies to try and repair what happened. Since it can't do that, it has to go somewhere and in most cases it results in an amplified emotional state, usually anger or aggression."

"Right well, I guess I should be grateful it takes a lot to upset me then. And Doc? Call me James. Care to join me in a drink? I never got to finish my beer from earlier."

"I'll join you James, but I think I'll stick with tea. I still need to talk to Tony and it's been some time since I had alcohol."

Rhodey nodded. "I can see that. Booze and brain surgery don't exactly mix."

"No, they don't." Stephen chuckled.

***

Tony was alone in his office for all of one hour, sipping tea that eventually went cold before he could finish it when Jessica appeared in his doorway. He raised a brow at her, taking in the tension in her shoulders and the pinched look in the corners of her eyes. She closed the door behind her and crossed the room to lean against his desk, her arms holding her up as she stared into his eyes as though looking for something.

"Stark."

"Jones." He replied, frowning up at her. "I wasn't expecting to see you here. Something wrong?"

"You took Parker's suit away."

"Yeah I did. How do you know about it?"

"Saw him just after it happened." She said, pushing off the desk to slump into one of the black leather chairs across from him. "Didn't think you had it in you."

"He screwed up. Royally."

"Yeah, I know." Jessica tsked. "He told me everything."

"Okay." Tony replied, hesitant. "Sounds like you agree with me, so that can't be why you're here."

"It's not."

Tony sighed. "You want me to guess?"

"Kid said you looked more injured than he remembered from when we last saw you. Wanted to see for myself." Jones retorted, glaring at him. "Seems he was right. So what happened? Who kicked your ass after Germany? I thought all but Rogers and his boy toy were in jail."

Tony frowned at her but said nothing. He'd forgotten about the kid and how different he looked since Siberia. He should have known Peter would say something, though to be fair, he hadn't expected it to happen the same day. He could see the moment Jones put it all together, her eyes narrowing in anger before she spoke.

"You're shitting me. You went after Rogers and Barnes alone?! What the hell is the point of being your bodyguard if you don't let me guard it? What the hell were you thinking? And what the hell happened anyway? Where's Rogers now?"

"Yes, I went alone. I wasn't about to let anyone else go against the Accords and I don't know where Rogers is now."

"Goddammit Stark! I told you, Matt told and I'm pretty damn sure others have told you that you're needed here. No one else can be in charge of this new Avenger thing you've got going or deal with these Accords. When the hell are you going to stop risking your life unnecessarily and get that through your damn head?" Jones demanded, her face flushing in anger.

"An excellent question." Stephen said from where he stood in the doorway,  concern in his eyes as he met Tony's glare, Jessica turning at the same time to stare at the intruder.

"Who the hell are you?" She snapped.

"Doctor Stephen Strange. And you are?"

"Jessica Jones."

"You're Tony's volunteer bodyguard."

Jessica snorted. "That's right, but I'm no volunteer. I get paid."

Stephen nodded as he moved further into the room, his eyes going to Tony who was sitting tense like a cat about to spring away while he and Jones' talked. He met Stephen's eyes and for the first time, he couldn't read the look he saw in them and his pulse began to speed.

"Tony?"

"That's my name." He replied, but there was no emotion there. Almost as though he'd shut down the instant the door had opened. "I suppose you want to have that talk now."

Jessica looked between the two of them, her eyes still narrowed in anger before seeming to come to some kind of decision. "I'll let you two talk then." She said, moving to the door. "But this better not happen again Stark. I don't appreciate having my job made redundant by the very person I'm supposed to be working for. You might not care, but this is my job and I take it very seriously."

"Yeah." Tony nodded. "I think I got that loud and clear."

Stephen locked the door the moment Jessica left and crossed to the chair she'd just vacated and sat down. "What's wrong Tony?"

Tony shook his head, ignoring him. "Does Rhodey want a divorce?"

"What?" Stephen exclaimed.

"You told him what happened in Siberia. I doubt he took it well."

"He's pissed on your behalf since he knows you're blaming yourself for what happened. He also said that I should be the one to talk to you about it."

"He said that?" Tony exclaimed. "Why?"

"I think you should ask him that." Stephen replied. "I know there's something else going on with you but I don't believe this is the place to discuss it. Is there somewhere in this facility where we can have some privacy?"

"Yeah." Tony nodded, getting to his feet. "I have my own space here. It's this way."

 

 

Chapter Text

"This is a house Tony." Stephen drawled as they stepped inside the building they'd reached through a glass enclosed walkway.

"Uh, yeah. It is." Tony replied, moving to the open concept kitchen area. "You want a drink or something?"

"Tea please." Stephen said, taking a seat on a kitchen stool. "When you said you had space here I imagined your own rooms, not your own building."

Tony shrugged as he got their drinks ready and joined him at the counter. "Part of the deal I made when I sold the Tower. Private place, separate from the compound, but still on the grounds. I'm... sort of in charge of things until the Accords are ratified."

"And what about after?"

"Controlling interest, but I can choose who takes over running the Initiative. And, if I want more than one person handling everything, I can do that too."

"That's unexpected." Stephen replied. "I would have thought you would want to be in charge."

Tony gave a snort of laughter and arched an eyebrow at him. "Really Doc? I gave Pepper the job of running SI years ago and never looked back. I like inventing things, fixing things, testing theories. I'm more mechanic/scientist than anything else. Meetings bore me to death and I have zero interest in the day to day. Since Iron Man, my priorities have shifted a lot and I'd rather have people I trust running this place than do it myself. I've had enough of being responsible for everything to do with SI for long enough, I sure as hell don't want to replace it with Avenger business."

"But with controlling interest won't you have that anyway?"

"No, it just means that if I don't like the way things are being handled I can change it. I get updated about how everything is progressing like any investor which means because this is a joint agreement, the other half is responsible for proving to everyone else why their way works better."

"That seems a tad unorthodox." Stephen noted, sipping the tea Tony had prepared for him.

"That's cuz it is." Tony smiled. "It was the only way I would agree to move the compound upstate and remain involved. Whether they admit it or or not, the UN and everyone behind the Accords need me. Without my support, public opinion of the Avenger Initiative would be a hard sell. Iron Man is popular, despite everything the rest of the Avengers have done. So even with the Accords and all the shit Ross likes to spew, the UN knows they need supers to deal with things the rest of the world can't. Without me, they can't sell that to the public."

"I'm impressed." Stephen smiled. "You seem to have covered the bases quite well."

"Not well enough." Tony huffed into his coffee.

"If you're referring to Siberia, you need to stop. None of that was on you . Steve Rogers kept something from you. Your teammate and friend lied to you while taking advantage of your generosity. You're not responsible for the choices of others Tony, it's time you realise that."

"Hard habit to break Stephen. And I'm not sure anymore if any of them were ever really my friends." Tony sighed. "So... I suppose you want to talk about that now."

"No, actually." Stephen said, surprising him. "I thought we could just talk for a bit. Your AI told me you weren't able to relax after I left this morning. Would you like to talk about your day?"

Tony blinked at him several times as though he'd heard him wrong. He shook himself then frowned. "You want to talk about my day?"

"If you like." Stephen replied, a small crease forming between his brows. "We don't have to."

"If you wanna do that, let's move to the couch. It's more comfortable." Tony said, getting to his feet and crossing the room to settle on a large, black leather couch.

Stephen followed, setting his tea on the coffee table while Tony asked his AI to turn on some ambient music. The gas fireplace beneath the wall-size television screen roared to life, bathing the room in a warm glow in the fading sunlight.

"Don't you have wizardy things to be doing?" Tony grumbled from where he'd curled his feet under him like a cat. "I'm sure hearing about my day isn't in the top ten of fun things to do Stephen."

"I'll be the judge of that." Stephen retorted, drawing a surprised look from the other man. "As for my work, you are my priority at the moment. Wong is watching over the Sanctum so he'll alert me if anything needs my attention."

" I'm your priority?" Tony blurted. "Why?"

"Because of what was done to you of course. Mind manipulation is a very serious personal attack. I need to know more in order to prevent it from happening again so I can recognize its influence in any others this Wanda may have targeted."

"Right." Tony nodded, a tiny crease between his brows. "So I'm a patient."

"I thought we'd already established this? I told you before that I would like to be your friend. I don't understand why that's so difficult a concept."

"And I told you , few people want to be my friend unless they want something from me." Tony retorted. "I'm not trying to be difficult Stephen. I just don't have much experience with friends and no strings attached. Forgive me if I have a hard time accepting you at your word."

"Then I suppose my actions will have to speak for me." Stephen replied, a challenge in his eyes.

Tony chuckled. "Oh, you're on Doc. So what do you want to know? Or can we talk about you instead?"

"You want to talk about me?" Stephen startled.

"Is that so hard to believe? Sure, you told me a few things but it was all pretty casual. I'd like to know more about the guy who sorta saved my life."

"I suppose that's fair." Stephen agreed though Tony could still see the disbelief in his eyes. "What would you like to know?"

"Why a cape?" Tony asked, bobbing his head in the cloak's direction. "Do you have any idea how dangerous they are? They can get caught on stuff, tangled around things, used against you... basically, it could make it easier for you to be hurt."

Stephen blinked at Tony's line of thought. He had never met anyone who so easily could give voice to every thought they had without considering how it might be received. He'd thought the tabloids accurate in saying the genius was arrogant, but he'd been wrong.

The real Tony Stark merely thought faster than anyone he spoke to, save a handful of people, and truly didn't care what people thought. The result made a casual observer think him arrogant, but that wasn't it at all. He was more curious than any cat or child he'd ever encountered, the man was a menace for his curiosity alone and yet... so charming, endearing and precious. How was it possible that after everything Tony had been through, he could still sound so genuinely innocent and desperate for knowledge?

"Yo... Mister Wizard? Gandalf? You with me? I thought you wanted to talk? Yet here you are spacing out. You know, if I wanted to be ignored, I'd just wait for Bruce to come back so he can fall asleep on me again."

Okay, maybe not so charming when calling him names, but it rankled that he'd been called out on his inattention. "I apologize." Stephen replied. "I'm still trying to get used to the way you phrase things. It's as though you have a stream of thought and everything you've ever thought on any subject just comes out."

"Uh... okay. Which part tripped you up?"

"Bruce fell asleep on you? Is this Dr. Banner you're talking about?"

"Yeah he did. Is that it?" Tony frowned.

"I've noticed you have a habit of only mentioning random things that bother you when you want someone to notice them. It's as though you say it out loud to give it a voice and when no one comments on it you can continue believing that no one wants to hear about it. So, what were you discussing when Dr. Banner fell asleep?"

Tony gaped at him for a good two minutes before narrowing his eyes in irritation. "You know, at first I thought your observation skills were kinda hot, but now it's just annoying."

Stephen smiled back at him, his eyes filling with amusement. "You think I'm hot?"

A look of horror replaced the irritation, followed by a swift flushing of cheeks and eyes looking down and away. " What?! No! I never said that! I said I admired your observation skills."

"You said it was hot."

Tony crossed his arms over his chest. "Fine, yes, I said it was hot. Happy now? I also said it was annoying so you can stop showing off any time. Now would be good."

"Very well."

"Stop that." Tony growled accusingly.

"Stop what?"

"Sounding smug." Tony retorted, now clearly flustered. "Now I forgot what we were talking about. Thanks for that. Oh right, you. And the cape."

At that, the Cloak's collar twitched in a show of indignation from where it rested on Stephen's shoulders, then it hunched and loomed as though glaring at Tony.

"Okay, that's just creepy." Tony said, his eyes glued to the cloak in a mix of horror and curiosity. "Tell it to stop looking at me like that."

"No. I think you hurt it's feelings."

"I did what now? It's a cape Stephen."

Stephen sighed and rubbed calming strokes over a corner of the fabric to keep it from leaping at the other man. "It's really not. It's called the Cloak of Levitation. It's sentient and has a mind of it's own. It chose me when I did something to make it deem me worthy of becoming my companion and protector."

"So you're a flying wizard?" Tony smirked. "That's awesome. But really? A sentient cloak? You expect me to believe that?"

"Would it kill you to show some modicum of respect?" Stephen growled, his patience waning.

"Well no, it probably wouldn't, but fine, Doctor Strange . I'm sorry for poking fun at you. Would you mind telling me the story about you and the Cloak of Levitation? I promise I won't laugh."

"That remains to be seen." Stephen retorted. "But very well, I'll tell you."

"Hold that thought Doc. I'll get us a refill first." Tony interrupted, launching himself up from the couch.

"Stephen."

"Sorry, Stephen." Tony sighed as he puttered in his kitchen. "You really are sensitive about the name huh?"

"I am."

"Good to know." Tony replied, setting a small pot of brewing tea on the coffee table and taking a seat. "Okay, I'm ready. Tell me a story Doctor Strange."

 

 

Chapter Text

"I can understand wanting to keep your title." Tony nodded thoughtfully. "You worked hard for it only to lose it all in the accident."

"The former Sorcerer Supreme was more than a little surprised at my insistence. I don't think she really understood why."

"Well I do." Tony replied, though his voice had gone quiet and Stephen could sense the man was retreating into himself. "It'd be nice to have something like that to hold onto, to remind me how far I've come."

"What do you mean? I'm not sure I follow."

Tony sighed and slouched back into his chair. "Before Afghanistan I didn't take much of anything seriously. It took being kidnapped and tortured for me to change that about myself, but it did nothing for my reputation. I didn't help spread the rumours or the blackmail videos that got put online but... the damage was done. I had nothing to fall back on for credibility when I announced the shutdown of all SI's military contracts. No one believed I was serious. No one accepted that I meant what I said at that press conference I gave."

"Blackmail videos?" Stephen repeated. "Those... revealing videos the press couldn't stop talking about? They were taken without your consent?"

Tony flushed and looked away. "All of it was without consent Stephen."

"All?" Stephen gasped. "You could have taken those people to court. Defamation of character, coercion, abuse..."

Tony nodded. "Yeah, I could have. If I  remembered any of it."

Stephen scowled and put a hand to the back of Tony's, which was resting on the space between them and gave it a squeeze. "I'm sorry you had to go through that."

"Why?" Tony demanded, his eyes wide but didn't he pull away from Stephen's touch. "You didn't do anything. And I put myself in that situation, no one forced me."

"They did if you were drunk. You can't consent if you're impaired Tony. I think you know that, though maybe you don't."

"I was looking for it Stephen. How is that not consent?"

"You were looking to be videotaped and then blackmailed and humiliated?"

"Of course not." Tony retorted with a frown. "I just... didn't want to be alone for a while. And drinking helped me not care that most of them would want nothing to do with me afterwards."

"That's a terrible belief to have of yourself."

"Why? It's true. None of them ever stayed. The only people who stick around are the ones I pay to be there the next day."

"Is that why you started dating Ms. Potts?"

"Maybe?" Tony replied, sighing loudly. "I honestly don't know how to answer that but that didn't work out either. She can't accept me as Iron Man and I'm not prepared to stop being him. It took me a while to understand why it would never work, but it wasn't fair to either of us for me to pretend giving up Iron Man wouldn't hurt."

"No one should have to change who they are to please someone else. Personal improvements not withstanding of course, but not as a condition to loving someone."

Tony chuckled. "Personal improvements? Is that a subtle hint that I need to take better care of myself? You sure you aren't a shrink?"

"I would never presume to tell you what to do." Stephen retorted haughtily, though a corner of his mouth twitched in a smile.

"Don't give me that Doctor Wizard. You've been itching to tell me what to do the moment we met, and in fact, you already have. Several times."

"Well I wouldn't have to if the patient in question didn't continue ignoring doctor's orders." Stephen sighed. "But that doesn't mean I don't understand."

"You aren't going to chew me out for not taking it easy after you left?" Tony exclaimed, the expression on his face one of complete shock.

"I'm not your mother and you're a grown man. Though I suspect your ego had been overgrown far longer than you've been legal. I would like to know why though."

Tony blinked in confusion having completely gotten lost in Stephen's shocking display of respect for his boundaries. "Why what?"

Stephen sighed. "Never mind. Tell me what happened after I left the Tower. And what was Miss Jones doing here besides yelling at you?"

"Oh that." Tony huffed, staring at his hands. "There's this kid in Queens who is uh... well he's Spiderman."

"A kid?" Stephen repeated, sounding shocked. "You mean the one who was in Germany with you?"

"Yeah."

Stephen narrowed his eyes. "What happened? And how old is this... kid?"

"Sixteen-ish?" Tony sighed. "He's been looking for hotspots in Queens after school and he stumbled on an illegal weapons dealer. I told him to stay out of it, focus on being a kid, helping out everyday folks... but he didn't."

"Of course he didn't. And?"

"And after you left I had to go there to save a ferry from sinking with close to a hundred passengers and a group of federal agents who were on board. Then I took away Pete's suit."

"Federal agents? What about the weapons dealer?"

"The bad guy got away. The feds were there because I passed Peter's Intel to them and he got in the middle of it and blew it. And I made Pete a new and improved Spiderman suit, it's what enabled him to find the weapons dealer in the first place."

"So why was the ship sinking?"

"According to the agents on site, Spiderman attacked this Vulture person and broke off one of the weapons from the guy's suit. Unfortunately, it was turned on when he did and it cut the ship in half."

Stephen was silent for several minutes after Tony finished speaking and he grew increasingly uncomfortable. As time stretched, the tension between them became too much and he had to speak.

"Look Strange, I know it's my fault. I should never have given the kid a new suit or encouraged him to keep doing what he was doing. I screwed up, so I took the suit back."

"I don't believe what happened was your fault Tony. Though I have to ask why you took him to Germany with you." Stephen said quietly.

"I know I... wait, what?" Tony blinked wide eyes at him. "You... don't? Uh... okay. That's... not what I was expecting. Like at all."

"You asked him to stay out of it. He didn't listen, it's not unusual for a teenager to ignore such things. But why Germany?"

"I don't know." Tony sighed. "I wanted to give him a chance to be part of a team, show him I believed in him. I was keeping an eye on him for a while before that and it was Steve Rogers... Captain freaking America! He wasn't supposed to be in any real danger."

"He was injured?" Stephen gasped.

Tony shrugged. "Sorta? I mean Steve  dropped a truck trailer on him and that bug guy swatted him out of the sky like he was a gnat. But not seriously hurt, no."

Stephen narrowed his eyes and Tony didn't miss the muscle twitch in his jaw. "The more I hear about the great Steve Rogers, the more I dislike him."

"Yeah well, Pete wouldn't have gotten hurt if I hadn't brought him with me."

"Perhaps not the best place to test his abilities, but I can understand your motive and your reasoning." Stephen replied, giving him a small smile. "So you took the suit away, was there more?"

"No. That's pretty much it. I was pretty pissed after but what do I know about kids? Maybe I could've done things differently."

"I'm no expert either, but taking the suit back seems appropriate given the circumstances."

"Really?" Tony replied, unable to hide his shock.

"Yes. Really." Stephen smiled.

"You know Stephen, I'm not used to having anyone... agree with me so readily. I'm not sure if I should pinch myself or kiss you."

"Definitely pinch yourself." Stephen smirked.

"So kissing is off the table then?" Tony teased.

"Not indefinitely." Stephen replied, making Tony's pulse race. "Though I do think we should call it a night. It's getting late."

"Shit, you're right." Tony agreed, glancing out at the night sky, too nervous to continue the flirting he'd started. "Sorry I kept you out so late. We still haven't talked about what you did for me this morning."

"It's alright Tony " Stephen said, getting to his feet. "These things take time to resolve, and I enjoyed our conversation."

"Oh! Well okay." Tony stammered, getting to his feet. "I enjoyed it too. Thanks for coming by, and I hope I'm not taking you away from anything important."

"Wong can handle things when I'm away. And right now, you are the most important thing on my agenda." Stephen replied, conjuring a portal. "Anything Wong can't handle alone he'll call me, so there's no need to worry. I'll be in touch. And don't hesitate to call if something comes up regarding the mirror dimension or Wanda's magic alright?"

"I promise Stephen." Tony smiled. "I've got you on speed dial."

Stephen raised an eyebrow at him as he stepped through the portal. "Um, right. Goodnight Tony."

"Night Stephen." Tony replied. "And don't think for a minute I'm letting that kissing comment go."

Seconds before the portal closed, Stephen flushed at his parting words, leaving Tony feeling warm and pleased with himself.

 

 

Chapter Text

Scott paced the living area of the apartment he'd been staying in since his meeting with T'Challa. Currently, he was waiting to hear back from the king or one of his people on whether or not the Accords council would allow him to come home. Nothing else mattered but seeing Cassie again.

He'd been pacing and singing one of Cassie's favourite songs under his breath for the past half hour when a knock came at his door. He froze a moment before hurrying across the room to open it, fully expecting to see the king. His jaw dropped when Barton's pale grey eyes stared back at him, a scowl on his lips.

"So here's where you slunk off to." Clint drawled, eyeing him with suspicion. "Gonna invite me in or do I have to force the issue?"

"There's no need for that Clint." Scott retorted, stepping to the side to let him pass. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Clint rolled his eyes as he took in the spacious room. "Nice digs. And duh, looking for you jackass. What's going on? You waiting to be interrogated or something?" Clint continued, snagging a beer from the fully stocked kitchen.

"Interrogation?" Scott repeated, confused. "No, I'm not being interrogated. I doubt anyone doesn't know what happened in Berlin by now. It's all over the news."

"Yeah, just like Stark to have any excuse to be in the limelight." Clint snapped bitterly.

Scott rolled his eyes and closed the distance between them while Clint took a deep pull of his beer. "Look man, I really don't get what your issue is with Stark but you need to drop it. He's not even in the news right now. Hell, no one has seen him for weeks and people are starting to ask questions."

"What the hell are you talking about Lang?" Clint scoffed. "If Stark's disappeared I can guarantee it's just another PR stunt. He loves those things."

"Could you shut up about Stark for five seconds?" Scott swore. "Christ, are you even listening to yourself? I'm not being interrogated, I'm waiting to hear if there's a way I can get home to see my daughter. And does T'Challa know you're here?"

"Of course he doesn't know. I slipped out of our old room and came here. No one saw."

Scott blinked at the man's blatant arrogance. "Seriously? If T'Challa didn't want you here, you wouldn't have made it two feet. For a spy you have some serious blind spots."

"Whatever." Clint waved a hand at him in impatience. "What do you mean, see your daughter? There's no way to do that unless you plan to betray the team and sign those stupid papers."

"Stupid papers?" Scott repeated, gulping his own beer just to drown out the other man's idiocy. "Have you even bothered to read the damn thing? Because it's nothing at all like what Cap keeps saying it is."

"Ah man, did Stark get to you?"

"Oh for the love of..." Scott growled, his voice rising in anger. "I can damned well think for myself Barton! I sure as hell don't need Steve Rogers telling me what to think and believe and my lips aren't glued to his ass like you and the rest of them. Stark had nothing to do with the Accords. Do you get that? Are you hearing what I'm saying? This was not an SI coup or whatever the hell you freaks think it is. This is over 100 countries telling supers all over the world that they've had enough. They are sick and tired of having to clean up our messes when we unilaterally decide to destroy buildings and infrastructure and then expect gratitude for saving them." Scott paused for breath, a cold glint in his eyes. "If I were you, I'd get my head out of my ass and start thinking for myself before it's too damn late to do anything about it."

"Shit. You really are going to betray the team." Clint gasped.

"What freaking team?!" Scott demanded, his arms crossing over his chest. "The "blame Tony Stark for everything wrong with my life team?" You dragged me onto a plane as back up for Captain America to help save the world. I'm not part of the team or an Avenger. After breaking international law, laws I didn't even know existed because you assholes didn't bother to tell me about them, I'll be lucky if Hank and Hope ever speak to me again, never mind use the Ant-Man suit."

"Okay, okay, I hear you." Clint said, his hands raised to ward off Scott's rant. "To be fair, I didn't know about the Accords until after Berlin. And I'm sorry about Hank, I didn't think about what would happen if we got caught."

"Well now you have, so shut up about Stark. I've heard it enough."

A noise at the door had them both tensing and turning sharply toward it. One of T'Challa's many bodyguards stood there, coolly observing them both.

"Ah, Mr. Barton. It seems you got the answers you were looking for. Though in future, the king would appreciate it if you would ask to see your teammate rather than sneak around Wakanda like a thief in the night."

Clint blushed and ducked his head. "Yeah, sorry about that. Instincts and all that."

"That as may be." She retorted. "But you are lucky one of our guards recognized you. Otherwise you'd be dead. A burden our king does not deserve given how accommodating he's been to you and your friends."

Scott smirked at the look on Clint's face, his eyes laughingly saying, I told you so. He turned back to the warrior who remained where she was. "Did you have some news for me?"

She nodded. "I do. The Accords council will grant you a pardon on two conditions. You must sign the Accords before you return to the United States and you agree to be under house arrest for the next two years."

"Two years?!" Clint exclaimed. "That seems excessive."

The warrior glared at him coldly. "You think it's too much for destroying an airfield and an entire plane on foreign soil? They have not demanded fines be paid Mr. Barton, I would think that lenient enough wouldn't you?"

"I... I suppose so." Clint agreed, though he didn't seem convinced.

"If you are finished taking an unscheduled tour of our home, I will take you back to your friends." She said, turning her body to give him room to precede her to the door.

"Uh, yeah sure. I'm done." Clint hesitated. "Um, do you think I could get a copy of the Accords? And would I be able to make a similar deal like Scott?"

"You wish to read the document amongst your friends?" She asked, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

Clint paused to consider what he was asking. He couldn't see Steve leaving him alone long enough to read uninterrupted and there was no telling what kind of reaction it would get. Wanda for sure wouldn't like it, Sam would be disappointed and Steve... well Steve was convinced it would all just go away. But with over 120 countries signing that definitely did not seem likely.

"Uh, well." Clint paused. "I'll go back for now, but in a couple hours I'd like to go somewhere private to read."

"That can be arranged." She nodded. "If it's all right with Mr. Lang, I can bring you back here."

"Sure. It's fine." Scott nodded. "So long as there's no more talk about Stark."

"It'll be tough." Clint joked, though it lacked his usual humour. "But I think I can manage."

"Good." Scott nodded.

"Follow me Mr. Barton." The woman said, motioning to the door. "King T'Challa will be by to speak with you later Mr. Lang."

"Thank you."

***

Natasha was out of breath when she finally passed through the border of Wakanda. It had taken a lot longer to escape Fury's clutches than she'd expected. Her only goal once she'd gotten free was to find Steve and find out just what the hell had happened in Siberia.

Fury had been relentless in his interrogations. Constantly demanding answers and always referencing the abandoned Hydra base as if she knew what had gone down up there. She didn't of course, but the more he asked, the more her instincts screamed at her to get answers. The feeling only grew worse when the questions changed and Fury's tone had shifted from bored curiosity, to thinly veiled anger. Whatever Steve had done, Fury knew something, but she didn't and she hated it.

It hadn't taken much to piece together where Steve and the others had gone. With no reports of revived super soldiers terrorizing the world and with Zemo in custody, it was safe to assume the king had finally come to his senses. No one knew where Steve or Bucky had gone, but if she knew Steve he would've done anything to keep Bucky safe. It wasn't outside the realm of possibility that he would have asked T'Challa for help.

There was nowhere else on earth where Bucky could be safer than in Wakanda. She knew she was taking a huge risk going anywhere near the king after what she'd done at the airport, but she needed answers and the only person who had them was Steve Rogers.

She was nearing the outskirts of the city when a small jet appeared overhead and hovered low enough that she could see it had no pilot. A holographic image of a young woman appeared in the cockpit, scowling down at her as though deciding whether or not to turn her into a red smear on the ground.

"Ms. Romanoff." She growled. "You have a lot of nerve showing your face here after what you did in Berlin."

"I know." Natasha nodded, her face grim. "And I'm sorry about that but I really need to speak to Steve Rogers. It's important."

"You assume a great deal." The woman retorted. "And you are not welcome in Wakanda."

"Look, I know he's here." Natasha bluffed. "I'm not planning to stay, I just need to ask him something, and as I said, it's important."

The woman scowled at her, then glanced over her shoulder, speaking to someone Nat couldn't see.

"Remain where you are. Someone will meet you shortly." She said and then the ship was gone, zipping low over Nat's head in a veiled threat before it disappeared from view.

***

Ten minutes later, Natasha looked up to see Steve approaching from a side street, his brow furrowed and a strained smile on his face.

"Nat?" He said, coming to join her where she rested on the grass. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you."

"Did Tony send you?"

Nat frowned. That wasn't what she'd expected him to say at all. "No. Why would he?"

"After what you did at the airport, why wouldn't he?"

"Well he didn't." Nat replied cautiously. Steve was being odd and she wasn't sure how to proceed.

"T'Challa wanted me to tell you that you have one hour. If you're not gone by then, he's calling the authorities with your location."

"Really." Nat drawled. "So why do you get a free pass? And what about Sam, Clint, Wanda and Scott? They are with you aren't they?"

"Why are you here Natasha?" Steve challenged, ignoring her question.

"I want to know what happened in Siberia Steve."

Steve blinked, narrowing his eyes at her in suspicion. "Why?"

"Because I've been hearing things from Fury. Disturbing things. And I want to know how you put a stop to Zemo and his soldiers."

"It was all a ruse to get us there. Zemo shot the soldiers while they were still in cryo and T'Challa caught him and took him to the Raft."

"T'Challa?" Nat frowned. "What about Tony? And how was it a ruse?"

Steve pursed his lips, crossing his arms over his chest. "What about Tony?"

"I know he was there Steve. Stop deflecting."

"There's nothing to say Nat. The crisis was averted, Zemo is where he belongs and Bucky is safe. Case closed." Steve huffed, not meeting her eyes.

"Dammit Steve." Nat swore. "Something happened in that bunker. I'm going to find out what happened so why not just tell me?"

"I can't help it if you refuse to believe me Natasha." Steve sighed. "It was good to see you again, but I've gotta get back."

"So that's it then?"

"Yeah." Steve nodded, his mouth set in a thin line. "That's it. Take care of yourself Nat, I'll be seeing you."

"You better hope that's all that happens." Nat muttered under her breath as he walked away and disappeared from sight.

 

 

Chapter Text

Stephen woke in a cold sweat. His room was still dark which did nothing to help calm him. His heart pounded in his chest and his breath laboured under the weight of the nightmare he'd just had. As he became more aware of his surroundings, the remnants of the dream he'd had slipped from his grasp leaving him anxious and unsettled.

He had his share of nightmares. Most of them centred around Dormammu, though they had lessened with the passage of time and several healing sessions in Kamar-Taj. Other times he dreamt about the Ancient One and being forced to watch her die. Not in a hospital, but in the mirror dimension because he wasn't fast enough or was too far away to reach her in time to hear her parting words.

But this one, this one was different. Though it had clearly frightened him and snapped him violently out of the dream state, the details were missing. It was as though it had been  about someone else and with that thought, he cursed under his breath and got to his feet.

Shit. This was probably about Tony and the memories he'd experienced. Wong would not be happy when he found out. With a sigh, Stephen threw on his housecoat and headed down to the kitchen. He wasn't likely to get more sleep now. It was already five in the morning and the implications of what he'd dreamt would keep him awake for hours.

He groaned when he saw Wong already at the kitchen table and the scowl on the man's face let him know he was in for an interrogation. Wong waited in silence while Stephen made tea and brought the pot and two mugs with him to the table.

"You absorbed Stark's nightmares didn't you?" Wong challenged, narrowing his eyes.

"I knew you'd know instantly." Stephen sighed, filling their tea cups. "You don't have to be smug about it."

"This is not smugness Stephen. This is concern. You know what went wrong?"

Stephen nodded. "I believe it's the influence of the Mind Stone. I knew it was powerful but also somehow sentient. It wants to control, though I don't understand the purpose of that here."

"Do you think it's bridged a link between you and Stark? Or is it between you and the Stone itself?"

Stephen sipped his tea, his expression thoughtful. "I don't know and I don't think it appropriate to ask Tony. It's unfair to him since I volunteered to help him with this. He'll believe it's his fault."

"Life is unfair, and this is important." Wong grunted. "I think you should go to Kamar-Taj. The other Masters might be able to help."

"That's a good idea." Stephen agreed. "What do you know about Infinity Stones Wong?"

Wong scowled and set his cup down hard. "Why do you want to know about that?"

"Because there are at least two on Earth right now. There were three when Loki was here. It seems too high a coincidence to be one."

"They are ancient and powerful and there are six in total. They were created when the universe came into being. Powerful individuals came together over the centuries to contain and protect them but they all ultimately failed to do so. At that time, they were scattered across the galaxy to separate and protect them. If they are being brought together again, something very bad is coming. We need to prepare."

Stephen arched a brow at the other man. "And how exactly do we prepare for something like that? You're talking about an event as big or bigger than Dormammu."

"Nothing is as big as Dormammu." Wong admonished. "But whoever or whatever is behind the movement of the Stones is equally destructive. Did you not mention that Stark had dreams of something like this?"

"What?! Where'd you get that idea?" Stephen exclaimed. "I said nothing about what I learned from Tony."

"That's... unfortunate." Wong frowned. "It means the Mind Stone has somehow affected us both. You need to talk to Stark. Find out what vision is connected to all this."

"I just helped him get past those visions!" Stephen snapped. "I'm not doing my job if I ask him to talk about it now."

"Your job is to protect this planet and this reality. If the Mind Stone has managed to affect us, we need answers." Wong retorted. "Stark will understand."

"Ugh!" Stephen grunted. "There's no end to how much you infuriate me sometimes."

"Of course, because I always aim to displease you." Wong snorted, getting to his feet. "Talk to Stark and speak with the other Masters. If we're right about the Stones, we need to prepare. I'll be in the library researching this."

***

"Shit." Clint swore, making Scott look up from the game of Solitaire he was playing.

"Problems?"

"These Accords are... bloody hell." Clint swore again. "Why the fuck didn't Steve tell me what was in here?"

Scott shrugged. "No idea. He's your friend."

"He's our leader. He's supposed to keep us safe, lead us away from danger, not into it. He said the Accords was us giving up, giving in and coming under Stark's thumb. This... this has nothing to do with Stark. This is more than half the free world demanding oversight and a say in how we do our job. This isn't leashing the Avengers, this is... common sense."

Scott started to respond, but was interrupted when a Dora-Milaje warrior burst into the room. He and Clint stared open-mouthed at the woman whose face was flushed, her eyes hard with irritation.

"My apologies for the interruption," She said curly, turning to Clint. "But Mr. Rogers is demanding to see you right away Mr. Barton. He says he needs your help with something but refused to give us any details."

"O-kay." Clint drawled, sharing a look with Scott. "He didn't ask for Scott too?"

"He did not mention him."

"Right." Clint huffed, getting to his feet and setting aside the Accords document. "Let's go then. See you later Lang."

"Sure." Scott nodded, a frown on his face as Clint left with the warrior, the door closing softly behind them.

Well that was... odd, Scott thought, moving to the kitchen to get a beer. It wasn't surprising that Rogers wasn't asking for him, he wasn't really part of the team and he certainly wasn't an Avenger. But he was damn curious what sort of problem Rogers had that he needed Clint there.

***

Tony woke more rested the morning following Stephen's visit to the Tower than in any time in recent memory. In fact, as he shuffled to his kitchen in his bathrobe to make coffee, he couldn't remember when he'd last had a full night's sleep.

As he sat sipping his coffee, he realised it should have been damn near impossible for him to sleep at all. With everything that had happened in the past two days, and the things he had yet to deal with, it was a miracle he'd slept at all. A frown creased his brow then, a chill running through him at the errant thought that maybe Stephen had put a spell on him.

A second later he cursed under his breath. That was ridiculous, not to mention that he somehow knew Stephen would never do something like that without permission. Though the thought itself was revealing.

He knew himself well enough to know that if Wanda's spell was still affecting him, the idea that Stephen had abused his trust would have been enough to send him into a panic. He would have had the Sorcerer watched and barred him access to all but the main areas of the compound indefinitely. Which meant he now had proof that the witch's spell was no longer affecting him and a wave of tremendous gratitude washed through him.

Finishing his coffee, he returned to his bedroom and dressed for the day. He had more pressing work to do than worry about Sorcerers and nightmares. After pouring his favourite smoothie into a portable mug, he left his new home and headed to the main building and his workshop.

***

Hours later, after making several calls from his office, he was hard at work tweaking the design plans for the new nanotech housing.

"How's it looking FRIDAY?"

"I believe we're close boss." FRIDAY replied. "A few more adjustments to the depth and shape of the housing should be all that's needed."

"You don't like the shape?"

"I believe you wished to move forward boss and in keeping with that, having it as a circle would be counter intuitive to that goal."

"You sound like Jarvis, FRIDAY." Tony noted, swiping a screen closed and opening another. "What do you suggest? Circles are harder to break and have little to no structural weaknesses."

"True." FRIDAY agreed. "But according to Doctor Wu's report, this housing will not be placed in the same location as the original. It's meant to be higher up on your chest so that element of the design isn't relevant here. It's also going to be less intrusive than the last one."

"Fine. How about a triangle, point down and with rounded points?"

"I will start the calculations immediately." FRIDAY replied. "Boss, you have a call. It's Doctor Strange."

Tony paused in what he was doing, his pulse speeding at hearing the caller's identity. "Put him through Fri."

"Tony?" Stephen's hesitant tone had his pulse quickening even more.

"Yeah?" Tony drawled, also hesitant. "Something wrong Stephen? I wasn't expecting to hear from you this early."

"I just need to speak to you and wanted to know when would be most convenient for you."

"Is this about Siberia?"

"Uh... no. Not this time, but I would like to discuss that as well if you're feeling up to it."

"Okay." Tony replied with a sigh. "I've just got a few more calls to make and then I'm free. Maybe an hour? You want to meet at the compound or somewhere else?"

"I'll come to you." Stephen replied firmly. "You're in your office?"

"I am now, but I'll meet you in my workshop. It's more private and I can show you some of the new medical designs I've been working on while we're there."

"Alright. See you in an hour then."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony finished up what needed his attention early and so was in his workshop fielding calls from both Matt and then Rhodey. Matt had given him his thoughts on how he'd handled the Ultron thing, which were not happy thoughts, while Rhodey, having now heard about Ultron and Siberia was beside himself with worry and recrimination.

"Tony..." Rhodey sighed through the phone. "You had proof about Ultron and you kept it hidden. Why dammit? I think I deserve to know why you let everyone blame you for that, especially since none of it was your fault."

"But it was Rhodey Bear." Tony sighed back at him. "The concept of Ultron was my idea, my design. How is that not my fault?"

"An idea is not responsibility Tony and you weren't alone in trying to implement it. You couldn't have done it alone and that security video proves that. Without Bruce's help and without the mind stone and whatever the hell that witch did to you influencing your decisions, Ultron wouldn't have happened."

"You don't know that Rhodey. Not for sure."

"I do know that Tones." Rhodey retorted. "Because I know you. But enough of that. All I really called about was to let you know I'm here for you, not like I have been either, but how I should have been since Ultron."

"I...okay." Tony replied carefully.

"And if I ever see Steve Rogers again, I'm gonna punch that smug look right off his face."

Tony choked back a laugh, unsure if he was reacting to Rhodey's declaration of support or the image it conjured. "You do that, you'll break your hand."

"Not if I'm inside War Machine at the time."

"Defending my honour Platypus?" Tony teased.

"Defending a decent human being from a man who clearly believes he's above the law."

"Well since he and his merry band of outlaws are still criminals, the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim."

"And if I know anything, it's that Steve Rogers will find a way around all that." Rhodey growled. "But enough about him. What did Doctor Wu have to say?"

Tony blinked and felt his throat close up. He still hadn't told Stephen what Wu had said... "Um..."

"Dammit Tony." Rhodey swore. "How bad?"

"I..." Tony hesitated. He really didn't want to say the words aloud, but he knew James would keep asking till he got an answer. "Shit. Before you get upset, just know I have my reasons for keeping this quiet."

"Anthony Edward Stark. Tell me what Wu said."

"Retirement." Tony blurted. "Or a new reactor housing."

"What?!" Rhodey screeched at the same time Tony heard a gasp over his shoulder. He turned to see Stephen had entered the workshop and by the horrified look on his face, he'd heard everything.

"It's not that bad Sourpuss..."

"Not that bad?!" Rhodey sputtered. "Not that bad he says... jeezus Tones, I..." Rhodey paused for breath. "No, you know what? This isn't the time for this conversation. We'll talk after I've calmed down."

"Yeah, okay." Tony replied. "I've got to go anyway, someone just walked in."

"It's Stephen isn't it? And he heard everything."

"Yeah."

"Right. Well, good luck. He's a doctor so he shouldn't be too hard on you. No matter how much he might want to kick your ass, he probably won't do it."

"Thanks platypus, that's real reassuring."

"Gotta go. Bye Tones." There was a click as Rhodey hung up and Tony could hear Stephen breathing heavily behind him, having not moved from his spot.

Tony turned around slowly, bracing himself for whatever look might be on the Sorcerer's face. He expected anger or frustration, but instead there was an unmistakable look of sadness and an underlying thread of rage that he somehow knew wasn't directed at him.

"Uh, hi." Tony said quietly. "Guess you heard all that."

Stephen crossed his arms over his chest and levelled a piercing look in his direction. "Retire? Why? Why did Doctor Wu tell you to retire Tony?"

Tony broke eye contact and stared at his hands. He really didn't want to discuss this right now or ever, and he certainly didn't want Stephen staring at him like that. It was only bound to get worse after he explained.

"Man, it's times like these, I really wish I hadn't given up drinking."

Stephen said nothing, but Tony tracked his movement, tensing as the Sorcerer came within arm's reach. He couldn't hide the faint flinch he gave when Stephen's hand came to rest on his shoulder, prompting him to meet the other man's eyes.

"Tony. Why did he only give you two options?"

"If I sustain another injury to my chest or torso there's a very good chance I'll die... or at least have a heart attack that will make me wish I was dead."

"Sweet jeezus." Stephen swore and without warning, pulled Tony to his feet and dragged him into a strong hug. Tony couldn't keep a soft whimper from escaping him at the unexpected embrace, so caught off guard he didn't know what to react to first. The fact that Stephen's instinct had been to comfort him and not condemn was enough to destroy his barriers, leaving him weak kneed and clinging to other man like someone drowning.

Stephen didn't know what had prompted him to embrace Tony and now that they were so close, he couldn't help but feel a little mortified by his behaviour. He was never one to be so clingy or forward and he'd never been the touchy, feely type so he didn't quite know what to make of what he'd just done. To be fair, neither of them had had the best week and most likely it had a lot to do with their trip to the mirror dimension.

But Stephen was determined to keep a professional distance even as he understood that rejecting Tony now would be a very bad idea. With a reluctant sigh, he loosened his hold on the other man, putting some space between them while letting his hands rest on Tony's hips. "I'm sorry, I'm not usually this... tactile with people I don't know why I.... I just, felt a hug was appropriate for the moment. I hope you don't mind, it's not exactly the behaviour of a professional surgeon."

Tony blinked up at him, his expression showing confusion before softening into a shy smile. "I dunno Doc. It's certainly an improvement to what happened when we first met. Though you did manage to catch me off guard. Again . Can't say I particularly like that part, but since it was a pleasant surprise, I'm not gonna complain."

"Well at any rate, I apologize if I've made you uncomfortable, but I think we have a few things to discuss at the moment."

Tony sighed and let himself fall back down into his chair. "Not uncomfortable, just surprised Doc. Though in future I'd prefer a date first."

Stephen scowled down at him. "I know you're trying to throw me off topic, so you can stop. The implications of what I overheard cannot be ignored Tony. Steve Rogers almost killed you didn't he?"

Tony nodded, but kept his eyes fixed on his hands. "Yeah."

Stephen sighed and ran tired hands through his hair as he moved away to stand near the workshop kitchen. "You kept this secret because of the Accords right?"

"I know what you're thinking Strange." Tony sighed again.

"Do you? I really don't think you do. I might understand your motivation but that doesn't mean I approve of your decision. I saw what happened in your memories Tony."

"I know, but..."

"But nothing!" Stephen snapped. "Steve Rogers left you on the brink of  death and neither Mr. Barnes nor King T'Challa bothered to ensure you were capable of leaving on your own. In my books, they're accessories to what happened. If not for FRIDAY's intervention, they would all be guilty of murder by association. Do not for one minute think that I will let that go unpunished."

Tony gasped in shock at Stephen's vehement declaration as though seeing him for the first time. It took him several minutes to fully process what the other man had just said and still wasn't sure he could respond appropriately. "I hope you aren't saying you're going to kill them Stephen."

"Don't be ridiculous Stark." Stephen growled. "I'm a Doctor, I swore to do no harm and to save lives. But that doesn't mean I'm above hurting those who deserve it."

Tony stood up and crossed the room to meet Stephen's eyes. "Seriously Stephen, don't do anything rash. I plan to... tell all, so to speak once the changes I've written up can be incorporated into the Accords. I promise I don't intend to keep quiet forever, though that was mostly about Rogers. To be honest, the other two didn't even make my radar."

"They should have and they should he held accountable for their actions or lack thereof."

"I hear you." Tony replied, putting a gentle hand to Stephen's arm. "And I'll think about it, I promise. But when you called earlier, I got the distinct impression there was something else you wanted to talk about."

Stephen narrowed his eyes. "This discussion isn't over Tony."

This time it was Tony glaring at Stephen as he retracted his hand and let it fall to his side. "Look Doc, I appreciate this protective thing you've got going for me, I really do. But I can fight my own battles. I don't need you standing in as a bodyguard. Besides, I've already got one and she's plenty capable all on her own."

"I don't doubt Ms. Jones abilities. But seriously? I do not mean to disparage yours, but you have not demonstrated to me that you know anything about basic self-preservation. I am certain you hold nothing back protecting others, but you do not show the same dedication to your own safety. And your bodyguard is only effective if she's aware of danger beforehand. Who else knows what happened in Siberia and with Ultron?" Stephen demanded, continuing without waiting for a response. "I'll tell you, not nearly enough. And I doubt they'd agree with you over the delay."

"Ultron?" Tony repeated. "What do you know about Ultron?

"I saw parts of what happened in the mirror dimension. Or have you forgotten that already?"

"I didn't forget Stephen. But you also haven't told me anything about what you saw." Tony growled, moving away from him to brew himself a coffee. "In fact, I think there's a lot you haven't told me about that and my ability to trust you is fading quickly."

Stephen blinked, looking stricken and put his hands up in a gesture of defence. "You're right. My behaviour is rather atrocious at the moment. I apologize."

Tony raised an eyebrow in his direction as he sipped his coffee. "Atrocious might be a bit harsh, rude maybe. Anyways, let's drop that for now and you tell me what you really came here for."

"I don't think now is the time. I've upset you, which was not my intention."

Tony shrugged. "I have that effect on people. Besides, you weren't expecting to hear what I said to Rhodey. Spit it out Doc. You said yourself that waiting won't change things and it has to be important if it isn't about Siberia."

"You do not have that effect on me." Stephen growled, making Tony look back at him in shock. "But fine, consider the subject changed. For now. Do you mind if we sit?"

 

 

Chapter Text

"And here I was thinking that things were starting to look up." Tony moaned from his side of the couch. "You sure you're not just over-reacting? That maybe Wong overheard you say something about my vision?"

"I have never spoken about your vision because I only ever saw pieces of it. Nothing I saw or experienced in the mirror dimension was linear Tony. Just pieces. Disjointed memories of things that stuck with you as a result of the witch's spell. It's why I came today. I need to know exactly what you saw in that portal over New York and again what you saw as a result of Wanda's interference."

Tony narrowed his eyes at the Sorcerer who was doing his best to avoid eye contact without being obvious about it. "You're hiding something Stephen. Something happened didn't it? Something bad that made Wong order you to come here today."

"I am merely following up with my patient." Stephen retorted, still avoiding eye contact.

"Bullshit. You told me there'd be no risk involved, that what you did would be safe. But you were wrong and something happened to you."

"I... had a nightmare." Stephen replied, narrowing his eyes at Tony's instinct to voice his concern, halting the other man's words. "But before you start, that sort of thing is not an unusual occurrence for me. What is unusual is that it wasn't about me, but about what you saw that day in New York."

"So why is Wong involved?"

"Because he knew you saw something and I haven't spoken to anyone about my experience with your memories. He should not know anything and so he believes the Mind Stone is responsible."

"Just when I thought I was finally putting that crap behind me..."

"I didn't want to bring this up so soon, but Wong insisted. We need to know what you saw and what Wanda made you see."

"Fine." Tony growled. "I rode that damn nuke to what I thought was my impending death. I watched it smash into a ship bigger than the moon. It was destroyed, but there were hundreds more waiting in the dark behind it. Nothing humanity has can fight what I saw. That nuke was about as effective as a fly swatter against a shark."

"I imagine it was an unsettling sight."

Tony snorted, but made no comment.

"And the vision from the witch?"

"A dark, dead planet with the bodies of all my friends dead at my feet and Steve Rogers asking me why I didn't save them. Why I didn't do more."

"I hope she suffers for what she did to you." Stephen growled.

"Uh... okay. You're kinda scaring me Doc." Tony replied, his eyes wide with confusion. "I know shes an evul wench, but really? I thought you took an oath as a Doctor."

"This does not fall under that oath. If I can't deliver justice in person, an eye for an applies to her actions. Whatever harm befalls her from the spell I sent back is entirely her own doing." Stephen growled. "But thank you for telling me what you saw. It will be helpful when I return to Wong and discuss it with the other Masters."

"Discuss what? You mean the Stones?"

"I don't think either of the things you saw should be ignored. Despite the malice fuelling the vision you had, I think there is some truth behind it. Whatever is causing the Stones to come together, we're not ready."

Tony sighed as he relaxed back in his chair. "You have no idea how long I've waited for someone to say that to me. No one listened after New York and again after Ultron. I thought no one ever would until it was too late."

"Unfortunately, it might already be too late but I won't know for sure until I've met with the other Masters." Stephen said, getting to his feet.

"Late or not, I just feel better knowing someone else is in my corner." Tony replied, joining him. "Will you let me know if you learn anything?"

Stephen nodded. "Of course. And you let me know of you need help with anything here. I imagine you're going to be busy getting things in order following the Accords ratification and any new recruits you find."

"Yeah, unfortunately." Tony nodded. "Paperwork and all it entails is both tedious and time consuming. See you later Stephen?"

Stephen pursed his lips, hesitating as he made to conjure a portal. "As much as I would like to I don't know how long I'll be. I also have some official Sorcerer business I need to attend to, but do call me if anything needs my attention."

"Sure thing Stephen." Tony replied, yet Stephen was almost certain he had no intention of doing that.

"I mean it Tony. Call me if you need me."

"Will do." Tony nodded.

As the portal closed behind him, Stephen couldn't shake the feeling that Tony had just closed the door on him. Not just metaphorically, but physically as well, which was ridiculous. Shaking himself in irritation, he turned toward the library and went in search of Wong.

***

"I'm here Steve." Clint said as he joined his teammates. "What's going on?"

Steve glared at him, the look in his eyes disapproving. "You'd know if you'd been here, but we'll deal with that later. It's Wanda, something's wrong."

Clint looked around the room but saw no sign of the witch. "Okay. What's wrong with her? Where is she?"

"Follow me." Steve grunted, turning and leading him to one of the bedrooms. "Sam is with her since you were nowhere to be found.

"I went looking for Scott." Clint muttered. "Thought something had happened to him."

They entered Wanda's room then and Clint sucked in a harsh breath at what he saw. Wanda was engulfed in red mist, her eyes glowing with red light, though Clint was certain they were closed. She twitched and writhed on the bed seemingly fighting off some sort of attack, punctuated by soft cries of pain as she lay there.

"Spell gone wrong or something?" Clint ventured, breaking the silence.

"She was fine a few hours ago." Steve replied with a huff of annoyance. "Then she cried out and collapsed. We got her onto the bed and then this mist came out of nowhere, engulfing her completely."

"So you called me?" Clint asked, incredulous. "What makes you think I know what's wrong with her?"

"You spent time with Loki." Steve said, matter of factly as though he didn't know the Asgardian's name wouldn't upset him. "His magic is similar to Wanda's. We thought you might have insight Sam and I don't."

Clint glared back at him, a snarl on his lips. "You know I hate talking about that Steve. But whatever. If I had to guess, it looks like a spell  backlash. Something she sent out has been sent back to her."

"Who would do that? She's just a kid!"

Clint raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "Far as I know, she's not a kid. But considering all the people she hurt when she was with Hydra, it could be anyone."

"It's probably Stark." Sam huffed from Wanda's bedside. "If anyone wanted to hurt Wanda, I'd bet money it was him."

"Uh huh." Clint drawled, a cold feeling of dread snaking up his spine. "Sure, whatever. So was that all you wanted?"

"What can we do for her?" Steve asked, his eyes not leaving Wanda's distressed form.

Seriously? Clint thought with shock, why ask him? "Probably nothing. Keep her warm I guess. The spell will likely wear off on its own if it's backlash like I said."

"But..." Steve protested.

"Look Cap, I get it. You want to help, but I don't know any more than you do. Best guess is she'll be fine once it runs its course."

Steve frowned but after a minute, nodded and shared a look with Sam. "Alright. That's pretty much what Sam and I figured as well. Let's let her rest, I think we should talk in the other room."

***

Steve was all set to lash out at Clint for abandoning them without a word, when the words of a news broadcast registered in his mind. He turned shocked eyes to the screen on the wall where a pretty brunette woman was repeating her previous statement.

"I repeat, this breaking story is one we will be watching closely. Following the release of some shocking security footage, CEO Pepper Potts of Stark Industries has assured us that what we just saw was real. Tony Stark did not create Ultron and as such, is not responsible for what happened close to three years ago. Pending investigation from authorities, we are shocked to learn that not only did Dr. Stark not create Ultron, but that he had video proof of his innocence this entire time. Speculations abound as to what motivated him to keep this from the public, but we will have more information as this story unfolds. This is Samantha Cameron reporting to you live outside the former Stark Tower."

Steve, Sam and Clint gaped at the screen which had now cut to a commercial, ending the broadcast interruption.

"Is this for real?" Sam asked, turning wide eyes to Steve.

"Can't be." Steve retorted, shaking his head. "It's just another PR stunt. If Tony really was innocent, he never would have kept those tapes hidden."

"You sure about that Steve?" Clint asked, watching him with a curious look in his eye.

"Of course I'm sure." Steve retorted. "What does he gain by doing this now? Everyone knows he's guilty. This just makes him look pathetic and desperate."

Clint said nothing as he chewed on his bottom lip. "If he's got video of Ultron's creation, he's got video of other things too."

"What other things?" Steve snapped even as he waved off Clint's reply. "Never mind, it's not important now. I want to know what you were doing with Scott."

"He's getting ready to sign the Accords. Wants to go home and see his daughter." Clint drawled, bracing himself for Steve's reaction.

"He's what? That's insane. The Accords are just bureaucratic red tape that keep us from doing our job. If he'd just be patient a little longer, this will all blow over and we can go home without signing anything."

"You really believe that?" Clint asked.

"Of course I do. Besides, with this new Ultron thing, it's only a matter of time before the Accords council changes their mind. This whole thing was because of Stark's invention in the first place. They'll see they need us to stop threats like this in future, especially now if they believe Stark wasn't at fault."

Clint narrowed his eyes in disbelief. "A minute ago you said it was just a PR stunt. Now you believe it's true?"

"It works in our favour if it is." Steve retorted. "The Accords happened because of Ultron. If the Avengers aren't responsible, then we're vindicated for that whole mess."

"It wasn't just Ultron Steve." Clint argued.

"What about you Barton?" Sam demanded, his arms crossing over his chest, ignoring Clint's comment. "What were you doing with Lang?"

Steve's eyes widened in shock. "You're planning to sign aren't you?"

"If I'd known what was in the Accords before Berlin, I might never have left with you." Clint retorted. "Laura is going to kill me if she hasn't already filed for divorce. I had a good thing going with my retirement Steve. What happened in Berlin royally screwed that up."

"You don't have to sign anything." Steve protested. "This will all blow over in time."

"Well I'm not willing to stake my marriage on that." Clint huffed. "I've let my kids down long enough. I need to be home with them where I belong, not hiding in a foreign country waiting on something that might never happen."

"Do you even care what happens to us if you do this?" Sam demanded, glaring at him.

"Honestly? Not really. You got me to join your crusade without giving me all the facts, which got me arrested and turned into a fugitive all for your precious friend who's murdered countless people as an agent of Hydra." Clint shook his head as Steve tried to speak. "I don't care if he wasn't responsible Steve. You did all this for him, not to stop Zemo. He might have been part of it, but everything else was about Bucky. So no, I don't care. I'm glad it worked out for you, but from where I'm standing I got nothing from joining you but a shit load of trouble I didn't ask for."

"I think we're done here " Sam growled.

"Oh yeah. We're done." Steve agreed, glaring at Clint. "You just wait Clint. Stark will benefit from this somehow and you'll regret not standing with us."

"Somehow I doubt that." Clint drawled, moving to the door. "See you around Cap."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony didn't know what had come over him when Stephen left. The man hadn't done anything wrong, hadn't insulted him or treated him badly and yet he'd had the distinct impression he'd just been brushed off. As though Stephen's interest in him had disappeared now that he had the answers he'd come for.

No matter how much he told himself he was overreacting and imagining things, he couldn't shake the unsettled feeling Stephen's departure had left him with. Shaking off the downward spiral his thoughts had taken, he left his workshop and headed upstairs to his office.

***

He had just finished going through several documents Pepper had left for him to sign when she appeared in his doorway.

"Pepper?" He said, setting the papers aside. "What are you doing here?"

Pepper gave him a faint smile and slid into a chair opposite his desk. "I wanted to see how you were holding up since the press conference."

"Press conference?" He repeated, blinking in confusion.

She narrowed her eyes and gave a soft sigh. "Yes Tony, the press conference was today. The one about Ultron?"

"Oh! Uh... I didn't realize that was today, clearly." He joked. "But as you can see I'm fine. Besides I was busy with Doctor Strange, we had an impromptu meeting this morning."

"That would explain why you forgot." She smirked.

"Excuse me?"

"Never mind." She sighed, waving her hand. "I also stopped by to let you know that FRIDAY will be handling the security on all your calls for the next week or so until this blows over. Matt and I don't expect you'll need to make a statement, but we've already had breaches in security at SI Headquarters, with reporters and a few fanatics causing scenes."

"Guess the public isn't taking it well then." Tony sighed.

"Actually, the majority seem to be on your side. Most of them are calling with messages of support and that they never doubted you for a minute. Matt is certain most of the protesters are former employees of A.I.M. or Hammer Industries and a few unhappy civilians, but at this point it's just a theory."

"I wasn't expecting that."

"I wasn't sure either, but it's looking good." Pepper mused, her eyes landing on the FedEx package still unopened on Tony's desk. She reached for it, turning it over in her hands with a confused look in her eyes. "There's no return address. It's not a bomb is it?"

Tony huffed a laugh. "Really Pepper? FRIDAY would never let something like that get past the front door."

"Boss is correct Ms. Potts." FRIDAY agreed from above them.

"Then who's it from and why haven't you opened it?"

"I'll give you one guess."

"You're joking. Rogers sent this? What is it?"

"You want to know so bad, you open it." Tony retorted. "I have no interest in it."

"Fine." Pepper huffed, tearing it open and letting the contents spill onto the desk.

Tony laughed when he caught sight of the flip phone while Pepper snatched up the single sheet of paper that fluttered out. Turning the phone on, Tony saw there was a single phone number entered before flipping it closed and tossing it aside to watch Pepper read.

"Oh my god." She whispered. "This is... I can't even... the utter nerve, the audacity... if he was here now, I'd slap that arrogant smirk he always wears right off his face!" She said, slamming the paper down, her eyes burning with anger.

Tony reached for it even as Pepper tried to stop him from touching it. "Trust me Tony. There's nothing in there you need to see."

"After that reaction, I have to see it Pepp."

Releasing his hand, Pepper sank back in her chair. "Fine. But you aren't going to like it."

Tony was silent for several minutes before he started muttering under his breath. " The Avengers are more mine than his?! He'll be here if I ever need him? Everyone has to make their own choices? He's sad we didn't agree ?!" Tony looked up from the paper he now had a death grip on. "What kind of utter horseshit is he shovelling here?! Avengers are mine... what a load of crap when both Clint and Nat took his side! As though they would have ever chosen otherwise!"

"Tony..."

"What?!" Tony snapped, then blinked at her when he realized he'd been shouting and had gotten to his feet. "Oh... sorry Pepp." He said, sinking back down to his chair. "Utter crap this is. The Avengers were never mine, never even close to mine. I was only ever a consultant and a bank, never a true member... I can't even... ugh!"

"Boss?" FRIDAY called out when Tony broke off.

"What is it FRIDAY?"

"I hate to interrupt, but you have a call from a representative on the Accords council."

"Put them through Fri."

Ten minutes later, Tony was off the phone with a stunned look on his face.

"What is it Tony? What did they want?"

"Barton and someone named Scott Lang are coming home, he must be the guy who had Hank's suit. They've agreed to sign the Accords and want me there to witness it as the representative for the New Avengers Initiative."

"You're joking." Pepper gasped. "When?"

"Tomorrow. In Geneva."

"Well you're not going alone." Pepper growled.

"You're right, I'm not. Matt and Jessica are coming with me." Tony smiled, a cold look in his eyes. "I'm not about to walk into that meeting without backup. T'Challa will also be there."

"Why is he involved?"

"Best guess, he's been sheltering them all since they broke out of the Raft."

"He should be in jail." Pepper snarled. "Leaving you to die in Siberia and then sheltering the man who almost killed you."

"That'll never happen Pepper. Wakanda is earth's only source of vibranium, as well as the most technologically advanced society on the planet."

"He should still be held accountable for what he did. He's a damned hypocrite leaving you there when he's the one who fuelled the manhunt for Barnes. He had every intention of killing Bucky until it took too long to find him. He would have too if he'd caught him sooner, yet now he's a hero for capturing Zemo and "coming to his senses." It's a joke Tony."

Tony smirked at her, a warm feeling flooding his insides. "I'll be sure to pass on your sentiment when I see him Pepp."

"Good." Pepper replied, getting to her feet. "He needs to know he's no hero in my book."

"I'll make certain that's clear to him."

"Right, well, seems you have everything under control. You need me to take care of anything while you're gone?"

"Just the usual. The press don't need to know about Barton or Lang, but if Hank Pym calls, send it my way."

"You sure that's wise? He doesn't like you Tony."

"The feeling is mutual Pepp, but Pym was ousted the minute Lang was caught with Hank's technology. Since I'm free and he's on the run, who else is he going to blame? Besides, he probably just wants to make sure I don't have access to his Ant-Man suit."

"That's ridiculous. Even if Lang had it, Ross would have confiscated it the minute they were arrested."

"He did have it and then Rogers broke into the Raft and stole it all back. Ross was livid when he found out. Hadn't even had time to analyze Hank's tech before Rogers took it out from under him."

"You sure Steve was behind that?"

"Who else would it be?" Tony scoffed. "Rogers might not know anything about tech, but he'd know the cost of leaving it in Ross's hands."

"Hmpf." Pepper snorted. "Fine. Just promise me you won't let Hank blame everything on you like he always does. You don't deserve it and you certainly don't need to hear that bullshit from him again."

"I promise Pepp. Give you my word."

"Alright." Pepper nodded. "Have a good trip then and if you can, try not to punch Clint in the face, no matter how much he deserves it."

"I'll do my best." Tony smirked as she left his office. "I'll definitely do my best."

***

Stephen felt uncharacteristically unsettled the moment he stepped into the Sanctuary and the portal closed behind him. A sense of loss and foreboding followed on that feeling and he had a moment of urgency which prompted him to want to turn around and go back to Tony immediately.

He couldn't say or even attempt an explanation for the sudden panic that gripped him, but the moment he focused on it, it disappeared leaving him exhausted and confused. Shaking himself, he straightened his shoulders and went in search of Wong to let him know he was back and heading for Kamar-Taj.

"Oh, you're back." Wong noted, not looking up from the book he was reading. "How'd it go with Stark?"

"About as well as could be expected." Stephen replied, frowning at the tense note in his voice which caused Wong to look up at him sharply.

"What's wrong Stephen?"

"Nothing." He snapped, then pasted an apologetic look on his face. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap. I don't know what's wrong, just feeling a little unsettled is all. I'm sure it's nothing."

"Doesn't look like nothing. Did something happen with Stark?"

"No, I just... I don't know Wong. He felt... off the moment I left the compound."

"Well he does have a lot on his plate. You should probably talk to him again after you meet with the other Masters. That's where you're going now isn't it?"

"Yes." Stephen nodded. "I just wanted to check in first, see how things were going with you."

"They're going slowly Strange, as always." Wong replied, scowling into his book. "Research takes time. See you when you get back."

"Right." Stephen replied, his voice curt. "Later then."

 

 

Chapter Text

"You understand that I do not make this request lightly." T'Challa said, Steve and Sam standing opposite him.

"Of course." Steve nodded. "We're very grateful for your hospitality and we understand the difficult position this has put you in."

"I'm glad to hear that." T'Challa nodded, sounding pleased. "Of course, I do not expect you to leave until Ms. Maximoff has recovered from whatever it is that ails her."

"Completely unnecessary." Steve assured him. "Wanda is much better now and anxious to be out in the world again."

"You do understand that out of all you, she is the most wanted for her crimes?"

"We do." Steve nodded. "It won't be a problem."

"Very well." T'Challa replied. "We shall have provisions and supplies waiting for you as well as transportation as soon as you are ready to leave. I also want to assure you that Mr. Barnes is safe here. We will try to will keep you updated on any progress he makes, though I'm sure you understand why that won't happen for some time."

"I do." Steve nodded. "And I appreciate everything you've done for Bucky. He's been through more than enough. It's time he got the chance to rest and be a person."

"We will do all we can to see that he does just that. You have my word."

"Thank you, that means a lot." Steve smiled, giving him a small bow.

"Yeah, thanks." Sam nodded, inclining his head in a show of deference.

***

"You ready for this?" Matt asked quietly as he walked at Tony's side toward the room where the Accords meeting would take place. Jessica followed behind them, her posture one that mixed strength and mild hostility the moment anyone got too close to the three of them. So far, none had dared to test the aura she gave off, but that could change at any time.

"Not really." Tony sighed. "But it's not as though I'm on trial here. They just want me as a witness to the signing of the Accords. Besides, we're seeing Lang first and aside from his connection to Hank Pym, I don't know anything about him."

"He's got a rap sheet." Jessica intoned from behind them. "Burglary, theft, he's good at getting into high tech places no one else attempts. Spent some time in jail and then another short stint until Pym broke him out. No one knows how. Then nothing till he showed up in Germany with Steve Rogers. Divorced, his wife has remarried and he had full, unsupervised visiting rights with his daughter. He was working on shared custody before he got on the plane to Germany. The dumbass."

Matt stifled a laugh with his hand as they continued down the hallway while Tony turned to stare at her.

"When exactly did you have time to find all that out? I only told you about Lang when you boarded my private plane a few hours ago." Tony asked with wide eyes.

"Duh Stark. I'm a P.I. I investigate people for a living and wanted to know more about who we fought in Germany. Read about him the day after we got back to New York and kept a copy of the file on my phone. Read it again in the air."

"Huh." Tony replied, giving her a smile. "You know, I might have some other work for you when we get back. Come see me at the compound when you've got a free minute or two."

"I'll think about it." She nodded, passing them to open the door. "Ready?"

"Lead the way my white knight." Tony teased, enjoying the faint blush his words caused her as he entered the silent boardroom at Matt's side.

***

It was two days before Stephen returned from Kamar-Taj. Wong merely nodded at him as he breezed past him in the library, making a beeline to his room and much needed sleep.

Lying in bed, the lack of progress with the Stones weighed on him. Neither he nor any of the other Masters nor any texts in the school's vast library had been able to shed new insight on the Stone's purposes. At one point, they had been protected, only for their power to eventually destroy their protectors. The only thing that was continuously repeated was how dangerous they were.

Stephen scoffed every time he thought of the word. Dangerous was completely inadequate to the little they'd discovered. Whoever had written the warning was either very sarcastic or had no concept of how powerful even a single Stone could be. If it had been him writing those warnings, he would have called them destructive on a galactic scale. Life ending, cataclysmic. Dangerous was simply not adequate.

He fell into a fitful sleep, haunting images of things he hadn't experienced plaguing his rest. He woke feeling tired and irritable, annoyed that he couldn't get the dreams to stop. While he sat sipping his tea in the Sanctum's kitchen the next morning, he overheard a news broadcast coming from Wong's small t.v. in the other room.

Narrowing his eyes, he got up and followed the sound to where Wong was watching with a blank expression on his face. The first time he'd caught the other man watching it, he'd been surprised to find something so modern on the premises. Wong had merely scoffed at him, saying that though they protected the planet from interdimensional threats, they still had to know what was going on outside the Sanctum's walls, and that had been the end of it.

He looked up as Stephen joined him, a faint look of concern in his eyes. "Did Stark tell you about this?" He asked as Stephen came around to see the screen.

"Tell me what?"

"Our analysts have confirmed without a doubt that the footage we just watched is authentic. Tony Stark was not responsible for Ultron's creation. We've been told that CEO Pepper Potts will be delivering a second statement on this matter later today. This is Abby Stone reporting."

Stephen blinked at the screen in confusion which had now cut to commercial. "When did this happen?"

"The day after you left." Wong replied. "I'm guessing you didn't know about it."

"No, I didn't." Stephen shook his head. "Most of Tony's memories focused on the incident in New York and what happened in Siberia. The rest was just a jumble of different incidents in no particular order. One minute I think I was seeing Sokovia, the next Malibu and then back to New York. None of it was all that clear."

"Do you think the spell Wanda cast is responsible for why he kept evidence of his innocence hidden from the public?"

"Possibly." Stephen replied. "But I'm also aware that at the time it happened, no one was on his side. He might have believed proving his innocence to be pointless at the time, especially given how serious the threat from Ultron was."

"Perhaps." Wong nodded, though Stephen could tell instantly that he didn't believe it for a minute. "You could know with certainty if you just asked him."

Stephen scowled, downing the last of his tea. "Why has it become so damn important to you that I make nice with the man? I've been patient, kind, saved his life and rid him of some nasty parasitic magic. I have other responsibilities that you also can't refrain from reminding me of. What exactly is your goal here?"

"Don't take that tone with me Strange. You may be stronger in magic, but I am still your senior." Wong growled. "You clearly haven't noticed, so I'll just say it. When was the last time you dreamt of Dormammu or the Dark Dimension?"

Stephen scowled harder, crossing his arms over his chest. "What in the name of Ancient One does that have to do with anything?"

"Answer the question Stephen."

"Of all the... you know I don't like talking about that. You also know they've been constant, despite the fact that..." Stephen growled before breaking off mid tirade. "I..."

"Exactly." Wong retorted, a knowing look in his eyes.

"You think... Stark?"

"What else?" Wong huffed, an air of boredom now radiating from him. "You've not had a night terror since you met with Stark in his Tower. The Cloak hasn't had to wake me to break you free of nightmares in close to three months now. I can't say for certain why or even how this has happened, but you are clearly positively affected by his proximity. You have noticed that despite the witch's magic, Stark always had a strong energy to him. I imagine it's only gotten stronger since you helped him."

"You're telling me that, quite literally, Tony is good for my health." Stephen drawled.

"Tell me I'm wrong and I'll not mention it again."

"I... I can't do that." Stephen stammered. "I need to think about this. Besides, normal people can't just make someone's dreams stop like that."

Wong huffed a laugh and shut off the t.v.. "You made Stark's dreams stop. And are you honestly saying Stark is normal?"

"He's not a Sorcerer Wong."

"No. But he's not average either."

"Alright, fine. You've made your point. I'll call him. FRIDAY?"

"Yes Doctor Strange?"

"Call Tony please?"

"I'm sorry Doctor, but I can't do that right now." FRIDAY replied, drawing Wong's attention.

"What? Why not?" Stephen asked the AI with a frown.

"Boss is currently in Geneva in a meeting."

"What meeting?" Stephen demanded, then checked himself. "My apologies FRIDAY, I have no right to ask that."

"It's alright Doctor. Boss cleared you for any questions you might have regarding his absence." FRIDAY replied, gaining him a knowing smirk from Wong. "It seems Mr. Lang and Mr. Barton have decided to sign the Accords so they can return home. The Council requested boss be present for the signing as a representative of the new Avengers initiative."

Stephen narrowed his eyes. "I'm sorry, who's signing?"

"Hawkeye and Ant-Man." FRIDAY responded without missing a beat.

"Ah, yes the archer. I imagine their motives are both family related."

"They are." FRIDAY continued. "Mr. Lang wants to see his daughter and Mr. Barton wishes to return to his family."

"May I ask who else is there?"

"Boss was accompanied by Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones. Aside from the necessary UN and Accords reps, the only other person present is King T'Challa."

"I see." Stephen replied, his eyes going hard. "Is the King present for both meetings or just there as an observer?"

"He is an observer Doctor Strange." Her tone indicating she knew exactly what he was really asking.

"Thank you FRIDAY." He smiled, meeting Wong's suspicious glare.

"What are you planning Stephen?"

"Nothing of importance Wong." Stephen said, getting to his feet. "I think I will invite myself to this meeting as well."

"You can't expose us like that to those people Strange! They barely tolerate the existence of aliens having magic. Portalling into that place will only scare them. We may have signed the Accords, but that doesn't mean any of them need a front row seat to our powers."

"What kind of imbecile do you take me for?" Stephen growled. "As if I would do anything like that. I merely wish to have a few words with someone in attendance and I have no intention of giving myself away to anyone."

"Fine." Wong huffed, though he was clearly unhappy with Stephen's answer. "But do not drop anyone into a portal."

"I never do anything without provocation Wong. Have some faith." Stephen admonished at the same time he conjured a portal and snapped it closed before Wong could respond.

"Bloody arrogant, last word always, little..." Wong cursed under his breath. Throwing his hands into the air in irritation, he stormed from the kitchen and headed for the practice room. It was about to become very loud while Wong worked out his annoyance at how only Stephen could get him this annoyed in such a short span of time.



~~~~~

*Really not liking what I've seen so far from Endgame trailers and teasers. Trying to get mine out before the movie but if I can't, I hope to have it at least my version of IW out by the time it drops. So yeah, Endgame trailers annoy me cuz I just KNOW they aren't ever going to adequately address the horseshit that happened in CW. So, I guess I should just stay the hell away from YouTube. 🤔😕

Chapter Text

The meeting with Lang was short, procedural and over in less than an hour. Tony sat there, listening to the list of charges, Lang's prepared statement and agreement with the terms of his return home and wondered just what the hell he was doing there. All the Council wanted was for him to sit as a witness, covering their asses in case what happened with Lang somehow came back to bite them in the ass. Which Tony didn't ever see happening since he wasn't about to plead the man's case and there was no one else who had any power to do so.

Besides, why would he ever help the guy? Lang was a nobody as far as he was concerned and he was certainly no threat, especially once Pym got hold of him. He might know how to use Pym's technology, but he wasn't a hero and he wasn't the brains behind the Ant-Man suit. He was less than Tony himself in that he'd been in the right place at the right time and Hank had used the man to help himself. Plus he'd stolen from Stark Industries. If not for Sam's incompetence, Lang never would have succeeded.

Throughout the meeting, Lang kept glancing his way, a near unreadable expression on his face that if Tony didn't know better looked an awful lot like guilt. But it didn't faze him. Jessica kept Lang from openly staring by giving him the coldest glare she could without making the rest of those in attendance uncomfortable.

Tony blinked and suppressed a yawn and the next moment, everyone was getting to their feet for a short break before they processed Barton's deal. He joined them, following Matt from the room when Lang's voice called out to him. Turning, he met Scott's eyes with a frown, but made no move to go any closer.

Flanked by two security personnel and his UN appointed lawyer, Lang crossed the room, his eyes never leaving the billionaire's confused stare.

"Mr. Stark." He began, clearing his throat nervously. "I know we didn't get off on the right foot, like, at all. But I just... I wanted you to know that I thought I was helping to save the world. I didn't know about the Accords before Germany and... well I... I'm sorry I didn't do my homework on what I was asked to do without knowing all the facts."

"Rogers didn't tell you?"

"No sir." Scott said with a shake of his head. "If he had, I probably would've just stayed home. I doubt Hank will ever trust me again, never mind speak to me."

Tony chuckled under his breath. "I appreciate that Mr. Lang. And you're right, Hank isn't one to let go of grudges, but I wouldn't worry about it much. He's more likely to blame the whole thing on me anyways. If there's anyone he mistrusts more than you, it's a Stark."

"Far as I can tell, he's got no reason for that sir." Lang replied. "Anyway, that's all I wanted to say and that I wish we could've met under better circumstances."

"Likewise." Tony nodded. "Wanted to ask you, if an interested party calls, do they have anything to worry about regarding company secrets? Just wondering since I'm almost positive I'm gonna get threats the minute he hears of your return."

"Nope, nothing to worry about at all." Lang smiled as a guard cleared his throat behind him to hurry up. "My hands are clean."

Tony nodded. "Thanks. Appreciate the head's up."

***

Once T'Challa had left, Sam glared at Steve his arms crossed over his chest. "Why'd you lie to him Steve? Wanda is not recovered at all."

Steve glared back at his friend. "He doesn't need to know Sam. You really think he'd let us leave if he thought Wanda was a problem? You heard him, she's more wanted for her crimes than anyone else on the team. I don't doubt Stark's behind that one, still trying to lay the blame for what he made her do on her."

"I doubt that was all Stark's doing." Sam protested, though there was no energy behind it. "But that doesn't matter right now. How are we gonna keep her little problem secret till we get out of here?"

"She'll be fine by the time we have to go. She just needs a bit of rest and food."

"Hope you're right."

***

Stephen portalled to Geneva, stepping out into a small, deserted alley two blocks from the building he knew Tony was in. FRIDAY had been more than willing to share the details of the location with him and made no comment on either his intentions or his presence in Switzerland. Despite his own misgivings on what he was doing, he appreciated her silent approval, for approval it was, he had no doubts about that.

What he did doubt was how to accomplish what he wanted without drawing unwanted attention. "Doctor Strange?" FRIDAY prompted when Stephen remained standing in the alley, unmoving.

"Yes?"

"If I might be of assistance, I have access to surveillance both surrounding and within the building. Would you like me to locate the individual you wish to address?"

Stephen chuckled under his breath as he quickly cast a simple glamour over himself, disguising himself under local fashions. He added to it by altering his hair colour and removing his facial hair. A thin pair of wire glasses completed his assemble as he began moving forward and out to the street.

"I would appreciate that FRIDAY. How thorough is the security?"

"Nothing the protector of the New York Sanctum can't handle Doctor."

"Remind me to compliment your boss on your very skilled use of compliments and sarcasm FRIDAY."

"Thank you Doctor. I will do just that when next you see him."

Ten minutes later Stephen was inside the very expensive hotel and on the same floor as the man he sought. It had been mere child's play to bypass security with a simple 'don't see me glamour' or if that wasn't enough, as he oft referred to it, his Jedi mind tricks.

The King was currently in his room, waiting for what, Stephen wasn't sure since FRIDAY had assured him he was to be in attendance for the next meeting. Regardless, Stephen wanted this over with and not being patient to start, he took a quick survey of the King's room with his astral self and a moment later was standing in the man's bedroom.

There were two very stern looking women speaking in harsh tones in the other room, which Stephen chose to ignore. He muttered another spell under his breath, his glamour falling away at the same time someone gasped in the other room.

He breezed in, letting his aura push the door wide while the Cloak levitated him into the shocked King's presence. Stephen gave a small smile to the frozen warriors standing opposite the King before turning an ice cold glare on the man before him.

"Who the devil do you think you are coming in here like this?" The King barked. "And what have you done to them? I demand you return them at once!" He demanded, pointing angrily at the warriors.

"My, my, such arrogance from someone who is supposed to be of refined royal blood. Though I suppose that is explanation enough right there." Stephen clucked in disappointment. "As for who I am, I believe I am the Sorcerer Supreme and you are the man who left another man to die."

"Explain yourself Sorcerer!" T'Challa barked, the glint in his eye growing angrier. "I have never left anyone to die and you are threatening a king!"

"I haven't even begun to threaten you." Stephen hissed. "And it seems your memory needs refreshing."

Without waiting for another interruption, Stephen, using a magic technique Wong had shown him, threw a projection of what happened in Siberia onto a nearby wall. Minutes later, the video disappeared and Stephen addressed him once more.

"Now that we're on the same page, tell me, how many people were in Siberia? Including yourself."

"Five." Came T'Challa's now uncertain reply.

"And how many walked out?" Stephen hissed.

"Five."

"Wrong." Stephen snapped. "You see, I know only four walked out, for I was the one who saved the fifth one's life. That life being that of one Doctor Tony Stark. The same man who helped you in Germany, the same man you left for dead in a cold Siberian bunker while you ran off with a criminal to be rewarded for your heroics. Then you thumbed your nose at both the authorities and the legacy of the Accords your own father created to give shelter to wanted criminals. You sir are a hypocrite. More than that, you are certainly no hero. You are nothing but a coward and a liar. If not for the technology you hold within the borders of your country, you would be nothing."

"What..." T'Challa stumbled over his words as he cleared his throat. "What do you want from me?"

"What I want is immaterial. But you are going to do everything in your power to assist Doctor Stark with both the Accords ratification and the rebuilding of the New Avengers Initiative. Something, I will point out, would likely not even be necessary if you had helped him while Rogers and Barnes were attempting to beat him to death. Unfortunately, you were too busy ensuring your own righteous revenge with Zemo." Stephen paused and took in a long, loud breath and shook himself.

"You say you're a Sorcerer," T'Challa challenged him. "But all I've seen so far is parlour tricks. You do not intimidate me."

Stephen rolled his eyes and with a bored sigh, flicked his hand and opened a portal beneath the man's feet. T'Challa let out an undignified squeak of surprise which cut off as Stephen snapped it closed behind him.

"What do you think FRIDAY? Is it time for a cup of tea?"

"I believe it's the perfect time Doctor." FRIDAY replied with a distinct sound of approval.

"Ah good. That speech wore out my voice a little." Stephen said as he settled in a nearby chair and conjured a steaming cup into his hand.

"Not to rain on your parade Doctor, but isn't the King missing his meeting?"

Stephen blushed, even though he knew FRIDAY couldn't see him. "Uh, no. I may have frozen the building and all in it into a pocket dimension. No one but those present in this room will remember a thing. A small misuse of my power, but... necessary."

Minutes later, Stephen had finished his tea and returned to where he'd been standing previously. "I suppose I should wrap this up. Despite my desire to let that man fall for another twenty minutes, I can't maintain it and the building forever."

"An understandable desire Doctor but, as you say..."

"Yes. As I say." Stephen nodded, flicking a hand at the ceiling to where a portal opened and the formerly threatening King fell out, landing on the carpet with a thud and a muffled curse.

"Did you enjoy that parlour trick?" Stephen asked as T'Challa got to his feet, his face flushed with anger and embarrassment.

"No."

"Good. Then I assume there's no need for further examples of what I can do."

"No, there's not."

"Then we have nothing further to discuss. Your warriors will return to normal the moment I leave this room. Oh, and in case you were thinking of keeping what you did secret, the two in this room saw and heard everything that happened here. I doubt they will be interested in any excuse you might have for your actions in Siberia. Should we ever cross paths again, this meeting never happened or I will be having a few words with a certain Panther God you've met."

T'Challa paled on hearing Stephen's parting warning as the Sorcerer stepped through a whirling circle of sparks and disappeared. A wave of pressure hit him seconds later, making it feel as though his ears were about to pop at the same time his General and her sister stumbled in place.

"You left Stark to die?" His General hissed, stepping into his personal space and forcing him to step back. "You have dishonored your name and our people! You are not fit to be King!"

"Sister!" The other woman admonished, though her eyes also flashed with anger. "Let us not be so hasty."

"He has brought the wrath of a powerful being upon our heads!" She shrieked. "How are my words hasty?!"

T'Challa drew himself up, straightening his shoulders in an effort to project a confidence he didn't feel. "You cannot believe that man has the power to speak to our God." He demanded, incredulous and trying for indifference. "He is but a man beneath the sorcery, powerful yes but still a man."

"A man who clearly understands honour more than you." His General hissed back. "You will do as he has requested my King, or we will be forced to share our knowledge with the people. That you chose to keep this hidden tells me that you know you have done wrong and wished to keep it secret. Worse, you gave shelter to those who hurt the one you abandoned. You disgust me."

Without another word, the General turned on her heel and marched from the room. Her sister remained where she was, torn between doing her duty to her king and joining her sister.

"Well?" T'Challa huffed, arching a brow in her direction.

"I will not lie my King. I agree with my sister's sentiments but I have no desire to alert outsiders that we are divided in our mission here. I will stay and accompany you to your meeting."

"Very well." T'Challa nodded, letting out the breath he'd been holding. "Let us go then."

 

Chapter Text

Tony wasn't looking forward to Clint's signing of the Accords. He'd somewhat enjoyed the snarky banter he'd shared with the archer over the years. Despite the fact that Clint had a habit of going too far with his comebacks to the point they sometimes hurt, for the most part he appreciated someone who could keep up with him. But Barton's words from the Raft echoed in his head and he couldn't think of a single nice thing to say to the man. Nor did he want to.

Whatever had prompted Barton to say what he had, he had never known Clint to make fun of a teammate's injury before. Certainly not at the expense of someone else, especially Rhodey. Himself yes, but Clint had always respected Rhodes so he couldn't reconcile Barton's cruelty with the man he'd thought him to be.

Matt cleared his throat at his side as they made their way back to the conference room. "Tony. I can hear your heart rate picking up. What's wrong?"

"You know how unsettling that is." Tony muttered.

"He does." Jessica answered. "He just doesn't let it bother him. What's up Stark?"

"It's Barton." Tony sighed, letting Matt pull him aside to clear the hallway. "He said something to me the day I went to the Raft. I can't stop thinking about it."

Jessica snorted. "From what I've heard, he can no more keep his mouth shut than you can. But I'm guessing this wasn't one of his normal insults."

"No, it wasn't." Tony replied with a shake of his head. "Not verbatim, but he implied it was my fault Rhodey was paralyzed. That I know all and make bad decisions for everyone since I think it should be my way or the highway."

"Oh that's rich!" Jessica fumed. "This from a guy whose head was so far up Rogers' ass he told him to jump and Barton said how high? Seriously? The same guy who took Wanda from a secure place because Rogers told him to? What a joke."

"I have to agree with Ms. Jones." Matt nodded, making her scowl at him. "Sounds more like he was projecting than accusing Tony."

Tony blinked at the two scowling faces before him. "You two tag team much or is this a new thing?" He joked, causing Matt to blush and Jess to snort and do an eye roll that impressed even him.

"Shut up Stark." Jones huffed.

"Fine, fine." He said, holding up his hands in peace. "It just never occurred to me that might be what Clint was doing. Still doesn't excuse what he said though."

"No one's saying it does." Matt protested. "But are you ready to go in?"

Tony squared his shoulders and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I'm ready. Definitely more ready than I was a few minutes ago. Let's do this."

***

The first thing Tony noticed when he entered the room was the slump in Barton's shoulders and the unnatural tension he detected in T'Challa the moment he sat down. The King was seated two spots away from Clint who had his lawer between himself and the UN rep and Accords members.

Matt hummed thoughtfully under his breath noticing the same thing Tony had, but reclined back in his chair, giving away nothing. Tony glanced at him, catching the small smile Matt flashed him before turning his attention to the front of the room.

He tuned out what the official was saying, instead choosing to watch Clint's reaction to what was being said. He didn't need to listen to the charges or the conditions of Barton's plea deal, he'd been there after all. But this was a helluva a lot more personal than Lang's had been.

He and Clint might have never been all that close, but he'd traded barbs with the former assassin, shared drinks and pranks. Shit, the man had eaten his food, drank his booze and shared a roof with him. The depth of betrayal was only now hitting him as he watched Clint continue to keep his eyes riveted to the front of the room.

Tony knew Barton knew he was staring, knew he was ignoring him and it grated on his nerves in a way he hadn't expected. He could feel his anger rising when Matt's hand suddenly pressed into his under the table, giving it a squeeze and forcing him to release the breath he'd been holding. It must have been enough for the lawyer for he gave his hand a final squeeze before placing it back on the table.

Blinking away the haze of anger that had overcome him, Tony shifted his gaze to the King and almost gave himself away when he caught the man staring back at him, an unreadable expression on his face. T'Challa didn't look away though, making Tony narrow his eyes, wondering just what the other man was doing. After a moment, he realized the king seemed to looking for something, some sign of who knew what in his face or posture that he couldn't seem to find.

Tony stared back, his mind going a mile a minute when it dawned on him what Stephen had said about the King and Barnes. That T'Challa should be held responsible for his actions... and then it clicked. That wasn't impassivity he was seeing under the King's careful facade, it was guilt. But for him to feel guilty, then... No, no there was no way Stephen had gotten to him. T'Challa had probably come to the same conclusion on his own, yet that didn't explain why he was still staring or why there was no hostility in his eyes.

He was so caught up in figuring out what was going on with the King that he didn't hear his name being called. Jessica nudged him none too gently under the table, making him frown at her in annoyance until someone repeated his name and he felt a faint flush creep up his face.

Locking his expression down, he turned his attention back to the front of the room where a grey-haired and perfectly put together woman was watching him intently.

"I'm sorry." He said. "I missed that."

"I said, that Mr. Barton wished to talk to you once we conclude for today. Our part is finished as you have already provided your signature to the necessary documents. If you are amenable to Mr. Barton's request, we will leave you to it while we adjourn."

Tony's eyes flicked to Barton, who was still avoiding eye contact as though afraid of what Tony might say. It took a moment, with him painfully aware that the entire room was waiting for his response but in the end he nodded. "Fine by me."

The woman, whose name Tony had promptly forgotten the moment she'd been introduced, nodded and got to her feet. "Very well. On behalf of the United Nations and the representatives of the Accords, I declare this hearing adjourned. Mr. Barton you will remain in international custody until transportation back to the United States has been secured. Mr. Stark, thank you for being here and I wish you a good day."

With that, the delegates and officials stood collectively and filed from the room. T'Challa following behind with a passing glance to Tony as he left. Still frowning at the man's back, he turned to Clint who was now watching him openly. Silence filled the room as the two men stared at each other until Clint's lawyer cleared his throat.

"Mr. Barton if you wish to proceed, I suggest you get on with it."

Clint nodded, his shoulders slumping even more before meeting Tony's gaze again. "Look Stark, I have no idea what to say to you to make anything better. I'm sorry I broke into the compound and took Wanda and I'm sorry I attacked Vision. Most of all though, I'm sorry I didn't do my homework before answering Steve's call."

"Better late than never I suppose." Tony shrugged, feeling completely unmoved by Clint's words.

"Shit Tony. I know I fucked up, I fucked up bad and... and I..." Clint ducked his head, avoiding Tony's eyes. "I want to thank you also... for, for what you did. For Laura and the kids. You totally didn't have to and you had no reason to after what I did, what I said... but, thank you. For everything. If I could take it back, I would, but when I heard Ross was involved, well..." Clint shrugged. "I guess I just found it easy to believe you were on his side. Anyway, I'm sorry."

Tony tried really hard not to show confusion when Clint mentioned Laura. He couldn't remember doing anything for her or Clint's kids, but Barton seemed to think he had. Maybe he had and forgotten about it, but still... and then it clicked. Right, he'd hidden them the minute Clint was in Ross' custody. He'd wanted them safe from Ross as potential bargaining chips, but it had been months ago, so much had happened... no wonder he'd forgotten.

"You're welcome." Tony shrugged. "But I didn't do it for you."

Clint nodded and got to his feet. "I know. But it's because of you I still have a family to go home to and I didn't deserve what you did. Just as you didn't deserve what I said to you. I won't forget it Tony."

Tony nodded, accepting Clint's words for what they were, but he knew in his gut that it was unlikely he'd ever trust the man again. With Clint finished, everyone began moving to their respective doors when Clint stopped and turned to look at him again.

"Stark, I don't know what happened between you and Steve, but you should know he thinks all this is just going to go away. You know how he can be. Just... watch your back alright?"

"He won't have to." Jessica replied. "He's got friends who will do that for him."

Clint nodded, a sad look in his eyes, as though he'd expected the comment, then said nothing more as his lawyer and the two guards led him from the room.

***

After Clint had left, Jessica nudged Tony with her boot. "I thought you were going to give him a piece of your mind? What happened?"

Tony shrugged. "Didn't seem important after his little speech. But it's mostly because T'Challa distracted me."

"He was definitely nervous about something." Matt agreed as they got to their feet.

"Not important?" Jessica echoed. "After what he did?"

Tony met her eyes and nodded. "We won Jones. Besides, if he really wanted to apologize, he would have asked Vision to be here too. The odds I'll ever see him again are slim to none and honestly, he wasn't worth venting on. I really had nothing to say to him."

"Still." Jessica huffed. "I would have liked to see you put him in his place."

Tony smiled. "If he's talked to Laura, she's already done that and I'd bet good odds there's more of that waiting for him when he gets home."

Matt had his hand on the door when he paused. "I believe the King is waiting for you in the hallway." He said, turning back to Tony.

"Hmpf." Tony snorted. "Well then, let's see what he has to say. After you Mr. Murdock."

 

 

Chapter Text

Wong was waiting for him when he returned to the Sanctum, complete with arms crossed and eyes narrowed.

"Did you enjoy your little side trip?" He demanded, the moment the portal closed behind him.

"I did actually." Stephen replied, completely unsurprised Wong knew what he'd been up to. "And I won't apologize for it, if that's what this is about."

"It's not. But in future, you might do well to question your motives before acting so rashly. I'm not certain Stark will approve when he finds out."

"I'm not interested in his approval." Stephen retorted, though in reality he hadn't even considered it as a factor in his decision.

"Just don't be surprised when he tells you to back off. He doesn't strike me as someone who likes having someone else fight his battles for him."

"That was not what I was doing." Stephen huffed.

"Stark might not see it that way."

"I'll cross that bridge when it comes to it. If it comes to it. Either way, it doesn't mattter, I'd do again even without his approval."

Wong smirked at him and dropped his arms to his sides with a shake of his head. "You are so screwed."

"What are you talking about?" Stephen demanded as Wong turned to head for the kitchen.

"You're smart Stephen." Wong called over his shoulder, still chuckling. "I'm sure you'll figure it out eventually."

Stephen scowled at the other sorcerers' retreating form with annoyance. He shrugged his shoulders, letting the Cloak sail down the hallway while he headed to his room and a much needed shower. Dealing with the King had lifted a burden from him that he hadn't known was there and he felt good about what he'd accomplished. Whether or not the King complied with his demands was secondary to the knowledge that he knew his point had been made. That he'd done something to correct at least one injustice done to someone he...

Stephen paused as he stepped into the shower, almost tripping over his own feet as he'd just mentally tripped over his thoughts. Dammit , he swore under his breath as he adjusted the water temperature. He'd been about to say... no . Certainly not in such a short time?

As he washed the dirt of his impromptu trip to Europe from his skin and lathered his hair with soap, he contemplated the thoughts whirling in his mind. There was no denying Tony was attractive and charming. Yet had he truly come to care for the man so much already? Or was it just admiration for someone who had survived so much and bettered himself each time?

By the time he finished cleaning up and towelling himself off, he was utterly flustered by what he'd realized in the shower. If course, that led him down a slippery slope of self-recrimination, anxiety over his actions in Europe and fear that he hadn't been acting from a purely neutral position. Which is how Wong found him an hour later, sitting cross-legged on his bed muttering to himself.

"Is this some new meditation technique Strange?" Wong drawled from his doorway. "Because if it is, I have to tell you it doesn't appear very effective."

"I like Tony Stark." Stephen blurted, then instantly flushed, a scowl on his face. "Forget I said that!"

Wong only arched a brow at him and shook his head. "That's not news Stephen."

"What?!" Stephen exclaimed, jumping to his feet in a panic. "You're making that up!"

"Are you sure you're an adult?"

Stephen blinked then narrowed his eyes in annoyance. "Excuse me? Of course I'm an adult. What kind of question is that and why are you being insulting?"

"Because you're behaving like a besotted adolescent. And no, unless you've told him you like him, Stark has no idea. Especially given the fact that you just realized it now."

"Oh. Well that's good then."

"I don't see what's good about it." Wong scoffed with a snort. "Between the two of you, you've no more brains than a flea when it comes to feelings."

"I'll have you know we both hold numerous PhD's Wong."

"Are they going to help you tell Stark you like him?" Wong challenged him with a smirk.

"I don't need a PhD for that." Stephen retorted holtly.

"From where I'm standing you're going to need a map and directions and a new PhD." Wong chuckled. "But okay."

"You are the most insulting man I've ever met."

Wong merely smiled at him. "You would know, you met yourself years ago."

"That doesn't even make sense."

Wong sighed and stepped back into the hallway. "Yes, well. Good luck with the whole Tony thing. I'm going to bed. It's your turn to strengthen the wards tonight."

"There is no Tony thing. We're only friends!" Stephen snapped, but there was no response as Wong had moved out of hearing. Or , Stephen thought darkly, he was ignoring him .

Which was fine, Stephen thought, moving down the hall to the study, he didn't want to continue the annoying discussion they'd been having anyway. He was not some starry-eyed teenager and he was certainly not interested in starting anything with Tony. Stark , he corrected himself. They were both grown men, with important responsibilities and no time. Besides, he thought, as he set up his workspace to reinforce the Sanctum's wards, there was no way Stark would ever be interested in him in that way. It was ridiculous and Wong was...well, Wong was just being a jerk.

Satisfied that he'd put his fears and anxieties to rest, at least for the time being, Stephen settled himself on a pillow on the floor and got to work on the wards.

***

"Doctor Stark." T'Challa began once Tony had gotten over his shock that the king truly did want to speak with him. "On behalf of Wakanda and her people, I would like to offer my assistance in any capacity regarding the Accords and the forming of the New Avengers Initiative."

"I see." Tony nodded, though he didn't see, at all. "What did you have in mind?"

"I cannot in all honesty commit to any specifics at this time as I must first speak with my advisors on the matter. However, I assure you that I will have my sister contact you in coming to some kind of arrangement regarding an exchange of information. Beyond that, I put myself at your disposal to help with any changes you want made to the existing Accords."

Tony appeared thoughtful in the pause T'Challa left in his speech before responding. "Am I to assume that this arrangement will be beneficial to both parties, or will it more closely resemble a dictatorship where you give me breadcrumbs while holding all the cards? Because I gotta tell you, that doesn't sound like something I care to agree to."

"I can assure you that..."

"Just stop right there " Tony said, holding up his hand to cut the other man off. "I'm not interested in getting assurances from a guy who broke the Accords and then gave shelter to a wanted criminal. That's not someone I feel comfortable getting assurances from."

"I have no idea what you're talking about Dr. Stark."

"Cut the act." Tony growled, dropping his voice to a whisper. "You were there, in Siberia. I saw you. Now you can bullshit Ross till the cows come gone, but we both know there's no way in hell you left that bunker without Barnes. You have him, in Wakanda. And if he didn't bring it up the moment he got to your country, you've already put him on ice. Now, I don't know what your play is here, but I am beyond done playing the fool for anyone. Least of all someone who thumbs their nose at the rest of the world now that you got what you wanted."

"It's not what you think." T'Challa mumbled, his posture tense.

"No? I think it's exactly what I think. And since when do you care what I think?" Tony snarled. "You know what? I'm not doing this now. We're done here."

"Dr. Stark..."

Tony glanced up at Matt as they passed him in the hallway, Jessica close behind. Matt's could tell instantly that the talk with the King hadn't gone well and excused himself from his conversation to follow Tony and Jess to the waiting car outside.

***

"I don't get it." Tony repeated for the third time.

He and Matt and Jessica were on Tony's private plane, headed back to New York having left Switzerland an hour ago. He'd spoken to T'Challa with Jones at his side, while Matt had gone to speak with some of the Accords representatives before they headed home.

Tony had stood there, listening to the Wakandan King's words with a mix of suspicion and disbelief until he finally lost his temper and left him standing in the hallway, calling his name.

"Which part?" Jessica asked, sipping from the bottle of scotch she'd brought with her.

"All of it." Tony replied. "Obviously."

"He offered you his help. What's wrong with that?" Jones demanded, taking a long pull from the bottle. "I know you like doing things yourself Stark, but why is this bothering you so much?"

"Because he doesn't like me, like, at all. He made that damn clear when we met in Germany. That he didn't like me, didn't trust me and the only reason he fought at my side was because I was helping him bring in Barnes."

"Why didn't he trust you?"

"Why doesn't anyone trust me Jones?" Tony retorted. "You were one of them, you tell me."

"This isn't about me."

"Then don't ask stupid questions."

"Fine." Jessica snapped. "Was it your tech or your brains?"

Tony chuckled, letting the tension drain out of him. "Probably both. He seemed pretty convinced I was going to get my hands on his tech and reverse engineer it. That is, when his scary bodyguards weren't sneering at how medieval my tech was compared to theirs."

"They made fun of your toys?"

"Pretty much. To which I very maturely refrained from pointing out that their tech wouldn't be any more advanced than mine if not for their unlimited supply of vibranium."

"That's why their stuff is more advanced?" Matt asked, taking a seat near Tony.

"Yeah, of course. Toughest, yet most durable and versatile material there is on the planet. Until King T'Chaka revealed Wakanda to the world, I had no idea there was a whole mine of the stuff. I mean, I knew someone had it somewhere after Ultron, but Capsicles' shield was supposed to be all that existed on earth and once it was made, no one knew how to unmake it. Only my dad ever worked with the stuff and it wasn't like I could ask him about it after the old man came out of the ice."

"So he doesn't like you, doesn't trust you and yet he's offering his help? Just like that?" Matt clarified. "I get why that would be unsettling. I sure as hell find it unsettling."

Jessica sighed, long and loud, her eyes boring holes in Tony's head. "Well since no one else is saying it, the obvious question is why the change of heart?"

Tony grunted. He'd come to the conclusion just after they'd boarded but could think of no way to share it without revealing everything about Siberia. Which he totally did not want to think about, much less discuss in a narrow jet cabin, thousands of miles above the ground.

"Tony?" Matt said, nudging his leg gently.

"Mmm." He grunted.

"You thought of something." Jessica drawled.

"Doesn't mean I want to talk about it."  

"You brought it up. And now that you have I want to know what you think happened." Jessica shot back.

"Not what." Tony sighed  "Who."

"You've lost me." Matt sighed.

"There's a wizard." Tony began.

"You mean Doctor Strange." Jessica interrupted. "Yeah, I met him remember? What about him?"

"He said something to me recently about how people shouldn't be allowed to get away with things."

"I'm guessing he believes T'Challa got away with something and you think the good Doctor threatened him." Jessica concluded.

"Yeah."

"That's it?" Matt pressed. "Just yeah? If it's true, doesn't it bother you?"

"Why would it bother me?" Tony asked. "I might not have agreed with him at first, but... he was right. The King is trying to play everything from a neutral stance, but I know Barnes is in Wakanda. And if Barnes is there, then so is Cap and the rest of them. None of that is fair to me or anyone involved in the Accords when it was his own damn father who started it all. Which escalated in Budapest when he tried to kill Barnes himself. Everything that came after his father died is his fault. Everything I've had to make nice with the Council over is his doing, yet he's done nothing to help me. So yeah, if Stephen did have a hand in this, I'm fine with it."

"Fine with it huh." Jones smirked. "I might not know you well Stark, but there's more to it than that. You don't let anyone fight your battles."

"Not true, I let Pepper do it all the time. But not things like this, no." Tony agreed. "But I'm tired of doing the hero thing alone and giving my best and still getting blamed for everything that goes wrong."

"Okay this sounds like feelings and I'm nowhere near drunk enough for that." Jones huffed, getting to her feet to move to the front of the cabin where lounge beds were set up. "I'm gonna finish this bottle and take a nap. You two do... well, whatever it is you do."

Matt smiled as she walked past him, both men sat comfortably in the silence left behind with her leaving. "She doesn't mean that you know."

Tony laughed. "Yes she does."

Matt chuckled. "Okay, yes she does. But really, you're okay with what Stephen might have done?"

Tony shrugged. "I wasn't kidding about being tired of it all Matt, so yeah, I'm fine with it. I'll need to talk to him, but I'm good. Besides, it's not much different from what you and Pepper did for me with Ultron."

"It's very different if Stephen threatened him."

Tony tutted under his breath. "Come on Murdock. You saw T'Challa. Would anything less than a threat have worked? He's the sovereign ruler of an advanced, secretive society. I doubt he can even fathom what it's like to not be above everyone else. There's no way he would have willingly offered his help to anyone, let alone me."

"Alright." Matt nodded. "I hear you, but I would like to ask you something." At Tony's nod, he continued. "Is there anything going on between the two of you?"

"What?! You mean Stephen?"

Matt nodded.

"Uh, noo." Tony replied, hesitating. "Why would you ask me that? He helped me with a few things, uh... magic related things. That's all."

"So there's nothing then?"

"We're friends Matt. That's all. Stephen was pretty upset about the whole Wanda thing and as the Sorcerer Supreme, he took it very personally that someone with magic attacked a civilian. It led to some other unpleasant discoveries about some rocks and well... that's where we're at."

"Rocks?" Matt repeated, a frown creasing his brow. "What rocks? And who's Wanda?"

"Uh..." Tony hesitated, kicking himself for the slip. He shouldn't have mentioned the rocks, or Wanda for that matter. He was just now realizing how many conversations, personal conversations he'd actually had with Strange. None of which he'd had with anyone else, which meant it was unlikely anyone but Strange and the rogues knew what Wanda had done. "The Scarlet Witch and the rocks are just... well they aren't really important right now."

"Seems they might be important to Strange and you're forgetting I can hear your heartbeat." Matt replied softly.

"Ugh." Tony groaned. "I really don't want to talk about this. You know she attacked the Avengers but... she left a little bit more than that with me and Stephen fixed it. She blames me for her parent's deaths and that's all I have to say about that right now. The stones are just something Stephen wanted to learn more about, but so far he hasn't found much."

"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable Tony. I was just concerned when your pulse accelerated and I just thought..." Matt shook his head. "Never mind, it's none of my business. I was just hoping you might have found a friend. It'd be nice if you had a few more."

Tony blinked, then smiled. "I appreciate that but I really don't know what Stephen and I are. Do I like having him around? Sure. Are we friends? Maybe, but I doubt he's interested in much more than tracking down Wanda and containing her. He's pretty serious about that. And with her and the rest of them in the wind, I'm the only lead he's got in finding out where she is. After that, who knows? Maybe he'll stick around, but his job seems pretty intense so it doesn't seem likely. Not only that but we didn't exactly hit it off and I seriously doubt he wants anything more from someone like me than a working relationship."

"But what do you want Tony? Do you want him around?"

"Well yeah, Matt. Who wouldn't want a sexy, magical Doctor hanging around? But I'm not going to push anything now, there's..." Tony paused, hesitating again but he knew he needed more people to be aware, so... "Look. There's something big coming, something really bad and until then, I don't have time for much else. The thing that's coming? I know we're not ready, but I'm doing as much as I can to get some of us ready. Okay?"

Matt nodded. "Got it. I didn't mean to pry. Anyway, we should grab some sleep while we can, jet lag can be a bitch."

"True." Tony smiled. "And I think I will get some shut eye. Thanks for the talk Matt, it was... enlightening."

"Anytime."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony was exhausted by the time he returned to his home at the compound. So tired that he knew it was closer to over-tired which meant he wouldn't be getting to sleep anytime soon.

With that in mind, he took a shower, changed and wandered out of his bedroom to look out over the grounds lost in thought. The meeting in Europe had gone a lot more smoothly than he'd expected and as such, he was back in New York sooner than anticipated. Jet lag had yet to catch up to him and despite his tiredness it was only two p.m., so therefore way too early for bed.

There wasn't much to do in his shiny new house, so he headed over to the compound to see if Vision or Rhodey were around. Normally he'd be headed to his workshop, but the meeting in Geneva and his conversation with T'Challa and then Matt had his thoughts whirling to places he was in no mood to follow.

He found Vision in the kitchen, his attention riveted to a cookbook laying flat on the kitchen island, while he stirred a pot on the stove with the other. His eyes flicked to Tony as he entered, his face lighting up at the sight of his creator.

"Ah, Mr. Stark. You're back from Europe already?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah. What are you doing?"

"I am attempting to prepare a food dish that I've noticed is rather popular in this part of the country."

"Oh?" Tony replied, sliding into a bar stool to watch. "What is it?"

"Spaghetti with meat sauce sir."

"Ah" Tony nodded. "Italian."

Vision looked up at him, a startled expression in his face. "I beg your pardon. Italian? I thought this was a North American dish."

"Well it is and not. Don't worry about it Viz. There are different dishes related to different countries which aren't exactly native to any specific country but which people associate with anyway."

"Ah." Vision nodded, though he didnt seem relieved. "Another strange hunan habit to which it appears involves no logic."

"True." Tony chuckled. "Can I ask why you're using a book? Can't you just, I dunno, have it in your head?"

"I am still trying to learn how to be me while surrounded by humans. I believed it would be a good exercise in attempting to fit in, be a little more acceptable than to flaunt my... otherness."

"So you're trying to appear more approachable."

"Yes, exactly."

"Have you been able to test that yet?"

"Not really, no." Vision replied, pulling out a second pot and filling it with water, before setting it on the stove to heat. "Though a young man was here earlier and did not react in the manner he did when we first met."

"Young man?" Tony echoed. "What young man? Who was it? Where'd he go?"

"It believe it was Peter Parker. Happy Hogan took him to see Colonel Rhodes an hour ago. As far as I'm aware he's still on the premises."

"Peter's here? Why? And why didn't you tell me right away?" Tony demanded, getting to his feet.

"I was unaware his visit was important. Also, I am well aware how busy you've been and that you've just returned from a rather stressful trip abroad." Vision replied, returning to his pots. "Besides, Colonel Rhodes is handling it and Mr. Parker gave no indication he needed to see you."

"Uh... okay." Tony frowned. "But in future, could you tell me I have visitors first so I can decide if it's urgent or not?"

"Of course." Vision nodded. "If you're heading there now, could you let Colonel Rhodes know that the spaghetti will be ready shortly?"

"Uh, sure. No problem."

***

Despite the fact that he'd been insanely busy, distracted and otherwise indisposed for some time, Tony berated himself the entire walk down the hall. He'd forgotten about the kid, forgotten the last time they'd spoken and how he'd behaved so like his father it made him feel physically ill.

What had happened to bring Peter here? It couldn't have been for him since he'd made it painfully clear he wanted nothing to do with the kid, his disappointment rolling off him in waves like a physical thing when he'd left him that day in the park. Which, to Tony's guilt obsessed mind meant Peter must have gotten hurt somehow and it was all his fault for taking away the suit.

By the time he reached Rhodey's office, his heart rate had accelerated and he could feel sweat forming on his forehead. "Boss? Are you alright?" FRIDAY asked in his ear.

"I'm fine baby girl." He replied, but his voice sounded breathless as he pushed the door to Rhodes' office open.

"You don't sound fine boss and your pulse is erratic."

Rhodey looked up as Tony burst into the room, the frown he'd had in place changing into concern the moment his eyes landed on his friend's appearance. "Tony? What are you doing here? I thought you were still on your way back from Europe."

"The kid..." Tony stammered, frowning at how weak he sounded. "Peter, what happened? What are you doing here?"

"Mr. Stark." Peter said, a flash of startled concern in his eyes. "Are... are you alright? You don't look so good."

"I'm fine... I'm just..." Tony protested and yet he could feel his knees starting to buckle as a fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.

In seconds Peter was on his feet, guiding him into a chair and done so fast he hadn't seen the kid move. " What's happening?" He heard Peter ask. "What's wrong with Mr. Stark?"

"Don't worry Peter." Tony heard Rhodey say. "I've got this. Why don't you go see if Vision needs help in the kitchen?"

Tony didn't hear what happened after that for he blinked to find Rhodey crouched before him, one hand on his knee keeping him grounded, while the other held a phone to his ear. "If you wouldn't mind? Yes. Thank you Doctor. My office, main floor."

"What...?" Tony began, becoming more agitated by his inability to focus. "Who was that? What's happening Rhodey bear?"

"I think you might be having a heart attack Tones, but I'm not a Doctor so I called one."

Tony scrunched up his face to scowl at him. "Don't need a Doctor Platypus. It's just a panic attack."

Rhodey frowned but said nothing, his eyes drifting up to stare over his shoulder. Tony tensed when he heard the newcomer speak, wanting to protest vehemently against what was happening, but he couldn't catch his breath enough to say so.

Stephen drifted into his line of sight, smoothly replacing Rhodey, though Strange stared at him with an intensity that would have made him squirm if not for his current state.

"Tony?"

"That's my name Doc." He wheezed, trying for a smile but knowing it probably looked more like a grimace.

"This is not a panic attack." He said, his voice firm. "But I'm also fairly certain it's not a heart attack either. Can you calm yourself enough to slow your breathing? Don't think too hard about it, just match your breaths with mine."

Despite feeling so utterly helpless, Tony listened to the other man's calm instructions and soon was doing exactly that. His heart rate gradually slowed enough that it no longer felt as though it was about to leap out of his chest. In minutes, he was breathing normally again, but the veiled look of concern Strange was giving him was making him very uncomfortable. Then the shock of what had just happened hit him and he shivered violently.

Stephen's eyes pinched with worry and he looked up behind Tony to address Rhodey. "Mr. Rhodes, would you mind getting Tony a blanket? I think he's going to need it."

"Sure " Rhodey nodded, his face holding just as much concern as Stephen's. "Be right back."

Stephen nodded and turned his attention back to his unwilling patient who was now watching him with a mix of suspicion and resentment. He sighed under his breath, knowing how irritated Tony was going to be once he fully recovered, but ignored the warning he was getting. Whether he wanted to admit it to himself or not, the man before him had become more than a patient, more than an acquaintance and he wasn't about to leave on the off chance Tony would hold it against him if he stayed.

"If it wasn't..." Tony paused, still shaken by what had happened. "What you said... then what was it?"

"I think it was an angina attack, though you would need to go to a hospital to be certain."

"No hospital." Tony growled as Rhodey returned and draped a blanket over his shoulders, Tony's hand immediately clutched at it to draw it up under his chin. He was still not yet himself, but Stephen could tell the billionaire's discomfort at being seen like this was simmering under the surface. It wouldn't be long before he recovered fully and began lashing out.

"Isn't that the same thing?"

"Not exactly." Stephen said, deliberately vague as he conjured two white pills and a glass of water into his hand. "Take these. It will help."

Still scowling, Tony did as he asked, the sounds he made blocking the stunned gasp from Rhodes who was watching the scene before him dumbfounded. Stephen frowned at him, seeking an explanation but the Colonel only gave a sharp shake of his head in warning and said nothing. It was... odd and Stephen knew he'd be asking about it later but for now, his only concern was Tony.

"Are you feeling better?" He asked.

"As opposed to what?" Tony demanded under his breath, sitting up straighter in his chair. Then more loudly, he continued as though he hadn't said anything. "Yeah Doc, I'm feeling better. Thanks."

"Can you tell me what happened that might have caused this?" Stephen continued, looking between Tony and the Colonel.

Rhodes shrugged, his eyes never leaving Tony's now shivering form. "Not sure Stephen. I was talking to Peter when Tony came in looking pale."

Tony shrugged under the weight of the two men's stares. "My imagination got away from me is all. It's not important."

It was on the tip of his tongue to vehemently disagree with that statement, but he could feel Rhodes' silent warning in the man's stiff posture so he let it slide. "Very well." He said instead, getting to his feet. "I believe you'll be fine for now. Try to get some rest and some real food in you. Don't do anything strenuous for at least twelve hours."

Tony said nothing and Stephen was on the verge of repeating himself when Rhodes spoke up on Tony's behalf.

"Thanks Doc." Rhodey said, detaching himself from the wall to shake Stephen's hand. "I appreciate that you were able to come on such short notice."

"All in a day's work." Stephen shrugged, giving him a small smile. "But I should be getting back. Make sure he rests."

"I will Stephen and thank you."

"Of course." Stephen nodded, a pang of disappointment hitting him when Tony made no move to stop him. "Anytime."

 

 

Chapter Text

"What was that about?" Wong demanded when Stephen portaled back to the Sanctuary.

Shrugging his shoulders in irritation, the Cloak lifted off him and floated up the stairs to do who knew what. "You are starting to sound like my keeper Wong." Stephen admonished, turning to glare at the other man.

"I wouldn't have to if you told me what was going on."

"Colonel Rhodes called because he thought Tony was having a heart attack." Stephen huffed. "He wasn't. It was mild angina and I took care of it."

Wong shook his head. "You're supposed to be guarding the Sanctum, not playing nursemaid to a billionaire Stephen."

"Am I supposed to ignore when someone calls me with an emergency? I wasn't busy Wong and I was needed."

"What about next time?" Wong pressed.

"I doubt there will be a next time." Stephen replied, feeling the fight leave him. "Tony Stark is a proud man. I've now seen him at some of his lowest times. He won't be eager to see me again after today, at least not for a while."

"So you didn't get a chance to tell him how you feel." Wong sighed.

"There's nothing to tell Wong, so please drop that nonsense."

Wong scowled at him and gave a sharp shake of his head. "That's good then, because you won't be around much to change it anyway."

"What are you talking about?"

"Mordo. We have another lead. This time, he left a witness."

***

Wanda woke up their last night in Wakanda, looking haunted and pale but no longer fighting ghosts in her sleep. Steve was more than relieved to see the young girl awake again, despite her haggard appearance.

"Wanda, hey... you feeling better? We've got some food here if you're hungry and there's a selection of drinks. Can I get you anything?" He asked as she slid silently into a chair.

"Stark's head on a platter." She growled, her voice filled with gravel from being unconscious for so long.

"I'm sorry... what?" Steve said, his mind stumbling over her words.

"Nothing." She mumbled, dragging her chair closer to the table and the plate of food before her. "Juice would be nice."

"I'll get it." Sam said, giving Steve a concerned look that the other man ignored. He returned a moment later with a large glass of orange juice and set it before Wanda as he returned to his seat.

Wanda grunted at Sam in thanks but didn't stop eating. Sharing a look with Steve again, he willed the soldier to speak, but Wanda cut him off before he said a word.

"How long was I out?" She asked, not looking up from her plate.

"Uh... about two days." Steve said, hesitating. He found her unnatural calm and stiff posture unsettling even as he reasoned it was only to be expected given her state the past several days.

"That's all?" She snorted, reaching for the juice glass.

"Can you... do you know what happened? You were fine one minute and then you were covered in red mist and you couldn't wake up. It seemed like you were fighting something in your sleep like... like a night terror."

"Night terror." Wanda smirked, though her voice held next to no inflection. "That's one way of putting it. Where's Clint?"

Sam shared a look with Steve, one that was filled with growing concern over Wanda's behaviour.

"He went home." Steve answered, watching her reaction.

"Always knew he was a coward." Wanda sneered, swallowing the last of the food from her plate. "So, when do we leave?"

"Uh, tomorrow."

"Good." She nodded, pushing away from the table and lifting her head to meet Steve's confused look. "It'll be nice to be out of here. Sitting around all day doing nothing was really starting to get to me." She added, giving Steve her most innocent smile.

"Are you sure you're alright?" Steve pressed, concern filling his eyes. "You were pretty out of it for the past couple days."

Wanda looked down as though thinking hard, but what she was really doing was avoiding his gaze. She was only conscious now because she'd fought the wave of terror and panic that she'd been drowning in the moment the spell hit her. She knew it was a spell, knew it was somehow connected to Stark and her own magic, but she had no idea what it was or how it had found her. Right now it was taking all her willpower not to give in to the terror and panic that hovered behind her eyes, whispering to her that these people were not her friends. She didn't want Steve or anyone to see the manic glint in her eye, or the boiling hatred she now has for Stark - it had been the only weapon that had worked to bring her out of the prison her mind had become. By focusing all her energy into her feelings for Stark, she'd broken free of the spell, but it was impossible to mask that when Steve was talking to her directly.

"It was rough." Wanda answered, choosing half truth over outright lie since she couldn't be certain she could do that now. "But I think I'll be fine after I eat and get some sleep."

"Do you know what it was?" Sam asked, his eyes giving away nothing of what he was thinking.

Wanda let out a shuddery sigh to amplify and overall, exaggerate the trauma she'd experienced. "I'm not sure..." She said, her rage against Stark rising. "I think it was a spell, but all I could see was red and gold."

"Red and gold?" Steve echoed, his brow furrowing. "You don't mean... like the Iron Man colours?"

Wanda let out a soft hiccup of distress, keeping her eyes downcast. "I don't know Steve... but it's no secret he doesn't like me... he did keep me from leaving the compound."

"Yeah but..." Steve began. "Tony's not like that. He wouldn't hurt you like that..."

"Wouldn't he?" She challenged, lifting her watery eyes to his. "After what I did?"

Steve frowned harder, unable to maintain eye contact. "Well, even if he wanted to, he's no sorcerer."

"He's smart though." Wanda continued, seeing the doubt in Steve's eyes. "He might've found a way..."

"She has a point Steve." Sam said, meeting Steve's eyes.

"Well, point or not, it seems to be over now." Steve sighed, the implications of Wanda's words turning over in his mind. "Let's get some sleep. We can talk about this again once we get out of Wakanda."

"Any idea where we can go?"

"I've got a few ideas." Steve nodded. "But I'd rather not discuss them here."

"Right."

"Wanda? You need me to stay with you till you fall asleep?"

Wanda let a blush warm her cheeks as she met his eyes. "Thank you Steve, but I think I'll be okay."

"Alright." Steve nodded. "See you both in the morning. Things will look better tomorrow, you'll see."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tony groaned from the couch that Rhodey deposited him on, draping a second blanket over him before fetching him water and a plate of food. He knew the only reason Rhodes hadn't taken him to his home was because he didn't trust him to eat or rest like Stephen had ordered. Peter was nowhere to be seen, so he assumed Rhodey had sent him home, but he was too unsettled by what had happened to ask.

Despite his resistance, he knew he wasn't in any shape to be alone yet but there was no way in hell he was going to tell Rhodey that. He suffered through having his best friend watch him eat the spaghetti he brought him, saying nothing while he washed it down with a glass of water.

"Could you maybe stop staring at me like that?" He huffed. "You're starting to give me a complex."

"We need to talk."

"No we don't."

"Yeah Tony we do." Rhodey sighed. "What happened in Siberia was more serious than you've told anyone but Strange. I saw the video Tony. What I didn't see was the aftermath. What did Doctor Wu say?"

"I told you already Sourpuss." Tony retorted, finishing the water and setting the glass aside.

"No, I made you tell me and you didn't give details. Now talk."

Tony huffed with indignance. He did not want to have this conversation. To be honest, he never wanted to think about it again, never mind talk about it, but he knew Rhodey wouldn't let it go after what he'd just witnessed.

"Look Tony, I know you like to pretend bad shit doesn't happen to you and that if it does, it's somehow deserved or your fault. Whatever you haven't told me, I'm on your side."

"Fine." Tony huffed. "Steve almost killed me. If Stephen... well, if FRIDAY hadn't contacted Stephen..." Tony paused.

"Tony..."

"Then I probably wouldn't be sitting here now."

"You're serious?" Rhodey exclaimed. "Oh my god, you are serious." He continued, getting awkwardly to his feet to pace. "I can't believe this. Steve Rogers almost killed you! Which is fucking sick coming from a guy whose motto is ‘no one left behind.’”

"Platypus..."

"No Tony. Whatever you're going to say, just... don't. Rogers’ is no hero and I don't care what his excuse is, what he did to you... it's attempted murder."

"Did you and Strange have a private meeting or something? Because I swear he said the same thing to me a couple days ago."

"No Tony, we didn't. But that's another thing, why do you trust him so much? I'm not saying it's a bad thing okay? But... he does magic Tony. When did that stop freaking you out?"

"It..." Tony paused, his thoughts whirling with surprise. He didn't have an answer that explained his instinctual trust of the man, but he also didn't want Rhodey to know that. "I'm can't answer that, but he did rescue me and... made me an amulet to protect me from any magical attack. He also helped with my nightmares and so far, he hasn't given me a reason not to trust him."

"How did he help with your nightmares?"

"That's a bit... complicated." Tony said, hesitating. "Would you believe he took me to another dimension and removed them? Well, not all of them of course, just the ones left behind by the witch."

"Wanda left nightmares in your head?" Rhodey repeated, his hands clenching in anger.

"More like visions."

Rhodey groaned, his face reflecting a conflict of emotions as though he couldn't decide what to react to first. "Visions, nightmares... does it matter? She hurt you Tony, and now you're telling me she's been hurting you for years."

Tony shrugged. "Stephen said it was chaos magic, supposed to be more dangerous than others, plus he said she had no idea what she was doing and had almost no control over the spell she used. But whatever, the visions are gone now. That's all that matters."

"It's not all that matters." Rhodey growled. "But I'll drop it for now. Did Wu say you had to take care of your... chest problem by a certain date?"

"No." Tony sighed. "Just no Iron Man until I do."

"No Iron Man? I'm going to punch Rogers if I see him again." Rhodey seethed, in a tone Tony knew was deadly serious and that it probably wouldn't end with one punch. "Come on, I'll walk you to your room. You heard Stephen, you need rest and unless you call Wu and get his okay not to, that's what you're doing until he says otherwise."

"You're being very bossy." Tony huffed, letting Rhodey help him up.

"And you're too willing to listen to make me believe you're fine." Rhodey said as they reached the transport that would take them directly to Tony's home on the grounds.

"I'm just tired Sourpuss."

"Yeah, you never say that either." Rhodey growled as he walked Tony to his bedroom. "Sleep. We can talk about this again when you're feeling better."

"What happened with the kid?" Tony asked as Rhodey settled him on the edge of his bed.

"He's fine, and it's nothing you need to worry about right now." Rhodey admonished. "We'll talk about it tomorrow.

"Fine, fine." Tony huffed. "See you tomorrow."

***

"You spoke to Rogers."

Nat blinked at the harsh lighting in the room she found herself in, muttering a curse under breath when she recognized Fury's voice.

"You let me go." She huffed, narrowing her eyes at him as she straightened in the chair she was tied to. Impressive, she thought seeing the vibranium enhanced cuffs keeping her trapped at wrist and ankle.

"That's it Agent Romanoff? I'm very disappointed. Seems hanging out with Steve Rogers has turned you soft."

"Steve did not turn me soft."

"Really?" Fury scoffed. "Cuz soft is an understatement to what I've seen. You let yourself become compromised. Agent Hill sent me some interesting videos regarding your... professional and not so professional conduct in the years prior to the incident in Germany. Seems you decided that not only are you above the law and reproach, but you also ditched all your training in favour of following Cap's lead on pretty much everything. Tell me Romanoff, do you enjoy being someone's puppet that much? Or is it that you never really ditched your training from the Red Room?"

Natasha's bottom lip trembled but her eyes remained cold. "You know I would never go back to that life Nick."

"Oh no. No, no, no. You lost the right to call me Nick the second you chose to betray 117 countries in Germany. We, are not friends, not anymore. Now, you are going to cooperate with me, you are going to follow my orders and maybe, just maybe, you can redeem yourself from the total clusterfuck you pulled both in Germany and New York."

"What are you talking about?" Nat growled. "Nothing happened in New York."

"No? Then let me refresh your memory." Fury said, nodding to the one-way glass a second before a recording of Nat’s voice filled the room.

"Could you put aside your ego for one goddamn second?"

"Now, I don't know exactly what when down there, but did you really think pissing off your most influential ally was the wisest course of action? The one person who could've stood beside you against anything Ross might have thrown at you? What I just witnessed is your pride shifting the responsibility to Stark because he's an easy target. A man who could have handed you over at any time after Germany, who warned you that T'Challa reported what you did to Ross."

"What do you want from me Fury?" Nat demanded. "I thought I was preventing something worse. I know I screwed up and I can't change what I did."

"I don't think you really understand the gravity of the situation. At all. So as of now, you work and report directly to me. You're going to track down Rogers and you're going to stick to him like a bad rash. You're going to report everything he does, everything he says and every place he goes. And you're going to do the same with Maximoff. From the reports I read regarding her actions at the airport, she's as off the rails of sanity almost as much as Rogers is, probably more. Now, are you going to cooperate or should I just pick up the phone and tell Ross where to find you?"

"That's it? That's your play Nick? I'm not going to be your snitch and betray Steve."

"Oh really? Then how about we just forget Ross and I'll make a call to some contacts in Washington? Would that work better for you? Besides, you had no trouble at all betraying Tony Stark, your team in Germany, and all the countries who signed the Accords. You didn't even hesitate. What's one man compared with everything you've already done?"

"He was trying to protect Barnes."

"What exactly do you think Stark was trying to do? Bake cookies? He was trying to buy you time, which you already knew, and then you pulled that bullshit at the airport. Tell me Nat, how's it feel to be without friends again? Or is it that you just got so tired of it all, you wanted a little alone time?"

"I have friends Nick."

"If you're referring to Agent Barton, you can forget it. Seems he wised up. A little too late for it to matter, but he signed the Accords and went home." Fury shrugged. "House arrest for two years, but I imagine it's a better deal than what you'll get if Ross finds you and you don't help me."

"Clint signed?" Nat exclaimed.

"He did. So did Scott Lang."

"Fine." She huffed under breath, hating that she only had herself to blame for what had happened. She knew she didn't have a choice, knew Fury wasn't exaggerating anything he'd threatened her with, but most of all she knew he was right. No matter how justified or logical she might've thought her actions were, he was right. Without Fury's help, she was as good as tried and convicted without a trial. "What do you want me to do?"

"Knew you'd see things my way." Fury smiled, turning his attention to a nearby camera. "Agent Hill, get her cleaned up and bring her to my office."

 

~~~~~~~

So my phone died last Saturday which totally screwed up my writing schedule/flow since I use it to write my stories on. (Long story; chronic health things make it so much easier to write on a phone since I can do it anywhere.) Anyway, if any of you own a Samsung, an overheated battery will fry the motherboard & it can't be repaired. Just a friendly fyi. 😊