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from ash and dust

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When Iron Man comes back from the ashes, it is with all of the fire of a phoenix and none of the humble beginnings. He’s overcome with rage, rage, rage, rage, rage, and he thinks maybe more than his sternum and his trust was broken twenty feet beneath the ground in Siberia, but he’s not afraid to exploit his own weaknesses. Even when they’re moral, he’ll exploit any of his weaknesses now. He comes back a black fire, something that burns without stopping, and he has no desire. He comes back with teeth clenched, wiry and ready for a fight, and he's not afraid to pick one. He comes home and he's ready for a change.

He starts wearing his old ring again. It's gold, a delicate thing that was obviously made for a woman, diamonds inset for it to look like a snowflake. It matches with the ring that his Aunt Peggy was buried with wrapped around her finger, and he used to avoid wearing it in front of Steve because it felt like some broken claim. Now, he's ready to take back everything he ever conceded to Steve Rogers. He's ready to show exactly how much Peggy Carter loved him like he was her own, he's ready to show exactly how much of the future belongs to him, and he's ready to give them a motherfucking villain, if that's what the fuck they want from him.

Of course, he knows that that isn't really what they want.

They want his money but not his attitude. They want his help but not to help him. They want his boisterous, public personality instead of the Tony that cares too much and puts too much of himself forward. They don't want to deal with the fact that he's an actual person who can actually be hurt, so he'll remind them exactly what he was called before he was Iron Man. He will remind them of the Merchant of Death.

He doesn't make it public. Pepper and Rhodey have been biting at the bit for this for months, and as soon as he builds braces for Rhodey, they're ready to back his play in whatever way they can. He uses Extremis to fix the parts of him that are super soldier broken (except his heart, but who needed one of those anyway?). He gets the arc reactor put back in to help Extremis run and he doesn't cry about it; it's not like the first time he saw it in the mirror when he came back from an Afghani cave, broken and bleeding and half dead. Instead, it feels like coming home to a lover he forgot to miss, and seeing them again is a drink of water in the desert.

Maybe multiple metaphors aren't the way to go in this situation.

Pepper gives him a lesson in making himself truly made of iron; she has the most backbone of anyone he's ever known, after all. She is the most stone grown person in his life, not soft like Rhodey-bear or forgiving like the Tony Stark that went into Civil War, she does not care about the reasoning behind a betrayal. She does not care about the ways that someone bent before they broke. She does not care about the thin lines between what is right and what is wrong. She cares about who wronged her and when. She cares about the way that something hurts.

He learns from her, and he sharpens his teeth on memories in BARF. He remembers Obie, he remembers Steve, he remembers a seventeen year old Justin Hammer, and he tells them all exactly what he should have told them then, and he rages and he rages and he rages. He lets himself feel when he's alone so that he won't have to later, and Pepper helps himself become a man of iron. Stark men are made of iron. Dear old dad had no idea what he was trying to raise. Howard Stark's A+ parenting had nothing on Pepper Potts's no feelings, no forgiveness coaching.

Rhodey teaches him about manipulating military operatives. On the surface level, Tony has been doing this for years, decades, but not like Rhodey knows how to. Tony had been sure that Rhodey was going to lose his touch, rotting away in the military and using brute strength instead of his degree, but he's even sharper than Tony remembers him. Rhodey teaches him how to walk the walk and tiptoe the line between what is legal and what isn't, what is technically right and what is morally wrong. Rhodey, in the sense of the Rogues, does not have a very long list of what is morally wrong, or even what is morally grey. Killing is not on this list. Tony keeps that in mind.

Happy continues to teach him how to punch shit and Tony continues to love the bruises it leaves, if only for the reason that it reminds him that someone loves him enough to teach him how to nurse them.

In the meantime, Tony monitors the Rogues in a way he never expected: through Shuri, Princess of Wakanda. She is blindingly intelligent, almost wasted in a lab on the other side of the world, but she's making advancements on her own just fine. She doesn't need partners to rein her in like Tony always had, and she's like the best parts of Tony, Rhodey and Pepper all thrown into one with her own magical zeal thrown in. Tony isn't exactly sure how she has a brother like T'Challa (so level headed and yet so easily fooled, such a good ruler and yet such a box-thinker), but he's glad that she does. If she didn't, Tony might never know her at all.

Barnes is on ice, and that's actually a relief. Tony doesn't know what it says about him that that's the case, but Pepper tells him that it doesn't really matter. He takes her word.

He patches through Harley and Peter to meet Shuri via telecommunication and immediately half-regrets it, but even if he isn't having feelings where people he doesn't like are concerned, he can still love a bunch of science-loving kids. Even Pepper smiles when she sees any of them, let alone all of them, and that tells him that he's on the right track. Rhodey and Harley absolutely adore each other, as if that's not the most adorable thing to ever happen in Tony's life.

Tony doesn't talk to the Rogues. He makes a couple of AIs that he floats through his connection with Shuri (with her willing and knowing consent) that will monitor them for him with his own tech and thus his own eyes, but he doesn't talk to them. Having an extension of himself is almost like being there himself, and that's about as close as he wants to get to talking to Steve Rogers for the rest of his life.

Rogers sulks outside of Barnes's ice jail and honestly it's so depressing that Tony often sends his intelligence children away from it so they won't have to see.

It's not like the other Rogues are very interesting, though. Wilson, at least, is studying for some sort of degree in psychology, which is at least useful. Romanov roams around like a lioness, looking for one more thing to hunt, one more thing to kill, one more thing to stab in the back and move on from. Well, that probably wasn't kind. Tony doesn't worry about being kind anymore. Pepper. Anyway, Barton is as boring as he always is, just with more shit talking about Tony behind his back instead of directly to his face. Lang is the only one that Tony has indirectly spoken to, allowing one of his AIs to offer an uplink between Lang and his daughter, Cassie, with the kid's mom's permission. Lang never talks shit about him - neither does Wilson - and maybe that will spare them from what the rest of the Rogues have earned. Maybe.

Instead of attempting to keep the Rogues as far from him as possible, Tony helps negotiate with the Accords counsel to get them back. Keep your enemies close, right? No one else on this godforsaken planet can be trusted to contain them (short, perhaps, Wakanda, who does not deserve to have to), so Tony might as well offer his services. If the motivation comes from a place that speaks of hatred, well, that's not his fault, is it? It's the product that the Rogues from reap from what they have sown.

Barnes is a wild card. Tony has no idea what condition he will come back in; will he be the Soldier, cold and careful? Will he be Barnes, brash and commanding? Will he be something else, something that Tony cannot predict? Tony doesn't even know which one he wants to see. He does not know which one will be easiest to deal with. He doesn't want to interact with Barnes at all, but he knows that he shan't be leaving the poor man in Wakanda even if he does get the rest of the Rogues back.

The question is, then, how to deal with him.

Punish him with the rest of his ilk, guilty by association? Or does he spare Barnes and burn the rest, create a true rigid dichotomy of the treatment that Barnes receives versus the rest of the group. That would truly drive it home for the rest of the Rogues, but was Tony full of that much mercy? He doesn't know how to word the question to Pepper or to Rhodey, so he doesn't ask it at all. He'll burn that bridge when he gets to it.

When he drags the Rogues home, it's like bringing in an unruly dog by its collar; it screams of superiority, of anger, of being completely finished with the behavior portrayed by that being dragged. Tony revels in it completely, but he does not say a word until he is toe to toe with Steve Rogers. Barnes stands at the man's right, and Tony supposes he was correct to assume he wouldn't get the rest without the Soldier.

"Rogers," Tony greets, his voice dipped in icy water, cold and fierce in it. Rogers squares his shoulders like he's ready for a fight that he can win, and Tony has to hold himself back from the smirk that threatens to take over his features. He has to let the Rogues think they stand even a chance before he goes all out, or it won't even be that enjoyable to stomp them all into the ground. He shakes Rogers's hand for the cameras and sends them a kind smile, looking to all the world that he's glad to see his old friends again. He knows that Steve has noticed how strong his grip is, how much Extremis has enhanced him, but he doesn't allow for questioning - even if Steve is overtly obvious with his confusion. Now that Tony is more verse in not having emotions at all (instead of just hiding them like he had for his entire life), it's a bit embarrassing for Rogers to wear his all over his face.

He knows that Barnes is staring at him. He doesn't care enough to figure out why; it's hardly his job to appease the curiosity or anger or what have you of James Buchanan Barnes, and he's not going to start the game letting Barnes believe that those are the rules. When all of the pictures are taken and all of the cameras are beginning to turn away, Tony puts his back to the Rogues confidently. He has a suit on standby, and Extremis has the Bleeding Edge armor waiting beneath his skin anyway. The suit is just a sentinel that Tony has to extract deniability, being as he could simply blame a protection protocol if things got too dicey. He feels that Barnes is still looking at him and checks with a camera through Friday to make sure; Barnes's eyes are definitely still on him.

He doesn't call him out for staring, even if there's a sick part of himself that would revel in the surprise of it. What troubles him more than the staring is that Tony can't read anything from it. Normally, he would be able to tell if someone was aiming to kill him, fuck him, or yell at him. Now, with Barnes, who has almost a hundred years of making his face not do anything under his belt, Tony has no fucking idea. He doesn't know what Pepper would do in this situation either, which is not helping.

Tony regains his cool during the walk into the entryway, turning around to look at the Rogues once everyone has gathered inside of the Compound. He looks over all of them with a cold sense of assessment and lets the silence pool around them, letting it get awkward long before he breaks it. He revels in the fact that none of them are brave enough to break it either.

"Rogers. Romanoff. Barton. You three will be on the West wing. This is non negotiable, your rooms are already arranged. Wilson. Lang. Barnes. The three of you will be on the main hallway. Maximoff, as per your Accords agreement, other arrangements will be made," he reports.

Maximoff makes a noise like she didn't read her fucking contract, and Tony just smiles. He keeps his peace, keeps his inner don't-give-a-fuck and moves on, because she was supposed to read it, and she definitely signed it, so it's not his job to baby talk her through being a grown up right now. He remembers the nightmare shit she pushed through his head like a motherfucking strainer, making sure he got all of the shitty parts out of whatever nightmare soup she wanted to save for in the morning, so he doesn't feel bad for her getting exactly what she deserves. Pepper would be proud of him right now, and that's what keeps him from cowing in the face of Steve Rogers's disapproval, his anger. He is not afraid of Steve Rogers. There are a thousand weapons hidden away beneath Tony's skin, electricity trickling within him, and there is no room for fear anymore.

"What does that mean, Stark?" Rogers asks, and despite the fact that he's been attempting to do the same to Rogers in his head, it still burns in Tony's nose to be relegated to his own surname, to something so easily conflated with his father. Instead of getting caught up in it though, Tony raises an eyebrow instead. Because they're inside, he thinks, he should take off his sunglasses. Show them exactly what they're dealing with. He shuts his eyes as he takes them off, not wanting to give himself a headache from the light exposure, and opens them just as they're tucked into his chest pocket.

"It's in her Accords agreement. She is being detained and subsequently trained by Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme," he says shortly, making hard eye contact with the good Captain, who visibly startles. Tony wants to grin at how obviously put off Rogers is by the nearly glowing bright blue, by the unnatural nature of it, because he worked hard for this. He wants to be off-putting much more than he wants to be palatable these days, and sometimes he thinks that that is what trauma looks like. Sometimes, trauma means breaking into a thousand pieces and only picking up the ugly parts to put back together, just so no one will come back.

"That's not fair! You can't just put her away! She's just a kid!" Rogers insists, and Tony just barely resists rolling his eyes. Instead, he just sighs.

"She's 'just a kid' who contributed to the killing of thousands, sided with a megalomaniac robot after he showed murderous tendencies, psychologically tortured multiple Avengers for the sake of that megalomaniac robot, and still has little to no grasp on her magic. She needs to be taught, at the very least, if not power limited entirely. Doctor Strange will handle that. He's the most powerful sorcerer in this hemisphere. He can handle her," Tony explains, taking extra effort to sound even more put off by having to explain than he actually feels. He's fine with sounding annoyed, even if that'll set off the Rogues even more. It's all in the plan.

"Classic Stark, throwing everyone else under the bus to save his own skin," Barton mutters, to which the Winter Soldier tenses. Tony doesn't know what to make of that, so he ignores it entirely; some other AI can run the data on Barnes later. Tony is busy with making everyone around him angry, which is previously a talent of his anyway. He's just built up a thick enough skin to care less about it by now. Tony shifts his eyes to Barton and watches the reaction to his new eyes, to how new he looks entirely. He looks younger, he knows, his wrinkles and scars and beauty marks reduced by the thing that will keep him alive for so long as he stays out of major, unfixable harm.

He wonders if that's why Barnes is staring at him. He decides he doesn't care rather quickly.

"Whether or not Maximoff's guilt is related to a lessening in mine is completely beside the point. The Accords counsel decided on the punishments and collections of everyone involved in the Avengers Initiative, and I was only involved in what processes involved my personal experiences," Tony says, pushing his tongue out against his teeth when he's done. None of the lights have crackled yet, and Tony blames that completely on the stone control that Pepper has so readily fostered in him.

"Do I not get any say in this?" Maximoff asks, and the red glow just below her hands says no! But Tony doesn't have to say anything at all.

"Apparently, you already did. I signed my document, you signed yours, everyone signed all of theirs. You already got your say. This is what it is. You live with it. You've already had your say," the Soldier growls out, sounding as if he hasn't used his voice for months. Tony would almost bet that they defrosted him on the plane, if not for knowing that he was actually defrosted about three days ago. Both Shuri and one of the AIs had told him immediately, excited on both parts and chirping about Barnes for the entire day, giving Tony regular updates like he might have actually cared. Tony had ate the updates up with a spoon, but that was beside the point.

"That's not fair. I should have been given more warning," the Witch insists, the red glow around her hands increasing more, and it almost puts a crack in Tony's stone control. There's more machine in his mind than man, and that will make it harder for the Witch to impact, but will it be hard enough? Will he be able to protect himself, or will it all go to hell in a handbasket? He doesn't have to wonder as Barnes grabs the Witch's hands, holding them above her head and dispelling the magic in her shock.

"That's why you can't fucking be trusted to control yourself. You can't keep it together for a five minute meeting? You want to be like that for the rest of your life?" Barnes asks, and Tony finds himself very interested in the slight Russian lilt of his accent, pleasant and yet so cold.

There is a power to the man that used to be the Winter Soldier that would be very useful for Tony, but he pushes that down. It's more effective to put a distance between himself and all of the Rogues, not just the ones that personally hurt him. Or, maybe... Taking in one of them would show the rest exactly what they're missing, and taking in Barnes. Taking in Barnes would carve a hole into Rogers, and wouldn't that just be nice? Maybe they'd even match!

"Bucky, leave her alone," Rogers says, talking down to Barnes in a way that ruffles Tony's feathers, let alone those of the man himself. Barnes scowls and releases the witch, throwing her hands away from himself as if they're something dirty, something sickly. Yes, Barnes would make a fine addition to what helps Tony work, and something tells him that Barnes would be all too willing. Perhaps it's the open fascination that Tony finds when he allows his eyes to glance upon Barnes, or maybe it's the way that Barnes orients himself, open to Tony and closed off to the rest of the Rogues. Maybe it's because he's projecting the smothering way that Rogers was with him onto Barnes, but that's neither here nor there.

"Anyway," Tony says, clearing his throat and feigning disinterest in the proceedings of Barnes's obvious displeasure. "Maximoff, Strange will be arriving to collect you within the hour. I recommend extending some sort of goodbye to the rest before you go." He blames the bracelets around his wrists for his bravery, resisting the urge to run his hands over them. It's the bracelets that keep what happens next from transpiring how Maximoff would like it to: she sends a wave of red tinged magic toward him and though Barnes tries to step between, it's truly blocked by the bubble that surrounds Tony as it nears him.

"None of that," says a new voice, and Tony smiles to hear it. Barton recognises it immediately, flinching out of his skin in a way that gives Tony a dark sense of pleasure, one that shares Bruce's curly hair and the way that he can't handle Wanda and the way that the Rogues welcomed her anyway, it's a part of himself that screams protection even in the case of those who never protected him. Loki sweeps up next to Tony and Tony is comfortable, safe, and even feels like he could take on all of the Rogues right now, with Loki at his back or without. The Rogues are on the offensive, glaring between Tony and Loki as if they have less right to be here than the Rogues themselves, except Barnes. Barnes, for all of his new world strangeness, just looks curious.

"What the fuck is he doing here?" Barton barks out like he gets to ask questions, and Tony gives him a smile that he learned from watching Loki, leering and with sharp teeth set against his lips.

"He's been instated for the past year. Didn't you read your file?" Tony asks sharply, knowing that Barton hadn't and loving every moment of it. Rogers falls from an enraged expression to a confused one, which is almost more satisfying. Tony loves to leave the good Captain with a sense that he's been outsmarted.

"Instated as what?" Rogers asks, still posed as if he has a shield that he hasn't held in a couple of years in his hand, and Tony almost feels sad for how badly Steve has obviously been coping. Instead, Pepper and Loki both whisper in the back of his head, growling about betrayal and all of the things that they could have done for him, all of the times he had done things for them and they hadn't even showed any gratitude. Tony lets Loki answer that one.

"As an Avenger. As a reinstated Asgardian prince, I was invited by the Accords counsel to participate as an Avenger approximately ten months after your leave," Loki explains. The Frost Giant does not explain the state that he found Tony in, upset and scared so often, doesn't explain that he helped Pepper and Rhodey dig him out of a hole fit to be a grave, doesn't explain that he has whispered to Tony while holding him close all of his plans to rip all of the Rogues limb from limb if Tony so much as hesitated in telling him not to.

"They let him be an Avenger? And we have to be evaluated? Are you actually fucking kidding me?" Barton asks, gesticulating wildly with his arms nearly hitting the people standing beside him, and Tony wonders if he knows that he looks like a buffoon. Probably not. Barton was never the most observant guy of his own implications anyway.

"It was proven that my wrongdoings were done under magical coercion. Your own wrongdoings could not have been done under the same circumstances, unless you would like to place the blame with your witch, Hawk?" Loki suggests, Bambi eyes wide and head tilted like it's something that he thinks is a completely rational option. He grins like a shark as Barton sputters.

Tony holds back his impulse to do the same as he watches Barnes's reaction; Barnes is looking at Loki like he's a puzzle to figure out, not like he's a threat.

It contributes to the idea of bringing Barnes into the fold if he doesn't immediately pass judgement when it comes to the prince (who is sometimes a princess, which occasionally trips Tony up when talking about Loki). Tony takes a mental account of the varied reactions that will likely come from his being even remotely kind to Barnes. Rhodey shan't like it in the slightest, and will likely give Barnes some sort of shovel talk even if Tony is the approacher and is in no means suggesting anything of that sort. Pepper will be on the wall between wanting Barnes as a liaison and wanting him nowhere near Tony. Loki will either see Tony's logic or fight him tooth and nail on it. Only time will tell.

"So you're like me," Barnes says, level, and Rogers rears back as if he's been hit. Loki doesn't give the blond a chance to stutter out a rebuttal to what Barnes suggests as a brazen fact, holding up a hand.

"Do you ever intend to do Anthony Stark harm again?" Loki asks, raised eyebrow cracking open his sharp bone structure. His cheekbones really could cut glass. Her face is only slightly more delicate in her feminine guise, and Tony has never been able to decide which one he likes more. Tony absorbs what Loki said and wants to blush darkly, but Tony learned how to push that down a very long time ago, long before Pepper and even long before Rhodey. It is not a skill that he'll be forgetting in this life, he thinks.

"Never again," Barnes says surely, jaw snapping shut after saying it as if it's a life altering promise, as if it's something Barnes can't even consider not agreeing to. Loki still doesn't give Rogers time to interrupt, and if Tony didn't know any better, he would think that Rogers was under some sort of silencing spell. However, as much as the bracelets protected Tony from all kinds of magic, they also hold some power themselves, which is to sense when Loki is using his.

“Then you are as much like me as a mortal can be,” the prince allows. Tony has to look up when Loki speaks next, because the god is addressing him, eyes sharp.

"Barnes, thoughts?" Loki asks, sharp teeth showing, and Tony knows exactly what he means. What Loki means is I want him, what Loki means is please tell me you do too. What Loki also means is we don’t have to, which is what assures Tony with their relationship; there is always an out door so much as there is an in. Tony nods shortly and Loki turns back to the Rogues, but is interrupted by Rogers.

“What about Bucky? Keep your magic to yourself, Loki,” Rogers growls out, and Loki smiles at him for even remotely thinking that he can stop him.

“Barnes, what name do you prefer? I should hate to address you by a relic’s name,” Loki says, ignoring Rogers openly as he keeps settled eye contact with Barnes. Barnes smiles, tentative, and Tony wants to make him smile for a long time yet.

“James,” he murmurs, quiet like he doesn’t want anyone else to hear it, but Tony picks it up with Extremis and Loki with whatever makes Asgardians and Frost Giants special, and Rogers obviously heard it, if his whiplash is anything to go by. Loki nods, then looks down at Tony. Okay, so he wants Tony to take the honors. He supposes it’s only fair; Loki was the one who went out on the limb for him.

“Well, James, would you like to go to dinner with me and Loki sometime?” Tony asks, ignoring the rest of the Rogues as they sputter. Rogers makes some comment beneath his breath about Tony being a whore and it having only been twenty minutes, but Loki puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder, giving him a weight to ignore it with. Barnes gives them wide eyes, and maybe James is much more Bambi than Loki is because wow.

“I would love to,” James says. Tony doesn’t even listen to the protests that ring in, because this may just be what the start of victory tastes like.

James comes to dinner with them. He’s polite, such a goddamn gentleman, and he pulls out chairs for Lady Loki and even sometimes male Loki and usually Tony as well, and he smiles so boyishly, like he’s not used to the expression at all. When Tony shows him the arm he built, the one that has an arc reactor and a magic bracelet both built in, he has to take a moment before looking either of them in the eye because he doesn’t know how to make eye contact without crying. Loki heals his shoulder and James really does cry, heaving sobs out as he tries to explain that this is the first time he hasn’t hurt in his whole life. Tony holds him to his chest and Loki pets his hair, whispering in a language neither Tony nor James can even begin to understand.

It takes them months to realise it’s a healing accelerator, and James’s healing is even faster than before.

Between Extremis, James’s healing factor, and Loki’s godly existence, they’ll all likely live for a very, very long time. With this in mind, Tony considers distributing Extremis between his friends, just enough to keep him from getting lonely. He wonders how many people would be willing to be stuck with him forever, and nearly decides against offering at all. James is the one that pushes him on it, insists that Rhodey and Pepper, at the very least, should know about the possibility. When Tony perfects taking the technology aspect out of it, until it just heals and protects and talks to Tony when his friends are in danger, James insists, Loki backing his play, and Tony bites the bullet and tells his friends.

Pepper says yes immediately and begins drafting more people to recruit, making suggestions from mutants and other heroes to other business CEOs and inventors. Rhodey gives him a cautious yes with a stipulation: his family is informed of the circumstances, but told that it was an accident that made him like this. He doesn’t want them to think he’s choosing not to give it to them (even if he is, even if he never wants them to have to choose to live forever or to die).

Lang and Wilson defect from the Rogues and absorb into what was once Team Iron Man, but is now more like a little family. Wilson, who was the first to publicly reject the ideas he stood behind during the time of the Civil War, is asked if he wants an eternity first. Wilson, who wears a wedding ring on his left hand and a promise ring on the other, asks if he can think. The wedding ring is for Scott Lang, and the promise ring is a promise to Cassie Lang, bright white and with a light blue gemstone, a promise that he’ll always love her and that he’ll always love her father. He doesn’t know what to do when the promise can become a reality.

Wilson and both Langs get Extremis when Cassie is eighteen. There are greys in the hair of both of her dads, and her mom died last year, and parts of her rage, but Tony helps to get her help. Even when Loki and Pepper tell him that things are not his job, Tony still reaches out and he still gives and gives and gives.

Peter and two of his friends get Extremis when all three of them have turned twenty four. MJ chose the arbitrary number, and Tony doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t have to. He gives out the serum like it’s candy at Halloween except only for his friends, and none of them tell anyone. He gives some to Aunt May quietly, not behind Peter’s back but beside it, because he knows Peter didn’t know how to ask her if she wanted it.

Extremis is Shuri’s and Extremis is Harley’s and Extremis goes to everyone Tony loves and they watch the people that have wronged them die and Tony waits to feel bad about it. He waits and waits and waits and finds nothing.

There’s a lot of fighting that Tony doesn’t like to think about.

But Loki and James stay.

And maybe it’s okay.