“You gotta watch your back with this guy. There’s a chance he’s going to break it.”
Tony turned to stare at Clint. He had no idea what his expression looked like but it was enough to have Clint pale and back away from the bars of his cell. Tony just continued to stare at him then he turned on his heel and walked back out the door he’d come in, ignoring the comments from the others and not even seeing the state Wanda was in.
He couldn’t say why it was that comment that was the straw that broke the camel’s back (Pun. Ha! Not.) but there it was. Maybe because it was about Rhodey. His sugarplum. His honeybear. His platypus. Who was currently lying in a hospital in Germany while they waited to see just how bad the damage to his spinal cord was. If it had been about him, he would have let it wash off. But not when it was about Rhodey.
Tony had thrown his money around, of course. (What else was it for except to help his friends, his brother?) Calling every damn expert on spinal issues in the world, offering them whatever funding they needed to fix this, with the promise that whatever solution they found? He would fund it to make it easily accessible to everyone in the world. The looks on their faces, the tenor of their voices, had been… awed, wondering and hopeful while at the same time they tried to maintain proper doctorial sobriety. But they saw the opportunity Tony was offering, not only for them but for all their patients.
When he emerged from the cell block, Tony didn’t bother stopping for Ross or anyone else. He simply walked outside, climbed into his helicopter and flew off. If anyone bothered to track his path, they would have quickly noticed that it was towards Europe, Germany specifically. Tony no longer cared about Steve or any of his former teammates. That branch had been broken by one ill-timed and ill-directed comment. The only person who mattered right now was his Rhodey.
Zemo watched impassively as Rogers banged on the window of the room he was in. He looked down at the photo of his family displayed on his phone and sighed. It was obvious that Stark wasn’t coming and his plan really didn’t work without Iron Man here to see the truth that had been deliberately kept from him. He briefly wondered what had gone wrong then put his phone away and started typing a few commands into the computer in front of him. Once he was done, he finally deigned to pay attention to Rogers.
“I was rather counting on Stark coming,” he said.
Rogers froze and from the brief flickering look of blind animal panic on his face and the way Rogers’ eyes were inevitably drawn to Barnes, Zemo felt confident in his assessment that Rogers had never told Stark the truth. It had been difficult but not impossible to find out the exact date and time when the computerised version of Armin Zola had last been accessed during the fall of SHIELD. That the date and time coincided with the CCTV video he’d seen of Rogers and Romanov heading towards the room where Zola’s interface was housed had been a gift of the highest order. When he’d done his homework and realised that, based on Stark’s behaviour, both in general and towards the Avengers, he didn’t know the truth… well, it was rare to have such a beautiful opportunity served up to him on a silver platter and yet, it had happened.
“We don’t need Stark to stop you.”
Zemo chuckled at Rogers’ display of brainless bravado. “I would disagree but then you don’t even know what my plans were.”
“You were going to release the Winter Soldiers,” Rogers said belligerently.
Zemo laughed, long and hard. “Oh, my dear Mr Rogers, did you not see them on your way in? That was my doing. I have no use for the Winter Soldiers and they are a danger to the entire world. I did a service in eliminating them.”
He was amused by the confused expression that appeared on Rogers’ face. The man looked particularly stupid when he was confused. Zemo briefly considered explaining what his plan – and his backup plan – was but eventually decided that it was a bit pointless. He didn’t need to engage in useless monologuing to Rogers and Barnes. He just needed to do what he needed to do.
“I have won, Mr Rogers,” he said calmly as he typed in a few more commands into the computer and hit the Enter button. “By the time you make your way from here, you will understand that.”
He gave them a nod then picked up the gun he’d used to kill the Winter Soldiers. He smiled, looking forward to seeing his family again in whatever passed for the afterlife. There was one bullet left and he rested the muzzle of the gun under his chin and put that final bullet to good use.
Rhodey woke up to find Tony asleep, half sprawled on top of him. It took a moment for the memories to surface in his sleep and drug-addled brain but then he recalled what had happened the previous day.
Things had been going well. Tony had arranged for some of the world’s leading experts to come and examine him. Rhodey had wanted to shake his head and perhaps even refuse but apparently part of the deal was that it wasn’t just Rhodey they were going to be looking after while they were here and, well… in the silence of his mind, he’d admit that the idea of being permanently paralysed scared him. He could and would deal with it if that was the outcome but he’d admit that the metaphorical mountain that potentially lay in front of him was intimidating. He generally didn’t encourage Tony’s largesse when it was directed at him but it had been Pepper who had convinced him to let it happen. That not only did Rhodey need it, Tony needed it.
But that wasn’t the reason why Tony was using him as a body pillow right now. He hadn’t been able to get an explanation out of Tony as to why he was here at the hospital and not dealing with Rogers and all the shit he was causing. Tony had been incredibly and frustratingly evasive about the matter and had managed to distract him. Right up until one of the senior nurses at the hospital had come in, her face pale but her eyes concerned and sympathetic, and insisted they had to watch the latest news. She’d waited until Tony had turned on the TV then discreetly excused herself and closed the door behind her.
Their timing had been good. The video had started playing with only a few seconds of introductory waffle from the news anchor. Not enough for them to really understand what was going on beyond it having something to do with Tony, despite both of them being relatively proficient in German, and not enough for Tony to get bored and switch off the TV.
The video had been horrifying and shocking. Tony’s reaction had just about broken Rhodey’s heart. But the explanation by the news anchor that came afterwards…
Apparently the video had been sent to them anonymously and had come with a message that Steven Rogers and Natasha Romanov had known about this since the fall of SHIELD and that as far as the anonymous donor was aware, neither of them had bothered to tell Tony Stark.
The way Tony’s face had paled and gone frighteningly blank had made Rhodey lurch forward and grab hold of him in an iron grip, yanking him backwards and wrapping his arms around him, not letting go no matter how Tony struggled and cursed and swore. Because even in the middle of his anger and grief, Tony didn’t forget how injured Rhodey was and though he could have broken free if he’d really wanted to, doing so might have hurt Rhodey more. It was only when Tony slumped against him and started the silent, choked crying he remembered from a few occasions during their college years, most notably after the deaths of Howard and Maria, that he finally relaxed his embrace and let it turn from restraining to comforting.
Between the brief struggle, the crying and Tony’s lack of sleep and proper nutrition in the last few days, exhaustion soon overwhelmed him and by the time Pepper called, Tony was fast asleep, sprawled across Rhodey like he was now. The conversation with Pepper had been quiet and succinct. Pepper was on the warpath and nothing Rhodey could say could talk her down. Not that he’d really tried too hard, especially when Pepper told him about what had happened on the Raft. (Or at least, some of it… he suspected she was keeping something from him.) The cells were monitored by CCTV that recorded picture and sound. When Ross had come blustering to Pepper about Tony’s abrupt departure, she’d had him do some digging. Rhodey suspected that if Ross had known what the outcome would be, he’d have refused. Pepper was now not only after the scalps of the Avengers but also Ross. She didn’t like the Avengers but she wasn’t going to condone illegal incarceration either.
Rhodey chuckled as he ran a hand through Tony’s hair. Ross didn’t know what was about to hit him. Because Pepper wouldn’t just target him, she’d go for the jugular and put the President at risk along with anyone else in the government who had spoken even one word of support for Ross. The President and those cronies would throw Ross to the wolves purely to protect their own scalps.
Rhodey looked down and found Tony staring blearily up at him. “It’s okay. Go back to sleep, Tones,” he said quietly.
Tony frowned a little then he nodded. “’Kay.”
As he watched, Tony slipped back into sleep and when the door opened to admit the same nurse from the night before, Rhodey knew what he needed to do. He waited until she’d finished taking the observations she needed to then caught her attention.
“Thank you,” he said. “For letting us know what was happening.”
The nurse gave a tight smile and Rhodey didn’t miss her quick sympathetic glance towards Tony. She didn’t say a word about his current location, just smiled gently.
“I did not think it a good idea to let either of you be taken by surprise by that when you left the hospital,” she replied quietly, her accent a soft counterpoint to her word. “There is much support from the world for Mr Stark and much condemnation for Rogers and Romanov.”
“Good,” Rhodey said with a snort. “Look… all those experts who were in here yesterday? Have they come to any conclusions?”
The nurse nodded. “Yes, Colonel, they have. We have been keeping them at bay for Mr Stark’s sake.”
Rhodey looked down at Tony and brushed his hand through his hair again. “That’s alright. Tony will sleep through anything right now as long as they’re quiet.”
“I’ll ask them to come in,” the nurse said. She gave him a quick nod and bustled out of the room with efficiency.
Rhodey watched her go then squared his shoulders. There were things he needed to do and laying around in a hospital bed wasn’t one of them.
Natasha watched the television with a stony expression. The video that had been anonymously released had been a nasty surprise, even more so had been the message that had come with it. Not that she’d been surprised that Steve hadn’t told Tony. She’d expected that when she seen his expression and body language after she’d given him the file on the Winter Soldier. There was too much at stake for Steve to risk telling Tony and she’d known right then and there that he would never do it.
She had kept the secret for different reasons. There was an element of manipulation in it on her side. She’d seen the potential for Steve to become a loose cannon and she’d wanted to hold something in arrears to use to manipulate both him and Tony, especially since, if she handled it properly, she could come out of it looking golden and clean. She also knew they couldn’t risk losing Tony’s funding or worse, SI’s funding. Tony could be manipulated, Potts, on the other hand…
Natasha grimaced. Potts didn’t like the Avengers and certainly didn’t like her, not after her infiltration of SI. They’d tried to repeat that, albeit at a lower level, but had been stymied at every turn. SI’s hiring practices were ironclad and water tight, even more so since Potts took over as CEO, and every single time they’d tried to get someone in, they’d been unsuccessful. Oh, the knockbacks had all been completely reasonable with no indication that they knew the person was a SHIELD plant but still… once was chance, twice was coincidence, three times was a conspiracy, especially when their candidates were perfect for the position. By the time SHIELD fell, not only had they not been able to get even a single person in, they hadn’t been able to turn anyone already working there to their side.
But that was beside the point, Potts would take any opportunity to pull SI’s funding of the Avengers and influence Tony to pull his personal funding and support. If Tony was emotionally compromised, Potts would just have an easier time of it. Unfortunately, Tony had been surprisingly resilient to her own attempts to ingratiate herself closer to him. He was friendly enough on the surface but when she pushed and tried to wiggle closer, he backed off. It was subtle, far subtler than she’d expected from him, which made her think it was coincidence. Tony was a genius when it came to engineering and the rest of the scientific and even business side but socially? He was too egotistical to be capable of such subtlety.
And then there was the final reason she’d never told him – she just didn’t like him and she did like Steve. Tony was all sharp edges and lightning quick questions, probing in directions she didn’t want him looking at. He was smart enough to put together the pieces of the puzzle and figure her out if he ever bothered to try. She always felt on edge with him, having to keep her defences up and stay on her toes. Steve, on the other hand, was easy. He was simple to read and easy to manipulate. She’d established her persona around him while they’d worked together on the STRIKE teams and now she barely had to try hard at all to keep him seeing her as she wanted.
Steve also made her feel good about herself. He made her feel like she really was a hero. She’d never felt that way around SHIELD, where there were still people who gave the Black Widow a wide berth, still people who were suspicious of the Russian assassin, waiting for her to turn on them and betray them as she had done to the people who had trained her. But Steve never looked at her like that. True, he didn’t really know what she was capable of, she’d deliberately kept her true self hidden from him, but that didn’t matter. Where Tony made her feel like her masks and disguises were flimsy and weak, Steve made her feel comfortable. She was always going to side with Steve when push came to shove.
Not that that was helping her right now. Steve’s name was mud in the global community, as was hers. Potts had given a short statement the previous day asking for the press to respect Tony’s privacy at this time and confirming that SI would be pursuing legal charges on Tony’s behalf against Steve, Natasha and the rest. The press were speculating about what those charges would be with most deciding on some variation of obstruction of justice. Some had thrown in fraud and embezzlement as possibilities, given Tony and SI’s funding was for Avengers work, not the pursuit of private agendas.
The press were also going to town on the recent events in Europe and Natasha’s betrayal of Tony and King T’Challa had gotten out. Probably from the Dora Milaje, Natasha thought with a sneer. That one who had confronted her had clearly not liked her and would have leaked the information gleefully, she suspected. Questions were being asked about her conduct both within the Avengers and prior to that, with SHIELD. And unfortunately, some of the more enterprising and tech-savvy journalists – or at least those with tech-savvy friends – were digging up things from the SHIELD data dump. Things she’d never wanted to see the light of day.
Even worse, her contacts were refusing to take her calls. She was stuck in this backwater town in Germany and her money was rapidly running out. Her Avengers-issued credit card no longer worked nor did the personal one Tony had given her when they’d started working on the Accords. Just this morning she’d tried to withdraw money from her personal account – the open one that her Avengers related money went into – and found it had been frozen… as had a number of her more clandestine accounts. The only account she could access had less than a thousand euros in it.
She was going to have to move… and fast. She’d gotten some narrow-eyed looks from some of the people here this morning. There had been no spark of recognition, just the shadows of it, like she was someone they felt they ought to know but couldn’t quite recognise, but it was only a matter of time before they either made the connection on their own or she ran into someone who recognised her immediately. She needed to get to Switzerland. She had a safety deposit box in a bank in Bern that held money and new identities. Once she had those, she could fly somewhere more anonymous and regroup and consider her options.
Ayo watched as the Avengers quinjet that Rogers and Barnes had arrived in smoothly lifted off from the Wakandan tarmac, apparently by remote control. She radioed the information to Okoye and swift instructions were issued that the jet was to be allowed to leave Wakandan airspace unharmed, as long as leaving was all it did. Ayo was quite happy to leave the job of informing the King about all of that to her General. She was in two minds about it herself. On one hand, it allowed them greater control over their unwanted ‘guests’ but it also meant that whoever had fetched the jet back likely knew where it had been.
She was less sanguine about the jet the next day when the news of the video and Rogers’ lies broke. And she wasn’t at all surprised to get the order to increase the number of guards around the quarters Rogers and Barnes had been given. Provision was quickly made for the fact that both were enhanced and Ayo herself took one of the positions at the door to their rooms.
As she stood, still and calm, she pondered what was going to happen now. She knew her King felt that he owed Barnes a debt for his reckless attack on the man before he’d been informed of Barnes’ innocence in the Vienna bombing. However, as the video proved, while Barnes might well be innocent of that crime, he certainly had other crimes to answer for. Admittedly he’d been the Winter Soldier during that period but frankly, no one had a straight answer for what that actually meant in terms of Barnes’ culpability and they wouldn’t know until or unless the man was examined by professionals.
The Dora Milaje had received a briefing the previous night based on information gleaned from the SHIELD data dump but that had been quite thin. Their analysts hadn’t had time to do an in depth search so she expected a more robust briefing either tonight or tomorrow once they’d had a chance to find out more. But what they had found had contained little in the way of conclusions regarding the Winter Soldier’s conditioning. They knew there were trigger words that could activate the Winter Soldier but that was inconclusive data. They also knew that Barnes had apparently thrown off his conditioning during the Washington fiasco. If that was so, then could he have done it prior to that? If so, why hadn’t he? Someone had made the rather facetious suggestion that the ‘power of Barnes’ friendship with Rogers’ had aided him in breaking the conditioning. Ayo had not been the only one to scoff at that idea.
But regardless of that, Barnes was a dilemma. According to the briefing, Barnes had been a decorated and well-respected soldier and a skilled sniper. His army file from the war as well as the reports of his actions with the Howling Commandos backed that up. He had certainly been a prisoner of HYDRA for over seventy years, had been tortured and tormented by them. James Barnes was someone that the Dora Milaje could respect. However, Berlin had proven that he was also an uncontrolled weapon that could cause immeasurable damage if not properly contained. He was also a human being who deserved to be treated with respect and dignity and given the aid he desperately required. That was something she didn’t quite trust the outside world to do. It was understandable, since it was the outside world that had suffered at the hands of the Winter Soldier, but reprehensible nonetheless. No, Barnes was better off here, where they could both contain and aid him. They could protect the world from him and also protect him from the world.
Rogers, on the other hand, caused no such dilemma in Ayo’s mind. The man was a fool and, as the video and its attending note had proven, a cruel one at that.
Tony Stark was… something of an enigma in Wakanda. It was easy to take him at face value, to see the arrogant fool and the playboy and think of him as nothing more than that. In fact, many people had and had paid the price for it. They forgot that Tony Stark had been the CEO of his company for over twenty years and had taken it from being a simple American company to being a technological juggernaut around the world. Wakanda had made attempts to infiltrate the company with very mixed success. It was easy to get people into low-level positions across the company but they had never been able to rise to positions where they would be more effective in gaining intelligence on what the company was doing. They knew it had nothing to do with the colour of their people’s skin, given the even-handed way SI had operated ever since Stark took over, and there was always speculation that SI knew about the infiltration and was simply playing their own game. Ayo had never believed that… until after Stark’s birthday debacle a few years ago when all of their people had been shunted sideways into dead end jobs. Their pay and conditions were still excellent but they were assigned to places and positions where they were… impotent. It was strange and curious and she wanted answers, though she knew they were unlikely to come.
And Stark tech drove the scientists here up the wall. They certainly had things that were more advanced but… Stark wasn’t that far behind and the scientists often reluctantly admitted that if Stark had the same access that they did to vibranium, he would probably equal or better their efforts. Shuri always scoffed at that but Ayo… well, she sighed often at their young princess. She was brilliant, there was no questioning that, but she had also been… protected. Shielded and pampered and even coddled. She had limitless resources and wealth. She had never been in need or want. She had never faced insurmountable hurdles and Ayo felt that it showed. Shuri’s work was brilliant, leagues ahead of their other scientists, but… it wasn’t challenged.
Ayo had read the reports of Afghanistan and had been reluctantly impressed. Stark was a civilian. Yes, he had considerable expertise in weaponry, unsurprising given he had been a weapons manufacturer. One couldn’t properly make something one didn’t know how to use. But he was still, nevertheless, a civilian and a pampered one at that. Yet when he had been captured, when he had been reduced to nothing, all of his money, his technology, his power and influence taken away, he had emerged triumphant. He had created the Iron Man suit out of nothing and, what was more impressive to the Wakandan scientists, he had miniaturised the arc reactor that had been sitting wasted and useless in a Stark Industries factory. The scientists had waved their hands in the air and shouted excitedly at each other about that for weeks before becoming despondent when it became obvious that Stark did not intend to publish how he’d done that. Ayo could understand. The arc reactor clearly powered the Iron Man suit. It would be dangerous to allow enemies to understand how it worked.
Not that Ayo would ever wish such pain and suffering on Shuri, no matter how much it might ultimately benefit Wakanda and the world. She didn’t even wish it on Stark. She was not a cruel woman. Besides, Shuri was young. She was a genius but she was young and sheltered and therefore naïve. It was not a bad thing nor was it anything to worry about at this stage. If T’Challa continued his father’s plans to integrate Wakanda into the world then time would take care of all. The world would benefit from Shuri’s genius and Shuri would benefit from the scientists of the world turning their eyes on her work and challenging her. That was one of the reasons why Ayo supported the plan. There would be troubles, of course, but ultimately the benefits would be mutual and that was a good thing.
She turned her mind back to Rogers and grimaced. There was one man she would gladly be rid of. He was a liar and a thug. He had no honour and little decency. She had heard about the demands he’d made to the night staff and found them presumptuous and arrogant. Though she did note that he had been very quiet when their people were around since the morning shows had blared the news about the video and his lies. That would be good if she could feel confident he was rethinking all that he’d done. However the reports from the morning staff who had brought them their breakfast had not been promising. Rogers had, according to the reports, been puffed up and indignant until he’d realised they were there. Apparently Barnes had looked ashen and shame-faced though, so that was promising.
Movement from further down the corridor drew her out of her thoughts and she straightened as she saw her king approaching, Okoye and several of the Dora Milaje accompanying him. The look on his face was dark and unforgiving and Ayo felt a sense of satisfaction at the sight of it. T’Challa looked like a king, confident and assured in his right to rule. It was good to see. She saluted him as he came up to the door and at Okoye’s nod, joined the rest of the Dora Milaje as they walked into the room.
“T’Challa!” Rogers said with surprise and he jumped to his feet.
Barnes followed suit more slowly but unlike his friend, he seemed to sum up the mood of the room much better than his friend did. He swallowed and backed off a little, clearly wanting to put his back to a wall and yet also not wanting to look like he was making any sort of aggressive or even defensive move.
“Your Majesty,” Okoye hissed, her eyes narrow with displeasure.
Rogers looked taken aback and, Ayo was irritated to see, affronted, as though he felt he shouldn’t have to use the proper honorifics. It wasn’t as though T’Challa was a friend of Rogers, that he could use his name so familiarly.
“Mr Rogers,” T’Challa said, his expression implacable and his tone grim. “In light of recent revelations, you will remain here in these rooms until a decision is made about what is to be done with you.” He turned to Barnes. “Sergeant Barnes, I have no intention of reneging on my offer of sanctuary to you, though we will need to discuss the terms and engage a lawyer to protect your interests.”
Barnes nodded but Rogers looked offended. “Are you locking me up?”
Ayo wanted to snort at that idiotic comment. Of course they were locking him up, for the good of everyone else in the world. Letting him come here was bad enough but at least they had the ability to contain him, just as they could his friend, albeit for different reasons.
“Yes,” T’Challa said calmly. “I am.”
“You can’t do that!”
T’Challa looked faintly amused and Ayo and the rest spread out, looking competent and determined. “Actually, Mr Rogers, you will find that I can. I am the King of Wakanda and here, my rule is absolute. However, I am willing to give you a choice. You may remain here, in safety, until a decision is made about your future. Or you may leave, immediately, with only what you came with.”
Ayo considered that then decided it was fair. Wakanda owed no allegiance to Rogers as he was not a citizen nor were they required to outfit him or provide him with anything if he wished to leave. But as Rogers glanced over at Barnes, Ayo knew he would not leave, not after all he had done in Barnes’ name, whether Barnes wanted that or not. He would stay, he would abide by the King’s restrictions because he had already proven that Barnes meant more to him than anything else, more than his word, his loyalty or even, apparently, his morals and ethics. It was contemptible but useful.
“I’ll stay,” Rogers said with barely hidden truculence. Ayo thought he looked and sounded very much like her five year old nephew when he was sulking.
“Very well,” T’Challa said without batting an eyelash. “You will remain in these rooms. Food will be brought to you as well as other things, within limits, if you ask. For now, you will have access to the TV but not the internet. My Dora Milaje will be on guard outside the door. If you or Sergeant Barnes require anything, you will submit your requests to them. If you attempt to leave or cause any trouble, you will be confined in far less pleasant surroundings. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” Rogers said before tacking on a sullen “Your Majesty” when he was subjected to the glares of Ayo and the rest of the Dora Milaje.
“Good,” T’Challa said. He turned on his heel and marched out, the Dora Milaje accompanying him. Ayo took up her position by the door again, this time with a sense of smug satisfaction. T’Challa may well prove to be a fine King after all.
When the Compound came into view, Rhodey gave a sigh of relief. The Compound wasn’t home but, oddly enough, it had the least number of bad memories for Tony given how little time he’d spent there. It was also, according to Pepper, the best set up for Rhodey’s current situation. The doctors in Germany had been cautiously optimistic. As it turned out, his spine hadn’t been severed and the suit had protected his vertebrae from being broken but there had still been some extensive damage to the spinal cord nevertheless. They believed that, with time and proper treatment, Rhodey might be able to get some movement back. There had been a lot of mights and maybes in what they’d said but it was better than he had feared. In the wake of that tentatively good news, Rhodey had then made some of his own calls and Helen Cho had turned out to be eager to help. It seemed her problem had never been with him or Tony but with the rest of the Avengers, Wanda in particular. Without them there, she was more than willing to come back and see what she could do.
Pepper’s nascent campaign of terror was starting to bear some early fruit as well. Thaddeus Ross and, by association, the President were under siege and with the guarantee of legal and financial protection being offered by Pepper, all sorts of people were coming out of the woodwork to offer testimony against Ross, including his own daughter. Betty and Pepper got along like a house on fire and Rhodey was slightly afraid of what those two would do together once they got going. Also kind of interested to see it because it was bound to be amazing.
Even the Abomination had started talking… after he’d managed to escape his prison. It seemed he’d always been able to do that any time he wanted but since he’d had nowhere to go and his guards had been easily cowed into staying away from him, he’d had no reason to leave. Especially since Ross had basically washed his hands of his failure. But the mess in Europe and the news of the Accords had been too good an opportunity to deny and he’d escaped along with almost two dozen other prisoners. Thus far, that news had been kept quiet by various groups for various reasons, most of them being… there was no one to recapture them. Rhodey was out of action for the moment, Vision was still recovering as well and no one was gauche enough to intrude on Tony’s grief and shock at the moment. Rhodey knew that wouldn’t last long but while it did, the various police forces around the world would just have to cope. No one had mentioned reaching out to Rogers and his lot.
The Abomination’s… Blonsky’s… tale had been horrifying. His current state was partly Ross’ fault and partly his own but whatever the cause, he was stuck like that, unable to transform back like Bruce was. But it seemed that his incarceration had mellowed him and allowed Blonsky’s more reasonable soldier persona to (if Rhodey understood correctly) merge with the Abomination persona and regain control so while he wasn’t the most pleasant of people, he was willing to work with the UN Accords Council to find some sort of middle ground they could all accept. Betty’s offer of trying to find some way of allowing him to transform back had been eagerly accepted by the Abomination, even if no one was terribly confident it could be done.
And the irony of someone like the Abomination being more amenable to the Accords than a supposed ‘good guy’ like Rogers was not lost on Rhodey. Or on anyone else involved.
He looked over at Tony and saw that he was looking at the Compound with that distant, introspective expression that had become so common since they’d seen that video. Rhodey hated seeing Tony so lacking his usual animation but he wasn’t concerned as yet since Tony was talking to him. They’d talked about a lot of what had happened as well as the videos, mostly late at night when the hospital had been quiet. Tony had curled up with him on the bed, like he so often had back in college, and talked and Rhodey had listened and offered what advice he could.
The truth that Howard had been murdered and hadn’t been drunk at the wheel had shaken Tony more than he was really willing to admit. Rhodey knew Tony had blamed Howard for years. He usually wouldn’t talk about it unless he was very drunk but Rhodey had seen him that drunk more than once over the years and had thus heard those drunken rants on the subject. But now that had been proven wrong. Howard hadn’t been drunk, he hadn’t crashed the car and he hadn’t killed Maria. They’d both been murdered by HYDRA and Captain America had known and said nothing.
They hadn’t actually had to do anything about that particular revelation. The public had taken up metaphorical arms about that all by themselves. While there was a small number of vocal Cap fans trying to spin any and every kind of excuse they possibly could, most people had put themselves in Tony’s shoes. The outpouring of sympathy had been immense and while Tony was mostly uncomfortable about that, he was grateful for the sheer number of donations that the Maria Stark Foundation had received after some enterprising people on Twitter had suggested that would be a good response. It had taken off like wildfire on all forms of social media and had been the only thing to get a smile out of Tony in recent days.
Tony turned to look at him enquiringly. “Yeah, sugarplum?”
“We’re nearly there.”
Tony grimaced but walked over to stand next to him as Vision landed the quinjet. Pepper and Happy were waiting outside and if the subsequent group hug lasted for a very long time, well, there was no one there to call them on it. Once they were inside, they settled onto the various sofas and Tony cuddled up to Rhodey again. Both Pepper and Happy smiled sadly at that as they sat down opposite them while Vision took one of the armchairs.
“So,” Pepper said after a moment of silence. “We know where Rogers and Barnes are.”
Tony said nothing but Rhodey’s eyes narrowed. “Where?”
“That son of a bitch,” Rhodey growled. “After all his bullshit trying to kill Barnes, now he’s sheltering them?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Pepper replied. “Apparently, after he was told Barnes wasn’t responsible for the Vienna bombing, he tracked them both to Siberia. He found Rogers and Barnes there along with five dead Winter Soldiers and a man named Helmut Zemo, who had literally just killed himself minutes before. This Zemo was apparently the one responsible for the Vienna bombing and we believe that he was also the one responsible for sending the video to the press.”
“Okay,” Rhodey said slowly. He knew Tony was listening intently due to how tense the man was. “So?”
“King T’Challa has stated that he has offered Barnes sanctuary until such time as the triggers can be removed from his mind,” Pepper continued. “He feels that due to the lack of honour he showed in attacking Barnes without waiting to find out the truth, he owes the man that much.”
Rhodey snorted. “So Barnes didn’t kill T’Challa’s father? So what? He sure as shit killed a lot of other people’s fathers, including Tony’s.”
“He’s aware of that,” Pepper replied. “However, he doesn’t entirely trust the Western justice system to be anything less than a witch hunt and…” She winced. “He’s… not entirely wrong. A lot of people are very angry right now and there are a lot of intemperate words being thrown around. They want Rogers but if they can’t get him, they’ll go after Barnes. Barnes deserves justice, not a lynch mob.”
“Pepper’s right,” Tony murmured before Rhodey could say anything. “I don’t… I just… can’t with Barnes. But I don’t want him dead. Never been in favour of the death penalty before, still not now.”
Rhodey drew in a deep breath then let it out slowly before relenting. “Yeah, okay. I suppose I’m more pissed off at Rogers and Romanov anyway.”
“Wakanda are going to be keeping hold of Rogers,” Pepper said then when Rhodey snorted and Tony looked dubious, she smirked. “From what I’ve been told, they’ll be keeping to their word. T’Challa’s people aren’t very happy he’s allowed Rogers into the country after what happened in Lagos so if he wants to ensure there isn’t some sort of uprising, he’ll keep Rogers very tightly under control.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Rhodey said sourly. “What about Romanov?”
“She’s gone to ground,” Pepper replied. “I cancelled the credit cards she’d been issued as part of the Avengers and the UN got a court order to freeze any accounts of hers they could find information about. I don’t doubt she’s got other resources squirreled away but Interpol has issued a warrant for her arrest so I doubt we’ll see her in the near future.”
“What about the others?” Tony asked, though not with any enthusiasm.
“I’ve raised enough hell to get them lawyers and ensure they’ll be treated fairly,” Pepper replied. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s as far as we need to go. They were not acting as Avengers nor were they taking part in an official Avengers mission, therefore they’ll have to take their chances like anyone else would.”
Tony nodded. “Fine.”
“Tones,” Rhodey said gently, making sure there wasn’t an ounce of accusation anywhere near his tone of voice. “Are you ever going to tell me why you left Rogers to his own devices? You kept avoiding the topic in Germany.”
Tony mumbled something and buried his face in Rhodey’s shoulder. Rhodey looked down at him then over at Pepper and Happy. He knew instantly that his supposition back in Germany was right – they knew why.
“Alright,” he said to them. “Spill.”
Pepper and Happy looked at each other then all of a sudden, some audio started playing. Apparently FRIDAY was willing to spare anyone the need to say anything. Rhodey recognised Barton’s voice, full of spite and anger, and the words made him stiffen and growl under his breath.
“Well, fuck them then,” Rhodey snarled. He looked down at where Tony still had his face buried in his shirt. “Tones. Look at me.” Tony very reluctantly looked up, his expression weary and uncertain. “This? My legs. Was not your fault.”
“Honeybear…” Tony began but Rhodey cut him off.
“No. My decision to back the Accords was just that. Mine. You didn’t make me do that in any way, shape or form.” He paused and made sure Tony was listening to him. “I would have backed the Accords even if you hadn’t. My support of them was not based on anything you did or said, it was because they’re the right thing to do. They need work, yes, but they are the right path for the future.”
He turned his attention to Vision. “And you.” He pointed a finger at the synthezoid. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you skulking around guiltily. What happened wasn’t your fault either. Yes, you got distracted but you know what? Shit happens on a battlefield. It’s a bad beat, sure, but it was an accident. It was no one’s fault.” He paused again. “Well, except maybe those jackasses who followed Rogers around like little brainless ducklings. They were the ones who escalated everything into a fight.”
Tony suddenly stiffened next to him. “Oh, shit,” he breathed. “Pe… Spider-Man.”
“He’s home. I saw to it that he got home,” Pepper said gently then she fixed him with a gimlet glare. “And later, Tony, we will be having a discussion about why you brought a fifteen year old boy, even one who is clearly enhanced, to a battle in another country without his guardian’s permission.”
Tony quailed a little then he sighed and scrubbed his face with one hand. “Yeah, I fucked that one up.”
Pepper softened a little. “I’m not saying that he couldn’t handle it. I’ve seen some of the footage that’s flying around the internet and he’s clearly remarkable but he is fifteen.”
“In my defence,” Tony said, sounding a little pained. “I wasn’t expecting it to end up in a fight. At worst, I thought maybe I’d get him to web them up while we talked some sense into them.”
Pepper nodded. “I get that and it’s obvious that they were the ones who escalated things.” She paused and that familiar, slightly devious smirk appeared on her face. “He could certainly do with a mentor and not just in… superheroing. He seems to love science as much as you do.”
Tony stared at her like a deer into oncoming headlights. “Uh, Pep? I’m not a good role model for anyone, least of all someone like Pete.” He winced. “Er, yeah, perhaps ignore that name.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Tony, I got his name out of him in the first five minutes. He’s fifteen. He caved in about thirty seconds flat.”
Happy grinned and nodded and Rhodey began chuckling. Tony just sighed and gave in.
“Fine. Peter. I am not a good role model for Peter.”
“You already are,” Pepper replied. “He adores you, Tony, and for all the right reasons. He spent most of the trip telling me all about all the awesome science you’ve created and how amazing it is and how awesome Iron Man is and so on and so forth.”
“Ah, yeah,” Tony said, scrunching his nose. “He’s… he’s a talker.”
“I’ve been thinking that we should revive that junior intern program we talked about several years ago,” Pepper continued serenely. “Peter would make an excellent first junior intern.”
“Pep?” Tony began.
Pepper gave him a look. “Is it a bad idea?”
Tony hesitated. “Uh… no?”
Pepper nodded. “Then that’s what we’ll do. I’ll get onto HR, R&D and PR tomorrow and we’ll start drawing up a program and working on the publicity.”
Rhodey grinned as he looked down at Tony. “Tones? Just say yes, Pepper.”
“Yes, Pepper,” Tony dutifully parroted and they all laughed quietly before Pepper changed the subject to something far less stressful.
Tony leaned back in his chair in his workshop and stared at the blueprints and diagrams on the screens on front of him. They were all of upgrades and tweaks he’d been planning for the Avengers’ weapons and gear. Of course, there were no Avengers left except for him and Vision at the moment… and Rhodey once he was ready. Apart from the criminals who had escaped with the Abomination, no one had made much of a move in the villain direction and even his move had been less about villainy and more about trying to find some semblance of normality in his life.
“FRI?” he said into the silence of the workshop.
“Take all of this and throw it in the Never File.”
“You don’t want to trash it completely?” FRIDAY asked quizzically.
“I thought about it,” Tony admitted. “But we may need them.”
FRIDAY gave an audible sniff. “For what?”
Tony looked amused. “If this invasion I’ve been fearing comes, we’ll need all the warm bodies we can get. They’re good for that at least. And if that happens, I don’t want to have to waste too much time in getting their gear ready.”
“Fine,” FRIDAY said. “But I don’t think they deserve it one bit.”
“They don’t,” Tony admitted. “But this isn’t about me, it’s about the world.”
He watched as the files compressed and disappeared off the screen. He then leaned back a little further and propped his feet up on the bench. He’d been wallowing a little lately, ever since he’d seen that horrific video. No one had chided him about it or suggested he get moving and do something and he was grateful for that but he’d never really been one for spending too long brooding over things. He’d been lied to and betrayed. It wasn’t the first time that had happened and he could only hope it was the last… though it probably wouldn’t be.
He’d grieved, he’d shouted, he’d come up with gruesome plans for his former teammates with Rhodey’s enthusiastic help and just generally let off steam. But now it was time to pull himself together and get his ass in gear. Just because some of his teammates had been jackasses didn’t mean that the Avengers were dead and gone. Not to mention there were the Accords to take care of. He looked over at the armour standing in the corner and remembered how that had all began.
He pulled his feet off the bench and closed down everything. He then made his way upstairs to where Rhodey was sitting on the couch, reading some papers. Tony stared at the wheelchair sitting nearby with narrowed eyes then flopped down next to his friend.
“I’m making you some braces,” he announced.
“I may not need them,” Rhodey replied, much to Tony’s surprise.
“My spine wasn’t severed,” Rhodey replied. “It’s damaged, yes, and they won’t know how badly until all the swelling goes down, which could take a few more weeks, but they know it wasn’t severed.”
“So you could recover?”
Rhodey grimaced. “They’re not giving me any guarantees on how complete my recovery will be but they say I should be able to walk again. It’s just a question of whether that walking with be with assistance or walking on my own.”
“That’s…” Tony ran a hand down his face. “That’s great.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey said. He set the papers down and nudged Tony with his shoulder. “So no more personal guilt trips over it, yeah?”
“I’ll do my best,” Tony said dryly. He was silent for a moment then he sat up a bit. “So… the Avengers. Not the ones hiding in Wakanda or those waiting for their trials but the actual Avengers.”
“We’re a little thin on the ground,” Rhodey said ruefully. “You and Viz.”
“We should probably do some recruiting then,” Tony replied.
Rhodey turned to look at him then smiled. “Hey. Welcome back.”
Tony grumbled and blushed and shoved Rhodey gently. “Yeah, yeah. Shut up.”
Rhodey nudged him back. “Nah, you deserved time to grieve and so on but I’m glad you’re not wasting time on those freeloaders.”
Tony was silent for a while. “Is it weird that it took only one comment to make me drop them?”
“Not really,” Rhodey said slowly. “I’ve kind of been wondering what the straw that broke the camel’s back would be. You’re…” He drew in a breath then let it out slowly. “Tones, you know I love you but sometimes… sometimes you let people in that you shouldn’t and let them stay there when you should have kicked them to the curb long ago and you only drop them when they finally build up enough shit that even you can’t ignore it anymore.”
Tony wanted to argue with that but a litany of names – that started with Sunset Bain – came to mind and he sighed and leaned against Rhodey properly. “Yeah, I do, don’t I?”
“I learned not to say anything after the Ty Stone debacle,” Rhodey continued and they both winced at those memories. It was probably the longest time they’d been estranged in all the time they’d known each other. “The thing that’s always driven me nuts is that you know, deep down, that these people aren’t good for you but you let them stay anyway. If I could go back in time, I’d go back and kick your dad’s ass good and proper.”
Tony grimaced. “It’s… not really Dad’s ass you’d have to kick.”
“Who…?” Rhodey sucked in a breath then said angrily, “Stane.”
“Yeah. After that mess, I… I tried to figure out how he fooled me for so long.” He shook his head. “I never doubted him, not even once, until he revealed he was behind the boards’ moves after Afghanistan. He had me completely fooled.”
“Did you figure it out?” Rhodey asked quietly.
Tony nodded. “It took being around Romanov more consistently and seeing the similarities in her behaviour to what Obie used to do. That enabled me to pick up on it and work out what they were doing. Gaslighting me. Then I was able to go back and… well, there’s a lot of footage of me and Obie, especially after Mom and Dad’s deaths. And I remember a lot…” He grimaced. “Obie had been gaslighting me since I was a kid. Turning me against Dad and maybe even turning Dad against me. Creating the rift and fostering it anyway. Turns out a lot of the times Dad was unavailable to come to things like science fairs and so on was because Obie had manipulated things.” He hesitated. “I think… I think maybe Obie manipulated Dad into some of his more violent shit.”
“How?” Rhodey said, frowning. He’d known that Howard could get violent since Tony turned up back at college with bruises on his arms and a fading one on his cheek. Thankfully, by then, Tony had trusted him enough to actually tell him. He’d started inviting Tony home with him a lot more after that.
“I started chasing down people who had been… unexpectedly shunted sideways or even sacked,” Tony replied. “It never occurred to me to question it at the time but… when I chased them down, they’d all spoken out about various things regarding Dad’s treatment of me or about things Obie was encouraging Dad to do.” He sighed and scrubbed his face with one hand. “I’m not saying Dad was an innocent victim. He was old enough and smart enough that he should have seen what was happening and he damn well should have known it was wrong, no matter what anyone else might say. I’m just saying that Obie’s been manipulating shit for decades so if you’re going to kick Dad’s ass, you might as well line up Obie as well.”
Rhodey wrapped an arm around Tony’s shoulders and sighed. “Dammit. Okay, I’m going to say something I’ve said before but this time I’m going to put a lot of deep, metaphorical meaning on it, okay?”
Tony chuckled. “Okay.”
Rhodey tightened his grip on Tony’s shoulders and gave him a little shake. “Next time, Tones, you ride with me.”
Tony laughed and ducked his head but when he raised it again, there was understanding in his eyes. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
Rhodey nodded. “Good. Now, enough of this emotional crap. The Avengers.”
“The Avengers,” Tony said with a laugh but he looked lighter and more relaxed as he waved a hand and FRIDAY obligingly brought up holographic screens full of information. “Some of this I gathered from news and other reports and some of it came from the data dump.”
“The gift that keeps on giving,” Rhodey said dryly.
Tony snorted. “That it is. Anyway…”
“Wait,” Rhodey said as he poked at one file and watched it expand. “The Abomination? What the hell, Tones?”
“Yeah,” Tony said slowly. “I wasn’t going to consider him but Ross… Everett, not Thaddeus… sent me everything from the Council’s negotiations with him and… he’s not the Abomination who tore up Harlem.”
Rhodey raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“There’s a psych profile here somewhere…” Tony’s voice trailed off as he flicked through the screen and brought up the report in question. “That compares Emil Blonsky with the Abomination. It was done by a British military shrink who had dealt with Blonsky before and interviewed the Abomination as well. The shrink also viewed some footage of him before, after the initial transformation and now.” He expanded the report and highlighted a section. “Have a look at that.”
Rhodey read through the highlighted part and then frowned. “He thinks Blonsky and the Abomination… melded?”
“So to speak,” Tony said. “He was pretty solidly convinced that the Abomination now is more Blonsky than monster.” He flicked through to some scan results. “They did some brain scans. The Abomination’s brain pretty closely matches Blonsky’s. Whether that was always true and he just got out of control somehow is unknown.”
“How did you get these?” Rhodey asked, looking over the results. “Shouldn’t this stuff be confidential?”
“Yes but the Abomination gave permission,” Tony replied. He didn’t say anything more and let Rhodey work through it.
“Wait,” Rhodey said after a moment. “He wants to join the Avengers? Are you serious?”
“Yep,” Tony said. “On both counts. That email’s been sitting in my inbox for the last couple of days. Ross reached out to me when their negotiations hit a sticking point. Since he’s been willing to negotiate and compromise, the Accords Council are considering agreeing to let him sign. With some probationary conditions. Like he join an organised group.”
Rhodey wanted to protest but instead he went back to the beginning of the file and read through everything. Twice. Then he leaned back on the couch and frowned thoughtfully. “He’s actually serious.”
“Very.” Tony snorted. “And yeah, I know. It’s a real trip to even think that, let alone say it.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I spoke to Betty this morning. She’s been working with him the last couple of weeks and… she said he’s genuine. She said not to think of his situation as being the same as Bruce and the Hulk.”
“Because he didn’t get the serum in the same way,” Tony explained. “He got an initial dose of some kind of version of the serum from Thunderbolt. It didn’t seem to have much effect other than some minor enhancements until he got smashed against a tree by the Hulk at Culver. He should have been permanently disabled or even dead but instead he recovers and apparently the first signs of the transformation occurred not long afterwards. He said something started happening to his spine.”
“And he didn’t say anything about it to anyone,” Rhodey said blandly.
“He was a bit obsessed with the serum and the Hulk by then,” Tony replied. “And he got a second dose of the serum developed by Dr Samuel Sterns – no relation, by the way, I checked – just before the mess in Harlem. That’s the one that really kicked off the full transformation.”
“Jeez, what a mess,” Rhodey said with a shake of his head.
“Tell me about it,” Tony replied. “Especially since Sterns’ gone missing along with his research and his stock of whatever it was he developed.”
Rhodey sighed. “Great. Do we have any idea where he went?”
Tony shook his head. “No one even realised he was actually missing until Betty went looking for him. Apparently he disappeared that night. Emailed in his resignation and told them where to send his effects from his office. No one’s seen or heard from him since.”
“So, Ross, SHIELD or something else?” Rhodey asked.
“That I don’t know but FRIDAY’s looking,” Tony replied. “But back to the Abomination. Betty thinks he’s stable and while he can be a bit capricious, he’s communicating, he’s cooperating and he’s amenable to the conditions the Council have come up with. I’m willing to trust her judgement since she’s… well, she’s essentially one of two experts in that very limited field.”
Rhodey could see all of that in the paperwork and he shook his head. “We’re going to have to accept him, aren’t we?”
“We don’t have to,” Tony replied. “But Ross would like us to seriously consider it.” He snorted. “Look at it this way. The Abomination has actually done less damage and harm to people than Maximoff.”
Rhodey snorted as well. “That is one point in his favour.” He was quiet for a moment. “Okay, let’s say a very, very tentative yes, contingent on a meet and greet and a strict probationary period. We just got rid of a human battering ram who doesn’t give a shit about collateral damage, we don’t need to add a new one.”
“Square deal,” Tony said with a nod. He flicked the Abomination’s file back into the pile and pulled up two groups of four. “These were the ones I was really looking at.”
“The Defenders and the Fantastic Four,” Rhodey murmured then he squinted at one of the pictures. “Isn’t that Reed Richards?” He grinned. “Your nemesis.”
Tony rolled his eyes then snickered. “People don’t still go on about that, do they?”
“Every time I run into someone we knew from MIT,” Rhodey replied, laughing. “I told you that Halloween prank was going to come back to bite you on the ass.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said with a wave of his hand. “Anyway, I spoke to Reed yesterday. He said he’d need to talk to the others, but he was cautiously in favour of it, based on the potential to improve on some clauses in the Accords.”
Rhodey nodded then he snorted and shook his head. “The Fantastic Four. They let Johnny name them, didn’t they?”
“Yup. At least he corrected his first attempt at naming Sue.”
“What did he call her?”
“The Invisible Girl.”
“Ouch,” Rhodey said with a wince. He looked at the profiles displayed on the screen. “The Invisible Woman is much better and won’t get him neutered by his sister.” He frowned at the screen. “Geez, what the hell happened to Grimm?”
“No idea,” Tony replied. “Reed sent over all the data they have but the squishy sciences aren’t my strong suit. I sent it to Betty and Helen with Reed and Ben’s permission.”
“I like their skill set,” Rhodey said, nodding to himself as he flicked through the information. “How’s their control?”
“Pretty good but Reed said they’d welcome the opportunity to train with us,” Tony replied. “If nothing else than because we may have ideas that haven’t occurred to them.”
“Sounds good to me,” Rhodey replied before he flicked over to the Defenders’ files. “More New Yorkers.”
“Start close to home,” Tony said, leaning back on the couch. “We can start expanding once we’ve stabilised things.”
Rhodey was silent for a moment. “Speaking of stabilising things… what are you going to do about the others?”
Rhodey’s eyebrows went up. “Nothing? Really?”
“Really.” Tony shifted so he was facing Rhodey. “I’m cutting them loose. All of them. Pepper arranged for the ones in the Raft to get proper legal representation and that’s as far as we need to go. As for Rogers and Barnes…” He looked down to where his hands were clasped in front of him. “I can objectively see that Barnes was a victim but… he killed my Mom and I can’t forgive him for that. Not yet. Maybe eventually.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Rhodey said gently. “And Rogers?”
Tony’s expression hardened. “Rogers can burn in hell as far as I’m concerned.”
Rhodey scowled. “Bit hard to do when he’s living in the lap of luxury in a Wakandan palace, courtesy of T’Challa.”
Tony chuckled. “Not anymore, according to Ross of the Everett variety. That might have been T’Challa’s initial intent but now he’s claiming he’s their jailor.”
Rhodey snorted. “Please tell me the Council haven’t bought that pile of steaming crap?”
Tony let out a bark of laughter and leaned into Rhodey’s shoulder. “Such ferocity, sugarplum. But in answer to your question, no, they haven’t but they’re ostensibly taking T’Challa on face value. Ross says that there’s more going on under the surface than is readily apparent, which, when I asked him to translate from diplo-speak into plain English, apparently means that in public, they’re all playing happy families but that behind the scenes there are some ultimatums being handed out to T’Challa about what will happen if he fails to contain them.”
“How the hell do you know all of this?” Rhodey demanded.
Tony was silent for a long moment and he snuggled a bit closer. Rhodey wrapped an arm around his shoulders. This was an old dance between them, dating back to their college days. There was a time when Rhodey thought there might be more to it than Tony simply seeking the touch and comfort he’d never gotten at home but then… Howard and Maria had died and Tony had run right off the rails. From then on, Rhodey had only been able to do so much, with his deployments often taking him away for months at a time. He’d come back and find that whatever mileage he’d made in dragging Tony back onto the straight and narrow had long since disappeared. Whatever he’d thought might be growing between them had been lost in the procession of one-night stands and ill-advised relationships that Tony had all but drowned himself in.
Not that he was pining after Tony. He wasn’t that foolish. Tony was his brother in many ways and perhaps once it could have gone deeper than that, but Tony was with Pepper now. Though, now that he thought about it, neither of them seemed inclined to patch up whatever it was that had made them take a break. In fact, if he thought about their interactions since the videos had been released, it was closer to what it had been like before they’d gotten together. Similar but deeper, if he had to put it into words.
He dismissed all of that from his mind and turned his thoughts back to the topic at hand. “Well?” he asked, giving Tony a nudge.
“Everett thought I should know,” Tony replied, his voice a bit distant. “To be honest, I couldn’t care less but he thought that I should be kept in the loop.”
“Do you want me to take over that?” Rhodey offered.
“It’s no big deal,” Rhodey replied then he deliberately let his grin turn wide and slightly malicious. “It’ll give me a good excuse to have a little chat with his royal majesty.”
“Rhodey,” Tony said, shifting to look at him. His tone of voice might have been chiding but the mirth written all over his face told him exactly how he really felt.
“What?” Rhodey slapped an innocent look on his face. “I’ll be nice.”
Tony snorted then shook his head and started laughing. “Fine but don’t come crying to me if it blows up in your face. Those Dora Milaje women are kind of scary.”
“It’ll be fine,” Rhodey said airily before changing the subject. “Now tell me more about these Defenders.”
Steve didn’t much like Wakanda. He’d thought it would be a good place, a safe place. He’d thought T’Challa agreed with him about the Accords and that superheroes shouldn’t be tied up with red tape and stopped from doing their jobs. Instead, it had turned into a prison and T’Challa seemed to be increasingly irritated by his presence and anything he had to say.
What made it all worse that while he was restricted to new, far more Spartan quarters located outside the city, Bucky was still in the palace most of the time. He only came back to their quarters once a week and only stayed for a couple of days. And while he was there, he was quiet and distant and just not… right. Steve wondered if T’Challa’s scientists were… doing something to him but Bucky had refuted that with outright annoyance and irritation, shortly before asking to be called James. That hadn’t assuaged Steve’s worries in the slightest. Bucky had hated being called James.
He was also bored. He couldn’t really train properly since both his uniform and his shield had gone missing during the move to the new quarters. He hadn’t been able to get any answers about where they were. He wasn’t allowed out so he couldn’t go anywhere to train or even to run, though T’Challa had provided a treadmill. It wasn’t the same though. When he’d complained, he’d been provided with books, though they were all on very dry subjects that didn’t seem relevant, like history and something called ‘International Relations’, and though he had a computer with internet access, he’d been informed that his access was restricted.
He hadn’t tested the latter thus far, but the weather was exceedingly hot, and he had little patience for anything else. So, he decided that he might as well see how things were going and try and figure out how far Tony had gotten in bringing all the Avengers back.
He might not like computers very much, but he had learned how to use them during his time at SHIELD, so it didn’t take long to start getting some information. What he saw infuriated him. It didn’t seem like Tony was trying to help them at all! If anything, he seemed to have discarded all of them and was putting together a new team. He was even calling this new team the Avengers.
Even worse, he wasn’t doing anything to help Wanda and Sam and Clint! He found several news articles about their impending trials. The articles all dismissed Sam and Clint as being non-entities, but they were incredibly rude and nasty about Wanda. They all claimed she was still HYDRA and that she’d done terrible things. It frustrated Steve that Wakanda had restricted him so much that he wasn’t able to make an account or even access his email so that he could refute these things. Wanda was a good girl, just a little misguided. That’s why he’d taken her into the Avengers, so she could be shown a better way.
He actually growled under his breath when he saw the article announcing that the Abomination had been accepted as a probationary member of the Avengers and savagely clicked on the video that accompanied the article. It was an interview with Tony about the whole matter.
“Thank you for agreeing to talk to us, Dr Stark,” the woman conducting the interview said.
Tony inclined his head and smiled. “Not at all. I can certainly understand people’s concerns and I want to get the facts out there and not have any misinformation being spread around.”
The woman nodded. “I suppose the first matter to address is the rumour about whether the Avengers are being forced to accept the Abomination.”
Tony was relaxed as he answered. “I’ve heard those rumours myself.” He looked thoughtful. “The Abomination’s situation was complicated. Still is complicated, for that matter. Most people only know him from the incident with the Hulk in Harlem. He was whisked away by former Secretary Ross shortly afterwards and has been held prisoner ever since.”
“No trial?” the interviewer asked, frowning.
“None,” Tony replied. “Which was one of many nails in the coffins of Ross’ career and liberty. The Abomination is no more a mindless monster than the Hulk is and after being reviewed by a psychiatrist who had assessed Emil Blonsky prior to his transformation, it has been concluded that the Abomination’s personality is far more Blonksy than anything else. At least, it is these days. We can’t say what it was before his forced incarceration.”
“Emil Blonksy is the British special forces soldier who became the Abomination,” the interviewer said, and Steve couldn’t figure out if it was a question or a statement. “His transformation was voluntary, wasn’t it?”
Tony grimaced. “That’s another complicated aspect. On the surface, the answer is yes. However, he was not given full information by Ross before he was injected with the serum.”
“Which was the super soldier serum?”
“Yes and no,” Tony replied. “It was one of Ross’ many attempts at reproducing the super soldier serum. From the reports we have and from what the Abomination has told us, the original dose of the serum had only minor effects. It increased his speed and agility and strength but not to any superhuman levels.”
“Blonsky had a run in with the Hulk,” Tony said wryly, and the interviewer looked amused, which Steve thought was uncalled for. “Like many who tried to contain the Hulk, he came off second best. He was thrown into a tree and severely injured. He should have died or, at best, been permanently disabled. Instead, he healed completely. But in the aftermath, that’s when the first stages of the transformation started.”
“In what way?”
“He felt something happening to his spine and saw the beginnings of the spikes he now has,” Tony replied. “He also started feeling some mental effects – paranoia, euphoria, an irrational sense of self-confidence and so on. This culminated in him demanding that Dr Samuel Sterns inject him with some of the serum he’d developed from Dr Banner’s blood.”
“Dr Sterns has disappeared, has he not?” the interviewer asked, looking sober and serious.
Tony nodded and Steve frowned with confusion. Who was this Sterns and why hadn’t Tony mentioned him before? Surely he’d learned his lesson about keeping secrets after the whole Ultron mess. He shook his head and focused on what Tony was saying.
“He has and we’re attempting to track him down. He took all of the serum and counter-serum he’d developed with him and the Accords Council is very concerned about that.” Tony waved a hand. “But back to the Abomination. As you can see, while he did, in fact, volunteer, so to speak, both times, he was also not exactly responsible either. In the first instance, he had not been given full disclosure about the negative effects of the serum, and in the second, he was certainly not in his right mind.”
“But he is now?”
Tony nodded again. “Yes, as far as the doctors and scientists we’ve consulted can tell, the transformation, both physical and mental, has stabilised. Unfortunately, the Abomination does not appear able to transform back into Emil Blonsky. We’re still investigating whether this is psychological, physical or a bit of both.” He paused for a moment then leaned forward slightly. “I must add that we are in no way diminishing or erasing the damage, injuries or deaths he caused in Harlem and he has taken responsibility for them, even though his memories of that time are… hazy. That was shortly after his full transformation and he admits he was more monster than man at the time.”
“But that’s changed.”
“Yes,” Tony said. “I don’t think I could ever say that the Abomination is a particularly nice person or even a good person but he knows right from wrong and some of the parts of his old self, of Emil Blonsky, that he’s been able to recover include his… pride in service, shall we say? He wants to make amends for what he has done through service. He has openly acknowledged his actions and the harm they caused and…” Tony gave a wry smile. “He intends to make a public statement to that effect once things are sorted out.”
“And his role in the Avengers?”
“A suggestion from the Council,” Tony said easily. Far too easily in Steve’s opinion. They shouldn’t be accepting things like the Abomination into the Avengers. “We weren’t blackmailed or coerced or anything else that the rumours have mentioned. The Council felt that it would be best if the Abomination was… properly supervised during his probationary period. Given what happened in Harlem, it was felt that serving that probationary period in the US with the Avengers would be appropriate, given part of his probation is to make some sort of direct reparations to those he harmed. So, a request was made and after careful consideration and some consultation with Dr Elizabeth Ross, we agreed.”
The interviewer looked intrigued. “What will the probation involve?”
“Well, the damage from his fight with the Hulk has largely been repaired but we’ve been consulting with some people from Harlem, led by Luke Cage from the Defenders, and they’ve come up with some good ideas.” He grinned. “I’ll leave the details to the appropriate press conference.”
The interviewer nodded and glanced down at the notepad in her hands. When she looked up, her gaze was more intent. “In a recent press release from the Avengers, it was stated that once the Rogues have had their trials and served any penalties applied, they may be considered for employment as Avengers once again, provided they follow the same rules and regs as everyone else.” She paused and Tony nodded for her to continue. “The same press release also stated that the only exception to that was Wanda Maximoff, who would not be considered for membership under any capacity. Given what is happening with the Abomination, there are some murmurs of hypocrisy. What can you say to that?”
Steve frowned. “You can’t exclude Wanda, Tony,” he said to the screen. “It’s not right. She’s only a kid and you owe her.”
There was no response to that, but Tony sat up a bit and looked sober and serious. “There’s no hypocrisy at all. While there are some superficial similarities between them, their cases are entirely different.”
“In what way?”
“While they were both ill-informed volunteers, Blonsky volunteered for a procedure being carried out by an ally. Maximoff, on the other hand, volunteered to be experimented on by a neo-Nazi group.”
“There are reports she didn’t know that at the time.”
“That may be true,” Tony said, nodding slightly. “However, one of the abilities she received from the experiment carried out on her and her brother is the ability to read other people’s minds. She may not have known that she’d signed up for HYDRA before the experiments, but she knew afterwards. She stayed anyway. Not only stayed but was a willing and even eager participant in their experiments on other people and in missions.”
The interviewer looked surprised. “You sound very certain of that.”
Tony nodded. “During my recent… absence, I had time to start digging through the data dump.” He grimaced. “You all know the secret Rogers kept from me. I wanted to know what else had been kept from me and from other people.”
Steve shifted uneasily and then scowled. Zemo had no right to put that video on the internet. It was private and it was entirely unfair that he was compromising Bucky’s welfare like that.
“Anyway,” Tony was saying. “It turned out that there were plenty of records available about Maximoff’s time with HYDRA, her training and what she did for them.” He shuddered. “It’s not pleasant viewing. It’s all gone to the ICC and to her lawyer for them to deal with as they will.”
“You’re not involved?”
“I’ll be a witness,” Tony replied, “since I was a victim of her mind-manipulation but I’ll only be one of many testifying.” He held up one hand. “I’m afraid I can’t speak any further on that subject until her trial is over.” He flipped his hand then lowered it. “But back to the Abomination. He has actually caused less in the way of damage, injuries and deaths than Maximoff has, albeit because he was caged after Harlem. And unlike Maximoff, he has willingly taken responsibility for the things he has done and is willing to make amends for them.”
“No regrets?” the interviewer asked with a raised eyebrow.
Tony smiled wryly. “He says he can’t regret actions he was only barely aware of. He says he was a different creature back then.”
“I’m withholding judgement,” Tony said. He smiled again, more genuinely this time. “I’m a big fan of the Hulk so I know that the transformation doesn’t create a monster, however I’ve also seen the Hulk almost mindless with fear and anger so I know that they can act like monsters.” He held out his hands. “But then again, can’t we all? Monster isn’t in what you look like, it’s in your actions. Equally so, being a hero isn’t about whether you’re an inherently ‘good’ person. It’s in your actions. What you do defines whether or not you’re a hero or villain.”
Steve frowned. He didn’t really agree with that. A good person was going to do good things. If they were a good person, how could they do otherwise? He just didn’t believe that a good person could do bad things. That’s how he knew Wanda was a good person. When it came down to it, she had helped them. That was the proof right there.
“So,” Tony continued, “I’m willing to give the Abomination a chance. His probationary period is five years. He’ll be assessed at that point and the probationary period will either be continued, or he’ll be free to do what he wants. If he breaks the conditions of his probation, he goes to the new Enhanced prison that will be built in the Netherlands.” He looked intrigued. “Which was a good choice. They’re very big on incarceration being an opportunity for rehabilitation, not punishment. It’ll be interesting to see how it works with people who might be called ‘supervillians’. I hope they succeed.”
“Speaking of supervillians,” the interviewer said. “It was revealed just yesterday that Rogers and Barnes are being contained in Wakanda. What do you think about that?”
“I’m trying not to,” Tony said to the interviewer’s obvious surprise. Steve frowned. What did Tony mean by that?
“You… don’t care?” the interviewer said with raised eyebrows.
“I didn’t say that,” Tony replied with a small, mirthless smile. “But I’m hardly an unbiased party. Colonel Rhodes, while not unbiased either, is far more objective than I am so he’s handling that aspect of our dealings with the Council.” He drew in a breath then let it out. “I can intellectually feel some sympathy for Barnes. He was a prisoner of war. He was tortured for seventy years. He was brainwashed and coerced and forced to become a weapon for HYDRA. He’s finally gotten free and I imagine he’s struggling to figure out who he is now.”
Steve scowled. “He’s Bucky Barnes, Tony. He can’t be anyone else.”
Tony sighed and leaned back in his chair. “But emotionally… he killed my Mom and Dad. Well, Sergeant James Barnes didn’t, but the Winter Soldier did. Unfortunately, they share the same body so, emotionally… it’s hard.”
The interviewer looked sympathetic. “I can imagine.”
“That being said,” Tony continued. “The incidents in Bucharest, the Leipzig/Halle airport and Siberia are a different kettle of fish. He wasn’t the Winter Soldier when he caused considerable damage, injuries and death in those places. However, we don’t know what his mental state was or how much mental autonomy he actually had. It may be he was simply following Rogers’ lead.” He grimaced. “It’s… complicated and not exactly my wheelhouse. For many reasons.”
“Of course,” the interviewer said kindly. “And Steve Rogers?”
Tony’s face hardened and Steve shivered when he saw it. He’d seen Tony’s face with that expression on it before, but they were almost exclusively in pictures from before Afghanistan. That was the face of the Merchant of Death.
“Both I and Stark Industries will be seeking to bring charges of obstruction of justice, fraud and embezzlement against Steve Rogers, as well as charges of obstruction of justice against Natasha Romanov. They both knew the truth about my parents’ murders and Rogers authorised the use of money that had been provided by myself personally, as well as Stark Industries money, for his personal agenda. Money that was to be used for the Avengers, not his private little crusade.” He paused. “I understand that the federal government is exploring whether charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation are warranted as well.” He shrugged. “I have no idea whether or not they’ll stick but I do know that Rogers’ actions, his insistence on secrecy regarding Barnes, allowed Zemo to carry out his plan with such success. Had Rogers brought things out into the light from the moment he found out, Barnes would not have been there for Zemo to use as a pawn in his game. Barnes would have been safe and sound and the whole… civil war…” He said the words with distaste. “…would have never happened.”
Steve jabbed at the computer to shut it down and he turned away. That last bit… that was a thought that had occurred to him more than once. That if he’d been honest, maybe everything that had happened would have… not happened.
He got up and started pacing. No. No, he had been right to do what he did. Tony would have gone crazy if he’d told him back after SHIELD fell. He could be irrational at the best of times, after all. He would have gone crazy and tried to kill Bucky. Steve wouldn’t… couldn’t… allow that to happen. He had to keep Bucky safe. No, he’d done the right thing by keeping it a secret and this was just Tony throwing a tantrum about it and proving that Steve was right.
He drew in a deep breath and then let it out slow as he nodded to himself. Yes, he’d done the right thing. It didn’t matter how many petulant interviews Tony gave; the public would soon see that Steve had done the right thing. All he had to do was wait.
Natasha crouched just outside the fence of the Compound and contemplated the buildings within. Tony had been busy while she was away. There were new buildings and more people moving between those buildings. There was also a new outdoor training area that was currently populated by what looked like the Fantastic Four. The whole thing was impressive and also a little annoying. It was going to be far more difficult to corner Tony if there were a lot of people around and she really needed to get to him without anyone else being there. If she could get him on her own, she could twist him around enough to get him to bring her back. She didn’t really care if he trusted her or even if he wanted her there, just as long as she was safe. She was, after all, a much better bet than the Abomination. And being safe was the only thing that mattered after the last few weeks of having to evade old enemies… and old colleagues who were now enemies.
She watched things for a moment longer then sighed and realised she was going to have to wait. Surely not all these people lived here, and it was would be much easier once they were gone. She boosted herself up into a nearby tree and found a relatively comfortable position to wait. It would probably be easier to do this at night anyway. Wait until Tony was tired and over-caffeinated and his defences were down. And his friends were asleep. That would just make things easier for her and ensure no interruptions.
A branch cracked behind her and she twisted around to see what had caused it. There was nothing there at first, then a rabbit darted across the ground underneath her and she relaxed again, settling herself comfortably in the tree. Nothing to be concerned about.
As she watched, a few others joined the Fantastic Four on the training grounds, including Tony in his Iron Man armour and, much to her surprise, Rhodes in his War Machine armour. The last she’d heard Rhodes was likely to be permanently disabled. She hadn’t thought he’d ever get back in the suit.
The group ran through a number of scenarios and Natasha found herself reluctantly impressed. The Fantastic Four had some wide-ranging abilities and they seemed to work seamlessly with Tony, Rhodes and the man and woman who had joined them. Natasha didn’t recognise the last two. The woman had seemed utterly ordinary until she’d sent the Thing flying. Obviously, some sort of super strength, which was concerning. If they could replace Steve, they could potentially replace all of them and she needed people to believe that they were irreplaceable if she were to get things back to normal.
The unknown man was even more concerning. He stayed on the sidelines initially, looking like he was assessing what was going on, then he abruptly launched himself into the fray. He seemed closer to the normal spectrum in terms of strength and speed but when it came to agility and reflexes, he looked close to what she was capable of. He was wearing a red suit that had a weird devil theme but it had a look about it that made her think that it was one Tony had made, which meant it probably had all sorts of tricks to it.
The group continued their training for about an hour before coming to a halt. They stayed on the training ground, clearly doing some sort of immediate debrief and discussion based on the way they were pointing and gesturing, then they headed inside with an obvious air of companionable satisfaction.
Things got rather boring then, with the only up-tick in activity coming as people left work and headed home. Based on the number who left, there didn’t seem to be many people remaining in the building and certainly she hadn’t seen a car that might feasibly be Tony’s leave, so she felt confident that he was still at the Compound.
She still waited though, as the darkness settled around her. Waited until almost all the lights in the Compound were out and it seemed silent. Only then did she carefully climb out of the tree and drop to the ground. She did a few stretches then crept forward to the fence. It took only a moment to cut her way in and then she readied herself to sprint across the open garden, mentally cursing Tony for keeping like that even if it did provide a pleasing field of fire that she would have appreciated if she was on the other end of the equation.
She was halfway across the grounds when she became aware of thundering footsteps behind her and she turned just in time to see a grinning Abomination scoop her up and dangle her in mid-air by one ankle.
“Caught me a little spider,” the Abomination said, sounding very amused.
The lights on the Compound bloomed into life and Tony and Rhodes walked out to join them. Rhodes was giving her a very cold look, but Tony just looked amused. Natasha felt her hopes rise.
“Nice work, big guy,” Tony said, patting the Abomination on the arm. He looked at Natasha and smirked, his eyes turning very cold, and she felt those hopes started to die. The amusement had been at her expense. “Well, well, for a supposed super spy, you’re really not very good at your job. You practically had the big guy breathing down your neck the whole evening and you never noticed. And he’s hard not to notice.”
“I blend in,” the Abomination said with a chuckle. “Among the trees, I’m hard to see.”
Tony gave him an assessing look and then nodded. “Good point. I stand corrected.”
“Tony,” Natasha began.
“Nope,” Tony said, cutting her off with a sharp gesture. “There is nothing you can say that will convince me to help you. I’ve tried that in the past and all you do is stab me in the back. I’m over it.” He looked at the Abomination. “Big Bomb, can you take her down to the cells and put her in one – gently – while we wait for the authorities to arrive.”
The Abomination nodded. “You got it, boss.”
Natasha was forced to endure being hung upside down all the way to the cells before she was placed with a surprising amount of gentleness into a cell. The Abomination ambled out and the door sealed shut behind him with a decisive click.
“Wait!” Natasha said hurriedly, wondering if she could work on him. “We can help you. You don’t need to be cooped up here.”
The Abomination cut her off with his laughter. It was loud and crude and he grinned at her. “Foolish spider. Did you really think I’m as stupid as your old boyfriend? I’ve got a good deal here and I made it myself. Why would I run off with you and become a fugitive again?”
“We won’t always be fugitives,” Natasha snapped. “Captain America…”
“Is a criminal and a terrorist,” the Abomination said with amusement. “So am I but I’ve got more sense than him. I turned myself in and negotiated a deal.” He grinned, wide and just slightly viciously. “I know how to compromise.”
Natasha’s lips thinned. Talking to the Abomination wasn’t like talking to the Hulk. The Hulk was easily convinced, as long as you stayed on his good side, but the Abomination was shrewd and far cleverer than she’d expected.
“We…” she began but she was cut off by the Abomination making a loud, rude noise.
“You don’t got dick,” he said bluntly. “You’re a fugitive and a criminal. You’re facing a shit ton of charges and you really think you have anything to bargain with?”
He laughed at her then turned around and lumbered down the corridor, slamming the door shut behind him with a satisfying clang. Natasha growled under her breath and slammed her fist against the glass wall. She wasn’t trying to break it – she knew this glass and knew it could certainly stand up to Steve’s strength, hell, even the Hulk would take some effort to break it – just alleviate her frustration. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Tony was supposed to have her back, even if he didn’t want to. That was how it always went. She’d spent a lot of time manipulating him to make sure he reacted that way. To have it fail now was galling.
She made a frustrated sound and forced herself to calm down. Tony would come. She knew him, better than he knew himself. He would come because he wouldn’t be able to help himself and when he did, she’d be able to get the upper hand. She’d have to put on the appropriate show of contrition, but Tony was predictable.
While she was able to pull a façade of calm over herself, she wasn’t able to settle herself enough to stop pacing. She quickly affected a small limp, as thought she’d been injured by the Abomination’s handling. She wasn’t hurt at all, he’d been very careful with her despite all appearances to contrary, but it would look better when Tony got here.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she heard the door open. She quickly stopped pacing and came over to the glass, affecting a look of weary resignation.
“Tony,” she began before she registered that the person who had entered was not Tony. She fell silent as Everett Ross walked down the corridor, a cohort of armed agents in his wake. There was no sign of Tony.
“Ms Romanov,” Ross said dryly, looking like he’d rather be anywhere other than here. “You’re in breach of your contract with the Accords Council.”
He stepped back and waved one of the agents with him forward. Natasha opened her mouth to say something but the agent didn’t break step as he reeled off her rights and then waved his people forward. Natasha gave some thought to making a break for it when they opened the door to her cell but she caught sight of the sardonic look on Ross’ face and realised if she tried, the result would probably be embarrassing and she’d regret it. She decided it would be best to play along for now and take her chance at a later date.
The agents who cuffed her were not particularly gentle about it and she was quickly marched out of the cell and through the corridors of the Compound. She tried to subtly look around, hoping to find Tony but there was no sight of him and when the doors to the Compound closed behind her and she was hustled into the waiting van, she could help but feel a shiver of apprehension slide down her spine. Tony would come. Wouldn’t he?
Tony watched the van drive off with Ross, his agents and Romanov and was surprised and rather pleased that he felt more or less indifferent to the sight. He didn’t feel the need to run off and play white knight for Romanov and he trusted Ross enough that he was certain she’d have access to a lawyer.
“What are the odds that she escapes?” Rhodey said dryly from beside him.
Tony snorted. “Fifty-fifty,” he replied.
Tony shot him a quick grin. “I might have warned Ross about her many tricks and that he probably shouldn’t let any green agents anywhere near her. This Ross is a lot sharper than old Thunderbutt so he paid attention to me.”
Rhodey chuckled. “Well, that’ll give her a challenge anyway.” He paused. “What’s the bet she was waiting for you to come and bail her out?”
“No bet,” Tony said with a snort. “She’ll be waiting for a cold day in hell. She knew.”
Rhodey stilled. “You’re sure?”
Tony nodded. “She was there at the time, went on all of Rogers’ Bucky hunts and FRIDAY dug up footage of her handing over the Winter Soldier’s file to Rogers.”
Rhodey was silent for a moment then he lightly bumped shoulders with Tony. “Screw her then. Ross can have her.”
They stood in silence for a moment, looking at the view of the outside of the Compound in the early morning light.
“The Abomination did well,” Rhodey finally said.
Tony jerked as though he’d been miles away. He drew in a deep breath then let it out again. “Yeah, he did. Jess and Luke pushed his temper the other day and he growled at them but still controlled his strength.”
“Guess he was serious about this whole reform thing.”
“We might get a few more of his ilk crawling out of the woodwork.”
Tony nodded. “They’ll have to go through process the Council is drawing up.”
“Mhmm,” Rhodey replied, nodding his head.
Tony sighed and leaned against the other man. “Alright, go on. I know you’re dying to ask.”
Rhodey paused. “What happened with Pepper?”
Tony sighed again and steadfastly looked out the window. “We’ve split officially. She’s…” He ran a hand down his face. “I love her, you know, but I realised I’m not in love with her. And I don’t even know when it changed.”
“Looked relieved,” Tony said dryly. “Which I feel like I should be offended by but she… she deserves the best and I… can’t be that for her.”
“You are the best,” Rhodey said as he wrapped an arm around Tony’s shoulders. “You’re just not her best.”
Tony smiled sadly and leaned into Rhodey properly. “Yeah, pretty much. Why do I suck so much at relationships?”
Rhodey was quiet for a minute. “You just haven’t found the right person yet.”
Tony made a sour noise but before he could say anything, there was a voice from behind them.
“We found Romanov’s hidey-hole.”
Tony and Rhodey separated and turned to face Jessica Jones, who was watching them with a kind of restrained amusement that Tony couldn’t decipher. But it was Jess. If she wanted him to know, she’d tell him. If she didn’t, she’d tell him to fuck off. She was direct like that. He liked her immensely.
“Anything interesting?” Tony asked.
Jessica nodded. “Got a laptop. It’s encrypted though. Can you and your girl FRIDAY crack it?”
Tony snorted. “Can birds fly?”
“Not all of them,” Jess shot back. “Alright, smart guy. Impress me.”
Tony grinned at her. “Prepare to be astounded.”
He followed Jess down the corridor, bickering amiably back and forth with her while Rhodey trailing behind, watching them both fondly, and put all thought of Natasha Romanov out of his mind.
Tony shot up in the air and viewed the battlefield from above. The portal that had opened in Central Park and started spewing out Doombots had initially been the problem of the Fantastic Four. However, Doom appeared to be particularly exercised about something this time and they’d quickly called in the Defenders for support when the Doombots didn’t stop coming and they couldn’t find the source of the portal. When Reed had finally found the source, he’d taken one look at it, blanched and called in Tony and the rest of the Avengers. When Tony had seen the source of the portal, he’d sworn vociferously and shot out the window.
“Oh, Honeybear… sweety pumpkin… sugar pie?” he said in a singsong voice over the comms.
There was a moment of silence. “Oh god. What’s gone wrong?” Rhodey then said grimly.
“You know the thing creating the portal?”
“Yeah?” Rhodey said warily. “What about it?”
“It’s rigged to a very large bomb.”
Rhodey paused a beat as he shot down a couple of Doombots. “And?”
“If Reed and I defuse the bomb, the portal will be jammed open. However, if we close the portal, the bomb will go off.”
“Shit,” Rhodey said after he’d absorbed that information. “Can you move it?”
Tony frowned. “Reed?”
“Uh, maybe,” Reed replied, sounding slightly distracted. “But it’s going to be difficult. The portal won’t stay where it is if we move the machine and the bomb.”
Tony grimaced. He knew what had to be going through Rhodey’s mind. Right now, they were managing to contain the Doombots to the park and Ben and the Abomination were going to town on the trapped bots, leaving a lot of very small bot-pieces all over the place in their wake. Other than tearing up the park a bit, they’d kept the damage to the minimum. However, if they dragged the portal across New York, the damage was going to increase exponentially and they’d risk hurting or killing people.
“How big an explosion are we talking about?” Rhodey asked.
“Big,” Tony and Reed said in unison then Tony continued, “I don’t think the Mayor will be happy with us if we take out half of Central Park.”
“What if we go up?” Rhodey asked. “Take it straight up then close the portal.”
“It’s workable but it’s going to need you, me and Jess.”
“Not me?” Johnny asked, pouting a little.
“We don’t need to set it on fire,” Tony said dryly. “But you’re going to have to take over the job of keeping the Doombots on the ground.”
“Right,” Johnny said tightly.
Tony understood that reaction. Right now, it was taking all four of the flyers on the team – himself, Rhodey, Johnny and Jessica – to keep the swarming bots within reach of the two heavy hitters, while everyone else formed the perimeter. Johnny was going to have a hell of a job on his hands to keep them grounded on his own.
“We can’t do it with just you and me?” Rhodey asked.
“No,” Tony said. “It’s going to need someone holding the bomb, someone holding the portal machine and someone shutting things down.”
“I can do it,” Johnny said just before Sue said, “If everyone can bring them in closer, I should be able to throw a shield over them. I won’t be able to hold it for long, but it should be long enough.”
“Okay,” Rhodey said before he put on his command voice. “Reed get back out here and help herd the bots into a central position then everyone, hold them there for as long as you can. Jess, head down to the machine. Tony and I will join you.”
Tony flew down to where the portal machine was and got there just before Jess and Rhodey.
“Jess, take the machine,” he said, pointing to the boxy contraption. “Rhodey, grab the bomb.”
The three of them took off, heading straight up until Tony judged they were far enough to ensure the explosion wouldn’t hurt anyone and wouldn’t do any damage beyond perhaps blowing a few upper level windows out as a worst case scenario. He then hovered in front of the portal machine and ripped off the front panel. He kept his faceplate down but drew the gloves back so he could get his hands into the machine.
“Okay,” he said as he separated wires and found the ones he was looking for. “Once I yank these out, we’re going to have five seconds to get clear. Rhodey…?”
“Yeah, I’m on it,” Rhodey said as he gripped the bomb with one arm and pulled some small discs away from his armour. He attached them to the bomb then shifted so he could attach them to the portal machine as well. “They’ll propel these things up for a short period,” he said to Jess.
“Good call,” she said, holding the machine as steady as she could. “I’m going to just drop straight down.”
Tony nodded then he got a good grip on the wires. “Ready?” He waited until they nodded. “Okay, on three. One, two, three!”
He yanked the wires out and slapped the discs to activate them. As he did, he swore.
“We’ve only got…”
Before he could finish that sentence…
Tony was sent tumbling by the shockwave of the explosion and FRIDAY glitched out momentarily. “Shit! FRI! Stabilisers!”
“On it, boss,” FRIDAY replied as he came out of the mid-air tumble. “Boss…”
Tony saw it at the same time. Rhodey hadn’t stabilised and was…
“Rhodey!” Tony screamed, fear clutching at his chest as he went into an immediate dive. Memories of Leipzig crowding his head and making him scream. “Nonononononono!”
Something flashed below him and Jessica shot past and grabbed hold of Rhodey’s wrist. Her curses blistered the air as she was yanked down, the heavy armour defeating even her ability to remain aloft. But she slowed his fall just enough. Tony slammed into the War Machine armour as Johnny careered over and whirled in a tight circle beneath them, the sudden upswell of hot air bustling them. Tony swore and wrapped his arms tighter around Rhodey’s armour, firing the boot repulsors fiercely until he had them under control. Jessica appeared again and grabbed Rhodey from the other side and between them, they lowered the heavy armour and the man inside it down to the ground.
It was only then that they saw what had happened. There was a small dent in the side of Rhodey’s helmet. A piece of either the bomb or the portal machine must have struck him during the explosion. Tony practically leapt out of his suit once Rhodey was on the ground and flicked the quick release on Rhodey’s helmet, making it retract completely back into the armour except for a section at the back, which kept his head steady.
“FRIDAY?” Tony said urgently, his voice shaking.
“His vitals are good, boss,” FRIDAY said earnestly from Tony’s armour. “The medical team is on the way and should be here in a couple of minutes. Dr Richards reports that the Doombots all deactivated when the portal closed and he, the Defenders and the Abomination are starting clean up, Ms Storm is liaising with the police and Mr Rand is handling the press.”
Tony spared a moment to reflect on how nice it was to work with people who didn’t expect him to do all the work in the aftermath before he turned his attention to Rhodey.
“Platypus?” he said, ignoring the way his voice wobbled and wavered. “Rhodey bear?”
Rhodey’s eyes flickered then slowly opened. “Tones?” he said, his voice a little muddy and slurred.
“Hey, gumdrop,” Tony said with a tremulous smile. “I’m putting a damn parachute in your suit. I don’t care what you say about it.”
“’Kay,” Rhodey replied. He raised a hand towards his head, but Tony quickly intercepted it.
“You’ll clobber yourself if you try that,” he said. “You got hit by something.”
“Yeah,” Rhodey said slowly. “That countdown sucked.”
Tony gave a breathy laugh. “Yeah, one last fuck you from Doom, I guess.”
Rhodey sighed and closed his eyes. “He sucks.”
“Yeah.” Tony sagged a little with sheer relief. “You’re going to be okay, sugarplum.”
Rhodey didn’t react but Tony jerked his head around to stare at Jessica, whom he’d completely forgotten was there. She was giving him an enormous shit-eating grin.
“What?” he said, caught between confusion and a deep rabbity feeling of panic that dated back decades and had ‘Howard Stark’ written all over it. Not that Howard had been homophobic, he’d just had expectations of his son that had involved heirs and dynasties and definitely no boyfriends.
Jessica waved a hand, her grin widening a little more. “Isn’t this the time you two go for the life-affirming kiss?”
“I… but… we’re…” Tony spluttered before pulling himself together. “We’re not… together. Rhodey’s not interested in m…”
He broke off and shook his head but before either of them could say anything more, the medical team came running up to them and Tony turned his attention to helping them stablise Rhodey and get him out of the suit.
Jessica watched with curiosity as the medical team bundled Rhodes into the waiting ambulance and Tony climbed in after them. FRIDAY flew the two suits of armours off to the Compound and Johnny landed beside her in a wash of flames and heat.
“Did he really say that they’re not together?” he said dubiously.
Jessica nodded. She’d been aware that the general comms were still open and everyone had heard all of that. “Yup.”
“He’s kidding, right? All the cuddling and the cutesy names and the mooning after each other and the heart eyes and they’re not together?”
“Yup,” Jessica repeated then her eyes narrowed. “What I can’t figure out is whether he was going to say ‘Rhodey isn’t interested in men’ or ‘Rhodey isn’t interested in me’.”
Johnny blinked. “Well, neither of those are true.”
“Yeah, but one’s easier to work with than the other.”
Johnny shook his head and chuckled. “And here I thought Reed and Sue were oblivious. They were practically well-adjusted compared to those two.” He cocked his head curiously at Jessica. “You’ve never struck me as the match-making type.”
“I’m not,” she said with a snort. “But if I have to put up with those two pining at each other from across the room for one more minute, I’m going to scream and then bang their heads together and then Pepper will kill me for knocking them both out.”
“Pepper’s a scary, scary woman,” Johnny said sagely. “And I say that with Sue as my sister.”
“Yeah,” Jessica replied. “She’s hot though.”
“Who? Pepper or Sue?”
Johnny looked scandalised. “You called my sister hot?”
Jessica raised an eyebrow right back at him. “You’re saying she isn’t?”
“She’s my sister,” Johnny said, looking pained. “Stop saying things like that about my sister. It’s bad enough watching her and Reed kiss.”
“Aww, poor ickle Johnny,” Jessica said, laughing as she caught him in a headlock. “Not only do you have the poor taste to look way too much like Rogers, you have to face the fact your sister is a sexy, sexy woman.”
Johnny flailed and squawked, much to the amusement of Jessica and everyone else who was watching them, before bursting into laughter. Jessica finally let him go and he gave her friendly shove. She shoved right back, and they tussled for a moment before settling down again.
“So, we’re going to do this matchmaking thing, right?” Johnny said, raising an eyebrow.
Jessica didn’t say a word, just grinned at him, and Johnny burst into laughter once again.
When Rhodey woke up in a hospital bed, he couldn’t, at first, remember why he was there. It was only when the pain localised in his head and he realised that nothing else was hurt that it came back to him – the Doombots, the portal, the bomb, a premature explosion and something hitting his helmet. He winced and grunted and then flinched when a glass was suddenly shoved into his field of view.
“Oops, sorry,” came a familiar but unexpected voice and he turned to see Sue Storm sitting by his bedside with a glass of water in one hand and a small paper cup with a couple of pills in it in her other hand.
“Whuh,” he croaked before sighing and taking the glass. The water felt like ambrosia going down and the pills followed quickly. “Where’s Tony?”
Sue sighed and her expression was so frighteningly familiar that Rhodey’s next words escaped without thought.
“What’s Johnny done now?”
Sue blinked then surprised him by laughing and patting him on the shoulder. “It’s not Johnny.”
Sue hesitated and chewed on her bottom lip for a moment before she quite obviously girded her loins and decided to take the bull by the horns. It was fascinating – and just a little unnerving – to watch.
“Jim?” she said delicately. “How long have you been in love with Tony?”
Rhodey gaped at her. “I… what?”
“And how long has he been in love with you?” she continued remorselessly.
“What… he… this…”
Rhodey broke off and took a deep breath and then a long drink of his water. He reached up to touch the bandage on his forehead and briefly wondered if this was just a dream or maybe he’d been transported into another dimension or something. He didn’t see any reason to deny that he was in love with Tony. That… was kind of a given and while he didn’t really acknowledge it much these days, it was always there.
“Tony’s not in love with me,” he said as patiently as his headache allowed.
Sue raised an eyebrow that was so dubious, Rhodey almost began to doubt everything he’d ever said and thought in the last decade. It was impressive and he wondered how often she used it on Reed, Johnny and Ben and how effective it was against them. Probably very from the look of it.
“He’s not,” he reiterated but even he would admit that he didn’t sound quite so convincing anymore. “I mean, I know he likes men as much as he does women, but he’s never shown any interest in me. And then there’s Pepper.”
Sue rolled her eyes. “He and Pepper split up. You know that. You were the first one to know outside of those two. And that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I’m not actually sure what you’re talking about,” Rhodey admitted.
Sue gave him a steady look and then sighed. “He put on quite the performance once he and Jessica got you to the ground. That wasn’t the reaction of a man worried about his friend.”
“It’s… not the first time I’ve fallen,” Rhodey said slowly. “We both have bad memories of the first time.”
“I know,” Sue replied. “But that was still not the reaction of a man worried about his friend.”
“What was it then?” Rhodey asked, hedging around the issue for a moment.
Sue didn’t let him escape. Instead, she handed him the tablet that was on the bedside table. “FRIDAY, please play the footage from the Iron Man armour.”
“With pleasure, Ms Storm,” FRIDAY said, sounding very amused.
Rhodey gave Sue a sour look then watched the aftermath of his second (and hopefully last) fall and… yeah. Okay, he could see why Sue had asked the questions she had. That was a bit above and beyond even Tony’s usual level of dramatics and his reaction to Jess’ comment was… interesting.
“So, how long have you been in love with him?” Sue asked sympathetically.
“Since MIT,” he replied, giving in finally. “I mean, not at the beginning, he was just a kid and someone had to look out for him and not take advantage of him but sometime after he turned seventeen, I realised that it… could be something more on my side. I’d wondered sometimes about how he felt but…” He sighed. “Sue, he barely knew how a positive relationship worked when he got to college. So, I just shoved everything into a box except for ‘friend’ and ‘brother’ because that’s what he needed back then.”
“So why not say something later?”
“Because his parents died,” Rhodey said flatly. Sue winced and he waved a hand. “His parents died and Tony… went off the rails. Grief, anger, guilt… it all compounded and I wasn’t there as often as I wanted to be. When I was there, I could get him straightened out and relatively sober but when I was on deployment…” He shrugged and shook his head. “He’d backslide. I know now that it wasn’t always his fault but he wasn’t in a place where he was willing to accept anything… real. He was hurting too much.” He smiled ruefully. “And he would have balked at doing anything that might have risked my career, no matter what I would have said. He might have played the spoiled brat around the edges – and god knows I got irritated with him enough about that – but when push came to shove, he never did anything that might make me look bad in front of the brass. And if something like that was at risk, he would take the blame and manoeuvre everything so that I looked golden and squeaky clean.”
Sue smiled. “Sounds like he was in love with you before he even knew he was in love with you.”
Rhodey got a rather pained expression on his face. “Sue… he’s not…”
Rhodey drew in a breath at that hesitant, tremulous question. Sue’s eyes went wide and she quickly got to her feet.
“I’ll… leave you two to sort this out,” she said hurriedly and she quickly eeled past Tony, who was still staring Rhodey with an expression he refused to define.
“Tones,” he said softly. One hand twitched on the blankets. He wanted to reach out, but he was half-afraid that any move he made would spook Tony and send him running. God knows it had happened in the past.
“You’re… in love with me?”
Tony sounded incredulous and yet there was a thin thread of hope in those words that gave Rhodey the impetus to say what he did.
“You… never said anything.”
Now Tony’s tone was more neutral and his expression was a familiar one. He was bracing himself for rejection. Rhodey had seen that look more times that he cared to remember, usually after someone had gotten what they wanted from Tony and were now discarding him. The only reason that he hadn’t punched most, if not all, of those people in the face was because Tony had never wanted him to. Then again, Tony was always too forgiving.
“I didn’t think you saw me that way,” he said quietly but honestly.
Tony ran a hand down his face and leaned against the doorway. He gave a small helpless laugh. “I didn’t think you saw me that way.” He shrugged a little. “And your career…”
Rhodey sighed and now he held his hand out. “Sounds like we’ve both been idiots then.”
Tony’s smile was small but very real. “So all my nicknames can really mean it now?”
He inched his way into the room a little more until Rhodey gave him an impatient look then he almost tumbled over to the bed and crawled onto it, curling into Rhodey much the same way he’d done months ago in Germany but for much better reasons.
“You mean they didn’t before?” Rhodey said wryly.
Tony was silent for a moment. “Well… maybe,” he admitted before snuggling closer. “But now they’ll really mean it.”
“Good,” Rhodey said, hugging Tony closer. “Now, tell me what happened after I fell and why the hell does Sue know all of this?”
“Sue knows everything,” Tony said seriously. “She’s scary that way. One day she and Pepper are going to join forces and take over the world and I, for one, welcome our new Queens.”
Rhodey snorted and then laughed. “Me too. Now spill.”
Rhodey strode along the corridor of the United Nations building in The Hague and quietly enjoyed the fact that he was walking at all. Something he’d been doing ever since the incident at Leipzig. The final verdict on his spine had been far better than anyone had ever expected. No major damage, no severing, just a ton of bruising and swelling. His physical therapy was going well and while he’d probably never walk for any length of time unaided even with his best-case outcome, he no longer needed the wheelchair or even crutches. A cane sufficed for the bad days and Tony’s braces were more than enough to allow him to even get rid of the cane.
The braces were, in Rhodey’s mind, classic Tony Stark engineering. They were sleek, minimalistic and at the cutting edge of technology but they were also comfortable, useful and, now that the prototypes were working to both his and Tony’s satisfaction, able to be morphed into a variety of related functions. Stark Industries had already entered into partnerships with a number of hospitals around the world to start testing applications and refine requirements. They had the potential to revolutionise the prosthetics industry. Tony, being Tony, was just kicking himself that he hadn’t thought of this application of the Iron Man technology sooner.
Even better, the braces gave him the ability to stride along corridors the way he always had – with a military precision and gait that made people unconsciously recognise his authority, a useful thing in the UN with its endless politics and diplomatic manoeuvring. It also gave the new look Avengers an image of strength, that you could knock them down, but they’d get right back up. Rhodey wasn’t actually overly fond of playing the image game, one of the few areas where he partially agreed with Rogers, however, unlike Rogers, he recognised its value, worth and necessity, particularly on the international stage.
He gave a nod to the young security officer on duty at the door to the Accord Council meeting room and smothered his smile as the young man straightened and saluted – badly – before scrambling and opening the door for him.
His eyes narrowed slightly when he saw that T’Challa had decided to attend this meeting, most likely due to the fact that the Rogues were on the agenda. The Council had given T’Challa a torrid time when he’d admitted that he was housing Rogers and Barnes. Rhodey hadn’t been there for it but Tony had filled him in when he’d taken over the role of dealing with the UN. Tony had been a bit ambivalent about the whole thing but Rhodey sure as hell wasn’t. T’Challa had been a shitty ally even before he’d given Rogers and Barnes sanctuary in his country. He also knew T’Challa had given some kind of sanctimonious speech about forgiveness and mercy to Tony before things had blown up in his face with the Council. Tony wouldn’t talk about the speech much but Rhodey could figure out the gist of it anyway – do what I say, not what I do. Thankfully, Tony might not want to talk about it, but he wasn’t taking it to heart either. Rhodey was encouraging that.
He exchanged greetings with a number of the Ambassadors who sat on the Council then took his place as the representative of the US Enhanced. T’Challa sat opposite him and Rhodey could help but notice that the young king kept glancing at him. He wasn’t sure what T’Challa wanted but whatever it was, Rhodey had no intention of making it easy for him.
“If the Council would please come to order,” the current chairperson of the Council, a Japanese woman called Michiko Takanage said, lightly tapping a small gavel against the table to get everyone’s attention. “Thank you. Now, we have a busy schedule for today’s meeting. Let us begin.”
Rhodey sat through the interminable debate about various amendments, making suggestions where it was prudent and calmly calling out some of the more militant ambassadors when needed. As backhanded as it was, the release of the video about the murder of the Starks had given Tony’s group more weight in their arguments and completely discredited anything that Rogers stood for or might eventually say. It certainly made things easier when dealing with the Council, though how long that would last was anyone’s guess. Rhodey knew that gratitude, sympathy and all other such things had a short half-life on the international stage.
It took the better part of two hours but the discussion regarding the current crop of amendments was finally put to bed and the Council turned its attention to more practical matters.
“Colonel Rhodes,” Ambassador Takanage said. “We received the reports regarding the portal incident in New York and thank you for attending so soon after your… injury.”
Rhodey nodded. The mending gash and its attendant bruising from being struck was still visible at his temple but the headaches had stopped and he’d received the all clear from the medical staff. Tony was still fussing over him at any opportunity, which, to be honest, he was kind of enjoying, even if Tony was being increasingly ridiculous about it. Then again, he’d always enjoyed Tony’s ridiculousness. It was always so endearingly Tony. And he’d also privately admit that he fussed over Tony just as much in his own way. And he had his Mama to sic on Tony if he really had to.
“The injury was relatively minor,” he said with a wry smile. “It could have been far worse but thanks to Iron Man and Jessica Jones, it was little more than a bump on the head.”
“That is good to hear,” Takanage said with a small smile. “Has there been anything further from Doctor Doom about what his purpose behind the attack was?”
“No,” Rhodey said with a shake of his head. “Dr Richards says Doom has been quiet recently, so he has postulated that the attack was a… test of some sort. Perhaps to determine the working arrangements between the Fantastic Four and the rest of the Avengers.”
There were nods from many of those on the Council and Rhodey suspected that was their thought as well. Doom certainly hadn’t been after anything tangible in his attack and he’d never taken the field himself, which he usually did if he wanted something specific. So, a test seemed the most likely option.
“The Abomination’s conduct was as expected?” the Romanian Ambassador asked.
“Yes, it was, Mr Ambassador.” Rhodey paused. “His conduct thus far during his probationary period has been exemplary.”
The ambassador raised an eyebrow. “Your assessment? As a military man.”
Rhodey contemplated everything he’d seen of the Abomination. “He’s either playing the world’s best long game or… he’s genuine. I’m inclined to think the latter. He obeys orders, offers good suggestions for how to utilise his abilities and while his temper can be a little short, he has never harmed or looked like harming any of us.” He paused significantly. “I should add that Dr Elizabeth Ross has reported that their research into how he could change back into Blonsky isn’t looking promising due to the mix of serums involved in his transformation. He’s been kept informed and while he’s grumbled and appeared disappointed, it hasn’t affected his behaviour beyond that.”
There were thoughtful looks and nods all around the table and several of the ambassadors exchanged quiet comments. Rhodey knew that the deal that had been made with the Abomination had been controversial, but the Council had wanted to start of their dealings with the more… ‘troubled’ Enhanced on a positive note. It appeared that was working but Rhodey was sure they all knew that while the Abomination could set a precedent, any other ‘troubled’ Enhanced would need to be dealt with on a case by case basis.
“Thank you, Colonel,” Takanage said with a small incline of her head. “Now, onto the next matter of business.” The others of the Council straightened and their expressions became severe so Rhodey knew that this was going to be about the Rogues. “King T’Challa, I understand that Sergeant Barnes has requested to return to cryosleep?”
T'Challa nodded stiffly. “He has. Our scientists have some ideas regarding the trigger words in his mind, however they require more time to conduct their research. Sergeant Barnes has become increasingly…” He frowned. “I am uncertain of the correct word. Agitated might be the best, though the Dora report that he does not seem inclined to be violent. More that he is increasingly feeling that he is a risk.”
“And do you intend to grant that risk?” Takanage asked.
T’Challa nodded again. “We do. It will clearly give him the peace of mind that he needs, though it cannot be a long-term solution.”
It was Rhodey who nodded now. “That is true. I asked Drs Reed, Van Dyne and Ross to look through all the known information regarding the… processes HYDRA used with the Winter Soldiers, most of it obtained through the Russians after they dismantled the bunker.” He gave a nod to the Russian Ambassador who sat on the Council. “Cryosleep isn’t a long-term prospect, even with the serum that Barnes has. It only worked for HYDRA because they regularly woke Barnes up, thus allowing the serum to repair the damage done by the cryosleep.”
There were understanding nods from the Council. “And how long will he need to be asleep?” Takanage asked.
“Our scientists estimate three to six months,” T’Challa replied. “The technique they wish to use it only theoretical and…” He grimaced. “Testing it might be problematic.”
Rhodey’s eyes narrowed as he listened to the Council ask its questions of T’Challa and the king replied. Something about what T’Challa was saying sounded… odd. Unnerving might be a better word. Neurology – and biology in general – wasn’t exactly his forte but he was enough of a scientist to know when something didn’t sound quite right.
He waited for a lull in the questions before indicating he wanted to speak. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to consult with experts in the field?” he raised an eyebrow. “Outside experts?”
“Wakandan scientists…” T’Challa began stiffly.
“Have been isolated for decades,” Rhodey said bluntly. “I’ve no doubt they’ve been keeping up with the scientific literature but unless you’re telling us that Wakanda has had the need to know how to do this sort of thing before, they’re shooting in the dark as much as any other scientist would be. Surely it is a far better idea to bring together a team of neurologists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists to work together on this?”
T'Challa looked like he wanted to argue but everyone on the Council was nodded and making noises of approval. “That will take more time,” he argued. “I understand you are a friend of Tony Stark…”
Rhodey held up one hand and made certain his facial expression was calm. It was hardly the first time someone had made the sort of insinuation that T’Challa was going for. “I am indeed a friend of Tony Stark, however, as anyone who has known me for any length of time could attest, I do not nor have I ever allowed that friendship to get in the way when matters are important. More to the point, Tony would not want me to do so. However, Tony has had time to move through the process of coming to terms with the truth of what happened to his parents.”
“Meaning?” the Russian Ambassador asked, one eyebrow raised.
“He is not interested in meeting Sergeant Barnes nor would I say he is able to forgive him yet,” Rhodey continued. “However, he does not blame him for his parents’ deaths. He blames HYDRA for issuing the order and SHIELD for covering it up. He has acknowledged to me that Barnes was just the weapon they used. He is also willing to offer the use of his BARF technology to whoever is involved in Barnes’ rehabilitation.”
There were coughs and chuckles from around the table “BARF technology?” the Kenyan Ambassador finally asked, looking like she was fighting back a smile.
Rhodey didn’t bother to hide his grin. “Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing. Essentially? It taps into the hippocampus, allowing the person using it to view memories in a more objective manner, thus allowing them to process the memory without the immediacy of the emotional reaction. Tony has a… layman’s manual if you’d like to have some more information.”
“I would,” the Kenyan Ambassador said, and a number of the other ambassadors nodded as well.
“I’ll see that it’s forwarded to the Council,” Rhodey replied. “Tony’s uncertain whether it would be of any assistance or benefit to Barnes but he’s said he’ll leave that up to the experts.” He frowned. “He’s been trying to get hold of a neurologist for a while. The guy was the best in the field, but he was injured and has apparently disappeared. Tony thought he’d still be able to weigh in, so he tried to contact him. At first, he just got a repeat of the ‘we don’t know where he is’ messages but last week, he got a different message saying that Dr Strange would contact him soon.” He shrugged. “Nothing more, I’m afraid. We’ll forward his name onto the team, if you decide to make one.”
He was close enough to T’Challa to see that he was muttering something, but he couldn’t hear it. It didn’t matter, he suspected he knew what it was anyway – something along the lines of not having a choice anymore. Rhodey would admit that he had, indeed, manoeuvred things that way. He didn’t trust T’Challa after his actions at the airport and in initially hiding Rogers and Barnes and he wanted some external oversight on what he was doing with Barnes. By making it an international matter overseen by the Council, he removed any accusations of bias and put things in the hands of the experts.
“I think a team would be a good idea,” Ambassador Takanage said with a calm nod. “The Winter Soldier is an international issue and it would certainly alleviate some issues if there was an international approach to the solution. Wakanda, of course, would take the lead and that will make for an ideal way for your country to emerge from its isolation.” She raised a faintly imperious eyebrow. “Certainly, it is a far better way for the general public to learn of you than as a country that is harbouring international criminals.”
Rhodey was quick to hide the smirk that threatened as he watched T’Challa’s face go tight and stiff. The king had clearly allowed himself to forget the way his country was seen by the wider world and the sharp, whipcrack reminder had come from a woman who Rhodey had learned had a steel spine and a razor wit underneath her calm, polite exterior.
“Of course, Ambassador,” T’Challa said reluctantly, inclining his head slightly. “However, I must ask that the first meetings occur outside of Wakanda. Though my father prepared our country for its re-entry into the world, it is still a daunting prospect for many of my people.”
“Of course,” Takanage said. “There are UN facilities that would be suitable for the initial meetings and those involved can make the decision as to where future meetings and collaboration takes place.” She looked over at Rhodey. “Colonel Rhodes, will there be anyone from the Avengers who would be likely to be involved in this?”
“Doctor Betty Ross has been leading the investigation into the HYDRA information and would be useful as one of the few knowledgeable people regarding the serum and its interactions.”
“Her father…” T’Challa said with distaste.
Rhodey let his expression match T’Challa’s, subtly letting the man know they weren’t entirely against him. “Betty refers to her father as ‘the General’, if that helps.”
T’Challa blinked and frowned a little. “I see.” He paused. “Will Dr Stark be involved?”
Rhodey shook his head. “No. Or at least, he’s willing to give a briefing to whoever needs it regarding his tech and train someone to use it, but he’d rather stay out of it.” He smiled wryly. “He doesn’t want to hurt Barnes, he just doesn’t want to deal with him or have to see him.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Takanage said. “The Council will reach out to scientists and doctors and get in contact with you regarding the names, King T’Challa. Now, to the next matter of business. Mr Barton and Mr Wilson, as baseline humans, have been moved to a prison in The Hague, pending their trials. Ms Maximoff currently remains in the Raft due to the reports we have received that she is apparently reacting poorly to the suppression collar.”
Takanage had a look of distaste on her face at the mention of the collar, a silent opinion that was clearly shared by at least half of those on the Council. “Obviously, the collar cannot be removed for the safety of the staff at the Raft, who are now all UN employees, but if it is actively painful for her, we must find a humane alternative.”
“If I may, Ambassador?” Rhodey said. “The collar was devised by Tony Stark, though having seen his plans, he never intended it to be used in the form of a collar. That was simply the initial form for testing, that he intended to be superseded by either bracelets or anklets. Unfortunately, events in Lagos, Romania and Germany happened before he could make either of those. Be that as it may, the technology is not designed to cause pain. The collar was tested by the Vision and he reported an inability to use his abilities beyond his own person. Only when he pushed harder did he report some discomfort.” He paused to allow them to absorb that before continuing. “If Ms Maximoff is experiencing any kind of discomfort or pain, I have no reason to believe it is anything other than because she is constantly trying to use her magic. If she stops, so too will her discomfort.”
“Is she able to stop using her magic?” asked the Ambassador from Fiji.
Rhodey nodded, glad he’d taken the time to review the Rogues’ files before coming today. He hadn’t known specifically what was going to be talked about regarding them, but he’d wanted to make sure he knew as many answers as possible. “Yes, she is. She certainly likes using it and not always for… benign reasons, but she is perfectly capable of not using it at all.”
“And what non-benign reasons does she use it for?” the Russian Ambassador asked archly. He had been one of those who had shown no reaction to the mention of the collar.
Rhodey was silent for a moment. “She liked to… low-key terrorise Tony,” he said grimly. “It took a great deal of persuasion to get him to admit to that and even more persuasion for him to allow me to mention it here, if it became necessary.” In fact, Rhodey had taken full advantage of the change in their relationship to weasel that out of his now-lover.
The Russian Ambassador looked over at his colleagues and Rhodey could only describe his expression as ‘I told you so’. Obviously there had been some dissent about the witch behind the scenes and the Russian had argued against her.
“How would you describe this terrorising?” he asked in a manner that matched his expression.
“Nightmares, mostly,” Rhodey replied. “He realised after a while that they were edged in the same red as the witch’s magic. That was when he realised that they weren’t normal and he started developing the collar. He intended to make a version that stopped attacks on his mind. And if Tony was at the Compound, she would use her magic to do minor bullying tactics. Using it to trip him, wrapping it around his wrist or ankle, knowing he didn’t like it, the sort of thing that was there and then gone so quickly that he knew the others would dismiss it as him overreacting.” He grimaced, holding back the anger that had swelled the moment Tony had finally admitted what had been going on. “He stopped going to the Compound unless it was absolutely necessary and if he did go, he preferred to have either myself, Pepper or Happy Hogan with him. She wouldn’t do it in front of an… independent witness as it were.”
“Hmm,” Amabassador Takanage said, looking like she was decidedly torn. “Has Dr Stark completed work on the bracelet versions of the collar?”
“No, but the work could be completed relatively quickly,” Rhodey said. “Especially if the Council will forward the data recorded from the collar to him so he can refine it.”
There was a short low-voiced conversation between the Council members where approval was pretty obvious from most of them.
“We shall forward that to Dr Stark as soon as possible,” Ambassador Takanage said. “Once we have the bracelets, we will be able to move Ms Maximoff to The Hague and proceed with the trials for her, Mr Barton, Mr Wilson and Ms Romanova.” She turned to T’Challa. “At that time, we would also like to arrest and detain Mr Rogers for the crimes he has committed. We understand that Wakanda has restraints that will work on Mr Rogers?”
T’Challa nodded slowly. He was trying to hide his unhappiness with the request-disguised-as-an-order but he was in no position to argue the matter with these people, not if he wanted his country to come out of this still looking good. Rhodey had no sympathy for him. He’d taken in Rogers and Barnes without any thought, now he got to reap the ‘rewards’ of that lack of consideration.
Rhodey slightly zoned out as T’Challa and the Council went back and forth regarding the arrest and arraignment of Rogers. He was paying enough attention that he could easily participate in the discussion if needed but he really wasn’t overly concerned with what happened to Rogers. The Council was ensuring that the Rogues all had the proper legal representation and that was all that was really relevant to the Avengers.
Besides, he had better things to think about than Rogers and his merry band of morons. If he was going to be professional, he’d think about his upcoming meetings with various Generals and whatnot from the Air Force, where discussions about his future with the Avengers were going to discussed. He wasn’t concerned. His injuries, while not as bad as they’d originally thought, were permanent but not debilitating to his career as the War Machine pilot, especially when taking into account the fact that the suit was custom tailored to him and him alone and Tony had made it clear that was not going to change. He was expecting a long term TDY assignment to the Avengers, especially given he was considered the defacto Commander by the US government. They were still hashing out the details of how the hierarchy was going to work, given he was the only military member and all the others were civilians. Matt and Foggy had been invaluable help with that and Rhodey enjoyed working with them, even if Matt could be even more stubborn than Tony at times.
But really, Rhodey didn’t want to think professional thoughts. He’d left Tony in their bed to come to this meeting and he’d much rather dwell on the way Tony had been sprawled on the bed and the pouty look he’d given him when he’d gotten out of bed. The man could be temptation personified when he wanted to be and Rhodey had always been kind of lousy at saying no to him if the stakes weren’t actually illegal. And let’s face it, sometimes not even then, as some of the shenanigans they’d gotten up to at MIT could attest.
So Rhodey settled in to wait out the rest of the meeting, half his mind following the debate between the Wakandan King and the Council and the other half dwelling on his lover and how he intended to lure him back to their bed once he got home.
Bucky wasn’t sure whether he missed Wakanda or not. Shuri has always been very kind to him, as had the members of the Dora Milaje that he’d dealt with on a regular basis, but he’d always had the distinct impression that while they might like him personally, his presence represented something they were not at all happy about. He’d tried asking once or twice but hadn’t been able to get a straight answer. However, now that his brain wasn’t complete mush, he was able to draw enough inferences from what he had been told to get a pretty good idea what the whole picture looked like.
Stevie had fucked up and for once, no one was going to excuse him or let things pass just to keep the peace.
Bucky couldn’t blame them either. Stevie might have triggered him into a full flight or fight mode in Bucharest but he remembered enough of what he’d done there to know that things had gotten bad. Add the events at the airport and the revelation of his hand in the Starks’ deaths and Stevie hiding that for years and well, Bucky wasn’t really that surprised about what was happening now. Worried and little scared about what it all meant for him but not surprised.
Bucky blinked and turned away from the window he’d been staring sightlessly out of. The psychiatrist appointed by the Accords Council to evaluate him, to give him information and to run his more low key therapy sessions, a rather pleasant man who had introduced himself as Dr Lars Forsberg, was watching him curiously but, Bucky was pleased to see, no judgement.
“Sorry. Got lost in thought. What did you say?”
Lars (as he’d insisted on being called) smiled. “I just asked how you’re finding your accommodation. Is there anything you need?”
Bucky was being held in secure psychiatric clinic in Sweden and from what he could tell, a pretty high end one. The locked doors and surveillance were all very discreetly hidden and the guards were subtle and well-disguised. It was… nice. Nice to have the guards and locked doors and such but not have it feel like a prison. He wasn’t sure he deserved such kindness but he’d decided he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“I was wondering whether I’d be permitted access to the internet?” he asked. “I’d like to know what’s going on beyond the stuff they give me. Keep learning stuff.”
Lars nodded and looked a little concerned. “Not all of it is friendly to you and Mr Rogers.”
Bucky shrugged and sat down opposite the doctor. “That’s okay. I guess we kind of deserve it.”
“We?” Lars said, raising one eyebrow.
Bucky had had enough sessions with the man to know what that meant but he wasn’t going to budge on this. “Yeah, we. I know I was pretty much out of my mind with panic in Bucharest and Berlin was a shitfest but I had plenty of time between coming back to myself and the mess at the airport and after it to get away and turn myself in.”
“Were you thinking clearly enough to register that? I know you are now but back then?”
Bucky considered that question then he finally nodded. “Yeah, I was. I mean, I wasn’t in great shape but my mind was clear enough to reason things through once the panic was gone.” He gave a tiny wry smile. “I knew the difference between right and wrong. I just trusted Stevie when I shouldn’t have.” He sighed and scrubbed his face with his normal hand. “I didn’t know I shouldn’t have.”
Lars frowned a little and tapped his pen against the notepad he used. “We’ve being avoiding the subject of Steve Rogers thus far.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said with a sigh. “I kind of remember him up here.” He tapped his forehead. “But the man I followed in Bucharest doesn’t quite match up with the guy I remember and I don’t know how much is me and how much is him.”
Lars cocked his head. “What’s your first instinct? No deep thinking, just your knee jerk reaction.”
“That it’s him,” Bucky replied. “And yet… that’s not quite right. I kinda think that maybe he was always like that but when he was small, it didn’t matter. The only person he really caused trouble for was himself. And his Ma and me.” He grimaced. “When he punched someone back then, he was more likely to break his own hand. Now, he breaks whole people.”
“You don’t remember him after he… became big, as it were,” Lars asked with a frown.
“A little,” Bucky replied. “But most of it involves the Howling Commandos and well, this… I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right… he wasn’t in charge of the Howlies.”
Lars looked intrigued. “Really? History says otherwise.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah, well, history only knew the public stuff. If I’m remembering right – and I’m pretty sure I am – he was just a figurehead to appease the civilians in the US and some of the US command. Falsworth was actually in charge. He was a Major in the British Army and outranked all of us. We all knew the chain of command, except for Stevie. I was in charge of managing him so he never figured it out.”
Lars latched onto that as Bucky expected he would. “Why?”
He smiled wryly. “If I remembered that, I’d tell you. I just remember that’s how it was, not the reason behind it. I don’t know if any of the other Howlies are still alive. They might remember . Or Colonel Phillips might have written down somewhere.”
Lars paused for a moment. “Possibly he did. We received both yours and Mr Rogers’ records from the Army and there was information extracted from the SHIELD data dump. The experts we consulted all agree that there has been some judicious editing done of those records. On Mr Rogers’ more than yours.”
Bucky considered that carefully. “Yeah, I guess I’m not surprised. I’ve heard bits and pieces of what’s known about Captain America now and… there’s been some editing of the bits I remember.”
Lars nodded. “I suppose that makes sense from a historical perspective. How do you feel about it?
“I don’t know,” Bucky said as leaned back, letting himself sink into the very comfortable chair. “I went to the Smithsonian, right after the whole thing in DC. Right after I started getting… getting myself back. There was an exhibition. Mostly about Stevie but the Howlies were there too. I stared at a photo of myself for… must have been nearly half an hour.” He looked at the doctor with a small frown. “I barely recognised myself.”
“You’ve gone through seventy years of the most unimaginable ill-treatment,” Lars said gently. “To be honest, I would be more concerned if you did recognise yourself.”
Bucky nodded slowly. “This treatment I’m going to be doing… Princess Shuri was looking kind of upset about it last time I saw her.”
Lars sighed and grimaced a little. “Ah, yes. She had explained the Wakandan treatment that she’d intended to use with you to the team in charge of your case and was… startled by their reactions.”
“Was it… bad?”
“Well, that’s a somewhat complicated question with an equally complicated answer,” Lars said thoughtfully. “Those of us involved in the hands on treatment of patients could certainly see how it could be effective in some specialised circumstances, however I don’t think any of us would ever try it as a first option. It would be a last case scenario, if all other forms of treatment had failed.” He brightened a little. “It is truly remarkable technology, far beyond what we’re capable of right now, but… dangerous if misused.”
“What does it do?” Bucky asked, a little worried.
“It literally identifies then excises the individual brain cells that hold certain memories, removing them and the memories they contain utterly,” Lars said, shaking his head in amazement. “Truly astonishing but… dangerous. Tiptoeing on some very tricky ethical and moral grounds. And possibly some legal ones as well. And not a first case treatment by any means.” He smiled wryly. “I’m afraid the princess was a bit taken aback by our attitude.”
“She’s nice,” was all Bucky could manage, his mind still boggling over what he’d been told. It seemed like science fiction to him.
“She is,” Lars said eagerly. “And utterly brilliant. A complete genius. Just… a little sheltered and not exactly up to date with medical ethics as practised outside of Wakanda. Not that Wakanda’s ethics are bad or wrong, just different.” He paused and looked like he was weighing whether or not to say anything more before giving Bucky as assessing look and small nod. “I also believe she was choosing the most expedient option. The presence of yourself and Mr Rogers in Wakanda is controversial at best and I believe she was eager to allay the worries and fears of her people. So, she chose an option she knew would work immediately and would ‘fix the problem’ as it were.”
Bucky frowned. “If it works, why not use it? The trigger words… I’m dangerous while they’re still able to be used.”
“If we thought we couldn’t contain you, if we thought you were an immediate danger to people, it would have been given greater weight as a treatment option,” Lars admitted. “Although we have not widely mentioned it, even to you, the guards in the areas of the clinic you use and have access to are all Enhanced and capable of restraining you, either by themselves or in a group. Access to you is restricted to only the people in your treatment team and clinic staff who have been carefully vetted by our team. The staff are also assessed by an Enhanced before they come on shift in order to avoid a repeat of the Berlin incident.”
Lars looked down at his notepad for a moment before looking back at him again. “I understand your concerns about being… safe for other people, as does the team, and we’re not minimising those concerns or dismissing them. We’ve all seen the footage from Berlin and agree that removing or neutering the trigger words is vital. We simply have some concerns about the… side effects, if you will, and the long term effects of the Wakandan treatment that Princess Shuri was not able to answer to our satisfaction and those concerns are making us very cautious about using it. Princess Shuri has agreed to return to Wakanda and find out those answers for us and, depending on what she discovers, that treatment may become more viable.”
He smiled wryly as he looked at Bucky. “Your brain has been screwed around with enough as it is. We felt it was best to try and be a minimally invasive as possible unless we had no other option.” He raised an eyebrow. “However, be that as it may, your opinion matters. I’ll forward everything we have about the Wakandan treatment to your email, both Princess Shuri’s original pitch as well as all the concerns and questions that were documented by the team. I can also forward you the email addresses and phone numbers for the neurologists and psychiatrists who had the main concerns so you can speak to them directly, if you wish.”
“And if I want to go ahead with Shuri’s option after I’ve read everything and asked my questions?” Bucky asked, not necessarily because he wanted it – because even just the oblique references Lars had made gave him the willies and also made him wonder about those side effects and after effects Lars had quickly danced past – but to get a feel for how things were going to go. He was aware he was, in effect, a prisoner and he had no argument with that, what he wanted to know was how much control he actually had.
“Then we will facilitate that.” Lars smiled a little ruefully. “Have we been too autocratic? Some have been concerned and it was something I intended to raise during one of our sessions this week but it seems we have arrived there naturally.”
Bucky shook his head. “No. No, you’ve been fine. I have noticed that whenever I’ve actually asked about something, you’ve gotten answers for me. I guess I was just… testing.”
Lars chuckled. “Fair enough. And keep testing us. The team is full of zeal and desire to help you and do what’s best for you and sometimes in those circumstances, people can get carried away. So please, keep testing us. Keep asking questions, even if you email them to me or one of the others.”
Bucky managed a half-smile in return. “So what will my treatment be?”
“We plan to being with a combination of cult deprogramming, to use a layman’s term, and Dr Stark’s BARF technology.”
Bucky blinked. “Stark?” He knew he must look rather disturbed.
Lars nodded and gave him a careful look. “Bucky? Is everything okay?”
“Stark’s… letting me use his tech?” he said. “Why?”
Lars frowned for a moment then his expression cleared. “He offered it. Colonel Rhodes extended the offer to the Council.”
Bucky frowned and looked down at his hands, at the metal hand that had beaten Howard Stark’s face in and the flesh hand that had strangled Maria Stark. “But I… I killed…” He broke off, his voice down to a whisper.
“He knows,” Lars said kindly. “I’ve spoken to him personally. I was a touch concerned about the offer, both on your behalf and on his, and since the offer came through Colonel Rhodes, I thought it prudent to speak to the man himself. He understands that you were brainwashed and were not in control when you killed his parents. He also understands what it is like to be held prisoner, to be tortured and to have one’s body modified without one’s permission. Not to the same extent that you went through but his experience has given him an insight that few others have.”
Lars waited until Bucky met his eyes. “He does not want to meet you nor does he want to have any role in your treatment beyond offering the technology and indeed, we would not allow him to do so even if he did. He needs time to come to terms with the truth and your role in it. That will take as long as it takes. It cannot be forced, any more than your treatment can be forced. However, he understands that you were a victim and if his technology can help, he offers it freely and with no strings attached. Dr Elizabeth Ross has been trained in the use of it and…” He smiled. “She has no fear of you. She is, from what I understand, quite attached to both Dr Banner and the Hulk and has become friends with the Abomination. A formidable woman.”
Bucky nodded slowly, remembering what he’d read about the Abomination in the newspapers they allowed him. Someone else the serum had fucked over but the Abomination also gave him hope. If the Abomination could be forgiven after what he did in Harlem, if he could find some redemption and new meaning in life, then maybe there was a chance for him as well.
“And this… BARF thing with help?” he asked, allowing himself to believe for the first time since he’d arrived in Sweden.
Lars nodded. “I believe it will. It’s not a cure all but I believe it will help.”
Bucky drew in a deep breath them let it out again. “Okay. Send me… send me everything. I’ll read it all.”
Tony ran a keen eye over the former neurosurgeon. He hadn’t known the doctor well before Strange’s mysterious disappearance but he had known him a little bit professionally, mostly from the occasional charity function, though Tony had dropped in on a couple of presentations Strange had given at various conferences here and there.
He’d heard about Strange’s accident in passing and then about his disappearance. It hadn’t impinged on his consciousness too much at the time because he’d already had enough on his plate and the rumours had said Strange had injured his hands badly enough to be unable to operate anymore and Tony could understand how that must have been devastating. The idea of losing his hands made him cringe and he could at least still work without them. For Strange, that wasn’t a possibility. If he’d lost the use of them, he’d want to run and hide too.
But then Strange had popped up again and made an appointment to see Rhodey, which had led to meetings with various UN officials. Apparently, Strange was now a sorcerer and was in charge of some sort of secret mystical order. If Tony hadn’t known Strange before, he’d have thought the man had lost it. Now though, he was mainly curious how a man so dedicated to science as he remembered Strange being, wrapped his mind around something as oogie-boogie as magic.
“Dr Stark,” Strange said with the same sort of languid snark that had made Tony snicker more than once during his presentation.
“I hear you’ve abandoned the land of sanity for magic,” Tony said with a grin.
Strange snorted and looked amused. “Would it change your tune if I told you that my teacher said that spells could be viewed as programs if the word spell made you cringe?”
Tony was immediately intrigued. “Have to say yes to that one. And you’re very annoying. Because now I want to ask you six million questions and we don’t have time for that.”
Strange’s smirk reappeared. “A pity. Perhaps later then.”
“Deal,” Tony replied then he sobered and moved a bit closer so he could lower his voice. “I understand that the Council has approached you for a solution to the Maximoff problem.”
“They have,” Strange said, inclining his head. “Though as I have yet to examine her, I cannot say with any certainty either yes or no. I will be doing that later this afternoon, assuming this meeting doesn’t go for too long.”
Tony opened his mouth to say something then he blinked and slammed it shut again as Strange’s words sunk in. “Wait… she’s here?”
Strange nodded. “Yes, but she’s wearing the bracelets you made so she’s safe.” He arched an eyebrow. “We must make time to discuss those bracelets. Wong is especially intrigued that you could use technology to contain magic.”
“Yeah, sure,” Tony said distractedly as he pulled out his phone, typing some quick instructions for FRIDAY to forward to Rhodey. “Did they say where they’re keeping her?”
“No.” Strange frowned. “Why?”
“Because the rest of the Rogues are here as well, including Rogers,” Tony replied. “And from past experience, putting that lot in the one place together just causes trouble. They have a kind of bizarre groupthink that would make your mind boggle. Never really realised how bad it was until I got enough distance and even then, it took my sugarplum showing me actual examples.”
Strange blinked. “Your… sugarplum?”
Tony blushed a little and his grin was definitely a touch lopsided. “Rhodey.”
Strange raised an eyebrow, able to read everything he needed out of that reaction. He hadn’t realised the two men were that close but then again… he also didn’t care.
“Well, I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” he said dismissively. “Maximoff is wearing the bracelets and the others are locked up.”
“Yeah… right,” Tony said, trying to convince himself of the truth of that more than he was agreeing with the sorcerer. Rogers, he knew, would be wearing T’Challa’s super-special restraints and they were locked up in cells made to hold the Enhanced. “It’ll be fine.”
He wished he sounded more convinced of that but he knew that lot and what they were trouble with a capital T.
They were into their third day of meetings to determine the fate of the Rogues when the lingering worry that had been sitting in the pit of Tony’s stomach became a reality. One moment he was struggling to show interest in whatever it was the Norwegian delegate was droning on about and the next, he was wide awake and on his feet as his phone shrieked an alert.
“Avengers assemble,” came Rhodey’s terse voice a moment after the alert. “Mr Fantastic, you and the rest of the Fantastic Four are responsible for getting the ambassadors and all the UN staff to safety. Do whatever you need to keep them safe. Iron Man, I need you and Dr Strange to join me in the plaza right away.”
“On my way, platypus,” Tony said, tapping the new arc reactor he was wearing under his shirt even as he discarded his suit jacket. The nanite suit was new and this would the first time he’d use it in action, but he knew it was the best thing he’d ever produced.
The suit flowed out around him and he heard some muted exclamations of surprise and admiration from the ambassadors as Reed started to usher them towards the door where Sue had just appeared.
“Dr Stark?” Ambassador Takanage called out.
Tony turned to look as her. “Yes, Madam Ambassador?”
“You have the full authorisation of the Council to take whatever means are necessary to deal with the Rogues. Capture if you can but if not, do what it takes to stop them from harming any more people.”
Tony stared at her for a moment then nodded. He turned and found Strange floating in mid air not far away, the cloak he wore rippling dramatically. Strange was giving him an odd look and looked like he wanted to comment on what the Ambassador had said. Tony definitely didn’t want to talk about it.
“Good look,” he said as the helmet encased his head and the two of them took off out of the nearest window and circled around to the plaza where Rhodey was waiting with the Defenders and the Abomination.
“The Council says we can do what we need to do,” Tony said shortly as he came in to land. “Capture if we can but stop them if we can’t.”
Rhodey nodded with a grim expression. “Got it.” He gathered them all in with a glance. “Okay. Story is Maximoff pulled her ‘woe is me’ act with a guard who fell for it. He removed the bracelets and she forced him to release the others before tearing through his mind and leaving him for dead.”
“Is he dead?” Jessica asked, fury rippling through her voice.
Rhodey shook his head. “No, unfortunately. They don’t know the full extent of what she’s done to him as yet. Maximoff, Rogers, Barton and Romanova have escaped and are reportedly trying to find Barnes.” He snorted. “Again.”
“Do they know where he is?” Tony asked.
Rhodey grimaced. “Unknown. No one’s told them, especially Rogers, but we don’t know if Maximoff picked it up from someone’s mind. Barnes’ location isn’t precisely a secret, though the Council has been keeping things discreet.”
“What about the other two?” Luke asked. “Wilson and Lang?”
“They seem to have found some brains during their time in prison,” Rhodey said dryly. “They followed along at first, then took the opportunity to slip away when the others were distracted by a fight with some of the guards. They turned themselves in once Rogers and the others were gone. They’re back in the cells but they didn’t know where the others were going.”
Tony’s mind had been racing and now he shook his head slightly. “Rhodey, I think I know what they’re going to do.” When Rhodey raised an eyebrow, he continued, “They’re going to come and find me. They do seem to think I control the world after all. And Rogers is obsessed with the idea that I’m going to kill Barnes given the slightest opportunity.”
There were rolled eyes and muttered comments about the stupidity of the Rogues from the others, all except for Rhodey, who was giving Tony a long look.
Tony waved his hands in the air. “It’ll draw them out.”
“And put you in danger.”
“I’ve got the nano-suit.” Tony pointed at the distinctive arc reactor in the chest of the suit. “You know what it’s capable of. You helped me make it.”
Rhodey drew in a deep breath then he closed his eyed and grimaced as he fought an inner war between Rhodey, Tony’s boyfriend, and Colonel James Rhodes, War Machine and leader of the Avengers. Tony wasn’t concerned. He knew which side would win.
“Alright,” Rhodey finally said with a grim nod. “But Jessica and Luke are going to be nearby.”
Strange took a few steps forward. “I have a better option. Ms Jones and I will be nearby. Just another American couple enjoying the lovely Netherlands weather.” He smiled thinly. “Ms Maximoff is better dealt with by another magic user.” He paused. “A better magic user.”
Jessica snorted. “Oh, I could deal with her,” she said darkly. “But he’s got a point.”
Rhodey stared at them both for a moment then he nodded. “Okay. Matt…”
He broke off and held up one hand, gesturing towards his ear with the other. It only took a few minutes and they could tell from his growing scowl that whatever it was, wasn’t good.
“It looks like they picked up someone else when they escaped,” Rhodey said. “Betty was able to identify him. Dr Samuel Sterns. He was a scientist that Banner was working with to try and ‘cure’ the Hulk but Sterns instead used Banner’s blood to create not just an anti-Hulk serum, which proved not to work, but also a Hulk serum. Of a sort.”
The Abomination had been growling since the mention of Sterns’ name and now he snarled openly.
“Sterns’ serum made me this,” he snapped before suddenly stopping and baring his teeth at them. “And my own actions.”
“Betty says it looks like Sterns got partially exposed to his own serum,” Rhodey continued. He held his arm out and a holographic screen burst into life from the arm piece. It showed a picture of a man with a hugely enlarged cranium. His face was normal size, but his brain and his cranium had expanded considerably. “He’s apparently been running around Europe using the name The Leader and was captured about three weeks ago.”
“We have to assume he has some serum stashed away somewhere,” Tony said. “But would any of the Rogues use it?”
“We’ll have to plan for it,” Rhodey replied. “Strange, Maximoff is all yours. Jessica, you can fly so I want you to find and subdue Barton. He was captured with his weapons and has apparently found and reclaimed them so watch out for that. He’ll be somewhere up high. Matt, you take Romanova. Luke, Danny, Rogers is all yours. Blonksy, we’ll hold you in reserve unless some sort of Hulk derivative turns up. That’s your cue.”
The Abomination gave a smile that was in turns pleased and vicious. Pleased for the name, because Rhodey had used it from the start, reminding him that he was a soldier before he was the Abomination, and vicious for the thought of a damn good fight.
“Tony and I will pinch hit where necessary so sing out if you need us,” Rhodey continued. “We’ll also be looking for Sterns if there’s proof he’s turned up with the others. We’ll use the plaza here and…” he looked around. “…that café over there as our staging ground. Any questions or suggestions?”
Everyone nodded or indicated they were fine with it. Rhodey then checked in with Reed before turning to Tony.
Tony had returned his suit to the arc reactor and buttoned his shirt over it so it didn’t show. At some point while Rhodey had been talking to Reed, Johnny had zipped out with his jacket and he was now putting it on.
“I’ll be fine, honeybear,” he said as he shrugged the jacket into place. “Remember, they want to brow beat me into doing what they want, not kill me.”
Rhodey came closer and he looked like he wanted to wrap Tony up and take him away somewhere safe. “Rogers, sure, but Maximoff?”
“That’s what Strange is for.” Tony hesitated then closed the gap between them. He went up on his tiptoes and pressed a quick kiss to Rhodey’s lips. “I’ll be fine, platypus.”
“Yeah, I won’t let your boy get hurt,” Jessica said as she came over, Strange following her. Strange was now wearing civilian clothing and from the look on Jessica’s face, magic was involved there somehow.
“Better let the police know so they can evacuate everyone,” Tony said. “It’ll look suspicious, but it can’t be helped.”
“Won’t we look out of place?” Jessica said, gesturing to herself and Strange.
Tony gave a harsh, bitter bark of laughter. “If you’re unobtrusive, Rogers won’t even notice you. Or rather, you’ll be beneath his notice. Barton and Romanov will notice you but will probably dismiss you if you put on a good enough act. As for Maximoff? Who the hell knows?”
“I can ensure we’re not noticed by anyone less than the truly dedicated,” Strange said with a smirk.
Jessica rolled her eyes. “Guess we’ll be fine then.”
Rhodey still looked unhappy but then he squared his shoulders and put on his game face. “Alright, Tony, Jessica, Strange, get into position. The last sighting of them had them about half an hour away but then they disappeared into a series of warehouses and old factories.”
Everyone scattered then and Tony made his way over to the café. One of the waiters brought him a coffee then, at Tony’s insistence, showed him how to use the coffee machine. Tony then told the waiter to evacuate and that he’d make the bill right later. He sat down at one of the outside tables and sipped at his coffee, pretending to work on his phone as FRIDAY kept up a running commentary in his ear of what everyone else was doing. Jessica and Strange sat in the far corner of the outside area of the café and Strange made some weird movements with his hands which made the two them shimmer. He found that if he turned his head, they almost seemed to fade out of view and only when he faced them directly could he see them clearly. He had to admit that it was a neat trick.
They’d been there for nearly an hour – and three cups of the café’s pretty good coffee – when FRIDAY suddenly whispered, “The Rogues are about 5 minutes away. Barton is moving across the rooftops.”
Tony glanced casually over at Jessica and Strange and Jessica’s nod told him that she’d been told through her comms. Tony turned back to his phone and let FRIDAY tell him what was going on. He felt more than saw or heard them coming. Maximoff was not even bothering to try and control her magic and he saw the red of it ooze around his feet and felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end long before he heard Rogers’ heavy tread and saw the man come to halt in front of his table.
He continued to poke at his phone until FRIDAY whispered that everyone was in position and that Sterns was standing outside the door of a nearby building looking excited. Tony presumed that meant that they’d have a large playmate join them if things went south and he calmly looked up.
Rogers was standing on the other side of the table and Tony had to tamp down the shudder at what he saw. Rogers looked… crazed. There was no other word for it. The expression on his face was a fair facsimile of his usual ‘I’m Captain America and I’m better than you’ look but his eyes were ablaze with a kind of righteous madness that made Tony wonder if the Red Skull had once had the same look in his eyes. FRIDAY whispered in his ear that she’d seen it too and had let the others know.
There was no missing the madness on Maximoff’s face. There was fury there too but the insanity that was plastered over her face was the more obvious. There’d be no talking her down and even as he sat there, Tony could feel her magic washing over his feet, sending pinpricks of pain up his legs, like there was an army of ants biting at him. He forced himself not to react, to maintain his casual pose and didn’t even bother to give her a second glance. The pain intensified and he felt a frisson of fear bolt through him. It made him glad he was wearing his usual sunglasses to hide his eyes from the others. He also hoped Strange could move fast enough to save him from whatever she was planning but he suspected he was going to get at least some of it.
Romanov was flicking little glances at both Rogers and Maximoff but Tony couldn’t read her expression well enough to know whether she was regretting her choice to stay with Rogers or not. She must be suspicious about the empty plaza and therefore know that Tony was very unlikely to be there without back up. She must also know that this was not going to go well for them and he suspected she might be wishing she’d gone with Wilson and Lang instead of hitching her bandwagon to Rogers. If she’d gone with Wilson and Lang, she might have had at least half a chance at manipulating things to her benefit. Now though? She was going to go down with Rogers and Maximoff.
“Well, well, if it isn’t my three most least favourite people,” he said with his most obnoxious smirk. “Shouldn’t you be in prison?”
“Tony,” Rogers said, frowning in disapproval. “This isn’t the time for joking.”
“It isn’t?” Tony said with mock innocence. “This seems like the perfect time for joking. You weren’t expecting me to take you seriously?”
All three of them scowled at that and the prickling along his legs intensified. Something in his body language must have keyed Strange into what was happening as he caught the glimpse of gold out of the corner of his eye and the prickling faded into nothing. Wanda’s eyes narrowed and Tony quickly shifted in his seat to lounge a little more indolently, knowing it would set Rogers off. He was right. Rogers took another step forward and set his fist on the table. It wobbled for a moment and Tony quickly rescued his coffee.
Tony managed, somehow, not to roll his eyes. Of course that was the only thing Rogers cared about. They’d figured that was the case and now it was confirmed.
“How the hell should I know?” he said acerbically. “You think I really want anything to do with the guy who killed my parents?”
Rogers stiffened and he glared down at Tony. “It wasn’t Bucky!”
Tony snorted and wished the table was sturdy enough to put his feet on it. “Yes, it was. You know it, I know it, in fact, thanks to that asshole Zemo, everyone in the whole damn world knows it.”
While most of Tony’s attention had been on Rogers, given he was the biggest threat right now, he hadn’t been ignoring Maximoff and Romanov. The two women were a study in contrasts. Wanda looked furious and she was glancing around with narrowed eyes. She obviously knew there was someone blocking her magic but Strange’s little Notice-Me-Not spell seemed to be holding against her. Romanov, on the other hand, was very carefully edging away from Rogers. Looks like she was having some serious second thoughts. At one time, Tony would have felt sympathy for her, maybe even helped her, but she’d burned her last bridge with him and now she could swing with the rest of the Rogues.
“He isn’t alone,” Maximoff hissed as she dropped all pretence at subtlety and whirled around, trying to find Strange.
“What?” Rogers said, frowning. “Tony…”
Tony snorted. “You didn’t think this plaza was always empty at two in the afternoon, did you? Why was it that they called you a strategic genius again? Because that’s clearly wrong.”
Rogers seemed to swell with anger and Tony let one hand creep up towards the hidden arc reactor. “Where’s Bucky?” Rogers demanded, reaching over the table, clearly intending to grab Tony’s arm. “You need to tell me.”
“I don’t need to tell you any damn thing,” Tony said tersely as he got to his feet and stepped backwards. “Except for this… Steven Grant Rogers, you’re under arrest. Again.”
Even as he said those words, he tapped the arc reactor and the suit flowed out over him. It was just as well he had because he’d barely gotten the last word out when Rogers bellowed with rage and charged at him. He shot up in the air just in time to avoid both Rogers and the arrow that flew through the air right where he’d been standing.
Jessica shot past him, aiming for where the arrow had come from, and he looked down to see Strange engaging with Maximoff, red and gold clashing and sending sparks flying. Luke and Danny had come flying out of the café and Danny must have been primed and ready to go because Rogers was already flying back into the plaza and the glow was fading from Danny’s fist. Luke was leaping over the barrier around the café, clearly ready to go hand to hand with Rogers.
He caught sight of Romanova trying to slink away and Matt lurking in the few shadows that existed, waiting for her. Tony grinned and left Matt to it. Romanova’s usual tricks wouldn’t work on Matt, mostly because her seduction schtick tended to rely on her target being able to see it.
He was just about to fly down and help Luke when a roar and a loud crash had him jerking up in surprise. “Rhodey…”
“Yeah, I see it,” Rhodey said as he flew over the cloud of dust, dipping down momentarily in a deliberately taunt.
Tony held his breath as he watched, fearful that something would reach out to drag his platypus down, but nothing happened. At least, not until the cloud cleared. Standing in the road was a large blue-green figure that looked similar to the Hulk. He was easily bigger than the Hulk and also looked like he was bigger than the Abomination. However, unlike the Hulk or the Abomination, he was standing completely still and Tony could see none of the cunning intelligence that both the Hulk and the Abomination possessed.
“Behold my Titan,” Sterns announced, his voice amplified by the strange headpiece he was wearing around his abnormally large skull. “Where the Hulk and the Abomination were failures, my Titan is the pinnacle of strength, speed and agility.”
“Oh god, he’s a monologuer,” Tony said over the comms before switching to his external speakers. “Uh, listen, follower, if you could just get to the point?”
Sterns turned his wild eyes on Tony. “I am the Leader!”
“You’ve got a really big head,” Tony countered. “You should see someone about that.”
Sterns snarled. “Titan! Kill the Iron Man.”
“Dammit,” Tony groused. “Why do they always say that?”
“Because you’re annoying, Tones,” Rhodey said, his grin obvious. “And it takes a special kind of person to put up with you.”
“Like you?” Tony said as he and Rhodey flew down in unison to draw the Titan into the plaza to give them more room… and less opportunity for property damage.
“Damn straight,” Rhodey replied. “Blonksy, you’re up. We’ll help you.”
“My turn,” the Abomination bellowed as he leapt out from his hiding place and smashed into the Titan.
The enormous Titan slammed into the ground, spraying chunks of tile and concrete into the air. Tony and Rhodey swooped down at him, Tony blasting him with his repulsors and Rhodey using his guns, but neither weapon had much effect other than to annoy the Titan. The enormous being got up and leapt at the two of them but they veered off in different directions and the Titan landed lightly before whirling around to meet the Abomination.
“Aim for his face,” Tony said to Rhodey as he shot up into the air.
The War Machine flew in over the Abomination’s head, blasting his guns into the Titan’s face. The Titan bellowed and the Abomination was able to get in several good blows before the Titan threw him backwards. Tony was about to fly down when a thin red line wrapped around his ankle and yanked him down to slam into the ground.
“Strange,” Tony grunted as he was dragged towards the arcane fight, gouging a rut in the plaza.
He couldn’t tell whether or not the sorcerer heard him and as he planted his free boot into the ground to try and slow himself down, he decided he’d had enough of playing around. They had their instructions from the Council and clearly the Rogues weren’t planning on coming in quietly. So he charged the repulsors in his gloves and fired both straight at Maximoff. The twin blasts hit her square on her unprotected side. The crunch of bones was audible even over the sounds of battle and she dropped like a stone, her red magic blinking out in an instant.
Strange gave him an unimpressed look. “I had it in hand.”
“I know,” Tony replied as he got to his feet. “I got sick of pussy-footing around.”
Strange considered that then nodded. “Fair enough. Gloves off?”
“Rhodey?” Tony said over the comms.
“Gloves off,” Rhodey said firmly.
Tony grinned and he and Strange turned in unison towards the fight between Rogers and Luke and Danny, who had clearly stopped trying to capture Rogers. Luke was taking the lead while Danny had stepped back and was clearly charging up his big punch again. That made Tony wince. He knew the price Danny would pay for doing that twice in such short order.
“My turn,” Strange said before making some quick movements of his hands and throwing out a golden rope that wrapped up Rogers’ legs then Luke stepped up and laid the super soldier out with a punch that was honestly the most impressive thing Tony had ever seen.
A moment later, Jessica swooped down and dumped Barton’s unconscious body on top of Rogers and the swift sounds and thumps of Matt’s billy clubs and a sudden cry from Romanova indicated she’d been dealt with as well.
“Let’s go get this Titan,” Tony said.
Matt carried Romanova’s body over to dump it next to Rogers and Barton and he took up a position next to them. “Go,” he said. “I’ll make sure they don’t go anywhere.” He cocked his head and then snorted. “Not that I think they will.”
Danny grimaced. “I’ll stay with Matt. I’m not sure I can manage anything big enough for the Titan, but I can hold these guys.”
Tony nodded then took off and headed for the Titan, Jessica and Luke running in his wake and Strange levitating along behind them, his cloak billowing out around him. The Abomination was holding his own against the Titan but even with Rhodey’s help, it was just that – holding his own. The Titan’s size, strength and agility were giving him an advantage, but his lack of self-will was giving the Abomination an advantage in return. It left them rather evenly matched.
“Jessica, Luke, aim for the back of his knees but be careful not to get caught under him,” Rhodey barked. “Tony, aim for his ears. Loud blasts, anything. He doesn’t seem to like that. Strange, can you hold him if we get him down?”
“Yes,” Strange said tersely. “But I’ve got a better idea. Get him running.”
“You got it,” Rhodey said. He switched to his external speakers. “Blonksy, run! He’ll chase you.”
The Abomination growled then turned and started running. The Titan hesitated then a combination of Rhodey and Tony blasting his ears on either side and Jessica and Luke slamming into his legs got him moving. He lumbered at first then picked up speed and he chased the Abomination.
“Drop back,” Strange barked. “Don’t follow him.”
They did as he’d ordered and Strange floated upwards, holding one hand out and the moving the other round in a circle. A wide portal opened in front of the Titan and before he could stop, he’d fallen through it. Strange immediately closed the portal behind him.
“My Titan!” Sterns screeched from behind them. He didn’t even see Rhodey sweep down before the War Machine had snatched him up and dumped him right next to Luke and Jessica. Jessica didn’t even hesitate before punching him in the side of his overly large head, sending him sprawling unconscious on the ground.
Silence settled on the battleground for a moment as they all looked around. Parts of the plaza had been churned up and the veranda of the café had some minor damage. Other than that and the building where the Titan had been hiding, there was minimal damage and no injuries.
“Huh, that wasn’t too bad,” Tony said thoughtfully.
“That’s what happens when we don’t hold back,” Rhodey replied, nudging him with his shoulder and making a clanging sound as their armour collided.
“Damn straight,” Jessica said. “Let’s get these clowns locked up and have a beer.”
Luke laughed. “I’ll drink to that.”
Tony let the door of the suite he’d been living in for the past week and yanked off his jacket and tie. He toed off his shoes then let himself stumble over to the couch and fall down next to Rhodey. He was immediately pulled close to the other man and he snuggled into Rhodey’s side with a sigh, ignoring the others in the room.
“How did it go?” Luke asked after a few minutes.
“Ugh, politics,” Tony groaned before straightening just enough to look at the others. They were all smiling indulgently at him and he blushed a little before hurriedly continuing on. “The Council have viewed all the footage and read all the reports and given the official tick of approval to all of our actions.”
“Awesome,” Jessica said.
“I can’t believe we missed all the fun,” Johnny said with a pout. “And do you know I’ve had nearly a dozen people glare at me this week? I am not Rogers.”
Everyone was snickering and laughing at that. “Poor Johnny,” Sue teased. “None of the girls will let him flirt with them.”
“You could try plastic surgery,” Danny suggested innocently then laughed when Johnny spluttered indignantly.
“This was my face first!” he yelped.
“Technically it was Rogers’ face first,” Tony said, just to wind Johnny up before relenting. “Besides, you don’t look that much alike.”
“Moving on,” Rhodey said, before Johnny could get going again. “How did they react to Maximoff’s death?”
“There were a few comments about perhaps needing some sort of secondary medical force on hand, but they saw the video,” Tony said. “She wasn’t going to allow herself to be arrested.”
“Barton and Romanova?” Rhodey asked.
“Both falling over themselves to try and throw Rogers under the bus,” Tony said with a snort. “Unless they can come up with something extraordinary – which they won’t – they’ll both do time. It’s just a matter of how much.” He snickered. “And Romanova is terrified of you, Matt. I don’t think anyone has kicked her ass so comprehensively before. She’s not taking that terribly well.”
“What a shame,” Matt said unrepentantly.
“Is Stephen still with the Council?” Sue asked.
Tony nodded. “They still don’t have consensus on what to do about the Titan. He doesn’t seem to be changing back or calming down enough to even see if he can change back. Sterns isn’t being much help. He’s still too busy ranting about how we ruined his experiment.”
“Where is the Titan exactly?” Reed asked, leaning forward slightly.
“An alternate dimension,” Tony replied. “Stephen was a little vague about which one.” He held up one hand. “Go ask him, Reed. I don’t have any answers for you.”
Reed settled back next to Sue and looked a little pouty, much to everyone’s amusement.
“And Rogers?” Rhodey asked, pulling Tony close again.
“Still raving,” Tony said. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Rogers’ fate and had decided he’d leave deciding on it until later, when they were back home and he could rant to Rhodey all he wanted. “Even bringing in Barnes didn’t help.”
“It didn’t?” Sue frowned. “I would have thought Barnes would calm him down.”
“He didn’t even recognise Barnes,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “He thought he was a Nazi.”
A ripple went through the room as everyone shook their heads. The news that Rogers had well and truly gone off the deep end had been kept very quiet. Only the Council knew of it and Tony had briefed the President the previous day. No one knew what the cause of it was, whether it was the serum or just the current circumstances, but Tony felt it probably didn’t matter to anyone except the people who would be in charge of his treatment. The Council was claiming jurisdiction over Rogers so at least he wouldn’t have to deal with the man anymore.
“So, can we go home?” Johnny said, still pouting a little.
“Yes,” Tony said with relief. “The Council want to hold a press conference tomorrow with all of us there so they can declare the whole thing a resounding success, then we can go home.”
There was a bit of a cheer at that and people began to move, getting up and gathering their things. Tony and Rhodey stayed where they were and when the last of the team had left the room, Tony shifted so that he was straddling Rhodey’s lap.
“Can we celebrate?” he said with a wicked grin.
Rhodey laughed, his hands settling at Tony’s hips. “Sure but Tones…”
“Nope,” Tony said. “Not talking about any of this anymore. I want kisses.”
Rhodey laughed, well used to Tony’s antics and pulled him closer. “Well, that’s something I can definitely do.”