Why Did it Have to be Some Villain?
In the immediate aftermath, nobody knew what to think. The public watched the Congress hearing with one Natasha Romanoff… or Natasha Romanov or Natalia Romanova… (the people honestly didn’t know whether that said more about her incompetence to choose an alias or about her inability to show some honesty) and the world only ever had an abstract idea of what happened and why the hell the Potomac was one big demolition sight.
Some were satisfied with the very simple explanation of, “Captain America fought Hydra and saved us”.
Some stopped at, “SHIELD was infiltrated by Hydra and Captain America stopped them”.
But then some would ask, “What is SHIELD?” or, “Wait, wasn’t Hydra destroyed back in the 40’s?”
And that opened a whole new can of worms. Because as willing as some people were to fill in the blanks for “Cap saved us” with, “There was a superhero fight and that’s why the Potomac is no more”, it still didn’t clarify who the hell was the redhead that basically gave the U.S the finger.
Not even Tony Stark that always have a ready answer for everything and anything seemed to know what in the world was going and not only because Iron Man was being seen a lot more than Tony Stark. The armor never saw that much use since those first few months in the six years it was created. Stark seemed to be requesting entry to a different country every other day and with the newly inaugurated Legionnaires flying alongside him and rescuing people left and right.
Only a few saw it for what it really was: extraction. Medical professionals from dermatologists to trauma surgeons were identified arriving and leaving Stark Tower all the time, that when they just didn’t stay in the Tower for months before finally leaving.
Files were decrypted and posted on social media.
WikiLeaks was having a field day.
CNN wasn’t reporting anything else.
Hackers from all nationalities were interested.
Governments everywhere were scrambling to cover their asses.
And none of the Avengers directed a word to the public.
And the circle was complete.
The first sign that something was off was Captain America on national television being chased by man wearing black clothes.
Next thing the country knew: the Potomac was little more than rubbles and bodies.
That strange redhead no one knew was saying F-U in a ridiculously less charismatic way than Tony Stark ever did. While Stark was full of jokes and clever maneuvers, that weird woman only rolled her eyes, sighed and said, “You need us.”
And Iron Man was flying to and from the U.S in an almost manic rhythm.
That was what they knew.
And that was not enough.
Well, since two plus two was four and that weird redhead was being persecuted for dumping confidential information for the world to see… the world wanted to see.
Back in 1944, Howard Stark searched the globe for every single scrap of a metal he never saw before. Something that responded like nothing he ever encountered, something with so many applications that he was only ever scratching the surface.
The result was little more than twenty pounds or so.
Contacts on the black markets called it Vibranium but were tight lipped about where he could find more.
In another experiment, Howard turned it into a shield…
A few decades later, SHIELD found out where Howard could get more.
“Isn’t that the African country?” turned out in a community thread.
“I just Googled it, but it only ever talks about the pottery, textile industry and some relations with the neighborhood countries for, mainly, fish…?”
“So what’s with the metal that they made Cap’s shield being found there?”
“Do they have some North Sentinel Island thingy going on?”
“It says that they refuse any passport whatsoever, no foreigners have ever stepped foot in there since before the colonization.”
“Jeez! What about people that just stumble into them like some those geography folks that like exotic places?”
“You don’t think that they are killed, right?”
Needless to say, Wakanda was one hot topic which didn’t make any of the Wakandans happy, especially once they saw the speculations…even if some were uncomfortably close to the true, mainly what they did to unsuspecting people that just happened to stumble upon them. They just didn’t have any way to determine if they were telling the truth but since once inside Wakanda there is no way any kind of tech would work in the outsider’s favor, he or she had the option to either be integrated in their society or be killed. They consider it a pretty obvious solution.
Whatever the case, their specialist in tech, Shuri, was put in charge to fine comb those files that are causing them so much grief, if being out in the sun is what they want, then that is what they are going to get.
In 1987, Janet van Dyne died in very weird circumstances.
Her husband, Hank Pym, claimed that she died in airplane crash… but there were no registers of any flight tickets in her name or in her husband’s…not that people knew that… until now, that is.
What people did know is that after she died, Pym’s attitude took a dive for the worse which reflected in his company, Pym Technologies, which in turn reflected on employees being fired.
Renewed interest in Pym took form in a very particular file under the name of Ant-Man, since the tech was created and by whom it was used, to where it was last used, which only went downhill from there.
Rant after rant and a very tear filled screaming match between father and daughter and Hank feverishly took to tear apart the files dumped.
If he paid a little more attention to anything Stark related out of spite and to see if there was anything incriminating, well, his daughter didn’t need to know he was petty like that.
And then, Hank found himself full of conflicting feelings for how Stark’s son was treated by SHIELD in the Palladium poisoning debacle of 2010, and no one had to know about the massive existential crisis he had over finally realizing that Howard Stark and Tony Stark were two separate people.
It really didn’t help that the supposed private message Howard left to Tony was copied to SHIELD files and was one of the most accessed YouTube videos, at almost 300.000.000 views in the last count.
Hank could only wince. At the thought of having the final say over Howard Stark clouded his mind, he didn’t even think that once he decrypted those files, it would be a lot easier for the rest of the world to do the same.
As a result, not only that last message was out and about, but the fact that Tony was dying of Palladium poisoning, Phil Coulson’s threat, SI being infiltrated by one Natasha Romanoff.
And even more interest in the weird redhead that finally had a name (which kicked off new research, this time about some Red Room – what was the Red Room? – and former KGB that was on American soil… for reasons…).
Well, if anything good came out of it is that both Hope and Hank kicked Darren Cross out from Pym Tech unanimously with the board.
Bruce watched as Tony once again donned the armor, barely being able to convince the man to shower and eat something (even teaming up with Rhodes and Potts) before Iron Man once again flew out to rescue more burned SHIELD agents.
The physicist sighed tiredly and went to check on the stable patients. Having no idea for now who was Hydra and who wasn’t (or who just followed SHIELD’s motto of, “End justifies the means”), they were all being treated in the labs that were converted into cells because agents of SHIELD or Hydra, Tony wasn’t desperately liaising with governments and breaking into Mach 5 speed because those people were sipping cocktails by a pool.
Some of the sights were worse than anything Bruce saw in the years he spent trying to atone and help people instead of just destroying stuff.
His medical knowledge was being stretched thin as it was. Bruce had experience with any kind of disease that anyone put in front of him, but trauma like amputated limbs, and the clear signs of torture was something he…used to have very little experience in.
“Uh, yeah, JARVIS?” he took the care not to jump at the AI’s sudden voice as he cut the gauze.
“My apologies for interrupting but I believe that this is urgent.”
“What is it?”
“It is of my understanding that you aware of the SHIELD files currently being accessed worldwide by very… dedicated and… impressively resourceful parties.”
Bruce groaned a little, when it rains, it pours. “What now?”
“I’m deeply sorry, Dr. Banner.”
And Bruce took in a shuddering breath as picture after picture were displayed in the holo-screen.
It turns out… that SHIELD knew exactly what Ross was up to, from the moment Bruce got involved in the experiment that gave birth to the Other Guy to his… recruitment to the Avengers Initiative.
Every experiment, what Ross did to him, what he did in Culver and what he did to Blonsky. All the things he did to get where he is…
SHIELD dangled the carrot of having a life without being on the run using the exact same tact that Ross uses to stay where he is: blackmail. The precarious balance of being out of Ross’ hands and not crushing Betty’s heart was at last tipped.
One would argue that Betty would be better off without Ross. But Ross wasn’t Brian Banner and Betty, for all that happened between them, still loved her father.
With this out in the open…Bruce was finally completely free of Ross but Betty is left without the only family she had left.
“JARVIS.” Bruce managed to get out as he made his way to the elevator, crashing hard against the walls, “Playroom! I need the Playroom! Code Green!”
His last coherent thought was to go digging those files himself.
When Tony finally had the time to take a breath, he was exhausted, giving a glass of water to a completely dazed Clint Barton that was in Russia of all places until two days ago, Tony accepted the tea – he glared at a completely unrepentant Bruce – given to him and sat down beside the archer. His fellow genius took a seat a few seconds later.
“Thanks, man.” Barton muttered into the glass.
Tony knew what he meant, but just because he was forgetting how to open his eyes when he blinked didn’t mean that the inventor was any more prone to have heart to hearts, “It’s just water.”
“Water gives life.”
Clint snorted, and that was that.
When Tony woke up the next day… and someone carried him to his bedroom which… sees less use than it really was healthy to see… and he was pretty sure he blacked out…and someone got him there…
“I really hope no one carried me princess style.”
“Don’t be absurd, it was fireman.” Tony snapped his head to see Bruce leaning against the doorframe.
And the casual posture in the awkward scientist was all kinds of wrong… so something was wrong and it was wreaking havoc in Tony’s, still groggy with sleep, inner flags.
“Was it Barton? ‘Cause I may need to reconsider moving to Stark Tower in Tokyo if it was Barton.”
“It was Happy.”
“Oh… then it’s fine.”
“Tony… you have been…” Bruce seemed at loss for words and Tony knew that it was the first time Bruce has seen it, so…
“After I binge work, it’s… more or less usual for me to crash for days, so, how many did I miss?” he tried to lighten the mood but it didn’t really work.
“You slept for almost two days… and you still look dead by the way, but… this is a little too important.”
“Did the world end?”
“You don’t sound certain.”
“The world didn’t end.”
“Is something on fire?”
“…not… the lethal kind.”
“The it’s fine,” Tony repeated, waving it away, “Did someone die?”
“…I… not recently…?”
“What does that mean?”
“Pepper came back from Tokyo and Colonel Rhodes is here as well and they need to speak to you after they finish their meetings.”
“A lot happened, Tony. Not only in the last two days that you’ve been resting but in the last six months since the whole… disaster at SHIELD went down.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve… I didn’t exactly have the time to look it up.”
Bruce deadpanned, “We kinda noticed.”
“Yeah, well… between saving the burned agents and containing the files leaked… I had to prioritize.”
“The woes of being qualified for so many things,” the physicist smiled a little before becoming somber again, “some of us…I…initially, I helped medically with whatever I could but emergency trauma isn’t my area and… something personal came up so I turned my attention to the files.”
“Something personal? Is everything ok? Are you ok?”
“Not really, but that’s not the point, the point is that I wasn’t the only one. Sure, at first a few teenagers and… I don’t know, WikiLeaks were interested in gossip but then entire agencies were clearly involved and the dimension the whole thing took was astronomical.”
“Not surprising. SHIELD has been around for more than sixty years and dealt with stuff that the CIA and FBI wouldn’t even look at, a little too dark grey area.”
“Yes, I suppose the dimension is not the shocking part but… the lengths that they took for the so called, ‘greater good’ is.”
“Torture and assassinations?”
“With people like the Black Widow in their ranks that would be a fair assumption.”
“But that’s not it.”
Bruce bit his lip, “It’s… nothing that… is threatening anyone’s life.”
Ok, that calmed Tony down somewhat, “So what is it?”
The other scientist looked at him helplessly, “Pepper and Rhodey will be done in fifteen minutes tops and they will talk to you… I can’t… I don’t have the kind of temperament to deal with…”
“It’s something about me.” And this time Tony was certain, “And since no one’s life is in danger, it’s personal, because of course it is. Fucking SHIELD.”
And Bruce could grimace and nod in agreement. After everything was aired like dirty laundry, it was hard not to agree to the sentiment of “Fucking SHIELD.”
“Tony?” and this time it was Rhodey.
Bruce took his cue to leave the two friends alone and passed Pepper that gave him a shaky smile and JARVIS automatically closed Tony’s bedroom door once she was through.
“Please, help my wife… Sargent Barnes?”
“This was recovered by Russian authorities. You follow the crumbs long enough and…Howard was transporting five doses of Super Soldier Serum, he managed to reverse engineer Erskine’s work and he was supposed to deliver it to SHIELD when Hydra, within SHIELD, found out about it. If it got out that Howard managed to recreate the Super Soldier Serum, uncovering SHIELD would be like child’s play. So the whole thing needed to be covered up. Howard Stark was murdered for the Super Soldier Serum that SHIELD had part in. The director at the time, Margaret Carter approved of the alternative story: reckless driving.”
“Who found out about this?”
“Bruce did… in the files leaked, there was footage… of Rogers and Romanova being goaded by the computerized mind of Armin Zola, I think the words were along the lines of, “If history didn’t cooperate, Hydra would re-write history” with newspaper clips of various… happenings, including Howard Stark’s death. That got our interest and we had JARVIS pursue that line. It was very easy to verify actually, we only had to find the original coroner’s report that was among the SHIELD files and since everything was leaked…”
“Then Russia came in,” Pepper spoke for the first time, very softly, “they were actually after Romanova, trying to find more about the Red Room. Someone… was actually helping, I don’t know what this third party wanted but… the encryption became easier to break and the Red Room files were among SHIELD’s since Romanova became an agent and told them… more about it, they already knew about the Red Room’s existence but Romanova completed the information. The Winter Soldier… the original one was one of the Red Room’s trainers, one of Natasha’s, actually. It turns out that Hydra and the Red Room were close allies.”
Tony swallowed with some difficulty and motioned for the off holo-screen, “And how did the Russians find this?”
“That part was harder…if…Tony, we can keep going tomorrow.”
The billionaire turned incredulous eyes at Rhodey who insisted, “You need time to process all this, there is more and… we are your friends. The…main part, what you needed to know you already know, please, for us.”
Tony licked his very dry lips and leaned against Pepper who immediately put her arms around him.
“More than twenty years…and I blamed him.”
Pepper just hugged him tighter, Rhodey looked down and Happy asked JARVIS to shade the windows as Tony’s breath deepened.
The call connected and Rhodey was now Air Force Colonel Rhodes, “Good evening, Sargent.”
“I’m calling to thank you again.”
“I only wished that the world wasn’t privy to it as well.”
“So do I but that’s hardly your fault alone.”
“…I’m sorry. I know that this doesn’t excuse this situation but when I saw what SHIELD did to him, what it kept doing to him…I got careless in the haste of getting to Russia.”
Rhodey allowed himself to show the smallest of smiles, “So much for being a ghost…”
It got him the expected reaction, “You try to find that thing in the end of nowhere Siberia, be subtle about it and get back to U.S looking like a hobo.”
The colonel suppressed a chuckle and was soon somber again, “Whatever the case, once in Russia’s system, their allies became their enemies. It concerned SHIELD and whoever it was; they had quite the vendetta against SHIELD hiding anything anymore.”
“Do you have any idea who it was?”
Rhodey leaned his head a little.
“The line is secure.”
“Tony had some ideas… he thinks it’s Wakanda.”
“The sort of isolated country, yeah they can’t be happy with the attention they’re getting. That sounds cruel. To escape scrutiny they are willing to throw anything in the fan?”
“It does make sense: they couldn’t very well decrypt the files themselves but they could help other people do it. The end result is the same and they have deniability.”
Rhodey turned at the sound of the coffee machine, “I gotta go. I expect to hear from you soon.”
“Likewise, treatment is… getting there.”
“I will make contact again in a few days, good afternoon, Sargent Barnes.”
“Afternoon, Colonel Rhodes.”