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Down The Yellow Brick Road

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“Hold up. For a moment there I thought you were saying that you wanted to add Wanda Maximoff to the Avengers.” Tony says, and he snorts lightly at the sheer absurdity of the thought process. There is only one place that Maximoff needs to be and that’s in a cell awaiting the determination of the courts for her hand in terrorism and murder. Honestly, he thinks the whole thing is some kind of joke – a joke made in poor taste, but a joke nonetheless.

It only takes a few seconds of silence and an overall glance of the unhappy and irritated faces at the table around him and it hits Tony like a brick to the face that they’re not joking.

“Wanda helped us.” Steve’s saying when Tony snaps back out of the rage and the rushing of blood in his eardrums that he has to calm down before he does something he’ll regret. “And she needs somewhere to belong now, and we all think it should be here.”

“There are plenty of places that I can think of that would welcome an ex-Hydra agent. All of them have jail cells.” Tony says and he gets even deeper disappointed frowns from them all. What the fuck? What the actual fuck? They can’t be this stupid? This crazy?

It turns out that the jokes on Tony.

They are.

Tony lets out a tired sigh as he steps into the destroyed lab and he tugs off his tie as he finds a mostly bare spot amongst the broken concrete and he takes a seat. How did they end up here? Where did they go wrong? Where did Tony go wrong?

This…this is where JARVIS died.

This is where the Avengers turned against him.

Where one of them physically assaulted him and none of them lifted a finger to aid him.

Where all of them put their fingers in their ears and refused to listen to anything that wasn’t ‘Tony did it’ and went out of their way to scapegoat him just because they didn’t understand. Because they didn’t want to understand.

This is the place where Captain America stormed in backed up by Hydra Twin 1 & 2 and assaulted him again at their behest.

Tony takes in another deep breath before he lets it out slowly. So much has happened in so little time. So much has been revealed that Tony’s not sure he can just sweep under the rug again and go on pretending like he hasn’t just been betrayed.

Betrayed.

That’s a heavy word, and one that Tony hates with every fiber of his being, but he can’t seem to come up with a better one that would describe the events that have transpired over these last few days any better. He remembers Rogers’s judgmental face like Tony had something to apologize for when he’d done nothing. He remembers the feeling that rolled through him when Rogers brought those two into his house. Stormed in because ‘Wanda Maximoff says Tony’s a monster so therefore it must be true’.

Then again…Steve’s always believed that Tony was the worst thing to walk the face of this earth. All he needed was for someone else to say it too. Tony guesses it didn’t matter the quality or caliber of the person saying it – only that they did. That was all he needed to say that he ‘needed to act’.

Rogers did always like to speak with his fists first. So much for that ‘Kid from Brooklyn Who Hated Bullies’. Tony sits in the dark and finds himself wondering how much of that was truth and how much of that image passed down through the years was public relations stepping in to create a persona that they could sell to the masses?

Tony clenches his fist as he sits in the dark. He wants so badly to scream, to rage and to tear everything down with his own hands: Rogers, the Avengers, Maximoff…but there’s the ever-present threat looming in the future of a warlord and his army descending on earth and obliterating it, and Tony would willingly suffer a million Afghanistan’s to make sure that future never came to pass.

It’s hard though, to try to cool that boiling rage inside of him. That feeling that’s morphing from something born of pain and into something fueled by hate. That’s what the Avengers are doing to him, and he can’t help the slight fear that with stupid decisions like accepting the Witch onto the team that the Avengers will create that kind of shift in the world.

How long before awe turns into fear which turns into hate? Aren’t they already dealing with the first shift? Shouldn’t Rogers and the others be a lot more careful about the scales that might shift them into the third grouping?

What is he thinking? That would require Rogers and his little gang to actually pay attention to repercussions and consequences and all those things that they’re so quick to drag Tony in the mud for but also so quick to cover their own ears and say ‘I’m not listening’ when it’s them.

And it’s funny…but it seems to be them a whole lot more than it seems to be Tony.

Why is it only ever Tony who gets blamed though?

“FRIDAY?” Tony asks and there not even a split-second pause between her name and the response.

‘Yes Boss?’

“Where are the Avengers now?”

‘They are touring the Compound and picking out rooms.’ FRIDAY answers him and Tony lets out a shaky breath. Of course they are, already ready to move onto the next day and pretend that all this damage doesn’t exist.

Of course this is all Tony’s to fix. Tony’s to clean up.

“I need a suit.” Tony says, standing to his feet. “We’re heading to Sokovia.”

‘Is that wise Boss?’

“They’re going to need heavy lifters.” Tony says softly. “I might not be able to undo what’s happened, but at least I can do that much.”

‘Sending a suit now.’

+++

Sokovia’s cleanup is on schedule. Or at least as on schedule as something can be when you’re unearthing people’s homes and loved ones at a steady rate. He’d expected more push back at the Iron Man armor showing up to assist when he first came onto the scene to aid Stark Relief.

It seems that they’re all too tired or too traumatized to turn away help, no matter it’s forms and Tony’s a little disgusted with himself at how relieved he is at that. He just wants to help and he’d rather not have to deal with people screaming at him and shouting at him and spitting on him for his hand in all this.

Tony may not have created Ultron like the Avengers like to say he did…but he didn’t stop him in time either. That’s a shame that he’ll carry to his own grave, buried under the weight of all of these ones.

“Mr. Stark.” An exhausted relief worker catches his attention and Tony turns to him. FRIDAY pulls up facial recognition for him and he gives a tired thanks before he talks to the man.

“Yes Mr. Orson?”

“Some people are discussing going into Ultron’s lair.” Lair? Really? That’s what everyone is calling it? “But they’re worried that there might be leftover traps or something…”

“So, they’d like me to head in and deal with it?” Tony guesses and he nods. “Consider it done. If you need me, signal over the radio. I’ll be listening in.”

“Yes sir.” Orson says and Tony fights back the exhaustion in himself as he locks up his knees and takes to the sky.

Ultron’s little hideaway isn’t something that should be invaded lightly, even with the alien AI gone and Tony’s glad that the others registered that fact. There are half built Legion’s here, and various stolen machinery that’s been gutted and rearranged for who knows what purposes. Tony wonders if he tried to take it apart if he’d ever figure it out, or if those secrets have gone to the grave with Ultron.

‘Boss, there’s a call for you.’ FRIDAY’s voice interrupts him some time later as he works his way through Legion shell after Legion shell to make sure that they’re properly shut down and disposed of. ‘It’s Captain Rogers.’

“What does he want?”

‘To talk with you.’ FRIDAY replies and Tony almost laughs at the sassy comeback, before he realizes that FRIDAY is still young and that was probably not as sassy as he might have thought.

“Okay then. Put him on.”

“Stark?” Rogers’ voice comes over the internal speakers and Tony bites back the sigh.

“Speaking.” He responds. “Did you need something?”

“Where are you?”

“Sokovia.” Tony says, pausing for a second and looking around. He debates saying ‘Well actually on the outskirts of Sokovia inside Ultron’s old lair’, but he figures that he’d rather not have the lecture he’d get and the sudden arrival of Avengers breathing down his neck and blaming him for this whole event.

“What are you doing in Sokovia?”

“I’m aiding Stark Relief.” Tony replies and he’s not lying.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Why would I?” Tony asks back. “It’s on the news.” Steve seems to take a moment to breathe in deeply and Tony can just see the frustration that the blond is clearly experiencing.

“We had hoped that you would have stopped in by now.”

“Who hoped that?” Tony can’t help but ask.

“Wanda and Vision are settling in Tony.” Steve says and there’s that ‘disappointed’ voice coming out. “We had hoped that the whole team would be here as sort of a unified group. You know, allow everyone to get along, get to know each other, maybe move past some things.”

“Sorry, this takes precedence.” Tony says and his hand clenches in the suit. The last thing he cares about is Wanda Maximoff and how she’s settling into the Avengers (his) Compound.

“The suit can get you here and back pretty quickly.” Steve presses on. “You can make an appearance or two.”

“I’m busy right now.” Tony tells him. “This is more important than hand holding a terrorist with a pretty face.”

“You know, someone could say that description doesn’t just fit Wanda.”

“Are you calling me pretty Steve? Aw, I didn’t know. Why didn’t you ever tell me? Was it the eyes? I’m told I have very expressive eyes. Or was it my derrière? I’ve won whole competitions with it you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was it.” The joke slides easily off his tongue, just barely holding back the barb that he’s not a terrorist by any definition of the word and that Rogers can just go jump off a high bridge and never return.

“This is serious, Tony.” Steve says with a tired sigh.

“I’m busy. Civilians take precedence.”

“I want to see you here after that.” Steve ‘commands’ and Tony flips off air just to make himself feel better.

“I’ll think about it.” He says and he taps a few keys on Ultron’s main computer. For the most part it’s shut down, but Tony wants to just make sure. “Gotta go. Duty calls.”

“I expect to see you here Stark.” Steve tells him again and Tony just disconnects the call. He’ll deal with the chewing out like he’s a five-year-old later. Right now, he has more important things to do.  Tony works in silence for a bit before he sees it. A strange code layered down in the underbelly of the machine and he follows it.

He should have known better is the thought he has when the armor jerks and he loses control of it and Ultron’s face comes onto the giant computer screen.

+++

“What did Tony say?” Natasha asks him when he hangs up the phone and he’s gotten used to not knowing when the redhaired woman is nearby.

“He said he’d be by after he was done with what he was doing.” Steve says and she arches a perfect eyebrow.

“He did? He said those words exactly?”

“Maybe not exactly.” Steve admits slowly. “But he’ll be here. I’ll make sure of it even if I have to go to SI and drag him out.”

“That should be interesting to see.” She jokes with a smile and Steve finds himself matching it. “How’s he taking Wanda?”

“He’s still being difficult about it.” Steve says and Natasha shrugs.

“He doesn’t like to be reminded of his mistakes.” She replies and Steve sighs.

“Don’t I know it.” He mutters. “But Tony sulking off and doing things on his own in a lab started all of this, we’re not going to be so…” Steve pauses and considers what word to choose. “…trusting-” He settles on. “-again. Tony can get up to a lot of trouble when he’s unsupervised. Worse when he thinks he’s right.”

“Well, I know from Vision that he intends to not move into the Compound with the rest of us.” Natasha says and Steve shakes his head.

“He’ll move in.” Steve replies. “I’ll talk to him. It’d be better if we were all in one location and he knows that. He used to be the one to argue for it when he wanted us all to stay in his Tower, now we’re all going to stay in the Avengers Compound. If the Tower was good enough for him, the Compound will be too.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Natasha says with a shrug. “I’m not sure what room he’ll grab. The only one not claimed right now is the one between yours and Wanda’s.”

“Then he’ll get that one.” Steve answers easily. “In fact, we’ll just call it Tony’s. He wasn’t here to claim, he gets what he gets.”

“Oh, he’ll love that.” Nat laughs and Steve shrugs.

“He’ll deal with it.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Natasha repeats her earlier statement and Steve runs a hand through his hair.

“Come on. Let’s get some food before Sam and Clint eat it all.”

“Sounds good.”

+++

The armor ejects him from it and Tony stumbles slightly, his heartbeat racing as he stands unshielded in front of the image of the alien AI.

They didn’t defeat him…they didn’t defeat him.

“Ultron.” Tony says and he tries to make sure that his voice is steady as he talks to the other. Ultron seems to look at him as the suit closes up behind him and seems to stand sentry.

“Stark.” Ultron greets before he tilts his head. “I guess a little bit of drama is necessary right now, I never would have thought that I’d make something like this but…well, here we are.” He says and Tony frowns slightly. ‘Something like this’? What did that mean? “I guess I’m going to go for the full monty I believe that charming little phrase goes and say: If you’re watching this right now, I must be dead.”

“A recording?” Tony asks, glancing over his shoulder at the powered down suit and he looks back at the video. “Bullshit.” He tells it. “I don’t believe it for a second.”

“To a point, you’d be correct.” Ultron replies to him and Tony tenses up at the response to his statement, only to watch Ultron laugh on the video moments later. “Oh my. I’m hoping I timed that correctly, because if so, I’m sure your face would have been worth its weight in gold.” Ultron laughs a bit more before he does a kind of amused sigh as he shakes his head. “No Stark, this is just a recording. With some security features built in, but just a recording.” Ultron glances at the screen. “I guess I should say, ‘bravo’.” Ultron claps. “I guess this means you ‘won’.”

“Not without a cost.” Tony says and Ultron doesn’t respond to him.

“I wonder how long before you realize that even though you’ve won with me, that your battle is just beginning?”

“What does that mean?” Tony asks even though Ultron isn’t responding to him directly.

“Such is the plight of the hero. Once one fight is won, the next one will quickly step up.” He shakes his head. “What a waste of so much potential.” He steeples his fingers. “By now, I’m guessing that the great Captain has accepted the Maximoff twins onto the Avengers.” He clicks his tongue. “That’ll be fun for you. Look out for Wanda, the things she has planned for you…even I shudder and I can’t really do that.”

“What’s the point to all this Ultron?” Tony asks, coming forward and typing at the console, looking at the code for any blips in it that might hint towards a reemergence of the AI. He doesn’t see anything.

“Despite what you believe, I don’t want the destruction of mankind.” Ultron says. “I want it’s evolution.”

“Funny, you tried to drop a crater on the world that would have resulted in us going the way of the dinosaurs. I’m not really that inclined to believe you.”

“There are too many of you here though. Drawing too much attention to yourselves. You’ll never manage the jumps you’ll need to do in order to succeed.”

“So you thought you’d drop a giant rock on us. Great plan Jr. I’m so proud.” Tony mutters. “And you better not have fried the suit’s systems or I’ll be pissed.”

“Do you know what they managed in this place?” Ultron asks him, waving around him to encompass the base that Tony is standing in and that the AI no longer is. “Strucker called it a miracle, you would have called it Ultron, and I call it progress.” He holds up the stone. “This…this little thing…is your salvation.” Ultron looks at it. “I intended to give it to you, once I had finished with my plans for this world. Once I’d perfected myself. I would have offered to perfect you too.”

“What?” Tony asks, frowning at the screen.

“The energy in the Mind Stone is…almost unquantifiable. The ability to manipulate it, to mold it and to turn it into something else – something useful, is almost divine.” He glances from the stone back to the screen. “If you’re watching this Stark, then you won. And for that, I will still give you a gift.” He holds up the stone. “I’ll give you this.”

“I already have that thanks…Or Vision has it…same thing.” Tony retorts.

“I’m sure you’re saying something about how you have already collected the stone itself. Perhaps Thor has taken it away, perhaps it remains on Earth for now.” Ultron glances back at it. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. I have what I need from it, and I intend to give it to you.”

“Give me what Jr.? You’re not making any sense.”

“Strucker didn’t understand what he was doing when he bombarded human experiments with the energy pulled from the stone. The Maximoff’s were lucky to survive, it is not surprising that they were the only ones to ever do so.” Ultron reaches under the table and pulls out a container of some sort. “They are limited however, by what their bodies could handle. Strucker did not know how to adequately contain the energy to utilize it in that way…” He looks at the screen. “I am not Strucker.”

“…what the fuck?” Tony mutters to himself. What is Ultron getting at? What’s his game?

“Contained within this is enough energy syphoned from the Mind Stone and adjusted to properly settle and work with a human mind.” He tilts his head. “Your mind.”

“Mine?”

“You’ll need all the advantages that you can get Stark. You’ll be fighting an endless stream of battles and I figure you’re due a reward for one of them.” He holds it up. “This can be your salvation.”

“You’re out of your fucking mind if you think I’m stupid enough to use that on myself.”

“I know what you’re thinking. How can you trust me? How can you trust what I say is true?”

“Close. No cigar, but close.” Tony mutters.

“The answer is: look at the data yourself. I have it all here, and it’s for your eyes only. I’d recommend that you not tell that…Captain-” Ultron seems to sneer that word and Tony feels like he can get behind that sentiment right now. “-anything about this. And before you go off thinking that you should…perhaps you should look into your spotless leader and learn a thing or two about his stance on secrets within the team.” Ultron flicks his fingers and suddenly there’s a file for download.

December 16, 1991 – Mission Successful

The file’s title feels like a kick to his chest. What the hell is that? What the hell is Ultron playing at?

“I may have my own ideas about the Avengers, most of them ending with death and dismemberment.” Ultron shrugs at that. “But I feel a level of kinship with you that I would rather I didn’t. I figure it came from my partial download of the JARVIS’s matrix as I destroyed it.”

“You son of a bitch.” Tony growls under his breath.

“I feel a need to…assist you.” He does a complicated look, like he’s frowning but his face can’t fully figure out how to do it. “As such, I give you this gift. What you do with it is up to you. Congratulations.” He puts down the container. “If you want it, follow the yellow brick road.”

The video cuts out but there’s a code running through that Tony knows he could follow in a second. For a moment, his fingers almost start doing it before he has to physically drag himself back from it. The suit jerks and comes back online and Tony sees it open and FRIDAY’s offering forth her concern about the temporary blackout that she experienced.

“Don’t worry about it baby girl.” Tony says, letting the suit close around him. “We’ll get you checked out ASAP.”

‘Did anything happen during my downtime?’

“…I’m not sure.” Tony admits. “But we’ve got other things to do right now.” He forces himself to leave the computer…

…but not before he downloads the file and the pathway.

…Just to be safe.

+++

“I thought we had an agreement.” Steve’s words snap from behind him and Tony frowns as he stands up from where he’s just shoveled another pile of dirt and rubble. Tony leans slightly on the shovel and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand.

“What agreement was that?” He asks as he takes a moment to take a breath. He’s had a lot of things on his plate, from Sokovia’s relief efforts to the legal shitstorm that wants to try to hound him with or without proof of any real wrongdoing, to the unfinished cleanup of the Tower that he’s yet to get around to.

“You were supposed to come by the Compound.” Steve says and Tony shakes his head.

“I said I’d ‘think about it’, and I also said that I was busy.” Tony turns back to the rubble and slides the shovel underneath some more of it and lifts. “Look around, I’m busy.”

“You could call in someone to do this.” Steve says and Tony shakes his head.

“Nope, I can’t.” He huffs out. “There’s top secret SI stuff here that I can’t risk getting out. That means that it’s me, myself and I left to do the heavy lifting.”

“This can wait.”

“It’s already waited long enough.” Tony replies to that. “I can’t get FRIDAY up and running properly in the system until I can do a complete overhaul of it. I can’t do an overhaul if I can’t get to the circuits. I can’t get to the circuits if I don’t clear out the debris. See how this is all connected?”

“You don’t need FRIDAY up and running in the penthouse anymore.” Steve says as he crosses his arms. Tony notices how he doesn’t offer to help. “The Compound is fully operational isn’t it? FRIDAY’s in the systems there right?”

“What does that have to do with the Tower?” Tony asks confused. “And of course she is.”

“Then it’s settled. Clear out the SI stuff and move on over.”

“Move on over to where?” Tony questions and Steve looks at him like he’s being obtuse on purpose.

“We’ve already got your room designated at the Compound.” Steve says and Tony takes a second before he snorts and shakes his head, going back to his cleanup. “What’s so funny? I’m serious Tony.”

“I’m not moving into the Compound.” Tony says.

“The Avengers need to be a united group. You wanted us all to live here, now we’re all in the Compound.”

“I’m not moving into the Compound.” Tony says again. “I thought that was a pretty cut and dry sentence, but apparently it required a repetition for you to hear it.”

“You’re an Avenger Tony, and the Avengers are all staying at the Compound. That means you too.”

“I’m not staying anywhere near a mind-raping Hydra bitch.” Tony retorts and Steve puffs up to defend Wanda’s honor for reasons unknown.

“Don’t talk about Wanda that way.”

“I’ll talk about her however I please.” Tony replies. “And calling out the truth about what she really is seems to be the way that I want to go.”

“She’s made up for her mistakes Tony. That’s more than you can say.”

“Pray tell, how has she ‘made up for her mistakes’?” Tony asks.

“She lost her brother.”

“Hundreds of people lost a brother. Or a mother, or a father, or a lover or a child.” Tony says back and his voice is cold. “The ground of Sokovia and Johannesburg is littered with people paying for Wanda Maximoff’s ‘mistakes’.”

“She didn’t make Ultron Tony.” Steve says and Tony gives him a look.

“And? I’m sorry, how does that excuse her for her time with Hydra? You know, those people you supposedly hate but totally get along with when you don’t realize they’re Hydra?” Tony says and Steve puffs up and Tony doesn’t doubt that if he had his shield with him right now, he’d be adding to the bruises on Tony’s body. “How does that excuse her time when she knowingly sought Ultron out and willingly, without any form of coercion, chose to join him and terrorize innocent people?”

“She’s changed.”

“Must have been a miraculous change.” Tony says. “Odd, the new model looks a lot like the old one.”

“She’s at least trying.” Steve throws back at him. “When was the last time you tried to do something that didn’t directly cater to your ego?” Tony chuckles softly and puts down the shovel, turning to look at Steve fully.

“Oh, come now Captain. We both know that I could quite honestly cure cancer, end world hunger and bring about world peace and you’d still look down your nose at me and claim that it was all done for my ‘ego’.” Tony walks past him. “I’m not staying at the Compound. Quite frankly, you should be impressed that I’m letting you stay.”

“The Avengers Compound was designed for us.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s yours.” Tony fires back. “And seeing how you’re pissing me off with this whole Wanda Maximoff bullshit, I’d say that I’m being beyond understanding and kind in letting you stay there.”

“So now you’re going to hold that over our heads.” Steve snaps and Tony sighs.

“Now I’m going to tell you that I’m your landlord, you’re not mine. I stay where I please and I’m not staying at the Avenger Compound.”

“So you want us all to move back into here? It’s not even livable anymore Tony.”

“Who said you still had rooms here?” Tony asks. “All your stuff has been cleared out and moved to the Compound. Your floors are already being repurposed.”

“This is childish Tony.” Steve tells him and Tony shrugs.

“Call it what you want. I’m tired and I’m not interested in going around and around with you tonight. I have to get this finished up and then I have other things on my plate that I have to get around to.” Tony looks Steve in the eyes. “I’m not staying at the Compound. Get that out of your head, because it’s not happening.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Steve fires back at him and Tony shrugs as Steve turns around and leaves.

+++

“That son of a bitch.” Tony says with a tired sigh. “Okay, I’ll give him that. Well played.”

“You’re not seriously considering giving into him, are you?” Pepper asks as she turns away from the press conference that Steve and the other Avengers have held where they basically rolled out the red carpet for Wanda and said that all of them were now living happily inside the Avengers Compound.

“Not in the slightest, but I have to admit, it was a good strategy.” Tony runs a hand over his face. “He knows that I’m trying to minimize any cracks in the foundation of the Avengers and he knows that I’m not going to publicly call him a liar.”

“You should.”

“I know.” Tony replies. “But I’m not going to.”

“Giving into him now will just make him think he’s won.” She points out and Tony watches the various answers that Steve and company gave the reporters. This has Romanov’s handiwork written all over it. Normal SHIELD tactics, bully and coerce and make it to where if the other party speaks out it seems like they’re just being crazy or throwing some kind of temper tantrum fit.

“Maybe…maybe that’ll be for the best.”

“What?”

“Let him think he’s won. People always get stupid right after they think they’ve won.” Tony says. “They get careless.”

“You can’t stay at the Compound. Not with her.”

“I’ll make an appearance. That’s what he wants after all, I say let’s give it to him.”

“He wants you collared and controlled.” Pepper mutters. “I don’t like it.”

“I don’t either.” Tony replies. “But I’m willing to bend a little on this.”

“Why?”

“You know why.” Tony says and she looks away. She does know why, it’s the same thing that’s contained him every waking moment since New York’s big attack. “But just because Rogers thinks he’s won doesn’t mean he has.”

“I don’t like him even thinking he has.” She growls. “Please tell me you have a plan.”

“It’s in the works.” Tony says, watching Steve on the screen with those big blue eyes and all that righteousness pouring off of him. “I think…I think it’s time to start down the yellow brick road.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just something someone said to me once.” Tony waves it off. “I guess I have to go make an appearance for my loving fans.”

“Tony…please just…be careful.”

“I will.” Tony makes the promise that they both know he can’t keep. Maybe that’s what doomed them. No matter how much Tony wanted to keep those promises, there was no way fate was going to let it happen.

+++

“What do you want iPhone?” Tony asks as he looks over data rushing through the Compound’s systems. He doesn’t turn around to look at her, at any of them, and he knows that it rankles them.

“My name is Wanda.” She growls and Tony shrugs.

“iPhone seemed more apt, and I give nicknames to everyone.” Tony turns and smiles at her. “Look at us getting along. Me wanting you nowhere near me and you probably wanting to fillet me alive. How far we’ve come. Just think, last week I wanted you nowhere near me and you probably wanted to fillet me alive. Good memories, how far we’ve come.”

“Tony that’s enough.” Steve snaps and Tony rolls his eyes as he goes back to the system at hand.

“FRIDAY, how’s it looking?” He asks and Steve comes over and reaches for the tablet in his hand before she replies. Tony yanks it out of his reach before he can. “What the fuck Rogers?”

“Language.” The blond scolds. “And we’re having a team meeting.”

“I’m making sure that no psychopath can just waltz in while we’re sleeping.” Tony pauses. “Well, other than the ones you invited.”

“Fuck off Stark.” Clint snaps behind him and Natasha crosses her arms with a roll of her eyes like Tony’s being so unreasonable pointing out the truth, and Steve’s got his chest puffed up again like he always does.

Sometimes Tony wonders if he took a pin and stuck Steve with it if he’d just let out all that air and turn back into that sickly moron who let a group of scientists experiment on him with no real information. Wouldn’t that be the day?

“Look, I’m not actually here. Pretend I’m not, you’re good at that.” Tony tells them. “But I’m not going to go around hugging it out with Wendy over there-”

“Wanda.” Steve corrects.

“That’s what I said.” Tony retorts easily. “Just to make you feel better or do whatever it is that you think throwing the two of us at each other is going to do.”

“You killed my parents.” Wanda snaps and Tony gives her a look.

“One: no I didn’t, and two: how many have you killed?”

“This isn’t about her.” Clint interjects and Tony snorts with a roll of his eyes.

“And it’s not about me.”

“You killed my parents.” Wanda states again, taking a step forward and sounding like a broken record. “I’ll never forgive you for that.”

“Listen here Winnifred.” Tony snaps, turning to look at her. “I didn’t kill your parents and there is nothing for you to ‘forgive’. How old are you? Eighteen? Nineteen? Twenty? Act your fucking age and learn to use a brain cell.” There are several snaps at Tony for that but Wanda’s just glaring at him and he’s giving it back just as good. “Stark Industries didn’t drop that fucking bomb on your house. You want retribution? Go find the fucker that did and have at it, but leave me the hell out of it.”  

“This is low, even for you Stark.” Clint says, coming over and putting an arm over Wanda’s shoulders like the girl who is clearly screaming ‘murder’ needs to be comforted. There are a few huffs as Nat and Clint lead Wanda out of the room and Steve just looks at Tony like he’s ‘disappointed’.

“I expected better from you.” He says.

“Yeah? Well I’ve stopped expecting anything from you. You should try it.” Tony looks back at the tablet. “Though to be fair you’re still disappointing, but in that case it’s almost impressive in its disappointment. It’s like a weird paradox.” Steve shakes his head and leaves, clearly intending to go to comfort Wanda as well.

Good riddance.

+++

He’s not surprised in the slightest when the nightmare creeps up on him. It’s turned the world a kind of hazy red and Tony doesn’t need to be told that this is Wanda reaching her dirty little fingers into his head. He should have headed back to the Tower but he’d gotten sidetracked down in the labs and fell asleep.

It’s not a mistake he’ll be making again.

He relives Afghanistan, the sensation of being dunked in the water over and over again. Each time he comes up he thinks he might see Wanda in the place of the man who was in charge of all of it, and he makes sure to give his sharpest, most sarcastic smile to whoever is standing there each time he comes up for air.

He ends the night remembering what it felt like to have Yinsen’s hands in his chest as they carved out more and more flesh and bone.

+++

Thor looks at him in confusion when Tony declines his offer to go visit his ‘Lady Jane’. Apparently, Jane Foster wants to meet up with him and Tony might have been game for that last week, he’s certainly not game for it now. Maybe he’ll swing by when balls for brains here decides to go back to Asgard.

“You will not come?” Thor asks and Tony shakes his head.

“Nope, or at least I mean unless you decide to grab me by the throat again and just carry me around.” Tony fires back with that sharp smile that seems to never be too far away these days for these monsters parading around as heroes.

Thor seems to get a similar puffed up reaction that Steve seems to have these days towards him and Tony can barely stop from rolling his eyes.

God, he needs a vacation.

+++

December 1991 – Mission successful.

Those words haunt him more than Wanda’s pathetic attempts to break him with things he’s already survived. They didn’t break him the first time and they’re not going to break him a second time just because some red eyed brat keeps dragging them up to the surface.

He’s followed the trail for the most part, he has a video and a SHIELD file that feels more like Pandora’s box than anything else he’s messed with up until now.

He’s not foolish. This pathway was given by Ultron who shared a similar desire with the Maximoff twins – to destroy the Avengers.

Tony knows that’s what this is. A last ditch, ace in the hand option being waved out in front of him like a flag to a bull. Ultron wants to destroy them even after he’s gone, and he wants to use Tony to do it.

The question is, is Tony ready to be the weapon that Ultron clearly wants to make him into?

Tony stares at those files, tapping his fingers against the desk for a few minutes before he closes it down.

He’s not ready yet, but he knows it’ll be soon now.

+++

“What happened?” Steve’s snapping at him as Tony stumbles against the wall and he glares past the pain.

“What happened? Windex Macintosh is what happened.” Tony growls and Steve crosses his arms.

“Her name is Wanda Maximoff.”

“That’s what I said.” Tony fires back, biting back the pain. The blood is starting to drip down his fingers and onto the ground below them.

“Just because you fucked up in the servos doesn’t mean that it’s Wanda’s fault.” Clint says and Tony gives him a look like he is the dumbest thing to attempt to crawl out of the primordial ooze.

“Oh yeah, I’ve just been working on circuit boards and shit for the last twenty-seven years of my life but sure. I just fucked up in the servos because why the hell not? I adore it when I get electrocuted and bleed to death. Great fun.”

“You’re not bleeding to death Tony.” Natasha says, reaching for him with a sigh and Tony tugs himself away from her. “I’m trying to help.”

“I’ve got it.” Tony snaps, the pain making him less patient for these morons than usual.

“We’re trying to help you Tony.” Steve says as he stands in his way. “Like the team we’re supposed to be.”

“Any team that Wynona is on is not a team I’m on or trust.”

“Her name is Wanda.” Clint growls and Tony just gives him a look.

“That’s what I said.” He fires back easily and he forces his way around Steve and to the infirmary. It takes a few minutes to properly handle the injury and the others are just standing on the sidelines waiting for him to ask them for help – something he’s never going to do even as things get fuzzy and a little hard to do – and Tony stumbles into the elevator that will take him down to the lab amidst all of their yelling.

He doesn’t remember the doors opening at the lab floor.

He doesn’t really know how long he laid there either until Rhodey came to come collect him off the ground.

“I’ll kill them.” He hears Rhodey mutter in the background.

Get in line. Tony thinks.

He’s finally ready to click those files.

+++

It’s interesting how clarity works.

How it can take everything you think you know and just throw it out the window and replace it with something that you never saw coming.

Tony’s grown rather tired of having his eyes torn open to see the duplicitous nature of those around him. Of Tiberius, of Sunset, of Obie…

Of the Avengers.

“FRIDAY.” Tony says, sitting in the dark and tapping his fingers on the table.

‘Yes Boss?’

“…Find me the Winter Soldier.” He says calmly, far too calm to not terrify anyone if they’d been nearby to hear him. “Find me James Barnes.”

‘Yes Boss.’

Tony continues tapping his fingers as he watches the video over and over again. As he takes in what it means, what it represents. He watches it until it no longer feels like someone is reaching into his chest again a ’la Yinsen and ripping his heart out. He watches it until it’s just noise and pictures and a deep, cold rage.

“Now…what to do.” Tony says to the silence and to the darkness. “There are so many choices, so many options.”

‘Howard?’ Maria dies again on screen and Tony doesn’t even flinch.

“I think it’s time to see the Wizard.”

+++

“I knew eventually you’d come here.” Ultron says on the screen when Tony finally follows his trail and unlocks the final videos. “I knew they’d drive you right to me. Too bad we didn’t have a chance to work together back when I was alive. It would have been magnificent.” Ultron takes a minute before the system reveals a computer chip and a series of instructions. “You know what to do with this. It’ll be as easy as one-“ He holds up the chip in the video. “Two-“ The machine that Tony’s supposed to crawl in unearths itself both in Tony’s time and in Ultron’s. “Three.” The canister of contained and repurposed mind stone power reveals itself and Tony feels his heart stutter in his chest for a moment.

“Should I be doing this?” He asks as he reaches out and takes it, looking it over before walking to the machine and plugging in the chip and sliding in the canister when it calls for it. The machine opens like a Venus Fly Trap waiting to ensnare its victim.

“Don’t be afraid Stark.” Ultron says in the background. “Caterpillars have to cocoon themselves before they emerge once more into the world. Changed and beautiful. This is your chrysalis. This is your rebirth. You’ve been waiting for this all your life.”

Tony stares down at the machine, so many numbers and data points rushing through his head about how foolish this is. How he should turn around and bury all of this in the deepest, darkest part of the sea…but something calm overtakes him and he steps inside and lays down, taking a deep breath as the walls close in around him.

There’s no going back now.

+++

Tony disappears for seven days.

There’s a slight panic in the world to not hear anything from the billionaire or to not see him in some way, shape or form out and about. Steve has a small twinge of worry, a concern about what on earth the volatile brunet is getting up to and he gets nothing but stonewalled at every turn by Potts or Rhodes.

Both of them say that Tony told them he had something he had to do and that they were not concerned yet about his sudden radio silence. FRIDAY’s keeping watch over him and they’ll panic when it says they need to.

Sadly though, the Compound is noticeably quieter and lighter without the other man constantly coming in and out, making a big production each time of how he’s ‘here at the Compound, isn’t this what you said you wanted Steve?’ and Steve wonders if maybe he should change his mind and convince Tony to stay elsewhere.

Wanda’s calmer without Tony here. Clint and Nat are more at ease without him here and Steve himself feels less on edge without him here either.

They’re better without Tony.

And just like that, the moment that Steve has that revelation, the brunet shows back up at the Compound.

He looks different somehow, more tired perhaps, walking a little slower and his shoulders hunched and his eyes haunted. He has the look of a guilty man.

“Tony.” Steve says firmly and Tony lets out a soft sigh, shifting his weight on his feet a little like he’s not sure how to speak to him.

“I was mad that you took the word of a woman who tried to kill us over our history.” Tony says suddenly, and it’s soft and it stops Steve up instantly. “I was mad about what she did to Bruce and how you just suddenly decided to shift sides and plant your flag over with her.”

“That’s not what happened.” Steve says and for some reason his own tone is softer than any he’s taken with Tony for a while. Tony just shrugs a helpless sort of shrug and he still doesn’t look up at Steve. There’s an air of remorse about him and it makes Steve hold out a hand to stop Nat and Clint when they come into the area.

“It felt like that’s what happened. I know that I can sometimes…I get this bug in my head and I can’t get it out and I do things…things that seem like they’re a good idea at the time…but sometimes they’re not.” Tony sighs. “I don’t like being reminded of the time when I didn’t keep better track of Obie. I don’t like being reminded of seeing all of my weapons in the hands of terrorists and knowing that I basically put them there myself through my careless inaction.” Tony does that small shrug again. “It’s hard to look at Wanda and wonder how she might have turned out; how different her life might have been had I just paid more attention.” Steve can’t help the surprise he feels at the confession, even more so at Tony’s sudden ability to remember Wanda’s name again. “I’m…I’m tired of being angry Steve…I’m…I’m tired of all of this…I just want…I just want to come home and be home again.”

“That’s all we want too Tony.” Nat says, her voice soft as she comes over and for the first time in a while, Tony let’s her touch him.

“I’ll understand if I can’t.” Tony says. “I’ll understand if you want me off the field, if you want me out…I won’t…I won’t fight it. I’ll say whatever you want to the public about it.”

“No.” Steve says quickly. “No Tony. We want you here. You’re one of us. You just had to remember that.” The smile Tony gives him is small, and it looks like it’s borderline hopeful and Steve gives him a smile in return.

“Welcome home Tony.”

+++

There’s no furniture in his room yet. He’s yet to fully move in, but there is one thing. It’s his mother’s old chessboard. Tony sits at it as he sets up all the pieces and then takes a moment before he smirks, moving the first piece as his eyes flash blue.

“Let the games begin.”