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doomed to repeat (or are we?)

Chapter Text

After dying on Titan, Tony wakes up – still dying – in Siberia.

Tony could never mistake these concrete walls, nor the bone-deep chill that surrounds him. He’s vaguely aware of his fingers going numb, of the sound of his shallow, wet, wheezing breaths and the burning of the broken arm he’s resting his weight on.

Compared to the pain of having the power of all six Infinity Stones course through his mortal body, the pain of his collapsed lungs, extensive internal bleeding and head trauma barely registers.

If he’s dead, and this is some fucked-up form of afterlife, Fate hates him.

If he’s actually alive but six years in the past and dying, Fate still hates him, because really?

He’s had enough.

.

He passes out.

.

He comes to, briefly, and sees white hospital walls and feels the familiar haziness of morphine.

.

He dies on the operating table.

Once.

.

Twice.

.

After the third time, he is conscious long enough to turn his head to meet Pepper’s tear-filled gaze and mouth three words.

FRIDAY. Extremis. Me.

His bout of consciousness doesn’t last long enough for him to see her reaction.

.

The fourth time he dies on the operating table, something changes. A new burning enters his system, one that makes the memory of the burn of alcohol seem like a soothing balm.

Tony is pretty sure he screams.

Then, he passes out.

Again.

.

When he wakes up, he feels different.

He feels new.

Not ‘refreshed’, not ‘cured’, and certainly not ‘whole’, but his physical aches and pains are nowhere to be found.

When he takes his first full, deep breath in over a decade, tears spring to his eyes.

“Tony?”

He jerks at the sound of the voice, so quiet and familiar and heartbroken and hopeful.

“Pep?” he coughs, his throat somehow feeling drier than the time he was stranded in an actual desert. When his eyes fall on Pepper (his friendpartnerwifethemotherofhischild-!) the tears that had sprung to his eyes spill over and he smiles brokenly.

“Hey, Pep.” He whispers, and between one breath and the next, Pepper is on him, her arms wrapped gently around his shoulders, her face buried in his neck, and he feels her tears drip onto his clavicle.

“Oh, thank god, Tony we were so worried-!” she sobs, and it takes much less effort than it had the first time to raise his arms and wrap them around her waist.

There’s an odd dissonance in his mind, the memory of lying next to her while their daughter slept in the next room as fresh as the one of their conversation about ‘taking a break’ from each other and the mass of feelings it created when he found out about the Accords.

That…will require exploring.

He remembers the first time around, how he had quipped about her missing him and then made the moment romantic. They were back together by the time he was out of the hospital.

But now…that compulsion isn’t there.

He knows what life with Pepper was like. He knows what having a child with her was like. He will treasure those memories for the rest of his (second?) life.

But he can’t dwell on them.

He can’t take the same path again.

Not when he knows what’s coming.

Not when it could all be taken away again.

“Sorry for worrying you.” He mumbles instead, squeezing tighter, luxuriating in the easy comfort. “And sorry for not telling you earlier about, um, Extremis. And for, uh, keeping it in the first place.” He adds hesitantly, stumbling for once, then immediately bites the inside of his cheek when Pepper pulls away a little, her eyes wide and disbelieving, tear-tracks on her cheeks.

“Sorry?” she echoes, “You’re sorry for keeping something that saved your life?” she asks sharply and Tony winces, just slightly, but it’s enough for Pepper to pull away completely and return to the chair at his side, reaching out to grab his hand instead.

“Tony,” she sighs, her other hand smoothing gently over his matted hair, “I watched you die more times than I can or particularly want to count.” She tells him softly, honesty shining in her glistening eyes and through her words, and he can’t hide his flinch at that.

“Why would I be mad at something that might protect you?”

Despite the extra pages in his Pepper-Operating-Manual granted by his six years of future knowledge, Tony has no immediate retort to that.

“Because I…kept it from you?” he tries, looking up hesitantly to watch Pepper’s reaction.

The hand that was stroking his hair pauses, then lightly cuffs his head, the pain negligent and the motion entirely fond. “You are allowed secrets, dummy.” She chastises. “As long as they’re the life-saving, instead of the life-threatening ones.”

Tony blinks for a second, then offers Pep a brighter, more genuine smile. “Deal.” He agrees.

They sit in silence for a while, holding hands, absorbing everything that happens.

Then, Tony’s gaze falls to the earpiece Pepper still has clipped on, and his mind sharpens as a plan crystalizes.

He squeezes Pepper’s hand, catching her attention.

“I’ll be fine, Pep.” He assures her, then reaches up and grabs hold of the earpiece, gently taking it off. “You should get some sleep. FRIDAY can catch me up on what I missed during my nap.”

Pepper rolls her eyes at the quip about his ‘nap’ and he knows he’ll likely have to face a lecture about ‘making light of lethal injuries and medically-induced comas’ as soon as he’s out of the hospital, but it’s worth it for the fond smile that tugs at her lips.

“Are you saying I look tired, Mr Stark?” she asks sharply, and Tony of the original timeline would’ve snarked back, teased mercilessly to hide the fact he cared, but he’s not that man anymore and he doesn’t want to be.

“You look great.” He says instead, noting how she stills at the raw honesty in his voice. “But I really am not going anywhere any time soon, and sleep will do you good. You’ll look even better well-rested, trust me.”

Pepper blinks at him for a few seconds, then smiles hesitantly. “Be careful, or it’ll seem like you actually listened to the dozens of lectures Jim and I gave you over the years about the importance of sleeping well.” She points out, but Tony just smiles.

“The horror,” he jokes, but they can both hear his heart isn’t in it, too relieved and grateful for whatever this is, “whatever will I do about my reputation?”

Pepper laughs then and stands up, and something in Tony’s chest clenches at the prospect of her leaving, but he ignores it. She bends down and presses a light kiss to his forehead, familial more than romantic, and Tony lets out a breath he hadn’t even realised he was holding.

“Don’t think I’ll let you win so easily once you’re out of the hospital.” She murmurs and Tony chuckles, smiling still, and waves at her, his other hand still clutching the earpiece.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He promises, and keeps smiling until Pepper is well and truly out of sight and the door has clicked shut behind her.

Only then does the smile slide off his face, and his hands shake when he clips the earpiece on, and three buttons later, an inch-wide holographic screen appears in front of his right eye and he pulls the microphone closer to his mouth.

“FRIDAY?” he asks quietly, scared of what he will hear but even more scared silence will be his only answer.

‘Boss!’ his AI chirps, and if not for the fact that Vision was walking around with JARVIS’ personality, Tony would’ve said the relieved note in FRIDAY’s voice was an effect of the morphine. ‘It is good to hear your voice again.’

Tony feels a lump form in his throat and he swallows, eyes stinging with the promise of more tears. “Yours too, baby girl.” He assures the AI, then settles back against the cushions of his bed, letting the thoughts and theories he’d pushed back and ignored to surface once again.

He died, but he’s alive.

He was in space, now he’s on Earth.

He was unenhanced, now there’s a stabilised version of Extremis coursing through his veins.

He was forty-eight years old when he died, now he’s in a body that’s a few months before its forty-second birthday.

Most importantly, he knows how things play out. He knows humanity loses the first fight.

And while he will do everything in his might to make sure they get Thanos on the first try this time around, he is also bitter.

Iron Man – yes, Tony Stark – not recommended.

Well, it was Tony-fucking-Stark who saved Earth. Who died saving Earth.

You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire-!

He scoffed.

Did you know? Don’t bullshit me, Steve! Did you know?

Yes.

‘Team Cap’ had thought he was fighting them before, but all Tony had been doing at that point was trying to keep things from falling apart, even at his cost. He was barely motivated then.

But now?

Now he is.

The best revenge is living well, after all. And Tony will. He is going to live well, kill Thanos before the Snap, and if he brings a couple of people who have caused him grief down a few pegs while he’s at it, then, well.

Who can stop him?

"I've got a lot to catch you up on, FRIDAY-dear." he tells the AI, then puts all his not-inconsiderable intellect to the task and plans.

Chapter Text

Telling FRIDAY everything that’s happened and potentially will happen is both, the easiest, and the singularly most difficult thing Tony’s ever done.

The AI listens, without interruptions, in silence that feels both welcoming and tense, as Tony stumbles through the summary of his six years of future-past. Once he’s done, though, all his girl asks is;

‘What’s the plan, Boss?’

And Tony feels so relieved he almost cries.

“Nobody can know about this, baby girl. No one. Keep it on your most secure servers, scramble it if you must, delete the audio, what have you. For all the world will know, the next few months will be a result of one near-death experience too many.” Tony demands, raising a hand he only belatedly realises is shaking with leftover adrenaline to scratch at his chin, noting his overgrown goatee with no small degree of exasperation.

‘Already done, Boss.’ FRIDAY chirps. ‘If I may, my inquiry was more to do with how you plan to proceed, and what you need me to do.’

Tony sighs and runs a hand through his tangled hair. “Keep tabs on Stephen Strange. Let me know when dear Doctor will become Doctor Wizard. Start integrating yourself into the Wakandan network, but don’t let them find you. I don’t care how much that limitation restricts your movement, I’ll get on that as soon as I’m back in the lab.”

He pauses, breathes out, deliberates some more, then adds: “And tell Peter that-”

Tony cuts off, swallows around the sudden lump in his throat, eyes stinging at the memory of ‘Mr Stark, I don’t feel so good’, and the closest he’d come to a son turning to ash in his arms. He breathes in, wet and ragged, and tries again.

“Could you let Peter know that I’d like to see him? Whenever- whenever he’s available.” He settles on at last, then forcefully switches mental tracks. “And check on the Tennessee kid for me. Harley. I wanna know what the bratling is up to.”

‘Will that be all, Boss?’

Tony swallows compulsively, a fresh wave of guilt hitting that hadn’t waned with time. “No.” he muttered, then repeated it, more strongly. “No. Get Helen Cho on the phone. I need to fix Rhodey’s legs, and she will help.”

‘Perhaps wait until you’re in the lab, Boss? Offering the doctor a prototype might go a long way in convincing her to help.’

“Yeah, alright, fine. I suppose you’ll tell me to sit tight and wait to be released next, hm?” he grumbles, but even as he says it, he knows FRIDAY’s right; having a prototype will make a better impression, and, seeing as he’s already built the full thing once, it’s not as much of a setback in his plans as his complaining might make it seem.

‘That would be in your best interest, Boss, which is why I calculate only a 24% probability that you will actually do it.’

“The sass on you, I swear. I’m sure the DMV would love you.”

.

Two days later, Tony’s released from the hospital. The trip back to Stark Tower with Happy is pleasantly uneventful, and when he walks through the door, it is to the sight of builders bustling around the place and a smile from Anna, the eternally-harried receptionist.

Happy must read the confusion on his face and snorts by his side. “They’re fixing Maximoff’s redecorating efforts.” He informs Tony, and it feels like a lightbulb has gone off in his mind.

“From when she used Vision as her sledgehammer of choice?” he asks dryly, and Happy nods, his serious-bodyguard façade breaking for a quick snigger.

He hadn’t even noticed that any rebuilding had taken place the first time round, but that was without Extremis to shorten his healing rate from three and a half months to barely three weeks. The realisation makes him feel better about his initial startle.

Then, he notices that Happy is still by his side when they get to the elevator and he raises an eyebrow.

“We’re in the Tower now.” He says slowly. “I’m surrounded by my employees and the best security measures a billionaire can afford. I’ll be alright, Hap.” He offers teasingly, not bitingly yet because he’d found out, after the first time in Siberia, just how concerned Happy had been for him, and how flippant he’d been in turn.

When the lift’s doors close behind them, Happy shrugs. “That may be so, boss, but I’m on orders from Pepper to make sure you eat, drink something that’s not coffee and get some sleep.”

“Protecting me from myself now?” Tony gripes back, bumping his shoulder with his bodyguard’s and seeing the other man stumble. “Oops.”

Happy glowers at him and Tony cracks a smile at the disgruntled expression on the other man’s face. “When you’re all healed up, we’re going back in the ring. I wanna see whether your magic trick will make you any less crap at boxing.”

“We can go right now,” Tony offers, reaching out to press the gym button on the elevator’s control panel, but Happy catches his wrist.

“Hell no. You’re gonna eat and sleep, and I’m not gonna get yelled at by Pepper.” He corrects, snorting when Tony pouts.

“Spoilsport.” He grumbles but concedes.

True to his word, Happy stays just long enough to see Tony disappear in his penthouse bedroom. When he leaves, Tony allows himself five seconds to feel guilty about lying to his friend before he makes for the elevator again and goes down to the lab.

He’s got legs to make for Rhodey and a world to take over, after all.

.

All in all, it takes him all of five hours to have a working blueprint for the design for the braces including room for Cho’s potential contribution, as well as a detailed explanation of what, exactly, he’d like from her if she did agree to help.

He feels absurdly mundane when he presses send on the email – (email, really? that’s so early 2000s) – before he pulls out of his creative stupor long enough to glance at the clock.

3:21am blinks back at him cheerfully, and Tony has a bit of a ‘huh’ moment as he contemplates how tired he does not feel.

“FRIDAY-dear,” he calls absently, dismissing the hologram of the prototype for Rhodey’s braces and rolling his chair to the other end of the lab where he left his half-empty mug of coffee and where DUM-E is dutifully charging. He chugs the rest of the coffee and rifles through some tools; “find me any and everything about prosthetics. Costs, issues, lifespan, key producers – data, data, data, I need data, I can’t make bricks without clay.”

‘Boss?’ the AI’s computerised voice manages to sound both amused and worried. ‘Are you wanting to venture into prosthetics?’

“Yup!” Tony agrees, oddly, yet inexplicably giddy, feeling the coffee work its magic as his heartrate jackrabbits. “Told you we’re going to be making waves, baby girl, and this is the start. Plus, what better final fuck-you to dear old dad than leaving the weapons business for good and going into healing?”

‘Admirable goal, boss. Although I’d like to inform you that I’m detecting a spike in your heart-rate and an increase in body temperature by 15 degrees.’ The earlier worry morphs into blatant concern. ‘Have you tested the stability of the modified Extremis?’

Tony snorts.

Of course he hasn’t.

He raises a hand to his face, watches as the fiery spiderwebs that stretch under his skin fade away and feels his temperature drop when he brings his earlier excitement under control.

Huh. So, apparently, increased heart-rate triggers Extremis. Not ideal, considering a) caffeine and b) the sheer amount of stress and emotion he’s always under.

He thinks, absently, that he should probably be much more worried than he is by that, yet all he can manage is idle curiosity.

He died, yet he’s alive and six years in the past. In light of that, what does it matter that he runs on 105°F now, that he barely needs to sleep, or that his scars are all gone, or that he looks not a day over thirty? Or that he can apparently melt metal with his bare hands? Not much, that’s what.

“I haven’t, Fri.” he answers at last. “Figured I might need to pacify Pepper a bit before I go back to anything potentially dangerous. God, imagine her reaction if I actually turn up to a board meeting.” He chuckles, but it sounds flat, even to his ears.

‘I’ll make sure to record any such reaction for you. For now though, I would advise against any further ‘tinkering’ – perhaps you could draft notes for the press conference you mentioned instead?’

Tony huffs, already dreading the boredom, but one look at the misshapen hammer in his hand where he’d squeezed while there was fire dancing through his veins makes him see the wisdom in FRIDAY’s words.

“Yeah,” he breathes, all the fight going out of him as he pulls up a blank page and a holographic keyboard, “alright.”

.

Pepper comes by the Tower at midday the next day and Tony is almost late to meet her after he spends half an hour studying his reflection after his shower.

It’s trippy, is what it is. He’s less a sliver fox and more of a spring chicken now. His arc-reactor scars are gone, as are the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, and his hair is thick and brown in a way it hadn’t been since Afghanistan.

He does manage to get to the penthouse kitchen two minutes before the elevator slides open and Pepper steps through, all prim and business-like, a stark contrast to his beat-up jeans and AC/DC tee.

“Tony,” she greets, offering him a soft smile, “you look well.”

“I slept!” is what Tony blurts in response, and Pepper’s lip quirks in a way that tells him that she doesn’t fully believe him but is too relieved to see him to call him out on it.

“I’m glad. Happy told me that you actually listened to him so I wanted to come make sure you weren’t switched with a convincing look-alike in the hospital.” She ignores Tony’s indignant ‘hey!’ with the ease of long practise and a tiny smile. “And I wanted to advise you to hold a press-conference about your absence-!”

“-I was thinking about that, actually.” He cuts in, if only to see Pepper’s reaction.

It doesn’t disappoint.

She flounders for a second, eyes widening and mouth opening and closing before she collects herself. “Y-you were?”

“Yeah, I, uh, actually, you should probably be sitting for this.” He lightly grasps Pepper’s elbow and leads her to the barstool, and he reasons it's only the leftover shock that makes Pepper so amiable to being manhandled.

Once she’s sitting down, sipping on a glass of water he’d pressed into her hands and looking at him with an expression that’s growing more worried than surprised by the second, Tony takes a deep breath. He holds it and counts to five before he lets it out, and the big reveal he’d been building up to while he was in the hospital and throughout the previous night forces its way out of his mouth without any of the fanfare or finesse he’d envisioned.

“I’m going to retire Iron Man.”

Pepper chokes.

Tony waits only long enough for her to get her coughing under control before he barrels on, unsure how long his courage is going to last.

“I will also no longer finance the Avengers Initiative. What with SHIELDRA being what they are and Rogers shoving his vibranium frisbee through my ribs, I don’t want anything to do with that organisation or Fury’s sticky fingers.”

He gives Pepper a moment to process, and continues only when she mutely waves him along, and then the words start pouring out of him in an endless stream.

“I want to go further into clean energy, and see if I can get the Board, well, on board with starting a line of prosthetics. I want to start scholarships, or internships, or- whatever, really. Just reward smart, hardworking kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity to reach their full potential. I want to make a mark on the world that’s as different from dear old dad’s as possible. And I guess- I’m telling you this ‘cause I’ll need you there beside me, Pep, I’ve gotten rusty at the politics game and you’ve always been better at it and just- yeah. Please?”

Pepper stares at him for a long time, seemingly barely breathing.

“Alright,” she breathes at last, laying her hand flat on the granite countertop and appearing to be grounding herself, “the gag is up. Who are you? Did you make another android? Were you hit by some kind of spell in Siberia? Are you even Tony Stark?”

“I- what? Of course it’s me, Pep!” Tony splutters. Of all reactions he’d entertained, this wasn’t one. “Who else could I be?”

“You tell me!” Pepper screeches, and now Tony hears the tinge of hysteria. “You come back from Siberia dying, then you apologise of all things! Then you’re this meek man I’ve never met, you don’t try to make us get back together, you don’t tease or downplay what happened, hell, Tony, Happy says you listened to him! You ate a proper meal and went to bed voluntarily! And now!”

If possible, Pepper’s volume increases.

Now you’re saying you want to retire Iron Man? You? Retire?! That suit is your life. It was more important than our relationship, and now you want to retire it?” Tony winces, but Pepper barrels through. “You bent over backwards for SHIELD and your superhero friends after New York, but suddenly you’re done? Just going to quit cold turkey, no more sugar-daddy Tony Stark for the biggest, most ungrateful spy organisation in the world?” Pepper snorts, and the sound is so derisive and out of character Tony actually startles.

When she sees his widened eyes, the fight seems to go out of Pepper like air out of a balloon.

“Clean energy I can understand. Prosthetics is Rhodey and your guilt. But kids, Tony? The Tony Stark I know would sooner thrash all his precious, vintage cars than admit to wanting anything to do with children. So don’t look so indignant at my questions and help me understand, or so help me god I will call the police.”

“…Um, wow.” Tony manages eventually, blinking rapidly, trying desperately to process everything. “You sure, uh, sure didn’t hold back, huh?” he teases weakly, but at Pepper’s expectant glare, he sighs and settles on the stool beside her, steepling his fingers in front of his chin and closing his eyes for a few seconds to gather his thoughts.

Then, he talks.

He tells Pepper about his childhood, about Howard, about PTSD first from Afghanistan, then from Obie, then from Ultron, now from Siberia. He tells her about his guilt because of his parents, because of Maya Hansen and Yinsen and Rhodey. He tells her about never feeling like he belonged, always too smart, too young, too loud, too arrogant, too rich, too self-absorbed, too weak. He tells her about his dreams (safe, on a farm, with children and no responsibilities-!) and his nightmares (‘I see a suit of armour around the world-!’ ‘everybody’s dead because of you-!’) about his ambitions and his fears.

He stumbles. His throat tightens, his words dry out, his eyes sting, his skin itches, his tongue feels like lead. He fidgets.

Multiple times, he thinks of calling it off, brushing it off with ‘honesty hour’s over!’; he wonders whether he could run or turn this into a joke or cite momentary insanity.

He doesn’t.

When he’s finally done – half an hour later – Pepper’s cheeks are tear-streaked and her eyes red-rimmed and wide.

“So, when I was dying in Siberia, my childhood hero’s shield rammed through my chest, it was the end I never wanted but, after Afghanistan, always knew I would have.” There’s truth in that statement, only the circumstances are different (Thanos-space-Stones-Snap-!) and Pepper’s lip quivers. “Now, having yet another chance at life… I still don’t want it. And this time, I’m ready to do everything and anything I need to in order to make sure I never have to go through that again.”

Silence falls on them.

“Oh, Tony.” Pepper murmurs, a mix of a sigh and a sob, and then she’s suddenly up and pulling his head to her chest, hugging him within an inch of his life. “You big, precious idiot. Why did you never say anything?”

Tony laughs, but it sounds wet even to his ears.

“Stark men are made of iron, remember?” he replies, equally quiet, but still brings his arms up and returns the hug, hoping to convey all the love he never quite knew how to put into words.

“An iron backbone and a bleeding heart are two very dangerous things to have at once.” Pepper whispers back, and Tony’s about to ask what she means by that, but then she pulls away, the rare moment of vulnerability over, and then the expression she pins him with is all ruthless business that belongs on CEO Pepper’s face as much as it would on that of an empress.

“Now, tell me, what are your plans for the Rogues?”

.

A week after his talk with Pepper, Tony drops by Rhodey’s hospital, a functioning set of leg braces in tow and the one and only Dr. Helen Cho at his side.

When he tells Rhodey what they’ve come up with, his best friend thanks him, berates him and absolves him in the same breath. Helen excuses herself once the briefing is over, choosing to explain to the attending nurses how the braces would be integrated into Rhodey’s CNS, and Tony has the opportunity to have a proper catch-up with his Platypus.

They both end up crying.

Tony leaves after getting hugged within an inch of his life, a smile on his face and the weight on his shoulders lighter by a tonne.

.

Two weeks after his talk with Pepper, Tony gets a text.

-Sorry for the late reply, Mr Stark, I didn’t realise you were out of the hospital! School’s just finished, I can be by the tower in 20 if you need me?

Tony smiles at the unusually formal tone and wonders how long Peter had spent stressing over and editing the seemingly simple message before he sent it.

-No rush, spider-boy. -T.S.

When Peter steps out the elevator half an hour later, Tony only just reigns in the instinct to hug the boy. The prospect of building up the relationship he’d had with Peter before but starting off on the right foot this time is both, daunting and exciting, and Tony doesn’t hesitate to admit he’s scared shitless of messing up again.

“Mr Stark?” the kid asks eventually, fidgeting awkwardly just outside the elevator, visibly thrown by the sight of Tony in his civvies. Or maybe the complete lack of wrinkles. Actually, the kid has a lot to be weirded out by, if Tony’s honest with himself. “Is everything alright?”

“Peachy, kid.” He replies, and waves the boy along into the common room. “I wanted to apologise, actually.”

Peter stumbles, and Tony knows how difficult that should be considering the teen’s spider-situation, and he wonders whether the concept of him apologising is really so foreign.

“A-apologise?” Peter stutters, completely baffled, even as he obediently sinks down on the too-soft leather sofa and watches as Tony perches himself on the loveseat opposite. “What f-for?”

“For dragging you off to Berlin to fight my battle. For making you miss school. For blowing you off afterwards without a single thank-you for putting your life on the line for me. Need I go on?”

“N-no!” Peter denies quickly, waving his hands around as if to stop Tony from speaking without actually touching him. “I mean- apology a-accepted, Mr Stark! Not that, uh, you n-needed to apologise in the first place or anything, cause, like, I was totally cool after Berlin and it was an honour to fight with you and I was so surprised by your text cause, uh, why would you want to see me afterwards, right? But then I forgot to reply and then I remembered and um- I’m going to stop talking now.”

Wow. If anyone ever says Tony can talk for hours without breathing, he’s going to introduce them to the kid, cause he doesn’t think Peter took a single breath during that entire ramble.

“The honour was mine, kid.” He chuckles, choosing the craziest part of that explanation to reply to. “Your ‘friendly neighbourhood Spiderman’ vibe reminded me why I became Iron Man in the first place.”

At his words, Peter’s face takes on the colour of his Spiderman suit, his mouth parting on a silent ‘oh’.

“Anyway,” Tony barrels on, willing to save the kid from the embarrassment of having to formulate a response, “I was thinking how to make it up to you, and I would like to offer to make your internship at SI legitimate, if you’d be willing.”

Peter’s face, if possible, blue-screens further.

“H-huh?”

Tony sighs and changes his perch, from the loveseat to the arm of the sofa Peter’s sitting on.

“If you’re anything like me, trying to stop you from going out at night or telling you that superhero-ing is dangerous and you should probably wait until you’re a bit older is a lost cause. Instead, I’d like to offer a smokescreen that won’t actually be just a smokescreen. If you want, you could come tinker in the lab or have a floor at the Tower, or, at the very least, SI’s financial backing for your upgrades, cause, no offence, kid, but those first goggles of yours were awful.”

Tony wonders whether he overstepped, because at first, all Peter does is stare, and then-

-oh no.

There’s the hero-worship.

Damn it. Tony forgot about that.

“You…” Peter breathes, voice oddly small, shocked. “You’d…do that? For me?”

Okay, first priority: bring that self-esteem UP.

“Sure, spiderling.” And then, because the kid needs to hear it and Tony needs to win back some measure of his reputation, he adds, waving a hand dismissively, “You’re doing good, kid. Making sure you’re safe while you do it is the least I can offer, hm?”

“Um, no, it’s really not.” Peter manages at that, a measure of the sarcastic menace Tony had briefly gotten to know before, before he balks and adds, “I mean- that would be really, really cool, Mr Stark, and I’d love to, but, uh, are you sure? I’m not exactly, um, y’know, I’m just me.”

“That’s precisely why I’m sure, kid.” And then, before he can stop himself, Tony reaches out and squeezes Peter’s shoulder.

The smile he gets in response could rival the sun.

.

Three weeks after his talk with Pepper, footage from the HYDRA base in Siberia ‘mysteriously’ ends up online.

(the truth is, no one can trace FRIDAY’s IP address)

Tony makes sure to make noise about deleting any and all traces of the footage as soon as possible.

But it’s too late. Copies have already been made. Keep being made. The video spreads like wildfire. Every iteration gets up to double digits in millions of views before it’s deleted. Experts are called in to assess its validity. When it’s deemed legitimate, it’s suddenly all every news station seems to be able to talk about. #accords, #superherocivilwar and #teamironman trend on Twitter for a week. Some soon link Tony’s mysterious absence from the public eye with the date stamped on the grainy video. The bloodlust for #teamcap is back with a vengeance that surprises even Tony, and he had been counting on it. Reporters hound SI, Pepper, Happy and anyone ever found to have been associated with Tony for an insight. There is a sudden and seemingly irreversible outpouring of love for anything and everything Tony Stark or Iron Man – SI stocks rise, as do sales in Iron Man merchandise and support for the Accords.

Finally, riding the wave of engineered goodwill, Tony posts an announcement for a press conference in a week’s time. He makes sure to do it on the Stark Industries official Twitter account and signs off with a simple but unmistakeable -T.S.

The retweet counter crashes the same day.

When the day of the press conference rolls around, Tony has the drafts for further ventures into clean energy, notes for his prosthetics reveal, suggested criteria for his scholarship programme and all the rage he never got closure for regarding the Rogues.

They wanted a villain, now they would have one. And the world will love him.

Tony walks into the room, and he feels at home amidst the blinding flashes, blurred faces, and cacophony of questions and remarks.

Then, the spectacle begins.

Chapter Text

All eyes are on him as soon as Tony steps into the room, and the reporters erupt in questions before he’s even made it up to the podium. As he raises a hand, however, the noise stops.

“Thank you.” He acknowledges, offering his Press Smile #3. “Good afternoon, everyone. I’m sure you all know the drill: I say my bit, annoy my PR agent when I inevitably ignore my notes, then open the floor for questions. Does that sound good for everyone?” He gets a few scattered laughs and a couple nods, and he lets his smile dim from obnoxious brightness to something more believable.

“Right. I’m sure you’ve all been wondering about the lack of any front-page stunts from me over the last month. Well, I’m equally sure you’ve seen the video that appeared on the internet last week.” For a second, his smile morphs to something bitter and sharp as a knife before he continues. “While having to air out all the ugliest parts of the so-called ‘superhero civil war’ for all and sundry was one of the last things I ever wanted to deal with, let me confirm once and for all: the footage is real.”

He shoots the crowd a wry smile that’s only half-fake.

“While I don’t recommend trying to hack my suit to find the suit-cam’s footage for further proof, and trying to dig out my hospital records will get you a one-way ticket to the darkest corner of the world my lawyers can swing, rest assured that my forced vacation from the public eye was spent in the hospital recovering from having a vibranium shield shoved into my chest by a super-soldier. And it’s difficult to do anything newsworthy when you’re hooked up to a myriad of machines and in and out of the ICU.”

A stunned hush falls over the room at his frank wording.

“Now, for what I actually wanted to talk about.” He smirks then, and prepares for the sweet, sweet satisfaction of throwing everyone the curveball of the century. “I’m sure it will come as no surprise when I say that prolonged stay in the hospital grants even the most stubborn the opportunity for self-reflection. And, despite appearances to the contrary, I am no longer as young and spry as I was at the start of this superhero business.”

Tony sees the dawning horror on the faces of the few who clock on first.

“I will therefore be retiring Iron Man from the field, effective immediately.”

The reaction is instantaneous, and chaos erupts in the room. The shock, disbelief, indignation, and complete bewilderment is a heady, explosive mix that for the first time since MIT offers Tony a high that has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol.

Then, one poor fool has the unfortunate luck to make his indignant opinion known just as the others are finally starting to quieten down:

“But the Avengers-!”

Tony slams his palm against the lectern and the noise cuts out.

(he pretends not to notice the charred outline of his hand on the wood)

“The Avengers,” he says, in a tone that only the very kind would not call a hiss, and reporters and journalists are seldom kind, “forfeited their right to be considered in my decision-making process when they refused to respect the decisions made by 117 countries around the globe.”

Tony sees the man shrink away, but whether it is from his words or his golden-tinged glare as his heartrate inevitably spikes and rouses Extremis, he can’t be sure. The others seem to be bursting with questions, though, and Tony nips that in the bud before they have a chance to derail this conference any further.

“And, since we’re already on the subject, I will also no longer be financing the Avengers Initiative. Now, I believe I said I’d open the floor to questions after I’ve said my bit.” He points out, and watches smugly as the half-open mouths snap shut.

“Wonderful. Now, I’ll be retiring Iron Man, yes, but not fully. Should the Accords Council notify me of any emergency that cannot be handled by conventional forces or any other enhanced – and not – persons who have signed the Accords, I will still get in the suit and do my job to the best of my ability.”

Tony notices more than one journalist hastily scribble something out, most likely a question related to his sense of duty or some other nonsense that he’s just thoroughly shot down.

“However, in my newly-increased spare time, I plan to once again step up to the mantle of Stark Industries’ Head of R&D. It is with this in mind that I would like to make three announcements. Firstly, I’d like to point out that having superhero teams on-demand to fight malevolent gods or alien overlords is pointless when the real danger to mankind’s continued survival is man itself. SI will therefore refocus its not inconsiderable efforts on developing reliable and affordable clean energy for all, and lobbying those most at fault for the climate emergency we find ourselves in to step up and help undo the damages they caused.”

He barely pauses to breathe before he continues.

“Secondly, Stark Industries will be debuting a line of prosthetics in the coming fall. The focus will also be reliability and affordability. Too many veteran amputees cannot afford basic, functioning prosthetics. Though, to be fair, how could they, considering some of them can’t even afford a roof over their heads?” he pauses for a moment, lets the dust his question kicks up settle, then adds, “The market sample for the first line of prosthetics will be veteran amputees. Everything – production, testing, marketing and participant renumeration – will be funded by SI. Afterwards, if the project is successful, we will begin production for other demographics.”

“Why the delay?” Someone from the crowd calls out, and Tony barely resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Why not start on both at the same time?”

“I would once again like to remind you when the proper time for questions is.” He can’t, however, resist snarking. “But I am feeling magnanimous enough to answer with a question of my own: would you really give a forty-something, PTSD-ridden veteran the same prosthetic arm you would to a five-year-old kid who lost his fight with cancer? Forget for a moment the weight considerations, the durability, the danger the owner could cause to themselves and others if the make of the arm was not meticulously tailored to their body mass and just consider aesthetics; colour, material, plating, badassery, the lot. Prosthetics are not a case of ‘mass-produce and sell’. A good prosthetic becomes part of its owner. It has to be personal and it has to be the best, otherwise what’s the point of slapping the Stark Industries logo on it?”

After giving a moment for the scattered laughter his question caused to quieten, he keeps talking.

“As for my final announcement: Stark Industries will henceforth be running an internship programme for high schoolers, and graduate schemes for recent graduates in our offices all over the country. We will also fund income and achievement-based annual scholarships for students considering pursuing STEM subjects at university, with priority for those who would otherwise not have been able to afford it. Further details as well as eligibility criteria will be made available on the SI website following the official press release about the internships and bursaries next week.”

Tony looks out at the roomful of faces staring back at him, all seemingly holding their breath in anticipation of what curveball he’ll throw them next.

“To conclude, SI will dedicate its resources to clean energy and prosthetics for technological developments, and to internships and scholarships for any students who wish to apply and fit the criteria. Now, are there any questions?”

A sea of hands shoots up.

The next twenty minutes are, for the most part, predictable: how will you fund the scholarships? Will you be collaborating with TESLA for the clean energy project? How long can the prosthetics trials be expected to take? and the like, which Tony answers easily.

Then, his PR agent nominates Christine Everhart, and Tony mentally waves hello to the tension headache he can already feel coming on at the mere mention of the woman’s name.

“Mr Stark, I wonder whether you could explain to us why the sudden change of direction? Your decision to abandon weapons manufacturing a decade ago was controversial but understandable, and clean energy had been SI’s field of influence since. But, prosthesis? Scholarships and internships and working with children? Surely, you can understand why that seems like the most out-of-character decision you’ve ever made.”

“I don’t like being pigeonholed, Ms Everhart. Not as the Merchant of Death, and not as Iron Man. Why prosthetics? Short answer, because I can. I’m good at building things. Why scholarships? Why not? Is it really so bad to want to provide opportunities for deserving students?”

Tony wonders whether Christine will take the bait he so thoughtfully laid out. ‘Is it really so bad’ is a mousetrap waiting to snap, only Christine seems to be confused about who the mouse is in this scenario.

“It’s an admirable goal, Mr Stark, albeit a suspiciously-timed one. This veer towards prosthetics and funding young, ‘deserving’ minds could be seen as you trying to garner favour with the public, alongside the millions you anonymously donated to rebuilding the city of Sokovia, the airport in Leipzig and the Messedamm Underpass.”

had indeed made a donation, and he’d intentionally not gone through FRIDAY’s secure servers to keep it properly anonymous. He’d counted on someone finding out, but Everhart picking up on it was icing on the cake.

Tony makes sure to don an expression of carefully-masked surprise. He

Hook.

Anonymous donations are called so for a reason, Ms Everheart.” He sighs resignedly, letting his shoulders slump just the right amount while he watches the other reporters snap to attention once they catch on to Everhart’s announcement.

Really, Tony couldn’t have engineered this better if he’d tried.

“Can you fault me for being resourceful?” she asks absently, pen poised over her pad almost threateningly. “It’s my job, after all.”

“That it is.” Tony agrees easily, then folds his arms over the lectern and leans forward. “But despite everything you said, I didn’t hear a question, Ms Everhart.”

Line.

“The question, Mr Stark,” Christine replies, not quite rushing, but Tony can see the gears in her head turning as she works out how best to undermine him, “is whether you can, with a clean conscience, assure us all that your new interest in ‘reliable and affordable’ and funding scholarships and graduate programs isn’t just an elaborate publicity stunt?”

Tony smiles.

And sinker.

“Of course I can’t.” he says simply, eyes trained on Christine, and he swears that he’ll have FRIDAY print her expression and frame it to hang in his lab, because the face Everhart pulls at his easy admission is priceless.

“I can, however, with a ‘clear conscience’, as you said, tell you that it is at least half motivated by PR reasons.” When the reporters, and Christine in particular, still look like gaping fish, Tony snorts.

“Come on, would you really have believed me if I said it was all out of the ‘goodness of my heart’?” he asks rhetorically. “According to you and some of your cohort, I don’t have one.”

He lets the claim sink in before he continues.

“But does it really matter, in the end? People will still receive state-of-the-art prosthesis which they will be able to afford. Kids from underprivileged backgrounds will still receive full rides to the universities of their choice, judged, for once, by their academic achievement and potential instead of the size of daddy’s wallet, their gender, or the colour of their skin. Will I still profit off it? Yes. So what?”

In the silence that follows, only one hand dares go up.

“But, how will you manage this? How will you fund it, produce it, organise it – just, how?”

“How?” Tony echoes, a smile blooming on his face. He spreads his arms out, much like he had ten (sixteen!) years ago when showing off the Jericho missiles, and lets his inner showman shine through.

I am Tony Stark, that’s how.”

He steps back from the podium and manages to catch his PR agent’s succinct ‘this press conference is now concluded’ before he stops registering anything more and lets himself be.

.

He ‘comes to’ in the back of a car. His car, by the looks of it, and Happy’s characteristic forehead in the rear-view mirror. He’s buckled in and the cold sweat that normally accompanies a panic attack is absent, so he apparently just spaced out while his feet carried him to his car on autopilot following the press conference.

He becomes aware of a buzzing in his pocket, and a second later, he produces his phone, swiping it unlocked to the sight of a message that reads;

-hey Mechanic! that press conf looked vicious – u doing ok?

The number is not one he recognises, but only one person ever called him that.

“FRIDAY,” he taps his earpiece twice, activating the microphone. “is this Harley?”

‘Appears so, Boss.’ His girl chirps in his ear, and Tony taps out a response before he can think twice on it.

-Keener? How did you get my number?

-found ur ai in my tech, told her i wouldn’t fry her codes if she gave me your number.

Tony ignores the flash of hot-cold that steals his breath away when he reads ‘fry her codes’, the memory of what Ultron had done and coming in to find the equivalent of JARVIS’ corpse still too fresh in his mind.

-As if you could touch my FRIDAY.

He texts back instead, reverting to his tried and tested bravado in the face of the chill of fear.

-u seem to forget whose tech im working with

-also, u evaded the q

Goddamn that brat.

Tony scowls, then his resolve firms. “Alright, that’s it.” He says out loud, and presses the ‘call’ icon by Harley’s number.

Ewww,” a voice comes through the speaker barely two seconds after the ring, “who even calls anymore? It’s the 21st century and you’re Tony Stark, can’t you like, project in here?

The relief at hearing the kid’s voice (not a kid anymore, but not Snapped, here, alive-!) is almost overwhelming. “I-what?” he stumbles for a second, then finally, his brain gets with the programme. “What have you got against phonecalls?”

I’m Gen-Z.” the kid replies, like that’s enough. (it is, because Peter did the same, so Tony learnt what it meant and became fluent in memes and now-!)

“I’m gonna pretend that what you said makes sense. Anyway, since you were so worried, I’m fine, kid. Been doing the media shebang longer than you’ve been alive, I’ve got this.”

Yeah, but that was back when your biggest worry was who saw your sex tape, not how many people saw your old teammate shove his shield through your chest.” Harley points out, blunt as all hell, and Tony’s chest constricts at the reminder.

He can both feel and hear the way his next breath rattles, stutters, then quickens.

Wow, kid.” He manages weakly, leaning against the window to ground himself with the feeling of cool glass against his flushed face. “You seriously have a way with words.”

Aw, man, don’t tell me I triggered you again?” the kid whines, though he sounds a little guilty. “Alright, uh, breathe, Tony, that’s kinda important. I dunno what counts you should do it to, but if you tell me, I can talk you through it? Wait, no, you probably can’t speak if you can’t breathe.

The run-on sentences grow more panicked than guilty.

C’mon, Mechanic, you can’t take over the world if you asphyxiate right now.

That, at least, seems to shake Tony’s panic long enough to manage a breathless laugh. “Take over the world?” he echoes incredulously. “What gave you that idea?”

I mean, that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?” Harley snipes back, and Tony can hear the relief in the kid’s voice. “Clean energy, prosthetics, investing in new generations? If you ever decided to become a baddie, this would be, like, the best villain origin story ever. You’d have the whole world like a frog in a pot of water and they wouldn’t even realise you’re raising the temperature until they boiled to death.

Tony snorts, and his panic attack subsides fully. “That is the single weirdest metaphor I’ve ever heard. The hell, kid?”

“Technically, it’s a simile.”

Technically, I don’t care. I went to MIT not Yale.”

With how long ago that was, it’s a shocker you can still remember the name of the university.” Harley deadpans, and Tony feels a grin tug at his lips as he fiddles with the AC.

“And here I was, about to say I missed you enough to invite you over.” He pauses, and when silence greets his words, he adds, “That means can it, short stuff. Unless you don’t want to find out what a state-of-the-art lab fit for a billionaire looks like.”

In case you didn’t notice when you unceremoniously broke in, but I’m not exactly in a place where I can afford a trip to NY.”

“And in case you didn’t notice, I’m a billionaire, kiddo. I’ll deal with that.” Then, it feels like a lightbulb goes off over his head and he adds, “Plus, you could meet my other genius kid. Establish your dominance as the original or whatever you kids do these days.”

Aw, you think of me as your kid?” Harley coos, tone saccharine-sweet even over the phone, and Tony balks.

“Figure of speech.” He denies immediately. “Freudian slip. ‘My’ as in, SI intern. And ‘other’ as in, another kid. Definitely not another kid of mine. Shut up, Keener.”

But Harley just keeps making those mocking, nonsensical noises into the phone, and Tony has half a mind to whistle really loudly.

Awww, Tony, you say the sweetest things!

“Y’know what, I suddenly think the thousand-odd miles between us is a very good distance. Ignore what I said.”

“And miss the chance to meet my brother from another mother? Nuh-uh, no way. I’ve got Spring Break at some point in March, I’ll come then.”

“You’re a menace.”

“By that logic, you are too. We’re-!”

“-connected, yeah, I remember. Brat.”

Your brat.”

“Don’t push your luck, Keener.”

“Me? Never. Anyway, toodles, Tony – I’ll see ya in March!”

Then, Tony is left listening to the answer tone, and it takes a few seconds for the realisation to register.

“The brat hung up on me!”

.

In light of his press conference, SI stocks skyrocket.

The outpouring of goodwill is staggering, and for once, the naysayers are well and truly drowned out by it. Despite the fact that he all but engineered it, Tony is still blown away by it.

There is a witchhunt out for the Rogues. The first time Tony sees the hashtag #teamcrap, he snorts coffee from his nose. The Accords are online and easily accessible, and with Ross’ influence diminishing with every incriminating file and video and offshore bank account FRIDAY covertly reveals, enhanced persons not just in America but worldwide are signing on.

And Tony is, well…

Tony is iconized.

He becomes the face of the Accords, despite having pulled back from the mantle of Iron Man. His promises of clean energy, prosthetics and investing in the education of future generations win over a big enough chunk of the American populace that Team Cap supporters are made irrelevant.

His frank approach to the journalists and reporters’ questions, something which he used to get crucified for, seems to have endeared him to the public, and the youth especially seems to love his no-nonsense M.O.

Someone makes a gif of his two declarations, ‘I am Iron Man’ and ‘I am Tony Stark’ side by side, and Tony finally understand all those who once accused him of unrepentant narcissism when he stares at the two animations for far longer than can be reasonably justified.

When the scholarships and internships programme, including the eligibility criteria and all the duties and benefits involved goes online, the internet explodes with questions. Tony reads as many as he can, and surprisingly, the vast majority is actually sensible.

There are a few people up in arms about how his programme is just ‘embracing PC culture’ by promoting ‘positive discrimination’ and Tony has words he’d like to say to those people, but the idea of throwing another press conference less than a month after the first one is exhausting to even think about.

He bemoans this to Peter who, surprisingly, has an answer:

“If, um, if Twitter scares you, Mr Stark, then how about a video?” Pete asks during one of their – what are slowly becoming – regular tinkering sessions in the lab.

“Twitter doesn’t scare me, there’s just too few characters to adequately tear someone to shreds. But, video? And it’s Tony, kid.”

“Yeah, you could go live on YouNow or vlive or even Instagram? That way, it’s organic and you can answer all the questions you want, but it’s not as stuffy and rigid as a press conference?”

Tony throws the idea around for a few seconds, considers it from every angle, then, when Peter’s face looks like he’s a step away from taking everything back and hightailing it out of the lab, Tony allows a grin to break through.

“Pete, you’re a genius!” he announces gleefully and reaches up to ruffle Peter’s hair, drawing a squawk from the kid, and the spiderling can’t hide his blushing cheeks fast enough. “I’m gonna need to flag it up with Pep and I'll definitely your help with setting it up, if you’d be willing? Gimme codes and tech any day, but social media is a different language entirely.”

“O-of course Mr- Tony!”

.

Fury curses creatively as the dreaded words ring through the new SHIELD HQ once again.

I am Tony Stark.

The absolute bastard.

What had remained of the definitely-not-HYDRA SHIELD force has been laying low and going over the new developments in the world of the enhanced, only to find out that, since his miraculous recovery, Stark has been playing the field like it was a goddamn fiddle.

Fury has no proof, but he knows that video of Rogers bashing Stark’s chest in – and wasn’t that a fucking surprise – was leaked by Stark’s very own goddamn Skynet.

But public opinion is a fickle thing, and Stark’s been manipulating it, to his favour and detriment alike, since the cradle, and now he’s made his stance and emulates the very principle Rogers had always appealed to:

Plant yourself like a tree and say ‘no, you move’.

Only Stark is doing this so much more efficiently than Rogers ever could, and the world is eating out of the palm of his hand.

I will no longer be financing the Avengers Initiative.

Fury had balked at the implications of that, especially when a quick, albeit thorough search revealed that Stark had indeed put up accounts of how much he’d spent out of pocket for the Avengers, easily accessible but not obviously so, to the general public. Everything is broken down and summed up; from housing costs, to metal for Widow and Hawkeye’s weapons, to improvements to Rogers’ suit, to the whole shitstorm of chasing for the Winter Soldier which Romanoff and Rogers had used Stark’s money for.

And that was without even mentioning the reparations he’s paid and still pays for the rebuilding of the countries destroyed by Avengers activities.

“Sir?” Hill asks, inquisitive and forward thinking as always, though for once, Fury doesn’t know what to tell her. “What does this mean?”

And isn’t that a loaded question.

But he knows what she’s really asking; what does it mean for SHIELD, already so discredited, already weak after Rogers and Romanoff’s info-dump that cost them hundreds of agents, to not only lose their main benefactor but also to reveal that they had need for a benefactor in the first place?

It means shit has hit the proverbial fan.

It means Rogers fucked up.

It means Romanoff – his best – miscalculated.

It means…

“It means,” he says at last, deciding against voicing what they all knew already.

“It means that Atlas just shrugged.”

.

Shuri considers the man giving the press conference on one of her screens, then discreetly pulls up The Message on her closed-circuit, personal tablet.

It's one of the few secrets she's kept from her brother, and one of three she's ever kept from her mother.

Still, the fact that she'd had to decode the message from zeros and ones and found the mentioned blueprints embedded so deep into the code for one of her other projects, she only noticed it was there during a paranoia-induced comb-through all her data spoke more of its validity than if the man had called her on Skype.

Honoured Head of Wakandan R&D/Princess Shuri,

The first line reads, and Shuri nearly dropped a very expensive gadget for T'Challa's suit the first time she read it. Nobody outside of Wakanda knew of her unofficial-official designation.

Not even the Rogues.

I offer this for him as an olive branch, and for you as my condolences for the righteous headache.

Do with it what you will.

She has no doubt that her interpretation of the tone and the stress patterns is correct. After all, there is only one "him" who could be in need of a new prosthetic arm in Wakanda, and there's only one person who fits the descriptor of "righteous headache".

Barnes and Rogers.

'Do with it what you will' - that's blanket permission if she ever saw it. But...somehow, Shuri is less than inclined to exploit it.

Instead, she leaves the lab and retires to her private quarters, and once there, pulls up everything she can find on Tony Stark.

The first few years, she gets through torn between amusement, respect, and distaste. The man fit the self-imposed designation of Genius-Billionaire-Playboy-Philanthropist to a T, and she reckons managing to talk about quantum physics while smashed off his face should be on Stark’s CV.

Then, around 2009, something changes.

Afghanistan. The internet tells her. Obadiah Stane.

Iron Man is born, and Tony Stark diminishes.

She reads about the Ten Rings, about Hammer and Vanko, about AIM, about Killian, about the Mandarin, and HYDRA and SHIELD.

(dead, disgraced, dead, dead, dead, disgraced, broken-!)

She watches Iron Man fly the nuke through the portal then fall, down, down, down. She watches the rescue from the plane, the coordinated efforts – watches the rescue of the President and the conference that followed. She reads about Sokovia and the Accords and watches the video of the Captain America shoving his vibranium shield through a piece of technology so advanced it’d make Wakanda proud, and winces as America’s pride and joy leaves a comrade dying. She is also 98% convinced that, if Stark had been trying, it wouldn’t have been him that was left for dead in that bunker.

Five hours after she began, Shuri comes to three conclusions:

  1. Her brother was an idiot.
  2. The Rogue Avengers would pay. (She would make sure of it.)
  3. She wants to meet Tony Stark more than she wants a Starbucks in Wakanda.

But for now, at 2am and as the sister of a King, there is only one thing for her to do.

Shuri logs onto her almost-forgotten Twitter account and finally posts her first tweet:

 

outdated meme connoisseur @superiorsibling

#teamtonystark

Chapter Text

Less than 24 hours after Peter floated the idea of doing a ‘live’ video, Tony has an Instagram account and the latest model of the StarkPhone camera – designed specifically to be better than the iPhone X camera which would come out in a few months, if Tony remembers correctly – aimed at his face.

Getting Pepper to agree was surprisingly easy, as was pitching the idea to his PR agent, who, with no small degree of schadenfreude, told him during the call that she’s glad he’s extending his ‘outreach’ to the ‘youth’, but that he’s limited to one swear word per minute, which Tony found justifiably hilarious.

He lets Peter be in charge of the whole social media shebang, and the kid is yet to disappoint, not that Tony thinks he ever would.

His ‘insta handle’ is @youknowwhoiam, complete with a picture of Tony from that one award ceremony he’d asked Fury to bully Senator Stern into headlining, impeccable suit and peace sign thrown up, all chosen by his spiderling.

Tony had cackled then ruffled Peter’s hair and congratulated him on a job well-done when he was shown the end result.

They’re in the lab now, and Tony’s decked out in one of his many AC/DC t-shirts, sans motor oil stains though, his hair semi-tamed (read: also no motor oil) and ready to take on the world of social media.

Technically.

It helps that his account was validated almost immediately after creation. Peter had taken a stealthy ‘candid’ shot when Tony wasn’t paying attention and promptly uploaded it, and it was apparently good enough to earn Tony that sweet blue tick by his name and 12 million followers in just as many hours, not just breaking but obliterating any and all previous follower records.

The fact that, in the photo, he’s animatedly berating Dum-E, who’s once again proudly donning his ‘Dunce’ cap, which apparently shows Tony's 'human side' just sweetens the whole thing.

He lets Peter take care of announcing when exactly his livestream will take place, and from there, they tinker and chat the hours away until the time ticks down to five minutes before showtime, and Tony settles comfortably on his stool and waits.

“Any last words of wisdom to offer, Pete?” he asks teasingly, and Peter startles from where he was fiddling with his web-shooting mechanism, then hesitantly grins at Tony.

“Don’t use too many big words.” He replies, tone almost relaxed to also be called teasing, and Tony revels in the comfortable atmosphere they’ve managed to iron out, as well as the visible jump in Peter’s confidence when in his presence since their first meeting in this timeline.

“And, uh, try not to get overwhelmed by the amount of questions? People love to spam.”

Tony nods, appreciative, glad that for all that he was joking, Peter’s advice is actually helpful.

“Okay. Layman terms and don’t drown under the attention. I can do that.” He agrees, and some of the earlier hesitance fades away from Peter’s grin, and the look on his face reminds Tony too much of his vindictive PR agent to be entirely comfortable.

Uh-oh.

“That’s great, Mr- Tony, because your five minutes are up.” And he presses some white button on the screen that Tony doesn’t see and suddenly, the image brightens, and names start appearing on the bottom half of the screen.

Well. Never let it be said that Tony can’t give a good show.

“Hello everyone! Is this thing on? Can you hear me?” he greets, and doesn’t even finish asking before hundreds of variations of ‘yes!!!’ and ‘hi!!’ and ‘ohmygod its tony stark!!!’ start flooding in.

“Great!” he waves at the phone, grins at Peter who is watching attentively, though keeping carefully out of the camera’s line of sight.

“I wanted to answer some of the questions that sprung up online, but I realised I’d rather step on a LEGO than call another press conference.” He shoots the phone his best, most charming smile, and laughs at the hundreds of heart-emojis and assorted ‘lol’ and ‘lmaos’ that pop up, alongside some mildly concerning declarations of ‘my son!!’ and ‘look at him! such a sweet cinnamon bun!’, which he breezes right over.

Ignorance is bliss, after all.

“Luckily, my intern – the original, and the one that actually inspired this internship and scholarship idea, so thank him, please – had the genius idea of, well, this!” Tony announces and watches as Peter’s eyes widen in surprise, and he laughs at the pink tinge that takes up residence on the teen’s cheeks. He glances back at the chat, sees more exclamation points and variations of ‘thanks mysterious stranger!’ which make him laugh, and takes a stealthy breath.

Then, he gets down to business.

.

Peter stands out of the range of the camera’s eye and can’t get rid of the grin on his face for the life of him.

If anyone had told him two years back, even after being bitten, that Tony Stark – Iron Man – would come to his shed of a flat and ask him to fight Captain America, he’d have laughed hysterically and stuttered his way through telling them to get their heads checked out.

Even later, after the fight at the airport and after Siberia, he’d been prepared to go back to no-name Peter Parker and the friendly-neighbourhood-Spiderman shtick. Only Mr Stark appeared to have different plans, ones not really concerned with Peter’s superhero-ing and more with, well.

Peter himself.

Getting to spend Saturday afternoons tinkering just for shits and giggles in Mr Stark’s personal lab fit for a billionaire is THE most insane part of Peter’s life, and he can stick to walls now.

Still, there’s still a canyon between being a sidekick/intern/on-call superhero/Mr Stark’s-kinda-protégé and this.

Being given free rein to set up Mr Stark’s Instagram account, coaching the man through using the ‘live’ feature and the kind of audience that’s likely to tune in to this particular mode of communication, or getting to hear the man grouch about being a ‘tech genius’, then panic for 0.2 seconds when he accidentally sets the camera on the boomerang feature before he figures out how to change it back – in other words, receiving a free show to Tony’s reactions to everything Peter could think of from the millennial and Gen-Z zeitgeist, and, well.

His only regret is not bringing popcorn.

(there's an errant thought bouncing around in his head that marvels at how familial the whole situation seems, before Peter forcefully stamps it out and imagines pouring bleach on the part of his brain that came up with it. It’s just too ridiculous to even entertain, right?)

He wrenches his focus back to Mr Stark, tunes in to the man steering the chat back from talk of space debris and the SpaceX programme with a not-at-all-subtle-but-somehow-still-effective ‘So I’d like to address some of the questions about the internships!’ and almost jumps at the conspirational grin Tony shoots him over the edge of the StarkPhone when he says ‘internships’.

(…right?!)

In the end, the liveshow lasts over an hour, and by the end, even Mr Stark, usually so unflappable, looks tired.

When they’re both sure that the audio and video are safely disconnected, Tony folds his arms over his worktable and lets his head thump down on them with a tired groan.

“Ugh.” Is all Peter catches, and he can’t quite stifle the snort that escapes him at the reaction.

That catches his mentor’s attention and Tony raises his head just high enough to shoot him the stink-eye. “Laughing at my misfortune now, Parker?” he quips, and instead of backpedalling or trying to offer excuses, Peter shoots back:

“Seeing how we’re in your multi-billion dollar lab, I don’t think ‘misfortune’ is quite the word you’re looking for.”

He has a split-second to feel mortified when Tony just blinks, but then a bright grin spreads over the man’s face, the type that makes him look ten years younger than the already youthful appearance granted by Extremis, and Peter breathes out a sigh of relief.

“I’m feeling attacked.” Tony replies after a beat, tiredness forgotten, hand going dramatically over his heart. “In my own home, by my protégé as well. The indignity.”

In that moment, Peter decides to hell with it and goes for broke.

“It wouldn’t be the first time you’re attacked in your own home by somebody whom you voluntarily gave your address.” He shoots back, and Tony’s grin gains a near-maniacal quality.

“That’s it. I’m introducing you to Platypus, properly this time. You’ll get along splendidly.”

They banter back and forth for a bit after that, both adamantly not checking social media, phones on mute by mutual, if unspoken, consensus. By nine pm, when Peter’s getting ready to leave after a meal of fantastic Italian food and an evening of chatty tinkering, Tony stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Kid, I know it’s not even been half a year since I dragged you half-way across the world, but…goddamnit.” Tony trails off, raises his other hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, and breathes in deeply, before meeting Peter’s eyes again.

“But I care. And I know I told you that Happy is always there for you to contact, but… I’d like to extend that.”

Before Peter quite realises what’s happening, there’s a phone being pressed into his hand, the same model that Tony was using for his liveshow, and he knows instinctively it’s worth more than everything in his and May’s flat put together.

“May and Happy’s numbers are already programmed in.” Tony informs him, then stares a few inches over his shoulder before seemingly getting his act together and meeting his gaze. “As is my personal cell. If you ever need anything – money, help with a bully, help with a bad guy in the field – I want you to call me. I promise I’ll answer.”

And Peter – stupefied and more than a little emotional – can only tighten his grip on the phone, and, when that isn’t grounding enough, he meets Tony’s earnest gaze for long enough to make sure that he won’t be defenestrated for what he’s about to do, before throwing his arms around the man’s waist in a hug that feels like coming home.

And Tony hugs back.

.

They fight Vulture, in the end, together, because Peter calls him this time and Tony manages to come and help him on time and Vulture is crushed by the very building he brought crashing down on Peter before.

He doesn’t get to give Peter the ‘I wanted you to be better’ talk, but this time, he doesn’t want to, because he knows that he, himself, is good and he knows Peter will always be better anyway, that’s just who he is and how he works, and making the kid think he can’t depend on anyone is not what he wants this time, oh no.

For some reason, gods above help him, he wants to be there for the kid. Wants to be dependable.

(god, he’s getting old)

And then, Peter proves that he really is insisting on following exactly in Tony’s footsteps, because not even a week after defeating Vulture, he swings by the Tower, a body slung over his shoulders, in a suit so red Tony momentarily has a heart-attack because oh no, but then he spots horns on top of the helmet and relaxes momentarily, earlier trepidation replaced by a more familiar what the fuck?

“Okay, kid, you’ve got thirty seconds to explain why you’re suddenly bringing strays home.” He orders, scrunching up his nose when he catches the guy Peter shrugs off and his hand touches something sticky. “Injured strays, as well.”

“I ended up chasing a guy all the way to the Hudson River and that’s not far from where Mr Daredevil patrols so he helped me out but then the bad guy had backup and outnumbered us and Mr Daredevil got shot Mr Stark and I couldn’t-!”

“Are you trying to tell me you carried this guy all the way from Hudson to my tower?!” Tony demands, already knowing the answer when Peter goes suspiciously quiet. “Nevermind. Of course you did. Right, help me take him to medbay and I’ll see if I can’t patch him up a bit.”

Peter brightens immediately, smile shining with gratitude and relief and easily picks ‘Mr Daredevil’ back up and hoists him to medical.

Once there, it takes Tony under fifteen minutes to have FRIDAY scan their visitor for any unseen injuries, dig out the bullet that had brought ‘Mr Daredevil’ down, clean the wound, stitch and dress it and link the man up to an IV.

He makes the mistake of meeting Peter’s wide eyes when he’s done cleaning the scalpel and tongs, and his raised eyebrow must speak for itself because the kid eventually manages:

“That was scarily efficient, Mr Stark.”

Tony snorts. “Who do you think patched me up when I first started flying around as Iron Man?” he asks rhetorically. “No one. It was me, or a one-way ticket to a nice case of sepsis or internal bleeding most of the time. And I thought I told you that it’s Tony.”

Peter nods, sharp and a little dazed, then seems to steel himself and steps closer. One step, then two, then he meets Tony’s gaze and, when he’s close enough, throws his arms around Tony’s waist in the second hug in as many weeks, and just like before, Tony doesn’t even entertain the thought of holding himself back.

“I’m sorry, Tony.” Peter mumbles into his shoulder, and that- that simple empathy hits Tony harder than any half-assed letter or agreement to ‘put things behind us’ against insurmountable odds, because Peter doesn’t follow it up with a ‘but’ or a ‘you brought it upon yourself’. He simply recognises how much Tony’s early Iron Man days must’ve sucked, and expresses genuine, no-expectations sympathy.

Tony’s eyes sting and his arms tighten instinctively around the kid’s shoulders.

When Daredevil comes to, that’s how he finds them – somehow, neither had the willpower to let go or ask to be released. He thanks Tony profusely, smiles at Peter, thanks FRIDAY as well once he becomes aware of her presence, and sets off on his merry way with the promise of a no-expiry-date IOU.

Over the next few weeks, ‘Daredevil’ becomes ‘Matt Murdock’, and ‘Matt Murdock’ becomes a ‘friend’, to the point where Tony has no qualms against the friendship going public, once one of their coffee catchups eventually gets papped.

And then, on his way back from a press conference about teaming up with Elon Musk to clean up space debris in a ‘geniuses unite for the better good’ kind of way, FRIDAY gives him the news he’s been waiting for.

Boss, the ‘Let Dumbledore Settle In’ protocol is complete – Doctor Strange has been in the New York Sanctum for a month and he seems to have adjusted to his new responsibilities. Would you like me to try to reach him?’

Tony grins.

“No need, baby-girl. I think it’s time to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in person.”

.

 “Tasha?”

Clint steps into the room, and a familiar sight greets him, twisting the blade of uncertainty even deeper in his chest.

His best friend is perched on the loveseat in front of the TV, legs spread and elbows propped on her knees, staring at the screen with an otherwise scarily blank expression, but Clint can read the even more worrying glint of attentive calculation hiding beneath the surface just fine.

Wakanda hasn’t been kind to their team.

Steve was glum after Barnes’ decision to go into cryo, but Wakandan physicians declared that it was Barnes’ choice and Steve had no say in it and needed to 'butt out'. Which, ouch, but Clint privately thinks that the Dora Milaje would be more than capable of subduing a super soldier, even if said soldier proved to be Captain America, if push came to shove.

Sam was initially awed, then lost, then, when The Video appeared on every news station they had access to, he completely retreated into himself, but not before throwing a few choice words at Steve and his utter refusal to acknowledge Siberia as ‘his fault’. Clint can still hear the damning I don’t follow men who leave their comrades for dead every time he looks at the man who was once The Falcon.

Wanda took to spending more and more time with Steve, and Clint wonders how the Witch doesn’t notice the eagle-eyed, sharp gaze Natasha tracks her every move with. Even Clint’s initial sympathy for the girl had waned in the face of Natasha’s stalwart distrust and distance towards Wanda. Initially, he had no idea why his partner was acting so cold, but trusting Tasha had never let him down before, and after broaching the subject one night, he very swiftly and decisively jumped to Tasha’s side.  

And Tasha herself? Clint met her when she’d been fresh out of the Red Room. He’d seen her grow and change and open up, had seen it first-hand. And now, in Wakanda, surrounded by – if not friends then at least teammates – Tasha is harder to read than she had been in those early years of their partnership at SHIELD.

The reason?

Even now, it stares at Clint from the screen.

Tony-fucking-Stark.

Clint groans.

“Torturing yourself over Stark again?” he asks rhetorically as he makes his way further into the utilitarian room and carefully shuts the door behind him.

He glances at the screen and has a disconcerting second of doubt as to whether he forgot his hearing aids again, before realising that the sound is, in fact, muted. He sighs, then focuses on what the image is offering: he takes in the press-conference set-up, Stark’s unquestionably more youthful look, no-nonsense attitude, and catches the words ‘space debris’ and ‘global clean-up operation’ then, finally, he shifts his attention to his fellow spy.

“Talk to me, Tash. What do you see?”

After a few seconds, the statue masquerading as his best friend shifts, and those keen green eyes turn to him. Clint can see the few seconds it takes Natasha to decide whether to trust him with whatever’s on her mind before she sighs imperceptibly and offers him a single nod.

Clint takes the invitation for what it is and perches on the pouf, knowing that further prompting will only result in discouraging discussion.

Finally, Tasha speaks.

“Do you ever think we chose wrong?” she asks, a propos nothing, and Clint blinks.

“That depends on which choice you’re referring to.” He replies carefully, but honestly, and is rewarded by the most infinitesimal quirk of a smile.

“This. Here. Leipzig and the Accords.” And Steve. She doesn’t say, but Clint hears it clear as day.

“I think…” Clint offers, then hesitates, because while it’s one thing to entertain these thoughts in the privacy of his own room, when he’s missing his family and regretting coming out of retirement, it’s another thing entirely to voice them out loud, even to Natasha.

“I think we chose hastily. Not necessarily wrong, but without all the facts. Why?” the question at the end is honest but rhetorical – he knows better than to expect an answer from Nat when she’s like this, but he can’t help the instinctive need to know what brought on this bout of introspection.

Nat surprises him.

“Because I profiled him.

As does the complete bewilderment in her voice.

“Yeah?” he offers hesitantly, unsure what to make of the declaration, but it seems like Nat is less talking to him and more at him.

But that’s okay. Clint’s learned how to hear without hearing, he can read between the lines of Natasha’s thought process.

“I studied him for a year. Then New York happened. Then Ultron. Then the Accords. We were almost friends. Then I thought Steve would win and come out on top and I turned on him. And this-!” she grabs the remote and flicks through the channels, and Stark’s face is on eight out of the eleven she scrolls through, “-this is against all the data I’ve ever had on him.”

“How so?”

Natasha turns to look at him, really look, and her expression up-close makes something twist in Clint’s gut. He doesn’t like it.

(it looks too much like fear.)

“He should be spiralling down. Crumbling and pulling apart at the seams, alcoholic and self-destructive. He should be grovelling and finding ways to bring us back, to make us a team, to make us forgive him.” Tasha spits out, her words running onto each other and echoing with a Russian twang Clint hasn’t heard in years, and that little knot in his gut twists some more.

“Instead he’s flourishing. He’s won international acclaim, he’s got the American public wrapped around his little finger, he’s branching out and creating and he’s not alone.

She flicks through the channels to the TV’s saved files and pulls up a still-image of the Iron Man armour flying alongside Spiderman, taking down the villain of the week – the article had dubbed him ‘the Vulture’, and Clint wonders whether there’s a way to prevent any more avian superheroes/villains from cropping up – together. Before he has a chance to ask questions, Tasha switches to the next photo, of Stark laughing next to a man in a maroon suit and a helmet with horns, a visibly unconscious figure to their left and the electric blue of the retractable wrist-repulsor almost concealed by the cuff of Stark’s suit.

Then Natasha flicks through photos of Stark with others – a largely-built man poking his head out of a car window, Potts, Rhodes, an unfamiliar middle-aged brunette, a man with facial hair almost as elaborate as Stark’s and looking like he missed the Harry Potter convention.

All of them laughing. Happy.

“You think we chose wrong.” He summarises, and Natasha’s instant silence says more than her words ever could.

Clint sighs and leans back on his hands, closing his eyes.

“That’s fine.” He reassures her, and knows better than to look at her or make any sign of watching for her reaction. “But it doesn’t explain why you’re suddenly scared of Stark.”

Natasha, in a move more damning than anything she’s said so far, doesn’t even bristle.

Instead, she flicks to one of the channels and turns the volume up.

On the screen, a man in red-tinted sunglasses and a finely-pressed suit is speaking to an interviewer outside the NY Criminal Court –

“Let me check that I heard you right – am I hoping for material boons from my friendship with Dr Stark? Is that your question?” he asks, eyebrow soaring over the rim of his sunglasses, and though his eyes are covered, the rest of his face makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the question.

“No, no I am not. Not only would that be incredibly disrespectful to Tony, but it’s also decidedly not the reason his true friends choose his company. You see, you could drop Tony Stark naked in the middle of the desert, and he’d fly out in a jet made of sand and cactus needles. It’s not his stuff that gives him power, it’s his brain. And that’s something I’m very interested in.”

A stockier man appears by his side, hand rising instinctively to his partner’s elbow, and he side-eyes the interviewer with a smile faker than some of Natasha’s wigs.

“Try using yours. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.” He quips, then steers his companion away, seconds before Nat presses a button and the screen goes dark and silent.

Eventually, Clint tires of the silence that follows, and breaks it. “O…kay?”

Natasha sighs, but she looks a little more human now, though the only emotion Clint can read on her face is tired and wry.

“When he was the Merchant of Death, had he had an ounce more ambition, he could’ve made the superpowers of the world dance in his private puppet show.” Nat murmurs, her eyes clear as glass but equally cold.

“It seems he’s making up for lost time now. He’s got the general public on his side, the WSC, the UN, Rhodes – which gets him the Air Force – Spiderman, that Daredevil character, and most of the governments of the western world."

She turns to look at him, and her gaze is no longer smooth and cool glass, but the sharp and jagged edge of a broken bottle, amd it pierces Clint straight through the heart.

"Our ‘team’ comprises six hostile fugitives and a brainwashed amputee, with not a penny to our names, riding on the goodwill of a king of an isolated country. Does that explain why I’m apprehensive?”

Clint blinks.

Fuck.