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Taking the High Road

Chapter Text

He’s not talking to them.

He hasn’t taken the time since he returned to the Compound where the rest of his team were already waiting for him. It hadn’t been all that long since Siberia, barely even two weeks since T’Challa managed to bulldoze their return to their home. T’Challa had informed him that Tony had been amenable to their return and Steve had seen that as a good sign. If Tony had cut all ties with them then wouldn’t the first place that he started be the Compound itself?

However, when they’d arrived there’d been no sight of the brunet billionaire. It looked like no one had really been there since Clint had arrived to rescue Wanda. In fact, even the giant crater that Wanda had described throwing the Vision down into when he attacked them was still there. Natasha said that it was possible that Tony just hadn’t gotten a chance to get around to fixing it while Clint said that it was Tony throwing a temper tantrum and trying to get attention at best or at worst it was him trying to make Wanda feel bad for having to break out of the Compound when he hadn’t wanted her to.

There was of course no forthcoming answer though, because Tony remained absent from the hallways much to Steve’s frustration and Wanda’s delight. There was a moment when Steve had heard that Tony was returning to the Compound from T’Challa who had passed on the message from the Council meeting that he’d been apart of wherein the Iron Man pilot had mentioned his plan to return to the Compound after the meeting’s conclusion and Steve moved about the kitchen like a man with a mission. He’d prepared a meal, since he knew firsthand that people tended to respond better when food was nearby, and he’d dragged everyone together into the unfixed kitchen in preparation for the team meeting that was well overdue…but Tony had never showed.

Or, more accurately, he had shown up; he just hadn’t shown himself to them. He’d bypassed the front door, choosing instead to fly down to the labs like a teenager sneaking past their parents after curfew.

Steve had figured that he’d allow it just once when it had happened. He’d been disappointed, sure; but he hadn’t pushed it. If Tony felt the need for a little more space without having to drag everything back out into the open then Steve would grant it. It seemed like the least that Steve could do after everything that went down…but soon enough he finds himself wishing that he had pushed. As the days of the next week go by and with no new sightings of the wayward brunet, Steve finds himself worrying more and more about what Tony is doing down there. After all, they all know that Tony really shouldn’t be down in his labs, unsupervised when he’s clearly still smarting from the arguments that landed them all in this place. Not to mention, Steve as a feeling that the whole group returning home after less than a week abroad in Wakanda has to have irritated the billionaire. It’s nice to have friends in high places, a lesson that Steve’s learned many times before this, and T’Challa is a powerful friend to add to that list…especially since there’s a void where Tony used to be since Steve figures that until the other man cools down a bit and has a chance to look at everything logically that he’s not going to help them anytime soon.

When Steve brings up his concerns to the group though about how Tony’s still avoiding them, the reactions he gets are expected but unhelpful. Clint calls it childish while Nat says it will pass. Wanda questioned why anyone was even asking her why she cared about Tony Stark when she clearly couldn’t care less and Sam told Steve that barging in on Tony before he was ready had the potential to cause more harm than good. None of those answers are what Steve needs to hear though, and none of them come up with any sort of plan for getting Tony to come out and face them.

He lets it go for a day or two, going down to the lab doors and bringing sandwiches and various snacks with him, knocking on the door only to be told by FRIDAY each time that he ‘doesn’t have access’ and that ‘Mr. Stark is currently unavailable’ whenever he tries. He leaves the food and each time he returns with more he hopes to see the trays moved or the food gone, but each time everything is left the exact way that he put it there and his shoulders slump. Is FRIDAY even telling Tony that Steve’s here? Or that Steve’s left him anything? Is it possible that the other man doesn’t even know? That this action that the others are taking as an outward sign of aggression is in fact innocent because Tony doesn’t actually know that Steve’s been trying to make amends?

“Leave him alone.” Wanda tells him as she stirs something on the stove. “If he wants to lock himself up down there and rot, I say let him.”

“We need to fix what happened Wanda.” Steve replies to her with a sigh. “We can’t allow a rift like this to continue.”

“If Stark wants to be a child, let him be one.” She informs him before changing the subject and refusing to spend a moment longer talking about their missing member. It’s always been like this between Tony and Wanda. Steve had hoped once upon a time that there would be a comradery that would grow between the two brunets, but it never happened. Tony had refused to apologize for something he ‘didn’t do’, not even for the sake of team cohesion and Wanda had retaliated by refusing to apologize for any ‘accidental’ slip up of her powers that tended to target Tony in some way. Shortly after that, Wanda’s relationship with Vision seemed to be the final straw that solidified their continued hatred of each other after Tony recommended to Vision that dating anyone – especially Wanda – at his ‘young age’ was something that Tony felt he should hold off on.

It had been like a red flag to the rest of the team though. Tony standing in the way of love because of his belief that he owned Vision and his hatred of Wanda. They had all rallied behind Wanda, approving of the internal romance since it was rather adorable to watch progress and Tony had eventually given up when Vision himself had asked Tony to stay out of it. Wanda had always taken that situation as proof of her victory over Tony and her relationship with the Vision had prospered ever since while Tony’s and Vision’s had faltered.

Said android who has returned to the Compound with them and who has already forgiven and forgotten, rekindling his relationship with Wanda even as Steve notices he avoids the hole in the kitchen. Steve asks T’Challa if it’s possible to get it fixed but the king informs him that the Compound is a Stark Property and therefore, he can make no changes or alterations to it without the owner’s consent. Said owner who has refused to answer any of his calls or interact with him, which is news to Steve because he didn’t know that Tony and T’Challa were having a fight as well.

“He doesn’t like knowing how easily we can replace him.” Clint offers up as the reason when Steve tells the rest of them that night over dinner and Steve sighs as he sees the Vision glance down in the direction of the labs. Tony of course, makes no appearance.

The final straw eventually comes, when Steve finally convinces Vision to just go down to the labs and make sure that Tony is alright and that he knows that they’ve wanted to talk to him since Steve’s not sure that FRIDAY is passing on the messages. Vision agrees and attempts to go down there, before he returns to them and informs them that he had no ability to phase through the walls, a new security feature that Tony must have installed at some point, and that FRIDAY had also taken away Vision’s clearance to enter the inner sanctum of it’s creator as well. That finally got everyone worried about the whole thing, almost as much as Steve had been leading up to it.

“We need to go down there and figure out what he’s doing.” Clint says, crossing his arms. “If he’s locking Vision out? Then you know it’s bad.”

“I agree with Clint.” Nat says and Steve feels like pumping a fist in the air. “This has gone on too long now and now Tony’s crossed a line, whether he meant to or not.”

“This is Stark.” Wanda says with a roll of her eyes. “He meant to.”

“I don’t know.” Sam says uncertainly. “I still think that it’s a bad idea to try and storm the gates of Tony Stark’s lab. I mean…this is the guy who is the world’s number one weapons designer. Do we really want to test that right now? Give him the chance to say ‘oops, they triggered my defense protocols. My bad’?”

“We could cut the power.” Clint points out and Nat shakes her head.

“No go. Tony’s got a separate ARC system for the labs. I have no doubts that even if the entire city of New York lost power he’d be just fine down there.”

“We’ve got to do something.” Steve says. “For all we know he could be hurt down there.”

“Or, much more likely, doing something he doesn’t want us to know about.” Wanda replies and Steve runs a hand through his hair.

“Let’s try and play this Tony’s way.” Nat says. “Reach out to Ross. See if we can get the Council to weigh in on Tony’s behavior.”

“…yeah, okay.” Steve says with a nod. “I’ll see what Ross has to say.”

+++

What Ross ends up having to say is nothing that Steve wants to hear.

“The Compound is Stark’s property.” Ross points out, twiddling his thumbs. “Not just that, the labs are patented and protected Stark Industries locations. Even if Mr. Stark were behaving in a way that the Avengers or the Council were concerned about, he has every right to do whatever he wishes in those locations. It would take a lot of effort to get a court order, and let me be clear no judge will give one, to try and allow some kind of search of Mr. Stark’s work lab.”

“But what if he’s-”

“It’ll never happen. Many people have tried to break into his labs using the law and none have succeeded. If Mr. Stark wishes to remain separate from you, then there is nothing that can be done about it. I’m sorry Mr. Rogers.”

“Of course. Sorry to have bothered you Mr. Ross.”

No one is pleased with the information that Steve gives them about his meeting when he comes back. Steve least of all.

+++

Pepper looks annoyed to be seeing him, which surprises Steve a little since she allowed the meeting to take place between the two of them.

“Is there a reason you’ve reached out to me Mr. Rogers?” She asks and there’s something about her tone and mannerism that makes Steve feel like he’s back in the past and in trouble again with one of the nuns.

“I’ve been trying to talk to Tony.” Steve says. “But I can’t seem to catch him.”

“Mr. Stark if you please.” Pepper corrects him. “And Mr. Stark is very busy with several Stark Industries projects as well as a few personal ones.”

“I know that he’s been staying at the Compound.”

“It’s his.” She retorts. “Your point?”

“…how hard is it to let us come down or for him to come up for even just five minutes?”

“Mr. Rogers.” Pepper says and she sounds so calm and yet so disgusted with him. “Mr. Stark is a very busy man. Having a job will do that, not that you seem to understand that concept these days.” Steve goes to argue against her but the look she gives him snaps his jaw shut. “Whatever Mr. Stark is doing and wherever he choses to go is none of your concern nor is it any of your business. You are not his keeper; you are not his business partner and you are not his friend.” She says it all like it’s just the truth and Steve wonders if that’s truly what Tony believes now. That Steve isn’t his friend. Nothing could be further from reality.

“Ms. Potts please. I just want to talk to him, even if just for five minutes.”

“A lot of people want ‘just five minutes’ of his time, Mr. Rogers.” Pepper retorts. “His time is very valuable. If he wishes to speak with you then trust me, he will do so. Other than that, I see no reason why you’re here. I’m not Mr. Stark’s secretary anymore. If you want a meeting, schedule one with FRIDAY.”

“FRIDAY won’t schedule one.”

“Then take that as the clear answer that it is.” Pepper says. “And have a good day. Some of us have work to do.”

+++

The next time it becomes a major issue isn’t even two days later when an attack happens in Central Park. Steve and the rest of the Avengers assemble, but Iron Man stays mysteriously absent. No matter how many times Steve tried to tell FRIDAY to pass on the message that Iron Man was needed, the computer program just continued to relay the message that ‘Mr. Stark is currently unavailable’.

“This is a problem Mr. Ross.” Steve says at the emergency meeting with the Council after they finish Avenging and return to the Compound. “Tony refused to arrive and do his part as the Iron Man pilot.”

“He told you this himself?” Ross asks, sounding surprised and Steve shakes his head.

“No, he refuses to allow any communication between us. Opting instead to force us to use FRIDAY who will not pass on any messages.” Steve says and T’Challa steeples his fingers.

“Captain Rogers has a point. This was an approved Avengers outing. Mr. Stark should have been present unless there were extenuating circumstances that prevented it.” T’Challa glances around. “He should also be present and yet I do not see him here.”

“These meetings aren’t mandatory.” Ross reminds T’Challa. “If Mr. Stark chooses to not be present there is no recourse against that choice.”

“But there should be some kind of recourse against this whole situation.” Natasha points out. “This weakens the Avengers Initiative, which is the purview of this Council.” Ross takes a moment before he decides to attempt to call Tony and see if they might get his comments on the entire thing.

Steve sits forward the moment that the call picks up. What he sees though isn’t the world’s most eligible bachelor, but instead some teenager.

“Good evening Council members. Avengers.” The young man says. “How may I help you today?” Ross gives the young boy a confused look before glancing at all of them and seeing similar ones on each of their faces.

“…we’re calling for Mr. Stark?”

“Mr. Stark is currently unavailable right now, but you can talk to me. I speak with Mr. Stark’s full authority.” The kid says and Clint snorts.

“Sure, whatever you say kid.”

‘Mr. Keener has full authorization to speak for Mr. Stark, Mr. Barton.’ FRIDAY’s voice comes over the call and they all stare at the kid who looks like he’s fighting against giving them a smug look and slightly failing at it.

“We were hoping to speak to Mr. Stark.” T’Challa tries and the kid – Mr. Keener? – shakes his head.

“As I said before, Mr. Stark is currently unavailable. I can attempt to assist you though.”

“We were concerned as to a lack of Mr. Stark’s involvement with the Avengers incident earlier.” T’Challa says and the kid nods.

“I see, the one in Central Park yes?” He asks and he gets some nods. “Well I can answer that for you. According to the threat matrix tentatively determined upon by the Council, a full Avengers response would not have been approved or necessary for the event in the park. As such, Iron Man and War Machine were not tapped as necessary combatants.” Keener replies, and his manner makes Steve think of Pepper in that meeting. “Since the rest of the Avengers team was on site, there was no immediate need for either Mr. Stark’s or Colonel Rhodes’ participation in that battle.”

“I see.” Ross says slowly, clearly still on unsure footing with the teenager on the screen. “Will we be seeing Mr. Stark in an Avengers situation anytime soon?”

“If the situation calls for it, then I would say yes. As you well know, Mr. Stark is doing his upmost to remain within the constraints of his agreement with the Council when it comes to any potential ‘vigilante’ situations.”

“And we thank him for that.” Ross says and Keener nods.

“Is there anything else you need Council member?”

“…no…no I think that’s it.”

“Very well. Have a good day.” The kid ends the call and each of them look at each other with confused bafflement. What the actual hell?

+++

“Who is this ‘Mr. Keener’?” Clint asks and Natasha sighs.

“That’s the name of the young boy that Stark met during the Mandarin event.” She says. “I knew that he’d taken him under his wing as a protégé, but I don’t know what any of that was.”

“How old is he?” Steve asks and Natasha shrugs her shoulders.

“Don’t know, I’d guess about fourteen or fifteen.”

“And Stark has him playing mediator for him. What an ass.” Clint snaps. “That kid shouldn’t be having to deal with Stark’s messes.”

“Stark will throw anyone under the bus if he can get away with it.” Wanda says and Steve sighs. He heads back down to the lab’s entrance and knocks on the door. FRIDAY gives him the same answer as he’s gotten since day one and he runs his hand through his hair.

“I just want to speak with him.”

Mr. Stark is not currently available’ FRIDAY says without even the smallest hint of remorse that Steve knows Tony can program his machines with.

“Well when is he going to be available?” Steve asks and there’s a pause.

‘Unknown.’

“What if I want to make a meeting with him?”

‘Mr. Stark’s schedule is currently booked.’

“When is it open?”

‘If you’d like I can make you an appointment at the next available opening.’

“Please.”

‘Very well. You’re scheduled in for Thursday the twentieth…. Two years from now. I will be sure to mark it in your calendar as well.’

Steve figures he should have seen that coming.

+++

“Steve! Steve come quick!” Nat’s voice calls out and Steve immediately drops his book and rushes over to where she is.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. The training area has Tony marked down for being in it right now.” She says and Steve gives her a smile as he takes off for the aforementioned area. He gets there and looks through the windows and a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding comes out of him in a big whoosh. From the window, he can see Tony standing down there. It’s the first time he’s laid eyes on the brunet since Siberia and Steve hadn’t even realized how terrified he was at the thought that maybe Tony had been hurt or that there had been complications.

He watches for a few seconds as he sees Tony explaining something to the boy Keener, motioning with his body to show the other how to brace against a hand repulsor blast. A few feet away from them there’s a smaller version of the Iron Man suit. It looks different, silver being its secondary color instead of gold and Steve wonders if Tony truly intends to pass on Iron Man to this child. He’s clearly too young for the responsibility of a suit like that.

Keener seems to be listening to Tony though, moving with him and mimicking his movements long before he climbs into the suit and gives it a try. It’s funny to see Tony fussing over the boy and clearly making suggestions and comments about his form.

Steve tries to enter the training room in order to offer assistance and to just talk to Tony but the doors remain stubbornly locked as FRIDAY alerts him that an active training session doesn’t allow new people to enter the area and that he’ll have to wait his turn.

Steve’s not really sure how he feels about feeling so irritated at a computer program, but he’s more than done with it getting in the way and just being overall difficult.

Steve waits though, he watches as Tony goes through several training sessions with the boy before the two of them suit up and take off into the sky. It’s only at that moment that FRIDAY unlocks the doors and tells him that the training grounds are open for him now. He ends up leaving a crack in the wall from where he hits it in his frustration.

+++

Spider-Man is a strange mix of overexcitement and distain. He seems over the moon at all things related to being a superhero, but whenever one of them attempt to approach him he closes off and makes subtle comments that shows that Tony’s undoubtedly created some kind of rift between them.

The comments of ‘Ok Boomer’ are the single most annoying ones though whenever Steve tries to have a civilized conversation with the boy and teach him how the world really works.

Steve asks him if he has a problem with him at one point and Spider-Man tilts his head.

“Why would I have a problem with someone who lied to their supposed friend about their parents murder for years and then left them to die in a frozen wasteland after beating the shit out of them?” Spider-Man asks with a tone that’s almost pure innocence. “That’s just crazy.”

Steve gives up trying to make friends with the kid shortly after that.

+++

“Apparently, Mr. Stark has made several new suits and has added two new members to his ‘iron team’.” T’Challa tells them and Steve frowns.

“I’m guessing Keener.”

“Yes, he’s in training to take over the Iron Man name someday, but he already has a suit should the need arise.”

“Who is the other?” Natasha asks and T’Challa crosses his arms.

“The ‘Rescue’ model, which is coded to a Ms. Pepper Potts.” He replies.

“Tony gave Pepper a suit?” Steve asks and T’Challa nods.

“So it would seem. This of course comes alongside the remodeled War Machine armor which is now ready for deployment with Colonel Rhodes behind the helm if necessary and an ‘Iron Spider’ suit for Spider-Man should it be needed.”

“Is that what Tony’s been doing this whole time?” Nat asks. “Making new suits?”

“I’ve been recently informed that Mr. Stark has been involved in several government projects, top secret things that I have not been able to gain data on.” T’Challa says. “I’ve also heard that he’s created a synthetic vibranium metal that behaves like the original.”

“Why would he do that?” Steve asks and T’Challa shrugs.

“I’m unsure. Money perhaps? Or perhaps it is a slight against Wakanda. As you know our vibranium is what has kept us on top. Perhaps he’s attempting to take that away from us.”

“That sounds like something Stark would do.” Wanda snaps and Steve wants to put his face in his hands. Why is Tony doing this? And when is he going to stop for even a second and just look around and realize that the people he’s fighting aren’t his enemies?