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And The World Moves On... It Has To

Chapter Text

“Oh god this is disgusting,” Kate bemoaned as her arrow landed on one of the lizard’s eyes, popping it in the process.

“At least you don’t have to touch them,” Kamala said, her nose scrunched up in disgust as she took a swing at one of the creatures. “Oh, god, they’re slobbery.”

“Ten!” Peter called out with a small laugh, as a robotic looking lizard fell off the building, it’s extremities bound by Peter’s web.

“No one’s counting, Spiderman,” Kamala huffed as she stabbed another lizard. “But, if anything, I’m pretty sure this marks my fourteenth.”

Clint held back a laugh as he took in the scene, having arrived later than the rest of the team. He shook his head as he whipped out one of his explosive arrows and released it at an almost inhuman speed, hitting a group of lizards that were slowly chewing out a small car. He came to stand next to his protege, patting her softly as she hit another creature.

She was pale and looked ready to throw up, while Peter was having way too much fun for his own good.  

Well there were two kinds of people...

“Hey Spidey, look up!” Rhodey barked at Peter from where he was facing his own batch of slimy green lizards. His distraction cost him the upper ground, and one of the lizards jumped, pining Rhodey to the ground. Rhodey fired at the green thing, groaning at the smell of the slobber.

Tony cursed under his breath as he realized that, while Peter’s reflexes were stupidly fast, the speed at which the green lizard was falling would prevent the young man from moving away, considering that he was plastered against the side of the building. Tony propelled the repulsers at maximum speed, extending out a hand while he prayed that he could reach the boy in time.

He was not about to lose one of his own, particularly not one of the younger ones.

Tony swiveled to the right without thinking, grabbing Peter hard by the arm. He flew out of the way just in time, his grip tightening as Peter dangled in the air, thirty feet from the ground. He was pretty sure his grip was going to leave a bruise, but Peter did not complain. They would heal soon enough anyway

The boy stretched out his hand and another one of his webs flung out, latching itself to the top of a tall building. Tony, knowing what the boy had done without even needing to look, let go of Peter’s arm, allowing the younger man to regain his footing before rejoining the fight.

“Thanks, Tony,” Peter said as enthusiastically as always, looking up at the man, the black armor shining due to the sun’s reflection.  

“Codenames, Spiderman,” Natasha sighed good-naturedly as she round-kicked a lizard in the face. “We’re on the field, remember?”

“But Tony never uses codenames,” Peter grumbled as he wrapped another lizard in his web, watching it struggle before it fell back towards the ground, hitting a car.

Damn, Tony was not going to be pleased with that. At all. Peter could practically see that stern, no-bullshit, half-disappointed look the man had perfected after five years of dealing with the avengers or “a pack of fucked up toddlers” - as Fury called them.

“That’s because you all suck at choosing codenames,” Tony said pleasantly, taking a mental note to pull Peter aside later to tell him how it was not okay to destroy public property when on a mission. “Do you honestly think I’m going to call Kamala Miss Marvel?”

“Hey!” The girl said with a huff, looking up to glare at the man in the black and red armor that circled the rest of the avengers, swooping in and out of the fight - keeping them all safe.

Tony smiled softly, though his smile was hidden by the golden faceplate - the only golden splash left on his armor. “Just keeping it real, Kam.”

Rhodey chuckled softly at their banter, barreling over two lizards before skidding to a stop right behind Clint.

Clint raised a brow, his lips twitching with the effort of not making a quip.

“What are you laughing at War Machine ?” Tony said innocently, earning a laugh from both Natasha and Kamala, who was clearly appeased now that Tony had defended her honor.

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Oh shut up, Tony, it’s not like Iron Man is any better.” He took to the air again, brushing past Clint as he shot left and right, wanting to end this mess so they could go home.

“Excuse me, it’s a hundred times better,” Tony said with an indignant huff, grabbing Clint’s extended hand to carry him to the nearest tall building he could find. He left quickly, not needing to communicate verbally after so many years of fighting together. “It’s the best-”

“I have located Dr. Doom, Iron man.” Vision said calmly, ignoring - and ending - the bickering as usual.

“Great,” Tony praised, looking down to get a headcount of his team. “Rhodey and Kate, help Vision subdue the fucker,” Tony instructed as he fried one of the lizards alive with his beam before it could reach Kamala. “Clint, you have the high ground so shoot any lizards on a ten mile radius from where Doom is. Peter, get them off the buildings, without destroying any cars, please.” Tony gained altitude and speed, before flying straight to where Natasha was fighting. He burned three of the five lizards, letting her electrocute the other two, before grabbing her by her waist to carry her. “Nat, dear, go around the perimeter and make sure there are no injured.”

She nodded just as he dropped her in the middle of an empty street, where the fight had first started. “FRIDAY, have a medical unit on standby in case I find anyone,” Natasha murmured into her earpiece as she took off, feeling a pang of relief when she realized there was barely any structural damage.

Tony flew back up to get a better look at the scene. “FRIDAY, contact the Panther and let him know his royal ass is no longer needed so he can take his time coming back to the compound. We wouldn’t want him smashing against a civilian plane in his hurry. You know what? Contact Hope and Bruce as well, they’re gonna come barreling in thinking we need help otherwise.”

“Yes, sir.” The AI replied, a hint of humor in her voice. “Should I contact the UN as well?”

Tony mulled over her question before finally saying. “Yes, let them know we’ll be wrapping up soon. They can send one of their envoys for the debriefing. If they come before we finish cleaning up, you can show whoever they send to my study.”

“Of course, sir,” FRIDAY murmured pleasantly in his ear.

Tony watched Vision and Rhodey blast Doom at the same time, just as Kate shot a net arrow, bringing down Doom in record time. He nodded to himself, and, once he was sure that they didn’t need him, turned around to help Peter.

“FRIDAY, send in the clean up team, and get them to deliver a sample of one of these things to the lab so Bruce can study them,” Tony said tiredly as he roamed the streets, looking for Lizards that were still on the loose.

It took them about ten minutes to round up and kill the remaining reptiles, which Tony was still convinced where at least partly made of metal, and another ten to check for civilians that might have been injured.

Tony breathed out a sigh of relief when they finished searching. Only ten injured. There were no dead, no major infrastructure damages, no major injuries… this had been a good day for them. This meant he wouldn’t have to deal with the UN’s rage. He wouldn’t have to bribe Phil - as much - to fill out the paperwork for him, and he wouldn’t have to reprimand anyone for not doing their job properly.

Thank god.

“Everybody inside the quinjet,” Tony barked. “I have a UN representative I need to go get rid of.”

-----------

Natasha landed the quinjet smoothly in the helipad, letting the chatter wash over her as the rest of the team began trading stories of how it had been them personally, and not the rest, that had saved the day. Tony sat silently next to her, his eyes on the track. He had taken his golden helmet off as soon as they had gotten into the plane, but his dark armor was still firmly in place. He turned to look at her, one brow raised in a silent question, his piercing eyes and his salt and pepper hair giving him an air of maturity she wouldn’t have thought possible to associate with Tony five years ago.

She shook her head and gave him a small smile to dismiss his inquiry. “You should head inside, they’re probably already waiting for you. I’ll make sure no one dies on their way out.”

Tony chuckled softly but nodded, standing up in one fluid motion. “You should all go take a shower. You smell, oh, and peter,” Tony murmured, turning to look at the boy as the doors to the quinjet opened “you and I need to have a talk later.”

Peter nodded softly, groaning internally. Dammit, he knew he shouldn’t have let that lizard fall on top of the car.  

With one last look Tony left, heading straight for the platform, where FRIDAY took care of disassembling the armor. He walked inside the house and headed directly to his study, his eyes falling on a young man whom he assumed was the UN representative.

Tony closed the door behind him, walking into the well furnished room with only a hint of his old pizzazz. “Good Morning,” Tony said dryly as he came to stand next to the young man, offering him his hand.

“Oh, good morning,” the young man said, shaking Tony’s hand a tad too enthusiastically. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, General Stark.”

Tony hummed, stifling the snarky remarks that immediately came to mind only to settle for “the pleasure is mine, Mr… ?”

“Baden,” he said, in the same irritatingly enthusiastic tone. “Joshua Baden.”

“Well, Mr. Baden, I am assuming they sent you to do the busy work,” Tony said with a wry smile that did not reach his eyes. “I am afraid I don’t have the time for a full debrief, but I doubt you need one since you legally have to read our paperwork anyway. In short, Dr. Doom was seen and caught today. It’s the first we see of him since he escaped prison two weeks ago.”

The young man nodded, opening his mouth to ask a question, but Tony barreled on. “There were ten civilians injured by the… reptiles Dr. Doom used. There was some damaged caused to the infrastructure of a few buildings, and I believe about seven cars were destroyed. One of them was accidentally damaged by one of our own, thus, I will be more than happy to pay the expenses of getting a new car in full.”

The young man blinked, processing the information before saying “Uh, well you’ll have to file the paperwork for-”

“It was a casualty, not a premeditated, unauthorized use of private property,” Tony said giving the young man an unimpressed look. “We have already settled with the council that in such a case, there needs to be no extra paperwork, so long as we privately deal with the individuals whose properties were damaged and don’t pin it on the UN budget.”

The young man gaped at Tony, clearly trying to do his best to keep up. Tony smiled. He had been doing this for five years; there were very few agents that could actually keep up with his pace. That was exactly why they had settled with the council to let Tony deal with the aftermath of missions, so long as there were no heavily injured - or worse, dead - civilians.

“Don’t worry agent, you will have your report on your desk later today. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I do have other things to do.” Tony stood up, offering his hand to the man as he pointed with his other to the door.

The younger man shook Tony’s hand in half a daze, still trying to figure out whether or not he had done his job properly. Tony watched him go, closing his eyes as soon as the man was out the door.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes, looking wary. Sometimes, being the one in charge of the avengers really sucked. “FRIDAY, get me Phil Coulson on the line.”

“Yes, sir,” FRIDAY murmured, her voice slightly muted.

“If you’re calling for me to do your paperwork, Stark-” Phil began as soon as he picked up his phone.

“There is less paperwork than usual today, Phil,” Tony cut in quickly. “C’mon Phil, do it for me and I promise you I’ll get you a week off work to go wherever the hell you want.”

Phil smiled, knowing that, no matter what he said, he’d end up helping Tony. “You know, dinner would have been enough of a bribe.”

Tony smiled, feeling slightly more willing to face the rest of his day. “Well, then, I expect you to be here around eight. It’s movie night today.”

“Oh hell no, Tony,” Phil said with a knowing chuckle. “I’m not falling for that one. You can wrangle your team tonight on your own. I actually want to relax for once after work.”

Tony rolled his eyes but did not comment. “So you’ll do the damn paperwork?”

Phil sighed. “Fine, but the next set is on you, Stark.”

“Of course,” Tony said with a false note of cheeriness. He would have to find a new victim to do his paperwork. He was pretty sure he had personally done more paperwork in the past five years than ever before. It was ridiculous.

But then again, he had signed up for that.

“Sir, King T’Challa has arrived,” FRIDAY announced softly.

Tony straightened up and nodded, trying to shake away the same weariness that had settled in his bones five years ago and had never left him. “Just in time to be of absolutely no help at all,” Tony grumbled as he left his study, feeling pleased all the same to know that the Panther was back in the compound.

Chapter Text

“Well look what the cat dragged in,” Tony teased as he saw T’Challa open the door for Hope. “You know, you’re both forming a terrible habit of showing up after you’re needed.”

They both rolled their eyes at the genius, but there was no heat in their eyes. “You said you didn’t need us,” Hope pointed out as she passed her briefcase to T’Challa to look for her phone in her coat.

“A little more help would have been nice at the beginning of the battle, not at the end,” Tony said with an almost imperceptible shrug.

“I was in a meeting with stockholders,” Hope excused herself with a sigh, a hint of remorse crossing her features, before it was replaced by a playfulness that meant no good in Tony’s book. “It’s not something you’d understand, seeing that you don’t run any companies.”

“Excuse me, my company is still called Stark Industries,” Tony barked out. “And I am still running that baby.”

“No, Pepper runs it for you,” Hope said as they finally came to stand next to Tony, who was standing in front of the elevators.

She knew exactly what that meant; Tony wanted to talk to them. Alone. Shit.

“And yet an ungodly amount of paperwork makes its way to my desk, regardless,” Tony noted, a tired smile gracing his lips.

Hope didn’t argue the point knowing that she really couldn’t fight him on that. Her father had always told her how much of a mess Tony Stark was when it came to running Stark Industries, but that was before he became Iron man, at which point he had begun cleaning up his act, and that had all been long before the war…

She hadn’t met the man until after the battle over the accords, and she had met him solely because her father had informed her that Scott had decided to fight against the government - which really hadn’t surprised her all that much, considering his track record. Still, she couldn’t understand why any of them had refused to sign the accords.

You couldn’t go against the will of one hundred and seventeen (now one hundred and ninety) different countries. That was just  arrogant - and suicidal.

And so she had gone in to apologize on behalf of her father, given that Hank had given Scott his suit. She had expected to go in and out, but she had been faced with a broken team of three at the time. Vision had still been moping over a lost friendship - she suspected it was more but the android never did say much - Rhodes had still been going to physical therapy to learn how to walk with his prosthetics, and Tony had been the very definition of hollowness.

Instead of a quick apology, she had offered her help without even thinking. She wasn’t sure what had prompted her response, though she was fairly certain Tony’s haunted eyes had done the trick. She had been the first to join the Avengers after the battle over the Registration Act, and she had been there when, little by little, the others had begun trickling in to form the Avengers again.

She had never forgotten the look on Tony’s eyes, though, which, if she was honest with herself, was the one thing that kept her coming back. It reminded her too much of herself when she had first lost her mother.  

“I’ll do my best to be here, next time. I just didn’t know we were being attacked, and, by the time I found out, you had already started to clean up,” Hope explained, feeling like a little girl trying to appease her father.

Tony nodded, and said “I am sure you will. I just thought it would be a good idea to touch base on the subject.” He then turned to face T’Challa. “How’s your country?”

“Prospering,” T’Challa said with a small smile. “Though I am sure you already knew that. How’s the team?”

“Smelling like shit,” Tony said lightly. “I sent them all to shower.”

T’Challa’s brows rose. “Do I even want to know?”

“Dr. Doom used some sort of reptiles,” Tony said as he pressed the elevator button. “We are not sure yet how he made them - yes, I’m pretty sure he made them - so I had the clean-up team come deliver one of the carcasses so Bruce can study it.”

T’Challa nodded. “I’d like to take a look at it as well, if you don’t mind.”

Tony flashed him a grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” He turned around once the elevator came. “Bruce is waiting for you in the lab.” Suddenly he turned around again, frowning softly at Hope. “Are you staying for the rest of the day, Hope?”

The woman shook her head. “I still have two more meetings. I just wanted to check in to make sure everyone was alright.”

Tony nodded, taking out his sunglasses. “Are you coming tonight?”

She froze. “Uh…”

“Let me rephrase that,” Tony cut in before she could say no. “Tonight is movie night. You have missed the past two movie nights, so we will see you tonight.” Tony gave her a dry smile and raised a single brow.

Hope sighed. “Of course, Tony. I’ll be here at seven.”

Damn the man and his stupid “head of the team” mantle.

-------------------

“Sir, Agent Barton is requesting your presence in the kitchen,” FRIDAY said, breaking the silence of the workshop.

Tony looked up from where he was tweaking Natasha’s gauntlets to ramp up the electric discharge. “What time is it?”

“6:50 pm, sir. Dinner should soon be ready,” FRIDAY said, sounding a tad disapproving.

Tony frowned, half in a daze, thinking back to his day to figure out what the hell he had done that had displeased his AI.

He hadn’t burned the house down. He had gone to the debriefing. He had talked to Peter about the damn car. Hell he hadn’t done anything wrong. He hadn’t had the time to screw anything up. He had come to his workshop and he had stayed there.

Oh . It was 6:50. That meant he had spent over seven hours cooped up in his workshop. Well what was FRIDAY expecting? She was as aware as Tony of what today’s date was. Besides, it wasn’t like Tony didn’t spend far too many hours in his workshop, regardless of the day. He stifled a laugh. Clearly FRIDAY hadn’t had to deal with him when he had first become Iron Man. He’d have to get JARVIS to-

Tony clenched his hands as his daze suddenly snapped and reality crashed in. There was no JARVIS anymore, that’s why he had FRIDAY. He knew this. He hadn’t had JARVIS for the past five years. He knew this, just like he knew-

No, he was not going to go down that road.

He was not going to think about any of them.

And yet… and yet he still couldn’t shake off his need for JARVIS. He missed his friend, who used to put up with his 72-hour working marathons, whose prime directive was to make sure Tony didn’t die, who had left behind only his voice in the form of Vision.

But, even more, he missed his-

“Sir?” Friday said, sounding worried.

“Ah, dinner, right. Tell them I’ll be right up,” Tony said, shaking his head softly before clenching and unclenching his hands.

He needed to get his act together. He had (grown ass) kids he had to go take care of, and it wouldn’t do for them to see him mope because, yet again, he was dwelling in the past. He had been saddled with their collective well being. He was supposed to look ahead, not behind, regardless of whether or not he still felt broken inside. That’s why he had avoided his team today. That’s why he refused to look at the calendar. His weakness was the last thing they needed to deal with right now; the last thing he needed to deal with right now.

He walked out of the workshop and into the elevator, plastering a fake smile on his face as soon as the doors opened. He followed the chatter into the kitchen to find Clint and Rhodes cooking side by side as usual, moving around each other with a graceful efficacy that made Tony’s smile soften into something more genuine. “Ah, so the dynamic duo is back at it again,” Tony muttered as he walked to the counter to grab a glass of water.

Rhodes flipped him off, but did not stop stirring the ground meet he was cooking.

“Whatcha making?” Tony asked finally leaning against the counter until Clint ushered him away with a bump of his hip.

“Tacos,” T’Challa answered from where he was sitting at the breakfast table, watching the other two men cook while he ate a bowl of nachos.

Tony hummed and sat next to the king, swirling the water in his glass. The rest of the team trickled in one by one, each grabbing something that was needed to set up the table. Natasha threw the napkins in T’Challa’s direction muttering “at least be helpful, kitty.”

Tony chuckled at that while T’Challa merely rolled his eyes, doing as he was told. Natasha raised a brow at Tony, but the man met her glare head on, picking out a nacho from T’Challa’s bowl. “I’ve spent my afternoon fixing your gear, as well as dealing with a delegate from the UN, so I think I get a free pass,” he said flippantly.

T’Challa came back into the kitchen and picked up the water pitcher, passing it immediately to Tony. “If I had to dissect a slimy metal lizard and still have to help, then so do you,” he said, dead serious. “Besides, it’s your own rule, Tony.”

“That’s the great part about being the one that makes the rules; I get to break them from time to time,” Tony quipped back, though everyone knew he didn’t actually mean it, considering that he immediately did as asked and got up to serve everyone’s drinks.

“Alright, everybody sit down, I’m going to serve the food now,” Clint called out loudly, smiling as an excited hum ran through the table when people rushed to sit down. He looked back at Tony as he served the food. “By the way, Tony, I can’t stay tonight.”

“Any particular reason?” Tony said, his face betraying nothing.

“I’m gonna go spend the rest of the week with the family,” Clint said with a smile.

“Ah, yes, of course, do send Laura and the kids my love,” Tony said immediately, feeling both hollow and happy at the same time. “You can take any of my cars, or if you prefer, you can also take one of the jets.”

Clint nodded, heading back to the kitchen with Tony in tow. “I might just take one of the smaller jets.” Suddenly, the man turned around and grabbed Tony’s shoulder. “I fully expect you to come visit at least once before the end of the week, jackass. The kids have been asking about their uncle Tony for over a month now; even Laura is worried that you haven’t magically shown up.”

Tony chuckled. “I’m afraid I have been a bit busy, birdbrain” Tony said with a shrug to brush off the silent accusation.

Clint gave him a worried look. “Tony-”

“I’ll visit this week, I swear, stop worrying,” Tony said quickly, flashing him a smile. “Now go get your things so you can go home,” Tony said, ushering Clint out of the kitchen.

Tony’s smile dropped as soon as Clint was out of the room and he took a deep breath, gathering himself. He considered retreating back to the workshop, but realized that would not go down well, considering he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

And so, he walked back to the dining room, where the team was already well underway in the process of devouring everything that was edible on the table. He chuckled and shook his head, stealing what was left of the meat along with some hard tacos.

He ate mostly in silence, only adding a few quips here and there,  preferring to watch and assess than to add to the conversation. It was a habit he had picked up at some point almost five years ago, once he had been forced to form the new team. It had been easier at the time to help them, both separately and jointly, if he could understand their behavior. Well that and the fact that it was also easier to hide his own pain, his own nightmares, when he kept quiet, when he kept his thoughts to himself.

It was lonelier, of course, but it was safer.

“You alright, Tony?” Natasha murmured under her breath from where she was sitting next to Tony.

“Always,” he replied immediately, his attention snapping back to the table, where they were all chatting as they finished cleaning up. Damn, he had allowed himself to wander off long enough for everyone to finish eating and cleaning.

Natasha gave him an unimpressed look, keeping Tony back as the team went into the living room, ushered by T’challa, to watch the movie. Natasha gave the panther a grateful look, before turning her attention back to Tony.

Tony rolled his eyes, but, before he could say anything about how he did not appreciate her plotting with the king of the cats, Rhodey came to sit on the other side of him, turning to look at Natasha. “Did he tell you what’s bugging him?”

“No, but I’m about to make him talk,” Natasha said sweetly at the man.

“Oh my god, I am right here ,” Tony complained loudly. “And nothing’s wrong. I just have a lot of things to do, and very little time.” He stood up before Natasha could grab ahold of his arm again.

“No, you’re not going anywhere until we talk,” Rhodes warned, standing up immediately after Tony.

“Yeah, no. Talking takes time, Rhodey honey, and I don’t have that luxury right now.” He took a step back, trying to figure out whether he could outrun a trained super assassin and his ex-military-turned-half-cyborg best friend. “I appreciate you guys wanting to help but - actually, you know how you can help me? You can make sure no one dies tonight so I can go finish paperwork,” Tony said as he pointed back to the living room. “Yes? Great, good talk.”

Before either of the two could say anything else he ran out of the room, heading to his workshop as fast as his feet would carry him. The two watched him go with narrowed eyes.

“Something’s up,” Rhodes said in a tired voice, sitting back down, this time next to Natasha.

“Haven’t you checked the date?” Natasha asked softly, her eyes glued to the table.

Rhodes face fell at that. “Oh my god,” he breathed out, feeling guilt wash over him. He had been so distracted these past few days he had forgotten to keep the calendar in mind. “Fuck, we need to go get him out of his workshop.”

“No, he needs some time alone,” Natasha said immediately, sighing defeatedly. “This is not something he’s ever been willing to share with the rest of the team.”

Rhodes bit the inside of his cheek but nodded. There were only three people in the team that actually knew why Tony hated the entirety of the month of December, and there was a reason for that.

A reason Rhodes didn’t even want to think about.

---------------

Bruce walked into Tony’s workshop a few minutes after the man had managed to make his grand escape, looking tired and slightly grumpy (which was never a good sign).

“Why are you not upstairs with the rest of the team, Tony?” Bruce asked immediately, not afraid to face the issue straight on.

“Busy,” Tony replied as he reread a report he had read a few hours ago but had clearly not been paying attention because he couldn’t remember jackshit.

“That’s not really an excuse you’re allowed to use,” Bruce said with an amused smile.

“FRIDAY bring up the blueprints for Peter’s new suit. He’s been sneezing for a week, and it’s only getting colder from here until March,” Tony said as he scribbled his signature on the report.

“Tony you made the rule that no one can miss movie night,” Bruce said, starting to get exasperated.

“And yet Thor isn’t here and Hope missed the last two,” Tony pointed out as he wheeled himself around in his chair, picking up a few scattered pencils and pieces of fabric.

“Thor’s a special case, and you’re the damn team leader,” Bruce said, coming to sit on Tony’s desk, effectively blocking Tony’s view of the blueprints. “You set the example.”

“Bruce, it’s a team building exercise. I really don’t think I need to be there,” Tony snapped irritably, trying to get the doctor to move.

Bruce’s brows rose to his hairline. “You don’t think you need to do team building exercises?”

“Before you yapped at me for “breaking up” the team. Now you yap at me because I’m letting the team be without much interference. Can I ever win with you?” Tony half growled, before he could think better of it.

Both men froze at Tony’s words, a flash of surprised guilt crossing Bruce’s features. “Tony, I- that was years ago… I didn’t-”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Tony sighed, scrubbing his eyes. “Look, Bruce… It doesn’t matter. I-”

“Of course it matters,” the man said with a sad look. “Tony you’re one of my best friends, and the fact that you still think I… When I said that I had no idea what had happened; I was just taking out my frustration on you.”

“I know,” Tony said as he grimaced. “Again, it doesn’t matter.” Tony stood up and brought the man in for a hug. “It’s fine Bruce, I just really am busy today. I’ll make it up to you guys later, ok?”

Bruce hummed, some of the tension leaving him as Tony rubbed his back. “I really am sorry, Tony.”

“I know,” the man said simply, giving the man one last squeeze. “Now, would you please go help Rhodey keep everyone from killing each other over a bowl of popcorn?”

Bruce chuckled, but nodded, realizing that no matter what he said, Tony would not go up tonight. The man clearly wanted to be alone for a while.

Tony watched his friend leave, part of him feeling relieved while the other longed to have him back so that someone would help Tony piece himself back together.

“FRIDAY, black out the windows,” Tony said as he walked to the back of his workshop, where he kept a full, rather expensive, bottle of whiskey.

He had mostly stopped drinking after… Well, after Fury had basically slapped him into being a functioning human being again. But he still had his emergency reserve, for days like today.

He uncorked the bottle and took a long gulp, grimacing as the liquid burned his throat.

He’d piece himself back together in the morning. He’d take up the mantle that had been thrust upon him and he would make damn sure to do a good job. He’d joke around and he would smile and talk. He would apologize again to Bruce and he would train with Natasha and Rhodes just to show them how ok he was. He would force Peter to submit the first draft of his dissertation and he would rearrange his schedule so that he could go visit Clint.

But right now, he just needed a drink.

He needed to drink and forget what day it was. He needed to forget that final rebellious silence he had offered his parents instead of a fucking goodbye. But, most importantly, he just needed to forget that goddamn tape that had been seared to his brain five years ago, in a cold Siberian base.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sam muttered as he put on his suit, his hesitance coming off in waves.

“I am sure it’s a HYDRA base,” Steve murmured as he finished putting on his suit. “So, yes, we must do this.”

Sam bit his lip, considering for a moment whether he wanted to argue it out with Steve or not.“Or we could tell T’Challa so that the Avengers can take care of it,” Sam suggested softly.

“They will not listen to us. Besides, even if they would want to help, the restrictions placed by the UN wouldn’t allow them to help us,” Steve reasoned, though whether he was trying to convince Sam or himself, Sam couldn’t tell.

“You have never read the original, nor the amended, Accords,” Sam pointed out, for what felt like the hundredth time; though, to be fair, neither had he so he wasn’t sure his argument held water.

“I don’t have to,” Steve replied, sounding as weary as Sam. “We already know how they work, Sam, and we know how much the UN hates Bucky. They’re not going to be willing to help us. Last time they tried to capture him, they tried to kill him. Why would that change now?”

Sam said nothing, knowing full well that this argument would only end up going in a pointless circle. He loved and respected Steve, he really did. He would follow the man wherever he led, but he had long ago stopped pretending the man wasn’t biased when it came to his childhood friend.

He didn’t blame him for that; he could understand the irrational need to protect the last thing Steve had of the past, the most important thing, really. He could understand feeling paranoid to the point where even former friends looked like mortal enemies out to get you.

However, he could also understand a risky mission when he saw one. No, he did not want to hand this off to the Avengers and the UN. Steve was right: they wouldn’t have Bucky’s best interests at heart. But, going in, with Bucky, into a Hydra-controlled base did not sound like a good idea by any stretch of the imagination.

Even after five years -well four years since they had woken Bucky again - they still had not managed to get Bucky to stop responding to his reconditioning. There were long periods of time where the techniques the physicians used seemed to work. They’d get him to stop answering to the word commands for months at a time - once they even managed to make him hold out for an entire year - but eventually Bucky would start answering again.

T’Challa had suggested they ask Tony for help, but Steve had flat out refused. Sam still had no idea why, but the guilty look on Steve’s face had made it abundantly clear that there was something Steve was not telling the rest of the team. Sam had been the only one to notice, though.

Steve suddenly grabbed him by the arm, forcing Sam to face him. “I know this is dangerous, Sam. But, if we’re right, they might actually know how to deactivate this thing. So we have to try,” Steve half whispered, sounding desperate.

It was clear he understood how risky this was, but he was desperate enough to go for it. Having to see his best friend revert back to a cold blooded murderer every so often had really done a number on the man.

Sam gave him a silent nod to appease the man’s worries. No, he did not agree with Bucky coming with them this time, but he wasn’t going to let his team down just because he didn’t agree with all of Steve’s choices. He had lived with these people for the past five years, for fuck’s sake. At this point, they were all family. Even Bucky, whom he still could not really stand for periods longer than a few hours.

That was perhaps why he missed Clint the most; he missed having a friend he could hang out with for days on end without feeling the need to shoot himself in the head.

He loved spending time with Steve, but Steve had very little free time as he spent the majority of his time with Bucky, training, or creating team-building exercises for all of them.

Sam did like Wanda, but she was a bit too quiet, and a bit too weird, for Sam’s taste. Scott was alright, but the man tended to chat a little too much, particularly when talking about Steve. Even after five years the man was still fanboying over Captain America, and Sam did not want to spend the entirety of his day praising Steve. He loved the man, but even he had some limits.

And T’Challa... well the man had a country to run, when he wasn’t busy running around with the new Avengers team.

They didn’t talk that much with the king, to be honest. He was generous enough to let them all stay, but he had made it clear, a couple of years back, that he did not agree with their course of action at all. The man clearly had developed a very soft spot for Tony, which had strained his - rather nonexistent - relationship with Steve. But, despite the glares and somewhat cold silences, T’Challa seemed to understand that, differences and all, it was still the safest route to keep an eye on them, mostly because the man didn’t quite trust Bucky. He preferred to keep the man close enough to stop him.

Of course Sam didn’t mention any of these observations to Steve, mostly because they needed all the help they could get and because, frankly, knowing that a warrior as determined and strong as T’Challa was just around the corner if things got out of control helped Sam sleep better at night. He was pretty sure Steve knew without Sam telling him anything, though.

Wanda walked quietly next to Sam as they made their way to the jet, giving the man a questioning look as the doors opened. “Are you alright, Sam?” She asked, looking genuinely concerned.

“What? Yeah, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” He said with a frown.

She shrugged. “You’re just… very quiet today,” Wanda said softly.

“Just thinking of contingency measures,” he grumbled as he sat down next to Scott. He looked straight at Bucky, who gave him a half amused, half apologetic look.

Steve was the last to come in, closing the door of the jet behind him. He sat next to bucky and gave him a comforting pat on the back. The man looked back at Steve and gave him a grateful smile, which Steve was more than happy to reciprocate.

Sam held back a chuckle and a shake of his head. It was still a bit surprising to him that Steve could be so genuinely happy when around his old friend, when the rest of them were still struggling to remember what it was like to be happy; what it was like to have a life where they didn’t have to look over their shoulder every time they went out.

Their lives had drastically changed in the past five years; they had all lost something. They had all betrayed someone, had left someone, broken and bleeding, behind but Steve… Steve seemed to forget all that when he looked at his friend and remembered why he had gone against the will of the world.

It was something Sam couldn’t say he did not envy. It would have been nice to be able to forget the guilt and the shame he kept feeling in increasing measures as time went by and he finally took the time to look back not only at the battle, but at Tony’s actions after the war.

He still did not like Tony Stark. He probably never would, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that the man had rebuilt the avengers from whatever remained and then had added new people; had brought a purpose back to the table. He had accomplished what they had all been after from the very beginning; a team designed to protect people, who counted with, virtually, the full support of said people.

He had created hospitals and foundations specifically designed to help alleviate the burdens of those that had suffered losses during the battles the old Avengers had fought, which had garnered him a ridiculous amount of public support.

In all honesty, Sam still thought the man was an asshole, but no one could say he hadn’t done a good job with what he had been allotted, which was exactly what was eating Sam alive.

Because what if Stark had been right? What if the accords were really the way to go? Sam did not want to allow himself to consider the possibility, not really, but five years were a long time and, so far, he couldn’t exactly say the accords had miserably failed.

-----------------------

They reached the cold, old looking base in the outskirts of murmansk a few hours later, which set Steve’s team on edge as the prospect of battle loomed closer. None of them were afraid of confrontation; however, it was obvious that all of them were slightly nervous about Bucky being there with them.

Steve couldn’t blame them.

He himself was nervous about what they’d find inside, but he refused to give in to Hydra’s schemes. He refused to lose his best friend like this.

If Bucky lost control they’d contain him, just like they had all the other times. The man had a prosthetic arm now (courtesy of the king of Wakanda) that was barely a match for Steve’s strength. The man was still stronger than the average human, but with his new arm it was much easier to subdue him when he lost control. Though, to be honest, he really hoped it would not come to that. He was sick of having to prove to the world, to his very team, that Bucky was harmless.

Bucky came to stand next to Steve as the doors opened, turning to look at Steve with that same warm look he had given Steve all through the 30s.

“This is suicidal, ya know?” Bucky murmured, sounding lighter than he felt.

Steve chuckled. “It’ll be fine,” the man said reassuringly. “We’re stronger than you think.”

Bucky swallowed hard but said nothing. He stepped out of the plane, and was followed closely by Steve and the others. Wanda stepped in front of the group as they reached the doors to the base. She pressed her hands against the metal door and closed her eyes, the door shining red as she used her powers to break it from the inside.

“Sam, scan the base,” Steve murmured as he stepped in front of Bucky, one foot inside the base and the other out, touching the cold snow.

He looked back at his friend, who was still fidgeting with the control attached to his wrist that controlled redwing. The little mechanical bird immediately awoke, detaching itself from the back of Falcon’s suit to fly into the dark base without a trace of hesitance.

They all remained in silence as they waited for the all clear from Sam. “It seems to be empty,” Sam murmured, frowning softly. “It isn’t detecting heat signals.”

Steve frowned at that, but said nothing. Their intel said that the base was still an active Hydra hiding place, so it didn’t make sense for it to be empty, but Sam’s bird had never been wrong before.

Steve stepped into the base, still feeling a pang of hesitation. There was something off about this, but he couldn’t yet consider the possibility of turning back, not when they seemed to be so close to finding a cure for Bucky.

The team followed him inside immediately, all falling behind Redwing, who was their sole provider of light. They walked in a straight line for a few minutes, before Steve paused abruptly in front of a set of open doors. There seemed to be some rather new looking computers inside.

“Sam, have Redwin, shine some light here, please,” Steve murmured, stepping into the dark room distractedly. He reached one of the newer looking computers and leaned down to observe it.

“Do you think this is their control room?” Sam murmured as he stepped inside as well, feeling less restless now that redwing had confirmed the base was empty.

The rest of the team followed a few seconds later, all stepping into different corners of the room to explore. Steve touched the computer’s keyboard with a hesitant hand, not sure whether or not the computers were still working. The screen turned blue, and Steve stood back up straight.

Suddenly, the room trembled and thick metal walls fell all around them, effectively blocking Bucky from from the rest of the team. The walls were followed by the sound of a scream seemingly coming from somewhere else in the base.

“Pietro?” Wanda whispered, her earlier worry disappearing as she froze in place, seemingly unable to move.

“Wanda-” began Steve, but was soon cut off by another scream, this one louder than the last. Steve began walking towards the woman, but froze as he suddenly heard a bodiless, grave voice murmur Желание

Steve whirled around at that, momentarily forgetting the frozen woman to concentrate on finding the source of the voice.

Ржавый

“What’s happening?” whispered Scott from behind Steve, turning to look at Sam.

Печь

“No!” Bucky screamed as he fell to his knees, covering his ears even though he knew it was no use.

Рассвет

“Bucky, don’t listen to it!” Steve screamed, pounding as hard as he could on the metal wall dividing him from his friend, but the metal did not budge. “We’ll get you out just hang in there.”

Семнадцать

Steve turned to face Wanda again, when another scream ran through the room. “Wanda, that’s not Pietro, he’s dead. Wanda, Pietro is dead,” Steve whispered urgently, grimacing at his own words.

Добросердечный

“I need you to focus, Wanda. Bucky needs us,” Steve pleaded. He took her hands, squeezing them to try to get a reaction out of the woman.

Девять

Steve’s words seemed to snap Wanda back into reality, and she frowned softly. She looked back at the hall and whispered “It sounded like...But then who’s screaming?”

Возвращение на Родину

“There’s no one here, Redwing’s readings are never wrong. There’s no one here Wanda ,” Sam immediately murmured.

 Один

“There must be some form of speaker,” Steve murmured. “Wanda take that wall down, and Sam get Redwing to find and destroy that goddamn speaker.”

Товарный вагон

Wanda closed her eyes and touched the wall, using the same technique she had used with the front door, though it was clear this wall was much thicker, making it harder for her to get through it.

солдат?

“Я жду приказаний” the Winter Soldier murmured, his eyes low on the ground as he stood up. He could hear the metal wall blocking him from the rest of the base slowly crumbling.

уничтожить базу the voice murmured, impassive and cold.

The soldier nodded, turning around and crouching right next to the dusty desk. He reached underneath it, pulling out a silver box. He broke the old lock with ease, taking out a machine gun as well as what seemed to be a red panic button.

He pressed the button just as the walls finally came crashing down.

He took a quick second to scan the room before he jumped and punched the nearest target, eliciting a pained groan from Wanda. She fell to the ground, but was quickly helped back to her feet by Sam.

“Fucking hell, not again,” Scott whined before turning on his suit. “Alright, let’s put him to sleep,” he growled, calling the ants that were scattered around the room to help him.

Bucky began shooting at Sam and Steve immediately, directing himself as fast as he could to the main entrance.

Steve ran behind him as he screamed “Bucky, stop running!”

The man, of course, did not listen, pressing a switch button near the door that brought down a new wall between himself and the others.

Steve jumped back just in time as the door came flying down, knocking a whole lot of dust in his general direction.

The other three caught up with him at that point, looking worse for wear. Wanda growled in frustration. She closed her eyes, frowning in concentration before fisting her hands to release two powerful beams of light that took the door down, as well as part of the wall.

She swayed slightly as her energy was sorely depleted.

“He was told to destroy the base,” she said quickly, turning to look at Steve. “Steve-”

“He’s trying to lock us in here to get rid of us along with the base,” Steve sighed as he began running again, this time with a newfound sense of urgency.

“We need to get him to snap out of it, now ,” Scott pointed out, turning back to his original size. “If this base explodes, civilians-”

Before the man could finish his sentence, the clear sound of a bomb detonating perforated the air. Wanda immediately threw a shield out, protecting herself and her teammates as the blast from the bomb, which had clearly been placed at the very core of the base, destroyed the structure around them.

She continued to hold the shield up as the blast continued to expand far beyond the base and well into the city, destroying everything in its path. She held it in place as the walls came crashing down on them, the base caving in from the inside out.

“Will be hurt,” Scott finished once the metal and debris stopped falling around them. He closed his eyes, his shoulders slouching as a wave of guilt washed through him.

This was going to be a fucking nightmare to fix - if they were able to fix it, that is.

------------

Steve kicked open the door to their personal living room, letting out a sigh of relief at the familiar sight. He helped a barely conscious Bucky walk to the couch and then helped him lay down, before dropping on the nearest armchair. Scott, Sam, and Wanda also shuffled in, all looking tired and crestfallen.

Bucky had escaped on the jet, forcing Wanda to use a considerable amount of energy to bring the jet down without damaging the structure. It had then taken Steve almost half an hour to subdue Bucky, and a rather well aimed smack to the head to get him to snap out of his trance - which was why the man had a killer migraine right now and refused to open his eyes.

Scott, following Bucky’s example, dropped on the black chaise, firmly closing his eyes. He moved slightly to the side when Wanda sat down next to him, rubbing her fingers distractedly.

Sam walked to the table and picked up the remote control, turning on the TV to see if the news were already reporting on the incident.

“Sam don’t,” Steve said, but Sam ignored the man.

He knew none of them wanted to hear the news. They didn’t want to know the count, but a part of him, the more masochistic side of him, really needed to know how badly they had fucked up.

As expected, the news were already covering the story, and it wasn’t pretty.

... The explosion, seemingly caused by former Avenger Steve Rogers and his band of vigilantes, occurred today in the early hours of the morning. So far, there are ten people that have been confirmed dead, and another thirty in critical condition. Emergency rescue teams, dispatched by President Pyryev earlier this morning, are still searching the area for more bodies.The President is set to issue a formal statement later in the evening. While the UN has not issued an official statement on the matter yet, an emergency meeting has already been scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, which we are told will be attended by the heads of the security council, as well as General Stark.

Sam sat down on the table as the reporter continued talking, no longer paying attention to what was being said.

He didn’t turn around to see the reactions of the rest of the team. Right now, he didn’t particularly care.

Ten people had died. Thirty were gravely injured. The search had just begun, so that meant the toll would rise. The UN was - albeit rightfully - out for blood and they were ready to enlist their precious “general's” help, which meant they were one step away from fighting the Avengers again.

Sam buried his face in his hands, wondering briefly how badly it would go down if he told Steve “I fucking told you this shit would end up badly.”

Chapter Text

“Why is- Are we living in a frat house?” Tony called out loudly when he took in the state of the kitchen. “Honestly, you are pigs,” He grumbled as he grabbed the nearest bag of chips that didn’t look like it had been sitting there for three days and came back outside. “Also, you should all be in bed,” Tony pointed out as he walked into the living room, the bag of chips in one hand and a tablet in the other. “Especially the three of you,” he said as he pointed at Kamala, Peter and Kate. “Don’t you all have classes tomorrow?”

Kamala stuck her tongue at the man, before grabbing the popcorn from Bruce’s unsuspecting hands without a trace of fear. Peter looked up from where he was sprawled on the couch and shook his head but said nothing, as he had just finished stuffing his face with the fried chicken they had bought the day before.

Tony rolled his eyes, wondering briefly why he was stuck “parenting” - as Natasha called it - frat-level pigs.

Only Kate deigned to give him an actual answer. “We’re in exams week, and none of us have exams tomorrow” she explained with a soft smile. “Besides, Peter’s a genius so he doesn’t even need to study for his other finals, Kamala took most of hers yesterday, and I’m on my last year, so I think I get a free pass to stay up.”

The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree in this house… oh god, and since when had he become the fucking tree? This was unacceptable

Tony shook his head, shaking away his thoughts, but didn’t argue the point, knowing that, without Clint as his backup, it would be very hard to get Kate to listen to Tony about good sleeping schedules. The woman might be willing to follow him blindly into a battle field, but at home Clint was the only one capable of getting her to sleep.

She had been willing to listen to Tony at first, mostly because Clint had been the one to bring her in and not Tony, which made her feel like she had to prove herself to the man, for some reason. But, once she had realized that Tony did not need her to prove her worth, and once she had seen that the man himself did not keep regular hours at all, she had flat out refused to be talked into sleeping.

Tony had been a bit surprised at her feistiness at first, but if the last five years had taught him anything it was that one must choose one’s battles - something that any parent would have been able to tell him (and wasn’t that ironic).

“Besides,” the young woman continued, “you missed movie night yesterday, so you have to make it up to us today.” She gave him a winning smile that elicited a huff out of the man.

“You know, I don’t have to make up for anything. I let you all live here rent-free, don’t I?” Tony said as he came to sit down next to Natasha, who immediately put her feet on his lap. “Am I your couch?” He asked, sounding offended, though he was betrayed by the grin he was sporting and by the fact that he immediately started massaging her feet.

“Shut up, Tony, the best part is coming up,” Rhodes grumbled from where he was sitting to Tony’s right, nudging the man’s side with a mean finger.

“Where’s Hello Kitty?” Tony asked as he wriggled away from Rhode’s pokes, completely ignoring the man’s request.

“On a plane back to Wakanda.” Natasha said lightly as she leaned back and closed her eyes. “He’ll be back on Saturday-”

‘Sir, Captain Rogers is on the news,” FRIDAY suddenly piped up, sounding concerned. “There seems to have been an accident caused by the Captain-”

No.

oh god, no.

Tony froze for a second, letting go of Natasha’s feet to clench his hands. Pull up the news, FRIDAY,” Tony said immediately, sitting up straight just as Natasha removed her feet from his lap.

“Sir,-”

Now , FRIDAY,” Tony barked, the playfulness from mere moments ago nowhere to be found.

Immediately the movie stopped playing, and the image on the TV was replaced by a Russian news network, which was covering whatever had happened live.

He couldn’t understand a word they were saying, but, thankfully, his AI had turned on the close captioning, which made him inch closer to the edge of his seat to read.

The details remain unclear at the moment, though it has been confirmed, through satellite footage, that the abandoned base, which exploded earlier this morning, was infiltrated today by former Avenger Steven Rogers along with his team. We have few details on the number of injured and death, but the toll is expected to be high given that the blast destroyed entire zones of the city-

Oh my god,” Rhodes gasped, his eyes widening as the reporter continued speaking, though Rhodes was no longer paying attention. He immediately turned to look at Tony who was looking as pale as a sheet, his eyes two pits of fiery rage.

“Motherfucker,” Tony whispered, his voice sounding rough with emotion. “I am going to kill him,” He said, looking like his very resolute words were a revelation to him. “I'm done, this is - fuck this . I'm actually going to kill him this time.”

The man immediately stood up, looking like a tornado ready to destroy anything in his path. “FRIDAY, I want Black Panther back in the compound by tomorrow morning. I don’t care if he has things to do. He and I need to have a chat,” Tony growled, throwing his tablet on the couch.

“Tony-” Rhodes began, trying to find words that would soothe his enraged friend.

“FRIDAY get me Coulson on the line, right now ,” Tony snarked, completely ignoring Rhodes - again. “Also, contact the panel and, if possible, get me whoever the President is this month. I think it was the representative for Afghanistan-”

“Tony,” Coulson greeted, sounding far too awake and not surprised at all to be receiving a call from Tony at two in the goddamn morning, which meant that Tony hadn’t been the one to wake him up to give him the news.

“What’s the death count, Coulson?” Tony asked immediately, screwing his eyes shut as he braced himself for the worst possible answer

“Tony,” the man chided, managing to sound both pitying and disproving at the same time.

“The numbers, Coulson, I want the numbers,” Tony snapped, quickly starting to lose his patience. “How many did his fuck-up kill?”

Coulson sighed. “At the moment we know of eight dead and thirty injured, though they are projecting up to one hundred heavily injured, and half as many dead.”

Tony swayed back and forth at that, opening his eyes as soon as Natasha’s soft but deadly strong hands came up to grasp his hand, stabilizing his center of balance. Her eyes were filled with concern and sorrow, which he did not know what to do with at the moment.  

“The Russians are furious. They want his head on a platter,” Coulson admitted, his voice muffled by the sound of papers shuffling on his side. There was clearly someone else in the room with him. “They have already called for an emergency meeting, which will be happening sometime tomorrow, probably.” There was a small pause as the man considered his next words. ‘They have asked for your presence.”

Tony closed his eyes and sat back down, burying his head in his hands. “This is my fault… I didn’t go after him Coulson. I didn’t - I could have brought him in-”

“Stop,” Coulson ordered immediately. “We’ve had other priorities, Tony. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes it was,” the man said softly, the anger in his eyes dying out. “I’ve had five years to bring him in. Do you honestly think the Russians don’t know that?”

“Tony, none of us tried looking for him,” Coulson reminded him. Suddenly the man murmured “Fury’s here. Sir-”

“It doesn’t matter right now whether not bringing them in was the right call or not,” Fury snapped, having snatched Phil’s phone away from him to talk. Clearly the man had been listening in on the conversation, and had decided it was time to intervene. “ You didn’t invade a base that was located on Russian soil without permission. You didn’t bring along a string of fucking idiots that are capable of causing mass destruction without even trying. You didn’t ignore international law for the nth time, so for fuck’s sake stop blaming yourself. The important thing right now, as Phil said, is that the pair of you need to find a way to fix this.”

“Fix this?” Tony said, suddenly looking angry again. “They’re dead, Nick, there’s no fixing to be done!” Tony growled as he stood back up.

“Do I need to remind you that, whether we like it or not, Steven Rogers is an American Citizen, as are most of his friends?” Fury snapped back, aware that he was one of the few people left not afraid to go head to head with Tony. “Do you know how bad this looks right now, Tony? A fucking American renegade just invaded motherfucking Russia and, accidentally or intentionally, killed Russian civilians.”

Tony said nothing, feeling his heart drop to his stomach. He hadn’t even thought of that.

Fuck.

“Tony, I know we can’t fix the casualties caused by this accident, but we need to do something , unless you want to see the relationship the US has with Russia right now take a huge hit,” Coulson pleaded.

Tony fisted his hands in his hair, taking a deep breath before saying “Alright, anybody that is not named either Natasha or James needs to get out,” he commanded, his voice leaving no room for arguments.

Everyone was quick to comply, knowing that now was not the time to test Tony’s patience.

“Vision,” he called out before the droid could get up from his seat, though Tony kept his eyes on the table. “Please make sure they don’t leave the compound unless they are going to class. It won’t be safe for them to go out, not until we can get this under control.”

“I’ll keep them safe,” Vision assured him, giving Tony a comforting smile before floating out of the room.

Tony saw them all go, his eyes still looking murderous. “We need to send whoever we have in Russia to the base that exploded. We need to know what caused the explosion and to what extent Rogers’ involvement caused the explosion.”

“I already sent someone,” Phil assured him. “What we need to figure out is what we’re going to tell the UN panel tomorrow.”

“We - and by we I mean the Avengers - have to issue a formal apology to the Russian people and their government, for not doing our job properly. And we’ll need to reassure them that Rogers and his team will be in custody by the end of the month.”

“Natasha, you’ll have to come with Tony,” Coulson explained, sounding tired. “The Russian people have a strong affinity with you, so they might be more easily appeased if we can get you on camera.”

“Look like you are ready to kill the fuckers that did this to their people,” Fury suggested. “They need to feel like someone is willing to avenge them.”  

“General Rhodes, I’m going to need you to come to Washington, tomorrow,” Phil said, sounding slightly sorry for the man.

“What do you need me to do?” Rhodey asked immediately, his eyes still glued to Tony.

“The President will have to make a speech as a show of support to the Russian people and their government. It would be best if we have an Avenger present there - and by an Avenger I mean you, specifically. You are a Lieutenant General of the armed forces, so it will also help boost up the approval the people have of superheroes here at home.”

Rhodes nodded. “I’ll go pack.”

“Thank you, General,” Phil said, sounding genuinely relieved. “Oh, and Tony?”

“What?” The man murmured grumpily, rubbing his eyes tiredly as he began preparing a speech in his mind.

“I know you don’t like it, but, for tomorrow, you’re going to have to let people call you by your title.”

Tony winced. “Phil-”

“Shut it, Stark,” Fury groused. “You’re a General whether you like it or not, and people respect and love you in that role, so you’re going to give them what they want and play the part. Besides, a lot more shit gets done when you pull the general card, so don’t be dumb: use the fucking title. You’ve done it a million times. It should be like a second skin by now, son.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “We’ve been over this, Nick. I didn’t serve in the military. Even I can admit that the title of General is just gaudy-”

“Stark, I swear to god-”

“Fine, fine, whatever,” Tony said, knowing that the man was right. The title had come in handy more often than not since he’d gotten it from the president three years ago.

Nick couldn’t help but smile. “Get some sleep Tony. We need you on your A game tomorrow.”

“Whatever, mom ,” Tony snarked as he stood up to end the call. He looked back to find his two friends still sitting on the couch, still gauging his reaction to see how best to proceed.

He sighed and sat back down without a word, grabbing Natasha’s legs to place them back on his lap. He began kneading her feet again, forcing himself to concentrate on the movement of his hands and nothing else. He forced himself to sit back, close his eyes and relax his back one muscle at a time, his hands never stopping the practiced movement.

Rhodes and Natasha shared a look, but didn’t say anything, sitting back to watch Tony massage her feet. It was just a waiting game, now.

They’d wait for Tony to fall asleep while massaging Natasha’s feet to move him to his bed.

They’d wait for him to put on the mask of the General in the morning to flank his sides and face the day.

They’d wait for the orders to capture Steve to be given to gather the team and explain that this time they really did have to go find them and bring them by any means necessary.

They’d wait for Tony to work tirelessly until he and the Avengers could say they had made amends for mistakes that weren’t even theirs to force him to sit down and accept that this wasn’t all his fault.

Yeah, now it was just a waiting game - the problem was, the world had never been particularly good at waiting.

----------------------------

Tony walked into the crowded room full of delegates, and held back a tired groan. He was pretty sure all two hundred delegates were there, and they all looked at least mildly pissed off.

Oh, this was going to go really well.

As if to prove his thoughts, he was intercepted by the Russian delegate as soon as he made his way to the front of the room. The man offered his hand as soon as they were close enough to touch. He smiled at Tony, though his smile did not reach his cold eyes.

“Good afternoon, General,” the man greeted, his accent making the words sound more severe than what was probably intended.

Tony gave the man a strong shake, plastering a cordial smile on his face as he squared his shoulders. “Mr. Aliyev, How are you? It is good to see you again,” Tony said pleasantly.

“Ditto, General, though I must say the circumstances under which we meet are dire,” the man said, his tone as sober as ever.

Tony nodded, a shadow crossing his face. “I agree, it’s-” Tony took a second, trying to think of something to say.

tragic, painful, awful, unacceptable, yet another fuck up…

My fault

It’s my fault

Natasha moved to stand right next to him, linking their arms together as she gave the delegate a small smile. “I am so sorry to interrupt, but the meeting will be starting soon. We should head to our seats.”

The man seemed surprised for a second, before giving her a nod. “Of, course, well we shall talk later, General.” He gave the man a curt nod before giving Natasha a small smile. “Mrs. Stark.”

She gave him a nod, tugging at Tony’s arms to get him to keep walking without interacting with anyone else. They reached the first row quickly enough after that, and Tony gave her arm a grateful squeeze before sitting down.

A severe looking woman stood up then, and came to stand on the podium, taking a moment to look around the room, before murmuring “Good Afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us on such short notice. Yesterday, as all of you know, Russian civilians were killed at the hands of the team of vigilantes led by Steven Rogers-”

Tony winced at that, looking down to keep the rage and the guilt from drowning him.

He had known where Steve was - he could have brought him back at any point during the past five years, but he hadn’t.

He couldn’t.

He couldn’t see the man, not without wanting to throw up, not without wanting to scream at him, without wanting to hit him - not without his recurring nightmares making yet another visit.

But the worst part was that it wasn’t even just the, by now, innate fear he had of the man that had once been his childhood hero (and his biggest competition to win his father’s love); he just hadn’t wanted to see them all in jail again.

Steve might have been more than willing to kill him. He might have been more than willing to choose to lie to Tony about his fucking parents - about the man he had fucking been friends with. He might have been more than willing to flip off his teammates, and the rest of the world, and choose to protect “Bucky”, but even after all that, Tony couldn’t say that he had fully stopped caring about the man. There had been a small part of him that had still cared enough to not want to see the man where he (rightfully) belonged; behind bars.

But whatever had been left of his idiotic love for his “friend” was long gone after what the man had done in Russia.

The idiot had his head too far up his own ass, at this point. Not only had he ignored international law for the past five fucking years (which had ended with people getting injured before); he had now caused mass casualties for no apparent reason .

No one could understand what the fuck had been the point in going to an abandoned base that had been so clearly booby trapped. There was a difference between breaking the law and, in the process, somewhat helping people; that was just Steve being Steve.This… this was just Steve being more of a fucking idiot than he usually was.

And Tony had allowed that to happen by allowing the man to run free without paying the consequences for his choices and his actions.

Natasha suddenly elbowed him under the table. “It’s your turn to speak,” she said, giving him a worried look.

Tony cleared his throat but nodded, half kicking himself mentally for allowing himself to recede so far back into his mind that he had completely stopped paying attention.

“Good Afternoon, ladies and gentleman,” Tony said levelly as he took the podium, his back ramrod straight. His voice boomed around the room as he projected a controlled confidence he didn’t feel. “It is with a sad heart that I address you today,” he began, looking down at his notes for a second to gather his thoughts. “On behalf of my team, I want to offer the Russian people, and the Russian government, our sincerest apologies.” He looked up to meet Aliyev’s surprised eyes. “We did not do our job correctly; for the past five years, we have not tried to find the… three former avengers and the rogue Super Soldier known as the Winter Soldier.” Tony swallowed hard.

There was no need to mention Scott. It had been hell trying to get that idiot a pardon without people realizing Tony had been orchestrating the whole thing. The man had a daughter; he’d just have to intervene differently with him. He’d take back Pym’s suit; that way the man would be able to keep his daughter.

“It was a miscalculation on our part,” Tony said, his eyes sad. “When prioritizing the issues we’ve been faced with in the past five years, I did not think I needed to put Mr. Rogers and his team at the top of my to do list because I assumed that, despite our vast ideological differences, he would refrain from harming civilians; clearly, I was wrong.” Tony cleared his throat, making sure to project a strength and determination that he didn’t even remotely feel right now. “So, I believe it is time I rectify my mistake. I am here to ask this panel to give my team permission to cross sovereign borders to find, and apprehend, this rogue team.”

Before the head of the panel could answer, the door to the conference room burst open and in walked Thor, looking more worried than Tony had ever seen him, which did not bode well with Tony.

Because a worried Thor meant that there was a problem of massive scale. He had only truly seen the man worried twice before, and on both of those occasions millions of lives had been at risk.

The Asgardian prince froze at the door, once he realized that perhaps this wasn’t quite a normal meeting. “I apologize for interrupting, and for disrespecting the integrity of this chamber, but I am afraid it is imminent that I speak with my shield-brother.”

Oh, fuck.

Tony repressed the urge to brain himself against the podium, choosing instead to murmur. “Madam speaker-”

The woman rolled her eyes, but looked resigned. “The session should have ended for the day, anyway, given that you’ve stated your petition. We will reconvene in the morning to vote and choose on a plan of action.”

Tony could have kissed her.

He practically ran out of the room, Natasha and Coulson hot on his heels. “What happened?” Tony asked as soon as he was out of the room.

“Thanos is back,” Thor said gravely, his eyes filled with a dread that reminded Tony of the portal in New York he flat out refused to think about right now .

“Thor we have no idea who that is,” Coulson pointed out, frowning at the god.

“He is a Titan hell bent on destroying every star in the galaxy,” Thor said slowly, as if talking to a child. “And he has set his sight on earth.”

Tony felt his heart drop to his stomach. “Great,” he said drily, if only to draw attention from the fact that his hands had begun to shake.

There was no way he wasn’t going to think about that goddamn portal now.

“Of what I’ve been able to gather, he has somehow managed to get ahold of the infinity gauntlet, and has three of the six stones,” Thor explained, looking straight at Tony.

“What Stones? What gauntlet?” Snapped Natasha, starting to look slightly restless. She was clearly not liking where this was going.

“The six stones of power are the oldest objects in our galaxy, and the most powerful. Only the gauntlet can channel their combined energy. The gauntlet allows its wearer to change the very fabric of reality by allowing the wearer to wish things into, or out of, existence,” Thor explained quickly, skipping over the finer details. “And now Thanos knows that one of the stones is on earth.”

Tony paled at that while the other two just looked confused. “Vision,” Tony whispered, not sure whether he was trying to get Thor to tell him he was wrong or if he was trying to explain the situation to his friends.

Thor nodded. “I thought we could keep the droid save in Asgard, but Thanos’ mind won’t be swayed. He will destroy earth regardless, as he believes humans are an easy target, and their perish might please Death.”

Tony bristled at that. “How do we stop him?” Coulson asked, a thousand ideas racing through his mind.

“The best way would be to use the very stone he wants against him, but we will need more manpower than what we have now. Also, we will probably be in need of the assistance from the witch, as Thanos’ army is vast. Magic can go a long way in-”

“Wait, hold up, rewind,” Tony said, taking a step closer to Thor. “By witch, do you mean Wanda?” Tony raised his brows and waited for a second for an answer that did not come. “Oh my god, you want us to have Rogers and his team help,” Tony said slowly, like he didn’t believe Thor’s nerve.

Thor nodded again, frowning. “You got two of his team pardoned, did you not? I am sure, they will allow you to bring the lot of them, to save earth.”

Tony blinked. “Thor… They just destroyed a large part of a Russian city. The UN is never going to agree to…” Tony staggered backwards. “His actions must have consequences. I cannot bring him in and pretend everything's okay.”

“Do you honestly think bringing him in is going to help?” Coulson asked Thor, sounding as practical as ever.

“The Captain has prior experience with the chitauri, and the other three can be very helpful as well. Obviously, they’re not enough to garner us a win, but I am hoping to go and collect the two other stones he doesn’t yet, so that we can counter his power-”

“So what you want is to create a team big enough, and perhaps powerful enough, to slow them down,” Natasha said, comprehension reaching her eyes. “So that you can use the stones.”

Thor nodded. “I don’t see another way to stop him,” he admitted.

Coulson scrubbed his face, his shoulders caving in, before he murmured “this…. Changes things.” The man sighed. “I’ll go talk to Elaine. The voting tomorrow will have to be about this. We’ll need to meet with them again… Tony-”

The man shook his head. “I can’t… No, I am sorry, I can’t do this right now,” Tony said, stepping away from all of them. “I can’t let him get away with yet another thing. I can’t-”

“Tony-”

Tony felt like he was going to throw up. “I need air. You… do whatever you think is best. I’ll… I’ll call later. I need some air.”

With that he whirled around and all but ran out of the building, feeling like he couldn’t get in a full breath.

Once he was out of the building he looked up at the skyscrapers, allowing the cold air to hit his face like a ton of bricks. He needed to regroup. He needed think this through. The earth was at stake, after all.

Well, there really was just one place he could go then.

Chapter Text

Tony walked the four flights of stairs up to the seemingly old and unused apartment, quickly looking back to make sure there was no one following him. He stood outside for what felt like an eternity, just contemplating the unmoving door standing in front of him. He took a deep breath, before taking out a compact silver case, which he pressed against the doorknob.

The small gadget immediately whirred to live, attaching itself to the knob. Something inside it adapted to the lock, changing the shape of the metal until it could fit the inside of the knob perfectly. Tony smirked and opened the door, stepping in like he owned the place.

He retrieved his little gadget and closed the door, stifling a laugh the second he felt a gun press against the back of his head.

“I’m very happy to see you too,” Tony quipped, turning around slowly to face the man holding the gun with a steely precision that Tony couldn’t say he didn’t envy at least a little.

“Do you have a deathwish, Stark?” Fury growled, not looking truly angry, which meant the man had half expected Tony to pull a stunt like that.

“I mean I am friends with you, so-” Tony shrugged, still smiling at the taller man.

The former director rolled his eyes. “You don’t just show up at a spy’s house, and you certainly don’t just fucking break in,” he said with a look of annoyance as he put the gun away. “What if I had just shot you instead of waiting to see if it was your dumb ass coming in?”

“Nick, name me one occasion when you haven’t looked first,” Tony said as he walked deeper into the apartment.

Fury just rolled his eyes again. “One day, the pointless risks you take are going to get you killed,” he warned as he followed Tony into the living room.

Tony hummed noncommittally, opening the small black bag he had brought with him to pull out an expensive looking bottle of whiskey. Fury stilled at the entrance of his living room when he saw Tony leave the bottle on the coffee table. The man sat down on the armchair that, by now, was as good as his considering how often Tony sat there, but Fury didn’t immediately budge. He stood there by the door, looking first at the bottle and then at Tony, taking his time analysing the man.

Tony squirmed under the gaze of those inquisitive eyes, but said nothing, giving Fury the time to assess the situation to come up with a plan of action.

Finally the man nodded to himself, walking to the nearest cabinet, where he pulled out two tumblers and brought them with him. He sat down on the armchair next to the one Tony was sitting in, and put the glasses on the coffee table.

“I want the whole story, from the beginning,” Fury said as he uncorked the liquor bottle and poured a generous amount of whiskey on both glasses.

Tony picked up his glass and stared into his drink, a sigh escaping his lips. “We’re going to be here a long time,” he warned, trying half-heartedly to talk them both out of doing this.  

“I’ve got all night,” The man said impassively, sitting back to indicate he wasn’t going anywhere - and neither was Tony.

Tony gave a small chuckle, but nodded, taking just a second longer to figure out what it was that he had wanted to talk to Fury about in the first place.


Fury walked into the compound with a scowl on his face. The scowled deepened as he noticed just how quiet the compound had grown now that there were only three people there.

He walked up to the elevators, pressing the button that would lead him to what used to be the Avenger’s common room. He had never been there, but he had been given enough blueprints of the building to know exactly where everything was.

He was greeted by the sight of a very still Vision, who stood looking out the window, his back slightly hunched. The man didn’t even seem to be breathing, which was unnerving to say the least.

Fury cleared his throat to make his presence known. The droid immediately turned around, his eyes lit with a hope that died down as soon as he realized it was Fury that had walked in, and not any of his former teammates.

“Good Evening, Director Fury,” Vision greeted cordially, giving the man something akin to a smile. “I wasn’t aware you were coming. Are you planning to announce your return?”

“No, I’m rather liking the low profile life being dead brings,” he said dryly, though he did offer the droid a small smile. “Is Stark around?”

The droid tilted his head to the side, clearly considering whether he wanted to answer that question or not. “He is… though I don’t believe he will very willing to see you, sir.”

“What else is new,” the man said as he took a step back closer to the elevator. “Is he in his workshop?”

Vision nodded. “He has been there for a few days now,” he admitted, giving Fury an unreadable look.

Fury just grunted in acknowledgement, and made his way to the elevator. He reached Tony’s floor in little time, but was greeted with tinted windows and a closed door. “FRIDAY, is he inside?” He asked looking at the tinted door with a frown.

“Yes, Director” the AI answered, sounding resigned.

“How long has he been in there?” Fury asked, cocking his head to his side.

“Four days, Director, “ the AI said, sounding uneasy.

“Fucking hell,” Fury muttered. “Has he slept at all?”

“Sir managed to sleep for two hours two days ago, but he has not slept since. He is avoiding sleep,” the AI admitted, though it sounded like she was giving more information to Fury than Tony would have wanted.

“Why the fuck is he avoiding sleep?” The man asked, not sure whether he wanted to know the answer.

“Whenever he goes to sleep he has distressing nightmares,” The AI explained. “He has not been able to sleep more than three hours at a time for almost three weeks now. Thus, Sir has taken to avoiding sleep altogether.”

“He’s going to fucking kill himself like this,” Fury said, annoyed. “Can you open this door, or do I need to kick it down, FRIDAY?”

“Sir has not instructed that I lock the workshop down,” the AI said. “So there is no real restriction, but-”

“Your prime directive is to make sure he’s safe, correct?” Fury asked, keeping his eyes on the door. “Well, I’m here to help him, FRIDAY, so please open the damn door.”

The AI didn’t respond immediately, considering the man’s words, before finally unlocking the door leading to the workshop.

“Thank you,” Fury breathed out as he walked into the workshop, freezing when he took in Tony’s state.

The man’s hair was ruffled and covered in grease. His eyes were red and blotchy, and he had deep black bags under his eyes from a clear lack of sleep. He was working methodically on what appeared to be prosthetics for legs. His hands were trembling slightly, though Fury could tell the man was far too focused on whatever he was doing to notice something like that.

What worried Fury the most, however, was the haunted look in Tony’s eyes. He had never seen the man look like that, not even when he had had to go give him a pep talk back when he had made Ultron in his quest to keep everyone safe after his.. Well after his vision.

It was… unsettling to say the least.

Fury first cleared his throat, realizing that perhaps the best way to approach the situation was slowly. Tony immediately looked up, holding the drill he had in his hand a little tighter, as if ready to use it as a weapon at a moment’s notice.

His carefully blank mask was unable to hide the surprise at seeing Fury there. “How the hell did you get in here?” Tony asked, his voice rough with disuse.

“Your AI let me in,” Fury explained as he began walking around the room, gauging its state.

“What are you doing here, Director?”Tony grunted out, not even bothering to chastise FRIDAY. The fucking bastard would have gotten in eventually, regardless of whether or not FRIDAY helped him.

A little warning would have been nice, though.

“I came here to get an explanation,” Fury stated as he moved a pile of gadgets to the floor to sit on a bench a few feet away from Tony. “I left three months ago on a mission, thinking that I was leaving behind a capable team of extraordinary humans. So you’ll imagine my surprise when I come back and they tell me that my former team has decided to break apart and fight like a group of five year olds in a playground.”

Tony rolled his eyes but did not raise to the bait. “I am sure you already had Maria or Ross give you an explanation, so, again, What are you doing here, Fury?”

Fury took a moment to consider Tony. “I am here to try to understand what happened, because I am having a really hard time grasping the sheer stupidity of the team’s reasoning to turn a well oiled unit into two fucking gangs that ended up in a backstreet fight.”

“There really isn’t much I can say, other than what I am sure you have already been told,” Tony snapped, suddenly looking angry. “We were given the accords to be held accountable by the people; I agreed to sign and Steve refused to sign. Everything went to shit from there.”

Fury rolled his eyes. “Did either of you ever considered talking?”

Tony laughed bitterly at that. “Do you honestly think I didn’t try talking to him?” Tony half growled, finally leaving the prosthetics alone to face Fury. “The first thing we did was argue over them, before Steve flat out refused to listen, refused to compromise, and left to…” Tony stopped talking for a second, a flash of pain crossing his eyes before whispering “left to attend Aunt Peggy’s funeral.” He cleared his throat, not mentioning that he had actually been there too, and looked away before continuing. “The next thing I know the UN building is being blown up and pictures of the incident lead everyone to think it was the Winter Soldier, leaving a lot of angry countries out for blood. So, of course, Steve refused to listen again, and went in to get his friend, destroying a German interstate in the process, pissing the UN even more than before.” Tony stood up, feeling too restless to stay seated. “But, of course, being the idiot that I am, I tried reasoning with him again, only to have him refuse to sign again, before leaving with his friend - the same friend who had just finished hurting a lot of government employees and who destroyed a fucking helicopter and damaged a building when trying to escape. And then I tried to make him listen again when I fucking kissed Ross’s ass to let me go get Steve so that I could bring him home without a bullet in his head, but he refused again, instead choosing to fight us in the middle of a fucking airport!” Tony was screaming by now,but he couldn’t find it in him to care. “So yes, Director, I did try to fucking talk, I tried to avoid all of this, but I’m afraid Steve isn’t one for words.”

Fury remained silent for a moment, before saying “Feel better?”

Tony laughed at that, a dark, unhinged laugh that just made the anguish he was feeling sting deeper. “Fuck you, Fury.”

“You left out a part of the story,” Fury noted, as unrelenting and as merciless as ever. “You left out Siberia.”

Tony froze at that, his eyes narrowing into slits as he glared at Fury. “ How do you- No one..” Tony swallowed hard, fighting to gather himself. “If you know about Siberia I am assuming you already know what happened.”

Fury remained silent, keeping his eyes on Tony, figuring that the man would eventually talk, if only to avoid the awkwardness that silence brought.

Tony’s eyes widened slightly a few moments later as realization hit him. “You knew too, didn’t you? You knew that…” Tony couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. “You knew.”

“I found out long after the documents were leaked, and even then I only knew it had been a murder.” Fury at least had the decency to look sorry, but it did nothing to placate Tony.

He was tired of secrets. He was tired of allowing himself to trust, however minimally, people that not only did not give a fuck about him, but that were so concerned with themselves and their goals that they couldn’t look past their own fucking noses.

“I guess I should have expected that from someone like you,” Tony spat out, looking even angrier than before. “What, were you expecting to use this as a manipulation tool later on, Director? Was it a convenient card to keep hidden?”

“By the time I found out, you and the Avengers were starting to get antsy.” Fury snapped. “If I had given you that information, you would not have rested until you found out who it was that had killed them, and why. What good would that have done? It would only have added tension to an already cracking team. Yes, it was not nice of me to keep that from you, but I’ve never been known as a nice man, Stark. I’m a practical one. Yes, I made an executive decision without thinking about you as a friend. Yes, it was the wrong one. Yes, I am actually sorry about that. And yes, I do actually give a fuck about you Stark, but I give more of a fuck about the rest of the world, and the rest of the world needed you as Iron Man more than it needed you knowing the truth.”

Tony found himself deflating slightly at that. He couldn’t quite find the strength to be enraged when Fury decided to be so brutally honest. It was kind of… refreshing, if hurtful as well.

“Glad to know where we stand,” Tony grunted as he sat back down, turning around to work on the prosthetics again. “You know what they say, why have enemies when you have friends like that.”

Fury sighed and came to sit next to Tony. “I understand you are angry. I know you don’t trust me, Tony, and I don’t expect you to - really, I don’t even recommend you to fully trust me.” Fury turned to look at Tony. “I know you’re probably as angry at me as you are at Rogers, but here’s the difference between me and him: I am not here to pretend to be something I’m not. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I’m never going to keep a secret from you again. I will. I am not going to tell you that I am not an asshole, because I am. But I am your friend, and I do care about you, more than you probably know.” Fury rubbed his eyes tiredly. “My priority is keeping the world safe, and, right now, after the shit show that was the breaking of the Avengers, you are the best chance this world has.” Fury grabbed Tony’s chin, making the man look him in the eye. “I know you’re, for a lack of a better word, heartbroken right now, so I’m here to help you pull your shit together, Tony, because the world needs you.”

Tony let out a shaky breath, staring into the hard, pitiless but loving pit that was Fury’s eye.

“You need to stop wallowing in your guilt,” the man commanded, finally letting go of Tony’s chin. “You both did regrettable things, Steve more than you, but all of that is, right now, unimportant. What’s important now is rebuilding the Avengers. You need to fix the accords, you need to help colonel Rhodes, and you need to help that spider kid you brought along with you to Germany.”

Tony took a few deep breaths and looked away again, before screwing his eyes shut.

Fix the avengers… How was he supposed to fix the Avengers when he couldn’t even fix himself? He was struggling with sleeping because he couldn’t stop dreaming about Barnes killing his mother, about Steve killing him, about both of them killing him, about him killing his mother….

Fucking hell he could feel his pulse starting to become erratic.

Tony opened his eyes again, looking disgusted when he noticed that his hands were trembling.  “I don’t… I can’t do this, Fury.”

“You are Tony Stark, you can do practically anything,” Fury deadpanned, raising a brow in challenge. “Besides, you’ll have my help… and Phil’s.”

Tony frowned in confusion for a second, before comprehension reached his eyes and he froze, turning slowly to face Fury again. “You sleazy motherfucker,” he growled, half considering just strangling the man right then and there.

Fury shrugged, this time looking unrepentant. “I told you, Stark, I’m a practical man. I did what I had to do to get the team working together to bring Loki down, and after that, it was more convenient for Phil’s work to keep his status as secret as possible.”

“Does anyone else who… was part of the team know?” He asked after a few seconds.

“No,” Fury said smoothly, not even blinking. “There hadn’t been a reason to tell them. Phil is needed at large again, so he’s coming back.”

Tony rubbed his temples, feeling the start of a migraine. “How exactly do you think you’ll help me, when I can’t trust you at all?”

“Stark, there are only two people in the world right now that I can think of that you trust fully,” Fury said with a roll of his eyes. “You know how to work with someone you don’t trust. You do it everyday.”

Tony gave the man a puzzled look. “You really don’t want me to trust you.”

“That’s not it,” Fury said with an impassive look. “I’m just not here to erase a lesson I know you learned a long time ago; never trust someone fully. Never. Trust is something that should be given to people in small doses.”

Tony chuckled at that, still sounding as miserable as before. He nodded softly, looking back at the prosthetics. “I allowed myself to forget that lesson for a while,” he admitted, his voice thickening as he felt the ghost of Steve’s shield hitting his chest, breaking his skin, making him bleed. “But this time, I think I really learned the lesson. So don’t worry, totally trusting people…. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again.”


 

Fury walked into Tony’s kitchen a bit past midnight, to find the man drinking a cup of coffee while eating a slice of pizza that looked like it had gone cold a while ago. Rhodes was sitting next to Tony, an untouched plate of pizza in front of him. He looked tired and cranky, which meant the man’s legs and lower back were hurting right now.

That at least explained why Tony’s hands were trembling slightly right now. It had taken Fury less than two meetings to realize that that was one of Tony’s tells.

Rhodes was doing much better, particularly with the new pair of prosthetics Tony had made, but there were still days when the pain was too much to bear.

“Aren’t you a little old for a midnight snack?” Fury quipped as he sat down opposite to the two men.

“Aren’t you a little old to sneak into someone’s house after midnight without permission?” Tony snarked back with a toothy grin.

“Aren’t we all a little old to argue like children?” Rhodes grumbled as he took a sip of his drink, giving the two men an insufferable look.

Tony patted his shoulder before turning to face Fury again. For a second he considered asking why the man was there, but, after a week of having the man show up at random times for no apparent reason other than to annoy Tony, he was starting to just not question it.

“You won’t believe what happened today, Sauron,” Tony told the older man as he reclined his back against the chair.

“You behaved like a human being and ate three meals?” Fury asked, grabbing an unopened bottle of water.

Tony rolled his eyes but didn’t deign to answer Fury’s question. They both already knew he hadn’t. “Hope Pym came to visit, today,” Tony started, dangling that piece of information like a trainer does a treat.

Fury immediately perked up at that. “What did she want?”

“Hank sent her, because the bastard is too embarrassed to come talk to me personally,” Tony said with a smirk as he picked up his cup of coffee.  “she explained that Thumbelina decided to join Rogers without consulting Hank. She apologized on behalf of Hank, and gave me Lang’s file.” Tony said, getting up from his seat to pick up a black suitcase that was sitting by the kitchen entry.

He took out two folders, a rather thin one and a thick one. “The idiot has a kid,” Tony explained as he gave Fury the slimmer folder, his eyes giving away how worried he actually was about this new piece of information.

Fury didn’t say anything.

“I’m thinking of contacting his ex-wife,” Tony admitted, not looking at either man in the eye.

“You’re a better man than I, Tony,” Fury said with a shrug. “I am sure you will do your best to help, just like you are doing with Barton’s family.” Fury noticed how tense Tony turned at that. “Yes, I know what you’ve been doing. I… as his friend, I want to thank you,” Fury admitted, looking uncomfortable at the admission.

Tony hummed, equally as uncomfortable.

“What’s in the other folder?” Fury asked, desperately wanting to change the subject.

“Ah, you’ll like this,” Tony said with a small, but genuine, smile. He dropped the folder in front of Fury and opened it to show a copy of the accords. “We have a new member.”

Fury raised a brow in surprise. “I wasn’t aware Pym was still active,” Fury said, checking the document.

“He’s not, but his daughter is. Hank renovated his wife’s suit,” Tony explained. “So now we have our own Thumbelina, except ours is more disciplined, has a stronger affinity with ants, and actually follows the law.”

Fury smiled, “I never thought a Pym would willingly work with a Stark.”

“That makes two of us,” Tony admitted as he retrieved the signed accords.

“I don’t think I need to tell you this, but be careful Tony,” Fury pressed, his tone serious. “Don’t trust the Pym girl, not until we’re sure what her intentions are.”

Tony shrugged. “Don’t worry, that was the plan anyway.”


The lights were all off, and Tony sat in the middle of his workshop, the darkness engulfing him. Fury walked into the room with his hands behind his back, sighing when his eyes finally adjusted to the darkness.

Tony looked up from where he was sitting, swirling the drink in his hand without actually bringing it up to drink it. “Agent Romanoff is back,” Tony said quietly, his tone empty of emotions, but Fury didn’t exactly need to hear an inflection to hear the rage and hurt buried deep within Tony.

“When did she come back?” Fury asked equally as quiet, coming to stand in front of Tony.

“This morning,” Tony murmured, his eyes still on his drink.

Fury waited a moment to see if Tony was willing to say something else on his own, but when it became clear the man wouldn’t willingly offer more information, Fury asked “and what are you going to do?”

“Nothing,” he replied, his voice still as toneless as before. “She has been working with the UN for the past few days to clear her name after Germany. She is basing her case on the idea that she made an executive decision to avoid the loss of life. She has to prove that she wasn’t compromised and that she didn’t actually hurt her fellow teammates to end the battle. T’Challa is apparently supporting her story, so she should be cleared for duty in a week or two, though I imagine they’ll have her in probation for at least six months to a year.”

Fury nodded, sitting down next to Tony. “That didn’t really answer my question,” the man noted. “I didn’t ask what she’s doing. Natasha wouldn’t have come back unless there was a chance of fixing her status to go back to being an avenger. What I asked was what the fuck are you going to do?”

“I already told you,” Tony said with a sigh. “Nothing.”

“Bullshit,” Fury snapped, not looking at Tony. it had only been three months since Germany. He was more than aware how raw Tony still was. “The UN has recognized you as the official leader of this fucking mess of a team, so that means she’ll come to be under your command.”

Tony snorted. “I don’t think Agent Romanoff takes orders from anyone but herself, and maybe Rogers. I am under no delusion that she will be following my orders.”

“She followed orders just fine when she worked for me,” Fury said dryly, taking Tony’s glass to take a sip.

“Then maybe her loyalty problem just appears when I’m the one she has to be loyal to,” Tony said bitterly.

A part of him had already known that, but wasn’t it just a kick to the gut to find out that he was right. Even after her PA stunt, he had come to trust the woman. He had trusted she would have his back, at least for the sake of keeping the team intact.

Clearly he had been wrong - yet again.

“She made a mistake, Stark,” Fury said with a sigh. “And if she’s back, then that means she sees it. I don’t think she realized just how compromised she was when it came to Rogers.”

“If you’re here to tell me to give trusting her another chance, then you can fuck right off Nick,” Tony finally said, his voice holding a tone of finality that made Fury feel a pang of sadness.

“No, I am not here to tell you to trust her. I am here to encourage you to give her a chance by letting her back on the goddamn team. You know you need more fucking people, and she’s a great asset,” Fury said, trying to keep his tone as clinical as possible. “I’m not telling you to do a fucking trust fall with her, Stark. I’m telling you to let her reinstate herself under the UN so that you can use her to your advantage and to the advantage of your team.”

“And how do I know she won’t pull another Germany on me? I may not fully trust anyone that I work with, but there needs to be at least the comforting idea that I can rely on them if push comes to shove.”

“Trust the red on her leather,” Fury said, handing Tony back his glass. “And trust her desire to atone for it.”


“You know, I never expected you to actually call,” Fury mused once he allowed himself into Tony’s workshop.

It had been two years since he had first come to see the man, and a lot had changed since then. The team had grown from three barely functioning members to nine somewhat functioning members, five from the original team, two good additions that brought some balance to the five, and two which were still teenagers. Though, in truth, the two teenagers were Avengers only in name. They were both inactive members of the team, as, after seeing Peter disobey his orders to stay away from the fighting in Germany, Tony had flat out refused to let Peter on the field until he was sure the younger man was adept in all sorts of combat. As for Kamala, the girl’s powers were still too unstable to be of much use at all, and she was almost two years younger than the Parker kid, so Tony had benched her as well.

All in all, it was a rather jumbled team, though Fury had to admit Tony was doing an admirable job of untangling and straightening the mess.

Still, with the additions came a lack of privacy, which was why Tony had once again reverted to locking his workshop to keep people out - though Fury and Rhodes had been given the passcode, which meant Tony was at least willing to let some people in, in case everything went to shit.

“I never expected to need to call you,” Tony said as he paced around his workshop, kicking half finished projects out of his way.

“What happened?” Fury asked, sensing the man’s distress immediately.

“May’s dead,” Tony said, still pacing, his breaths coming in short, panicked pants. “Peter’s aunt is dead,” he clarified, as if Fury didn’t know exactly who May Parker was.

“How-”

“She was mugged,” Tony said, starting to sound hysterical. “She was fucking mugged,” he repeated, scrubbing her eyes forcefully. “I promised Peter when he signed the accords that I would keep his aunt safe. I made sure there was no way anyone could find out who was behind the mask. I made sure his house was secure, but of course she had to go and get mugged after work,” Tony growled, misery thickening his voice. “I didn’t think- I failed him, Nick. I couldn’t keep her safe.I-”

Fury moved faster than Tony had thought possible, grabbing the younger man by his arms before he could fall to the ground. He pushed Tony backwards, sitting him down on the nearest bench. “Enough,” Fury said angrily, grabbing Tony’s cheeks to make him look up to Fury. “I am not going to let you blame yourself for this. Shit happens, Tony, that is part of life. You can try all you want, but you need to accept that you can’t keep everyone safe. The point is whether or not you tried, and we both know you have.” Fury’s tone was commanding, keeping his hands on Tony’s face to keep him from looking away. “For fuck’s sake, Stark, I have seen you break your back working to make sure everyone on this goddamn team is safe wherever they are. I have seen you go head to head with UN officials like the reckless motherfucker you are when you feel they are enclosing on your team’s privacy. “

Fury dropped his hands when he realized there were unshed tears in Tony’s eyes. “You will not blame yourself for her death Stark, because I am sure as shit that Peter isn’t blaming you right now.”

Tony let out a shuddering breath, clenching his hands as he willed himself not to break down. To his surprise, Fury’s presence actually helped him keep the panic attack already brewing underneath his skin at bay. He had no idea when he had become so comfortable with fucking Nick Fury.

He didn’t want to look at that too closely. He already knew it was bound to end in a shit show.

“He needs you right now, Tony,” Fury said quietly, taking a few steps back to give both of them some much needed space. “He’s a fucking child who just lost the last family member he had. He looks up to you like a father, you know that.”

Tony shivered. “I don’t think I would make a very good dad.”

“You’re not your father, Stark,” Fury snapped drily. “And a somewhat dysfunctional father figure is better than nothing at all.”

Tony shuddered again, hiding his face in his hands for a few seconds as he took a few calming breaths. “I need to go talk to him. I’m going to bring him here, to live with m- to live with the team.”

Fury frowned. “He doesn’t need the team, Tony,” Fury said bluntly. “He needs you.”

Tony screwed his eyes shut but nodded, aware that he would not be able to escape this particular responsibility. He knew exactly how it felt to suddenly lose everyone you held dear. He knew what it was like to feel so utterly alone that death started to sound more like a welcoming friend and not something you should avoid. He knew what it was like to crave for love and attention only to come up empty handed. He knew what it was like to have an intellect so sharp that it was hard to talk to people without both alienating them and alienating yourself.

But, even more than that, he knew Peter. He understood him better than anyone left alive. He had spent an ungodly amount of time with the boy over the past two years, as he had used him as his crutch to get back on his feet again. And Peter, bless him, had not complained once. He had been there for Tony when he had needed a friend that did not know or cared about the mistakes and the horrors of Tony’s past. It had been refreshing to be able to talk science with someone who got even giddier than him when trying to understand what Tony was trying to accomplish. It had been incredibly fulfilling to see Harley and Peter meet, to see them bond by bitching about Tony, only to pester the man later in his workshop where they had lost hours upon hours just wanting to learn and bother Tony as much as humanly possible.

He knew Fury was right; Peter needed him now. He needed Tony to pick up the pieces and figure out a way to fix it. Peter was trusting him to be the mechanic Harley had raved about; Peter was counting on Tony to fix him.

And that was exactly what had driven Tony to the point of having to physically struggle not to have a panic attack. Because what if he fucked this up? He still didn’t even know how to fix himself. How was he supposed to fix someone else?

How was he supposed to step up to the role of a “father” if he still woke up at night screaming his mother’s name because he still saw her die every night. He still saw himself die, a shield stuck on his heart.

He couldn’t fuck up with Peter. The boy meant too much to Tony for Tony to allow himself to fail.

Suddenly, Fury grabbed his arm again, noticing how shaky Tony’s hands were. “Stark, stop thinking. You need to stop questioning yourself. You have been helping the kid for the past two years. It’ll be fine. Now stop freaking out, and go fucking help that boy.”


Tony sank deeper into the cushions, half wondering what would happen if he never moved again.

“Stay still” Fury half growled as he disinfected the wound on Tony’s arm. “Remind me again why the fuck am I the one doing this?”

“Because the Hulk is still playing around the gym to calm down and let Bruce back out,” Tony said without opening his eyes.

“I still think you should have gone to fucking medical,” Fury muttered under his breath as he picked up a sterilized needle.

“Yeah, no, they’ll take hours fussing, and will probably say I have to stay in bed for a fucking week, when really it’s just a little cut,” Tony said with a small grunt as Fury began stitching him up. “I don’t have that kind of time right now, not when there are baddies to catch,” he said lightly.

“Well you won’t be able to catch the motherfuckers if you can’t move because of the pain, Stark,” Fury noted, finishing up the stitching.

“I can’t let them go into battle alone, Nick, you know that. It was hard enough to train them all to follow my instructions: do you really think they’re going to listen to someone else? Besides, I need to be there to make sure they don’t do something dumb enough to get them killed,” Tony said grumpily as Fury put a gauze on top of his wound.

Fury sighed but said nothing. There was very little point in arguing with Tony about the safety of his team. Fury knew that, after two years, the man was aware of just how strong each of his team members were, but it was impossible to get Tony to stop fussing, especially not after the last time they had gone to a fight without Tony at the head.

Ever since Peter’s aunt had died five months ago, Tony had taken a much more actively paternal role with the members of the team. It had really just started with Peter, but when Kamala had asked Tony if Peter was his favorite, he had made sure to go back to treating them all the same - which really just meant that thanks to Kamala they all now had to bear with Tony’s fussing and no-bullshit disciplining that they hadn’t though the man had in him.

It had been rather strange at first for Fury to see Tony’s behavior, if he was honest. He had expected Tony to do well with Peter, mostly because the two were pretty fucking similar and Peter loved getting Tony’s attention. However, never had Fury expected such a behavior to fly with the rest of the team. But they had all taken it surprisingly well.

Bruce had had a look of wonder the first week or two, particularly when Tony fussed over him. Kamala had been static, since she, just like Peter, had no family left but the team. Kate, who had been the newest member, had taken it in stride as she hadn’t known Tony before he had become a fucking mother hen. Clint had asked Fury if he had drugged Stark, to which Fury had answered with a unimpressed raised brow. Vision and Hope had both just shrugged it off as a temporary changed, which they were later forced to reconsider when they realized the change wasn’t going away anytime soon. T’Challa had just muttered “finally” when he had seen Tony rost the Hulk, without a hint of fear, for running away when the green giant had thought he had hurt Tony. Rhodes had just hugged Tony and had continued to quietly take care of the man, happy to see his friend pulling the pieces back together.

And Natasha… Well, he didn't mother the woman, because she just would never allow that, but he had taken to caring immensely for her. Natasha had pretended to be peeved about it for the first week, until Fury had caught her smiling like a little girl when Tony had left a plate of food in front of her door, as he had seen her go to bed without eating. After that she had stopped caring about any perceptions people may form of her, choosing instead to concentrate her efforts on getting Tony to continue doting on her while also helping him fuss over the rest of the team.

Perhaps it was because they all came from broken backgrounds, which made them all crave for some form of attention and love, made them all want some form of redemption; perhaps it was the novelty of having someone give a shit, or perhaps they were simply adaptable, but whatever it was that had made them accept Tony’s henning had worked wonders to strengthen the team.

The idiots had unconsciously began answering to Tony like they would have with their own fathers - had they had good fathers that is. They all made an extra effort when both at home and on the battlefield, all wanting to see Tony give them that proud smile that had never quite lost its edge of misery. It was the height of the younglings’ day when Tony clapped them on the back and said “well done.” They all primped to get the man’s attention, and they ripped apart anyone that so much as dared to look at Tony weird.

It had done Tony a world of good, if Fury was honest. The man had finally allowed his team into his heart, had allowed himself to trust them enough to love them, though Fury was painfully aware that even now he didn’t fully trust them.

Fury never mentioned any of his observations to them, though. He wasn’t stupid. They were all as allergic to talking about their emotions as Tony. The changes had happened naturally, without anyone really noticing, and Fury was more than happy to keep it that way if it meant keeping the status quo.

The world needed the team, and so he would do everything in his power to not allow what had happened to the last one to happen to this one. Though he wasn’t so overtly concerned; the new team was much more similar to Tony, at least when it came to political views. They all understood how vital it was to be held accountable by the people. They all understood that one couldn’t go above the law, not if they wanted to live in a civilized society. They all understood how strong the will of the people, of the countries that had made the accords, really was; they understood there was no escaping the accords.

“You alright there, hook?” Tony suddenly asked, frowning at the man. “Did you fuck off to your own personal neverland again?”

Fury rolled his eyes. “Alright, we’re done patching, now go find those fuckers, but I’m warning you Stark if after this mission you don’t take a week off to rest, I am strapping you to the bed for a month. Are we clear?”

“Kinky,” Tony said saucily as he got up to pick up his shirt. He beamed at Fury when he saw the man’s thunderous eyes. “Yes, mom, I’ll rest. Now relax, I know what I’m doing.”

“You really don’t,” Fury said through a smile.

“Hey, I really don’t think you have much ground to criticize me, mr. I-always-fuck-off-wherever-I-want-to-without-telling-anyone-so-that-when-I’m-hurt-no-one-can-fucking-help-me.”

“Tony shut the fuck, up, I swear to god you get so annoying-”


“Thor showed up in the middle of the UN meeting,” Tony finally said, picking up his glass to take a long sip.

Fury perked up at that. “Wasn’t he on a mission for daddy dearest?”

“Was,” Tony nodded, “but he finished, and so he decided to come pay us a visit and give us all the latest on our very own upcoming doomsday,” Tony said bitterly as he took another sip of his drink.

Fury frowned. “What do you-”

“Apparently there’s a practically unbeatable titan who has set his sight on destroying earth, and we need to become the wonder twins to maybe stand a chance against him. So point break wants to enlist the capsicle’s help, along with his team of renegades,” Tony snapped, dimly aware that he was allowing himself to be more snarky than usual - which Fury would immediately take to mean he was upset.

Which, honestly, was true, so whatever.

“He is a wanted criminal,” Fury said, confusion clear in his tone.

“Well, our shakespearean warrior doesn’t really mind working with criminals,” Tony said angrily. “And I just - it’s not okay, Nick,” Tony finally murmured, keeping his eyes on the ground. He hated honest conversations, but, after five years of prodding him relentlessly, Fury had finally managed to get Tony to feel comfortable enough to actually have them with him. “I can’t let Rogers get away with yet another thing. This is exactly why he believes he can always be above the law; we never hold the fucker accountable. I am done coddling his stupidity. He got civilians hurt, Nick, and I will not work with an asshole who allows that to happen when he had the option to work with us from the beginning to keep shit like this from happening again,” Tony finally said, sounding choleric with indignation.

“What did Coulson say?” Fury asked.

“He is willing to bring Steve back,” Tony confirmed, the words tasting bitter in his mouth.

Fury nodded, but remained silent as he thought his answer through. “Well, even if you bring the fucker back, the UN won’t agree to it unless they are sure they can make his ass pay for every single mistake he has committed since the accords were created,” Fury noted.

Tony gave the man a cold look. “All I keep hearing is to bring him back, which he’ll take to assume that all is forgiven, and that is simply not fair.”

Fury sighed. “You are a businessman, Stark. You, unlike your star spangled opposite, know that concessions must be made at times.” Fury inched closer to Tony when he saw the man grimace. “You, unlike him, have proved that you can put duty before your feelings. You know when to suck it up and take one for the team. And it sucks that life always chooses you to bitchslap, but that’s reality, Stark.”

Tony chuckled bitterly but raised his glass in assent.

Fury clenched his jaw, before finally murmuring “I am not gonna tell you everything will be okay, because it won’t. I’m not gonna tell you to let the your anger go, because I don’t think you should. All I can offer you is an ear. I can promise you to be there while you suck it up and work with him so you can bitch about it until you’re blue in the face,” Fury said, honesty dripping from his voice in a way that made Tony want to run away if only to ignore the fact that he actually deeply appreciated Fury’s honesty.

“Nick, is this you admitting that you care?” Tony finally said, unable to keep on this track of conversation without at least lightening the mood.

Fury snorted. “I guess after five years of dealing with your emotional ass, you’ve started to rub off,” Fury snarked back, sitting back to let Tony gather himself.

Tony looked back at the man, keeping his expression carefully blank. “What exactly would you suggest I do, then?”

“The UN will probably give you a list of conditions to bring him back. Add a few of your own. Make sure the asshole pays for his crimes later, and make sure you have the full authority to control him,” Fury said without a hint of pity. “Look, it’s not a bad idea to use Rogers and his friends, but Stark… you don’t trust them. You hear me? You don’t fucking trust them.”

Tony laughed at that. “Way ahead of you there, bud. I haven’t trusted that man since he destroyed my reactor and broke two of my ribs with the fucking shield my dad made,” Tony said icily, finishing his drink in one go.

“Do you still have the shield?” Fury asked as he topped both of their drinks.

“Yeah, it’s in the safe,” Tony said with a hint of melancholy.

“Good, keep it there,” Fury said as he downed his drink again.

Tony smirked. “You’re not going to ask me to give it back to him?”

Fury huffed. “I would have told you to break it a long time ago, had I not known that that shit is unbreakable.”

Chapter Text

“The sheer audacity of asking this panel to pardon this criminal-” began the Russian delegate, his hands clenched into fists.

“First, I never once asked this panel to pardon him,” Tony said indignantly. “I would never ask such a thing from the panel. I am not, nor have I ever, advocated for a pardon for Steven Rogers,” Tony said, his voice booming around the room. He took a second to look around the room, keeping his chin high. “Believe me, ambassador, I am as dismayed by the turn of events as you are,” Tony pleaded, finally looking back at the Russian delegate. “However; we cannot ignore the truth.”

“And how do we know Mr. Odinson is telling us the truth?” The man said petulantly.

“Is the visual evidence I provided not enough for you?” Thor said with a frown. “Moreover, is my word not enough for you?”

Tony held back the urge to roll his eyes. He loved Thor, he really did, but sometimes the fact that Thor was so used to being treated like a prince of Asgard got on Tony’s nerves. It was all well and good that Thor had come to warn them, but Tony could completely understand why the panel was having a bit of a hard time accepting something they couldn’t even see for themselves.

“The evidence you provided is enough, and even if it wasn’t, it’s unimportant,” the Albanian ambassador said suddenly, rubbing his temples softly. “We cannot afford to ignore this threat, for if we do, and it turns out Mr. Odinson is right, then we will all perish.”

“If I may,” Phil spoke up suddenly from his seat next to Tony’s. He inched closer to his microphone. “I think everyone here agrees the crimes committed by the group of vigilantes can be temporarily overlooked, if it means keeping the earth safe.”

“Do you honestly think they will agree to help us, if we do not offer them pardons?” The Russian delegate snapped. “Why would they willingly give themselves over, if they know that at the end of the line a jail cell awaits them?”

“Because we’re not going to give them another choice,” Tony said, looking half resigned half annoyed. “They have had more than enough time to change their ways, and they have not. Yes, we will offer them all temporary amnesty, and a fair trial, in which their… past and possible future heroic acts will be counted in their favor.”

“General, with all due respect, why don’t we stop playing and call it what it is,” said the french delegate with a huff. “You want us to grant a pardon.”

This is why Tony hated open discussion meetings. Almost two hundred delegates all with very clear points of view tended to leave Tony talking in circles; though, he had to admit, more often than not the panel was willing to make concessions when it came to world security.

This time, however, they had been at it since ten in the morning; it was past two by now and they were still arguing the same damn point.

“A pardon would indicate little accountability, and that’s not what I am asking,” Tony said again, talking very slowly to keep his temper in check. “They must be held accountable for their actions.”

“I agree with you, general, but how long until you tell us you need them again?” The french woman asked, raising a brow. “They will never agree to rot in jail only to be let out when the world needs them. That’s a ridiculous concept, at best. So what you’re asking for is an eventual pardon,” She said unimpressed, clasping her hands in front of her.

“If I may,” Phil said again, straightening up next to Tony. “I would like to propose a new…perspective to the argument.”

Aliyev sighed, but didn’t say anything, which was already a win in Tony’s eyes - all things considered.

“As you mentioned, Rogers and his team can be extremely valuable assets, in the long run. Obviously, this doesn’t erase the past five years. They would need to serve some time - though global community service might be a more useful way of using them. Let them atone for their mistakes by actually being helpful, instead of keeping them in jail where they would be no help at all - that is not to say I don’t believe there should be at least a period where they should be, at the very least, under house arrest. They would also need to be kept on a very short leash, as I think everyone in this room agrees they are volatile assets.”

“With all due respect, Secretary Coulson, they were offered the accords once before, and they refused to sign,” the Nigerian ambassador argued with a deep frown. “They have already proven that that method does not work.”

“Not only that, but when these criminals refused to sign the accords and went on to destroy a German pass and a German airport, the Avengers failed to bring in the criminals, and they have continued to fail in that regard,” the German delegate piped in with an angry look.

“Last time the Avengers… lacked conviction,” Coulson said as he looked at Tony from the corner of his eye. “I am sure the Avengers can keep them under control once captured.”

“Pardon me, but the Avengers are asking for these criminals’ help,” pointed out the Colombian delegate. “What makes you think we can keep them on a “short leash” as you say?”

“We are not asking their help in containing four people,” Tony snapped. “We’re asking for help in defeating a titan. There’s a huge difference. My team can easily overpower Rogers’ current roster,” Tony said defensively. “By sheer number alone, we have the upper hand. Not to mention, I know Steve’s fighting technique better than anyone. I have been training my team for the past five years; there is no way Rogers could win against us in a fight.”

The sureness of Tony’s tone must have helped, for they mostly seemed to be more willing to consider Coulson’s prior statement.

“Yet, after five years, they’re still out there,” the Russian delegate bit out, looking unimpressed. Well, clearly Tony’s words hadn't resonated with him.

“I already admitted to this panel that I haven’t been looking for them,” Tony said, though he didn’t sound as confident. “I could have tracked them and brought them in in a matter of weeks. I neglected my duty: I made a mistake, Mr. Aliyev, a mistake I am hoping to at the very least alleviate.”

Before the Russian ambassador could answer, Coulson said “Let the Avengers bring the vigilantes back, and let’s give them their two options: they can help us save earth, on our terms, or they can be brought to trial.”

“So bring them back and tell them you can either be pardoned or go to jail,” the Russian delegate finally said icily, the challenge clear in his voice.

“A partial one,” Phil finally conceded. It would be easier to make the panel swallow the bitter pill if they all admitted that it was indeed a pill.  “They will still have a trial after this debacle is over, they will also still have to face some form of punishment,” Coulson said, almost pleadingly. “And, more importantly, they will be supervised by the Avengers, and by this panel, for the rest of their lives.”

“And what if they say no? They have proven already that they have no respect for the opinions pressed forth by, at the time, over two thirds of this panel. Do you think the signatures of another seventy six countries will change that?” The Nigerian delegate asked skeptically. “Or, even worse, what happens if they try to break the conditions offered? What if they continue to do as they please even if they agree to sign the documents?”

“Then I will personally see to it that they are all… neutralized,” Tony said tonelessly, though his eyes were heavy.

Phil’s brows rose a bit at that, but he did not say anything. It was an option he didn’t even want to consider, but he wasn’t naive enough to not admit to himself that it was a very probable option. Still, he would make damn sure to try his best to avoid such a situation. He didn’t need Tony to dirty his hands with Steve’s blood just because the man was arrogant enough to go against the very people he kept saying he was protecting.

“I believe it is time you take a vote,” Tony said, standing up to stand on the podium to look at all the delegates. “I hereby humbly ask this panel to give me a week to bring in the four criminals responsible for the bombing in Russia. Due to the circumstances, I ask the panel to grant them temporary amnesty if they agree to our terms, and, if they refuse, then let me bring them to trial.”

“And what exactly will our terms be?” Asked the Colombian delegate, looking confused.

“The terms of their… contract, is up to the panel to decide.”

--------------

Tony walked out of the conference room and walked in a beeline to the bathroom, feeling nauseous. He could feel Phil walking right behind him.

Tony, however, ignored the man in favor of opening the faucet to wash his hands. He then splashed his face several times, feeling Phil settle somewhere to his right.

“You alright?” The man asked as he crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking down at Tony, who was still splashing water like the water held all the answers.

“Peachy,” Tony said dryly as he closed the faucet and picked up a paper towel to dry his face. He threw the paper away, still avoiding Phil’s eyes.

“You don’t like that you have to bring him in to work with you,” Phil noted, keeping his eyes on Tony.

“I don’t have to like it, Phil. I just have to do it,” Tony noted as he rolled his neck from side to side.

Phil sighed. “We both know this is the best option Tony. He might not be getting as big of a punishment as he probably deserves, but the most important thing is that he’ll still have to answer to someone now, and I can’t think of someone better than you for him to answer to.”

Tony chuckled tiredly. “I doubt he’ll be very willing to answer to me, Phil. We both know how bad he is at taking orders.” The just like me went unsaid; they did not need to rub salt to the wound.

Yes, Steve had been extremely hypocritical with Tony. No, Tony did not need to think about that right now, not unless he wanted to get angry all over again. Which, really, after five years, just frustrated him. He had no idea why he found it so hard to let go of his grudge against Steve.

He had forgiven Natasha, who had quite literally double crossed him. He had forgiven Clint, who had done something similar. He had forgiven Fury, who had kept the same secret from him as Steve. Hell, he could even say he now trusted all three of them to different degrees; and yet, when it came to Steve, five years had done very little to soften Tony’s heart. If anything, it had made it harder.

Tony shook his head, pushing all thoughts of the past to the side. “Alright, well, I should go.”

“What are you going to do?” Phil said skeptically, sounding worried.

“I am going to go talk to someone that might be able to get Steve back without me having to assemble the whole team to bring him in by force,” Tony said before leaving Phil in the bathroom.

Tony tapped his watch twice as he walked past the conference room to the other end of the hallway, where a huge window stood, closed. Tony opened it with ease, and looked down. He was probably sixty stories high.

Wonderful.

Taking a deep breath, Tony counted to three and jumped, closing his eyes as he began to fall.

Not four second later he felt the first piece of the shuit attach itself to him. The suit quickly assembled itself around Tony’s body, allowing him to propel himself up to stop the fall.

“FRIDAY, activate camouflage mode,” Tony ordered as he took off, the repulsors gaining speed the higher up Tony went.

“Of course, sir. Would you like me to warn agent Barton of your arrival?”

Tony thought about it for a second, considering his options. On the one hand, he could go unannounced, which would mean the kids would get a fun surprise and Clint would be freaked out, which would make Tony’s day. On the other hand, if he didn’t announce himself, he ran the risk of getting there only to find that they were gone. That and Laura would kill him if he just showed up. She hated not having at least a meal for Tony ready when the man decided to drop by.

“Yeah, let him know I’m on my way, and that I’ll be dropping by his house for a little bit,” Tony instructed his AI, looking back to see the skyline. “And let the team know I won’t be home for dinner tonight.”

--------------

Tony landed on Clint’s porch just as the sun was setting, which contrasted nicely with Tony’s black armor. Tony lifted his faceplate as soon as his feet touched the wooden porch, and looked around.

“Dissemble the suit, FRIDAY,” Tony said as he looked out to the garden, where he could still remember arguing with Steve over trust .

How ironic life was.

The door swung open at that point, and three kids - well one kid and two teenagers -  came barreling out, all screaming the same thing; “Uncle Tony!”

“Hey guys,” Tony said with a soft huff as they tackled him into a hug. Connor, being the tallest of the three, threw a hand around Tony’s shoulder while Lily hugged Tony’s chest and Nathaniel hugged Tony’s waist.

“Damn you’re getting so big,” he told all three of them. “Connor, you have to stop growing, man. You’re going to be taller than me at this rate.”

“That’s the goal,” said the teenager with a loopy smile.

“Did you bring us presents?” Nathaniel asked immediately, his big brown eyes showing his excitement.

“Presents are for birthdays and Christmas time. You get your present if you come to the Christmas party this year. I’ve talked to everyone and they all agreed to come, so you should convince your mommy because even Thor is making an appearance this year, and if you go by what went down at the mansion last year, you definitely want to be there this year,” Tony said as he ruffled the little one’s head, before heading inside. “Sweetheart I’m home!” Tony boomed in a singsongy voice just as Clint came out of the kitchen.

Clint raised a brow and smiled, but, before he could answer, Laura came out of the kitchen right behind him, her face lighting up when she saw who it was. “Tony!”

She walked quickly to greet the man, giving him a warm hug and a kiss to the cheek. “It’s been too long since you came visit,” she said in an accusatory tone. “My basement hasn’t been cleaned in a long time.”

“Hey, I can clean it!” Clint said defensively.

Laura rolled her eyes. “Yes, but Tony’s been doing that for me for so long I wouldn’t want to take his job away from him.”

“Clint can clean it,” Tony said lightly, which earned him a smack to the head. “Ow! Ok, ok, jeez woman. I’ll clean it next time I come.”

Laura smiled and nodded, kissing his cheek again before heading back to the kitchen. “Alright, we’re almost done making dinner, so you can set up with the children.”

“Yes ma’am,” Tony said with an unnecessary salute, which had Nathaniel snickering. “Alright boys, you go get the table set up, while Lily and I set up the drinks.”

With that Tony walked deeper into the house, as comfortable as if it was his own. Lily walked past him to set out the glasses while he took out the water pitcher. He smiled softly when he heard Nathaniel asking for permission to come to the Christmas party.

He knew it was a dirty technique to use Nathaniel to wear Laura down, but he missed having everyone there. He knew the last time they hadn’t been able to come because they had gone on a trip, but this year Tony was determined to keep them in New York.

“Are you alright uncle Tony? You look tired,” Lily said softly from where she stood beside him.

“I’m fine, baby girl,” he assured her with a wink. “I just have a lot of things to do, and very little time.”

“Well can we help you?” She asked as she picked up a few of the glasses to bring them to the table.

“Your dad might be able to help me with a few things,” Tony confirmed. “But don’t worry about it. I’ll ask him later.”

“Okay,” the girl said, though she didn’t look convinced.

“Come on, let’s go have dinner,” Tony said as he steered her out of the room back to the dining room, pitcher in hand.

They served the drinks then, letting Laura and Clint handle the rest.

“I thought you weren’t gonna take me up on the invitation,” Clint admitted as he sat down at the head of the table.

Tony sat on the opposite end. “I didn’t have much of a choice,” Tony said with a shrug. “I figured it was best if I came personally to steal you away.”

Laura frowned at that. “Did something happen?”

Tony raised his brows. “Have neither of you been watching the news?”

Clint shook his head, looking slightly apologetic. “We went camping. We actually came back today.”

“Ah, that explains a lot,” Tony said with a tired chuckle.

“What happened?” Clint pressed, sitting on the edge of his seat as worry filled his eyes.

Tony waved a hand, dismissing the man’s concern. “Not now, Clint,” Tony said lightly, though the command in Tony’s voice was not lost on Clint. “We can chat after dinner.”

Laura, who was sitting next to Tony, looked even more worried at that, which made Tony grimace. He stretched over the table to grasp her hand, rubbing her hand comfortingly before murmuring “I’ll explain everything, don’t worry.”

Clint clenched his jaw, but said nothing, aware that whatever it was, it was bad enough that Tony didn’t want to talk about it in front of the kids.

Goddammit.


Tony landed on the Bartons’ yard, feeling more than a little wrong to be back here after over two years, without an invitation.

The last time he had been here, they had all still been together. They had been licking their wounds from the mumbo jumbo that they had all experienced at Wanda’s hands, well all except Clint. Clint had been the one left to take care of the team, back then. He had offered his team a home; he had shared with them his deepest, most important life secret.

And now Tony was back, sans team, and, more importantly, sans Clint. It all felt just horribly wrong. He knew it wasn’t his fault that Clint was now on the run. He hadn’t told the man to go against the law. He hadn’t even thought of calling the man once he said he was retired and that he didn’t need to read the accords because it no longer applied to him.

But Clint had still come, only that he had decided to join the wrong side of the battle. Clint’s choice still haunted Tony; how could Clint, a fucking government official, go against the very institution he had always defended?

Clint wasn’t stupid. Tony knew the man believed in accountability. He knew Clint understood how necessary government was, so why the man had decided to join Steve was beyond Tony’s comprehension.

Still, at the end of the day, none of that mattered; Clint still had three children and a wife. The man still had someone to answer to and, regardless of whether he had been right in choosing to help Steve or not, his family still had to pay the price, and Tony couldn’t just stand by and watch that happen.

He couldn’t bring back Clint, but he sure as hell could make sure that his family didn’t die while waiting for the man to come back.

“Mr. Stark?” A female voice said from behind him, shock clear in her voice.

Tony turned around, lifting the faceplate when he came face to face with Laura Barton. “Um, Hi, Good Evening, Mrs. Barton-”

“What are you doing here?” Her surprise had quickly given way to anger.

“Your husband is gone,” Tony started, steeling his nerves for the conversation that was sure to come. “I-”

“Because of you!” Laura suddenly growled.  “You took him away from me-”

“I didn’t take him from you!” Tony snapped, looking genuinely offended. He was so tired of being blamed for the shit that had happened. “The only thing I did was send him a copy of the original accords, and then I backed off when Clint said he preferred to stay retired. I wasn’t the one that called him to come to Germany! I didn’t tell him to join Steve. I didn’t tell them to fight, and I sure as shit didn’t tell him to oppose the will of one hundred and seventeen countries and its citizens!” Tony suddenly stopped when he realized he was screaming.

He took a step back, deactivating the armor to appear less threatening. The last thing he needed right now was to frighten the woman. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have screamed.”

She suddenly walked tantalizingly closer, her eyes searching her face. “You said… you’re lying. He didn’t - He went to Germany because Steve told him someone from HYDRA was trying to reactivate some form of program that could have brought about the death of hundreds of people, and you were trying to stop him.”

“We didn’t know Steve had a lead! He didn’t share that with any of us, nor did he inform the UN.” Tony said brusquely. “All we knew was that the UN building had been bombed, and that the bomber seemed to be the Winter Soldier. We knew Steve had helped him escape, destroying a part of a Berlin pass in the process. We offered the soldier medical help, but Zemo fucked that up by coming in disguised as the psychiatrist. He activated the Soldier again, but we did not know that. We just saw him destroy a German intel building, and harm a number of officers, only to be helped again by Captain Rogers,” Tony said candidly, his eyes alight with a fire that had often ended in a fight before.

Tony looked away, anger buzzing through his entire system. He was screaming again. He couldn’t scream, not to this woman, but damn if the sheer anger and hurt he still felt didn’t leave him shaky and volatile. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm down.

“We didn’t show up at the Berlin airport to try to stop them from saving the world, and we also didn’t show up to try and make Steve, or Clint, sign the accords. We didn’t even know Clint was going to be there,” Tony admitted with a rueful smile. “We showed up because the UN was ready to send a task force aimed to kill him, because he was a growing threat, and I didn’t want to see my friend die because he was acting like an idiot.” Tony cleared his throat, feeling a sting of anguish at the word friend. “We were there to bring them in for a trial, Mrs. Barton, and Clint had nothing to do with that. He wasn’t on the UN’s list of criminals until he fucking helped destroy a goddamn German airport.”

Laura was quiet for a long time, processing the new information, before she suddenly let out a sob. Tony froze at that and finally turned to face her. She hid her face in her hands as another sob ran through her, and Tony made a disgruntled noise because he genuinely did not know what to do with her reaction.

Was he supposed to comfort her? Was he supposed to look away? Did she still hate him? What the fuck was he supposed to do?

“I’m sorry,” She whispered as she dried her tears, though more kept coming out. “I- It’s not you, I just… I didn’t know- I thought- Steve told him-” suddenly another sob left her. “God, I’m sorry, I don’t know why i’m crying, I’m just so angry-”

Tony couldn’t help but laugh brokenly at that, because yeah, he could understand that. He could understand being so angry that the only thing left to do was to cry. Suddenly, his doubts left him and he closed the distance between them, hugging the woman, who stiffened in his arms at first due to surprise. He, realizing how perhaps he had read the situation wrong and she hadn’t wanted a hug from him, began to move away, but she clung to him immediately, burying her head in his chest.

And then she finally stopped pretending she wasn’t breaking inside and begun to cry openly. She shook in Tony’s arms with an anguish and an anger that Tony could understand so completely, it made him tear up too. He didn’t bother fighting back the tears, because, if she was going to allow herself to cry around Tony, then he assumed she was extending him the same courtesy.

Tony lowered them to the ground, cradling Laura to his chest as she continued to cry, her knuckles white from the way she was clinging to his shirt.

They stayed like that for a long time, both too consumed in their own sorrows to even notice the hours passing by.

“Mommy?” Said a young, brown haired boy, breaking the moment that had brought both adults to their knees. “Are you okay? Is that daddy?”

Tony felt like he was going to be sick.

Laura slowly pulled away from the embrace as she murmured “I’m alright sweetheart, and no, it’s not daddy. This is Tony Stark. Do you remember him? He’s a friend of d… mine.”

Tony couldn’t help but be thankful to Laura for reintroducing him as her friend and not Clint’s; he wasn’t sure he could stomach Clint’s look of disgust if the man ever found out Tony had been introduced to his kid as his friend.

She grabbed Tony by the hand and pulled him along back to the porch, where the boy could see him under the light. She kissed the boy’s head before asking “Why are you up, baby?”

“I was thirsty,” he said as he shuffled awkwardly. “And then I couldn’t find you.”

She smiled sadly at her boy. “Well, I am right here, Connor. I’m not going anywhere. Why don’t you go grab some water and then go back to bed? You won’t want to get up tomorrow if you don’t get some rest.”

The boy swallowed hard before whispering. “When is daddy coming back, mom?”

Laura clenched her jaw and stepped back, unconsciously reeling back from the question. “I don’t know, sweetheart. But don’t worry about that, okay? We’ll see him again soon.”

The boy didn’t seem to be convinced, but he nodded anyway, finally heading back inside.

Laura sighed, turning back to face Tony.

“I’m so sorry,” the man half whispered, his voice breaking.

Laura shook her head, giving Tony the same smile she had given her son. “No, it’s not you who has to apologize,” she said bitterly. “I get it now, and it really wasn’t your fault. Steve should have known better,” she said curtly. “Clint should have know better,” she added then, sounding even angrier than before.

Tony didn’t say anything, not wanting to piss her off even more.

She shook her head. “It’s just a bit surreal to know that right now my husband is a wanted criminal, and that I will never see him again,” she let out a broken huff. “You know, he was always gone for long periods of time, because of work, and I always wondered if that was going to be the last time I saw him, but I never imagined that the reason he wouldn’t come back to me was because he decided to prioritize his friendship with a man, who didn’t even explain the situation properly to him, over us.”

Tony opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again when no sound argument came to mind. There was nothing he could say to defend his former friend, mostly because he himself was still trying to figure out what had been Clint’s reasoning.

Suddenly the woman frowned, cocking her head to the side to look at Tony. “You never told me why you were here.”

“Uh, right, well, I know Clint and I didn’t… well we didn’t end our friendship on the best terms, but that doesn’t change the fact that you.. Well you sort of.. You lost your husband,” Tony said, suddenly feeling nervous. That had not come out like he wanted. At all. “And I know this is really none of my business, but I can’t just stand by and watch you deal with all of this on your own, so I’m here to help.”

Laura’s brows shot up at that. “Help? How?”

“Well, first,” Tony murmured, pressing something on his wrist. He looked up at the sky and waited a few second, before smiling.

She looked up then too, to see two armors eerily similar to the red and gold armor Tony had been wearing a few hours ago come down to stand next to the porch.

“Clint isn’t here to protect you anymore, and, when SHIELD fell, everyone’s files became public. People are still angry about all the damage the Avengers have caused over the years, and I don’t want to see your family pay the price for something you didn’t do.” Tony took out his phone and brought up a hologram. “FRIDAY, initiate the new security protocol.”

“What-”

“These two units will stay here with you. One is meant to keep an eye on you, and the other on your kids. If there is even an attack, they will protect you, and I will be alerted, as will anyone in the compound, so we can come help. They are also designed to be able to contain at least a hand grenade, so they are fairly useful.” Tony stopped blabbing and shrugged, not meeting the woman’s eyes. “They will stay far enough to not interfere with your day, but they’ll keep you safe.”

The man suddenly pulled out a small comm unit. “You can communicate with FRIDAY with this. If you ever need help moving things, or just help with anything really, you have these units at your disposal.”

Laura gaped at the man, her eyes welling up with tears again. “I- um, thank you that’s… that’s very generous of you.”

Tony shrugged again. “The second thing I wanted to talk to you about is that I noticed you actually use your farm, and that well… your husband’s income is non existent now.” Tony licked his dried lips, shuffling uncomfortably. “I would like to help you.”

“Mr. Stark that’s not-”

Tony raised a hand. “Mrs. Barton, I have more money than I know what to do with. You have three kids that you will eventually have to put through college, and I don’t know if you will have your husband back by then. It isn’t actually a burden on me, and it will help me sleep better at night if I know at least your family isn’t suffering the consequences of the Avengers’ fall out,” Tony said, his voice pleading.

Laura bit her lip, and looked back, clearly not convinced.

Tony sighed. “Look, Mrs. Barton, I’ve never been very good with… well people, but I have always been good at fixing things. I’m… I’m like a mechanic. I patch things up, so, please, let me do what I do best. Let me try to patch this up.”

“Laura, call me Laura,” She said warmly as she tilted her head to the side and gave him a sad smile. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the things you are doing, Tony, I do, and I will gladly accept your help. But that doesn’t… he’s still gone. I still have to sit my kids down and tell them that their dad isn’t going home. I still have to raise them on my own,” she whispered, her voice cracking.

Tony wanted to rip his hair out. “I’m sorry… I don’t know how to fix that.”

Laura chuckled at that, before suddenly freezing. “Maybe you could… I mean I know you’re busy but…”

“What?” Tony asked immediately, taking a step closer to the woman, clinging to the hope in her voice like he was drowning.

“Come with me,” she said, leaving the door open for Tony. She walked quickly to the kitchen, pulling out a broom and a dustpan from their cleaning cabinet.

She turned around to face a very confused Tony Stark, and bit her lip, before holding out the two objects for him to take.

Tony frowned and looked at Laura in the eye, not taking the objects immediately. There was obviously something the woman wasn’t telling him. This wasn’t just her handing her a broom to hold. She was trying to tell her something in her ridiculously crafty ways, and this felt disconcertingly like a test.

The broom meant she wanted him to clean something. But he had already told her she could use the two units for anything she needed. She didn’t need Tony to-

Oh.

She was asking Tony to help.

The man finally stepped forward and hesitantly grabbed the objects from her hands, keeping his eyes on her to see if he had misunderstood.

She breathed out a sigh of relief then, and gave him a genuine smile. “I know the bots can do this,” she said as a way of explanation. “But I just… I can’t talk to a robot, and my kids can’t really interact with one either.” She looked at her hands as she whispered. “I don’t want them to forget what it is like to have other people, other than me, around the house. Particularly my boys… I want them to have a man they can look up to in some way.”

Tony’s hands shook at her words, and he swallowed hard, unsure of what to feel. “I don’t know if I’m the best person to look up to right now,” he admitted in a whisper.

Laura shrugged. “It’s not like they’re going to know all there is to know about you, Tony,” she said with a comforting smile. “You are not a bad man,” she admitted. “And at least, from time to time, you’ll actually be here.”

Tony looked at the broom in his hand then. “Right, well what do you want me to sweep?”

She looked out the window, her eyes turning glassy for a second as she lost herself in a memory Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to hear. “Maybe you can start with the basement.”


Tony unlocked the door to Laura’s house with the key she had given him three weeks after their first conversation. Tony wasn’t sure whether or not she had believed him at first when he had agreed to be there to help around the house once in awhile, but, after consistently showing up at her house at least twice a week , she had finally accepted that Tony wasn’t going away any time soon.

He generally came in the afternoon to play with the kids and then stayed over for dinner, only leaving around midnight, when he and Laura finished straightening up everything around the house and she was ready to go to bed. Other times, he showed up long after they had gone to bed, just to make sure the armors were running properly, and that the new machinery he had bought for the farm was working properly with the updated pieces he had installed.

It certainly consumed quite a chunk of his day, but so did spending time with Peter; both of which at this point had become necessary activities to keep himself somewhat sane.

“Tony!” screamed Connor, delighted, as he looked up from where he was playing with the new remote control car Tony had bought him. “Mom, Tony’s here!” He yelled as he looked up at the ceiling.

“Coming!” His mother replied from somewhere upstairs.

“Where are your siblings, bud?” Tony asked as he ruffled the eleven year old’s hair.

“Lily’s playing with her dolls, and Mommy took Nate to the bathroom,” Connor said as he went back to playing with his toy.

“Ah,” Tony said just as Laura appeared at the top of the stairs. He immediately smiled at the woman. “How’s the potty training going?”

“Could be worse,” she shrugged, holding Nathaniel with one arm, as she came downstairs to greet Tony.

As soon as Nathaniel saw Tony he smiled and squealed out the man’s name, throwing himself half in the air to reach Tony. The man immediately jumped from where he was to catch the boy, who only giggle and repeated his name before beginning to babble almost incomprehensibly about dinosaurs.

“Still obsessed about our Mesozoic Era friends, I see,” Tony noted as he rested Nathaniel on his side. “I think we should find you a-”

‘You are not allowed to build him a dinosaur,” Laura warned as she walked to the kitchen to heat up dinner.

“Your mother is a killjoy,” Tony confided to Nathaniel, as if the woman couldn’t hear him. The boy just giggled.

“And you lack self-control,” she retorted good naturedly before nuzzling her son’s cheek.

“We all have our failings,” Tony said blithely as he finally put Nathaniel down. The boy immediately scurried away to pester his brother, who was still playing with the car.  

“You came late today, did something happen?” She asked as she took out a container filled with salad. “Not that you have to… I mean I was just wondering-”

“I was talking to Fury,” he explained, not allowing her to finish the thought of. He had explained to her enough times that he was actually happy to come help. He smiled when she saw her shoulders sag a little in relief as she  move around the kitchen. “We… well we’re discussing ways of getting a pardon passed to bring Clint back,” Tony admitted.

Laura froze at that, accidentally dropping the plate she had been holding. Tony reached forward, but he was too late, and the plate shattered between them, the sound jolting them both.

She looked at the plate numbly, before looking back up at Tony, her eyes welling up with tears.

They didn’t talk about Clint all that much. It was hard for her to think of her husband right now, especially when she was so sure she’d never see him again. Tony was a wonderful man, and he was great with the kids, which really made her life easier, but she had already resigned herself to the idea that her kids would not grow up knowing their father.

She wasn’t sure whether the small hope Tony was dangling in front of her eyes was worth the pain, though.

“It’s still just an idea,” Tony was quick to say, the warning clear in his voice. He came closer to Laura, grasping her shoulders while still keeping her at arm’s length. “We don’t… it probably won’t work.”

The woman ignored the shattered pieces of the plate and walked forward, hugging Tony as a few tears escaping her. “It doesn’t matter. You are still... Thank you for trying, Tony.”

She wouldn’t allow herself to hope, but she would be damned if she didn’t show the man some appreciation for at least trying to help.


"Alright little buddy, bedtime,” Tony said as he picked up Nathaniel from where he was playing on the floor.

He took the boy up to the bathroom, where he helped him change and brushed his teeth. Connor came in and out of the bathroom as Tony got Nathaniel ready, always forgetting something in the bathroom. Lily came in just as Tony finished making Nathaniel wash his face, and he smiled at the girl.

She smiled right back, before turning to the back to get her toothbrush out. “Uncle Tony, will you do my hair?” She asked just as she put the toothbrush in her mouth.

Tony smiled at her and nodded, taking out the brush from the white cabinet behind them. He stood behind the young girl and carefully undid her braids, brushing the hair with an ease he would have laughed at a few months ago.

“Nathaniel, you have to go pee before we go to bed,” Laura commanded as she passed Connor his water.

Nathaniel screamed “I don’t wanna” as he ran back to his own room, looking back with a giggle when he saw his mother running behind him.

“It wasn’t a suggestion, Nathaniel,” His mother said curtly when she finally caught him, bringing him in just as Tony and Lily made their way out of the bathroom.

“C’mon flower, your mom’s going to take forever with Nathaniel,” Tony said as he guided the girl back to her own room. Tony could see from the corner of his eye Connor peeking into the room. “I’ll be with you in a minute, bud, let me just put your sister to bed,” Tony called out as Lily jumped on top of her bed.

Tony smiled, and tucked the girl in, turning off her night light. “Goodnight, Lily,” he said softly as he kissed her forehead just like she had asked him to do almost four months ago.

“G’night, Uncle Tony,” she murmured sleepily as she turned to her side.

Tony stood up then, distantly trying to remember why it was that Lily had suddenly decided to call him Uncle. He couldn’t pinpoint a day. He had just shown up one day and all of them had started calling him uncle. It was probably something Laura had told them, but Tony had never asked, half afraid of knowing the answer.

He walked into Connor’s room then, to find the boy already in bed, reading a book.

‘Whatcha reading?” Tony asked as he came to sit on the edge of the boy’s bed.

“Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy,” He said with a grin. “I’m almost done with it!” He announced proudly, showing Tony the inside of the book.

“Well aren’t you a smart cookie,” Tony praised as he ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Can I stay up to finish reading it?” He asked Tony, his big brown eyes making it impossible for Tony to flat out refused.

Damn, he really had a weakness with children. “You can stay up for another half an hour, and then you’ll go to sleep because otherwise your mom will kill us both, got it?”

“Okay,” the boy agreed with an enthusiastic nod, burying his head in the book again.

Tony chuckled and shook his head, kissing Connor’s head just like he had done with Lily before stepping out of the room. He watched as Laura stepped quietly of out Nathaniel’s room, closing the door behind her.

He didn’t wait for her to check on the other two kids to head downstairs. He was sure she’d join him when she was ready.

He snagged his briefcase from the couch on his way to the living room, pulling out a chair near the window. He took out a number of files, groaning at the amount of papers he had to go over.

He had no idea why all corporations and organizations were so obsessed with making hard copies. Why couldn’t they just for once send him everything online so that FRIDAY could look at it?

He took out an expensive looking pen and a highlighter and set out to work, a frown of concentration settling on his features. He was so engrossed in the documents he was amending that he did not notice Laura slip into the room. She stood behind him, reading over his shoulder as he scratched out and reworded entire sections of the document in a separate document.

She let out a small gasp as she realized what it was that she was reading. She leaned down lower, her head almost touching his shoulder. “Is this… you are actually doing this,” she whispered, bracing one of her hands on the table.

He nodded without looking at the woman. “It’s not looking particularly good, but yes. I might get them to agree to have him under house arrest for about six months, before he’s reinstated, though he’ll be heavily monitored and won’t be a full member for a long time - that is if they allow him to come out of retirement.” Tony shrugged. “They’re not as angry at Clint as they are at Rogers, so they’re more willing to let me get away with this one.”

Laura let out a shaky breath, a gleam of hope in her eyes. “I can’t believe you are actually doing this.”

Tony shrugged. “They need their father back,” Tony said simply, still not looking at the woman.

Her breath caught in her throat, but she nodded, kissing his cheek as she hugged him from behind.

Tony patted her hand, still unused to loving physical contact being so freely given, and went back to editing the new draft of the pardon.

Laura stayed like that, hugging the broken man that had single handedly saved her own broken spirit.


T’Challa dragged Clint’s unconscious body down the path to the house, where Tony stood frozen with a coffee cup in hand.

“What…” He begun, looking from Clint to T’Challa with bulging eyes.

“I tracked him,” T’Challa lied easily, never letting go of his hold on Clint’s shirt. “I found him in Guatemala,” he deadpanned.

Tony gaped at the man. “Are you telling me you just violated international law to-”

T’Challa pulled out a piece of paper and said “I had the explicit permission of the Guatemalan government to go in and apprehend former Avenger Clint Barton,” he deadpanned with a shrug.

“Why?” Tony said, still feeling like someone was pulling his leg.

“Nick Fury told me of your dealings with the UN, to bring in the man to offer him a pardon. So I just thought it best to bring him in discreetly.”

Tony continued to gape at T’Challa like he couldn’t believe his ears. “How did you fight off Rogers’ entire team?”

“I didn’t,” the king said easily. “He was alone, for whatever reason.”

Tony frowned at the man, feeling more than a little insulted that T’Challa actually thought he could fool Tony with such a blatant lie. Did he honestly think Tony didn’t know they were all currently in Wakanda? What did he think Tony was? An Amateur?

Fucking Royals.

“Right, well, thanks I guess?” Tony said, still feeling a bit off kilter. “I don’t know how the UN will take it that you just fucked off to get Barton, but-”

“We were long ago tasked with bringing the vigilantes in. Whatever their feelings are, they are unimportant. We were given orders, and I followed them.”

Tony hummed, looking at Clint’s body. “What did you do to him?”

“It was easier to transport him if unconscious,” T’Challa said unrepentantly.

Tony kneeled down to check Clint’s pulse, noticing a needle jab on the side of the man’s neck. “Did you fucking drug him?” Tony exclaimed as he whipped his head around to face the Wakandan King.

“Would you have preferred I physically harm him?” T’Challa said with a raised brow.

“I would have preferred you mentioned  to him that he was getting a pardon,” Tony squaked, though, judging by how clean the mark was, he was pretty sure there had been no resistance - which meant the fuckers had set this up.

“He wasn’t quite willing to listen to me,” T’Challa said with a hint of amusement.

“Whatever, Bagheera, I’m not having this discussion with you,” Tony said as he stood back up. “FRIDAY, contact the UN and let them know his royal highness has… completed his mission. Also, remind them that the Pardon has already been passed, so starting today they can count down the week to see what Barton decides.”

“Of course, boss,” the AI said. “Would you like me to contact Mrs. Barton?”

Tony chewed on his lip for a second before finally murmuring “yeah, let her know T’Challa brought him back, and that he’s safe. Also, get a plane ready, they’re going to want to see him.”

Clint choose that moment to stir, groaning as he moved his neck to the side.

“What the hell?” He asked groggily.

“Welcome back, sleeping beauty,” Tony said with a half smile that looked as fake as it felt.

“What the- Stark?” The man said as he sat up, looking around to check his perimeter. He froze as he laid eyes on T’Challa. “You,” he said icily.

Tony held back a laugh. Who would have thought the idiots could act. He honestly didn’t know whether he was more surprised or offended at this point.

“T’Challa over there was nice enough to bring you to the compound so that I could let you know that you’ve been granted a pardon of sorts,” Tony explained as he crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“A pardon..” Clint chuckled humorlessly. “What, felt guilty enough for the shit you did, Stark?”

Tony froze, his amused indignation turning into bubbling rage in two seconds flat. “Guilty? Guilty about what exactly? Guilty about understanding that we can’t run around doing whatever we want? Guilty about trying to keep the team safe, because the Accords were going to happen whether we signed or not? Guilty about trying to bring you all back alive?” Tony scuffed. “Yeah, I guess I am guilty.”

He stepped away from Barton immediately after that, his face a blank mask. He turned to look at T’Challa. “Since you brought him back, I am assuming you have a copy of the pardon. Please hand that to Agent Barton along with a copy of the Accords,” Tony said in a cold, detached tone before heading back inside.

T’Challa watched him go with a small sigh, before turning to glare at Clint.

“What?” Clint said defensively. “Did you want me to thank him? He was the one that got us in that mess in the first place.”

T’Challa rolled his eyes. “No, he did not, Barton.” He looked out at the forest. “But I’m sure my explanation will not reach you; however, your wife’s might.”

-----------

Clint picked at the black tracking brace on his ankle, designed to shoot a generous amount of voltage into his body if he so much as stepped out of the compound. He had thought about resisting putting on the thing, just on principle really, but when he had seen T’Challa’s furic look he had reconsidered his choices.  

Suddenly the door to his room opened, and in came Laura, whose eyes widened when she saw Clint sitting there, on a bed, so tantalisingly close. Natasha stepped right behind her, closing the door to the room with all three of them inside.

“Is that… it’s really you,” she whispered, walking slowly closer to her husband.

Clint felt like his heart was ready to burst with happiness at the sight of his wife, and he whispered “Hey babe.”

And that’s when she slapped him across the face. Twice. Hard.

He froze, too stunned to react. He hadn’t even seen the slap coming. Not even SHIELD’s training had prepared him for that. He touched his cheeks slowly, turning to gape at Natasha and then at his wife. Natasha seemed as stunned as him.

He quickly realized that what he had first assumed to be stunned happiness was actually explosive rage.

What the fuck?

“Wh-”

“You are an idiot,” she said through clenched teeth, her nostrils flaring. “How could you… You chose Steve over us, Clint, how could you do that?” She asked, her voice breaking.

Clint frowned, stepping closer to touch her cheek. “Laura-”

She moved away as soon as he got close enough to touch her, moving as if she had been burned.

Clint frowned at her. “Steve needed me, Laura. You know that. He thought the Winter program was going to be reactivated, and the Accords were tying his hands. We needed to act fast. The Accords would have costed us so many lives. I needed to go in to help him, because Stark was literally ripping the team apart while a fucking maniac was on the loose … Steve had a lead, and Stark wouldn’t listen to him-”

“He never told Tony anything!” She snapped, looking indignant. “And the Accords weren’t slowing anything down,” she said, feeling an almost unconscious need to defend Tony. “He hadn’t signed the damn thing, Clint, and Tony wasn’t in Germany to get him to sign them. Tony was there to apprehend them-”

“Yes, Stark was there to apprehend him, because he didn’t sign the damn papers. He was there to apprehend him like a common criminal-” Clint started, looking at his wife like she had grown a second head.

“Tony went in to apprehend Captain America because  they destroyed huge chunks of Berlin, Clint!” Laura seethed, placing her hands on  her hips. “If he didn’t go in, then they would have sent swat teams to shoot you down, and you would have died-”

“And who approved of that, huh?!” Clint screamed, rising to his full height. “Our job is to help people, honey, that’s what we do! We go and we fight so that other people don’t have to. I was trying to help Steve save people, because the government apparently didn’t give a shit since they were too busy hunting Steve down!”

“What people?” She demanded angrily. “What people Clint? The people of those one hundred and seventeen countries were all afraid of the Avengers! If you truly are there to protect people, then you listen to what they have to say. You were the one that told me that! You can’t force yourself on people, even if it is to protect them. That’s what every tyrant always says when they take on power; “I am doing this to protect you.” Are you really protecting someone when you’re taking away their right to say no to you? When you invade their homes and then destroy them, because you are after the enemy and innocent people end up being collateral damage? When you don’t pay the consequences for the innocent lives you take? How is that any different from the people you are fighting?” She shook her head, giving her husband a disappointed look. “You go in and you take away their choice, and people end up dead, and all they see is a group of people they can’t hope to fight. They see a group whose members often lose control of themselves, which leads to their families being killed, and no one answers for the families that have just been torn to bits.” Laura covered her mouth then, a few tears escaping her. She rubbed her eyes to clean away her tears and then huffed out  “And then you all get mad when they tell you that you can’t do that.”

She took another step away from her husband, feeling sick to her core. “Captain America doesn’t deserve to be above the law,” Laura said derisively. “He wasn’t being hunted down because of the stupid papers, Clint. He was being hunted down because he helped a mentally unstable terrorist escape, and then caused the death of German Civilians. And you… you went in to help him without even asking for the whole story. You left us… You left me , to fight in a stupid battle that never should have happened in the first place.”

Clint was quiet after that, unable to argue her point, because it was true. They had never given people the choice to… They had never thought of… He had been no better than Loki.

Dear god, he had been no better than his nightmare.

He looked up at Natasha, who was still standing frozen by the door, still looking surprised.

He step back and sank into the bed, rubbing his hands together as he looked at his wife. Everything she was saying… fuck, it made sense, but how did she know so much about -

“You’ve been talking to Stark,” Clint snapped aloud, a flicker of surprise crossing his factions. Suddenly a hot, angry… thing took a hold of his heart, and he felt the anger come back, only this time, it was all directed at Tony.  “You’ve been… Tony Stark helped put me in a cell, and you’ve been talking to him?”

Ok, wait, no. He hadn’t meant to say it like that-

Laura’s brows rose at that, her eyes going deadly cold. “Tony Stark is the sole reason you got a pardon,” she bit out, mercilessly. “Tony Stark is the sole reason you weren’t killed at that German airport.” She stalked closer, her teeth bared. “Tony Stark is the sole reason I didn’t drown in my own anguish when I thought I had lost you!” She screamed, enraged. “Three weeks after you broke out of prison, Tony came to see me, and you know why? He came to leave two of his armors with me, so that me and the children would be safe. He bought new equipment that I could operate more easily, so that I could handle the farm on my own. He paid all of our bills, because he knew we weren’t counting on your salary anymore,” she said harshly, her voice laced with an emotion Clint couldn’t quite understand. “He came to visit us at least twice a week, so that the kids could have someone other than me to play with, and he kept me company when I thought I was never going to see you again and I didn’t know how to smile anymore. He finally took Lily out to learn how to ride her bike, and he held Nathaniel when we went water skiing - something he did in your name, because they told him you had promised to take them. He told them stories about you and Natasha, even though it broke him every time he spoke about two of the people that had betrayed him,” Laura glared at both Clint and Natasha then, her anger coming off in waves.

Neither of the two had ever looked so shocked. Natasha looked like she was going to be sick.

“You owe Tony more than you’ll ever know,” She whispered fervently, turning away from Clint. “You should read the Accords,” she finally said, wiping her face with her hands. “I think… I think you’ll like the changes they’ve made over the past seven months. Tony and Nick have been working really hard on them,” she confided, smiling softly at the memory of the two men hunched down on her kitchen as they laid out a comprehensive plan of how to effectively amend the accords.

“I thought you didn’t want me doing this,” Clint said, sounding fearful. Was this Laura’s way of saying goodbye?

She chuckled sadly. “Yeah, and look how well the last time I tried to keep you from doing this went.” She shook her head. “I know you, Clint, and I know how important it is for you to help people.” She turned to give him a smile - the first genuine smile directed in his general direction. “That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you. But if you’re going to go around saving the world, then you’re going to do it right.” She picked up the accords from where they sat on the desk.

She walked towards him and gave them to him, along with a pen. “Read them. Think it over, and then let Tony know whether you’re signing them or if you’re retiring.”

“What are you going to do now?” He asked, suddenly grabbing her hand.

She looked at him, and something inside her broke at the sheer vulnerability there in his eyes. She leaned down and kissed him softly, quickly, her lips barely brushing his, but it was enough to let him know that no, she wasn’t letting him go just yet. “I am still pissed at you,” She admitted with a pat to his cheek. “And you’re gonna have a lot of making-up to do, but you’re still my husband,” she finally said. “And I still love you.”


Clint walked down the hall to the kitchen, slowing down considerably when he heard the voices coming from inside.

“I can’t believe you actually pulled it off,” Fury admitted with a chuckle.

“We pulled it off,” Tony corrected. “Don’t sell yourself short there, cyclops.”

Fury didn’t comment on Tony’s joke, instead choosing to say, “Still, the strings you had to pull to get this pardon passed will probably cost Ross his job now that the UN knows the shit he pulled,” Fury noted.

“I am trying to see the downside in this,” Tony deadpanned.

“Ross is a vengeful man, Stark,” Fury warned in a low tone, which made Clint walk faster, mostly out of curiosity. The tone felt too comfortable for it to be used on Tony.

Clint froze when he finally reached the entrance to the kitchen, unable to process the image in front of him. Tony was sitting at the table with a green juice in his hand. Fury was standing right behind Tony, one of his hand’s on the table and the other on Tony’s shoulder. Both men were looking at a document on Stark’s pad, and had been clearly talking while looking at the document, both looking far too comfortable around each other.

Fury immediately stepped away, his face closing off into an impassive mask when Clint walked in.

“Agent Barton,” Fury greeted with a small nod.

“Director,” he replied, keeping his eyes on Tony. “I- Well I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute, Stark,” Clint admitted, shuffling awkwardly on his feet.

Fury looked between the two, exchanging a look with Tony. Finally he nodded and he stepped past Clint. “If you need me, Stark, holler.”

“Aww, my very own knight in shining armor,” Tony teased as he watched Fury go, though his smile dropped as soon as Fury was out of the room. “So, Barton, what do you need?”

Clint stepped closer and dropped the Accords in front of Tony. “I signed them.”

“Good for you?” Tony said, though it sounded more like a question. “Or should I say well done Laura?”

Clint huffed out a laugh and nodded, stepping away from Tony. “I- I wanted to apologize, Tony,” Clint said softly, not daring to look at Tony in the eye. “When Steve called me I didn’t know - I made some mistakes,” he said as he scratched the back of his head.

“We all did,” Tony said softly, keeping his eyes on the accords. “Some more than others,” Tony acquiesced as he began looking over the accords.

“Right, Still… I am sorry” Clint said, shuffling on his feet again. ‘Anyway, I- Well I won’t be of much help for the next year, since they have me on house arrest, but… after that... I’d like to come back to the team, if you’ll have me.“

Tony didn’t respond at first. He considered Clint for a moment, and then shrugged. “It’s not really up to me to decide, Clint. You signed the accords, and you have a pardon. As long as the UN gives you the green light, you are free to join the roster.”

“It’s still your team, though,” Clint said carefully. “It’s your decision who you trust enough to let on,” he said quietly.

“I lead it, yes,” Tony said. “But it’s just that - a team. Trust… Sure, you do need to have some trust; you are on the battlefield together, after all, but really all you need is common goals.” Tony shrugged. “I don’t really do trust, Clint, because if I use that as my guideline, then I’d be working only with Rhodey.” Tony huffed out a laugh at that, before murmuring “members come and go, as we’ve already seen,” Tony said with a plastic smile. “I just do my best to make the team work smoothly, regardless of who is in it.”

Clint felt a pang of guilt at that - it was obvious Tony was back at keeping everyone at arm’s length, and he couldn’t say he blamed the man. He was pretty sure, after the long conversation he had had with Laura about Tony’s presence at home, that he had never actually met the real Tony. He had never been able to look past the mask - or perhaps Tony hadn’t trusted him enough to let him in.

Whatever option it was, it didn’t really matter now; there was no way he was ever getting the man to trust him enough to not hide.

“Right, well,” Clint said, taking another step closer to the exit, feeling the sudden need to just crawl under a whole and never come back. “I… Thank you, Tony, for everything. You.. You kept my family safe, when I couldn’t, so thank you.”

If Clint’s gratitude surprised Tony, the man didn’t show it. He merely nodded, looking back down at his papers as he said “Just take good care of them, Clint. You have good kids, and one hell of a wife.”

Clint smiled sadly. “Yeah, well, I don’t know how much longer I’ll have her.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “She’s been waiting for your dumb ass for seven months Barton,and for the majority of those months she truly thought she was never going to see you again. Give her some time to work through her anger.”


Clint walked Tony into their barn, away from the children. “So, what happened?”

“Steve went in with his team into what seems to be an old Hydra base located in Russia. Whatever they did in there triggered traps set in place, and a bomb was detonated,” Tony explained, sounding as weary as he looked. “The UN was ready to blow the idiot off the face of the earth, but Thor came just in time to tell us that one of our alien buddies has decided to come and destroy earth just for funsies,” Tony said with a scowl. “It’s… a long story, but the point is we might need Steve’s help.”

Clint’s brows rose at that. “Why is it that every time I take a break everything goes to shit?”

Tony couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “To be fair Clint, it was your ex boyfriend that went and fucked up - though really this being a surprise to you is actually a bit worrying,” Tony teased. “Anyway, the reason I came is because I need you to booty call him back.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Clint said, not believing his ears.

Tony rolled his eyes. “We have a week to bring them in. They can either cooperate or we bring them in kicking and screaming; either way, they’re coming back to face trial. The difference is that if they come willingly, and quietly, they might actually help us save people in the process.”

“So what you want is for me to convince him to come back,” Clint said, everything finally clicking into place. “Tony… I haven’t spoken to them in over for years. Hell, I’ve been working with you for the past four years. I don’t know how willing they’ll be to listen to me.”

“You helped them in Germany, Clint. They will listen,” Tony assured him as he handed over a briefcase. “And if they don’t - well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Clint nodded and sighed. “I’ll… track them tonight and see what I can do” Clint assured him.

Tony clasped his hands behind his back and nodded. He had never told Clint he knew where he had been hiding all along and, really after five years, it just felt rude to break his bubble. “Much appreciated, now why don’t we head back inside? I have to get going in a few minutes, and I want to say goodbye to everyone.”

Before Tony could move, however, Clint grabbed him by the arm, pulling him close. “I know you probably won’t fully believe me, but… this time, I promise you Tony that, no matter what, I’ve got your back.”

Tony looked at Clint in the eye, struggling to say something. He wanted to believe his friend, he really did. Most of him did, but a part of him, a small part of him, couldn’t help but scream liar at the thought of Clint picking him.

“Tony,” Clint said again, this time grabbing the man’s face to bring them eye to eye. “ I’ve. got. your. back , ok? You’ve had my back for the past five years, so, no matter who I have to shoot, no matter who we have to stop, no matter who I have to step in front of to keep them from killing you, I’ve got your back.”

Chapter Text

Tony stepped out of the elevator and into the living room with a soft sigh. He had explained to Clint the basics of the contract he had to make Steve and the others sign, but Tony knew he’d have to go over it with them again, to make sure they understood how serious the UN was about them not being able to leave the compound.

Tony walked to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee just as he undid his tie, taking it off in one quick, smooth movement. He took off his jacket, hanging it on his arm before wrapping his tie around his knuckles. He rolled his neck as he picked up his cup and walked back to the elevator to head to his own floor.

He rubbed his forehead as the elevator whirred up to his floor, feeling far too weary and tense to go to sleep. He didn’t know what to do with the emotions clashing inside of him.

He felt an uncanny sense of rage that had not left him in five years, and even he could admit it was probably time to let go, but he just couldn’t. Steve had been his childhood hero. He had been in Tony’s life since he could remember. The man had been Tony’s unbeatable rival for his father’s affections, and later the team’s, and then the world’s. He had been America’s golden boy; the perfect soldier, the perfect man, the perfect friend, the perfect everything. And for years Tony had believed it; Tony had believed Steve was as perfect as they came. And, in many ways, the man had been as perfect as they came, which was exactly why he and Tony had not been able to look eye to eye for a long time.

They had been too different; Tony had been a shell of a man, one who was simply ridiculously good at hiding behind his mind, his money, his garb, and his sharp tongue. Tony had been, and still was, the best con artist in the world. He could run miles even around Natasha when it came to tricking people into thinking a particular way about him. He was every liar’s wet dream.

Tony had tried to razzle dazzle the man, and the team, into believing that Tony was the asshole the media often portrayed him as, and he had felt a heartbreaking sense of relief when he had, for the most part, managed to get away with it. He had razzle dazzled them all.

They had never been able to see past his masks, which gave Tony a failsafe he couldn’t quite go without, because it was easier to see the hate or the contempt in their eyes when Tony could point to one of his many masks as the cause, instead of himself. But, even when they couldn’t see him, he could see them .

And Steve had been… Steve had been honest and kind - qualities that Tony had never been able to see in a man before, not to the extent he had seen in Steve (except for Rhodey, but really Rhodey didn’t count because everyone already knew James Rhodes was an angel sent from heaven.)

And that was exactly why Tony had allowed himself to trust the idiot. The man’s perfection had been a slap to the face, but Tony was nothing if not a masochist. He had trusted that Steve would keep the team he cared so deeply about safe. He had trusted that the man would keep them all together.

But Tony had been wrong in trusting the man. Tony had been wrong in letting them all in. He had been wrong in believing his childhood hero was anything other than another fucked up human being.

And that had been the biggest betrayal of them all, although Tony still couldn’t figure out who was more to blame; Steve for fucking up and then for betraying Tony's trust, or Tony, for trusting him, and caring for him, so much in the first place.

He felt angry at Bucky too, for having taken away his parents, his mother. His poor, poor mother.

He knew his rage wasn’t exactly rational. He knew the man wasn’t to blame. He understood now that they had used him. He understood that James Barnes would not have killed his mother had he had any say in the matter, but, at the end of the day, he had.

The thing inside of him had killed his mother, had killed both his parents. That thing had destroyed Tony’s life as he knew it; it had broken Tony so deeply even after almost 30 years he was still trying to get himself back on his feet sans baggage, and, to top it all off, Tony didn’t know whether that thing was still in there.

The man had been a vessel, but the hands that had broken his mother were still Barnes’, and Tony could not unsee that.

He could not unsee the man’s merciless eyes. He could not forget the punches his father had endured, his mother’s piercing screams, her fear.

He could not forget the lies… He couldn’t let go of his anger. He didn’t know where to start.

But, above all, he was terrified . He was terrified of having to see Steve face to face again, afraid also of how he would react to seeing Barnes. He was scared shitless of going to sleep again, especially when feeling like this. He was petrified of having to relive the nightmares that had accosted him almost daily for over two years and that, even now, after five years, they still came at least once a week to haunt him.

It was always the same theme; either Steve would be there in Siberia, ramming his shield into Tony’s chest. Steve would be there on the road with Bucky, both working together to kill his parents. Bucky would be there, killing him. And the screams… No matter what he always heard his mother’s screams.

Tony took a sip of his coffee, willing the images to go away. He hated dwelling on his nightmares. He did enough of that when asleep.

Besides, even more scary than his nightmares was the reality that Steve was coming back to the compound, where everyone lived. He was terrified of letting Steve close to his new team… to his family. He was sure the man would find a way to garner their loyalty, breaking whatever bonds they had with Tony in the process - it had happened before with the old Avengers, after all. Loyalty had trumped logical reasoning last time. And yes, he was aware that four of his current team members were pretty legally tied to Tony, but most of those ties had come either in spurs of the moment or by accident, and when had legalities ever stopped Steve?  And, of course he wouldn’t hold that against his team, if they did indeed end up caring for Steve. He could understand the charisma - a likability - that pulled people to Steve that he simply didn’t possess. Hell, his real fear wasn’t even that - he already knew they would all leave in the end - he was just terrified Steve would hurt them like he had hurt Tony.

He couldn’t stand that idea. He could not let Steve hurt the people who had become the main reason Tony got up with a good attitude in the morning. He would kill the man first.

And really that thought just made him fucking sick.

Tony opened the door to his room then, distantly wondering if he should just give up on sleep for tonight and head directly to his workshop. He didn’t want to wake Natasha yet again. He knew she didn’t mind, but honestly there were times that he just wanted to pretend he didn’t avoid sleep because he was too afraid to close his eyes and let the pictures play. He dropped his jacket on the cushy bench which sat against the footboard of his bed. He dropped his tie then too, before sitting down to take off his black shoes and socks. He rubbed his feet for a second before standing up again, undoing his belt in one go.

He walked quietly to the dresser, where he dropped his belt and his cufflinks, kneading his neck for a second to try to lessen the tension there. He slowly undid the buttons of his vest and shirt, freezing when he noticed movement coming from the bed when he looked at the mirror.

Uh, so she was already awake then.

He turned around with a quirk of his brow, clicking a button on his watch to turn on the lights. Immediately he was greeted with the sight of a pleasantly relaxed-looking Natasha, wearing a black, silk sleep dress and the diamond and sapphire ring, modeled after his arc reactor, he had given her two years ago.

She always wore that thing, even on missions, always using the excuse that, since Tony had powered up that thing with enough bolts to shortcircuit a small city, as well as with a number of other gadgets such as a tracking device, a pulse detector, and a number of other shit she hadn’t even discovered was inside the ring yet, it was actually an useful gadget and not just a pretty piece of jewelry meant to symbolize their marriage. Well, partially dysfunctional yet necessary as life marriage - which, really, was an ironically good description of his relationship with the team as a whole too.

“Why’d you stop?” she asked as she smiled at him, leaning back against the covers. “Don’t stop for my benefit. In fact, don’t I get legal rights to see you naked?” She teased.

Tony rolled his eyes, but turned around to face the mirror again. “I can’t believe you once called me a playboy when out of the two of us you are the grade A pervert,” he murmured under his breath as he took off his vest and shirt, before proceeding to take off his pants.

He had lived too long with Natasha to feel uncomfortable when changing in front of her. She had seen him naked enough times - both because of injuries and because no one in the entire goddamn compound seemed to have any sense of privacy when they needed to talk to Tony, going so far as to stalk him when showering. That and the fact that, virtually since the start of their marriage, they had started sharing a room, so privacy was out of the question.

“Did you talk to Clint?” She asked as he pulled out, and stepped into, a pair of pajama pants, noticing the hard, tense lines of his shoulders, and the haunted look he couldn’t quite hide from her, not now that she knew where to look.

“Clint agreed to talk to him ,” Tony said without looking at the woman.

Natasha nodded thinking of probing a bit more, but deciding against it for now. She couldn’t stand to see Tony so tense. She knew exactly where his mind went off to when he was like that.

“Come here, Tony,” she commanded, patting the bed before she moved to the side to open her nightstand - quite literally; she had bought that one in Russia and had had it shipped, not giving a damn that it didn’t exactly go with the style of the room.

Tony hesitated for a moment, looking back at the door that could just easily lead him to his workshop. He wasn’t sure whether tonight he needed Nastasha or he just needed to build something - anything -  that would keep his mind distracted.

“Tony,” Natasha repeated, this time more strongly, pulling out a bottle of lotion.

She had allowed him to hide in his workshop two nights ago, because she knew he still couldn’t talk about his parents. She knew that Siberia had broken something deep inside of him that not even she could reach. She had let him brood over Steve when they had first seen the news. She hadn’t pushed when, after she and Rhodey had moved him to the bed the night before, he had woken up and had refused to fall asleep again, even though he hadn’t stepped out of bed. She hadn’t said anything when he had decided to go see Clint on his own, knowing that he needed time to regroup. But there was no way in hell she was allowing Tony to spend yet another night downstairs. He needed to sleep, he needed to unwind, but, more importantly, he needed to let her back in.

He had gotten really good at it over the past two years. He trusted what they had. He trusted her, and he trusted she would catch him, but whenever anything related to Steve appeared, Tony just reverted back to using walls and red herrings. He forgot that Natasha was in this for the long run.

She leveled him a look before murmuring, “ Honey , Come here.”

Damn, now he really had to comply, or she’d get mad.


Tony walked into the kitchen, rubbing his forehead slowly to try and fend off the migraine. He had been avoiding sleep for the past two days, going so far as to spending the entire night remodeling one of his suits so that it would suit Laura’s needs better.

Tony froze, however, when he saw Natasha sitting by the breakfast table, her body tense as if ready to bolt. Tony frowned and rubbed his eyes, for a second seriously considering going back and just sleeping - even if it meant being plagued with nightmares - because he just was not ready for hallucinations.

“Too much to drink?” She asked, grimacing when she realized that perhaps that was not the best way to start a conversation with a man who clearly could not stand to see her right now.

The look of surprise in Tony’s eyes quickly gave way to anger. “No, just wondering whether somebody drugged me because I’m pretty sure there’s a double agent in my kitchen,” Tony bit out drily.

Natasha’s eyes narrowed dangerously at that. “You could be a tad less rude,” she said icily.

“And you could be a tad more honest, both with your “team” and yourself,  but I guess we’re all flawed individuals, huh?” Tony said easily. “Now, what I really want to know is why the hell you are here, because that is bound to be an interesting story,” Tony said in a singsongy tone, his walls and masks coming up around his so fast, it felt like a whiplash.

Natasha took a deep breath, clearly considering whether killing Tony would be worth the aftermath. “I… I am done hiding,” she said, lifting her chin. “I talked to T’Challa, and the UN council. They are reviewing my case to reinstitute me.”

Tony was thankful he wasn’t holding anything at the moment, for he was sure he would have dropped it out of surprise. “Are they creating a new unit?” He asked, still not looking at her.

She frowned. “What? No, there’s just one team. What do you mean a-”

“If you honestly think you and I are going to be working together again, then you’re in for a disappointment,” he snapped calmly, looking back at the woman. “I’m not going on the field with you,” he bit out mercilessly. “Not after Germany.”

Natasha suddenly stood up, looking furic. “I did what I had to do to keep us all alive, you narcissistic-”

T’Challa suddenly cleared his throat, coming to stand behind Tony.

Tony whipped around to face the man, giving him a strained smile. “Kitty cat, our dear Iago over here was just telling me all about how you two are in talks with the UN,” Tony gave him a plastic smile. “Didn’t you think this was something to mention on the last meeting, or are you one of those royals that just likes to fuck with all those around them?”

T’Challa had the decency to at least look chagrined. “I-”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Tony said brusquely before stepping away from the two of them, not even bothering to pick up a cup of coffee, which was the whole reason he had come into the kitchen in the first place. “I have things to do, so see yourselves out.”

Natasha’s glass broke in her hand as soon as Tony was out of the kitchen, the pressure with which she had been holding it being enough to shatter it. “I’m done. I can’t - I won’t come back to this,” she said disdainfully, her voice thick with anger.

T’Challa looked back at her and sighed, coming to sit next to her. “If helping people is what you want, then the Avengers is your best way of doing so,” T’Challa observed, sounding as calm as always.

“I will not deal with that… self-entitled brat,” she said shaking her head. “I think his hurt ego has done enough damage, don’t you think?”

“It is not his ego that has been hurt, Ms. Romanov” T’challa said solemnly, standing up to look out the window. “It has never really been about his ego,” T’Challa continued, a sad look on his face.

Natasha’s brows shot up to her hairline. She stood up then, coming closer to the Wakandan King. “Of course it is. Everything is about him, in his head. He can’t see past-”

“I am afraid it is you, who can’t see past the mask,” T’Challa interrupted, unruffled. “I am sure you have read his file, Natasha. It is not about his ego,” T’Challa repeated, giving her a small, patient smile. “It’s about trust. Tony Stark does not trust people easily, Ms. Romanov. Of what I read, Tony Stark had a close relationship with his mother, while a very distant one with his father. Still, at age eighteen he lost both of them - something that haunts him even now,” T’Challa said sadly, remembering the way the man had sounded back in Siberia. “He never had close friends when growing up, because he was ahead of everyone in school. He was isolated, and forced to rely solely on himself. Obadiah Stane, who according to his file was a very close personal friend, betrayed him, and tried to have him murdered, which lead to Tony needing the arc reactor. He also showed Mr. Stark how easy it is for power to fall on the wrong hands, when left unchecked.”

T’Challa turned to look at Natasha for a second who was, surprisingly, listening intently. “He has been persecuted, and lied to, by a number of senators, Nick Fury, and yourself when you passed as his PA while he was dying. The people he loves have constantly gotten hurt when around him, which has caused him to have a perpetual mistrust of everyone, and, every single time the man has willingly opened up it has blow up in his face.” T’Challa shrugged. “I talked to Mr. Fury before agreeing to fully join this team, to try to understand Tony Stark, and he confided that Tony had trusted his former teammates quite a lot. He had considered you all to be close friends.”

He stepped closer to Natasha then, feeling slightly relieved to see a hint of comprehension in her frozen eyes. “So you see, when he saw his entire team be ripped apart because the leader of said team could not accept limitations, his initial mistrust was proven right. He saw you betray him, by allowing the man to get away, which in turn led - however accidentally - to Colonel Rhodes’ grave injury. He tried to reach a compromise, and then tried to help those he disagreed with, but every time he just uncovered more and more lies.” T’Challa sighed then. “And then in Siberia… it is a story for him to tell, but I will say this; Captain Rogers betrayed his trust.” He looked back up again at Natasha’s surprised face. “So, Ms. Romanov, perhaps now his anger will seem a bit more understandable. He’s not so much angry at you, as he is at himself, for having allowed himself to trust you. And, really, what he is, is hurt.”

“I-” Natasha began, but close her mouth again, not sure what to say - or feel. Of course she had read the man’s file. She knew his story.

T’Challa’s assessment was sound. Hell, it was the same assessment she had had when she had first met the man, but he had always seemed so… full of himself, so ready to boast, so ready to… well not trust but just… he had worked with her even after she had “betrayed” him the first time. So then... was it all a mask? Did she not know the real man?

It seemed that T’Challa, after three months, had a better understanding of who Tony Stark was than herself, and wasn’t that a quick to the gut.


Natasha walked into her room slowly, feeling sick to her stomach.

She sat down in a daze, still trying to process the last half hour of her life. She had had no idea that Tony had been visiting Laura virtually every time he fucked off without telling anyone.

She had had no idea the man had been helping them, had been dealing with the entire aftermath that Clint’s decisions had created, all on his own. She couldn’t understand why he had- Why had he bothered to help Clint’s family? Why had he bothered to try and create a good image of Clint and Natasha in the mind of those kids?

Tony was pissed at Clint, that much she knew, and he was still barely talking to her outside of ops. The man spent most of his time with Rhodes, at the UN, with Fury, or just out of the compound, doing his own thing. He avoided small talk as much as possible, even though he always stopped to make sure Natasha was fine if he noticed she had been hit particularly hard.

She knew the man cared deep down. She knew T’Challa was somewhat right; Tony wasn’t really angry at her, he was extremely hurt. And that was exactly what was keeping Natasha away.

Anger she could understand. Anger was what she expected from Tony Stark, but hurt? She didn’t know how to deal with that. She didn’t know how to read him, which meant she didn’t know what the best course of action was.

Suddenly the door to her room opened and in came Laura, not bothering to knock. “Hey, you okay?” The woman asked closing the door softly behind her.

“I should be the one asking you that,” Natasha pointed out with a tired smile.

Laura shrugged. “I’ve been better, but I’ve got a great support system,” she said with a smile as she came to sit next to Natasha. “And, since Clint has to stay in the compound for the next year, we might be coming to live here, so I’ll have my support system around 24/7, since Tony barely sleeps.”

Natasha nodded, still feeling dazed by the fact that Laura and her kids had been relying on Tony for the past six months, and that this wasn’t going to change any time soon.

Oh god, Tony and Laura had become friends before even Natasha had decided it was time to put her big girl pants on and come back to help the Avengers.

“How… I can’t believe you are friends with Tony,” Natasha admitted. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of man you’d like.”

Laura chuckled at that. “The kind of man I’d like? You make him sound like he’s awful,” Laura said amicably. “He’s not, Nat. He can certainly be a right piece of work,” Laura agreed, “but he’s also… he’s kind, and he cares so much, Nat. He cares about everyone… he feels personally guilty every time something goes wrong, even when he’s not the one to blame. He has such a hard time trusting people, but he also believes humans can do good, that they deserve a chance. He can be arrogant, and is aware of just how brilliant he is, but every time I get him to talk about his family and his life, he always puts himself down.” Laura shook her head, a sad smile gracing her lips. “He’s a walking contradiction,” she admitted. “But that’s what I like about him. I like that he tries.” Laura shrugged. “He’s got more problems than anyone I’ve ever met, but he gets up every morning, and he works hard, and he supports those around him.” Laura turned to face Natasha then. “I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of man I want my kids to have near, so that they learn never to give up.”

Natasha felt her throat close up, but she nodded. She couldn’t do anything but nod. She had been… so wrong, about this man.

She could try to dismiss what T’Challa had said about Tony. She could pretend she knew the man better because she had been around him more. She could pretend that what she had seen as his PA hadn’t been a desperate man dying, who had reacted the only thing he knew how; by pushing everything and everyone away, using every jackass move he knew to accomplish that.

But Natasha was nothing if not adaptable, and she could readjust assessments as necessary; it was clear now that she needed to reassess Tony, and she needed to do so thoroughly. She needed to observe the man more closely, and, above all, she needed to try and turn the page with him.

She stood up then, looking down at Laura with lost eyes. “I… I need to talk to Tony,” she admitted as she bit her lip.

Laura nodded, and said “we haven’t talked much about you, but… he’ll try to push you away. He doesn’t trust you right now, Nat. You just have to… be patient.”

She nodded numbly, before walking out of the room. “FRIDAY, where is Tony?”

“He’s in his workshop, Ms. Romanov,” the AI said, her voice as detached as usual. She hadn’t warmed up to Natasha again, not since Germany.

But she was still polite, so Natasha counted that as a win.

“Is he locked in?” Natasha asked, walking towards the elevators.

“No, he is not,” FRIDAY said. “Would you like me to ask if he can come upstairs?”

“No,” Natasha replied immediately. “I- Is it alright if I go see him downstairs?” She asked quietly, not sure why she felt the urge to have the AI’s approval.

“He has not locked his door, and he hasn’t specifically asked me to keep you out, so I imagine he would be fine with that,” the AI said, though she sounded slightly hesitant.

“Great,” Natasha said defeatedly as she got inside the elevator. “Take me to him, please.”

“Of course, Ms. Romanov.”

Natasha walked out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened, but she hesitated for a while when she finally reached Tony’s door. She knew this was specifically Tony’s space. She knew no one was allowed in there, except for Fury, and even the man wasn’t always allowed in. She knew she had only been back for four months, and Tony was still hurting, but that was exactly the point wasn’t it? She had helped hurt him.

She summed up the courage to reach out and open the door, feeling a small sense of relief when the door just opened. She stepped in as quietly as usual, which was why she needed to clear her throat to get the man’s attention.

Tony immediately jumped, picking up the nearest object to wield it as a makeshift weapon. Natasha stifled a laugh at the man’s reaction, instead raising her hands to show she meant no harm.

“Uh, hi,” Tony said stiffly, sitting back down on his bench. “What can I do for you, Natasha?”

She felt a pang of irritation at the immediate wall he threw out; she was tired of how distant he was now. She may not have known Tony well enough, according to others, but he had never been this cold.

“I came to apologize,” she said, chin held high.

Tony frowned. “Did something happen? Do I need to alert the UN of something?” He immediately asked, half getting up.

“What? No, of course not, I haven’t done anything,” Natasha was quick to say, looking offended.

Tony frowned. “Then what-”

“I wanted to apologize for… everything,” she finally said, blushing slightly. “I am sorry for my first report, I… I misjudged you, Tony. I am sorry for dismissing you, and I am so sorry for betraying you. I… was compromised, but I refused to see it, and I allowed them to escape, so I am sorry.”

Tony gaped at the woman, his brain shortcircuiting. He had never heard Natasha apologize, for anything, to anyone.

That just… never happened. First Clint and now Natasha… holy hell.

“Um,” Tony murmured, still unable to form a coherent thought, because never in his wildest dreams had he expected Natasha Romanov, spy extraordinaire, to apologize to him, no matter whether she was right or not.

Natasha sighed. “I know you’re still angry, I do. I… I have a lot of red on my ledger I still have to atone for,” she said carefully. “So, I guess I just ask you to give me the chance to atone for this.” She shrugged and looked away, feeling far too vulnerable. “I don’t know, maybe someday we can… Be friends again, at some point.”

Tony wondered for a second if it was okay to ask her if she had gotten a concussion without his knowledge. Was she really asking to be his friend? What were they, four? More importantly since when had Natasha given a shit about being his friend?

“Yeah, sure,” Tony replied after a few tense seconds. “Friends… Someday, who knows.”

She nodded, aware that she had not managed to break down a single one of his walls. “Okay, well… I’ll leave you to it, I guess.”

Tony looked back at his project, then back at Natasha, and then back at his project. “Right, yeah, uh, yeah.” Tony nodded and sat back down, turning away from Natasha.

He didn’t turn around when she left.


 

When exactly they had become friends again, Natasha couldn’t quite tell. Obviously, the apology had helped in easing Tony when it came to at least talking to her when they were in the same room.

They had sort of picked up from where they had left off before the whole debacle in Germany, except this time they were both more honest with each other.

Perhaps it was because they were both so tired of living lives filled with lies and masks,where they had to calculate everyone’s every move; Perhaps it was that Natasha had taken a considerable amount of time in observing Tony, this time forcing herself to look past the many red herrings he employed, to finally understand the man; Perhaps it was that he hadn’t shut her out with as many walls this time; Or perhaps it was that they had both come to truly respect each other, each bringing a vital quality to the team, but, regardless of what it was, this time around they seemed to finally understand one another.

She finally saw what Laura meant when she had told Natasha that Tony was a walking contradiction. She could finally see how Tony’s problem often was that he cared too much. And Tony in turn could finally see that underneath Natasha’s cold persona there was an actually warm, fragile heart that had been scarred by the world one too many times.

Their newfound friendship had translated beautifully onto the field. They had begun moving better as an unit. It wasn’t perfect yet, but it was getting better.

Tony was a bit different in his approach to leadership than Steve had been: he did take the reins and gave orders when he felt it necessary, but for the most part he welcomed the idea of planning as a team, which Natasha was eternally grateful for. She felt better when she felt she had some control over what she was being sent to do. That helped her take Tony’s orders more easily, for she learned to trust that the man had her best interests at heart.

She was aware he still didn’t fully trust her, but then again even after almost a year of her being back, he didn’t really trust any of them fully, except for Rhodey.

Which was fine, except when the idiot played hero and got himself in the line of fire.

Which was how Natasha had come to find herself in her current predicament.

The funny thing was that they weren’t even on a mission. They were at a ball, because getting on politicians’ good graces was now a thing, so galas like the one tonight were also a thing.

Tony had been talking to the current UN secretary when she had seen someone move out of the shadows, a gun in hand. Tony, who had been standing near Natasha, had also turned to look, immediately shoving the secretary away, to take the bullet himself.

Natasha had seen it all happen as if in slow motion, watching with horror as the gunman raised his weapon, pointing it at a very human, very suitless, Tony, who looked like he knew the gunshot would probably end his life. She had seen him steel himself take the shot, which had snapped her out of her trance.

She couldn’t let Tony die. She couldn’t - She would not let the man die.

She had jumped from where she was standing, shoving Tony just like he had shoved the secretary, moving with him, but not before she had felt the sharp piercing pain that always came when she got shot.

So yes, this was now her predicament.

“Natasha!” Tony screamed when he saw the woman fall to the floor next to him.

He kneeled down immediately next to her, half growling “FRIDAY, get me my suit.”

He must have had the suit somewhere nearby for not ten seconds later the newly tinted pieces of the black and red Iron Man suit flew into the room, attaching themselves to the man. Tony turned around, just as the last piece attached itself to his back, and he extended his hand, his raging eyes narrowing down on the attacker trying to make his way out of the room.

Tony flew then, angry enough to fly so near civilians, but aware enough to not touch any of them. He grabbed the man by the back of the neck, turning him around brusquely, before punching him square in the face, the metal clashing none too softly with soft flesh.

Tony let the man fall to the ground then, dimly aware that the man’s cheek might be broken. “You are so lucky I signed the goddamn accords; otherwise you’d be dead,” he said icily to the barely conscious man, turning away then.

He flew back to where Natasha was trying to get to her feet, growling at her just as he kneeled down next to her again. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” He snapped as he slipped one hand under her back and another under her legs, lifting her up bridal style.

“FRIDAY, is medical on standby?” Tony asked, his voice harsher than usual due to the stress.

“I have informed the medical unit of Ms. Romanov’s conditions. The medics on call are already waiting at the compound, sir,” FRIDAY assured him in a soothing tone.

Tony didn’t even bother to reply, preferring instead to just grip Natasha closer as he took off, flying faster than he usually dared to with someone on his arms. He could feel Natasha shielding from the wind by pressing against the cold armor, and he felt yet another twitch of sympathy.

“We’ll be there soon,” he assured her, not daring to look at her for fear to see the pain that was sure to be hiding in her eyes.

True to his words, Tony reached the compound in record time, carrying Natasha all the way to the medical wing. He handed her off to the doctors, who rushed her inside before she could lose consciousness.

Tony stayed outside, deactivating the suit as soon as Rhodes appeared at the door of medical, looking worried. He dropped on the nearest chair, enveloping Rhodes in a hug as soon as the man was near enough.

“What happened?” He asked, holding Tony close as the man shook off the adrenaline running through his body.

Tony shrugged. “There was a gunman - remind me to check the files of everyone that was part of the security detail today - and we saw him too late. I don’t know if they were aiming at me or at the UN secretary.”

Rhodes frowned then, pushing away slightly to look at Tony in the eye. “Then how-”

“Natasha pushed me away and took the bullet,” Tony explained, looking as lost as he had when Rhodey had first walked into the room. “I - why would she do that?” He asked desperately. “She doesn’t - I don’t understand-”

“Where is she?” Clint suddenly exclaimed, coming to a screeching halt by the door of medical, looking pale and worried. “Is tasha okay? FRIDAY said… what happened?”

Tony sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I need to go back to check exactly that. I- Rhodey will explain,” Tony said, patting his friend distractedly as he stood up. “Let me know once she’s… If the doctors say anything-”

Rhodes nodded, feeling a pang for sympathy for his friend. This was probably the first big injury a teammate took that Tony had to deal with since Rhodes own shattering injury. This was probably not bringing up good memories for Tony, particularly since Natasha had apparently taken a bullet for him.

The man was probably blaming himself all the way to timbuktu for this shit.

“I’ll let you know when we can go in to see her,” Rhodes assured him quietly, squeezing his best friend’s hand once, before letting him go to step back into the suit. “Make them pay, Tones.”

Tony nodded, his lost eyes suddenly focusing again. “Oh, don’t worry, I will.”

--------------

Natasha woke up with a start, the haze of the anesthesia making her feel both light and sick at the same time. She tried listening closely to see if she could see how many people were in the room, and held back a curse when she realized she was still too doped up to tell. She was going to murder the anesthesiologist.

She opened her eyes slowly then, quickly sweeping the room to see who was there. She visibly relaxed when she noticed only Tony was there, deep dark bags under his eyes.

His eyes widened slightly when he realized she was awake, and he immediately sat up, clearing his throat to murmur “oh good, you’re awake.”

It was clear he was trying to crack a joke, but the sheer relief in his voice made the crack fall short and flat.

She hummed in agreement, bringing a hand up to scrub her face. Tony immediately moved to pass her a cup filled with water, bringing the straw up to her lips with gentle fingers. She was a bit surprised at the gesture, but she gladly took the water, giving Tony a small smile in thanks.

“I would ask how you’re feeling, but I already know you feel like shit, so,” Tony shrugged.

Natasha smiled at that and shrugged. “I’ve felt worse.”

“That doesn’t really help,” Tony said as he looked away, his hands clenched in his lap.

Natasha turned to look at him, taking in every single tell in his body; he was tense as shit, which meant there was something bothering him. “You ok?”

Tony clenched his jaw, still not looking at Natasha. He was debating whether he wanted to have this argument with Natasha right now that she was in a convalescent state.

Well, he would probably not get her to sit down and listen at any other time, so he may as well.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” was all he said, keeping his voice toneless.

Natasha raised a brow, slightly confused. “Done what?”

“You shouldn’t have jumped like that,” Tony said calmly, though his knuckles were deadly white due to how hard he was clenching his hands. “It was a stupid save-”

“You jumped in front of the UN secretary-” She pointed out indignantly.

“That is completely different, he’s the goddamn secretary of the UN!” Tony said with a roll of his eyes. “The number of international troubles there could be if he were to be murdered would be stupidly high. Risking my life for his was a necessary risk; you risking your life for mine was not,” Tony said almost clinically, though she didn’t miss the solemness of his voice.

She frowned, starting to feel angry. “Are you seriously lecturing me for having saved your life?”

“No, that’s not the point,” Tony balked. “That just makes me sound like a dick.”

“You are being a dick,” she pointed out with a gesture of her hand. “Can’t you just say thank you? For fuck’s sake, Tony-”

“No I can’t just say thank you, because you could have died!” He finally snapped, turning fully to face her. “It is not your job to protect me, Natasha.”

She gaped at the man, feeling the urge to just slap the idiot. “You fucking hypocrite,” she bit out. “You would have done exactly the same thing, if it would have been any of us, so-”

“That’s different,” Tony said again, getting up then, rubbing his temples to fend off the migraine that was threatening to overtake him.

“How is that different?!” She half yelled, forcing herself to sit up fully, giving Tony a cold look.

“I am the team leader,” Tony said matter-of-factly. “It is my job to keep you all safe, not the other way around.

“So what, are we supposed to just let you die, if you’re in a tight spot?” Natasha asked incredulously.

“Yes!” Tony answered without thinking, grimacing internally because while yes he honestly preferred, and really just expected, they leave him to die, it wasn’t exactly something you announced in casual conversation.

“Fuck you, Tony,” she said with an angry huff. “You don’t get to say that. We can do as we damn well please, and if I want to save you-”

“My life is not worth you risking yours,” Tony said, sounding tired. “It’s that simple.” He moved to stand by the window.

Natasha felt a pang of sadness at that. “Tony, that’s bullshit. Your life-”

Tony raised a hand to stop her, leaning against the window as he steeled himself to say. “I am not having an argument about this. Not this. I don’t want you, any of you, to risk your lives for me. If I die, I die. It is my life, and I will use it - and lose it - as I see fit. That is not on you. So, you are not going to do this again, Natasha. Because if you do,” Tony swallowed hard then, not able to look her in the eye. “If you do, I’ll have to make sure you and I never go on a mission together again.”

Her face immediately turned blank at that, feeling too angry, and too saddened, to say anything. She took a few deep breaths, reminding herself that yelling at Tony for being an idiot rarely did anything. Not only that but, after having Fury explain to her Tony’s assbackwards ways of showing he cared, she understood that really the man was saying this because he was scared shitless.

“Since when do you take away the choices from your team, Tony?” she half yelled, unable to keep the ice out of her voice, because understanding did not mean not being pissed at his words.

She couldn’t help but feel a little proud when she saw Tony flinch softly at her words. There, perhaps that would help the idiot wake up.

“You are the team leader, as you said. You are the poster boy for our team, both in the world and the UN. You are the one they are used to dealing with. You are the head of a number of foundations, and relief organizations. If anything, Tony, your life is worth more than ours, simply because you are at the head of a lot of important venues that have stabilized our team.” She clasped her hands in front of her, narrowing her eyes at Tony. “So let’s cut the bullshit, here, because you are being an annoying asshole.”

Tony let out a shuddering breath and came back to sit down next to Natasha, looking more vulnerable than ever before. “I don’t want your blood on my hands, Nat,” he said softly. “I don’t understand why… why did you do it? Why does it matter to you whether I-”

“Because you are my friend,” Natasha said softly, not looking at Tony in the eye.

God, they were both so bad at this. She would much rather take another bullet than talk about any of this.

“You might be an ass when you want to be,” she began, a hesitant smile playing on her lips. “But you are… “

kind, caring, helpful, broken, loving…

“you are a good man, Tony,” She said, hoping that he would understand what she really wanted to say. “There aren’t that many around, at least not that I have met, and I’d rather not lose you. And I don’t care if you are comfortable or not - I’ll gladly take a bullet for you any day,” she said fervently.

Tony’s hands shook then, but he covered it by rubbing his temples again. Natasha stretched out her hand then, and grabbed one of Tony’s, letting the man trail his hand down to the pulse point on her wrist, letting him assure himself that she was fine, that he hadn’t lost yet another person he cared about.

“Who would have thought you would ever take a bullet for me,” he said, almost as if thinking at loud. “You should be careful Ms. Romanov, I am going to start thinking you care,” he teased, though they both knew there was too much truth in his joke.

Her eyes prickled at that, but she smiled nonetheless, squeezing his hand as she whispered “now that would just be a shame.”

They both chuckled softly, sadly, tensely keeping their hands linked, just as Clint walked in. The man froze by the door, looking between the two, and then down to their clasped hands.

“Am I interrupting something?” He asked, keeping his eyes on their hands.

“Believe me Barton, if you ever interrupt something, you’ll know,” Tony said with a wiggle of his brows, letting go of Natasha’s hand.

“Now that’s just gross,” he said, coming to sit on Natasha’s bed. “Here,” he said as he passed her a plate of food. “I figured you would wake up soon enough.”

The woman smiled at him and thanked him quietly, digging into her food with gusto, pointly ignoring the inquiring look Clint was giving her.

She was not talking about this with Clint. She had talked about emotions enough to last her the day; hell, to last her the year.


Natasha noticed dimly that there was blood on her shoulder, near her neck, which meant that either at some point during the battle she must have hurt herself or it was Tony’s blood, and she wasn’t quite sure which situation she found more horrifying.

She was so done with Tony getting injured in order to protect his teammates. Not two months ago he had gotten hurt, hiding it from everyone but Fury, who had agreed to patch up Tony, so that the man could keep fighting.

She still hadn’t finished chewing out Fury for that one.

Ever since she had taken a bullet for the man, over a year ago, they had grown much closer. He had finally allowed himself to trust Natasha again, and she basked in the comfort of that. It was good having something familiar back. Even better was the feeling that came with knowing that things could be fixed, that they were broken but mendable. Always mendable.  

The problem, however, came with the fact that she was now emotionally compromised when it came to the man. They spent far too much time together both on and off the field, what with all the teambuilding exercises Fury enforced through Tony, and with all the random day outs she had with the “General.”

He had become an important part of her day, which she knew was a bad thing. She knew, from the very beginning, such attachments were dangerous - being friends with Clint had shown her that, but fuck if she had been able to stop herself from tagging along with the man whenever he excitedly came into a room and just grabbed her by the hand, whisking her away with him.

Still, that didn’t change the fact that she was emotionally compromised, which really wasn’t good considering the person in question was Tony fucking Stark, whom life seemed determined to screw over at every turn.

The man had allowed Peter - lovely young, naive Peter - back on the field once he had turned 18, which had been soon after his aunt had died. And that was fine, they all knew he was more than ready, and he was going a bit stir crazy every time the team went on a mission without him, especially now that he lived in the compound. Not only that but Tony had also benched Kamala and, since she was not even seventeen yet, she was going to be benched for a long time, which in turn meant Tony had been more willing to let Peter back on the field since he didn’t want to deal with two gifted and overtly energetic teenagers.

And, ok, Natasha had known something bad was bound to happen; She and Tony, along with James, had trained the kid. He was brilliant - but training wasn’t the same as experience. They were all aware he’d have to earn his stripes, which was exactly why Tony had gotten more injured in the past four months than in the past year. But there was a difference between Tony getting minor injuries and being mortally wounded.

And Natasha knew she couldn’t kill Peter for putting himself in danger, because it wasn’t his fault that Tony had gone after him like the concerned father he was. It wasn’t his fault that a civilian had been standing under a falling building. He had gone in without thinking to save the civilian because that’s what they did; they risked their lives to save other people. But, of course, Peter hadn’t realized that Tony had gone in right after him, flinging both him and the civilian out of the way just as the structure fell, effectively crushing the suit, and, by default, Tony.

He hadn’t known that that would mean Tony would end up trapped under a burning building for almost an hour. He hadn’t known the suit had already taken considerable damage, and thus had not been able to fully protect Tony from the impact, leaving him in a critical condition by the time they had managed to get him out of there. He hadn’t realized it would take Vision to pry the broken armor off of him, so as to not aggravate his injuries any further.

“Ma’am, he’ll need to go into surgery as soon as we get to the emergency room, so we’ll need his medical proxy to sign off the paperwork,” the medic sitting next to Natasha said, snapping her out of her thoughts. “Otherwise, there might be procedures, and options, we won’t be able to consider.”

Natasha felt herself pale at the man’s words. “His immediate medical Proxy isn’t here,” she said slowly, cursing internally. “He’s on a mission with the other half of our team.”

This was exactly why she hated when Rhodes and Tony didn’t go on missions together. What the fuck was the point of having the man as Tony’s medical proxy when he wasn’t there to give his signature.

The man gave Natasha an alarmed look. “Without the patient’s or the proxy’s signature we can’t-”

Oh fuck that. She was not going to lose Tony over this bullshit. This was unacceptable. She would not - could not - lose Tony, not when they could help him.

“I am his wife,” Natasha blurted out, not even processing the words coming out of her mouth until after they were already out.

She stopped talking for a second, trying to figure out why the hell she had said that, before planning around what she had already said.

“His first proxy is still listed as James Rhodes, because we haven’t had time to change it… We just didn’t want to deal with-” she suddenly stopped again and shook her head. If she would be saying the truth, she would never willingly give more information than that. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll have my team bring the paperwork, but will you let me sign for him in the meantime?”

The man gaped slightly, before closing his mouth and nodding. “Uh, Yes ma’am, as his wife you would immediately count as his proxy.” The man shuffled awkwardly. “Ah, and congratulations, ma’am. I’m a big fan of both of your work, so-”

She suddenly grabbed him by the hand and pulled him closer. “Don’t congratulate me,” she said slowly, keeping her eyes on his. “Just give him back to me in one piece… please.”

The man nodded immediately, blushing slightly as she pulled away, turning back to look at Tony’s unconscious form. She grabbed his bloodied hand and squeezed, putting a lid on her quickly rising panic.

Everything would be fine. He wasn’t going to die on her. She wouldn’t let him.

They rode in silence after that, Natasha being too absorbed in her worry to notice much of anything. Her eyes never left Tony’s form, not even when they finally reached the hospital and they rushed him out, leaving her to catch up with them in the lobby.

She lingered back however, putting her comm unit back on. “FRIDAY, is Patrick still the head of SI’s legal?”

“Yes, Ms. Romanov, he is,” FRIDAY said. “Would you like me to contact him?”

“Yes, please,” Natasha murmured leaning against the ambulance with a sigh.

As instructed, FRIDAY had the man on the phone within the next minute. “Ms. Romanov, how can I help you?” The man asked politely.  

“I need you to get me a legal marriage certificate dated for last month,” Natasha said immediately.

“What?” The man asked, clearly thrown off by the request.

“A marriage certificate proving that Tony and I have been legally married for a month,” Natasha said exasperatedly.

“But you are not married,” the man said unhelpfully.

Natasha was going to brain herself against the ambulance. She didn’t have time for this. She needed to go and help Tony.

“Which is why I am having you get us a certificate,” Natasha said through clenched teeth as she began walking towards the hospital.

“With all due respect, Ms. Romanov, I can’t just give you a marriage certificate. Even if I was able to get one to you and Mr. Stark, it would take days to process-”

“Tony is dying Patrick, and Rhodes isn’t here. Tony has James Rhodes listed as the only person capable of making medical decisions for him, and I already told them that I was his wife, because that’s the first thing I thought of to override Rhodes as his medical Proxy,” Natasha prattled, her anxiety finally starting to show, just as she reached the hospital doors. “So I don’t give a damn how you have to do it, Patrick. I don’t give a damn how many laws you have to break; I need to sign these medical forms, and I need them to hold when the doctor sends them in, so I need to be legally married to Tony by the end of the day, are we clear?” She didn’t even need to threaten the man; the threat was clear enough in her tone of voice.

“Crystal,” the man finally muttered softly.

“Good, I’m glad we understand one another,” Natasha said curtly before hanging up on the man. She would probably have to apologize to him eventually - she was not usually this rude - but, with Tony on the verge of death, she couldn’t be bothered to care.

She finally went inside and rushed to the desk, murmuring “Tony Stark was just brought in, I’m-”

“His wife?” The woman asked with a small nod. “Jay just told us. He was just taken into surgery, Mrs. Stark, but the doctor will be out as soon as we have more information.” The woman stood up and passed a number of forms to Natasha. “I am so sorry for doing this to you right now, but we will need these forms filled out as soon as you are able. We need to know which procedures you are okay with. Also, if you’ll follow me, I can get you installed in our waiting room.”

Natasha nodded, taking the forms from the woman with numb hands. “You are allowed to do anything so long as you keep him alive,” she muttered as she followed the nurse quietly, dropping on the first seat she saw.

‘FRIDAY, inform the team of what happened, and let Peter and Vision know where we are,” She said as soon as the woman was gone.

“They are on their way here, Ms. Romanov,” FRIDAY told her reassuringly.

Natasha nodded and left the paperwork on the seat next to her own. She brought her knees up to her chest, taking a deep breath to gather her thoughts.

Peter, Vision and Kamala chose that moment, however, to barrel in. Well no, the kids had barreled in, Vision had glided as slowly and calmly as usual.

“Where’s Tony?” Kamala asked immediately, hovering over Natasha.

“Is he going to be ok?” Peter asked immediately after, looking anxious.

“What did the doctors say-”

“Did the armor-”

“You said the armor was broken Peter-”

“Yeah, I know, but maybe-”

“Oh my god what if the armor-”

“Children!” Vision said loudly, raising his hand in the universal sign of stop. “Take a breath, and ask your questions one by one,” the android said gently.

“He’s in surgery right now,” Natasha said, picking up the paperwork again. “I don’t know any more than you do,” she ended with a sigh.

Kamala knelt  then, in front of Natasha, her eyes filled with tears. “Please tell me he’ll be okay.”

Natasha’s breath shuddered at that, feeling a pang of pity for the young woman. She was still so young and yet she had lost so much. She had lost her parents and her brother, leaving her without any family ties.

Tony had remedied that when, in his scrambling to help Peter cope with his Aunt’s death, he had adopted the two minors. It had been… Well they had all thought it a stupid idea at the time, but it had done the trick; it had provided Peter and Kamala the stability they had needed, but it had also led them to become dangerously dependent on Tony.

It had also spurred more than one childish conversation amongst the team as they tried to define who Tony’s favorite was. Natasha kept claiming it was her, half of the others thought it was Peter, while the other half thought it was Kamala.

Rhodes thought they were all idiots - but that was beside the point.

Natasha gathered the shaky young woman in her arms and patted her forehead. “He’ll be fine,” she assured. “He has to be; otherwise I’ll kill him.”

----------

She handed in the forms ten minutes later and then went back to wait with her team. They waited for over five hours before the doctor finally came out, looking tired but calm.

“Mrs. Stark?” He asked when he took in the four tired looking Avengers.

Natasha immediately stood up, ignoring the flabbergasted looks of all three members of her team when she asked “is he alright?”

The doctor gave her a warm smile as he nodded. “We have managed to stabilize your husband, ma’am. The suit took most of the weight, which kept the pressure from breaking all of his bones, though he did break his arm and two ribs. He had several concussions, but he should recover from those quickly enough. The suit did cause some heavy lacerations, however, and the piece that managed to perforate his abdomen is still very raw, which is why we are keeping him in the observation room for a couple more hours, but you should be able to see him soon.”

Natasha nodded. “And the recovery process?”

“We’ll have to keep him here for a few weeks,” the doctor said. “We can’t afford sending him home until the perforation is somewhat closed, and he won’t be allowed to partake in his… usual endeavors for at least the next five months.”

Natasha nodded. “Will he need therapy?”

“Yes, probably. He’ll have to wear a cast for a few months, so he’ll need rehabilitation. Though I imagine if he eases into his general training routine once his arm is fully healed, he should be fine.”

Natasha nodded, feeling herself relax slowly. “Thank you, doctor.”

The man nodded and gave the team a small smile before leaving them be. Natasha sighed and went back to her seat, cracking her neck to let go of some of the tension.

“Why did he call you Mrs. Stark?” Kamala asked slowly, looking at the other two to make sure she hadn’t just hallucinated that.

“Long story,” Natasha said with a soft grimace.

“We’ve got the time,” Vision pointed out, giving her a curious look.

“We are legally married,” she explained, rolling her eyes at the looks of shock of the three members of her team. “I needed to have legal authority over his health,” she explained, shrugging. “I called SI legal, and I got some help from them.”

“Oh my god, are you legally our mother right now?” Kamala asked, sounding half horrified half excited.

“No, I wasn’t the one that adopted you,” she said as the two teenagers looked at each other, clearly planning something already. “I’m going to regret telling them, am I not?” She asked Vision as they began whispering amongst each other.

“There is a high probability, yes,” Vision agreed, sounding amused. “I suppose congratulations are in order, then?”

“Oh my god, not you too,” Natasha complained, adding this a yet another reason to roast Tony later.

------------

Tony woke up with a start, groaning softly as he realized that literally every muscle in his body was hurting.

“Careful,” Natasha said, putting her hand softly on his chest. “Don’t move fast, or you’ll rip your stitches.”

Tony opened his eyes then, and was immediately greeted by the sight of the redhead holding a cup filled with blessedly cold water. She held the cup as he drank, her eyes softening when he smiled at her.

“You’re an idiot,” she announced as she settled back on her chair.

“Is Peter alright?” He asked instead of deigning her insult with an answer.

She nodded. “Yeah, I sent him down to the cafeteria with Kamala to grab food.”

“Do you have something against the poor people working down there?” Tony asked in mock horror.

Natasha smirked at him and said “Vision is babysitting them. It’s fine, Tony.”

The man hummed and nodded, relaxing back into the pillows. “I don’t know, Nat, they can probably drive even Vision up the wall.” He looked around the room, and suddenly murmured “where is rest of the team?”

“They just finished their mission about an hour ago,” Natasha informed him. “They are on the plane back, though they’ll have to debrief before coming. Rhodes is quite pissed at you,” she said with a half smile, her disapproval clear in her eyes.

“What else is new?” He said flippantly, grimacing again when he tried to rearrange himself in bed.

“Will you stay still,” Natasha snapped at the man, slapping his arm softly. “You are going to aggravate your injuries.”

Tony huffed out “I am fine, Nat, jeez-”

“Tony!” Suddenly came two screams from the door as the two teenagers scrambled to get into the room.

“Oh my god, thank god you are okay, I thought you were dead,” Peter said loudly, looking less anxious now than he did before.

Kamala nodded in assent. “I was about to kill Peter for putting you in danger-”

“I didn’t put him in danger, Kam!” Peter balked at the girl.

Kamala made a face. “Of course you did, you dumbass, why do you think-”

Peter put his hands on his hips. “I didn’t ask him to jump after me-”

“This is exactly why I should be the one allowed to fight and not-”

“Oh c’mon, you are sixteen, Kamala, you don’t even know how to fight-”

The girl bristled at that. “Excuse me, I can take you on any day-”

Peter huffed out a laugh. “No you-”

Tony looked at Natasha, giving her a look that reminded her far too much of Rhodes when he got annoyed at the team. She stifled a laugh but patted his hand nonetheless.

“Enough!” Natasha snapped loudly, to drown out the other voices, before Tony could intervene. “Jesus, you argue like children,” she huffed with a shake of her head.

“They are children,” Tony pointed out, giving them a small, loving smile.

“Oh, sorry, mom,” Kamala said sarcastically at Natasha, unable to keep the smirk off her face.

Peter grinned at Nat then. “I mean, technically, she is our mom right now, Kam-”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Peter, she literally told us an hour ago that that’s not how adoption papers work. She might be married to Tony, but she hasn’t-”

It was Peter’s turn to roll his eyes. “I know that, but-”

“Then why are you even… and you call yourself the genius-”

“I mean it’s the concept of the-”

“Wait, stop, rewind,” Tony said, sitting up. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Both teenagers turned to look at Tony and Natasha, only then noticing the warning look she had been given them. “Uh, Nat didn’t tell you?” Peter asked nervously as he scratched the back of his head.

Tony immediately turned to look at Natasha. “Tell me what? What happened while I was out?”

“I married you,” Natasha said matter of factly, not bothering to beat the issue around the bush. “Rhodes wasn’t here to sign for you to be treated, so I signed for you.”

Tony stared blankly at her. “You mean married as in-”

“I called legal and they made a marriage certificate. Technically, we have been married for a month,” Natasha said, suddenly feeling nervous.

She did not regret her actions, at all, but perhaps it wasn’t necessarily okay with Tony. She hadn’t thought about what the man would say about it.

“Oh my god, did you just ninja married me?” Tony asked incredulously. “Damn, and here I though my legal team had more of a spine.”

Natasha huffed out a laugh at that, relief flooding through her system. If he was willing to joke about it without any spite, then it meant he wasn’t angry. Surprised, yes, but not angry. That was something, at least.

“I think Patrick understood your life was at risk,” Natasha said easily.

Tony huffed. “No, Patrick has had a crush on you since you pretended to be my PA.” Tony’s face suddenly brightened. “Oh my god I can totally rub our marriage in his face.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “He knows it’s not real, Tony.”

“Oh, but honey, we are legally married,” Tony said, his smile turning mischievous. “You are legally tied to me, so he can’t have you, not unless you cheat on me, and wouldn’t that be just scandalous.”

Natasha chuckled and said “You’re an asshole,” before freezing. “Oh my god.”

“What?” Tony asked, a hint of alarm in his eyes.

Natasha turned to look at the two teenagers, a triumphant look in her eyes. “I win,” she said with a smirk.

Peter frowned at that. “What?”

“I am officially the favorite one,” she explained, stifling a laugh. “He might have adopted you, but I am his wife now.”

Peter gaped at her. “Are you serious? You were the one that married him! He didn’t marry you, besides-”

“Doesn’t matter who married who,” Natasha countered, having far too much fun with this. “It doesn’t change the end game, Peter. And, besides, there’s no prenup, so I still get half of his stuff when we get a divorce.”  

Tony choked on his water at that. He raised a brow at Natasha as said “You didn’t have him make a prenup? Are you… well then if you think we are ever getting a divorce, you are in for a disappointment,” Tony said easily, meaning every word.

Natasha stared Tony down for a few seconds, but when it became clear that wasn’t going to work she just shrugged. “Well then I’ll continue to be the favorite.

Peter puffed up at that. “Oh my god, you are not the-”

“No, she is,” Kamala said, flopping on the bed next to Tony. “But, c’mon what were you expecting, Peter? She’s a ninja. She always gets what she wants.”

Tony cackled at that, high-fiving Kamala as Natasha gave them an unimpressed look. “That’s my girl.”

Kamala beamed. “I still get second place,” she called, pointing back at Peter.

Natasha and Tony ignored their squabbling, choosing instead to look at each other in the eye, a vulnerable question in both of their eyes. They remained like that for quite a while, neither quite sure what to say.

Yeah, they could joke about it now - considering they were in front of the kids - and they could pretend this wasn’t going to end badly, but they were going to eventually have to find a time, alone, where they could hash it all out.

Natasha already knew how it would go; they weren’t together. It had been a necessity of the moment, and things would get a little awkward for a few weeks once they did get the divorce. But then again… Why had Tony looked so sincere when he had said he wasn’t going to divorce her?

They weren’t together. They spent a ridiculous amount of time together, yes, and, at this point, only Clint knew Natasha better than Tony, but, they weren’t… She hadn’t thought they were… were they?

She felt her palms start sweating when she finally realized that she didn’t actually know whether there was something there or not, and, even worse, why her heart was beating so fast at the thought that there might actually be something more than what they had right now.


 Why, how, and when they had decided not to get a divorce, Tony wasn’t one hundred percent sure, but he wasn't complaining.

They hadn’t really talked about it, if he was honest. They had returned back to the compound two weeks after his incident to find a number of legal documents; one of them being the marriage certificate, another the legalized change of name for Natasha, and both of their updated medical forms listing one another as proxy.

He had joked about the name change, going so far as to explicitly instruct FRIDAY to solely refer to Natasha as Mrs. Stark, but Natasha hadn’t bothered to ever correct the AI, even though she did roll her eyes when Tony was around, though whether she was doing that for his sanity or her own, he wasn’t sure.

He was pretty sure it was his own, since she had eventually, without telling Tony of course, called Patrick and had had her named change again from Stark to Romanov-Stark, which he was more than ok with, but they hadn’t talked about the change after that.

The only thing they had really said about the whole debacle was how convenient it was to be married, especially in their line of business. They had discussed it in passing one night before each heading their separate ways to bed. And then that had been it, neither of the two had raised a concern about staying married even though they were not together.

And, really, Tony was slightly concerned about it all, because he had no idea what Natasha’s motivations were.

Contrary to popular belief, he had learned long ago not to lie to himself, so he knew exactly why he was actually okay with their new arrangement; first, he wasn’t exactly planning on being with any civilian ever again, not after Pepper, so his status changing to legally taken wasn’t really that big of a deal. Also, it hadn’t been a joke when he had said it was actually extremely convenient to be married to a nina superspy. But, most importantly, it felt… Good. It felt ridiculously good to know there was something legal tying their friendship. It gave Tony some much needed stability. Not only that, but, the fact that he was now able to say he was married to a beautiful woman, no matter how real or how fake said marriage was, also brought a smile to his lips.

Also, it was just… It was easy. He understood Natasha, understood her better than most. She was a lot like him: she did what was necessary to survive. Except this wasn’t them surviving. This was them toying with, and relishing in, an idea that had come by a mere necessity at first.

And he wasn’t dumb enough to not see they were both enjoying themselves with the new developments. And that’s exactly what was bugging him - why was Natasha happy with this arrangement?

They had become extremely close - close enough for her to have her own code to go into his workshop - but Tony had never thought she might want something more than that. What if she didn’t? What if this was just… He didn’t even know what, if he was honest.

He groaned into his hands, immediately perking up again when he heard the door to his workshop open. There were only three people in the entire tower with a code to that door; and two of them were currently not in.

Natasha came to sit behind him, resting her face against his back. “You’re supposed to be resting, not working,” she pointed out resignedly.

“I was going stir crazy up in my room,” Tony half whined. “I couldn’t-”

“I know,” Natasha sighed against him. “Just… Please don’t make my codename my real status, Tony.”

It took the man longer than usual to understand what she meant, but, once he did, he immediately turned around, a small chuckle escaping him. He hugged her close, resting his face at the top of her head.

He felt, yet again, the need to talk about this… thing between them, but he refrained. Neither was very good with words, not when it came to feelings. He’d just… let it run its course.

And, hopefully, that choice wouldn’t come bite him in the ass later.


Tony woke up with a start, pulling Natasha closer to him almost unconsciously. She twined her fingers with Tony’s, where they rested on her stomach, while still asleep. Their rings clinked quietly as their hands fell into place, which reminded him strangely of their wedding ceremony.

He was still mightily proud of that one. When he had finally decided that, even if their relationship wasn’t normal, Natasha deserved a nice wedding, he had enlisted the help of everyone on his team to return the favor of their initial ninja wedding. He had, quite literally, ninja married her in return.

The team had rolled with it, though none had been quite convinced by Tony’s explanation. That had been inconsequential, however, because Fury had been the one “officiating” the whole thing, the team had been there to laugh with them and witness their mess of a wedding, and, most importantly, he had finally gotten Natasha a diamond and sapphire ring, fashioned after his arc reactor.

Clint, after hearing what Tony’s idea for her ring was, had gone out one day, using Tony’s credit card obviously, and had bought him a black diamond ring, because “if she has to wear something that represents you, then you should do the same you dipshit.”

Tony had never seen Natasha that emotional. She had been all smiles and watery eyes. She hadn’t cried, obviously, but such open displays of emotion were as big as her sobbing.

Things had changed quite a bit after that. They had become more… Well more dependent on each other. It was his job to mother everyone on his goddamn team, - particularly the young ones - but she had made it her job to make sure that Tony was alright too. Well, really, she had started helping Rhodey make sure that Tony was alright, because that bastard had never once stopped mothering Tony, not even when Tony had started mothering him right back.

Natasha had begun checking in on him at night after FRIDAY, the traitor, had ratted him out and had informed Natasha of his chronic nightmares and his occasional anxiety attacks that were back since Siberia.

At first she would only stay for moments at a time, laying on top of the covers while Tony calmed down. When it had become clear to her that the problem was much deeper than what Tony let on, she had begun coming in the middle of the night and staying until the early hours of the next day. But, that had become extremely inconvenient for the woman, because that meant cutting her sleep short. And so Natasha, bless her, had just one day decided to move into Tony’s room, claiming that as Tony’s wife she had a right to half his room.

He hadn’t contradicted her.

But after that the team had shifted around them. He wasn’t sure why, but they came more and more to Natasha. Anything related to the UN and the field they still came to Tony immediately, but they came to Natasha more and more when it came to the somewhat mundane things such as permission for a party (Kamala), permission to redecorate his lab (Bruce and Peter, the idiots), and help getting Tony to make new explosive arrows (he still wasn’t sure whether that had been Kate or Clint).

And Natasha had taken to the role so easily, Tony could cry. It had taken so much out of him to offer that to the team, when Natasha could have been doing it all along. She was fantastic at helping them all aggravate Tony while also shutting down any ideas she deemed were either too dangerous or too dumb to try on Tony in case he lost his patience. She, with her ninja skills, was fantastic at manipulating Tony into doing anything and everything she asked, which was how he had actually ended up making those goddamn arrows.

And, really, the worst part was how much Tony had come to love her for this. There was no use in deluding himself any longer. He actually loved the woman currently asleep in his arms. He loved the way she reserved these small, blink it and you miss it, smiles just for him when they were in public. He loved her for not bolting the minute she saw how bad his panic attacks were, how often he dreamed of his mother. He loved her for having cried for him, angry tears shed on his behalf, after he had finally told her about Siberia in the middle of a cold night, when the secret of it all had felt like it was going to choke him. He loved her for having admitted immediately that she had known too, but had assumed Steve had told him and, given that Tony and her hadn’t been closed at the time, she hadn’t said anything. He loved her for owning up to that mistake, accepting Tony’s rage, hurt, and eventual understanding, never once leaving his side. He loved the fact that she trusted him so deeply now, she not only was comfortable sleeping in his bed but rarely woke up when he came in and out of the room when working in his workshop, she trusted him enough to shake in his arms when she herself woke up screaming, the memories of her past overwhelming her just as badly as they did Tony, though not as often. He loved that she had come to appreciate both the suit and the man inside. He loved that she took no bullshit from Tony, keeping him on track, particularly when the grief from the past managed to catch up with him. He loved how much she loved to cuddle even though she would die first before admitting it, particularly since she generally ended up being the little spoon. He loved watching her deal with some greedy politicians like she would a target, using her card of “The General’s wife” so masterfully that it was actually a pleasure to watch.

And, really, when the hell had he allowed her to get so deep under his skin? Goddam his weak, needy heart.

Natasha chose that moment to stir, squeezing their intertwined hands to let Tony know she knew he was awake and thinking far too loudly.

He opened his mouth to say good morning, but what came out sounded more like “I can’t believe we haven’t consummated our marriage yet.”

Which, ok, what the actual fuck. Where the hell was the Brain-to-mouth filter he had spent the last three years perfectioning?

Natasha, bless her, was still too asleep to actually understand all the words coming out of Tony’s mouth, which was why she frowned, her eyes still closed. “We’re legally married, tony, how much more valid can this get?”

Tony stifled the need to facepalm himself. “No I didn’t mean - I meant, you know-” why was he digging his foot deeper in his mouth? “You know what? nevermind”

Natasha froze then, after replaying his words in her head to see what the hell was it that she had missed. She half turned then, her heart beating a mile a minute, to look at Tony in the eye.

Dear god, the man was blushing. She had thought that was impossible.

Suddenly she smiled deviously at Tony, feeling her hands tingle when she traced a finger down Tony’s jaw. “Why Tony Stark, are you trying to seduce me?”

Tony opened his mouth to offer her a plethora of excuses, and possibly deny the whole thing, but snapped his mouth again when he noticed she wasn’t freaking out. Her eyes were bright and honest, which meant she wasn’t playing a game… fuck, he hoped she wasn’t playing a game.

“Hypothetically…” Tony started, licking his lips softly, “if I was seducing you...how would you be responding right now?”

Natasha blinked, surprised to see that the man didn’t immediately snap back to making jokes; he didn’t lighten the mood. He was actually barrelling on

She bit her lip then, her mind going a mile  a minute as she considered all her options. She had been “married” to Tony for long enough now to know exactly who she was dealing with. She had spent enough time helping piece the man together, having the man piece her back together, to know she couldn’t give this up, not anymore.

She might have married him to save the idiot’s life, and they might have stayed married because they were both too chickenshit to admit they actually enjoyed the thought of a committed relationship though neither believed they would ever get one, but they were so long past that now it wasn’t even funny anymore. She genuinely enjoyed being seen as Tony’s wife. She knew it was petty, but she loved the envy in people’s eyes when their eyes fell on her wedding ring. She enjoyed being able to be possessive, and difficult, and loving, and worried, and just… she loved having the freedom to be herself, knowing that Tony was there, ready to catch her. She enjoyed the way the team had responded to the random changes, adjusting as the well oiled machine Tony had created by giving them all a home.

She loved the way the man was finally comfortable enough to share his thoughts with her, trusting her to keep his, and the team’s, best interest at heart when advising him. She loved the random gifts, and the inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times. He loved watching the man whip the team into a working unit. She felt so proud of him whenever he walked into a room and almost everyone went quiet because he was General Stark, and everyone knew just how dangerously capable the man could be, how ridiculously caring he could also be.

Tony had become home, and she had never thought they’d actually acknowledge any of this shit, but here they were, and she wasn’t sure whether she was more elated or nervous at this point.

“Well…” she said finally, turning fully in his arms to press herself close to him. “I’d start with this,” she whispered before kissing him softly.

It was not their first kiss - they had kissed at the ceremony at Clint’s insistence - but it certainly felt like it. They fit easily against one another, both in tune with the other’s body. She kissed him for a few seconds, keeping her kisses light and tender, before she pulled away, leaning back against her pillow as she smiled at the stunned man. “And then you’d kiss me back,” she explained with a smirk.

Tony felt his throat dry up at that, but he murmured “I can do that.”

He hovered on top of Natasha then, claiming her full lips, feeling a spur of excited confidence.  This was actually happening. They were actually kissing.

Fuck, it felt good.

Natasha wrapped her legs around Tony’s waist burying her hands in Tony’s hair as he continued to kiss her, their tongues meeting unashamedly in a dance so intimate it made Natasha shiver all the way to her core. They kissed and kissed until he was sure they’d die because of a lack of oxygen, but he didn’t care. He caressed her face, her back, and her legs, not daring to touch her more intimately than that. She in turn squeezed him closer, snaking her hand underneath his shirt to touch skin.

“Sir, you are being summoned in the kitchen,” FRIDAY suddenly piped up, speaking loudly enough to drown their moans and soft sighs.

Tony froze then, turning to glare at the ceiling even though he knew there was no one there. “Really, fry? Right now you choose to tell me this?”

“They are being very insistent, sir,” FRIDAY said apologetically.

Natasha huffed out a smile then, shaking her head as she rolled them both over, coming to straddle the man. “We don’t want them burning the house down.”

Tony sighed, but didn’t argue when she got up, fixing her silky dress before throwing a robe on. Tony got up then, taking her hand in his as they went into the kitchen to deal with the rest of the day.

-------------

Natasha tucked her head under Tony’s chin, drawing circles on his bare chest as they talked quietly.

She was pretty sure this was the first actual conversation they had about their relationship, which, really, was years too late.

“Are we really doing this?” Tony asked, not for the first time.

Natasha sighed. “All my prior relationships, I- Well I’ve never really been in one,” she admitted as she raised herself up to look at Tony in the eye, resting her full weight on the man. “They trained me to seduce my marks, to get them to do what I needed them to do. I learned how to fuck men, Tony, not how to… I don’t know how this works.”

Tony felt his heart break for her. He touched her face softly, smiling when she leaned against the touch. “I have used more women than I care to count, Nat,” he said quietly, his face half hidden by the shadows of the dimly-lit room. “I am not any better at this than you are. I have never been able to keep anyone with me. But… We have been married for what, almost eight months now? And we are still here, so…” Tony shrugged.

Natasha smiled then, pulling herself up to kiss him. “I like this,” she admitted as she gave him another peck. “It’s… it’s different from… It feels more intimate than just sex,” she explained, though she wasn’t quite sure it would make sense to Tony.

Tony smiled and nodded, kissing her back just as softly. “I know it’s… you know we can do just this, right? If we like it, we can just stick to this.”

Natasha’s eyes widened at the offer, and she pushed himself up fully. “Are you saying you don’t want to have sex?”

“No, I am saying we don’t need that,” Tony explained patiently, staring at her beautiful figure. “After all the shit that’s happened…” Tony shrugged, eliciting a smile from Natasha.

“Ok, then, I guess we are doing this.” She leaned down again to kiss Tony, both feeling lighter than they had in years.


When they had actually agreed to stick to their marriage vows in the more romantic sense of the word, Tony was pretty sure Natasha hadn’t expected him to tinker away to find ways of keeping her safe.

And she certainly hadn’t expected him to tinker with her ring, but really, she knew Tony better than that. He refused to accept full blame of everything.

Though, it had been pretty funny to see her discover all the new little gadgets.

The first one she had discovered was the electric output one, and, really, she had discovered it by accident. She had been alone at a ball when three jackasses had thought it a good idea to attack her. One of the idiots had accidentally pressed the ring as she brought him down with her thighs, before punching him square in the face, releasing enough volts into the man to land him in the ER.

She hadn’t been particularly pleased with Tony after that, not because she didn’t love the upgrade, but because the idiot hadn’t told her. Also, he still hadn’t told her how the fuck he had managed to get the ring off of her, which pissed her off to no end.

The next thing she discovered was the tracker and that, too, was mostly accidental. She had gotten stranded after a mission thanks to Thor, but, before she could even find a method to get back in touch with the team, Tony had found her, kissing her ring as if it was the greatest invention he had ever come up with.

She had been surprisingly ok with that upgrade.

She hadn’t been as happy with the DNA identification he had installed, to make sure it was her wearing the ring, in case anyone ever captured her and tried to use her as a bargain chip against the Avengers. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand why he had installed the thing; what she didn’t like was that it had to sting her to take a drop of her blood every time she took it off. It was a nuisance is what it was. Though, admittedly, the heart monitor was certainly useful, particularly since Tony’s ring heated up when her pulse became erratic, and, similarly, her ring did the same when Tony’s pulse became erratic

The other one she hadn’t been too happy about when Tony had first shown her was the pulses. Well, no, what had really bothered her was how she had had to find out. She had been carrying a stack of documents to deliver to Coulson when Tony, standing a safe distance away, had squeezed his own ring, replicating the feeling on her own ring, which he now realized wasn’t the best thing to do to a spy.

She had flipped out, dropping the papers as she threw back a kick, assuming someone had managed to sneak up on her and had tried to grab her ring.

Tony had had to run away after that one to keep himself from being throttled to death after Fury had almost fallen out of his chair because of his laughter. Though Natasha had repaid him in kind, really, by squeezing her damn ring as hard as she could and damn did the woman have a fucking good grip.

Still, the thing had proven to be useful in more than one occasion, particularly when Tony began panicking. It wasn’t that often that he panicked in public, but when he did, and she couldn’t get to him, she could rub the ring, sending calming pulses to Tony’s ring, to remind him that he wasn’t alone, that she was near, that everything would be alright.

Still, as useful as it all was, Natasha had made him promise not to add anything else to the ring. And, ok, he was fine with that, he was. He was happy with that, but now everyone on the team wanted their own personalized upgrades in their own weapons and personal objects, which he wasn’t so happy with. Because when the fuck had he agreed to upgrade so much shit? Natasha was his wife, for fuck’s sake; he had to keep her safe. But no, now, after they had all gone to Natasha to get to Tony, he was now stuck upgrading a myriad of personal objects.

And to top it all off Fury refused to let up, teasing Tony about it mercilessly.

Suddenly, he felt a pair of lips kissing his neck, and he jumped back, falling backwards. Natasha caught him just in time, chuckling softly as she sat down next to him.

“Are you purposefully trying to kill me?” Tony asked disgruntledly as he fixed his shirt. “First you make me waste time upgrading all this shit, and now you try to kill me, honestly I don’t deserve the abuse.”

Natasha chuckled again, sitting closer to rest her face on his shoulder. “Shut up, Tony.”

He turned to protest but she kissed him deeply, pulling him closer by the hair. Tony pulled away after a few seconds, and murmured “Careful, Mrs. Stark, or someone might barge in on us.”

She rolled her eyes but dutifully moved away. She wasn’t one for public displays of affection. “Fury’s here,” she informed the man, before getting up. “And he’s fully expecting to go to dinner with you, so-”

Tony immediately got up. “Crap, I forgot.”

Natasha shook her head, but smiled. “Go, and be careful.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said with a wink, kissing her forehead before running out of the room.

Natasha shook her head as she saw the man leave, her heart twitching with that overwhelming feeling she had come to understand as love.


Natasha smiled when Tony finally laid down on his stomach, burying his face in his arms as Natasha moved to sit on his bum. She warmed up the lotion and leaned down, kneading his shoulders to loosen the knots there.

“Do you think he’ll be able to convince Steve?” she asked, keeping her voice quiet as she ran her hands down Tony’s back.

He shrugged softly. “Does it matter? We’ll have to bring him in whether Clint convinces him or not.”

Natasha sighed. “Are we sure we need him?”

“I don’t know,” Tony admitted quietly. “ But Thor thinks so, so who am I to contradict him? He’s the alien.”

Natasha stayed quiet for a while, the movement of her hands never stopping. “Are you ready to see them again?” She asked finally.

Tony tensed at that but didn’t answer, which, really, was all the answers she needed. She sighed again, moving away to sit back on the bed once she finished unknotting his back. He stood up and went into the bathroom to clean his back, coming back quickly after. He turned the lights back off and stepped into bed, allowing Natasha to drag him close. She hugged him to her chest, caressing his hair as she began singing a lullaby softly, wrapping her legs around his torso as she lulled him to sleep.

Tony clung to her as he closed his eyes, both far too aware that there would be no peaceful sleep for him tonight. But Natasha would be there to hold him if he woke up. She’d be there too when Steve came back. She’d shield Tony this time. She wouldn’t let Steve hurt her husband again, not ever again.

Chapter Text

“I know there is a clause in the Accords that allows you to come freely into Wakanda, if you restrict your presence to the areas I designated, but it is still extremely rude to just go to my country without my explicit permission,” T’Challa noted as he stepped out of the shadows, smirking when Clint jumped in his seat, startled.

“What the fuck, dude?’ Clint said, annoyed. “Just because you can move as silently as Tasha does not mean-”

“I don’t believe I was any ruder than you,” T’Challa pointed out with an amused smile.

“Fuck you, I am never rude” Clint said with a snort as he turned again to start the plane. “I called you last night, but you didn’t pick up,” Clint pointed out, “And I also left a message,” he ended as he flipped off T’Challa when the man came to sit down next to him, clearly intending to be his copilot.

“Hey, just in case, I am heading to Wakanda. Hope you don’t mind. Gotta go now, bye. ” T’Challa said in mock imitation, looking extremely unimpressed.

They took off with ease, both men very used to flying together by now.  

Clint rolled his eyes, moving the controller just so to gain the right amount of altitude to stabilize the plane. “We have a week to bring them in, T, and Tony asked me to go talk to them,” Clint said, this time sounding serious. “What did you want me to do, wait for you to look at your phone and get back to me?”

“Didn’t you think that perhaps you could have done with backup?” T’Challa said, this time sounded more irritated.

Oh, so that’s what this was about.

“Aww, kitty, I always knew you cared,” Clint said with a flirtatious smile.

T’Challa just rolled his eyes at the man. “You haven’t seen them in over four years, Clint. I have, so I am better equipped to deal with them” the man said simply, the disapproval coming off of him in waves.

“Well you’re here now, so it doesn’t matter,” Clint said with an easy shrug. “Why are you here, by the way? Not that I don’t appreciate the company,” Clint was quick to add, not wanting to insult his royal drama queen.

T’Challa suddenly looked sheepish. “I am here to help,” he replied after a few seconds.

Clint narrowed his eyes at the man. “Yeah, but Tony didn’t send you, and we both know I can handle this on my own so-”

“A helping hand never hurt anyone,” T’Challa said stiffly.

Did Tony ask you to come with me?” Clint asked, not sure whether to feel insulted at Tony’s lack of faith.

“No,” T’Challa admitted without looking at Clint.

Clint froze. “Does he know you’re here?”

“I am sure FRIDAY will have informed him by now,” T’Challa said calmly, though he couldn’t quite hide the twitch that ran through his fingers.

Clint suddenly pressed the autopilot button and turned to face T’Challa. “Alright, what’s up? You know how angry Tony gets when you decide to just fuck off and do your own thing, and you aren’t dumb enough to risk getting on his bad side over this when we both know I can handle it,” Clint fired out quickly, not letting T’Challa contradict him. “So why the fuck would you- Oh my god ,” Clint gasped suddenly, his brows jumping to his hairline. “Are you avoiding Tony?”

“No,’ the man replied quickly - perhaps too quickly, for Clint suddenly began laughing.

“Why the fuck are you avoiding him? Don’t tell me you managed to land yourself on his naughty list,” Clint said, cracking up again. “My my, royals really are bad boys these days, huh?”

T’Challa gave him an insufferable look. “I am not avoiding him, I am simply delaying our meeting to form a plan of action.”

“Meeting as in a private meeting?,” Clint asked, looking confused.

T’Challa didn’t answer.

“Wait, hold up, are you avoiding a direct summon?” Clint’s eyes widened before he began laughing even harder than before. “You’re screwed, kitty. Avoiding the problem isn’t going to get you any points with Tony. When did he call you in?”

“Right after the reports started coming from Russia. I was just landing in Wakanda when FRIDAY called me in,” the man said, looking slightly tense.

Clint immediately stopped laughing, finally understanding why the man was so tense. “Shit, do you think he knows-”

“He wouldn’t have asked to meet me privately otherwise,” T’Challa said with a sigh.

“Fuck,” Clint breathed out. “Do you think he just found out, or-”

“I don’t know, Clint, that’s why I have been avoiding him,” T’challa said exasperatedly. “I don’t know what he knows, and I also don’t know how angry he is at the moment, so it’s rather hard to assess how willing he’ll be to reason with me.”

“Right, uh, right, well..” Clint struggled to come up with something to say but nothing came to mind. “Uh, let’s just concentrate on getting them back, and then we can worry about Tony.”

“My thoughts exactly,” T’Challa said with another sigh, sitting back to watch the clouds float by.

He didn't necessarily regret having offered Steve and his friends shelter. Barnes, despite what most of the world still thought, was a victim of Hydra, just like his father had been. He felt sympathy for the man, and for his struggle. He even admired his strength when it came to accepting his past.

He didn't fully begrudge the Captain his need to protect his friend. He could somewhat respect that level of commitment to a person.

He couldn't help but feel sympathy for the other three fools that had followed Rogers into battle out of loyalty more than any personal ideology - not that Steve had gone into battle with much of an ideology to begin with. His goal had been clear from the beginning; the man had fought to protect his friend.

Furthermore, he could see the benefits of keeping them close. As they said: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. He had taken the time to quietly study the five renegades, learning quite a bit about what would work best against them in battle.

Still, no matter how beneficial, he couldn't help but feel guilty about having kept it a secret. He had not told Tony not because he didn't trust the man, but because he hadn’t wanted to put him in any danger and because, frankly, he hadn’t wanted to see the man pull away.

T’Challa knew that, if caught, he would be prosecuted by the international court of law for having sheltered fugitives. He knew the risks of keeping them around. He had not wanted Tony involved in that, at all.

T’Challa knew just how much the Avengers needed Tony, particularly the two younger ones - well the two and Natasha. Tony, though mostly oblivious to it all, had become the glue that kept all of the Avengers together.

By adopting the two younger ones he had provided them a home, had established a familial bond both between the three of them, and had thus won over their loyalty, both to him and to the team.

By marrying Natasha, he had managed to obtain not only her love but her full loyalty - an honor T’Challa was quite sure only the man sitting to his left shared with Tony. He had also given her a family, which T’Challa knew would keep her tied to the team until the end.

By helping Clint’s family, becoming very close friends with his wife, and marrying his best friend, he had managed to whip the man around his little finger, which was hilarious to watch.

By not fearing Bruce - or the hulk - he had garnered the man's respect. By shedding his armor to argue with the Hulk himself, leaving himself unprotected even when knowing he could die at the man’s hands, he had earned the Hulk’s trust and, funnily enough, rudimentary love.

By saving their asses - both in battle and in daily life - a number of times, by giving them all a home, by giving each of them enough time of his day without ever asking for any time in return, by taking on the reigns, he had managed to tie them all to him.

And the truly hilarious part was that the man had done all of that because he genuinely cared, even though he rarely verbally admitted it. He hadn't done it for the end result. He wasn't even fully aware of the end result.

And that was exactly what had made T’Challa’s initial distance and distrust shatter like glass.

And so T’challa had learned to love and respect the one man he was willing to follow into battle, the one man he was willing to put any faith in when it came to keeping him alive. The one man that rivaled him when it came to brainpower.

And he wasn't willing to put that man in trouble, not for something he had done out of a personal belief. He wasn't willing to destroy the team he had come to care about.

T’Challa also hadn't said anything because he wasn't willing to lose that friendship which, looking back, had been an incredibly foolish thing to do. He clearly had learned nothing from Steve's mistakes.

But the past, at this point, was inconsequential; what mattered now was figuring out how he was going to convince Tony to trust him again.

T’Challa sighed, rubbing his face slowly, distantly wondering if that was even possible.

----------

They went into T’Challa’s spacious and well furnished living room quietly, where both men sat down on the black, leather loveseat to wait for T’Challa’s assistant to bring in Steve and his team.

It didn't take long for them to file into the room, all looking weary and, in Bucky’s case, guilty. Their weary looks immediately turned to momentary shock when they noticed Clint’s presence.

“Clint?” Steve was the first to ask, unable to keep his, albeit warm, surprise out of his voice, not sure whether to be happy or worried to see the man there.

Was he there to warn them about something? Had he had a fallout with Tony, or was he here on Tony’s behalf?

T’Challa leveled them all a cool look as he pointed to the other seats without saying anything.

“I saw you had quite the trip recently,” Clint said sarcastically, his dry humor making them all feel a bit less tense. “Though I must say, you really do know how to make a killer entrance,” Clint said with a shake of his head, all grimacing as the sharp truth hidden in his words were lost on no one.

“Why are you here, Clint?” Steve asked without preambles. He loved the man, but he would not let him make his team feel worse than they already did. There was no changing what had happened, and beating them up over it wasn’t helpful. If anything, he would take the angry jabs if they got to talk alone, as he had been the one to take them to Russia.

“The Russian people are furious,” Clint said as he sat back.

Steve sighed. The man was not going to let this go. “We thought the base was active, Clint, and we had good reason to believe they had a cure for Bucky. It was my call, and I made a mistake.”

Clint looked like he wanted to snap back at Steve, but he bit his tongue, knowing that now was not the time to argue. He was here to avoid conflict, not to create it. “I don’t really care why you did what you did,” Clint said calmly, choosing his words carefully. “I am not really here to talk about that. I am here because the world has bigger problems right now.”

That got everyone’s attention.

“What happened?” Steve immediately asked, feeling worry drop to the pit in his stomach.

“Thor came back two days ago with bad news,” Clint started, looking at T’Challa’s blank mask  for a second before continuing. “Thanos - the same asshole that apparently helped Loki with New York - is gathering his forces to come destroy earth and take Vision’s mind stone.”

Steve paled at that. “So he’s planning another invasion,” Steve mused, his jaw set in the way Clint knew meant the man was already thinking of a contention plan.

“Yes, except, as far as Thor explained, Loki was a walk in the park when compared to what this other dick can do,” Clint said as he crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Thor has a… rough plan” desperate was the word Clint really wanted to use, but there was no need to get into technicalities at the moment. “But he believes we might need your help to pull it off.”

Steve closed his eyes for a second as images of their battle with Loki flashed through his mind; the portal, the aliens, the nuke… It was strange to remember it now; it felt like it had happened in a different life, when he had still been at the helm of the Avengers.

When the Avengers had stood up and fought for the world, when there had been no politics involved yet; when it had been just them and their determination to fight until their last breath.

“What do you need us to do?” Steve asked, his voice reminding Clint far too much of the man’s Captain America days for comfort.

T’Challa stood up then, picking up a briefcase from where he had left it on the floor, next to the loveseat. He pulled out five different contracts, all looking to be at least fifty pages long.

“First, we’ll need you to sign this,” T’Challa said, taking over smoothly. “It is a-”

“Really?” Steve snapped, suddenly sounding angry. “There is about to be an alien invasion, and you are worried about the damn accords?”

T’Challa raised a brow, looking unimpressed, before he continued. “Temporary truce the UN is granting all of you. It outlines exactly what the UN is expecting of you in exchange for temporary amnesty. They are also prepared, depending on how this mission goes, to give you all at least a partial pardon-”

“How do we know you are telling the truth?” Scott suddenly asked. “I mean, what if you are just making up the alien invasion?”

Clint stifled the need to slap the man. “Why the fuck would we do that? It’s a temporary pardon, Scott. These are not the accords. If we wanted you to sign something that badly, we wouldn’t have you sign this shit.”

T’Challa finished passing the documents around, before picking up one of his tablets, projecting the files he had been sent regarding Thanos. “Here is the evidence provided by Thor himself,” T’Challa said in a steely tone. “Will that suffice as evidence, Mr. Lang, or shall we wait for him to arrive for you to be satisfied?”

Clint hid his smile behind a cough. This was why he loved T’Challa. He was a regally snarky son of a bitch.

“You want to confine us to the compound,” Wanda noted as she began reading over the first two pages. “How do you expect us to fight-”

“Ms. Maximoff, with all due respect, the document is fifty pages long,” T’Challa said with a hint of exasperation. “And you haven’t finished reading it,” he pointed out. “You will be confined to the compound when outside of the battle. You are also not allowed to cross international borders unless you have Tony’s explicit permission, and you are accompanied by at least two Avengers-”

“That is extremely inefficient,” Steve said with a frown. “How do you expect us to protect people if-”

“Steve, you just destroyed a Russian city,” Clint said slowly, forcing himself to think of every reason why he couldn’t just throttle the man. “You’ve been working without supervision for the past five years. They are not asking for crazy things, just-”

“No,” Steve said, stopping Clint. “They are trying to do the same thing they did with the accords. I’m not going to sign this.”

“I was under the impression that your goal is to help people, Captain,” T’Challa said impassively, coming to stand next to Clint.

“Which is exactly why I am not going to sign this,” Steve said as he left the copy on the coffee table. “That thing is going to cost us innocent lives, your majesty, and I can’t let that happen. Confinement doesn’t work, not when the world is at stake.”

“Helping people involves sacrifices and compromises, Cap,” Clint said pleadingly. “You want to help people? Then you’re going to have to compromise, here, Steve.”

“And what happens when Tony decides we can’t go into the field? What happens if one of these countries decides none of us can cross their border, and civilians die? What happens then, Clint? I will not compromise when I know people’s lives are at risk.”

“First of all, no country is going to tell you not to cross their borders if they know they’re being invaded by aliens, Steve,” Clint said with a roll of his eyes. “This is exactly why we are doing all of this right now, so that we don’t have to argue over the legalities later. Look Steve-”

‘No, Clint,” Steve said again, getting up with a huff. “I won’t… The Accords have failed before,” Steve said harshly. “You have lost hundreds of people before, because countries haven’t allowed you in, or because-”

“Yes, we have lost people,” Clint agreed, clenching his hands softly. “Yes, there have been times we have been kept out, because the issues have been considered to be internal political turmoils, which we are not allowed to intervene in. That would be us invading a country to help one of two ideologies, which we are not here to do.” Clint rubbed his forehead, praying for patience. “No, Steve, the Accords are not perfect, and we don’t always like them, but they’re damn good at keeping us in check, which helps a whole lot of people all over the world sleep at night, because they don’t have to wonder whether the Avengers are suddenly going to come barging into their town, only to leave dead bodies behind.”

“We don’t have the time to argue about this,” T’Challa intervened as he sat down. “We need you to sign-”

Steve sighed. “Your majesty, with all due respect-”

“Weren’t you the one that told Tony you’d be there when he needed you?” Clint suddenly snapped, his tone accusing. “That’s what you told me when you sent him that letter all those years ago,” Clint said, a hint of disappointment in his eyes. “Or was that a lie?”

Steve flinched then, looking away from Clint. “Of course I want to help, Clint. Tony is… was my friend too,” Steve said with a grimace. “But you are not asking me to help you, you are asking for me to bind myself to-”

“You really don’t comprehend the full situation, do you?” T’Challa said in a low tone, shaking his head slightly. “You are all coming in whether you sign or not,” T’Challa said finally. “Do you honestly believe that the deaths you brought about in Russia won’t have consequences? We were about to be tasked to bring you in for trial when Thor showed up,” the man admitted admitted. “The only reason that isn’t happening right now, captain, is because - with quite a bit of persuasion - the panel agreed that a trial, and any further talks, could wait.”

“Look, guys,” Clint said, sounding tired. “You can either come in quietly, and help us beat the son of a bitch, or the whole team will have to come after you to bring you in and, believe me, you’ll lose ,” Clint said plainly. “And you’ll make us lose valuable time, when you could be a good help.”

“I didn’t think fear tactics where your thing, Clint,” Steve said with a sad look.

“I am not using fear tactics, Cap,” Clint said evenly. “I am just letting you know how this will unfold, so that you don’t make the wrong choice.”

Before Steve could answer, Bucky suddenly stood up, walking to the coffee table to pick up a pen. He flickered to the last page and scribbled his signature, passing the document off to a stunned looking Clint.

“I’ll wait for you in the plane,” the man said with a small, cordial nod, before walking out of the room.

Sam waited for a few seconds, his thoughts racing as he tried to find a good reason not to sign, before getting up and doing the same thing as Bucky. He gave a small smile to Clint as he handed in his document, murmuring a quick “you better be there to keep me company,” before stepping out as well.

Clint numbly watched them go, reminding himself that gaping wasn't necessarily the reaction he needed to have right now.

He hadn't thought those two would give in that easily. Perhaps they really were the most impartial of the group.

Clint soon turned to face Wanda, his eyes warming minutely. “Look Wanda, I get why you don't trust them. Yes, what they did to you at the raft was fucked up, but that was Ross, not the UN, and this time around Tony will be the one keeping an eye on you.” He swallowed thickly before murmuring. “ I’ll be keeping an eye on you. We want you guys to help, Wanda, but you have to sign. We need to know you can take orders, that you deserve the trust people are going to be putting on you.”

She bit her lip as she considered Clint's words, before she finally signed, not sure whether she was signing because it was Clint that was asking or because she couldn’t see another option.

She left the room quietly, leaving behind the other four men.

Clint sighed in relief. Three down, two to go.

“Scott, four years ago, Tony got your ass a pseudo pardon so you could see your daughter,” Clint reminded him coldly. “Since you were seen in Russia, they now know you’ve been breaking the clauses of your agreement and it is now null. Still, you owe Tony, man. You owe him all the hours he put into trying to help you, so you will sign this fucking contract, or I will shoot you in the ass,” Clint said, his voice deadly serious even though they could tell the last bit was a joke. Mostly a joke.

Scott huffed out a breath and finally picked up the paper. “Chill out, Clint. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t pulling one over us.”

T’Challa growled then, the sound the first visible ripple of his calm exterior. “Do not push your luck, Mr. Lang, by accusing us of something when you have no sound basis.”

Clint squeezed T’Challa’s forearm as a warning; now wasn’t the time to fight. “Are you coming or not, Steve?” He asked finally, raising a brow.

“I don’t like this,” the man said as he picked up his contract again, looking torn between signing - if only to keep Bucky safe - or staying put.

“You don’t have to like it,” Clint said with a shrug. “You just have to sign.”

--------------

They got into the Avengers’ quinjet one by one, trailed by T’Challa and Clint.

Bucky sat down in one of the back seats, which offered more legroom. Sam, unable to help himself, stood next to the man for a moment and said “you’re in my seat.”

Bucky slowly raised a brow at Sam, a small smile making its way to his lips. He could tell exactly what Sam was trying to do; he was trying to set Bucky at ease.

This had always been their relationship; Sam would be an asshole and Bucky would brush him off as if he just was his annoying little brother pulling yet another stunt. It wasn’t nice when looked at from the outside, but it worked for them. They traded barbed insults to push each other’s buttons; they butted heads unnecessarily to have something to do, to check up on one another without making it obvious that they actually cared.

And so Bucky stared right back at Sam, his face a blank mask. They both knew what he was saying by not yielding: I am okay . Sam huffed out a breath and sat down next to the man, maspreading like there was no tomorrow. They both knew what that in turn meant: if you need it, I’m here.

Their tense exchange went unnoticed by the rest as the team as they too settled on the plane. Steve stayed standing for a while, forcing T’Challa and Clint to move around him to go seat at the cockpit.

Clint immediately put on his comm unit, before murmuring. “FRIDAY, is Tony around?”

“No, Master Barton, Mr. Stark is currently in a meeting with the board members of SI,” FRIDAY informed him quickly.

“Well when he gets out of there, let him know that we have retrieved the assets and are en route, so we can have a meeting as soon as we get there.”

“Of course,” FRIDAY said dutifully, making Clint smile.

The man turned to look at T’Challa. “You ready, kitty?”

“Shut up, birdy,” T’Challa teased back, poking Clint’s ribs.

Steve watched them for a second, before Clint turned around, raised a brow and said “what?”

Steve shook his head and said “Nothing it’s just… You’ve changed.”

Clint sighed softly and shook his head. “I haven’t changed, Cap…. I just gained some perspective.”


Clint and T’Challa were the first to exit the plane, leaving the group of renegades to their own devices, as they had to go prepare for the meeting. They had instructed the group exactly where to go beforehand, so Clint didn’t exactly feel bad - or worried - about leaving them alone.

There were enough Avengers around to stop the five of them.

“See you in ten,” Clint called out as he grabbed his bow from the back of the quinjet and trotted out, followed by T’Challa, who did not look back.

Before the five could fully make their way out of the plane, however, they were intercepted by a young man hanging from what looked like a web. He twirled in the air to land on his feet, cocking his head to the side with a grin.

“So Clint wasn’t lying,” he said happily. “That was really fast. I mean, this is probably a new record for him when it comes to-”

“Peter!” Barked out Rhodes as he came out the door and unto the helipad. “What are you doing?”

Peter’s eyes widened and he took two steps back. “Nothing,” he said immediately. “I just wanted to say hi, also I told Kamala there was no way Clint was saying the truth so-”

Rhodes rolled his eyes as the young man began to prattle on. He reached him in a few seconds, putting his hand over Peter’s mouth.

Sometimes Peter really reminded Rhodes of Tony when he had been young and aggravatingly energetic. “Peter, I want you to go inside and wait with everyone until you are called in for the meeting, ok?”

Peter nodded against Rhodey’s hand, giving the man a thumbs up. Rhodey smiled at Peter then and patted him on the back. He waited until the young man was well inside to turn around to speak.

“Colonel Rhodes,” Steve said with a small smile, unable to stave off the wave of guilt that hit him at seeing Rhodey.

“General Rhodes,” the man corrected cooly.

“General, then,” Steve amended with a nod. “It’s good to see you.”

“I can’t say the same,” Rhodey admitted, though his voice held no anger. “But that’s not important right now,” he said as he crossed his arms in front of him. “Look, Steve, this meeting we’re about to go into? It’s big. We are going to be talking with the entirety of the panel, and Tony had to work hard to convince them that you can be helpful, despite the fact that you’re a liability. So, please just don’t fight today. Do what you’re told, or you’ll make things harder for all of us.”

“We’re here, are we not?” Sam said, coming to stand next to Steve.

“Take it as a somewhat friendly warning,” Rhodey said drily. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on the team. You should head to the conference room. Tony will be there shortly.”

With that the man left them again, though the tension amongst Steve’s team had increased exponentially.

The man sighed, trying to spell away his quickly rising anger. He had never liked bullies or bully behavior, which was exactly what the new Avengers had been displaying since Clint had shown up in Wakanda.

“Let’s get this meeting over with,” Sam said from where he stood next to Steve, patting the man’s arm softly before going inside.

They all walked quietly through the seemingly empty halls, looking around to see that the compound had changed quite a bit since the last time they had all been here. It looked bigger than before, and there were many - closed - rooms Steve had never seen before. There were also little things - a bat, a football, random bags of snacks, and a few notebooks - that told him that the new, young, additions to Tony’s team spent quite a bit of their time at the compound.

The conference room had also changed: it was much bigger, and there was a ridiculously long table there, which made sense considering the team had grown in size.

“Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark has asked me to inform you that he will be running slightly late,” FRIDAY suddenly said, sounding icily polite. “However, I would recommend you take a seat near the end of the table, as Mrs. Stark will soon be joining you to start your debriefing.”

They all froze at that, and Steve repeated FRIDAY’s words in his head to make sure he had heard her correctly. Last time he had seen Tony, he and Pepper had not been together anymore. Obviously, he was happy for the man, but, in truth, he hadn’t expected them to get back together.

Tony had said the reason for their parting ways was because of the time and sheer danger that came with being Iron Man. Pepper had loved Tony, had loved his want to help, but she had not enjoyed the man’s obsession with the suit.

Still, Steve was glad to hear they had managed to make things work. Though that did not explain why she was the one doing the debriefing. She had never been quite that involved with the Avengers’ business, not at least when Steve had been there.

They all moved to seat near the end of the table, but, before they could comment on Tony’s new relationship status, Natasha walked in, wearing a tight, silky black dress that accentuated her rather generous curves.

She looked over her shoulder to give them a curt nod as she moved to stand near the head of the table to leave a binder she was holding.

“Natasha,” Steve said, giving her a warm smile. He had missed the woman more than he had thought he would.

“Steve,” She said, though her voice held only amicable politeness and no warmth, and she did not smile back. “Let’s get started with the debriefing.”

“Wait, where’s Pepper?” He asked, not sure whether Pepper had sent Natasha to start without them. “I thought we were waiting for her.”

Natasha frowned, looking back at Steve in confusion. “She’s working right now. She runs Stark Industries, why would we be waiting for her?”

Sam frowned then, leaning forward as he murmured “FRIDAY just said-”

“Mrs. Stark, would you like me to call in the rest of the team, or shall I wait for Mr. Stark to arrive?” FRIDAY asked, as polite as always, though she sounded much warmer than when she had had to address Steve.

Natasha seemed to consider the AI’s words for a second before finally murmuring. “You might as well call them in. Tony will want to start as soon as he arrives, and we can save time by doing introductions now,” Natasha said, not sure whether she was saying this to FRIDAY or to the five people sitting at the table.

They all froze then, as FRIDAY’s words sunk in.

Pepper wasn’t here. Pepper wasn’t “Mrs. Stark”. FRIDAY had directly addressed Natasha as “Mrs. Stark.” Natasha had not corrected her. Natasha had actually answered to the title. Natasha was wearing a diamond and sapphire wedding ring on her ring finger.

Dear god… had she married Tony?

Steve, Sam, and Wanda, couldn’t help but gape at the woman, all trying to wrap their heads around the news.

“Damn, I never thought anyone sane would willingly marry Tony,” Sam breathed out, his brain unable to catch up with his mouth before it was too late to stop the words.

Natasha, who had been looking at Steve, immediately turned to look at Sam, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “And I never thought someone with an iota of common sense and a bit of self love would dare insult my husband in front of me, when they know what I’m capable of, but here we are,” Natasha said with an angelic smile that promised retribution of the highest degree.

Before Sam could apologize or excuse his comment, the door burst open, and Rhodes and Clint walked in, their smiles turning into slim lines when they noticed Natasha’s fiery eyes.

“What happened?” Rhodes asked immediately, moving almost unconsciously to stand next to the woman.

“Nothing important,” Natasha assured him with a small smile, patting his hand. The last thing they needed was for Rhodes to get angry, because if he did, then he would get into a fight with the idiots, and then Tony would also get involved and everything would go to shit.

“You’re a better liar than that,” Clint noted as he dropped on his seat, to Natasha’s right. Rhodes sat on the other side of the table, facing Natasha’s seat.

Soon the door opened again and in walked Bruce and a young, dark haired woman that Steve had seen on TV, but had not met personally.

“No, Kate, I am not going to let you train with the Hulk,” Bruce said tiredly, clearly having had this discussion one too many times, as he went to sit on a chair near Clint.

Kate gave him a petulant look. “But you let Tony-”

“Oh my god, not this again,” Clint said from his seat. “Kate, Tony is a dumbass who takes unnecessary risks. You can’t do the same. Besides, if he finds out you’re still hounding Bruce about this, he will kill you,” Clint pointed out as he patted the seat next to his own, which Bruce had clearly left open for her.

The girl sighed, but sat down willingly as she said a quick “fine.”

T’Challa, Vision, and Hope came in next, all looking entertained at whatever it was that Hope was telling them. She stopped as soon as she walked in, however, as she caught sight of the five new people. She immediately walked over to where Scott was sitting and hit the back of his head with an angry look, eliciting a surprised grunt from the man.

“What the-”

“You’re an idiot,” She declared before moving past him to sit next to T’Challa, who was sitting next to Rhodey. Vision hovered by the door for a few seconds, his eyes interlocking with Wanda’s. His eyes grew sad, a warm longing settling there, before he gave her a small, hesitant nod. He did not say anything, however, and she seemed too dazed just by the mere fact that she was seeing the man again to say anything.

Vision moved to seat next to Bruce, looking back at the door when Peter and Kamala barreled in, Peter running in before the girl, who was clearly trying to catch him. He jumped on top of the table and slid down at the other end, before half hiding behind Natasha.

The woman immediately stood up and moved to grab him by the shirt, doing the same with Kamala when they young woman foolishly followed Peter’s movements. She yanked them apart and glared at them as she said “What are Fury’s rules when it comes to UN meetings?” She said slowly, like one would with a small child.

Both immediately deflated. “No running around, and no bodily harm to another teammate,” Kamala said with a sigh, blushing when Natasha finally let both of them go.

“Go sit down,” Natasha said with a shake of her head. “They’ll be here soon, so, unless you want to be skinned alive, you will behave .”

Both scurried off, looking slightly abashed. Kamala sat down next to Vision while Peter sat on the other side of the table, next to Hope. The woman patted the boy’s head, shaking her head softly as she smiled indulgently.

“Alright,” Natasha said, looking around the table, her eyes narrowing when she realized Steve was sitting only one seat away from Peter.

Tony was not going to be pleased about that, at all.

“Since we are all here, and we don’t have much time, I am going to go ahead and skip the niceties” she said, clasping her hands in front of her, which made her ring glimmer. “I am assuming every Avenger here has read their files,” she said pointing at the five at the end of the table.

“The new metal arm still looks awesome,” Peter told Bucky with a brilliant smile, that the man couldn’t help but return - albeit more cautiously.

This was a strange kid.

Natasha smiled softly at the young man before continuing. “On our team, there are new faces,” she said, looking directly at the five. “This is Peter, Kate, Kamala, Hope, and you have already met T’Challa” she said, pointing at each of them with a nod of her head. “I will talk to Tony, to see if he wants to share their files with the five of you, or if he prefers to give you a synthesized version of the files.”

Suddenly Natasha looked up and she smiled - the first real smile Steve had seen on her face today. He looked back, to see what was it that had gotten such a reaction out of her,  and found Tony, Fury, and Coulson, all walking towards the door.

Coulson opened the door to let himself and the other two in, also letting Tony’s voice filter in.

“-are still extremely angry, so Aliyev is going to make it harder for us to get into the country,” Tony said, his voice sounding slightly deeper than Steve remembered.

The man definitely looked older, but not in a bad way - his hair, before coal black, was now an attractive salt and pepper. He had a few more laugh lines and crinkles around his eyes, but the look of brilliance and fierce determination had not faded. His eyes looked wiser; there was less mischief there and more patience. All in all he looked… good.

“You will have to ask for permission personally,” Fury explained as he walked with Tony to the front of the room, his eyes never once trailing to where the new five attendees sat. “If you truly want to offer aid-”

Tony waved his hand. “No, he is allowing us to provide aid. What he does not want is for us to make a public appearance there, but I think it’s important. They need to know we are not forgetting them,” Tony pressed, leaving a few papers on the seat next to Natasha’s.

“I will talk to the Russian President,” Coulson assured Tony, clasping his hand. “He has a soft spot for you, so he might override Aliyev.”

“We don’t want to make Aliyev our enemy,” Fury said warningly as he looked at Coulson.

“We won’t,” Coulson assured him. “Not if it helps his diplomatic career.”

Tony hummed, rubbing his eyes softly before nodding. “We’ll finish discussing this later.”

“Yes, let’s get this shit over with,” Fury sighed out dropping his coat on the seat next to Tony’s, which left Coulson at the head of the table.

Natasha, who had been standing behind Coulson’s chair, gave a small smile at the man, before moving to stand next to Tony.

She intertwined their fingers as she brought him closer, kissing him in greeting. The kiss was soft, and not overtly sexual, but it was enough to stun Tony, though he made sure not to show it.

Natasha had never been one for public displays of affection. For her, a warm smile was as far as she was willing to go - unless she was trying to obtain something.The only people she was willing to be affectionate in front of was the team, and, unless Tony was very very wrong, she did not consider Steve & co. as part of her unit just yet,  which meant there was an actual important reason dictating her behavior.

Tony placed his hands on her waist as she pulled away, locking eyes with her. He heard the soft gasps coming from the end of the table, and suddenly everything clicked into place. She was doing it to shove their relationship in the renegades’ faces, which meant the idiots had done something to piss her off.

Damn, he had one feisty wife. 

Tony smiled at her then, and raised his hand to caress her cheek as he gave her another quick peck.

“Ready?” She asked, ignoring everyone else in the room.

Tony hummed, which wasn’t really an answer, but he knew Natasha knew him well enough to know that that meant no.

He finally stepped away from his wife, fixing his cufflinks before he looked down the table at where Steve was sitting, his eyes turning blank. “Good Afternoon, Captain Rogers.”

Chapter Text

Steve felt his throat dry up at the jarring greeting. He wasn’t sure whether he was still trying to process his surprise at seeing Natasha so freely touch Tony, or whether the man’s lack of snark had left Steve unsure as to how to proceed.

Tony had never been a serious person by nature, and Steve wasn’t sure if the man was just trying to put up a front, or if he was trying to prove a point.

“Tony,” Steve finally murmured, with a small nod.

“General Stark,” Rhodey corrected coldly, leveling Steve a glare.

“I thought those ranks were reserved for the military,” Steve pointed out, finally starting to feel annoyed at Rhodey. The man seemed hell bent on making things difficult.

“It is an honorary title granted to Stark by the president,” Fury suddenly murmured, looking at Steve for the first time since he had walked in. His face was unreadable. “And, considering we are about to start a meeting with UN officials, you will address him by title. Outside of this room, you will address him however he wants, but in here, we go by last name, Captain,” Fury ended smoothly, turning back to look at Tony.

Tony stared between Rhodes and Fury, suppressing an amused smirk. While it was true that, for the most part, they tried to keep these sort of meetings as formal as possible - much to Tony’s chagrin - they had never required anyone to use such formalities aloud. Furthermore, Rhodey still bitched about the fact that Tony had been given such a title in the first place.

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Tony deserved it - or so the man had said. What bugged Rhodes is that Tony now outranked him even though for most of his life Tony had been the fuck up friend Rhodey had had to deal with.

But Rhodes seemed hell bent on making Steve acknowledge the artificial rank, which meant he was trying to be particularly difficult, the petty asshole. Tony loved it.

Tony looked at each one of Steve’s teammates, cocking his head to his side when his eyes landed on Scott. ““So this is the guy that took your father’s suit,” Tony said as he turned to look at Hope.

Scott balked at that. “I didn’t take it, he gave it to me!”

Tony laughed at that. “Kid, Hank Pym’s an asshole who doesn’t do gifts,” Tony said, still smiling. “Particularly not when the gift in question is his suit. You might be wearing it, but that suit is not yours. If at any point he allows you to wear it, then he’s fully expecting you to follow the same ideals he has,” Tony explained, picking up the papers from where he had left them on his seat. “Now, Hank is a big supporter of the registration act, mostly because he is aware the more unchecked power there is, the bigger the challengers will be. You, on the other hand,” Tony said as he pointed as Scott, “went against the registration act. So, your grace period with that suit is long overdue.”

“Funny how you think you-”

“Enough, both of you,” Coulson suddenly murmured, standing up from his seat. “We need to get started.”

“Where’s Thor?” Tony asked suddenly, before sitting down.

“He shall be joining you soon, sir,” FRIDAY assured him. “He is receiving counsel from Heimdall.”

“God, you sound like Thor,” Tony said with a shake of his head, which was when he noticed how close Steve was to Peter.

Peter, whom Steve had injured once before when Tony had miscalculated, assuming that Steve would not actually fight them in Germany.

Peter, who was still too pure for his own good - too trusting, too kind.

His Peter.

His boy.

“I thought you had to write your final thesis,” Tony murmured, making sure to keep his voice light and calm.

God, he hoped he hadn’t written it yet.

Peter’s eyes widened. “Uh… Well you said we had the meeting so-”

“I thought you said the thesis was due at midnight,” Tony said his eyes narrowing.

Peter looked like a deer caught in the headlights. “I’ll finish it.”

“Oh no, you are not getting away with this,” Tony said easily, relief flooding him at finding the perfect excuse. “You will go and finish it now. You will not hand it in late for a debriefing.”

Peter gaped at Tony as if the man had just told him he had to skip out on dinner today, “But-” The boy began.

Peter ,” Tony warned, leveling him that look - the “dad look” as Natasha called it - that had yet to fail him when used on the boy. “You will go finish your homework, now, and I will debrief you once you finish.”

Peter looked like he wanted to argue for a few seconds, before finally deflating and nodding. He got up slowly, not meeting Kamala’s eyes in case the young woman cracked a joke at his expense, and made his way out of the room.

“I never thought you’d be the killjoy type of dad,” Clint admitted with a teasing smile.

Tony rolled his eyes. “The first time I tried recruiting him, he almost blew me off because he had homework ,” Tony revealed with a snort. “Obviously, being around you unwholesome creatures so much has changed his priorities, so I’m here to keep them straight until he remembers how to do that on his own.”

“That’s not how you would prioritize anything,” Kate noted, giving Tony a puzzled look.

“Who said I was talking about my priorities?” Tony said easily. “His priorities and my own are not the same, Kate. Besides, he’s not even twenty-one yet, he shouldn’t have the same priorities as me.”

And that was the crux of the issue, wasn’t it? The boy wasn’t in charge of eleven people who all had at least one area of their lives that was just fucked up beyond belief, and which Tony had to deal with on a regular basis to get them to work as somewhat functioning members of society both in and out of the field. Peter didn’t have to worry about that, or about the Avengers’ public image, or about the relief units Tony personally coordinated every time they couldn’t save everyone. He didn’t have to worry about strategizing the best ways to get UN ambassadors to be on Tony’s side, so that he could pass enough amendments to work the accords to their advantage. The boy didn’t have to worry about dealing with the pseudo terrorist organizations that had sprung up five years ago due in part to the damage brought by the old Avengers, and the lack of accountability on the part of Steve; he didn’t have to worry about these organizations who hated all superheroes and wanted to see them - and everyone that supported the Avengers - dead.

But eventually Peter would have to worry about all this. He would have to because Tony was pretty sure the boy - along with Kamala - would be taking his place the day he died or retired, and he still wasn’t sure what was best; to shield them as long as possible so that they could have and enjoy the youth Tony couldn’t have or if it was best to let them crash against reality now, so that later they wouldn’t have to learn about disappointments and betrayal the way Tony had.  

This was a question that kept him up at night.

Coulson turned to look at Tony then. “Tony, I don’t think Peter should-”

“Coulson, it’s fine,” Tony assured him, albeit a bit strongly. “I promise to debrief him once he’s done.”

“The panel won’t like it-”

Tony rolled his eyes as a pang of anger hit him like a ton of bricks. Tony was not about to let the Panel tell him what to do in his private life, thank you very much. He was having enough trouble making the best decisions regarding his… team slash family on his own. He didn’t need two hundred different opinions weighing in with him.

“The panel doesn’t have to like it,” Tony said, his smile sharp and ready to turn into a scowl. “It is not against the regulations, especially since he’s still not twenty one, and, not to mention, the Panel does not get to tell me how to best parent my child.”

Sam, who had been playing with his pen to pass the time dropped it then, his eyes widening comically. “Wait, your… oh my god, he’s your son ? What the… Who’s his mother? When did you-””

Steve suddenly frowned. “I thought you said you recruited him,” He began, his jaw setting. “Did you… You recruited your own son before you went to Germany?” Steve asked, giving Tony a disappointed look.

“How is this any of your business?” Kamala asked, looking angry.

Steve turned to look at the young woman, surprised by the outburst. Steve knew next to nothing about her, but she had looked to be the calmest of the lot.

“He’s not my biological son,” Tony said, answering Sam’s question. “And I’m afraid I didn’t have the pleasure to meet his mother, though I did know his aunt.”

When the five at the end of the table continued to stare at Tony as if he had grown a second head, the man sighed, but turned to look at Fury, hoping the man would shut them down so they could move on with the meeting.

“Tony adopted Peter and Kamala three years ago,” Fury said suddenly, before Tony could say anything to him. “They were minors at the time, and he was the closest they had to family. Even though they are not minors anymore, Tony has it set up so that he legally answers for them in front of the panel until they are twenty one, though that’s pointless, because you are the legal representative of the team regardless,” Fury reminded Tony with a fond look.

“Again, how is this any of their damn business?” Kamala snapped, looking at Steve like she was ready to slit his throat.

“It isn’t,” Natasha agreed, her tone severe.

“Can we please just start?” Clint asked as he rubbed his forehead. “I’d really rather get through this meeting without having to clean any blood off of the floor. Otherwise, my going to find them would just prove to be a waste of time.” He turned to look at them, his eyes pleading. “Just stop talking, ok? You’re digging yourselves a hole here.”

“You know I don’t remember those papers you had us sign saying anything about us not being allowed to express a little surprise when you decide to drop bombs like that,” Scott said petulantly from where he was sitting, clearly still pissed off at Tony’s comments about the suit. “Sorry, but you really just don’t look like the paternal kind,” he said with a plastic smile. “You seem more like the alcoholic uncle you see only at christmas, no offense.”

"Offense fucking taken,” Kamala growled from where she was sitting.

“Kam-”Hope began, giving her a pleading look.

“No!” Kamala snapped. “I am not going to let this dipshit insult Tony just because he’s feeling pissy about being called out for taking that stupid suit.”

Bruce placed a hand on her shoulder, leaning close to whisper something that was lost on everyone else. Whatever the man said seemed to be enough to calm her down, for she clenched her fists and sat back, resolutely not looking back at Scott.

Kate looked around the room, feeling the almost murderous tension palpable in the room.

“I told you those contracts should have included a clause about us not being able to kill them unless physically provoked,” Kate quipped, giving Tony a small smile.  

Tony let out a small, half broken laugh at that as he rubbed his forehead. Kate, bless her, hated being in tense environments and, much like Tony, she used humor to diffuse the tensions, but, much like Clint, she sucked at making it clear she was joking, only helping make everything more awkward.

“Oh that reminds me,” Coulson said, picking up a large black briefcase from under the table. He put it in the middle of the table and opened it. “You’ll need to wear this, and it will be best if you put them on before we call in the panel.”

Steve picked one up, frowning at the metal cuffs that seemed far too light on his hands. “What exactly is this?”

“A tracking device made out of vibranium,” T’Challa answered. “They are designed to inform us of your location at all times and they are designed to shock enough volts into your system to knock you out if you ever step out of the compound without either Tony’s fingerprint or without the internal alarm being activated.”

Scott’s brows rose at that. “That’s..  a bit dramatic.”

“It was part of the conditions that you signed,” Tony said. “They all have names, given that they are all programmed to your specific bodies.”

“This is unnecessary,” Steve murmured, putting the thing back on the table. “Not to mention, dangerous. We’re not criminals, Tony, no matter how badly you want us to be. If we are here to help-”

“The definition of a criminal is a person who has broken the law. You and your furious five over there have broken international laws, which therefore makes you all international criminals,” Fury said calmly, forcing himself not to snap at the man. If there was one thing he could not deal with was purposeful obtuseness and incompetency. “I don’t give a fuck whether you agree with the law or not, Captain. You still broke it. So, you are going to wear those fucking things, or there will be no meeting.”

“They’re not bad, uncomfortable, or risky,” Clint contributed. “I wore it for a year, and I never had any problems with it. Sure, I hated it, but it wasn’t a problem.”

Coulson passed one to each of them, looking at each closely as they observed them.

“You ask me to wear this now, but what happens when you put on the collar on me again?” Wanda said harshly, giving Tony an incredulous look.

“I didn’t make you wear that,” Tony pointed out, though he looked away as a pang of guilt hit him. “And I am not going to make you wear it again. There are… other ways of... subduing your powers, if the need arises.”

“So you do have a plan to subdue me,” Wanda said bitterly, moving her chair back a bit. “Is that also for “my protection”, like last time?” She lashed out, her eyes looking redder than before.

“I was protecting you,” Tony said, finally looking back at Wanda.

“By locking me in my room?” She half screamed.

“By keeping you in the compound where I knew you would be safe!” Tony snapped, leaning forward.

Wanda suddenly stood up, her fingers glowing red as she murmured “that’s not protection,” she growled, the table trembling as her powers began flowing out of her. “that is you being a control freak.”

Suddenly Vision stood up, and placed a hand on the table, the movement shaking up the table instantly stopping. The glow around Wanda disappeared as fast as it had come, though now it was Vision’s turn to glow yellow - well, his eyes.

“That is enough,” he murmured, his voice sad. “Starting another fight in the middle of the conference room will result in unnecessary casualties and regret.”

Wanda looked down at her hands, flabbergasted. “How did you-”

“I have learned much about this,” Vision said as he touched the stone on his forehead softly. “After you managed to control my body, I realized that your powers might be linked to my own. I was right; however, the stone’s link to your powers is much stronger than what I initially thought.”

Vision closed his eyes for a second his hands glowing, eliciting a gasp from Wanda when she felt the usually tingly sensation that always flowed inside her disappear completely.

When the android opened his eyes again, he sighed. “I have the ability to take away your powers, and to give them back, as necessary,” he explained, his voice void of emotion.

Clint sighed. “I told you already; if you fight us, you will lose .”

“Alright I have had enough of this bullshit,” Fury said angrily, getting up. “You five will put those damn things on, everyone will sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, and we will start this motherfucking meeting so that we can lay out the ground plan, as well as your limitations,” Fury said, looking at the five.

Before anyone could protest, Thor walked in, freezing at the door when he took in everyone’s tense positions. “I apologize, I lost track of time,” he said, giving Tony a small nod.

“It’s fine,” Tony said with a dismissive hand. “We haven’t gotten anything done yet anyway.”

“Which is why you will sit down now Thor, if you please, and we will call the panel,” Coulson interjected from where he sat, turning to look at Steve. “Put it on, Captain, so we can stop wasting time.

The two men looked at each other for a few moments, at a standstill, when Sam - who had finally grown tired of the macho display - finally acquiesced and put it on.

He knew when a battle was lost.

The others were not as quick to follow, but finally, after what felt like an eternity, they all finished cuffing their wrists with the tracker, though no one looked too happy about it.

“There, that wasn’t that fucking difficult, now was it,” Fury said as he sat back down with an annoyed huffed, tapping Tony lightly on the arm. “Alright, Stark, you’re up.”

Tony sighed but nodded. “FRIDAY, patch us through to the panel.”

“Of course, Sir,” the AI replied, turning on the holographic projectors that made the image of the large panel appear rather bearable. Most delegates were already at their seats.

“General, can you hear us?” The Afghan ambassador, and current President of the chamber, murmured, looking at the small, flying camera.

“Yes, sir, we can hear you,” Tony said as he angled his chair to face the UN panel. “We are ready to begin the meeting if the Panel is ready, sir.”

“We are,” the man said as he stood up and fixed his glasses. “Today's emergency meeting involves the incorporation of five new consultants to the international military initiative of the Avengers. As stipulated in the contracts, these five consultants will be serving under the command of General Stark.” The man took a pause and looked at the camera. “I trust, General, that you know this means you will be answering for their actions until the contract is effectively terminated?”

“Yes, sir, I am aware of the implications,” Tony said with a small grimace. “As I explained to the panel last time, my team is prepared to neutralize the… five consultants, if the need arises.”

The man nodded then, before murmuring. “Do remember General, that, unless there is an immediate global emergency, under current regulation, these consultants need to have the explicit permission of this Panel to exit the designated area in which they have been placed.”

Tony nodded. “We are aware of all of the regulations, Sir. I will personally ensure they understand all of the conditions; however, I think it would be more productive if we concentrate on developing our plan of action.”

The Afghan ambassador nodded. “The floor is yours then, General.”

Tony nodded, and took a deep breath. He needed to get his shit together - and quickly. But he had no idea how to do this right now, not with Steve and Bucky this close. Not when he could hear his mother screaming at the back of his mind.

Not when they were sitting so close to Kamala, so close to his team, so close to his wife, so close to his heart. He felt naked without his armor there to protect him - not that even that had been enough last time when Steve had effectively broken the Armor’s reactor.

He could feel the hair on the back of his head standing on edge. He felt like he was going to be sick, and the tell tale signs of his anxiety attacks were starting to make themselves known. This whole mess of a meeting wasn’t good for his health; he wasn’t sure at this point if he was more angry or anxious, but it didn’t matter because the end result seemed to be the same.

Suddenly, he felt Natasha’s soft hand closing around his thigh, near his knee. She squeezed his leg softly, the movement being small enough to not garner any unwanted attention. This wasn’t for show; this was for Tony, to keep him calm. He turned to look at his wife, taking a deep breath as he gave her a brittle smile. She just gave him a worried look in return, but kept her expression otherwise blank, to keep the rest from realizing that something was seriously wrong.

“While I would love to explain this to you, I do believe the best person to do so would be Mr. Odinson,” Tony said, turning to look at Thor with half pleading eyes.

The man, more in tune with Tony than most assumed, immediately understood that the man’s distress was impeding him from taking control of the room as he usually did, and was thus asking for help.

Thor smiled at the man as he nodded, feeling absurdly touched at the fact that Tony had chosen him to help.

“Thanos’ army is vast, and, even with all of earth’s military might, it won’t be enough,” he admitted. “He understands that the majority of midgardians do not possess the level of strength displayed in this room, and I am certain he is planning to use this to his advantage.”

Natasha clasped her hands in front of her as she murmured “Do you think there is any way we can keep this battle away from earth?”

Thor considered her words for a moment, and said “It would be very risky, considering that none of you have traveled through the stars before, and I am afraid I never paid much attention to that when I was growing up. It was Loki that understood magic, and he is no longer here to help. Thanos knows our galaxy very well, so he would have the upper hand.”

“Yes, but fighting on Earth also involves dealing with the largest collateral damage,” she noted with a quirk of her brow.

Thor hummed, rubbing his chin before finally murmuring. “But how do you propose we fight him, when we know not how to find him? Not even Heimdall can see him.”

“Can’t we track him?,” Tony asked, looking back at where Bruce was sitting. “If he really is using the stones then we can track him.”

Thor frowned. “How?”

“Well, Loki’s scepter gave off a very specific type of energy, which we realized when we studied it with Bruce the first time we got it,” Tony explained, pointing at his friend, his eyes lighting up with comprehension. “Similarly, Vision’s stone has a very specific energy. So if we can find a way to study whatever stones he has… maybe we can find a way to search for the-“

“We would need need a device that can be used around the galaxy,” T’Challa murmured suddenly, leaning forward at the same time as Bruce.

“We would also need to see if the energy the stones give off is somehow connected,” Bruce said, licking his lips.

Tony hummed. “Well, if we can get our hands on another stone-”

Bruce titled his head. “We could set up a study based on the two-”

T’Challa turned to look at Bruce. “Do you think we can study the mind stone without harming-”

“No, we need to test everything else first,” Tony said with a wave of his hand

“Well we do have the old studies” Bruce reminded the other two men, who were practically on top of the table now.

Tony turned to look at Bruce. “Do we have the tesseract's-”

Bruce shook his head. “Not only one of them, but we can supplement those with-”

T’challa nodded. “We can probably get at least a few scans of the mind stone-

Tony stood up to pace. “I still think if we get another-”

“They are all used with a gauntlet, right?” T’Challa asked suddenly. “They have to be connected in some way, to work properly-”

Tony turned to look at the man. “If we find what connects them-”

“Do you think we can do that by only studying the energy?” Bruce asked skeptically.

“We need at least another stone before we can actually define a pattern,” Tony admitted.

“Well if get more than one we can certainly try to join them,” T’Challa offered.

Bruce and Tony both froze, turning to look at T’Challa with excitement in their eyes. “You mean-”

“We could build-”

Bruce bit his lip. “It might be risky-”

“It might be the only solution,” T’Challa said.

“We will need to call Hank,” Tony murmured distractedly. “He should be able to help us with-”

Rhodes cleared his throat then, giving the three men an irritated yet fond look. “Do you three mind sharing with the rest of the class? We’re not all geniuses that can understand barely formed half sentences.”

They all smiled bashfully at Rhodes, showing that this was clearly this was not the first time they did something like this in a meeting.

“Right, I apologize,” Tony said turning to face the Panel. “What me and my colleagues were discussing were ways of tracking, and possibly using, the stones, but we truly have too little information to go on with.”

“I can collect two more stones,” Thor said, looking at Tony. “If it helps to track him down, I can certainly track two of them down, though it might take me some time.”

“Well how much time do you think we have?” Hope asked, as practical as ever.

“I know not,” Thor admitted. “It can be a year like it can be a month. It will all depend on when Thanos is ready to mobilize.”

Tony swallowed hard, forcing himself not to think of the portal, of the countless of alien ships he had seen, of the sheer darkness.

“You look like you have already made up your mind, General,” the Afghan ambassador murmured, assessing Tony’s stance.

Yes, I… well I suppose we might as well submit our working plan to the panel,” Tony said softly, clearing his throat as he looked directly at Natasha. “If the panel is willing, then I believe the best course of action for us to follow would be to let Thor bring back as many stones as he can, in as little time as possible so that we can study them and track down the Titan. We won’t know what we’re facing until we understand those stones better.”

“And what happens if Mr. Odinson is unable to bring back the stones in time?” The Afghan ambassador asked.

“We would need to plan for a contingency plan,” Natasha spoke up, keeping her eyes on Tony. “Though, if Thor’s assessment of Thanos’ army is correct, I doubt there is another plan of action that is viable.”

“I am afraid that is not a viable answer, Madam Stark,” The man noted clinically. “Particularly if the battle of New York is any indication of this alien’s powers.”

“I know, sir, but it is hard to devise a plan when we have so little to go on,” Natasha said with a rueful smile.

“We will have to look for global contingency measures,” the English ambassador suddenly murmured into her mike.

“If I may,” Coulson said from where he sat. “As a global emergency, any further plans and contingencies that involve anything other than the Avengers will need to be passed along to the security council, as we have no say in them.”

The Afghan leader gave Coulson a sour look but nodded, aware that there could be many problems if the panel tried to decide on anything other than the Avengers.

“Well then let’s take a vote,” the Afghan leader murmured finally. “If two thirds of this chamber agree with your plan, General, then you are free to do as you plan.”

Tony nodded, sitting back next to Natasha, who immediately put her hand on his knee as the count began rolling in.

Tony watched the number of both nos and yesses go up slowly, and he began tapping his fingers on the table.

If the panel said no… He wasn’t sure what they would do.

He felt like crawling out of his skin as they waited for every delegate to vote, for some of them to consult amongst each other or to call heads of state to get a better idea, as clearly no one had expected the meeting to go the “let’s fight in space if possible” route.

Natasha suddenly brought both of her hands to rest on her lap, tracing her rings softly, pressing in here and there, sending a replica of her motions into Tony’s ring.

She knew he hated talking about anything alien related. It always made the nightmares wose.

He looked down at the ring, and smiled, taking a careful breath as he looked back up to find Rhodey on high alert. He gave his friend a small, reassuring wink before looking back at the screen.

He let out a relieved breath once they reached the 129 mark, signaling the two thirds approval they needed for worldwide crises.

They were on the clear.

They could prepare. Tony could delude himself into thinking there was a way of ending the battle with them on top. He could pretend they weren't going to lose people, and that his family would be as safe as could be in the end. He could pretend the fallout wasn't going to break him. He could lie and say he didn't feel sick to his core at the very idea that the earth was yet again a target and he hadn't done enough, wasn't powerful enough, to stop the virtual apocalypse from happening.

Though he wasn't sure even his powers of denial were strong enough.

Natasha squeezed his arm softly to bring his attention back to the meeting - which had apparently ended at some point and he hadn't even realized.

Yeah, he and space shit did not go well together.

“Right, ok,” Tony said looking around the table. “I am going to go talk to Peter. Bruce, T’Challa if you wouldn't mind starting the studies-”

“On it,” they both answered, giving everyone a nod as they made their way out.

“Hope, do me a favor and call your father, let him know he’s needed at the compound,” Tony said before turning to look at Rhodes. “Rhodey, I need you to fly to Washington. The Pentagon likes you well enough that they might be willing to share what the American stance will be when planning a contingency plan.”

Rhodey nodded, walking the long way around to squeeze Tony’s shoulders before exiting. “You better answer your damn phone when I call,” Rhodey murmured before he left, knowing Tony’s tendencies to block out the world when locked in his workshop.

“You should get going, goldilocks” Tony pointed out as he turned to look at Thor.

Thor chuckled, far too used to Tony’s antics to get offended. “Of course, I am leaving now.”

“Be careful,” Natasha said from where she was still seated.

“And please remember to land on the top helipad,” Tony pleaded, sounding slightly annoyed. “Last time you appeared in the middle of a conflict, we had limited access to it, and the UN flipped their shit.”

“I thought you needed help,” Thor balked, though he did look a bit embarrassed.

“I know Thor, but unless we are fighting Thanos, the UN does not appreciate you violating sovereign borders,” Tony said, unable to keep a smile off his face at the irony of him having to reprimand a fucking prince  of Asgard because of “protocol.”

Thor rolled his eyes but nodded nonetheless, giving Steve an amicable smile, which the man returned, before leaving.

“Why do I feel like this won't be the last time I have to talk to him about that,” Tony said with a sigh.

“Because he’s Thor,” Fury said simply, as if that was an acceptable answer.

Tony shook his head before turning to look at the android. “Vision I need you to go help Bruce and Kitty, but holler if they get too touchy with the stone,” he murmured as he pointed at the android’s forehead.

Vision nodded, getting up slowly, murmuring “I am sure I can help find a correlation, given that the stone is a part of me.”

Tony could kiss him. That was the kind of positivity he needed right now.

“Alright, everyone else can go back to their regularly scheduled lives, though I’d much prefer if you add at least two hours to your daily training routine,” Tony said, looking directly at Kamala, who balked at the implication.

“Don't worry Tony, I am taking them to the gym right now,” Clint said, stretching his back once before giving both girls a predatory smile. “C’mon, I haven't cleaned the floor with you in a while.”

“I’ll be sending you Peter in a bit,” Tony said, which elicited a laugh from Clint.

“If you think that boy isn’t joining your little lab boyband, you are more delusional than I thought,” Clint said cheerfully, winking at Tony when the man flipped him off.

“He is right, you know, Peter will be wanting to help you,” Fury said quietly, standing up and turning to lean against the table.

Tony hummed, before turning to look at Natasha. “We need a bigger lab.”

“You already have four in the compound,” Natasha said with a raised brow, though she was smiling.

“Yes, but we don’t have a big enough communal lab, especially not if Hank and Peter are joining us” Tony muttered. “FRIDAY, mark my schedule to rework the blueprints of the compound tonight, also have a room ready for Pym. He’ll be crashing here more often than not for a while.”

“Of course, Sir,” the AI murmured, as reliable as ever.

Tony turned to look at Natasha again. “Do you mind-”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll do it,” she said with an amicable smile. “You should go, otherwise they’ll get started without you.”

Tony nodded, leaning down to kiss her cheek as he murmured “I’ll see you later then.”

Natasha grabbed him by the tie and brought him back down to level him a warning glare “I don’t care what you’re doing, you will all be there for dinner tonight,” she said tightly, which made his throat close up.

He knew her enough to see the glimmer of fear in the back of her eyes; she was as terrified as Tony was of the impending doom that was coming their way. Natasha wasn’t a sentimental woman, but she loved her team, and, above all, she valued routine. It centered her.

When there was routine one could pretend things weren’t falling apart. When there was a routine there was order, and order - unlike feelings - was something she could shape and control.

Tony knew she didn’t give a toss about dinner itself; what she wanted, above all, was to maintain their simple domestic routine for as long as they could; otherwise she’d have to face the reality that that routine might soon end, and she wasn’t ready for that.

“We’ll be there at seven o’clock on the dot,” Tony assured her, leaning in to tenderly brush his lips against hers twice, squeezing comfortingly the hand still gripping his tie.  

“Okay, then you can go,” she said, easing her hold on his tie. She watched him straighten up and give her a nod. “I will see you all later. Nick, are you coming tonight?”

“No,” the man replied immediately. “I value my sanity,” the man said with a dry smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“Such a kill joy,” Tony teased as he made his way out of the room, missing the way Fury rolled his eyes at him.

Natasha stood up then, turning to face Steve and the other four. “Follow me,” she murmured neutrally, not bothering to wait and see if they did as told.

They all looked at each other, all looking a bit dazed, and more than a bit confused.

Steve shook his head, and murmured “later,” because there was no point trying to talk about the strangeness of it all until they were alone - or as alone as one could get with an all seeing, invisible AI watching them.

Damn, he had forgotten how little privacy there was in the blasted compound.

He stood up and followed Natasha out of the room, looking around as she took them into a new branch of the compound. She turned in the middle of a spacious common room, keeping her hands behind her back.

“There are six unused rooms in this area of the compound,” she explained, turning slightly to the side to point at the closed doors behind her. “You can choose whichever rooms you prefer. You can also choose to stay in this common room in your downtime, or you can accompany us in the main one,” she murmured, though she didn’t look particularly happy about the second option. “Dinner's at seven,” she said offhandedly as she began walking away. “Oh, and do remember that you are being heavily monitored, so please don’t do anything stupid.”

They watched her walk away with that gait that made her look like she owned the world and, considering the fact that she was now married to Tony Stark, she probably did.

“So I guess that leaves walking away out of the table, huh?” Scott muttered under his breath, earning him a huff of strained laughs from his friends. 

Chapter Text

Steve got installed fairly quickly, as he didn’t really unpack. He left his duffle bag in the middle of the bed, not finding a good enough reason to actually unpack. He wasn’t sure how long they’d be staying at the compound, but he didn’t think it would be long. It was clear the UN was keeping them here out of need, but they’d be back out for blood soon enough, and they’d have to run.

He wasn’t naive; he knew they’d be using Tony’s team to bring them in and, as much as it pained him to admit, Tony had the upper hand in terms of both number and sheer level of power. Though, really, he wasn’t sure how many of them were there out of loyalty and not because they had no other options. They had all seemed close, but that meant nothing.

The old Avengers had also seemed extremely close before the accords, but that hadn’t stopped anyone from choosing sides; that hadn’t stopped Tony from signing, and that hadn’t stopped Steve from answering to Tony’s front with a fight.

Obviously the two kids, as well as Natasha, were there out of loyalty, and, regardless of whether or not they always agreed with Tony, they’d back him. If the way they had acted in the conference room was anything to go by, then the three of them were fiercely loyal to Tony, which, honestly, made Steve happy. He didn’t agree with Tony, nor did he think their loyalty wise, but the man had been his comrade and friend for many years; it was good to see him rebuild his life.

However, as happy as he was for the man, he was still trying to process Natasha’s psyche. Never would he have thought possible for those two to swallow down their respective prides to the point of romantically liking one another. To be honest, he couldn’t quite picture the two of them together to begin with. Tony was too selfish, too controlling, and too stubborn for Steve to ever see Natasha agreeing to be with the man. Natasha, on the other hand, was too aloof, too impatient and too strict for Tony to warm up to.

Now Steve wouldn’t put it past Natasha to have married the man as a means to an end. It would have granted her full access back into the team, and he was pretty sure it would have given her quite a bit of power in the UN, considering how much they seemed to respect Tony. It would also have given her power over the team as, whether they all liked it or not, Tony now seemed to be at the head.

Still, Natasha might be a coldly practical woman, but she wasn’t downright cruel, so Steve wasn’t willing to bet on it, as her pretending to love Tony could end with one too many broken hearts.

Obviously, he was aware that the other very real possibility was that they were truly together; though that still didn’t explain how they were making it work, when they were such different people.

But all that was besides the point; it didn’t really matter if Tony’s team would break into factions if Steve decided to make his case. He wasn’t going to risk this, not now. They still had to save the earth, and he still had to live with these people for the foreseeable future.

The time to argue about their temporary contracts and the accords as a whole would come later, when they weren’t all so busy worrying about survival.

Steve moved around the room then, checking every corner of the room to see where exactly were the cameras and the mics. He was aware there was nothing he could do to change his lack of privacy, but at least knowing where the cameras were made him feel better.

He breathed out a sigh of relief when he realized there were none in the bathroom. At least Tony’s absolute need for control hadn’t gone that far yet.

He exited his room quietly, knocking on the door next door, waiting for Bucky’s soft “come in” to walk inside with a tired smile on his lips.

“How ya feeling?” Steve asked as soon as he was inside, sitting next to Bucky on the bed. The man hadn’t unpacked either.  

“Like I’m about to get shot at any second,” Bucky admitted with a self deprecating smile as he rubbed his metal fingers distractedly.

Steve clenched his jaw, feeling a pang of sympathy for his friend. He clasped the man’s shoulder, which made Bucky turn to look at Steve. “Buck, I am not going to let any of them harm you,” Steve said slowly, earnestly.

The man gave Steve a soft smile. “I know, but... “ he shrugged. “I don’t think he has forgiven me about his parents yet,” Bucky whispered, not looking at Steve.

Steve took in a deep, controlled breath. “Tony knows it wasn’t you, and even if he doesn’t care about that, even if he decides he still wants revenge, he knows we have bigger problems.”

Bucky nodded absently.

“Why did you sign the truce?” Steve asked suddenly, unable to keep the question in any longer.

It was something that had been bothering him for quite a few hours now. He knew Bucky didn’t trust any of the new avengers; he could see how uncomfortable his friend was, and yet he had been the first to sign. It wasn’t like Bucky hadn’t known he’d have to see Tony again if he signed.

He had known exactly what he was walking into. The rest of the team might not know about Siberia, but Bucky did; Bucky had been there when Tony had refused to see reason, too blinded by grief. He had been the one to almost rip Tony’s reactor out. He had lost an arm there. He had fought with Steve, and Steve…

Steve had almost killed the man he had once considered to be a friend.

He swallowed back the bile that rose at the thought. He hadn’t thought much of it when he had left Tony in Siberia, stuck in a cold base with a powerless suit. He wasn’t proud of what he had done that day. He had lost control of the fight, but he hadn’t had a choice. Tony had been hell bent on killing Bucky, and Steve could not - would not - let that happen.

He had done what he had had to do to save his friend. That, of course, didn’t erase the shame that had come later, when he had taken a moment to remember that, right or not, Tony had had his back one too many times for Steve to end their friendship like that.

“Because Clint was right,” Bucky said gently, snapping Steve out of his depressive thoughts. “We either came in willingly, or we came in with a fight. If the end result was still us coming in, then why not avoid losing lives?” Bucky said with a shrug. “Besides, if there really is something coming to destroy earth, it’s better if we can be there to help.”

Steve nodded, swallowing hard. “I think the accords will hamper us in protecting the earth.”

“Well then that’s on them, isn’t it?” Bucky said, looking out the window. “We’re doing our part.”

“But what if that’s not enough?” Steve asked, looking frustrated. “What if their mistakes cost human lives? That’s on us , because we didn’t stand up to them.”

“If we stand up to stop them, only more people will come out hurt,” Bucky said after a few seconds. “And if we do that, the result will be the same; we’ll lose against the bigger threat.” Bucky sighed. “I don’t know if they’re right, but I’d much rather lose knowing it’s on them than on us. I just… I have enough blood on my hands,” Bucky said with another sad smile.

Steve’s face contracted with sorrow, and he sighed. He extended an arm and brought Bucky closer to hug him. “Bucky… it wasn’t you.”

The man didn’t answer; they had had this discussion far too many times. Yes, Bucky was aware he hadn’t had a choice. He knew Hydra was to blame, but they had still used him; they had used his body. They were his hands that had killed countless of people around the world; They were his hands that had destroyed hundreds of families.

They were his hands that had killed the very man that had helped made sure his best friend was equipped to survive the war. No one could deny that; no one could change that.

And, even worse, he couldn’t forget any of it. He remembered every single kill, every broken bone, every piercing scream, every stuttering last breath.

He couldn’t forget the looks of fear and hate. He couldn’t forget wanting to kill them, couldn’t forget the sick, twisted thing inside him feeling proud at another successful mission.

“Stop, don’t think about it,” Steve said with a sigh, grabbing Bucky’s face to look into his eyes. “Just think of now. The past is in the past, and that was not you.”

Bucky nodded, swallowing hard, before murmuring “we should probably go and check in with the rest of the team.”

Steve took another few seconds to watch his friend, before nodding, heading the way to the common room, where the other three were already waiting.

So they hadn’t unpacked either.

“Are we gonna talk about it?” Scott asked softly, not looking up at the two newcomers.

“They have ears everywhere,” Sam pointed out. “Besides, what is there to talk about? Tony’s an asshole but he’s the one calling the shots. We either swallow it down, or we go head to head against him.” Sam shrugged.

Steve sighed, and came to stand in the middle of the room. “Alright, our priority is helping people. It doesn’t matter whether we like our current situation or not - that’s the cards we’ve been handed, so we have to make the most of it.”

“Then what do you want us to do?” Scott asked, finally looking up.

“All we can do now is wait,” Sam pointed out. “Unless you want to go talk science with Tony.”

--------------

“Looks like the old man still has a lot of gas in him,” Tony muttered softly as he watched Hank Pym walk to the door of the lab.

The two men with him chuckled, but did not comment, as Pym chose that moment to walk in.

“Hank,” Tony said with a nod of his head, walking closer to shake the man’s hand.

He knew Pym preferred when they used his titles to refer to him - so did Bruce and T’Challa, mostly when in public -  but, honestly, Tony had three PhDs and he didn’t ask any of them to refer to him as doctor, so they could shove it in their academically stuffed asses because he refused to call them by anything other than their first name or assigned nickname.

“Tony,” the man replied in the same cool tone, offering him a small diplomatic smile. “Hope told me you needed me, and that it was urgent.”

“No, that was just her inflating your already large ego,” Tony said with a wink, which earned him a glare from Pym.

“Pot, meet Kettle,” the older man said, giving Tony an amused look.

It still amazed him whenever he came over to visit the Avengers, or when he came in to help Tony. He had promised himself a long time ago that he would never again work with a Stark. After working with Howard in shield, he had had more than enough to last him a lifetime.

But, to his surprise, this younger Stark wasn’t all that he appeared to be.

He had followed Anthony Stark somewhat closely when he had still been young - it had been hard not  to. Stark was constantly on the headlines, which, in truth, had disappointed Hank. He might not have liked Howard all that much, but he had respected his mind, and it had saddened him to know the man’s son had turned out to be such a mess.

But Anthony had eventually cleaned up his act and had become Iron Man, at which point Hank had had to reconsider him. Hank had still thought the man was a mess, but it was clear he had actually been trying - which was surprising in it of itself.

And then the accords had come, and Stark had actually been sensible for once; he had listened to the will of the people. And Hope, his Hope, had taken pity on the man and had joined the Avengers, which had forced Hank to meet Anthony Stark.

Their first meeting had been tensely diplomatic, though, looking back, he could now see that Tony had been trying particularly hard to act like he had seen his father act with Hank many, many years ago. He had soon realized that was not worth the stress, and had just decided to be himself around Pym.

And that was when he had met Tony.

The man was a sarcastic, plastic narsissist hiding a lot of self hate, with a brain that could power through at least seventy two hours of uninterrupted work. He was practically unbearable when he wasn’t working - at least to Pym - but he was a marvel to watch when he had a new project in his hands. His childlike curiosity was something Hank could remember all too well and it was refreshing to see again.

And so, after knowing the man for almost five years now, he had come to categorize Tony into three; There was Anthony “Tony” Stark, the heir to Howard Stark, who was a spoiled bratty asshole that had wasted his youth in drugs and alcohol and who still believed one could solve a problem by throwing money at it; then there was General Stark or Iron Man, protector of the people, leader of the Avengers, martyr extraordinaire and the UN’s golden boy - basically a no nonsense man who could deal with criminals, politicians, and anything else that the universe decided to throw at him without so much as a raised brow. And then there was Tony, a child at heart when it came to creating and studying, a family man who loved his own more than himself, a mistrustful man who had been broken by his past and who kept himself going by sheer force of will and because he had the mind of a “futurist” - as he described himself.

And so by categorizing him Hank had learned how to best deal with each facet of Tony, given that it was very hard to tell which of the three you’d be facing at any given time. He had also learned that, unlike his late wife and those that now lived with Tony, he didn’t have the patience of a saint, and so he couldn’t swallow down the man for more than a few days at a time.

Which, in all honesty, was fine, because Tony couldn’t handle him for much more than that either.

“We basically need to find a way to prevent the apocalypse from happening,” Tony said flippantly, distracting Pym from his musings.

“Now say that again while toning down the sarcasm to understandable levels,” Hank said with a pleasant smile, though his sharp eyes told Tony the man was not in the mood for riddles.

“I wish I was being sarcastic,” Tony said dryly. He turned to look at Bruce and T’Challa then, going through all the possible options he had at the moment to start the project.

He still hadn’t talked to T’Challa - mostly because the man had been avoiding him for two days now.

“But you know what? You don’t have to hear it from me. Brucie here will explain the whole situation to you. FRIDAY, please get me Jane Foster on the line. If she’s still in London, doing her research project, she won’t be able to come help, but she can help from there.” Tony then turned to face T’Challa. “While Bruce talks to both of them, you and I can talk,” Tony explained as he pointed with his head to the staircase that led to Tony’s study. “C’mon, kitty, let’s get this over with before we start getting all touchy with Vision.”

T’Challa’s face fell, but he didn’t say anything, dutifully following Tony out of the room - leaving behind two disgruntled doctors.

T’Challa felt his heart fall when he realized Tony wasn't taking them to his personal study; He was taking them to the business one. They walked into the study room, the glass walls allowing T’Challa to look into the spacious, yet nicely furnished room that he hadn't had to go into in almost four years.

This felt like being back to square one.

Tony closed the door behind both men, before saying “Fry, activate full privacy mode, please.”

Immediately, the glass walls turned dark, keeping people from looking inside. The door locked itself, and T’Challa felt a sense of dread fill him. Privacy mode meant not even Friday was listening in, which meant T’Challa was in a world of trouble.

Tony walked towards his seat, before pointing to one of the two black leather chairs in front of his long desk. “Sit down, T’Challa,” he indicated, before taking a seat himself.

The king complied almost reluctantly, watching carefully as Tony leaned back slightly, bringing his clasped hands to his mouth, where he traced his lips with one of his index fingers. “Any reason why you decided to go with Clint to bring in our new consultants?” Tony asked lightly, though his expression was unreadable.

“I thought he might need help,” T’Challa said calmly, leaning back as well, keeping his posture regal and relaxed.

Tony hummed. “You know, neither of you ever told me where you found all five of them,” Tony said with a cock of his head.

T’Challa sighed, too tired to play mind games with Tony. “I think you already know the answer, Tony.”

“Now why would I know that?” Tony asked, though whether he was being sarcastic or not, T’Challa couldn’t tell.

It’s why we’re here, is it not?” The king asked without any more preambles.

They both knew he meant the study.

Tony huffed and smiled. T’Challa, as always, went straight to the point. “Yes, it is.”

T’Challa nodded stiffly. “When did you find out?”

“That you were sheltering Steve and his friends?” Tony asked with a raised brow. “FRIDAY tracked them down three months after I came back from Siberia,” Tony said, looking at T’Challa straight in the eye.

T’Challa’s eyes widened. “You’ve known the whole time?”

“Are you honestly surprised?” Tony asked dryly, his brows raising to his hairline. “You know, I am slightly offended that you thought you could keep me from finding them for five years.” Tony smirked then, a plastic smirk. “But you know what they say, denial is a river in Egypt.”

T’Challa had the decency to look chagrined. “Why did you never say anything?”

“Why didn’t you ?” Tony fired back.

T’Challa took a second to consider his words, before saying “I agreed to shelter them to offer Mr. Barnes help. Also, it was the easiest way to keep them in check. If a problem arose, I could neutralize them. The reason I didn’t say anything at first is because, at the time, I didn’t trust you,” he admitted. “I thought you were still too consumed by revenge and I figured you’d want to come end the fight that started in Siberia, and you’d force me to show my hand, which I wanted to avoid at all costs. Later, I started to trust you, but I still didn’t know what you would do, and the team had just begun forming. I didn’t know what the information would do to the team as a whole. And then I came to care for you,” T’Challa stressed, looking at Tony earnestly. “And I didn’t… the possible repercussions you would have had to endure for knowing seemed unfair, and the more time that passed, the harder it was to find a good reason to tell you.”  

Tony hummed noncommittally.

At least T’Challa was being honest now.

He could somewhat understand T’Challa’s reasoning. He had done something similar, after all. He had waited for almost a year to see if the man would say something, assuming that it was a trust issue at first. Then he had waited another year, trying his hardest to figure out why T’Challa wouldn’t tell him. It hadn’t seemed to be a trust thing; the man had come to Tony multiple times to talk about Wakanda, the Avengers, and even T’Challa’s personal life. The man had entrusted Tony with many secrets, and had helped Tony more than once, by providing him with a ridiculous amount of vibranium for his suits. Once they had reached the third year of not mentioning it, however, Tony  had finally felt hurt. They had become close by then, and the fact that T’Challa had continued to choose not to tell Tony that he was helping Steve had made it hard for Tony to trust the man. Eventually, he had figured T’Challa had a personal reason for not telling him; there was something he valued more than Tony’s sake of mind, and, that was... fine really. Tony couldn’t expect to be everyone’s priority; hell he wasn’t even his own priority most of the time.

Besides, if he was honest with himself, T’Challa had some real and valid reasons for not saying anything, but still, without him realizing, the hurt had been building inside of Tony. And to hear now from the man himself that he had done it to keep Tony “safe”... it just made him angry.

“I don’t appreciate other people making choices for me,” Tony said finally, not looking at T’Challa to avoid making things worse.

He wasn't sure he was going to scream or cry at this point.

The king shut his eyes with a grimace, remembering for a second Tony’s rage when he had found out Steve had been lying to him for years. “I’m so sorry.”

Tony turned back to look at the king, feeling a pang of sympathy at seeing the earnest pain in the man’s features. “I know,” Tony said softly, unable to say “it’s okay”, unable to let T’Challa off the hook.

“I… have no excuse,” T’Challa said, opening his eyes to look at Tony. “But, believe me, I didn’t do it with a malicious intent.”

“I know,” Tony said again, sighing as he came to lean forward.

They both stayed silent for a while, not sure how to proceed from there. Tony wasn’t sure what to think. He loved T’Challa, he really did. He respected the man, and he trusted him. Well, mostly. He trusted that the man wanted to keep the world safe. He trusted that the man would be willing to put himself in the line of danger for his teammates. He trusted that T’Challa would take his orders without question, unless said order was completely ridiculous.

However, he wasn’t sure he could trust the man with his innermost thoughts. The idea to do so had always been in the back of his head, and, at times, he had shared more than what was advisable, but there had always been a bit of a divide with the man. Tony wasn’t as forthcoming with T’Challa, though, really, he didn’t need to, for T’Challa was ridiculously good at reading people. T’Challa often knew Tony’s mind better than the rest of his team, simply because the man took the time to watch Tony long enough to understand who he was.

Really, now that he thought about it, this revelation did not change much about their situation; the only difference there was right now was that Tony was hurt. Tony was angry at the man. Tony couldn't say he believed the man to be a friend, at the moment. But, ultimately, none of that mattered, not when the world was at stake.

If he could swallow down his anger long enough to bring Steve - who had actually genuinely hurt him - back, then he could swallow down his anger with T’Challa until this mess was dealt with.

He would deal with his emotions later, at a more opportune time.

“Alright, well, I have a few questions for you, given that you have spent the most time around them these past five years,” Tony said, keeping his tone cordial.

T’Challa froze for a second, watching as Tony’s posture changed almost unconsciously to the one he used in UN meetings. He wasn’t really speaking to Tony anymore; he was speaking to the General.

Tony was pushing him away completely, and there was nothing he could do.

“Of course, you can ask me anything,” T’Challa said, unable to keep the sadness off of his voice.

Tony nodded. “Five years ago, Wanda didn’t have a good grip on her powers, has that changed at all?”

"When training, she still loses control at times,” T’Challa said, remembering the footage he had watched of the young woman.

Tony nodded. “Have you worked on Falcon’s wings at all?”

“No, I have not. I wasn’t about to give them weapons,” T’Challa said wryly.

“We might have to upgrade it, if he’s fighting with us,” Tony said, albeit reluctantly. “And Barnes’ new arm? I assume you gave him that.”

“I did, though it is not designed to be useful in battle,” T’Challa said immediately. “The prosthetic was designed specifically to have slightly less strength than a male human arm.”

Tony nodded. “And the reconditioning?” Tony asked at last, feeling himself tense involuntarily. “Is it still… does he still-”

“Yes,” T’Challa said with a sigh. “We’ve been working with him for five years, and there have been long periods of time where he does stop responding to his conditioning, but at times he’s still triggered. Sometimes, it’s the words, at others, it’s just the memories.”

Tony took in a sharp breath, closing his eyes as he tried to remind himself to breathe. “That is unacceptable,” he said finally, his voice tense. “I will not have him fight alongside my team if I cannot know for certain whether he is fighting with us or against us.”

T’Challa didn’t argue the man’s point. Instead murmuring, “I think perhaps you might be the most qualified to break the reconditioning,” T’Challa said slowly, “but It is your call, Tony.”

Tony huffed out a dry laugh, and moved his chair slightly to the left, to face the wall. He didn’t know what to do.

He could not - would not - have Barnes anywhere near his team, if the man was still conditioned to respond to Hydra’s commands. The man could snap at any moment, and, as all prior experiences showed, that always meant someone would get hurt.

And T’Challa, damn him, was probably right. Tony had helped kamala, after all; he had a fairly good idea of how to help Barnes, but he just wasn’t sure he could do it. He could barely be in the same room as the man; how the hell was he supposed to help him?

Not only that, but there was no telling how long it would take, and Tony didn’t know how much time they had. He couldn’t risk it.

He would not risk it.

“I’ll… think about it,” Tony said evasively. “Though he will not be joining the field any time soon.”

“Of course,” T’Challa said, fidgeting as he struggled to find something to say that might bring his friend back to him.

“You should go help Dr. Banner and Dr. Pym,” Tony said with a wave of his hand, his expression completely closed off. “I shall join you shortly.”

T’Challa’s throat closed up then, as he nodded and stood up.

He couldn't remember the last time Tony had referred to anyone by their last name in front of T’Challa.

------------------

“FRIDAY did you add four more pies to our usual order?” Natasha asked as she headed down the elevator to pick up their food.

“Yes, Mrs. Stark,” FRIDAY assured her. “I also added three desserts.”

“Thank you, fry,” Natasha said with a smile as the doors opened to show two young men standing there with enough boxes of food to feed a small battalion.

“Uh, order for Mr. Stark?” One of the two young men asked, clearly feeling intimidated by coming face to face with the Black Widow.

She gave him a soft smile to ease the daze. “Just in time,” she said, not turning to see when Peter landed next to her.

The boy had a penchant for dramatics, much like Tony.

“Oh great, I’m starving,” he said excitedly as he picked up a bit over half of the boxes and carried them inside with both arms.

Natasha ignored Peter as she walked closer to the two young men, pulling out a more than generous tip out of her pocket. “Here, thank you for bringing this.”

The young man gaped slightly as he took the money from Natasha’s hand. “Uh, thank you ” the boy said, unable to keep himself from giving Natasha a longing look.

The woman just smiled, far too used to being wanted for it to bother her. She picked up the rest of the food with one hand and winked at them as she balanced it perfectly back to the elevators.

She could give Tony shit for once having been a diva, but, really, she was as into dramatics as him, if not more.

She set the boxes down in the middle of the ridiculously long table (she still thought two smaller ones as opposed to a huge one would have been better) and then turned to see the three youngest members of their team make their way inside.

Kate shoved Peter and Kamala back roughly, making it clear to Natasha that they were back at it with the “last one that gets to the table does the others’ chores for the week.”

Peter flung out one of his webs as he fell, but Kate easily flipped in the air, narrowly avoiding the sticky white webs that hit the opposite wall. Kamala got up with ease, diving in with her brutal strength to knock Kate off her feet. Peter, taking advantage of the two young women wrestling on the floor, stood up and began running, but had to stop and jump back to miss being hit by a  flying knife - courtesy of Kate.

“Enough,” Natasha called, not bothering to look back as she set up the table. “Or I’m confiscating all of your weapons for a week.”

All froze, aware that out of everyone, Natasha was the one they really had to watch out for when it came to threats as she tended to be the only that actually followed through.

All three of them scrambled to get to the table, sitting one next to the other as they opened the first pizza box.

The rest of the team began trailing in then, all coming in in pairs or trios, all looking tired and hungry. Rhodes walked closer to the woman and squeezed her arm in passing just as Steve and his team walked in, all looking slightly unsure as to how to proceed.

“You can sit,” Natasha noted, crossing her arms as she nodded towards the empty chairs. “We have room, and food, for everyone.”

“Thank you,” Steve replied, as polite as ever, though it earned him no more than a polite nod from Natasha.

“FRIDAY, where is Tony?” Natasha asked, half ready to bolt into the lab, grab all four scientists by their ears, and drag them out by force.

“They are on their way, Mrs. Stark,” FRIDAY assured the woman.

“They better hurry up,” she murmured under her breath as she walked back into the kitchen, just as three of the four men walked in. “What happened?” Natasha said as soon as Tony walked through the kitchen door.

Tony froze, gaping at the woman for a second. How the hell could she see there was something wrong? He had just walked in for crying out loud.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Tony answered after a few seconds, but that’s when T’Challa decided to walk in, which made Natasha narrow her eyes even more when he saw the sad look the man was sporting.

“What happened?” She asked again, putting her hands on her hips.

“Nothing happened,” Tony said as he came closer, wrapping one arm around her waist. “Is everyone ready for dinner?”

“You’re changing the subject,” Natasha said, her suspicions spiking up even further.

“Nat, you are being paranoid,” Tony said with a forced smile. “Now, you asked me to bring everyone at seven, so here we are.”

“Tony-” T’Challa began, but was cut off by the man.

“You should head inside, T’Challa - all of you should” Tony said, resorting back to his polite tone. “Otherwise there will be no food left by the time I finish convincing my wife that we’re all fine.”

T’Challa sighed but nodded, knowing that he couldn’t force Tony to hear him, nor could he blame the man for raising his defenses. But he’d have to corner Tony eventually and get him to listen.

It was just an exercise of patience now.

Tony waited for T’Challa to leave the room to bring Natasha closer, wrapping both arms around her waist.

“What’s wrong, Tony?” Natasha asked again, this time more softly.

Tony kissed the top of her head and muttered “Later.”

Natasha nodded, pulling away then to head back into the dining room.

“Are they here?” Tony asked quietly, allowing Natasha to pull him along by the hand.

“Yes,” the woman said just as they entered the dining room.

Natasha, bless her, had sat Steve and Barnes as far away from Tony as possible, which made it more bearable to walk to the head of the table. He moved Natasha’s chair back to let her seat, before taking a seat himself.

He sat back and watched his team chat amongst themselves, noticing how, while they were all sitting at the same table, the two teams were not speaking. The five were eating quietly, communicating mostly by giving one another small knowing looks while Tony’s own were being as boisterous as usual - with the exception of Hank, Bruce and T’Challa who were talking amongst themselves about the results of the first scans.

He wasn't sure for how long he sat there, watching them all chat, but he assumed it was long enough for Natasha to get annoyed, for the next thing he knew was that she was shoving a plate filled with food in front of him, giving him a warning glance.

Tony, not dumb enough to test the spy’s patience, immediately picked up his fork and began eating, though, after a few moments, he realized he didn't even know what he was putting in his mouth.

He glanced down and grimaced as he realized he had been eating pizza with a damn fork , which meant every single warning was going off in Rhodey’s and Nat’s heads. He looked up and yes, there it was, the keen concern clear in their eyes.

Tony rolled his eyes and pointedly ignored both of them, tuning back into the conversation just in time to hear Kamala say “Anyway, I was invited to a party tonight. Obviously I know it's not the best time, but we're almost at winter break, and I won't get to-”

“You're taking the tracker with you,” Tony interrupted, not feeling up to telling the girl no tonight, “and I want you back in the compound by one, or I’m sending Kate to get you.”

Kate gave the girl a mischievous smile. The last time Kamala had broken her curfew, Kate had managed to wear Tony down enough to let her go get Kamala. She had showed up at Kamala’s friend’s house, arrows in hand, and had threatened to shoot all of Kamala’s friends - rendering the host unconscious by pressing the right nerve point as a way of showing how serious she was about her threat.

Needless to say, Kamala had not been invited to a party again for almost six months, and Tony had had to pull a ridiculous amount of strings to keep a lawsuit from occurring, but it had done the trick for Kamala hadn’t come back late since then.

“I’ll be back early, I promise,” Kamala said, glaring daggers at Kate.

Kate shrugged. “Do whatever you want, just know that Tony recently updated my arrows and I’ve been dying to test them out.”

Kamala couldn't tell whether Kate was bluffing or not. “You’re a sadist,” she said with a huff.

Kate just took a bite from her pizza, winking at Kamala before turning to resume her conversation with Clint.

Tony cleared his throat and sat up straighter, making everyone turn to look. Everyone in his team stopped talking at once, sitting back to listen to what the man had to say. It wasn't often that Tony interrupted meal time to announce something, but when he did it was often something big enough to warrant it.

“It has come to my attention, Sergeant Barnes, that you still suffer from the... reconditioning Hydra inflicted upon you,” Tony said, choosing his words carefully.

Bucky froze, turning to look at Tony slowly. The man’s face was unreadable. “I… well… Yes, at times.”

Tony rubbed his thumbs against his respective index fingers, humming softly before saying “Then I am afraid I can't allow you to go back into the field.”

The room went dead silent at that.

Steve shuffled on his seat. “Tony-”

“No, I won't allow your friend to put my team in danger,” Tony said, leaving no room for argument. “I’m sorry but he is a volatile liability, and I have enough on my plate to have to worry about whether or not Jekyll over there will turn into Hyde in the middle of a battle.”

Tony forced himself to stop and take a deep breath. He needed to help this man. He knew he had to, no matter how badly he wanted to just never lay eyes on him again.

“T’Challa sent me the files of your treatments,” Tony said, turning to look directly at Barnes. “He believes I might be able to help, and he might be right. Your problem seems to be your memories,” Tony explained, keeping his tone as clinical as possible. “They are acting as triggers that activate the Winter program. What we need to do is make it so that the memories become just that: memories.”

Bucky swallowed hard, clenching his hands as he asked “and how do we do that?”

“You're going to have daily sessions with me, until I decide you are fit for field duty” Tony said after a few seconds, the words tasting bitter in his mouth. “I’ll explain more about what we are doing in the morning.”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “Since when are you an expert in psychology?”

“Since I got a masters degree in psychology and one in neurology to help Kamala with her own set of triggers,” Tony snapped, baring his teeth at the man.

He didn't need to explain that he had also gotten them in an attempt to help himself after Siberia, when the nightmares had become particularly hard to bear.

Steve seemed taken aback, but didn't say anything immediately, which Tony used as an opportunity to snap “look, Rogers, if I was still hellbent on killing your precious sergeant I would have done it a long time ago. I wouldn't have sent Clint: I would just have gone in and killed all of you, but I didn't do that. So stop acting like I have some nefarious plan to take your friend from you because all I’m trying to do is keep all of us alive so that we can keep the world from going to shit.”

Everyone seemed taken aback by Tony’s sudden outburst - including Tony himself. The man sighed and shook his head. He was too tense; he needed to let some of the his pent up emotions out or he’d burst.

And so Tony got up then, not looking at anyone when he stated “I have things to do. Enjoy your dinner.”

He walked out then, not caring that he was acting like a child. He couldn’t do this right now. Five years might have passed, but he just couldn’t do it, not yet.

Tony walked back to his room and sat down on the bed, tensing slightly when, after less than five minutes had passed, he heard the door open again.

Natasha walked into the room quietly, kneeling next to Tony. She sighed, and took his hands in her own, surging up to rest her forehead against his.

“You wanna talk about it?” She asked quietly.

“No,” Tony admitted, keeping his eyes tightly shut.

“Okay,” Natasha said quietly, making a mental check to press the man later. “Now c’mon, I called Fury. He’s coming over for drinks, so you and I are going to take a bath, and then we’re going to go down and unwind with Nick and Rhodey.”

“You should go eat,” Tony said, though there was no real fight in his voice.

“You should stop talking and start undressing,” Natasha said flippantly as she got up, walking haughtily to the bathroom.

Tony smirked then and shook his head, getting up slowly to follow the spy to the bathroom. He wasn’t about to argue twice.

Chapter Text

“Natasha tells me you went batshit today,” Fury said conversationally as he turned his chair on its axis before straddling it, resting his front and arms on the chair’s back.

Rhodes mirrored the old director’s position, rolling his neck as he said “to be honest, I was expecting you to lose it a lot sooner.”

Tony balked at the two of them. “Excuse me, I did not go batshit. I harmed no one, did I?” Tony pointed out, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“You just walked out of dinner, which you never do,” Fury agreed sarcastically.

Tony rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry are you offended because I didn’t follow etiquette? I wasn't aware everyone needed me to be in the room to eat.”

“See now you’re just being annoying,” Fury half growled, giving Tony a stern look. “You know exactly what I’m asking.”

“You haven't asked anything,” Tony said with a smirk.

Yeah, he knew he was being difficult but he felt frustrated, and he didn't know how else to take it out. This is what he did; he pushed those he assumed care for him in some small measure, assuming they’d give up on him and leave him alone to brood.

“I am too sober to deal with you,” Fury said, turning to look at the door that had just flung open. “Please tell me you brought the good stuff.”

“I figured we all needed a little treat to unwind,” Natasha said as she passed around shot glasses.

She poured a generous amount of the crystalline liquid in each glass, before batting Tony’s hands aways to perch herself on the man’s lap.

He slid a hand around her waist easily to help her keep her balance - little though she needed the help.

“Bottom’s up,” Rhodes said before he drank the vodka in one go, grimacing softly as the liquid burned its way down his throat. “Damn Nat, where the hell did you get this?”

“Russia,” she said as if it was obvious, before downing her own drink, her face remaining unchanged.

Rhodes was sure she could drink even Tony under the table if she put her mind to it, especially now that the man had basically stopped drinking except on special or extreme situations - such as tonight.

“So, what happened once I left?” Tony asked, because, while he refused to apologize for this, he still felt bad for leaving his team like that.

“Nat went after you and Kate won a bet she had going with Clint about how long it would take for you to snap,” Rhodes said with a small smile. “Oh, and you were right, when Dr. Pym finally stopped comparing degrees with your two snobby scientists in residence he asked Scott for the suit back.”

Tony choked on his vodka. “Oh my god, he what?”

“He threatened to sic you on them if he didn’t give it back,” Rhodes said with a small chuckle. “And then Kam, who got pissed off by Scott this morning, offered to get the suit herself if Scott didn’t cooperate. So of course, when Scott snarked at Kam, Peter got all defensive and stuck Scott to the floor.”

“Oh my god,” Tony said, not sure whether to laugh or to be concerned. The last thing they needed was to fight with Steve’s team right now.

“Don’t worry it didn’t escalate,” Rhodey said with a wink. “I grabbed Peter, Kate grabbed Kam, and Hope helped Scott out of the web, before getting the suit herself. They talked in his room for a bit - don’t ask me about what - but she promised he wouldn’t fight Pym on it.”

“So dinner was a success then,” Fury said with a dry smile. “No one died.”

“Did anyone get to finish eating at least?” Natasha asked with a sigh.

“I don’t think so, no,” Rhodes admitted with a grimace.

“The team took some of the boxes of Pizza back to Mr. Stark’s private study, Ma’am, and Ms. Van Dyne made sure Captain Rogers took food for his team as well,” FRIDAY informed Natasha. “The team - with the exception of Dr. Pym - is currently in Mr. Stark’s study playing a videogame.”

“Oh god, now I’m going to have to clean the study,” Tony whined against Natasha’s neck.

“No your cleaning team is going to have to clean the study,” Fury said as he downed his first shot.

“Fury, how long have have you known me now?” Tony said with a frown. “Do you really think I’m letting random people into that study?”

“Then have your team clean it,” Fury said with a shrug. “They dirtied it up, so then have them clean up.”

Tony hummed, not convinced. He wasn’t a particularly organized person, but there was a difference between organization and cleanliness. He didn’t care if the room was a bit messy. What he didn’t like was for it to be dirty. And what Kamala called clean was just not clean.

“Natasha mentioned something about you helping sergeant Barnes,” Fury said casually, topping everyone’s glasses off. “What did she mean by that?”

“Oh that reminds me, Fry, remind me to pull up his files, I need to give them a quick read,” Tony said as he grabbed his glass. 

“What are you planning to do?” Fury asked as he narrowed his eyes.

“I have no idea,” Tony said with a plastic smile. “I’ll figure it out on the go-”

Fury’s brows rose to his hairline. “Tony-”

“I honestly am not sure yet, Nick. I didn’t read all of the files T’Challa sent me,” Tony admitted. “I’ll read them in a bit, and then go from there.”

“And what are you planning to do with the rest of them while you wait for Thor?” Fury asked his eyes trained on Tony.

“We need to start acting as an unit, Tony,” Rhodes said as he scrubbed his face. “If they’re staying for the fight… We need to at least know how they fight. We need to know how to move around them.”

“We’ll have to start training together,” Natasha agreed, though she didn’t look particularly pleased. “We can use the simulator.”

Rhodes looked pensive for a second before saying “we can probably start tomorrow, then.”

Natasha nodded, before turning to look at Tony. “How does that sound?”

Tony hummed. “I probably won’t be able to join you, since I have to deal with Barnes and the stones, but I’ll try to free up T’Challa.” He looked between Rhodes and Natasha “You’ll have to lead the team.”

Natasha bit her lip but nodded. She didn’t like going into the field without Tony - even if it was just a simulator - but Rhodes and Natasha knew the man enough to know what he would want them to do if he was there with them. She knew Tony liked it even less than she did, but he couldn’t afford to ignore his other responsibilities at the moment.

He’d have to watch the tapes of the training. Hell, he was probably going to watch them repeatedly, to learn everyone’s tactics.

“I’ll watch them,” Fury assured Tony quietly, knowing the man would not be able to concentrate on anything else otherwise. “Don’t worry, no one will be getting hurt.”

“Thank you,” Tony murmured just as quietly, giving the man a grateful look before turning to look at his wife. “Okay, now as much as I enjoy your company, I do have to go read those medical reports, so you all need to scram,” Tony said with a wry smile.

Fury huffed out a laugh, but nodded. “Well, if you’re making me get up early to train these fuckers, then I’m crashing here, Stark.”

“You can do whatever you want. I really don’t care,” Tony said with an amicable smile. Fury already had a room in the compound. It wasn’t like he needed Tony’s permission to stay. If anything, it was Natasha that he needed to ask permission to.

Fury gave Tony a knowing smile and nodded, picking up the bottle without a trace of hesitation. The only one that liked to drink that was Tasha, and she was currently kissing her husband goodbye, so Fury took it as his free pass to take the bottle.

“You better not finish that,” Natasha called out before Fury reached the door, earning her a chuckle.

Rhodes ruffled Tony’s hair the way he knew the man both hated and loved before kissing Natasha on the cheek. “Make sure this asshole goes to bed at some point,” he told Natasha.

“I’ll do my best,” she assured, though they both knew she was probably not going to have much luck today.

“You all need to stop conspiring against me,” Tony said childishly as he buried his head in Natasha’s chest.

She placed her arms on his back, running her fingers up and down his back a few times as she chuckled. “Poor you. Whatever shall you do when your best friend makes evil plans to try to get you to sleep?”

“I’ll sic my super spy assassin wife on him,” Tony teased finally pushing himself up. He patted Nat’s hips to get her to get up, which she did effortlessly. “Alright, go to sleep Nat. I don’t know how long I’ll take, and you are the one training tomorrow, so you need to get some rest.”

Natasha sighed but nodded. “Try to at least take a nap at some point?”

“Of course,” Tony said easily as he moved back to his work bench.

Natasha shook her head but left the man to it, making a mental note to force Tony to go to bed if he wasn't in bed by the time she woke up.

Tony, once alone, immediately pulled up Barnes’ medical record and began reading. It took him a good three hours to get through all of the reports, but what he found only frustrated him.

The doctors seemed to be at a loss when it came to Barnes. Consciously, the man understood it was not him that had committed the countless murders listed on his file. He understood HYDRA had used him, and, while apparently he still had trouble at times accepting that he had been used, he was doing much better.

Which was exactly why the doctors were stumped: regular patients with PTSD and other forms of trauma would have killed to be in Bucky’s current mental headspace. He consciously had very little triggers left.

But the soldier was still being activated. There was something inside HYDRA’s coding that was keeping the conscious mind from fully taking control, and, more importantly, from staying in control.

“Fry, are there any other tests they have performed?” Tony asked as he rubbed his eyes, pointedly avoiding the clock.

“There are blood tests and CAT scans, Sir,” Friday informed him as she pulled them up.

Tony looked at them for a second before frowning. “There’s an irregularity in two different blood tests,” Tony muttered, noting that the test had been performed about two years ago.

“After both inconsistencies, they performed consequent tests, Sir, but all further tests show nothing, Sir,” FRIDAY explained.

“Yeah, I’m calling bullshit,” Tony said as he leaned back, feeling a sliver of hope. “Fry, get these to Bruce and tell him to come down to his lab. We need to get blood samples today, so that we can start isolating whatever this is.”

“Of course, Sir, would you like me to call Sergeant Barnes as well?”

“Yes, guide him to Bruce’s lab,” Tony said as he got up, undoing his cuffs and folding his sleeves as he went.

Bruce was already in the lab by the time Tony got there, having made a detour to the kitchen to bring in two cups of coffee. He passed one to Bruce and sat near to the man as Bruce kept checking and rechecking the blood tests.

“We need newer samples,” Bruce said finally turning to look at his friend.

“Working on it,” Tony said in a singsongy voice just as Barnes walked in, looking like he had just been woken up which had probably been the case. “Morning, Jekyll,” Tony said in a falsely cheery note.

“Dawn isn’t morning, Tony,” Bruce said with a sigh.

“It’s… 4 am Bruce, sure it is,” Tony said as he looked at his watch. “Early morning, if you will.”

Bruce gave him an unimpressed look, not ready to deal with Tony yet. The man had woken him up half an hour ago, but Bruce had only actually fallen asleep at two, so he was running on very little sleep and far too little coffee.

“You called me?” Bucky asked finally, not necessarily wanting to interrupt the two, but also not sure whether they knew how to stop bickering on their own.

“We need to take some blood so that we can run some tests,” Bruce explained before Tony could say something that was bound to be insensitive, what with the sleep depravation and his inherent dislike of Barnes. “There are two tests on your record that show irregularities. We believe it might be something HYDRA did to you, but we won’t know for sure until we get some blood.”

Bucky nodded and said “are you going to take it now?”

“Yes, the sooner we get it the faster we’ll know what it is,” Bruce explained as he pointed towards the stool nearest to him. “If you wouldn’t mind sitting there for me and rolling up your sleeves.”

Bucky nodded and did as told, keeping his best blank face on as Bruce move around him, picking up a few different tubes and what felt to Bucky as a thicker than necessary needle. The man rubbed his arm with rubbing alcohol and felt for his vein, ignoring the man standing behind him that was watching them like a hawk.

Bucky closed his eyes and thought of the olden days, when seeing a needle was actually scary, and not just another regular day for him.

“We’re all done,” Bruce said, pocketing five medium tubes filled generously with blood. Bucky’s brows rose at that as he realized he hadn’t felt a thing. Either the man was brilliant with his hands, or he was more tired than he thought.

“You should go rest. We’ll call you when we get a concrete result,” Bruce said with a faint smile that didn’t reach his eyes, but that Bucky appreciated nonetheless.

Tony stepped closer then, taking two of the vials out of Bruce’s hands and walking back to a long table holding a number of apparatuses that Bucky had never seen, nor did he care to understand. He stepped back and turned around to head to the door then, smiling faintly when he heard the doctor say “Tony, if you start playing with that sample, I will strangle you”

He still didn’t know much about the two men, but it was quite funny to watch them all interact. It was… refreshing.


Natasha walked into Bruce’s lab without bothering to knock, her frown deepening when she saw Bruce and Tony down yet another cup of coffee - probably their fifth one, considering the time. Tony hadn’t been there when she had woken up, nor had he been in his workshop.

She had given the man a free pass as she had been intercepted by an UN representative that had been wanting to talk with Tony. They had sent the young woman to get a quick update on how things were going, which was fine, but one thing had led to another, which meant that Natasha’s entire morning had ended up being consumed by the meeting.

Which in turn also meant it was now almost two pm, and they still hadn’t started training, though, in all honesty, it made her partly glad. She wanted a few more days to feel out the two teams before joining them.

That, however, didn’t change the fact that Tony had not slept for over twenty four hours now, and didn’t seem like he was about to stop anytime soon.

“I thought I told you to try to at least get a nap,” Natasha drew out as she closed the door of the lab behind her.

Both men, that were sitting by a set of holograms turned to look back, both jumping slightly in their seats at Natasha’s voice, too engrossed in their work to notice her coming in.

“HYDRA put something in Barnes’ blood,” Tony said as a way of greeting.

Natasha frowned. “What?”

“Some form of toxin, or drug,” Tony said as he pointed at the holographic graph in front of him. “This thing has become a part of him. It replicates with his blood cells.”

Natasha came closer to examine the graph. “What does it do?”

“We’re not sure,” Bruce admitted as he scrubbed his tired face. “But it seems to have some form of coding inside it meant to rewrite something in his cells. I don’t know how, or why, but this might be what made it so easy for them to brainwash him.”

“It probably makes the rewiring last longer. If this is anything like a computer program, then this is meant to lock the coding in place,” Tony said as he inched closer to the graph, making small annotations next to it. “We need to get this shit out of his system. Nothing we do to help him will stick otherwise.”

“You’re going to have to make him bleed,” Natasha said as she grabbed a stool and came to sit near the two men.

“Probably,” Bruce agreed with a sigh.

“Wait, what?” Tony said as he turned around to face the two of them.

“Well if it’s in his blood, how else are you going to extract it?” Natasha said, as practical as ever.

“But… It reproduces,” Tony said with a frown. “It doesn’t matter how much blood we draw out, his blood will replenish with time, and this thing will still be there.”

‘Well, not if it’s someone else’s blood,” Natasha argued.

It was Bruce’s turn to look pensive. “You mean transfusions?”

“It won’t work,” Tony said with a dismissive hand. “This thing reproduces as fast as his blood does. It takes the average person about 24 hours to reproduce a bit over a pint of blood. It probably takes him about four hours with the serum. We’d have to drain him faster than the reproduction period. But the body isn’t meant to lose that much blood so fast; If there’s too little blood in his system, he might lack oxygen in the brain and then we’d cause brain damage.” Tony said, turning back to face the graphs.

“If we drain him fast enough, while still pumping blood into him we might be able to prevent the toxin from regenerating,” Bruce said, actually considering the option.

“His body will go into shock,” Tony said, feeling it a surreal experience that he was the one protecting Barnes here.

“He has the serum in him, won’t he recover?” Natasha reasoned, looking more than a bit uneasy.

“Well if we’re pumping his blood out, won’t the serum be out of his system as well?” Tony asked Bruce.

“Maybe?” The man asked, rubbing his chin. “I… to be honest, I am not sure, Tony. Of what I’ve seen in Steve, he was changed at a molecular level, but that’s because his blood absorbed the serum.”

“So without his blood there is a high chance he might lose his abilities,” Tony retorted, sitting back.

“Perhaps not all of them, but it might certainly prove as a shock to his body,” Bruce conceded.

“Shit,” Natasha murmured quietly. “But if the toxin has to go…”

“We don’t have any more serum to inject him with,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “And even if we did, he wouldn't be in a condition to accept-”

Natasha froze. “Wait, yes, we do.” Both men turned to look at her like she had grown another head. She rolled her eyes and said “Steve has the serum in his blood. The serum reproduces just like toxin, right? So if you take Steve’s blood over a period of time, then Bucky will still have the serum inside of him.”

“Are they even compatible?” Tony asked, feeling more and more worried about their plan. “I don’t think-”

“Captain Rogers’ records show him as a compatible donor, Sir, although it is impossible to estimate whether the changes produced by the Serum will affect a blood transfusion,” FRIDAY informed him.

Tony gaped at no one in particular, shaking his head as he said “well fuck me, is there anything those two don’t share?” Bruce chuckled tiredly and patted Tony’s hand. “What if it doesn’t work? The serum might be non transferable.”

Bruce leaned back then, and looked away. “I don’t know how else to get the Toxin out, Tony. It’s too entrenched in his blood cells. Unless we find a way to clean his blood… but that might take too long. We don’t know how long we have until Thor comes back and, ideally, we want him to be battle ready. He’ll probably need an upgraded arm to fight, and, right now, I don’t even trust him with the one he has, and I know you don’t either. If he is going to stay, then we need to know we can trust he won’t attack us in our sleep.”

And wasn’t that a terrifying thought.

“Why don't you let him decide?” Asked Natasha, turning to look at Tony. “Let him decide whether he’s okay with the risk or not.”

“Fry, tell sergeant Barnes to come see us, and tell him to bring Steven with him,” Tony said with a sigh, already feeling like this was going to explode in their faces.

There were too many variables. What if the shock triggered something inside Bucky and the soldier came out? The last thing they needed was that thing activating itself.

The two men appeared at the door, Steve looking more wary than Bucky.

“There's some form of toxin in your blood,” Bruce said without preambles, not bothering with the niceties.

“What?” The man asked with a hint of surprise.

“Hydra injected you with something that seems to be keeping the coding in place,” Tony explained, not looking at Bucky in the eye. “There's obviously other factors we have to deal with, but there's no point in finding other ways to help you until we get rid of the basis of the coding.”

Both men gaped at Tony, Steve looking sick, which made Tony feel a twinge of sympathy. He could understand being so worried about your best friend you literally could not stomach anything the doctors would tell you, particularly if it wasn't a simple “he’ll be fine.”

“How do we get it out?” Bucky asked after a few seconds.

“The only solution we can think of is blood transfusions,” Bruce said with a sigh.

Bucky raised a brow, confused as to why the doctor looked uneasy. “Ok, let's do it.”

“It’s not that easy,” Bruce said rubbing his eyes. “The toxin reproduces with your blood, so we would have to slowly transfuse all of your blood. We would have to transfuse faster than the toxin can replicate and spread, but that can lead to you losing significant amounts of blood. The other problem is the Serum. It’s part of your blood, so ideally we would inject into you blood that contains the same Serum, which is why Steve is here, but we don't know how your body will react.”

“In other words,” began Tony, crossing his arms in front of his chest, “there’s a high chance you’ll either go into shock, react badly to the serum, or just straight up die.”  

Bucky's eyes widened at that, but he forced himself to nod. It sounded bad, yes, but what choice did he really have? He wanted that thing inside him out of him, and he wasn't going to get it out unless these people helped him.

“Right, well, um, when are you going to do it?” Bucky asked, widening his stance slightly.

If they were shocked by his quick agreement, they didn't show it.

“We’ll need Steve to donate blood first,” Bruce said as he turned to face Steve. “You’re the only other human being alive with the Serum, so we’ll need to use your blood,” Bruce explained. “We’ll set up daily appointments so that we can extract the blood we need by the end of the week.”

“You’re going to feel weaker,” Natasha warned. “Bruce will be taking out a lot of blood.”

“That's fine,” Steve said with a shrug. “But is there any way to minimize the chances of Bucky dying?”

“We are going to do our best to keep him alive, Steve,” Bruce assured him, the man as compassionate as ever. “I don't think he’ll die, but it’s important that Sergeant Barnes knows the risks,” Bruce explained as he turned to face Tony. “Do you want to get the first few pints today?”

“Yeah, the sooner we get started, the sooner we can proceed with the transfusion,” Tony said, rubbing his eyes as the weariness finally settled in his bones.

A few years ago, he could have worked for over 72 hours without the need to stop. Now, however, he didn't have nearly as good a resistance. Now, he probably couldn’t pull off more than 48 hours without needing a break.

Damn, he was getting old.

Tony froze. “Damnit, I had a meeting with a UN representative,” he breathed out.

“I took care of it,” Natasha assured him, getting up from her stool. “Alright, while you two get blood, I’m going to make you some food, and if you pass out before you can eat it I will kill both of you,” Natasha warned, dead serious.

Bruce chuckled. “You know, I don’t need Tony here to draw blood. I’m the doctor, after all.”

“Good, then he can go get a shower,” Natasha said, disapproval thick in her voice.

“Yes mom,” Tony said with a sigh as he stood up, cracking his back to relieve some of the tension there. “God, I need to stretch.”

“You need to sleep ,” Bruce countered, hitting the back of Tony’s head. “Go shower, eat, and sleep.”

“You know you have been awake for almost as long as I have,” Tony bitched. “So really you ganging up against me with the missus is just wrong , Brucie bear. You aren’t following the bro code, honey.”

“That’s because I value my life,” Bruce teased. “You’re the one that married an assassin.”

“The Hulk would follow the bro code,” Tony pointed out as he stood up, kissing the frown on Natasha’s forehead. “Alright, alright, I’m going.”

Natasha watched him leave with a small smile on her lips, and gave Bruce a small nod before heading out. She was stopped, however, by Bucky as he called after her.

She turned to face the man, who had stopped by the door of Bruce’s lab, and raised a brow. “Yes?”

“Uh, I don’t know if - I remember you,” he blurted out, holding back a wince because wow that was not how he had planned to ask her if he was going insane. “I… Did I know you before?”

Natasha seemed to he surprised by the question. “You did,” she said after a few seconds, tilting her head to the side. “So you got your memories back?”

He nodded. “I… remember training you,” he said softly.

She gave him a sad smile and a nod. “You were one of the soldiers that trained us, yes. You were the nicest one,” she admitted. “You taught me to be efficient, but you didn’t let them… yeah you were the nicest one by far, which is why we were friends - well, or as friendly as you can get in a place like that.”

Bucky swallowed hard and nodded. “I… it’s strange I remember it like it was me, but that wasn’t me, not really.”

“I know,” Natasha said, a hint of pity in her eyes. “It was the soldier, but there must have been some of you in him, because he wasn’t as cruel as he could have been.” She shrugged. “Anyway, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s all in the past.”

“Right,” Bucky said, as he took a step back.

Natasha sighed and did the same. “We’re different people now,” she explained. “You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.”

Bucky nodded. “Maybe one day I can get to know you.”

Natasha smiled and nodded. “You’ll have to, especially if you’re staying.”

The man chuckled. “I guess I’ll see you around then, Mrs. Stark.”

She hummed in agreement before turning around to head back to the kitchen, a warm glimmer of hope beating in her heart. Maybe Bucky would truly get better, and maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to get her friend back.

Now the problem would be convincing Tony that Bucky wasn’t about to kill Natasha, or worse take her away like when she had betrayed him to help Steve.  


They strapped the man to the table to keep him from moving, in case he did end up going into shock.

“You ready?” Bruce asked the man.

“No,” Bucky said easily.

Bruce smiled faintly at the man and murmured “don’t worry, the worst that can happen is that you die.”

Bucky chuckled, appreciative of the man’s dry humor and nodded.

“Alright, Tony, turn on the machine,” Bruce said as he looked back to where the man was standing.

Tony did as told, kneading his ring slowly as he watched the blood begin to come out of the man and into the small tube that led it to a sealed container. After a while, when Tony was sure they had taken more blood out than was wise, he said “start pumping blood into him, Bruce.”

The man did as he was told, patting Bucky’s hand as he noticed that the man looked nauseous.

“Vitals are dropping,” Tony warned, as he stepped closer. “Blood needs to pump faster into him.”

“Not yet,” Bruce said as he held his breath, watching the monitor through the upper rim of his glasses. “Not yet,” he repeated, biting his lip for a few more seconds before finally allowing the second wave of Steve’s blood to hit Bucky’s body.

“Let’s give it a few minutes,” Bruce said once the bag was completely dry. “To see whether his system will work with Steve’s blood.”

Tony nodded, switching the first container for a new one. They waited quietly for over ten minutes, checking Bucky’s weakened vitals every so often.

“There’s no immediate change,” Bruce said, “so the initial tests are probably right. He shouldn’t react negatively.”

“Ok, then let’s finish this,” Tony said, turning the machine on again.

This time, Bruce waited a bit longer to allow Steve’s blood to enter Bucky’s system. The rest of the rather long process followed somewhat smoothly, if you discounted the fact that Bucky’s vitals had dropped dramatically at one point, which had prompted the man to faint and was still unconscious on the table.

“Well he’s still alive,” Bruce said, a hint of relief in his voice as he stepped away from the table. He looked up at Tony and said “We need to keep him here to monitor him for the next 24 to 48 hours.”

“Don’t tell me, tell his worried boyfriend over there,” Tony snarked as he pointed with his head towards where Steve stood outside the room, looking pale.

Bruce chuckled and rolled his eyes. He couldn’t understand why it was that Tony couldn’t stand the unconscious man, or his friendship with Steve. There was probably something he didn’t know; after all, so many years of living with Tony had taught him the man always had a reason to feel a certain way, it was just that oftentimes he didn’t deign to share with the rest of the world why it was he did or feel a particular way.

“I’ll go talk to him. You go check the results Hank got,” Bruce offered.

“Yeah, okay,” Tony obliged, walking out of the lab through the opposite door, just to avoid Steve.

Natasha intercepted him, however, clearly anticipating the man’s moves. She matched his pace and intertwined their fingers, giving him an expectant look. “How’d it go?”

“He’s alive,” Tony said with a shrug. “We won’t know much else until we do another scan.”

Natasha nodded. “What now?”

“He still needs to dissociate the memories from the words,” Tony said as they turned to walk in the direction of Tony’s study.

They hadn’t had some alone time in days now.

“And how are you planning to help him do that?” Natasha asked as she watched Tony open the door of the front office for them before pressing his palm against the back wall, revealing a door.

They walked through the door, not bothering to close it behind them. Tony walked to his chair, humming pleasantly as the leather molded to his body. Natasha smiled then and came to straddle the man, leaning down to rest her head on the man’s shoulder.

Tony ran a hand down her back. “I’ll have to help him use the BARF.”

“I think you need to let him do it on his own, Tony,” she said gently, keeping still as Tony kneaded her back softly, carefully.

“It’s too dangerous. What if he snaps?” Tony asked, resting his head on top of Natasha’s, the movement of his hand never stopping.

“Put him in the Hulk’s room,” Natasha said with a shrug. “Look, If he has to deal with his past… You wouldn’t like sharing that with a stranger.”

Tony swallowed hard, feeling like he had been punched in the gut. “I’ll… yeah, okay.”

Natasha pushed away then, to be able to look at Tony in the eye. She smiled at him, leaning forward to nibble at his lip to distract him. “We really do need to start training the teams together,” Natasha noted.

“You can start tomorrow, if they are up to it, ” Tony said before capturing Natasha’s lips more fully.

“Are you not training with us?” She asked in between kisses.

“Stones,” Tony said as as he lowered his head to kiss the woman’s neck before returning to lick his way into her mouth.

Natasha closed her eyes as a pleased hum escaped her. She pressed herself closer to her husband running a hand down his covered chest.

She suddenly froze when she heard someone move by the door. The sound wasn’t one she recognized. She picked up one of the knives she kept on top of Tony’s desk and threw it without thinking, twisting in the man’s arm with an easy grace that was just unfair.

Sam moved out of the way just in time to avoid being hit in the eye. “I, uh-”

“Sam?” Natasha asked incredulously. “What the hell are you doing here? How long have you been standing there?”

“Uh,” the man murmured, not able to remember how to use his words.

This was just… awkward. He hadn’t meant to catch them doing… Well whatever it was that they were doing. He had heard them talking about Bucky, so he had thought they’d be in two different chairs, not all over each other.

Natasha sent him a cold glare, which snapped him out of his disturbed thoughts to concentrate on the moment.

“Sorry, I didn’t think - sorry,” he repeated, taking a step back.

Tony sighed. “It’s fine. What do you need, Wilson?”

“Nothing, I was just going,” the man said and walked out before either of the two could stop him or worse, kill him.

Natasha rolled her eyes and got up. “Why are they so weird?”

“He probably thinks we were about to have sex,” Tony said with a wry smile.

Natasha laughed then and shook her head. “Please, they wish they’d get to see a show like that.”

Tony’s eyes sparkled. “Mrs. Stark, are you flirting with me?”

“Me? please,” she huffed. “I would never. You have a big enough ego as it is.”

“You say the nicest things, dear,” Tony said sweetly.

“I’m going to go check what the hell Sam wanted,” she said as she waved goodbye, heading to the door to chew Sam out for having interrupted her time with Tony.

Only the UN, Peter, and Kamala were allowed to do something like that, and even they needed a damn good reason.


“You called me?” Bucky asked as he peeked his head into Tony’s business study.

“I did,” Tony said, gripping his chair as he said “come in and close the door.”

Bucky did as told, feeling more awkward than he had since he had arrived. “Uh, so…”

“The new test results came out negative,” Tony explained. “So it seems draining you was successful.”

“That’s… Thank you,” Bucky said, clearing his throat to swallow back the knot that had formed there.

“I’m afraid we’re not done yet,” Tony admitted, feeling perhaps the first pang of true sympathy he had felt for the man in a very long time. “The basis of the coding is gone, but, of what I saw, they haven’t dealt with your subconscious triggers.”

Bucky frowned. “My what?”

Tony pulled out a pair of slick glasses, placing them in the middle of his desk. “I know you consciously know it wasn’t you, but your subconscious doesn’t. That’s why you keep getting triggered. So, you need to disassociate the memories, once and for all.” Tony cleared his throat and picked up the glasses again, offering them to Bucky.

The man came closer and took them, making sure not to accidentally touch Tony. He didn't want to see the man recoil. While he knew Tony and him could not be considered friends by any stretch of the imagination, he couldn't deny he owed Tony Stark a lot, especially after what he had put the man through.

Bucky wasn't going to pretend he didn't feel a healthy level of surprise that the man was even willing to address him. Obviously five years had passed, which had definitely helped Tony cool down, but Bucky could see the anger and anguish right there , ready to snap.

He knew Tony saw it - felt it - too. Yet he was willing to bite down on his discomfort and let them all stay in his home. He was willing to help Bucky even though he probably hated Bucky more than he let on.

So yes, they weren't friends, but Bucky had learned to respect the man’s mind, and his heart. And so he didn't want to cause him more discomfort than necessary.

“FRIDAY will tell you where to go and how to use these,” Tomy explained, taking his hand back as soon as possible. “I realize that what you’ll be seeing is personal, so I will try to monitor you as little as possible, unless FRIDAY tells me there’s something wrong.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said fervently.

“Don’t thank me, Sergeant,” Tony said as something thick and dark unfurled within him, the same thing that had been screaming at him to get away from Barnes since he had called him into his study almost a week and a half ago. “I am not doing this for you. I am doing this to keep people safe.”

“You’re still doing it,” Bucky said with a shrug.

Tony clenched his hands, and turned to glare at Bucky. There was something he couldn't stand about the man being grateful. It made it harder to hate him.

And Tony knew he had no right to hate him; logically , he knew the man was a victim. But it had still been him and he couldn’t -

Bucky being nice to him made him feel like even more of an asshole, and he couldn't handle it. He couldn't handle feeling like more of an asshole than the man that had murdered his parents.

“See that thing you’re doing,” Tony said as he pointed at Bucky. “You need to stop that.”

Bucky frowned. “What thing?”

“That gratefulness thing,” Tony said, his eloquence all but gone. “You shouldn't be grateful, because I am still the asshole that tried to kill you five years ago in Siberia, and I am still the asshole that is willing to oppose you and your friends if it means keeping people safe. And you are still the asshole that agreed with Rogers when he decided to say fuck you to every sovereign nation that was asking for accountability. And more importantly, you are still the asshole who got screwed over and ended up killing my parents. And your best friend is still the asshole that betrayed me, so don't do that whole grateful thing because this thing between us,” he said as he pointed between himself and Bucky , “will never change.”

Bucky assessed the man for a second, and couldn't help but feel pity for him. It was sad to see how many walls he had, how hard he tried to protect what was left of his heart, of his very soul.

And what made Bucky even sadder is that he had helped make the man that way.

“If it’s all the same to you I’d rather be the currently grateful asshole that killed your parents,” Bucky said without flinching.

Tony’s eyes widened before he let out a bitter laugh in surprise and said “Fuck you, Sergeant.”

Bucky smirked and saluted the man. “Have a good day, General.”

Tony watched him leave as a pang of guilt hit him. “Yeah, I am the asshole,” he said to himself as he walked towards the window, wanting nothing more than to just… disappear.

Chapter Text

Bucky growled in frustration as he fell to the ground, drenched in cold sweat. He kept his eyes closed as his migraine hit him harder than before and the nausea started up again.

Tony’s invisible butler had warned him that the headaches would come. She had explained that, while Stark had improved the glasses to do a myriad of things, he still hadn't figured out a way to take away the headaches, mostly because he couldn't exactly change a normal, human reaction to having your head be scrambled with repeatedly.

Still, Bucky couldn't exactly complain. The headaches were preferable to what HYDRA had done to him. And now that their drug was out of Bucky’s system, it was much easier to work on himself.

It had been strange using the glasses for the first time. The first memory that had popped into his head when thinking about the Russian set of words they used on him had been of the first time he had been reconditioned.

Needless to say, he had snapped less than two minutes into the memory. The soldier had come out with a vengeance that had pushed Bucky deep back into his mind. FRIDAY, bless her, had sent Steve to literally knock some sense into Bucky as opposed to someone on Tony’s team, or worse, Tony himself.

It had taken him an entire day to finally be able to work his way through the entire memory, but, after watching it as an outsider and repeating quietly to himself that it wasn't him that it was Hydra, that it wasn't real, he had finally been able to let that one go.

It was strange: he still remembered it, but it didn't… there was no sting. It was fuzzy, and easier to watch. It was just a memory, just part of his past.

After he had realized the power of the glasses, it had been hard getting him to come out of the “Hulk playroom” as they called it.

Tony had been the one to force him to take a break after he had gone for over fifty hours straight.

“I didn't give you those glasses to kill yourself, but to help you get better, you idiot,” the man had said, looking genuinely concerned - even though he had tried to pass it off as anger.

Bucky wasn't sure whether Tony had been concerned about him personally, about losing yet another life, or about breaking something inside Bucky thus creating yet another weapon capable of threatening the world.

In any case, Bucky had listened, if only for fear of having the glasses be taken away from him.

It had been a week since that warning, and, while he had slowed down, he was still pushing himself to the limit, working through anywhere from one to three memories a day.

Hence the chronic migraines.

He felt pretty good - proud even - about his progress, but the problem was that now he was hitting memories he couldn't seem to let go of. They were still as sharp and as ready to trigger him.

And fuck if it wasn't frustrating.

“Your vitals are dangerously high, sergeant Barnes,” FRIDAY warned.

“I know, I know,” Bucky said as he struggled to get himself to his feet, walking to get his water bottle once he did so.

“If I may, Sergeant Barnes, I would suggest you talk about your block to Mr. Stark. He will be able to properly assist you,” the AI said, sounding gentler than usual.

Bucky flipped his hair back and hummed, keeping his eyes on the bottle of water.

His head was killing him.

“How can he help?” Bucky asked allowed, not expecting an answer.

“Mr. Stark will add another layer of dissociation by being physically present with you while watching and add a layer of pressure as he has had years to practice with the retro framing project,” FRIDAY answered matter-of-factly.

Bucky sighed but nodded, feeling desperate enough to ask the man to come in with him. But what if… What if the memory of Tony’s parents popped up?

That was one of the memories that just wouldn't leave Bucky no matter what he did. And, obviously, he wasn't going to purposefully ask Tony to help with that, but there were other memories he needed help with.

What option then was worse? Possibly reliving the death of Howard and Maria Stark with their son present in their room, or never overcome some of his memories?

Bucky buried his head in his hands for a few seconds, forcing himself to get up and walk all the way from the playroom to Dr. Banner’s lab, where three of the four scientists - T’Challa had been sent by Tony to train with the team - seemed to be all talking at the same time as they moved around one another.

None of them looked particularly happy today.

Bucky stayed outside the lab for a few minutes, until Hank finally saw him and ushered him in with a frown before poking Tony on the ribs with a pencil.

Tony frowned. “What… FRIDAY didn’t say-”

“I need your help,” Bucky blurted out, not bothering to beat the issue around the bush.

All three men froze then. “What happened?” Tony asked immediately, crossing his arms in front of his chest as he stepped slightly closer.

“I… There's just certain memories I can't… it’s like there’s a wall,” Bucky explained. “It doesn't matter what I say or how many times I see the same memory; it won't budge.”

Tony frowned. “You want me to go in with you,” Tony asked, though it didn't necessarily sound like a question.

Bucky clenched his hands and nodded, leaving the ball in Tony's court.

Tony cleared his throat and scratched the back of his head, turning to look around the lab. “I… I need to talk to Natasha first,” Tony said after a few seconds. “I also have a few things to finish. We can do it later today,” Tony said, not looking at Bucky in the eye.

Bucky nodded and left the lab then, hoping that something good would come out of this.


“Pause the simulation, Fry,” Tony said as he fixed his tie, waiting right outside the steel door. He had stayed outside to watch them for the past ten minutes, and he had had enough.

He had never seen his team do so badly on a simulation.

After a minute, FRIDAY said “simulation has been stopped, Sir. You can go inside.”

“Thank you, Fry,” Tony said as he pushed the door open to find thirteen people all breathing heavily.

“What happened?” Clint asked as he jumped from one of the top ramps they had set up in the simulator for his specific use.

“Why the hell were you up there, Clint?” Tony asked, pushing his real reason for being there momentarily away to concentrate on the problem at hand. “The building you were on was set up as an unstable structure, and I wasn't here to catch you. Not only that, but enemy lines were originating there,” Tony said pointing at the opposite wall. “You wouldn’t have had full visibility, and Kate’s job is to assist and protect, not to directly attack,” Tony said as his frown deepened. “Vision, you were too far away. The room for mistake was too high, particularly since Rhodey was serving as front line.” He turned to look at Peter. “In the ten minutes I watched, you took five different careless risks that in a normal fight would have either injured you or gotten you killed,” he bit out angrily, before zeroing down on Kamala. “And why the hell were you alone? If Kate isn’t covering your flank, then you retreat to Natasha’s side.”

“I assumed falcon would catch me,” Clint was the first to say though he realized immediately that that was the wrong thing to use as an excuse.

“His wings haven't been updated in five years. The speed they are currently set at wouldn't have been fast enough to get to you and Rhodes was in the frontline,” tony said before turning to Rhodes. “Why were you there, by the way? If I’m not there you’re on aerial support duty,” Tony said, sounding annoyed.

“I was but then Peter jumped in alone-”

“I was trying to create a diversion like Scott asked!” Peter cut in, insulted. “I thought Vision was right behind me.”

“I saw General Rhodes go after you, and Wanda needed support,” Vision said with a grimace, knowing that Tony would not be pleased.

Tony took a deep breath then and turned to Natasha. “Wanna tell me why you didn't stop them?”

“Steve and I have a few differences when leading,” Natasha said tensely. “So today we decided to go on a free for all so that they could see how we fight.”

“There is too much rigidity in your positions,” Steve observed. “I need to know that I’m able to move you around, and where you excel,” Steve explained, his voice as patient as ever which only made Natasha look even more annoyed.

“I already told you that it’s not your job to lead us. There’s more of us than there is of you. It’s easier to integrate you-”

“I realize that,” Steve said, a frown beginning to form. “But-”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Tony said suddenly looking annoyed. “You know what?Nevermind. I don’t have time to worry about this right now,” he said, realizing he had either the choice to spend the entire day training with them, or spend the entire day trying to get Barnes under control. “Nat, I need to talk to you,” Tony said as he turned around to exit the room.

The woman was quick to follow, her body a mass of rigid lines. “What’s the matter?”

Tony sighed, grabbing her hand to bring her closer. He rubbed the pulse point on her hand and turned her around to massage her shoulders. “You alright?” He asked quietly.

That seemed to help for she loosened up slightly. “I’ll be fine,” she murmured, though her tone didn’t convince Tony at all.

“Want to talk about it?” He asked, still making his way down her back.

She shook her head. “Why did you come here? What did you need?”

Tony sighed, making a mental note to press Natasha to talk later. “Barnes asked me to go in with him.”

Natasha immediately whirled around. “What?”

“He’s having trouble with some memories, and I might be able to help,” Tony explained, folding his arms across his chest. “I just wanted to talk to you about it first.”

“You’re not doing it unless I’m there to watch,” she said, her voice holding no room for argument.

Tony shook his head. “If you come, the entire team will want to come.”

“I don’t care if they come Tony, I am standing outside whether you like it or not ,” she warned, her bad humour making her even more snappy than usual.

Tony sighed but nodded. “We’ll be starting in an hour.”

“I’ll… Well, we’ll be there,” Natasha said with a nod, before heading back inside.

Tony groaned softly as he headed back to the lab, feeling slightly distressed. He had not meant to make of this a show, but there really was no way around it. Natasha would not be okay with Tony going in alone. She didn’t trust Barnes yet, and if she went then he couldn’t exactly say no to the rest of them.

Fucking hell.


Tony frowned as he watched everyone - quite literally everyone - come to stand outside the room, all looking somber.

Even Pym was there.

Yeah, this was not how he had picture this to go. Fuck.

He stepped into the Hulk’s playroom as before, rolling up his sleeves and taking off his vest to come to stand near Barnes.

“Alright, Sergeant,” Tony said, keeping an eye on the people outside. “This is your show. So when you’re ready-”

“Are they staying?” He asked quietly so that only Tony could hear.

“Afraid so,” Tony replied with a grimace. He really hadn’t intended this to happen. “If you’d like, I can-”

Bucky shook his head before Tony could continue. “No, it’s fine, I understand why they’re here.”

“If it makes you feel any better your boyfriend looks like he’s ready to tear my head off,” Tony said dryly as he looked at Steve’s rigid posture from the corner of his eye. “And I’m pretty sure all the rest of your team is also very concerned about you, so you know at least you have them to defend you if you snap,” Tony said with a false cheeriness to try and lighten up the mood.

Bucky huffed good naturedly and nodded, putting on the glasses as he remembered the words that they had used to recondition him.

The images immediately began to project outward, shaping the room. He opened his eyes and found himself staring at a young woman laying on the ground, her face bloodied and bruised. Her right leg seemed to be broken.

He remembered breaking it .

He remembered breaking her.

God, did he remember her. They had sent him to kill this woman, this young, kind woman, just because she was stirring up “political trouble”. Most of his victims had been innocent, yes, but this girl had been barely in her twenties. She had had so much yet to experience, and Bucky… Bucky had crushed her like an ant.

Tony took a second to observe Barnes as he paled, clearly still uncomfortable by the memory. He couldn’t blame him. The memory was… colorful to say the least. He hated having to watch this, hated having to remind himself that the man standing next to him and the man beating the shit out of that young woman were not exactly the same person.

It was so hard to disassociate the two. Hell, it was hard to think with the sounds and the sight of blood gushing out everywhere. Tony took a step back as he tried his hardest to fight the bile rising inside him. Everything looked… So fucking real. He had forgotten how his own system worked, how… Vibrant it was.

He could see why Bucky was struggling to project himself as a third party into the memory. The man seemed to be too caught up on watching the woman die.

“Sergeant,” Tony began softly, taking a step closer.

Bucky turned to look at him with surprise, as if he had momentarily forgotten that Tony was in the room with him.

Immediately, without Bucky’s permission, the memory began to change, and he watched in horror as the image of him, Steve, and Tony all standing around a monitor in a cold Siberian base came to life.

He froze, having an almost out of body experience where he couldn’t move a single muscle in his body due to fear.

Tony froze then too, watching as the memory played out, watching as his face contorted with pain while he was forced to watch his parents die. He watched as the mask broke and the memory of him turned to look at Steve, whispering those damning words:

“Did you know?”

Tony gaped and took a small step back, feeling his heart drop to his stomach when he saw the sheer hurt in his eyes - well in the memory’s eyes.

He hadn’t realized his pain had been that visible. He hadn’t realized he had looked like he had been ripped apart and then had been carelessly put back together in a way that allowed all the shards his heart had broken into to continue hurting. He hadn’t realized he looked like the way he had felt when Obadiah had quite literally ripped out his heart.

Much to Tony’s horror, the memory began to shift again, and soon enough he was standing in the middle of a badly illuminated road, his parents car coming at him from the back. He watched in horror as his father swerved to avoid hitting the very real looking soldier who was standing right next to Tony.

“No,” he whispered as he watched Barnes step closer to the car, dragging out his father forcefully to beat his face. “No,” he said again brokenly, taking an unconscious step closer.

He couldn’t watch this again, not when it felt this real.

His father… fucking hell, his father .

The man had been an asshole. He was one of the main reasons Tony’s issues had issues, but the man was still his father. He was still the man Tony had tried to emulate for years. He had still been a hero, and he hadn’t deserved to die like that.

Fuck, his mother hadn’t deserved to watch her husband die like that.

“Dad,” Tony whispered brokenly as he stepped closer, reaching forward to pry Bucky away from the now limp figure, but his fingers touched nothing.

It was just a memory.

Except it wasn’t, because he could see his father like he was right there , and now Barnes was moving away to his mother’s side of the car, and he couldn’t do this. He could tell himself all he wanted that this wasn’t real, but it was. It was because it had happened and he hadn’t stopped it.

He hadn’t even said goodbye. He had done nothing, and now he had to watch this fucking asshole choke his mother to death - again.

And dear god, her screams. He couldn’t take his poor mother’s screams.  

And dammit he thought he had blocked it all out, that he had finally stopped relieving this, but this was worse than his nightmares and he didn't know how to make it stop.

“Mommy, look! I can play the whole set now, mommy!”

Very good my piccolo. Why don’t you play it for me?”

Mom

Mom

MOM

“NO!” Roared Tony as his mind began swirling out of control, memories and nightmares mixing and clashing mercilessly. He got up from where he had frozen on the floor next to his father’s dead body. Before he could move, however, he felt a hand hesitantly grab his wrist. He turned around, and his heart almost jumped out of his body when he saw the same man that was currently choking his mother.

“Tony,” he whispered, his eyes wide with fear. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t think this would-”

Tony yanked his hand away as he struggled to breathe. “Get away from me,” he wheezed out, stumbling closer to the car. “You-”

Bucky took the glasses off then with trembling hands, looking as shaken as Tony had ever seen him. “General-”

Tony watched the holograms disappear slowly, but the damage had been done. He had seen it all again. He had had to see them right there. And - yet again- he had done nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing .

He hadn’t kept them safe. He couldn’t keep anyone safe. He couldn’t…. He couldn’t -

And fuck why couldn’t he breathe ?

“Tony-” He heard a voice say, but he was too deeply in his mind to realize who it was that was talking to him.

He felt a pair of strong hands grab his arm and he jerked away again, only to find Rhodey staring at him with utter fear in his eyes.

Why was he afraid? Who had died? Who had Tony not protected this time?

His parents. He hadn’t saved his parents.

He jerked away from Rhodes then. There was no space, and he couldn’t breathe. Did Rhodey not understand that? He didn’t have air. “Get away,” he struggled to say as he stumbled to the door, forcing himself to keep one foot in front of the other.

“Tony,” someone else murmured, and yet another pair of hands grabbed his arm and his hands, but the hands grabbing him where smaller. Softer.

They were a woman’s hands.

Natasha.

His Natasha.

He couldn’t keep her safe either.

He tried pulling away but she wouldn’t let him. She held him back and sank them both to the floor as she whispered something he couldn’t understand in his ear. She ran her hand through his hair over and over as she fit their bodies together, rocking them slowly the way she did when Tony had a panic attack.

Oh dear god he was having a panic attack.

Fucking hell, what was wrong with him? He always knew when a panic attack was coming. Why the fuck had it taken him so long to realize…

Fuck, he really became useless when he thought of his parents.

Tony closed his eyes and buried his head in Natasha’s shoulder, feeling as the tension escaped her body when she realized he had finally snapped out of it. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to go in there and kill Barnes.

But he could do none of those things.

“Tony?” She asked again, both her hands splayed on his back.

“I’m okay,” he whispered, though they both knew he didn’t mean it. He forced himself to push away from her as he got up, remembering with horror that everyone had come to make sure Bucky didn’t kill Tony if he snapped.

Everyone had watched him break down like a fucking unstable child.

Fucking shit .

He looked around then, forcing down a flush when he saw the look of sheer terror in each and every one of his team’s faces. And Bruce looked far too green for comfort. He did not appreciate the worry. He didn’t need it. He was fine .

“Nothing to watch here,” he heard himself say coldly, his body working on autopilot. “Show’s over.”

And with that he turned around and fled the room, unable to face foes and friends alike. He just needed… he didn’t even know what he needed. He was breaking apart at the seams and he needed to get his shit together sooner rather than later.

The tension in the room rose as soon as Tony stepped out, and the focus went back to what had just gone down in the room.

“You killed his parents,” Kamala said with distinct horror as she turned to look at Bucky. “Oh my god you-”

“It was the soldier,” Steve whispered because fuck he did not want to start a fight, but they needed to understand this wasn’t Bucky.

They would never be able to move past this otherwise, and the fate of the world rested on them right now.

“You knew,” Clint said, his voice empty of all feeling. His face was completely shut off. “You knew they had been murdered,” he whispered, finally turning to look at Steve, betrayal clear in his eyes. “You fucking… you didn’t tell us what happened in Siberia, Steve. You didn’t tell us… so much could have been avoided if you had just-”

Steve had the decency to look sorry. “I… I didn’t… I had no idea what to tell you,” Steve admitted as he swallowed hard. “I’m… I’m sorry. I just… there are things that I just needed to keep private until I could… I needed to find a way to keep us from tearing apart, while also finding a way to mend my relationship with Tony, but I couldn’t do that if-”

Bruce moved then, grabbing Bucky by the hand to yank him away from the door to lock himself into the other guy’s playroom as he finally allowed himself to snap and let the Hulk to come out.

The roar the Hulk let out was deafening, and the sheer anger in his eyes was terrifying. He hit the glass then, but, being on of Tony’s creations, it didn’t budge. Still, it gave everyone pause. They turned to look at him as the tension broke in favor of retreating, in case the glass did budge.

“I am going to go check on Tony,” Natasha informed Rhodey before stepping out, a concerned frown fixed on her face.

“I… need some air,” Rhodey breathed out, knowing that otherwise he was going to end up punching someone. He turned to grab Peter and Kamala by their arms. “You two are coming with me. The rest of you, go either train or wait in Tony’s study,” Rhodes said as he began pushing the two children towards the door. “We’ll discuss this later, once we all have had time to cool off.”

Fuck cooling off,” Kate snapped as she stuck on of her arrows on the table, visibly upset. “Fuck this, I’m… fuck it. Fuck all of you, I’m leaving,” she announced as she picked up her bow and walked out of the room, looking like she was ready to tear down anyone that so much as dared cross her path.

Rhodes sighed and began following Kate with the two children. He noticed the shadow following them almost immediately. “Clint-”

“You knew about what happened in Siberia,” Clint said, his voice as cold as before. “T’Challa did too, didn’t he? Who else knew?”

“Clint-”

“I’ll get Kate. She’s just angry in Tony’s stead,” Clint assured the man, bringing his bow closer to him. “Hey Rhodes,” he called just as he passed the man, finally allowing some of the pain to show. “I know why you did it… but fuck you man. Fuck you for not telling us. We could have helped him… or we could have at least prepared for something like this.”

“It wasn’t my place to tell you,” Rhodey said with a shrug. “And it’s not your job to prepare for anything. Tony’s not your responsibility.”

“He’s our fucking team leader, Rhodey. He is our fucking responsibility,” Clint snapped, coming to a stand. “He’s my wife’s closest friend, and my best friend’s husband. Fuck, even if his problems are not the team’s responsibility, he is my problem.”

Rhodes let go of the children then and grabbed Clint by the arm. “Clint, we can argue all you want about this later, but I need you to make sure Kate doesn’t blow anything up.”

Clint grinded his teeth but nodded, leaving Rhodes alone with the children then, much to the man’s dismay. He turned to face the two angry and worried looking young superhumans and his heart sank. He had no idea how to calm the two down, not after what they had witnessed. He didn’t even know what to tell them.


Hope stepped into Tony’s workshop with no small amount of trepidation, but was happy to find Tony and Natasha together. The man was laying down on the couch, his head on Natasha’s lap. She was running her hands through his hair as she sang something softly in Russian.

“Um, can I interrupt?” She asked from where she stood at the door, feeling like she had just stepped into a very private moment.

“Of course,” Natasha said with a small smile, retrieving her hands to let Tony sit up. “What’s up?”

“I was wondering if I could talk to Tony for a second,” she admitted, rubbing her fingers nervously.

Natasha’s eyes softened and she nodded. It had been over two hours since they had retreated to Tony’s workshop, and the team still hadn’t had a chance to talk to the man. They were obviously still worried about Tony, and had gotten no news from Natasha to see whether they could come in and talk to him or not.

But hope, bless her, had always been the most willing to stand up and see how much she could bend the unspoken rules, particularly when she thought something good would come out of it.

“Sure,” Natasha said, getting up slowly. She kissed her husband’s forehead before murmuring “I’ll wait outside.”

Tony nodded and got up with her, walking towards his usual workbench. “How can I help you, Hope?” He asked, sounding incredibly tired.

“I… I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I lost my mother when I was young,” she said softly, coming to seat next to Tony, though she sat in the opposite direction, to give him her profile. “My dad never told me how she died,” she said, her voice breaking as she remembered those dark days. “And I… I hated him for so long,” she said with a sigh. “So… I’m telling you this because… I understand,” she said with a nod. “I understand what it’s like to lose your mother that young, and I know what it’s like when someone that you love, that is supposed to care for you, lies to you.” She swallowed hard. “But… I also know that that can eat you alive,” she admitted, her voice soften than a whisper.

She looked down at her hands, not daring to see Tony’s reaction. “And it’s eating you alive. I know it’s hard but… you have to let it go ,” she said, her throat closing up. “You have to, or it will destroy you, and… the team needs you too much to lose you like that. We can’t… We can’t watch you be consumed by grief. It’ll consume us all,” Hope said with a sad smile. “And I know you shouldn’t have to worry about the effects you can have on the team, but… if anything do it for yourself. You deserve to move on, to be free.” She nodded, finally turning to look at Tony, both looking teary. “It took me a while, but it helped me become… well it made me a happier person.”

Tony gave her a small, if brittle smile, and reached out to squeeze her hand. “You don’t need to worry about me, Hope.”

“Of course I do,” she said, taking Tony’s hands like a lifeline. “You worry about me, don’t you?”

Tony huffed out a laugh. “That’s diff-”

“If you finish that sentence, I will stab you ,” she warned. “Just… keep it in mind, is all I’m asking.”

Tony chuckled tiredly then, but nodded. “Is everyone alright?” He asked then, because while he still felt embarrassed about his outburst he wasn’t dumb enough to not realize that seeing the head of your team having a panic attack was more than a bit not ok.

Hope shrugged. “Depends on what you define as okay,” she admitted. “They are all pretty shaken, they want to kill Steve, and they’re pissed that you didn’t trust us enough to tell us,” Hope said with a shrug. “But mostly they are just worried about you.”

“Tell them not to worry,” Tony said immediately. “I’ll be fine.”

Hope hummed noncommittally. “I… well I guess I’ll leave you to it now,” Hope said, feeling uncharacteristically awkward.

Tony nodded distractedly, not really noticing when Hope slipped out and when Natasha came back inside.

“Hey, you okay?” Natasha said, putting her hand on his shoulder.

“Always,” Tony replied, his gaze distant as he considered Hope’s words. “You should head upstairs. It’s best if at least you’re there at dinner. They need to cool off.”

Natasha’s brows rose to her hairline. “You’re not coming?”

“No, I just… I want to be alone for a bit,” Tony said, not looking up at his wife. “I’ll… see you in the morning.”

Natasha gaped at him when she realized he was planning on not coming out of the workshop at all .”Tony-”

“Natasha,” Tony said again, his tone sounding like a command now. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Natasha clenched her fist then, fighting the urge to slap the idiot. She hated it when he did this. She hated it when he pushed her away like she didn’t care about him, like the only person he could trust was himself. She hated this, hated seeing them fall apart because Tony was so fucking stubborn he refused to admit a weakness.

He refused to settle for anything else than perfection when it came to himself, and he didn’t fucking understand that he couldn’t achieve that. That it was okay to depend on other people too.

And the worst part was that it didn't matter what she said, because he wouldn't fucking listen.

“Then have a good evening, General ,” she bit out, leaving the room in a blur of rage and hurt.

Tony grimaced then, feeling the sting of her words. He sighed and buried his head in his hands, feeling hopeless. He was single handedly destroying his team - his life. Just like he had every other meaningful relationship he had had.

It was funny, he had been so worried about Steve coming to New York, that he had forgotten that his biggest enemy was still himself. That he was the one with the higher chance of destroying what he already had.

But what could he do? He couldn’t… he pushed and pushed those near him to the breaking point. That’s just what he did. He pushed people away because he knew they’d eventually leave - either willingly or because death would take them from Tony. It never, ever lasted. He was an asshole, and he had too many issues for any one person to handle him. Not only that but the level of responsibilities he had meant that he had to be perfect. And he couldn’t…

Fuck, Hope was right. He needed to deal with his issues. Otherwise, he would destroy his team. There was a difference between losing the relationships he had with them and losing them. And he’d much rather lose the former than the latter. The former would mean he would be alone again, but the world would survive.

“FRIDAY, get my private plane ready,” Tony asked, looking at his watch. “I want you to lock the workshop once I am out, and don’t tell anyone I am gone, please,” he said as he stood up, his resolve strengthening.

He needed… he needed to get out. He needed space. He needed to be able to think for just a moment somewhere far away. He needed to figure shit out, and he needed to do it today.


Tony looked at the old looking grave through his black sunglasses, a small frown on his face. “You know, this is much more anticlimactic than expected,” he quipped but his voice was thick with suppressed sadness. “I’m sorry,” he finally blurted out. “I never came to visit you,” he said. “I… You were always good to me, Jarvis, and I didn't…”

He sighed and laid down on the floor, if only to not have to look at the grave. “You knew them better than I ever did,” he noted, closing his eyes. “And I… I never really asked much about them after they died. I should have,” he wasn't sure whether he was reprimanding himself or not. “But you… You didn't leave me when I needed you,” Tony whispered, and there was heartbreaking wonder in his voice.

In truth, the man had stayed with him through the first year, when the pain had been unbearable. He had had to pick up after Tony’s drunken ass more than once, and he had screamed his face off more than once too. But he hadn't left, not until Tony had finalized moving everything to Malibu and had closed the mansion once and for all.

His childish pride and his lostness had kept him away, and he had not seen Jarvis again, even when the man had tried to contact him many years later. Though, in all fairness, Obie had been the one to keep them from meeting that time.

He had probably known that if there was someone that could get Tony’s head out of his ass, it was Jarvis, and so had avoided that at all costs.

What truly hurt, though, was that Jarvis had not lived long enough to see him become Iron Man. The man had died with the image of Tony partying his life away. He had probably died incredibly disappointed in Tony.

“I wish you could have seen them,” Tony said suddenly. “I wish you could have seen… A lot of shit has happened, but, I’m still here,” Tony said with a bitter smile. “And so is earth. I have tried, you know? I have really tried to keep people safe. And I have lost so many people to see that happen,” Tony said as he scrubbed his face, feeling incredibly wary. “I don’t know how to keep the world safe,” he admitted to the grave. “It seems that no matter what I do, no matter what I create, no matter how many superhumans I bring together, something bigger always comes to try and destroy us.”

Tony felt his phone vibrate and he took it out, slightly surprised to see that it was Pepper. Shit, he had probably forgotten there was a shareholder meeting or something. His finger hovered over the answer button, but eventually he pressed ignore.

Pepper was more than capable of dealing with a meeting without him.

“I don’t know how to forgive Barnes,” Tony resumed his one sided conversation with a man long gone. “I know it’s not his fault. God, do I know, but I just can’t help feeling angry and just… Afraid every time I see him walk into a room.” Tony scrubbed his eyes. “I don’t know how to forgive Steve either. I don’t know how to make us work together.”

He sighed and looked up at the cloudy London Sky. “I don’t know how to make the… panic attacks go away, or how to be the leader my team needs right now. I just…” Tony swallowed hard but refused to say I can’t do it.

Because, at the end of the day, he didn’t have a choice. He had never had a choice in the matter. He could be as lost as he wanted; it didn’t change anything. He was still the fucking General, leader extraordinaire that was supposed to save the planet because apparently the universe had it out for him, and he could never have a peaceful, fight-free life. There wasn’t an option where he didn’t figure this out somehow. Because the earth was in danger again, and they were getting nowhere with the stones and Thor was still MIA, which meant they’d probably have to fight, and he refused to let earth go down without a damn good fight.

So, no, he couldn’t say “I can’t do it.”  He could say I don’t know how to, sure, because he really had no fucking clue what to do now, which was exactly how he had ended up running away from home to come to fucking London to talk to the grave of the man who had once cared for him as a child, and whom Tony had loved more than he had ever expressed in words.

“Fuck, I am pathetic,” he groaned as he sat up, rubbing his face.

His phone rang again, and he rolled his eyes, ready to ignore the call again, when he realized the one calling was Harley.

He picked up without missing a beat.

“What’s up, kiddo? Make it fast. I’ve got places to be,” he said in his usual sarcastic tone.

“Hey Tony!” The teenager said, his voice as cheerful as it had been the first time Tony had met him.

God, it was good to hear Harley’s voice again. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to the boy for a while now. They had remained in contact, particularly once Peter had arrived into his life, but he saw the boy less and less often now that he was in his last year of high school.

Well, they - the boy and his mother - did generally spend Christmas with the team, so at least he’d probably see him them.

“Harley, I’m not a mind reader, and we’re not connected enough for me to know why you’re calling,” Tony noted, sounding amused.

“I… Well, okay, so I was doing an experiment-”

“Please tell me you didn’t blow up your house,” Tony half whined, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“What? No, no I… I mean not the house,” he said innocently. “But I may or may not have blown up the lab.”

“Are you alright?” Tony asked immediately getting up from where he was sitting.

“Yeah, yeah, I was just… Any chance you can take a look at my project? I know mom doesn't have the money to rebuild the lab right now, but I’m on my winter vacation, so I was thinking I can probably use the school’s without anyone no-”

“Yeah, no,” Tony said immediately. “I will have a team go in and rebuild the lab. I am not in the country right now, but I’m on my way back now, so just stay put until I get there. Tell your mom you’ll be staying with me until the end of vacation so you can work on your project with FRIDAY watching.”

“You’re the best, Tony!” The teenager said happily.

Tony chuckled. “You know, I’m starting to think you only love me for my money.”

“Your mind’s much more interesting than your money,” the boy said, as honest as ever. “You don't find two of those, that’s for sure.”

Tony smiled warmly as he looked at the grave. “Yeah whatever kid, flattery doesn't work with me. I’ll see you later. Go pack your shit.”

“Sir, yes sir,” the boy teased before hanging up.

Tony pocketed his phone as he placed one of his hands on top of the grave. “You would have really liked them,” Tony said with a small nod. “Mom would have liked them all.”

He sighed again, rubbing his temples. “Okay, enough. Enough whining,” he told himself. “Get yourself together Stark.”

Chapter Text

Natasha woke up early in the morning with no small sense of guilt. She couldn’t forget the spiteful comment she had thrown at her husband the night before, when she had stormed out of his workshop. And, ok, she actually had a pretty good reason for saying what she had said, but that did not excuse the fact that she had probably hurt his feelings, which really didn’t help considering that he had decided to maintain his stance of not reaching out to her.

It was just so frustrating when he pushed her away like that. It had taken so long to actually get him to open up, that it actually terrified her when he pulled away like that, because she could never be one hundred percent sure he would let her back in again. And, no matter how much progress they had done where Tony’s parents were concerned, Steve and Bucky were still a sore issue that they had never really touched. Clearly, all the progress they had done had bypassed that sore spot. Tony had blocked it so completely he was just starting to deal with it now. And fuck if that didn’t make her feel even more guilty.

She sighed softly and got up, shaking off the guilt. Guilt was useless; it didn’t solve the issue. It was self inflicted pain that she could do without. Thus she grabbed her robe and stepped out of their room, already formulating a plan to get Tony to snap out of his current trance. They’d work through it. They always did.

She reached the elevator and pressed the button that would lead her to Tony’s workshop. She rubbed her hands softly as the elevator descended, half considering making a quick stop at the kitchen to get Tony some food and coffee. Before she could make a choice, however, the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened to reveal the tinted windows of the workshop. Natasha grimaced, but walked ahead. She’d just have to get him to come upstairs to eat something.

Perhaps the change of scenery would serve as a welcomed distraction.

She reached the door then, feeling much better as the idea took hold of her and she entered the code, freezing when the pad turned red, indicating that the code was invalid.

“FRYDAY, why is the code not working?” Natasha said in a neutral tone.

“Mr. Stark has instructed me to put the workshop on lockdown, ma’am,” FRIDAY said apologetically.

Natasha stiffened even further at that. “What?”

“I am afraid every code is invalid until Mr. Stark deems it otherwise,” FRIDAY further explained.

Natasha felt like she had been slapped in the face. “Are you saying he locked himself in there? Has he been there all night?”

“I am afraid I am not authorized to answer that, Mrs. Stark,” FRIDAY said, sounding even more apologetic than before.

“What do you mean you can’t answer?” Natasha snapped, sounding offended. “Tell Tony to open this damn door, now .”  

“I am afraid I can’t do that, Mrs. Stark,” FRIDAY said.

Natasha raised a brow. “Excuse me?” Natasha looked up at the ceiling her eyes narrowing. “And why would that be?”

“I am afraid I am not allowed to answer that either ma’am,” FRIDAY said, her voice sounding almost meek.

Natasha clenched her fist and closed her eyes, going through their conversion again, to find any possible loopholes. After finding none she hissed “open the door Friday.”

“Mrs. Stark-”

“Fine,” Natasha snapped, sitting down on the floor. “Then I’m staying here until Tony opens the door.”

Friday didn’t answer.

In fact, Natasha was the first to break, after waiting outside of Tony’s workshop for two hours. “Does he not care that I am waiting for him outside?” She asked, managing to not sound as hurt as she felt.

“I am afraid I cannot inform Mr. Stark of your whereabouts, Mrs. Stark,” Friday admitted. Natasha’s brows rose to her forehead. She brought her hand up and began counting off the facts she currently had at her disposal. “you said you can’t tell him, and that my code doesn’t work… but Tony would never cut off communication like that, not unless he had you informing him about our whereabouts, but you just said you can’t inform him,” Natasha fired out. “That means you don’t have access to him either,” Natasha bit out.

FRIDAY didn’t agree, but she did not contradict Natasha either.

“He’s not in there, is he, FRIDAY?” Natasha all but whispered, feeling her heart leap to her mouth.

FRIDAY, again, did not answer, which told Natasha everything she needed to know. 

“Where is Tony, FRIDAY?” Natasha asked slowly, her voice deadly calm.

“I am afraid I can’t answer that, Mrs. Stark,” FRIDAY said softly, almost as if afraid to see Natasha’s reaction.

“FRIDAY, where is my husband ?” Natasha growled, not bothering to threaten the AI.

“Madam-”

“I don’t want to hear it. Gather everyone in the living room,” Natasha snapped, turning back to the elevator. “I don’t care where they are or what they are doing. Tell them it’s a code red emergency.”

--------------------

Natasha paced around the living room, her mind going a mile a minute as she waited for everyone to come in. She didn’t know what to think. Heck, it was hard to think when she was this angry. She wasn’t sure whether she was more angry at Tony, at herself, at Bucky, at Steve, or just at the situation.

One thing was for Tony to lock himself in the workshop; she could handle that. But leaving the damn tower without letting anyone know where the hell he went off to was simply not okay, and it was especially not okay when he knew there was a fucking titan coming out to destroy Earth. It was the most irresponsible thing the man had done in the entire time Natasha had known him, which was just so unlike the man she had married it made her want to throw up. That was she could see the Tony she had met while working undercover for shield doing, not Tony Stark, leader of the avengers and envoy to the UN.

There were no guarantees that they wouldn’t be attacked while he was gone, or worse, that he wouldn’t be attacked while alone. This had all started because they had brought fucking Steve and company. She had known it was a bad idea, but she had not imagined it would be this bad.

Not only that but, knowing the last thing they had done before he had left was argue, she could not find it in herself to keep the guilt at bay anymore.

Before she could worry herself further, the team barged in, all either in their suits or at least with their weapons at the ready. She wanted to laugh at the sight. Perhaps she had overreacted by activating a code red alarm, but she was feeling pretty desperate right now. Soon enough, Steve and his team appeared on the other doorway too, and Natasha’s heart skipped a beat. She clearly hadn’t been specific enough with FRIDAY when she had called “everyone”. She hadn’t meant the new “consultants”, what she had really been calling for was her family.

“Nat, what’s the matter?” Rhodes was the first to speak up, stepping in front of the room as he lifted his faceplate, slowly realizing that perhaps the situation wasn't worthy of their reaction.

Natasha swallowed hard and looked away as she evenly said “Tony isn't in his workshop. He left.”

Rhodes brows rose at that. “What?”

“He didn't tell me he was leaving,” Natasha explained. “His workshop is on lockdown, and even I can’t get FRIDAY to tell me where the hell he is.”

Rhodes took an unconscious step back as he repeated “what?”

“So we don't know where he is?” Peter asked, his eyes looking lost. “But… Why would he-”

Natasha bit the inside of her mouth. “That doesn't matter right now. What matters is us finding him.”

“Calm your horses,” Fury said from the elevator, as he stepped out of it with a frown on his face. “We don't want to do that.”

“Yes we do,” spluttered Kate. “He's gone, and there's a fucking Alien coming who knows when. He needs to get-”

“We don't know if he's in the country, Kate,” Fury explained patiently. “And, while he, being team leader, is allowed to travel to certain countries without the Panel’s explicit permission under the current UN regulations, we don't know whether he’s following regulations right now, and the last thing we need is to create trouble with the UN, when we are already on thin ground with them after we asked for them to give them,” he said with a nod of his head, “temporary amnesty.”

Natasha took a seat then, paling slightly as the magnitude of Tony’s actions began to hit home.

She was going to kill him.

“Perhaps we can look for him within the US? I am sure there are spots he frequents,” Steve said, as willing to help as ever.

“You're not going anywhere,” Natasha snapped coldly, not even turning to look at Steve.

Steve sighed, and rubbed his face. “Nat, I’m just trying to help ,” the man pleaded softly. “We have to find him.”

“I know he won’t listen to me,” Bucky suddenly whispered, “but I still want to apologize.”

Steve shook his head. “No, I think it’s best if I go help look for him, Buck,” Steve said gently. “I think he might be more willing to listen to me than to you.”

And that, perhaps, was the thing that finally pushed her over the edge. For whatever reason, she didn't want Steve to be helpful. He didn't have a right to be, because, regardless of how idiotic Tony’s actions had been, he was really the whole reason this whole thing was happening. He didn't deserve to look like the good guy.

And yes, she was probably being an asshole for being angry at Steve when really this was not something he could control, but she did not care. She felt irrationally furious at the man. She was done giving the man a pass. She was done trying to be the one holding it together.

She felt her body move of its own accord, her blood pulsing harshly in her ears, deafening her. She, being so consumed by anger, did not even realize the way everyone tensed as she lunged forward.

She dug her finger into his chest as she spit out “ you and your damn team are the whole reason my husband isn't here right now. He hasn't done something this irresponsible since he put everyone’s life in danger to bring in Kam in, and he hasn’t disobeyed the UN resolution since he went to siberia to help you .” She continued to jab her finger with every word walking them backwards as her face contorted even further with rage. “But now he fucked off to god knows where because you keep bringing up bad memories of a time where he trusted you, so stop saying you want to help, because nothing about you is helpful,” she growled.

“Nat-”

“You-” Natasha snapped her mouth shut when she realized words weren’t enough anymore to convey her frustration, and so she reverted to the one thing she knew better than anything else; she shifted her stance ever so slightly, threw her fisted hand back, and threw the first punch, unconsciously doing so with her left hand - the one which held enough voltage to kill a regular person, and, had it been turned on to anything higher than its lowest level, would have been enough to seriously injure Steve.  

The disquieting sound of metal hitting skin, and the crack of electricity that occurred as the discharge hit the man’s face, was enough to give everyone pause. Not only that, but the sound of metal armor flying their way made Natasha turn around, her heart beating even faster than before.

The metal pieces that came flying, however, were clearly not part of Tony’s suit.They were far too delicate looking. They flew straight towards her, and attached themselves to her feet and her hands. The metal boots and pseudo gauntlets were clearly modeled after Tony’s own, and fitted her perfectly, which meant Tony had designed them specifically for her body.

She looked down in surprise as she flexed her hands, the repulsors glowing, ready to propel her into the air.

“What-”

“Your heart rate was becoming erratic, Mrs. Stark, “ FRIDAy explained, “and so I deemed it necessary to activate the protection protocol Sir established a few days ago.”

Natasha’s heart skipped a beat and she looked back down, feeling her mouth dry. Tony had been worried enough to begin creating armor for her.

She wasn’t sure whether this appeased her anger or just made it worse, because he wasn’t even there to show her this.

She jumped slightly when she felt a pair of roughened hands claps her shoulders, but she did not strike, for the touch was familiar. “Calm down, Natasha,” Fury warned. “Now is not the time to lose your patience.” The former director turned to look at Steve and his team, who looked ready to strike. “Let’s all calm down,” he said smoothly, in an appeasing tone, referring to both sides of the room. “Fighting one another right now is not the answer.”

“We need to go find Tony,” Rhodey agreed.

“No,” Fury shook his head. “There’s nothing we can do to find him without FRIDAY’s cooperation, particularly if we don’t want the UN to find out, so all we can do now is wait.” He sighed and looked around. “Everyone put your gear away, we’re not going to fucking war.”

Natasha looked at the man with the corner of her eye, pursing her lips before nodding. There was no point in arguing with the man when he was right.

“C’mon, let’s get you dressed,” Fury murmured as he took Natasha by the hand. “Clint, get me something to eat for Natasha,” Fury said to the man as he passed by him.

Clint nodded, keeping his hands clenched and his eyes trained on the four tense former Avengers.

Rhodes immediately turned to look at Peter and Kamala, who looked as lost as the day Tony had been injured and they had actually thought the man was going to die. He pinched Clint on the side and whispered “Clint, please-”

“Go, I’ll take care of this,” The man said curtly as he looked at the two youngest members of the team, his brow creased with worry. “Hope, why don’t you and kate go make breakfast for everyone? I think we’ll all be able to think more clearly with some food in our stomachs.”

Hope immediately nodded, not needing further explanation. She pushed Kate along, who seemed too dazed to put up much of a fight. Clint had confided in her long ago that one of the things that always helped Kate calm down, that did not involve a weapon, was cooking. The girl loved mixing ingredients, loved the smell of food as she mixed and matched ingredients. It was a de-stressor for her, and Hope knew the girl would greatly be needing it.

She could still remember the last time they had allowed Kate to vent unsupervised; it had almost ended in casualties.

“I’m going to go get some air,” Bruce said tightly as he walked out of the room, his hands looking slightly too green.

“Fuck,” T’Challa groaned, his head hanging as he looked at the floor. “Well this is a fucking shit show.”

Clint chuckled bitterly then, sitting down on the first couch he saw and nodded. “Sorry about the punch,” he said eventually, looking up at Steve with a half smile. “Nat’s just… frustrated.”

Steve nodded. “It’s fine, I was kind of expecting it,” he admitted with a shrug. “She’s… changed, but she seems happier,” Steve commented.

Clint nodded. “Not sure that applies at the moment,” Clint said with another tired smile, “but yeah, she is happy.” He rubbed his eyes, and looked at the glass table in front of him. “Alright, I’m going to-” Clint struggled to find words before finally sighing out “I don’t even fucking know... I’m gonna go train. Vision, could you please-”

“I’ll keep an eye on things,” The android said with a gentle smile. He then turned to face Steve “you and your team should eat something captain, and I would also recommend you continue training. It is best if routine is maintained as much as possible.”

Steve hesitated before finally saying “let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

Vision nodded “I am going to go check the workshop, just in case Tony is there. I shall inform you if we do send a search party, worry not, Captain. I am sure Mr. Stark is fine.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Clint muttered under his breath as he left the room, T’Challa in tow.

“You need a training partner?” The panther murmured slyly as he matched Clint’s pace.

“Always,” Clint said with a small smile, happy to see that at least he could take comfort in his friend. “Fry, please let me know when the food is ready, and let me know when Fury is done talking to Nat.”

“Of course, Mr. Barton.”

Clint hated not being able to go and comfort his best friend, but he knew better than to try to reason with her right now. The only one that could get through to her was probably Fury, and maybe Rhodes considering that the issue at hand had to do with Tony. His friend would truly need him later, once Tony was back safe and sound so she could bitch about it until she was blue in the face. She’d need him when her fight or flight instincts finally kicked in, and the idea of ending what she had with her husband, because of his little stunt, became an actual possibility in her mind. She would need him to help her keep her cool, help her see reason, and help Tony not despair.


“Damn, boy. You really weren’t kidding when you said you blew up the lab.” Tony whistled as he took in the sight of the few broken pieces left of the pseudo lab he had built for Harley, the darkness making everything seem even more grim. 

Tony had hoped to come early, but, of course, that had not happened at all. He had stayed in London longer than expected, realizing that, while he was there, he might as well meet with the UN representatives located in London. He knew they'd give him some shit for just showing up, but technically he was allowed to travel to London without a problem, mostly because business generally required him to do so. They had taken longer than expected lecturing him, and it had taken even longer to get him to get to the airport. But, thankfully, they had a six hour difference with Tennessee so, even though he had left London at almost one in the morning, he had actually gotten to Tennessee at dawn. What he hadn't considered though was that he would then have to drive to Harley's town. 

Not having his suit with him was a bitch. 

Harley had met him at a caffe they both liked to eat brunch, before going to the nearest paintball ring to shoot a few rounds. They hadn't done that together in years. It had all started as a way of teaching Harley how to shoot a gun (if he was going to be Ton's friend, he needed to know how to defend himself) and had turned into a bit of a ritual. But, of course, he hadn't seen Harley in over a year, which was why perhaps it felt so good to just goof around with the boy again. 

In Tennessee he could pretend the world - his world at least - wasn't slowly crumbling around him. 

They had kept up the distractions for quite a while, only going back to his house when Harley mentioned his showing up late would probably not help matters. And now, after seeing the state of the former garage turned lab, Tony could understand why. 

The boy blushed and nodded. “Mom’s really angry.”

Tony chuckled. “Did you tell her you talked to me?” Tony asked with a smirk.

“Yeah, but she said you paying for the repairs didn't make it better. She was even more upset about that, because she hates it when you have to spend money on us.”

Tony had forgotten how bluntly honest the young man was.  It reminded him a lot of Peter, which made him miss his boy. Damn, he needed to go home soon. They would probably notice he was missing soon, if they hadn't already.

God, he hoped they hadn't. He had been gone for almost two days now. 

“I have more money than I know what to do with,” Tony finally replied, shrugging in his usual nonchalant way. “Now c’mon let's get your bags, so we can leave.”

“My mom doesn't want to let me go,” Harley said with a sigh.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Ok, you go pack your bags and leave your mother to me, alright?”

“Alright,” the teenagers said with newfound enthusiasm. He led them to the door and screamed “Mom, Tony’s here!”

He immediately ran upstairs, leaving his mother to face Tony alone.

“Hello Helen,” Tony said amicably.

“Tony!” She said, looking surprised. She had probably not expected Tony to take so little time. He was usually a very busy man.

“Harley was just telling me you were hesitant to let him go,” he said lightly, moving to stand next closer. “I know it’s not my place but please reconsider.”

She sighed softly. “It’s not that I don't want him to go, but bad behavior shouldn't be rewarded. He blew up his lab.”

Tony shrugged. “He’s a curious kid that likes science. Mistakes are bound to happen. I used to blow up things all the time. In fact, that should encourage you to send him over to me more often. At least there there's always someone that knows about science watching him.”

She shook her head. “You’re a busy man, Mr. Stark, I wouldn't-”

“Oh I meant FRIDAY,” he said with a grin. “C’mon Helen, my kids haven't seen him in, what, a year now? We didn't even celebrate Christmas this year, because of everything that's happening. They're all getting antsy. Let him stay with us for the few weeks he has off. It'll do us all good." 

She seemed unconvinced for a moment longer, before finally giving in to Tony’s pleading look. It was hard to say no to Tony Stark.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said excitedly as he squeezed her shoulders softly before turning back to say loudly “alright Harley, I’m waiting for you in the car. You have ten minutes to be there, or I’m leaving, so hurry up.”

Tony walked out with a soft smile on his lips, reaching the black slick car he had rented for the day with ease. He got into the driver’s seat and looked out the window with a thoughtful look. Maybe it was just that he had tricked himself into thinking Jarvis’ grave was the catalyst he needed or maybe it was that seeing Harley after a year was more emotionally impacting than he had imagined, but, somehow, he was feeling lighter than he had in days.


Tony walked into the tower with no small sense of trepidation. He had finally had FRIDAY update him on the situation at the tower once he and Harley reached the plane, and the reality of his actions had come crashing in hard and fast. When he had left, he hadn't really been thinking about anyone or anything. He hadn't thought about the fact an alien was coming to destroy earth. He hadn’t thought that the team might freak out if he disappeared. Heck, he hadn’t even thought they’d realize so quickly. He figured they’d realize once he came back, not just a few hours after he had left. He hand’t considered the fact that Natasha was bound to go looking for him in the morning and he certainly hadn't thought about his wife’s feelings.

And fuck, he should have thought about all those things, but, really, at the time the only thing he had been thinking about was the fact that his issues’s issues had issues and that he needed to start dealing with that ASAP in order to keep his team intact.

And so, when FRIDAY had informed him that Natasha had been so frenzied she had physically attacked Steve, that Rhodey, precious precious Rhodey, had had to take the helm with Fury to keep everything from falling to pieces, his heart had sunk all the way to the ground.

He knew that he had to hurry up and get home, and he also knew there would be hell to pay once he actually got there. He had told FRIDAY to lift the restrictions, which allowed his AI to inform the team that he was on his way back, but no one had called, which meant Natasha was furic.

He reached the living room a few minutes later, keeping Harley in front of him as an almost buffer. Surely everyone would hold it together until the boy left, if only to not scare him.

The whole team, sans Natasha, was waiting for him there, FRIDAY having informed them of Tony’s arrival a few minutes before. Tony wasn't sure who looked more murderous: Rhodey, or Fury.

“And the prodigal son returns,” Fury hissed, a dry smile on his lips. “Good to see you alive, Tony.”

Tony fought back the urge to refute the man, knowing that that would get him nowhere right now.

Rhodes was the first to move closer, smacking Tony on the head as he muttered “You’re a goddamn idiot, Tony.”

“That’s not news, Rhodey,” Tony said with a plastic smile, not sure whether his defense mechanism was currently providing the correct response.

Rhodes, however, huffed and brought Tony in for a hug. “I am so angry at you, I actually want to punch you.”

“I love you too, Rhodey,” Tony said as he patted the man on the back.

Clint soon took the man’s place, skipping the hitting part to go straight into the hug. “I hope you know you might be killed in your sleep tonight,” he whispered softly enough for only Tony - and Peter with his super-hearing - to hear.

Tony stiffened slightly but nodded, only to almost jump out of his skin when Bruce came from behind him, squeezing his shoulders hard enough to bruice.

“There you are,” the man said, his voice holding an edge which generally only came when the other guy came out for a little too long. “The other guy was starting to wonder whether he had to go get you himself.”

Tony, while tempted to snark back at the man, held back his tongue when he saw the looks of utter betrayal and anger his two kids were sporting.

Ah, fuck .

He moved closer to his kids and wordlessly brought both of them closer to embrace them. They came reluctantly, both divided between wanting to touch Tony to make sure by themselves that he was actually there and hadn't died and just wanting to not talk to him until he groveled for at least a week.

“I’m… sorry,” Tony finally said, caressing Peter’s hair as he kissed Kam’s forehead. “I shouldn’t have left like that.”

“We thought something was going to happen to you,” Peter said in an accusing tone.

Tony winced again. “Nothing happened to me, Peter.

“You left without saying anything,” Kamala hissed, not quite ready to just forgive and forget. “You could have gotten in trouble with the UN-”

“I didn’t break any laws,” Tony was quick to correct. “I am allowed to go into London, if I’m not on official Avenger’s business.” Tony stopped talking for a second then, realizing that perhaps excuses wasn’t the way to go. “It won’t happen again,” Tony assured the kids. “I just realized I had a lot of things to work through-” he shrugged “- It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”  

“We’re a team Tony,” Clint said, crossing his arms in front of himself. “What would you do if one of us suddenly decided to fuck off because we’re having a problem?”

Tony sighed, unable to refute the man’s argument. “I… I’ll make sure to keep you on the loop.”

“No, next time you will fucking stay here and we’ll work though it,” Fury snapped, hitting the back of Tony’s head. “Dumbass.”

“Hey, stop that,” he complained as he rubbed his head.

“I am very confused,” Harley admitted, smiling slightly. It was always funny when he saw the team try to parent Tony. It was a funny role reversal, considering that most of the time it was the man keeping everyone in line.

“Tony was a very naughty boy,” Kate explained, her fiercely angry eyes making the joke sound forced and cutting.

Tony sighed, but again bit his tongue. They were all angry - with due reason. This time he had really mucked it up. But, on the other hand, now that he had hit rock bottom - god he hoped this was the bottom - the only thing left to do was begin his climb back up. “I know you’re all angry,” Tony began, detaching himself from his children. “And I am sorry for disappearing. I didn’t think about the safety of the team, but what’s done is done.” Tony squared his shoulders, a hint of the cloak of the general protecting his fearful heart. “And you don’t have to worry; it won’t happen again. I will be careful next time I help Sergeant Barnes.”

“This isn’t about the safety of the team Tony,” Rhodes sighed, knowing his friend far too well. “This is about your safety. This is about the fact that you didn’t trust us enough to tell us you needed help,” Rhodey said softly, closing the distance between them

“Or just, you know, the truth,” Clint pointed out with a hint of his usual dry sarcastic self.

 Rhodes ignored him in favor of saying “This is about the fact that you won’t let us help, and then will try to help everyone else.”

Tony’s mouth dried up at that.

“You’re the team leader, Tony,” Clint said from where he stood by the window, not looking at the man. “You help us, we help you. You obey the rules and we follow. That’s how it’s always supposed to go.”

Tony remained silent for a few more seconds, not sure what to think or what to feel. It was terrifying to will himself to believe these people would actually stick with him through thick and thin. “I’ll… try,” he murmured, though what exactly he was promising to try, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure. “Where’s Natasha?” He asked finally, wanting to switch the topic to anything else.

“In your room-” Rhodey said as if it was obvious “-fuming.”

Ah, that’s why she hadn’t come out.

Tony sighed again, before turning around to head to his room, not caring to end the conversation he was having with the team. He knew them well enough to know that, to them, actions spoke louder than words. He’d have to show them he trusted them, that he actually wasn’t go disappearing for almost two days again.

Natasha, however, was another matter entirely. She needed both actions and words, and even then, she was slow to forgive and quick to remember. She was much like Tony that way.

He reached their room quickly enough, noticing with no small sense of trepidation that the lights were off, and the curtains were drawn tightly shut, leaving the room in almost absolute darkness.

Tony closed the door behind him, stilling as he allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He breathed slowly in and out, not wanting to make any unnecessary noise as he searched for his wife. He found her sitting on her side of the bed, her back to the door and her feet firmly planted on the floor. Tony took his shoes off and his jacket, leaving it on the bench next to the bed as he came to kneel next to his wife.

He didn’t touch her immediately, waiting for her to turn to look at him - something which she did not do.

“Two days,” she murmured, keeping her eyes on the floor, her voice icy cold. “You disappeared for two days.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said immediately, his voice no more than a whisper. “I’m-”

“You didn’t even leave a message explaining where you were going,” Natasha hissed. "You even turned your ring off. I couldn't even tell whether you were alive or not." 

Tony finally reached out placing his hand on top of her own. “I’m sorry.”

Natasha batted his hand away as she got up, turning away. “I thought we were passed all this not trusting each other bullshit, Tony. I thought we had… I am your wife,” she finally said, her voice sounding strangled. “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, so why-”

Tony moved quickly to stand behind her, grabbing ahold of her arms, ever so softly, as he whispered in her ear “I’m sorry.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” she said with a shake of her head. “If we can’t… if you can’t…. What’s the point if-”

Tony sighed. “I freaked out, Nat. I needed to breathe .”

“I know, I know, I know Tony, I do, but you can’t… you can’t do that to me - to any of us. We are a team, and you can’t… What if they had attacked you alone? What then? I can’t lose you because you decide to… I won’t do that Tony.” She shook her head, trying to keep the accusations off her tone. “I am too tired to do that. I am tired of losing people, of thinking that we finally are a place where we fully trust each other only to find out we’re not actually there yet. I-”  

“I went to visit Jarvis’ grave,” Tony interrupted quietly. “I thought that perhaps that would bring me some closure.” He rubbed her shoulders softly. “I am a mess, Natasha, you already knew that. But… I… I think I know how to get better,” he admitted. “I just… I need to work through it. I’m trying here, Nat.”

“You’ll just push me away again,” she said bitterly. It wasn’t a question.

“Don’t let me,” Tony replied, his voice sounding vulnerable. “You know who I am Natasha,” Tony said, finally letting go of her. He walked back to their dresser, feeling the sudden need to stand as far away from her as possible. He took a few calming breaths, before finally saying in a clear voice “I am going to try Nat, but there will be days I will push everyone away, and I need you to not let me.”

Natasha stilled at his words. She was unable to stay mad at him after that. She was frustrated, yes, but she couldn’t… He was right, she did knew him. She knew his past. She knew his fears. She knew his pain. She knew his destructive tendencies, but she also knew that over the past two years he had given her unprecedented power over him.

When he said “don’t let me” he didn’t mean it lightly. He was offering his full trust here. He was asking her to decide when it was necessary to step in and when to let him brood. He was asking her to know when to prod, while still taking care of his heart.

“Well I did say I would always be your ballerina,” she murmured with a half smile as she remembered the first time she danced for him while he played for her at Stark mansion, two Christmases ago. 

That had been the day Tony had decided to go ahead and “ninja marry” her as he called it. It had been the first time they had both actually plunged into the deeper waters of trust, allowing the other to see the vulnerable remains of their painful pasts.

Tony froze, a small smile appearing on his face. He didn’t say anything as he took a step closer to Natasha, still unsure as to whether he was allowed to touch the woman.

Natasha’s heart skipped a beat at the man’s consideration, and she ran forward, bringing him in for a brutal kiss. Tony huffed in surprise but immediately responded in kind, letting his hands rest at her waist as she ripped his shirt away, needing to feel the man’s pulse underneath her fingertips.

“God I love you,” Tony growled as he pushed her back towards the bed, guiding her down with practiced ease. She answered by running her hands through his salt and pepper hair, nipping at his lip as she wrapped her powerful legs around his torso.

They both moved in perfect unison, their worries, frustrations, pain, longing, and love all fueling them further and further into virtually uncharted territory.

She kissed down his jaw as she unbuckled his belt, feeling an almost inhuman need to feel skin and sweat, to feel Tony’s muscles tensing and relaxing, a need to feel that he was here, that he was okay, that they were okay.  

He seemed to have a similar need for he quickly helped her out of the silk dress, mouthing at her neck as he ran his hands down her body. He kissed his way down her body, twining their hands together as he kissed at her navel. He looked up for a second, locking eyes with his wife as if to ask for permission. She smiled at him kissing the tips of his fingertips with reverent lips. He sighed contentedly before traveling lower down, strangely okay with writing a new chapter of their story.

Natasha moaned unashamedly and threw her head back, aware that they still had a lot of things to talk about, aware that there were many things to fix, and many more preparations to take care of, but right now - now that she finally had her husband back - she didn’t manage to bring herself to care enough to stop him.

They’d make time for the world later. Right now she just needed to know they were okay. Right now she just needed some honest, raw, unrestrained physical contact. Right now, she just needed Tony.

Chapter Text

Tony listened quietly to Harley talk, dividing his attention between Harley’s excited rant and Natasha’s hands drawing circles on his skin. The boy had only been there for a few hours, and Tony already felt slightly bad for having left him on his own. But, really, it wasn’t his fault. He had been accosted by his team upon arrival, and then he had gone talk to Natasha, and one thing had led to another which had ended with them being very naked and very sleepy after all was said and done (mostly done but hey who’s counting).

The good thing was that Harley had served as a much welcomed distraction for both Peter and Kamala, as they hadn’t seen him in a very long time. The boy was now almost seventeen, and so he was on a much more equal footing with Tony’s two adoptive kids. The three of them got along swimmingly, particularly Peter and Harley as they both were as into science as Tony himself.

It was quite comforting, actually, to know that, where he to die, his legacy would fall on the hands of the three younglings. There was not a single doubt in his mind that they would continue honing Tony’s legacy, and there was nothing better he could ask for.

But, going back to the point, he had brought Harley to his home to spend some time with the boy, and the first thing he had done was leave him alone, so yeah, he needed to fix that. The sooner the better.

Still, duty did come first, so he had decided to assemble a meeting with everyone, because, whether he liked it or not, that sounded like the most grown up thing to do and he was supposed to be the fucking grown up. So. Yeah. Meeting.

Hence why they were in his living room waiting for people and not in the workshop tinkering away.

The Avengers trickled in slowly, all taking their usual seats. They were all visibly relaxed and whether that was because Tony was back or because Harley was finally visiting again, Tony couldn’t tell. It was probably a mix of both.

Steve and his team soon walked in too, though relaxed was the last word Tony would have associated with them at the moment. Steve looked slightly weary of Natasha, but he nodded to everyone all the same, as polite as ever. Tony might disagree with Cap on almost every fundamental thing, but, he had to give it to the guy, nine of ten he was the epitome of politeness, which Tony could appreciate. Sort of.

“Good, we’re all here now,” Tony said with a pleased hum. “So, first things first, I want to reiterate my apology-” he shifted on his sit slightly before continuing “- It was out of line for me to leave the way I did. I did not mean to worry you,” he said as he looked at his team, his eyes lingering on his kids, “and I will do my best to not let it happen again. So, you are all going to help me with distractions when Sergeant Barnes and I work together,” Tony said, keeping his tone light.

His team visibly stiffened but no one said anything. It was extremely rare for Tony to admit aloud that he needed help, but, he figured it was easier to just come clean. Yes, he had issues, but so did Barnes. Tony had a whole team to help him coppe; Barnes was stuck with Tony. So, no, he was not going to be an asshole and say he was not helping the man again when clearly he needed Tony.

Besides, he had tried to kill Barnes, so, he somewhat owed it to the man to at least try to be helpful.

“I’d like for us to start tomorrow, Sergeant,” Tony said with a thin smile. “We started off on the wrong foot, but tomorrow you won’t catch me by surprise, so I think we can actually get something done.”

It took a second for Bucky to process what was being told to him. Tony, despite having gone through a full fledge panic attack because of him, was still willing to help him. Damn, he wasn’t sure if the man was just far too nice or if he was straight up masochistic.

Both sounded eerily accurate.

“Ah, you don’t have to,” Bucky said immediately, shuffling uncomfortably. “I-”

Tony waved his hand. “It’s fine. It’ll be… interesting,” Tony said, though whether he was trying to reassure Bucky or himself he wasn’t sure. “Okay, now onto other news, this is Harley,” he said as he took the young man’s hand with his left hand. “I met him seven years ago, when everyone thought the Mandarin had managed to kill me,” Tony said with a bitter smile. “He’ll be staying here with us for two weeks. I want everyone to be good to him,” Tony said warningly, mostly for the benefit of the newcomers.

Harley beamed at Tony and said “I don’t think you have to worry about that. I will probably be in your workshop most of the time anyway.”

“You better not be, dumbo,” Kate said, sounding almost insulted. “None of us have seen you in what, a year?”

“But Kate I have bots I need to finish,” Harley whined.

“I don’t care if you have a bomb to diffuse,” Kate said seriously. “You better spend some quality time with everyone, or I’ll make sure you don’t get your christmas present.”

“I thought you didn’t celebrate Christmas this year,” Harley said, turning to look at Tony.

“That doesn’t mean we didn’t get everyone presents,” Tony said with a scuff, knowing that the boy knew that by we he meant he and Natasha.

The boy’s face immediately lit up, which was why Kate immediately chimed “quality time, remember?”

“But-”

“I will shoot your robot to the ground,” Kate said without preambles, which immediately got Harley to acquiesce.

Natasha shook her head and chuckled softly, not bothering to intervene in the spat. Kate had long lorded over the younger Avengers and Harley, and Natasha was in no rush to change that. They’d have to earn their way into an equal standing with the young woman, just like Kate would have to do the same to earn an equal standing with, say, Clint or Natasha.

It was part of the job, part of the teaching really; you weren’t give your place at the big boys table. You earned it.

Tony smiled at the two before continuing “we will probably have to set up a meeting with the UN soon. They’re probably getting antsy since we haven’t heard from Thor in almost a month now.”

“Fucking… He always goes MIA when he leaves,” Rhodes whined softly, rubbing his temples. “The UN won’t be happy.”

“We just need to buy him some time,”Tony said, though he knew it was easier said than done.

Steve frowned. “What do you mean buy time? They know that without Thor there really isn’t a path forward.”

“Well, not really,” Tony said with a sigh. “We never really established much of a plan, other than the fact we are hoping to fight this war as far away from earth as possible. However, if we don’t deliver something soon, the UN will probably want to step in.”

“And what exactly will they do?” Steve said, sounding slightly baffled.

“Well some countries will probably argue for nuclear warfare, though really the UN does not truly control the use of existing nuclear weapons, so it would be more a platform for getting countries to not freak out if, say, the US drops a nuke as soon as Thanos comes,” Tony admitted, sounding grimm. “It would be a contingency in case earth is attacked.”

Steve paled. “But the number of casualties-”

“They will send us in first,” Rhodey assured the man, “ The UN is very much anti nuclear weapons, but I am sure countries that possess nuclear weapons will want them at the ready and will want the authority to use them without repercussions.”

“So it will be a repeat of New York,” Steve stated, his face impassive.

“They are desperate,” Rhodey explained, though he didn’t sound happy about it. “It’s their best line of defense should all of earth come under attack.”

“There will be mass casualties,” Steve pressed, not able to understand why they weren’t trying to do something.

“Which is why we’re going to try and stall them, as will many world leaders, I’m sure,” Tony said brusquely. “Look, Steve, we don’t make the rules. We can try to reason with them and we’ll play every card we’ve got, but at the end of the day, we don’t dictate what almost two hundred countries decide to do.”

“This is exactly why I didn’t think the accords were a good idea,” Steve sighed with a shake of his head.

“And what’s your plan? If we’re not enough, if Thanos manages to kill everyone in this room, what then? Who defends earth then? The goal in a situation like this is to save as many people as possible. If we die, the earth will be destroyed regardless,” Tony said tensely. “No, I don’t like the idea of nukes any more than you do, and I’d much rather not fight on earth, but right now I don’t get to choose the battlefield, and I don’t get to tell the world what to do. The UN has worked for years to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, but they cannot go against internal security councils, and neither can I. All we can do is talk it out.”

“You can say no, Tony,” Steve pressed, his eyes sad.

“Have you made any progress with the stones?” Clint asked from where he was sitting next to Kate, changing the subject before Tony could answer.

Tony shook his head. “No, it’s impossible for us to conduct any actual informative research with just one stone.”

“I doubt we will be able to slow down the decision making process, if we have nothing concise to offer,” Vision piped in, looking Calmly between Tony and T’Challa.

“Well we cannot lie to them,” T’Challa reasoned. “That won’t go over well in the long run. We cannot afford to lose their trust.”

“Well them preparing the nukes doesn’t mean they’re actually going to use them,” Kamala said, though she knew her hope was probably unfounded.

“If you look at history, every time a government is given a “bazooka” as they call it, they tend to end up using it,” T’Challa said with a hint of past resentment. “So I think we should assume they’ll be more than ready to use it.”

“Let’s hope Thor comes back soon then,” Natasha said with an air of finality. “We should concentrate on training. If we can’t stop them from creating a backup plan, then we might as well make sure plan a is as strong as can be.”  

“I’ll need you to continue leading that until Sergeant Barnes and I are done,” he told her rubbing her hand slowly. “You and Steve can work together.”

Natasha nodded, getting up then. Tony stood up with her, keeping his hand around her waist. He wanted to spend as much time as possible with her for he knew he wouldn’t be seeing much of her for the rest of the day.

“Harley, I’m going to have you help me finish a few new armors,” Tony said, giving the young man a wink.

Harley beamed at the man, but before Tony could dismiss everyone Natasha turned to face Steve, keeping her hand firmly on top of Tony’s, which laid at her waist. “I wanted to apologize for attacking you,” she said, back ramrod straight. “I shouldn’t have done that, no matter how stressed I was.”

“It’s fine,” Steve said with a small smile, putting a lid on his frustration. He could disagree all he wanted with the fact that they were doing nothing to try and stop countries from using nuclear weapons, but the truth was that he currently held no power to do anything. His priority was saving people’s lives and that meant working with Tony in a somewhat cohesive unit.

And if the bombs came…. Well, they’d have to cross that bridge when they got there.


Tony stood in the room next to Bucky, counting his breaths to keep himself grounded in reality. While he was mentally aware of what was about to happen, that didn’t make it any easier. He still felt sick to his stomach, and the goosebumps would simply not go away.

Barnes, bless him, seemed to be as on edge as Tony, though if anything the man seemed concerned for Tony as opposed to himself.

Tony had to look away once the simulation began, unable to look at his mother’s face as she screamed his father’s name. For a second he forgot why he was there, but one look at Barnes - the real Barnes standing next to him as if ready to get Tony out of the room - reminded him why he was putting himself through this ordeal.

Tony stepped closer to the simulation, fixing the glasses sitting on his nose. He had never really tried messing with other people’s memories before. Rhodes had been willing to help him as a test subject once or twice, but they had always used harmless memories, and even then, they hadn’t tried it until Tony was almost one hundred percent sure he wouldn’t fuck up Rhodey’s mind.

But the testing had not been nearly good enough to draw strong conclusions, and the idea that he might actually make things worse for the sergeant terrified Tony.

He should have planned this more carefully.

“Sergeant if you wouldn’t mind beginning the exercise,” Tony murmured softly as he signaled with his hand.

Bucky nodded and stepped right next to Tony as he said “This is not real. It’s all Hydra’s creation. It isn’t me.”

The image flickered for a second, before changing slightly, as if zooming into the fact that Bucky was beating Howard Stark into a pulp.

Bucky kept repeating the same words, but it didn’t seem to be working, for the image wasn’t changing; he was frozen in a loop where he kept bashing the man’s face with his metal arm.

Tony felt sick.

He forced himself to remember that Howard had been an asshole for the entirety of Tony’s early life and really he shouldn’t feel as saddened as he felt when watching his father die. No, he didn’t have to be happy about it, but, honestly, what had the man ever done for him to deserve more of Tony’s pain?

After what felt like an eternity Tony stopped them, having watched enough of Bucky’s technique. He would probably have to personally tweak the memory.

“You should rest for a little while, sergeant,” Tony said in a kind tone. “I just needed to watch how you handled that. We’ll work on it tomorrow, and I’ll be taking a more hands on role - if you’re alright with that.”

“Whatever you feel is necessary,” Bucky was quick to reply.

Tony nodded, feeling at a loss at the quick compliance. “Well, I should get going then,” Tony said, still sounding uncertain as he took a step back. “I have to go, uh, help Peter.”

Bucky smiled and nodded, watching Tony go with pensive eyes. He didn’t know what to make of the man. He really hadn’t put much effort into the words he was trying to convince himself of, mostly because he was so distracted trying to make sure the man didn’t have a panic attack or something of the sort.

Thankfully, Tony had ended their brief encounter after only fifteen minutes. It wasn’t long, but, considering the content of their project, it felt like an eternity. Bucky wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful about the whole thing, but he was willing to give Tony a shot.

Tony, oblivious to the fact that the man remained in the room long after he had gone, walked down to Peter’s room. He hadn’t been lying when he had said he needed to help his boy.

He walked into Peter’s room without bothering to knock, finding Harley sprawled on the bed as he waited for Peter to change. The young boy beamed at Tony as soon as he saw him walk in, sitting up to give Tony more space to sit.

Tony did so with a wink, turning his head back so that his voice could travel more easily to the bathroom when he said “Are you almost done, Peter?”

“Give me a second,” the boy yelled back, sounding nervous. “How does this look?” He asked as he finally stepped out of the bathroom, donning a rather elegant suit.

Tony frowned immediately with consternation. “Don’t even think about it,” he declared with a shake of his hand. “This is a date, Peter, not a wedding.”

“That’s what I told him,” Harley quipped with a smug grin.

The boy balked at his adoptive father. “But I need to look good!”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You look like you are going to your first ever meeting with the board of Stark industries and you are suffering from indigestion.” Tony got up then, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “You still haven't defined whether you're together or not, so this the date meant for that, Peter,” Tony said with a shrug. “You gotta look suave, but not like you’re trying too hard. You’re going to spook her otherwise. Besides, you’re the one that always dresses like a hobo, because you want to “blend in” or whatever so-”

“I don’t dress like a hobo, I just don’t want to call attention,” Peter said with a huff. “They already come up to me enough because of the whole Avengers shtick, but when I dress in flashy clothes they suddenly remember I’m your son and they just want me for money.”

“Well Tony does have a lot of money,” Harley mused, smirking when Peter glared at him.

“I’m not complaining about you dressing like a hobo. All I’m saying is this girl will clearly notice the ridiculous amount of effort if you go from hobo to dressed to the nines” Tony said with a hint of a smile as he walked past Peter to go into his walk in closet, not bothering to look back when he heard the door open and Kamala exclaim “oh my god, you’re still choosing your outfit? And you say I’m the slow one.”

She plopped down on his bed and said “is that what you are wearing?”

Peter rolled his eyes. “It’s a date, kam, I wanna look good.”

“Way too stuffy,” she said with a shake of her head. “We don’t want her to think you can’t have fun. This is just your third date, right?”

“Fifth,” Peter replied immediately, feeling a hint of regret when Kamala asked “have you kissed her yet?”

“Sort of,” Peter replied evasively.

Tony immediately walked out of the closet then, his hands full of clothes “what the hell do you mean sort of? And why have I not heard about this?”

Peter blushed. “Well she was going for a kiss on the cheek but I was too so we kinda accidentally kissed, but it was just a peck, and it only happened once-”

Kamala looked up at the ceiling, almost as if wondering what it was that she had done to deserve this. “Ok, Pete, you gotta work with me here. This chick was totally trying to kiss your awkward ass. So, today, you gotta keep it together bhai and properly kiss her.”

“I can't just kiss her, Kam! What if she doesn't want to be kissed?” Peter pointed out.

Tony sighed. “Fry, tell my wife to come here, please.”

After a few seconds, FRIDAY replied “she’s on her way, sir.”

“Good, now in the meantime,” Tony said to himself as he approached Peter. “Take off that jacket, the tie, and put this shirt on.” He handed Peter a crisp white shirt that he had gotten for him about a year ago.

Peter did as he was told, carefully placing the items down carefully on the bed.

“Now take off your pants and put on these jeans,” Tony said as he walked back to pick up a black belt. “Oh good, you’re here.”

“What’s the matter?” Natasha asked as she closed the door behind her. “Why are you half naked?” She asked Peter.

“Tony told me to change,” Peter explained as he began buttoning the white shirt, tucking it neatly in his jeans.

“He’s going on a date with Mary Jane,” Tony explained. “By the way, I want to meet this girl,” Tony said almost as an afterthought, giving Peter a pointed glare. “It’s not nearly as fun to read a file.”

“Oh my god stop reading my friends’ files!” Peter said, sounding annoyed.

“Well she's not just a friend, is she? Also no, I will continue to read everyone’s file because it is my job to keep you safe.” Tony placed his hands on his waist. “If I read the files people Rhodey meets and he doesn't complain, then you don't get to either.”

Natasha smirked “you’re not going to win this argument, Peter,” she warned before the boy could refute. “Now, why did you call me?”

“To teach Peter something,” he said with a wink as he grabbed her by the hand and brought her closer to the boy. “Ok, so, going back to the kissing debacle - you should try to kiss her. I’m not saying jump the girl,” Tony clarified. “I’m saying, approach her, go in for a kiss - slowly - and if she stops you then you stop if not then you go for it. Like this.”

Tony took a step closer to his wife, placing a hand on her waist softly as he closed the distance between them, his movements slow but sure. She smiled as he came closer, closing her eyes and meeting him halfway with no trace of hesitation. They kissed for a few seconds before Tony pulled away and said “we’ve had years of experience, so yours might not be as smooth but you get the gist.”

“And what happens if she doesn't want to kiss me?”

Tony sighed. He knew why Peter was so nervous. He, unlike most of his peers, had been too busy to date much, what with his aunt dying and the whole adoption thing and then the joining into the Avengers. He had been harassed by the media for months at the time of his aunt’s death though. Thankfully, the interest had been only national, which had allowed Peter to escape at times to other countries where the Avengers continued to be seen merely as protectors now finally working with the UN, and not celebrities whose lives the public owned.

Still, at the end of the day, Peter did live in New York and went to school there, which meant it wasn’t rare for him to hear whispers all around about himself and his newfound family. No one had ever expected Tony Stark - eccentric genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist - to have a kid, much less multiple kids and a wife. Of course, after the mess that the internal spat between the Avengers brought, the public began seeing him in a much different light. He, by siding with the government and ergo the people, had been seen as the adult in the room, as the tragic hero who had risen from the ashes. And so the interest in his life, both private and public, had somewhat rekindled.

And Peter had had to walk into all of that.

And it wasn’t that the boy hadn’t handled the invasion of privacy beautifully, but the truth was that many of the people that had approached him at that point had only done so to get something out of him. And, as the geek of the class that had few acquaintances and even fewer friends, such interests made him almost as paranoid as Tony had been at his age, which saddened Tony.

Things had only gotten worse after his last break up with a girl that had cheated on him and had then said Peter had forced her to stay with him for months, using his status as an Avenger as leverage. Really, the girl had just wanted attention, and that had had the entire school - fucking high school, man - after her sob story.

Natasha had been the one to end that particular rumor in a rather unpleasant way for all involved.

College had been much kinder to Peter, but, after all that, he had become almost afraid of dating and, to make things worse, he was already half in love with Mary Jane.

“She’ll stop you,” Tony assured him and turned to Natasha again. “Stop me this time,” he said before going in for a kiss.

Before he could reach her lips, however, Natasha grabbed his hand and twisted him around. Having caught him off guard, she managed to send him flopping to the ground in one smooth motion. She immediately jumped on top of him, straddling his hips as she pointed her gloved hand at him. Harley gasped and sat up in the bed, covering his mouth to cover up the giggle that threatened to escape him.

“What the hell?” Tony spluttered once he was able to breathe properly again, frowning up at Natasha.

She smirked at him. “You said to stop you-” she shrugged “- that’s how I would stop anyone trying to kiss me.”

“I meant stop me like a normal human being, not like a psycho killer!” Tony balked, shaking his head.

“Oh come on, I didn’t even hit you,” she said as she tilted her head to the side, giving him a sly smile.

“Hey, I have a fragile body,” he sniffed, without really meaning it.

“Really? Because I’m pretty sure I’m sitting on something rather hard,” she teased as she leaned down, her eyes lit up with mischief.

Peter looked horrified. “Oh c’mon that’s just”

“Oh my god, you’re both so gross,” Kamala whined just as Harley pretended to retch over the side of the bed.

“Oh, shush all of you,” Natasha said as Tony chuckled, getting up first before helping her husband up. “Alright, was that all you needed? Because I promised Clint I would train with him tonight.”

“Oh yeah, that was all you can go,” Tony said as he brought her closer to kiss her goodbye. He grabbed her rear for show, which only earned him another chorus of retching sounds and a laugh from her before she left.

“Okay, so let’s go back to getting you ready,” Tony said as soon as Natasha was out the door.

“I think I got it,” Peter assured him as he scrunched up his face.

“You wish,” Tony snarked as he stepped into Peter’s personal space, pushing the boy to sit down on the bed to have better access to his hair. Tony walked back to the bathroom and brought gel as well as a comb, before running his hands through the boy’s hair. “We don’t want it to look like you combed it thirty times,” Tony explained.

Peter hummed as he looked back, freezing when he saw Kamala. “Are you seriously taking pictures right now, Kam?!”


Tony could pinpoint the exact moment everything went to shit. It was so clear in his mind he actually wanted to just brain himself against the wall, because where the fuck had his common sense gone?

They had gone in with Barnes to tackle the memory again, but Tony had gone in too quickly. He had forgotten Barnes was still adjusting to the program, and that Tony jumping in without any preparation was not helpful in the slightest.

The soldier within had immediately answered to the not yet completed alteration, assuming Tony to be a witness, which, obviously, had made Barnes snap.

Now, Tony was not a man that got scared easily, not after all the shit that had happened to him over the past ten years. However, seeing Barnes worried look turn lifeless and then murderous had definitely given him pause.

He knew a murderous glance when he saw one.

So Tony had reacted without thinking, making FRIDAY send an electrical pulse through the glasses that immediately knocked the poor man out. The good thing was that Tony was ninety-nine percent sure the soldier had gone back to recessive mode. The bad thing was that he had literally knocked Barnes out with an electrical discharge straight to the brain.

The other good news was that the serum running through the man’s veins would prevent any lasting damage. The bad news was that it had been over an hour and Bucky was still non-responsive and Tony didn't even want to imagine how furic Steve would be once he found out what Tony had done.

“Fry, get Bruce to come take a look at the sergeant,” Tony said as he propped the man up on a makeshift bed. “Explain to him what happened.”

“Of course, sir. Would you like me to call Captain Rogers as well?”

“No,” Tony said immediately. “I want Bruce to give us the all clear before we do anything else.”

--------------

“Will you look at that, the hermit finally decides to come out of hiding,” Clint said with a small smile as he picked up a new arrow. “Are you joining us?”

“Hey, I was making sure Barnes wasn't dead,” Tony said, matter-of-factly.

“Oh my god, what did you do?” Harley asked immediately, from where he stood on the range, wearing one of Tony’s prototype gauntlets.

“Why are you here?” Tony asked, walking over to the boy.

“You left me midway through finishing a bot, so I decided I could use some training,” Harley said with a sweet smile.

“Yeah, no,” Tony said. “We’ve talked about this Harley.”

“He's actually pretty good,” Clint admitted as he passed Kate her new set of practice arrows.

“I don't care,” Tony said with a shrug. “You're not joining the team, kid. It’s too dangerous.”

Harley rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying I wanna join now-”

“Harley-”

“You should at least let me learn how to defend myself. People know I’m friends with you. Don't you think they'll eventually come after me too?”

“Kid’s got a point,” Clint said as he jumped in the air and shot an arrow, hitting his mark perfectly as always.

“I hate all of you,” Tony grumbled as he retreated to the back. “Okay, Harley, if you want to learn self defense you don't need to do target practice. You need hand to hand combat.”

Clint smirked and dropped his bow. “C’mon kid, I’ll help ya train.”

“Can I do target practice after?” He asked clint in a whisper.

“I can hear you,” Tony said, bemused as he walked with them to the back of the gym.

“Sure thing, kid,” Clint said as he patted his back. “We’ll find some time later.”

Tony stifled a complaint. He could try to keep Harley away from this world as much as he wanted, but there was only so much he could do without being outright controlling. He could just hope the boy would find other interests soon enough.

“Oh are you coming to train?” Natasha said as she stepped into view, as quiet as always.

“They're going to train. I’m just here to watch,” Tony said immediately.

Natasha chuckled. “Well if you're here already we might as well train.”

Tony sighed as Natasha grabbed him by the hand and dragged him to the mat.

This was not how he had expected his afternoon to go.


“Nothing I do seems to work,” Tony said, letting out a frustrated huff. “His mind won't give in.”

“Perhaps he can't move on,” Bruce said as he picked up a sushi roll.

Tony shook his head. “He's ready to move on,” Tony argued. "Fuck, I'm ready to move on. I hate having to rewatch that same wretched memory every day." 

“Feeling ready and actually being able to do it are two different things, Tony,” T’Challa pointed out, taking a sip of his sake.

“That's not helpful,” Tony said with a tired smirk.

“Well something has got to be blocking him, Tony,” Bruce pressed, leaning back.

“Yes, but what?” Tony asked, feeling his annoyance bubble.

“You won't know until you sit down and talk to him,” T’Challa said, patting Tony’s knee when the man’s expression fell.

“I don't even… Fine, okay, fine, I’ll go talk to him,” Tony said with a grunt, getting up reluctantly. “Don't wait up,” he quipped.

Bruce and T’Challa looked at each other, both frowning. “Why did he-”

T’Challa chuckled. “I guess he thought we meant he had to go talk to Mr. Barnes right now.”

Bruce’s frown deepened. “I’m pretty sure he just ditched us.”

“It wouldn't be the first time,” T’Challa observed as he downed his sake.

Tony, already far down the hallway, did not hear the two men talking about him. Though, even if he had, he was too preoccupied in his mind to pay much attention to anything else. So far, he and Barnes had not actually sat down to talk things out. Tony had been avoiding that particular conversation. They went in and worked with the BARF but they never ever talked, unless it was for a specific reason.

Tony wasn’t sure why exactly he didn’t want to talk to Barnes. He was slowly making progress in his whole letting go of his grudge thing, but it was still hard for him to help the man and talking to him directly felt like going a step too far. He didn’t want to snap at him, nor did he want to see the man just like another joe.

While logically he understood that Barnes was just another victim of Hydra, that did not mean his heart was quite ready to have true compassion towards the man unless pressed. But, if it meant helping him, then Tony would do what needed to be done and talk to him.

“Fry, is he in his room?” Tony asked.

“No, sir. He is currently at the gym, doing bench presses,” FRIDAY informed him.

“Of course he is,” Tony muttered. “Could you ask him to come to the Hulk’s playground?”

“He will be there momentarily, sir,” She told him after a minute.

“Thank you, Fry,” Tony said as he walked to the kitchen to make two mugs of tea. He had realized about a week ago that Bucky didn’t seem to drink coffee.

He obviously hadn’t asked the story behind that, one because he wasn’t particularly interested in knowing why the man hated the one thing that Tony could subsist on and two because he was afraid of triggering any unwanted memories. But, given that he did know the man drank tea like there was no tomorrow - or so Natasha had informed him - he figured they could both have some tea. Which, okay, it hadn’t really bothered him that she knew that but at the same time, why the fuck did she know him that well? He knew they knew each other from the red room, she had told him as much, but tea preferences? Really?

And he was diverting again.

With a shake of his head, Tony walked back to the Hulk’s playroom and brought two chairs to the middle of the room before sitting down to wait for the sergeant to come. He didn’t have to wait long, for Bucky, with all his 1940’s values, was one of the most punctual members of Steve’s team.

“You called?” The man asked as soon as he was inside, the room, surprised to find it so dark.

“Yes, I wanted to talk to you for a minute,” Tony said, giving the man a reassuring smiled.

‘Is something the matter?” Barnes asked as he took the chair opposite to Tony, feeling even more surprised when Tony handed him a cup of tea. “How do you know how I take tea?” Barnes asked with suspicion after taking a sip.

“Natasha told me how you like it,” Tony said, before adding “which I still don’t know how she figured out.”

Bucky couldn’t help but smile sadly before he said “we used to drink tea a lot before.”

Tony froze at that. “Sorry?”

Bucky, noticing Tony’s surprise immediately stiffened. Shit, he had said the wrong thing. “Well, uh, you know when we… I knew her when she was young, as I’m sure she told you-”

“She didn’t tell me you two had tea parties together,” Tony said none too pleasantly.

Barnes had the decency not to blush. “We didn’t… not really. I mean we did have tea together. I… I was one of her instructors,” he explained. “We… became friends,” he admitted. “The soldier was still the dominant aspect of my… personality, I guess, but there was enough of me to... “ Bucky shrugged. “I didn’t handle the girls the same way the others did, and Natasha appreciated that, so we would talk a lot.” Barnes eyes seemed slightly yearning as he said “she would often sneak out of her room after hours just to have a conversation with someone she actually liked to talk to.”

Tony wasn’t sure what to make of this new information. He wasn’t sure whether he was more angry at Natasha for having downplayed whatever it was that she had had with the soldier or at Barnes for looking like a sad puppy.

“You sound like there was something going on between you,” Tony said with a huff, keeping his tone sarcastic and skeptical.

Barnes relaxed then, not knowing that Tony Stark kept his emotions hidden under a thick layer of masks and lies. “To be honest, I don’t remember all of it,” Barnes said. “But I’m pretty sure she would have told me had there been something between us.”

Tony froze then because what the fuck?

Barnes did not remember his whole time with Natasha. He just remembered the two of them being very friendly, which, considering how Natasha had been brought up, was tantamount to them fucking.

And oh god that was not an image Tony needed right now. No amount of bleach could ever make him unsee-

“Right, well moving on,” Tony said tensely because he refused to throw up in front of the man. “What I wanted to talk to you about was my parents.”

Barnes spluttered on his tea.

“Why does it keep coming back to you?” Tony continued, using all of his hard won self control and denial abilities to push the image of Natasha and Barnes to the darkest corner of his mind where he could deal with that later.

“I don’t know,” the sergeant replied immediately.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Speculate, then.”

Bucky seemed to be stumped by the question for a few moments, before saying “I remember all of them,” he explained. “But I didn’t know all of them.” Barnes sighed. “It’s… It’s different when you know them.” Barnes smiled bitterly. “All the ones I didn’t know… I don’t know their stories or their names. I don’t know who got hurt because of me, so it’s easier to see HYDRA’s hand there. That wasn't me and I can’t… I won’t blame myself for that,” Bucky said decisively. “But the ones I knew… those hurt the most.”

“But you weren't even friends with my father,” Tony argued, still feeling lost. “You didn't know my mother, either.”

“I knew him in passing,” Bucky agreed. “He was… hard to swallow,” Bucky said with a chuckle, “but your father helped doctor Erskine infuse Steve with the serum. Without your father’s support they might not have been able to do it,” Bucky looked away then, his voice tinged with sadness. “Your father helped my best friend survive the war, helped him survive the ice, and I killed him and his wife .”

Bucky looked restless now. “I may not have known him well but…” he shook his head “and now I also know you,” Bucky said bitterly. “I know you and I killed your parents. I… It’s hard to say it was just HYDRA when it was people I knew. I should have been stronger than what they did to me.”

Tony blinked several times, fighting back tears. At this point he wasn’t sure whether he felt like crying for his poor mother’s fate or for this man’s fate.

God, everything was fucked up.

“Thank you for sharing that with me,” Tony said after a few seconds, his voice thick with emotion. “I… I have an idea of what you and I can do next session, but I’d rather do it in the morning. I don’t think either one of us is in the mental headspace to deal with this.”

Barnes nodded in agreement. “Are you okay?” Bucky asked, because while he was still very new at reading Tony, he wasn’t blind enough to not see the tense lines his shoulders were set on.

“Fine,” Tony said with a plastic smile as he all but run out of the room, because while he was the master of denial, there was only so long he could keep a lid over his anger.

He walked back to the kitchen, frowning when he heard noises coming from the living room. He walked out of the kitchen and into the living room, slightly surprised to find the whole team gathered there.

“Um, did I miss a memo? Why are you all here?” He asked with mild interest as he walked a bit closer to the couch.

“Harley wanted to watch a movie, and we haven’t had movie night in a while,” Peter explained with a happy smile.

“We knew you were with Bucky, so we didn’t want to interrupt,” Bruce explained immediately.

Tony hummed, taking a step back to retire to his room to brood, but was stopped by Harley’s voice when he said “where are you going, Tony?”

“Does it matter?” Tony asked, unable to keep all of his grumpiness contained.

“Are you drinking tea?” T’Challa said as he came out of nowhere to stand behind Tony, pushing the man towards the couch.

Tony went half unwillingly, finally sitting stiffly beside his wife. "Well I gotta measure up to our cavalier muscle man over in the playroom. Can't compete with his tragic backstory,” Tony said with a dry smile.

Everyone froze then, not sure what to make of Tony’s snark. “You alright there, bud?” Clint asked first, giving Natasha a questioning glance, which she could not answer for she was as lost as he was.

“Me? Oh, I’m fine,” Tony said with one of his trademark ‘Fuck you I’m Tony Stark’ smiles that he hadn’t used in almost five years. “Now does anyone want tea?” He asked as he got up.

“Did you have a fight with Barnes?” Peter asked as he sat up from where he was buried in his iron man blanket - a running joke between Tony and the young man.

“A fight? No of course not. A man with that many promising conquests deserves some respect,” Tony said, his eyes as sharp as his cheek.

Kamala raised her brows at the comment, not sure what to make of it. “I’ll take some lemonade, baba,” Kamala said with a twinkle of humour in her eyes. “What with all the acid coming off of you in waves.”

“Acid? I’m hurt baby girl,” Tony said as he twirled the cup in his hands. “I am being the epitome of niceness,” he said with a half sneer.

“Okay, Tony, what’s bugging you,” Rhodey said as he sat up, giving his friend a knowing look. “You haven’t been this much of an asshole since you became a dad.”

“I haven’t a clue what you’re on about, Rhodey honey,” Tony said as he walked over to the man to pat his shoulder. “Now, if need me I’ll be down in my workshop contemplating how beautiful being single was. You know, when I didn't have someone to answer to or someone that knew all of my sob story.” Tony spared Natasha’s shocked face a half glance before continuing with “but hey, maybe Bucky will wanna join me and we can trade stories. After all I have my own set of conquests. Maybe I can give him a run for his money. After all, this asshole is so involved in my life he has gotten a taste of everyone I held and hold dear.”

Bruce choked on his coffee, and T’Challa, who was sitting next to the man, looked to shocked to be of much help.

Kamala looked between her adoptive parents with wide eyes, a lot of unanswered questions in her deep dark eyes. She looked around the room to find different levels of shock, except for Natasha that, more than shocked, just looked downright pissed.

She jumped off of her seat in seconds, catching up with Tony’s retreating form in seconds. She grabbed him by the arm and murmured something too low for her to hear, but they were soon off in the elevator, both looking ready to unleash a pummel of words that were meant to hurt and dissect so deeply the other would feel be left bleeding out.

“Um, does anyone know what just happened? Because I’m really lost,” Harley said from where he was sitting next to Peter, looking mightily uncomfortable.

“I have an idea of what might be happening,” Clint admitted, not looking that worried. “Though I can’t say for sure.”

“Care to share what you know with the class?” Hope said with a raised brow.

Clint shook his head. “I’d rather talk to Nat first, to be honest,” the man said firmly.

“Spoilsport,” Hope breather out as she plopped back down on the round couch she was sitting on. “You better tell us once you find out, or you might find all of your arrows gone in the morning.”

----------------------

“What the hell was that?” Natasha growled as soon as the door to their room was locked.

“What was what, honey?” Tony said, his voice saccharine.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” She hissed as she stepped into his personal space, her eyes fiery. “I do not appreciate your passive aggressive bullshit, Tony, so you’re going to tell me what’s going on.”

Tony grabbed a hold of Natasha’s hands, which had been poking at his chest up until a second ago, and whirled them around, pushing her against the wall. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was the only one required to spew my guts out in this relationship,” he hissed back.

Natasha’s frowned deepened. “What the fuck are you on about?”

“C’mon, Nat, you can stop pretending now,” Tony said, his eyes hard. “Bucky already told me everything I need to know.” He stepped a little closer to her, his eyes cold now as he whispered “tell me, was it the sneaking around the red room to see your boyfriend how you became so good at hiding your tracks?”

Natasha gaped at Tony as if she had been slapped. “What the… I never sneaked around to-”

“Well I’m afraid the sergeant already let out your little secret, honey,” Tony said as he took a step away from his wife.

Natasha froze. “What?”

“He told me all about how you snuck around at night to go see him,” Tony said, the fight in him suddenly evaporating, leaving behind a tired man who had been betrayed by the world one too many times. “Some lovely tea parties you had.” Tony shook his head a sad smirk coming to his lips. “Look, I’m not saying you being with him was wrong, but you should have told me . You said you knew him, Natasha, but you never told me you were close friends, or even more than that.”

Tony took another step back, rubbing his forehead slowly. “You ask me to trust you, which I have for the past three years. You ask me to not leave you out, to do things as a team, but how can you ask me that when you don’t do the same? How can you ask to know where I fuck off to when I need a break from the world when you won’t even share your past with me.” Tony heaved a sigh. “I’m not asking for a play by play, Nat, but a little heads up of the things that might relate back to me would have been nice.”

Natasha was so shocked by the man’s words it left her speechless for a few moments. “Tony…,” she shook her head and grabbed his hand before he could step any further away. “I don’t know what the hell James told you, but I need you to know I didn’t lie to you . We were never together. He was one of my instructors, and yes, he was my friend, and yes I did think about fucking him at one point in my life - that’s all I knew back then - but we never did anything,” she said looking at Tony straight in the eye. “He was the only one in that place that didn’t force me to… He was nice to me, Tony, so yes, we were good friends, but that was years ago and I wasn’t friends with Steve’s Bucky. I was friends with a man that wasn’t quite the soldier but wasn’t quite himself either.”

She took a deep breath and brought Tony another step closer. “I didn’t tell you I was friends with him, because it didn’t matter to me . I needed you to know I knew him, but I didn’t see the point in you knowing more about that when I knew you hated the man and I also knew that friendship was long dead. I haven’t seen him in years, Tony, and the man he is today is not the man I knew back then. Hell, I am not the same. I was a monster trained to kill back then,” she said in a whisper, her eyes filled with a shame that she knew she could never get rid of. “I was the boogeyman. And now… Now I am a woman many little girls look up to. I am the woman that got lucky enough to get her own version of a prince charming.” She smiled softly. “I did tell you I knew him, Tony. And no, I didn’t tell you we were close, because we weren’t, not really. I was desperate for a friend, for someone to keep me somewhat sane, and he did that for me. But all of that burned when I joined shield.” She shrugged, raising a hesitant hand to trace his lips and then his cheek.

Tony looked into his wife’s eyes for a few moments, leaning some of his weight on her hand that continued to rub circles on his cheek. “Sorry,” he said finally, letting out a sight. ‘It’s just… the idea of you and Bucky… it drove me up the wall.”

“I’m going to kill him for having told you-”

“Well he didn’t exactly say you were together,” Tony was quick to say, having the decency to look chagrined. “He mentioned how close you two were, and then I kind of asked if you two had had something going on, and he said he couldn’t remember everything so he didn’t know.”

“And from that you assumed there had been something,” Natasha said, looking offended.

Tony shrugged. “He looked like a man in love.”

“Oh my god, Tony Stark was that your version of jealousy?” She asked before letting out a laugh. “Jesus, you’re worse than a kid,” she muttered as she raised herself up to kiss him.

“Well he is the man that ruined my childhood,” Tony quipped as he pushed Natasha back against the wall, letting his hand trail down to her thigh to bring it up.

‘HYDRA ruined your childhood,” Natasha said as she kissed down her jaw, aware that the distinction was important.

Tony hummed. “Well, I think I actually know what I need to do to help your boyfriend now, so that’s a positive thing that happened today,” he said as Natasha wrapped both of her legs around Tony’s waist, letting him nip at her neck.

“Don’t call him my boyfriend,” she complained. “I’m a married woman, Tony, and I have it on good authority that he is one jealous motherfucker.”

Tony chuckled against her neck, biting down with the full knowledge that he was about to leave a visible mark.

“Oh my god, that’s disgusting!” Peter, who had opened the door without the other two noticing, exclaimed as he scrunched up his face.

Tony whipped around his neck to look back. “I swear to god, there’s no privacy in this damn compound. Peter lock the door and get out of our room!”

“I was just coming to see if you had stopped fighting,” he said defensively before closing the door. “I’ll just let the others know you won’t finish watching the movie with us!”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Give us half an hour and we’ll be right there with you.”

“Oh my god, I did not need to hear that!” Peter whined before walking away, sure that he was now mentally scarred forever.

Chapter Text

Tony put on the BARF glasses and took a seat next to Barnes. “Alright, start us off,” Tony said with a nod of his head, turning his attention back to the currently unused simulation electronics.

Bucky gave him a side glance but acquiesced. Tony had decided not to tell him what his plan was, but the man seemed sure it would work. And, it wasn’t that Bucky didn’t want to trust the man, because he wasn’t stupid enough to not recognize a brilliant mind when he saw one, but he also didn’t like getting his hopes up for no reason. He preferred to be conservative in his expectations, for he could do without the bitterness.

The memories soon started playing, and Tony, much to Barnes’ surprise got up and kneeled in front of the man. His glasses were flicking red, which meant the man was actively reworking the memory.

“Look at me, sergeant,” Tony asked in a soft voice, steeling himself for what he had to do.

He had reworked a number of his own memories, and had even blocked his own access to a few hand picked ones from his childhood that still gave him nightmares. He knew how to redirect and neutralize a memory better than most. He even knew how to substitute memories, but he hadn’t dared go go too deeply into Barnes’ mind, for fear of causing more harm.

Now, however, with the gut feeling that this was the right thing to do, he felt no fear. Only a sense of internal resistance for what he was about to say was not in agreement with how he currently felt.

But this wasn’t his first lie, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last. He was a master liesmith. He could sell anything he put his mind to. And he would sell this lie just as well as, if not better than, every lie he had sold before.

“Barnes, stop watching the memory and look at me,” Tony repeated, taking a deep breath once the man finally looked down. “That image of you killing my parents? It’s not you. It was never you. It was HYDRA Barnes.” Tony grabbed ahold of the man’s face then, startling the man. Tony clicked something on the glasses and the blinking red light suddenly stopped blinking, turning the two lenses red. “Hell, even I know that. They did this to you, so you need to stop blaming yourself for killing my parents. They wouldn’t be blaming you,” Tony whispered, and he felt like his mouth had turned to led. “My mother would never blame you. She would probably be the first one to forgive you.” Tony smiled bitterly, feeling like a piece of his soul was leaving him when he breathed out “and, as the one that had to grow up without parents, as the one that needed over thirty years to even begin getting over it... I forgive you too.”

The images behind him began crumbling immediately. And with that, Tony switched off the lenses, knowing that his job was done; the memory had been altered. Everytime Barnes remembered that moment, he would also remember Tony’s face and his words; he would remember that he had been absolved of that crime by one of the three victims that had suffered because of the soldier.

And it didn’t even matter that Tony hadn’t actually meant the last bit, because he knew it would eventually be true. Yes, he couldn’t truthfully say he was okay with the soldier yet, but he would be. And if it meant diffusing a trigger for Barnes, then so be it.

“What… I… How…,” Barnes stopped talking, clearly dazed as the memory finished rewiring itself. He would have one bitch of a headache later. “Thank you,” he finally said hoarsely. He didn’t need to test the memory with the BARF to know it had worked.

Tony only nodded stiffly, before slowly making his way to the door. “I think you can take it from here,” he said, sounding tired. “If you get stuck again, you can come to me,” Tony assured him.

But just as he opened the door, the building shook, and FRIDAY’s voice immediately came alive saying “Sir, we appear to be under attack, by the same creatures that attacked New York eight years ago.”

“What?” Tony spluttered as he yanked the door open. “Why didn’t you inform me we had incoming?”

“I am afraid the radar did not detect them, sir,” FRIDAY said, sounding chagrined.

Tony swallowed hard, his mind going into fight mode. “FRIDAY, assemble the avengers. Get one of the bots to get Harley to the bunker, and do not let him out, no matter how much he kicks and screams,” Tony instructed just as his suit finally appeared at the end of the hall.

It flew straight for Tony, closing around him in seconds. The black metal covered his body like a second skin, the vibranium infused suit feeling lighter on his body than his prior suit ever had. Tony whirled around then, and gave Barnes an apologetic look, even though the man couldn’t see it. “I need you to stay here.”

Bucky, whose eyes were wide taking in the new suit, merely nodded, for which Tony was grateful for. He locked the door behind him and flew away, saying “Friday, have that room on lockdown. I don’t want him going out, and I don’t want anything that can harm the sergeant going in.”

“Of course, sir,” FRIDAY replied immediately.

“Where are they, Fry?” Tony asked as he flew out from the first window he saw.

“The team has gathered on the lawn, right outside the main training room, Sir,” FRIDAY was quick to inform him. “Would you like me to open the comm line to all present, sir?”

“Yes,” Tony said, flying faster as he heard the distinct sound of metal breaking. “Please tell me everyone is wearing their gear.”

“Yes,” Natasha grunted as she kicked one of the aliens in the face. “We were all training.”

Thank god.

Steve looked up then as Tony flew past him, feeling his heart skip a beat at the sight of the sleek black suit. He had seen it before, of course. It was impossible to miss when they constantly checked the news. And, while in Wakanda they rarely, if ever, reported on the personal lives of the Avengers, they certainly reported on their more heroic activities, and thus the change in Tony’s suit had been hard to miss.

He hadn’t known what to think then, and he didn’t know what to think now. It was even more unsettling seeing it up close than it had been seeing it on TV. The new armor was very different from the one Steve remembered. What used to be a shiny red and gold was now as black as onyx, and the red highlights of the armor looked more opaque than the previous red Tony had used; it reminded Steve of the color of blood once it’s been spilled. The golden faceplate also looked much less shiny than any previous armor. It was much more metallic looking.

All in all, the colors made the armor look not only less flashy but also made it easier for Tony to camouflage if he so wished. And the design… the design made Tony feel much more threatening than before. It was clear that the armor was designed to be more aerodynamic, which was probably why it looked slimmer than ever before. But, slimmer or not, the armor itself looked threatening . Where before it had been smooth lines and round edges, this armor was all hard lines and sharp edges. It looked like it could cut .

And so Steve didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t know exactly what had driven Tony to change his armor so drastically, but he knew that the change in the armor meant that there had been a change in the man.

Tony, not noticing Steve staring at him, landed then, kicking a chitauri in the face before rising up higher in the sky to take stock of the situation. “Kate, Clint I need you to take the highest posts you can find and shoot down the flying fuckers coming,” Tony growled as his eyes narrowed on a fucking portal that was floating a few miles away from the compound. “Rhodey help Peter round up any strays you find. T’Challa, Hope and kam I want you to clear the ones that are trying to get into the compound. Vision, find a way to close that damn portal.”

“Kam I want you to my right,” T’Challa said immediately knowing that, if Tony had put the girl in his group, then he was fully expecting T’Challa to take care of his little girl. It was a bit of an unspoken agreement they all had; no matter how old the younger Avengers got, or how much experience they gained, everyone was half expected to return the two younglings to Tony in one piece.

“Tony, Where is Bucky?” Steve couldn’t help but ask, when he realized his friend didn’t seem to be coming.

“He’s safe,” Tony assured without turning back. “But he’s not ready to join us in battle,” he said, his tone final. “Alright, I know I haven’t been around to train with all of you, but I trust you and your team, Captain, can find the places where you are needed at the most,” Tony said as he swooped down to pick up Natasha.

He carried her near the portal, where he knew both of them would be needed the most. She grabbed his hand and Tony, used by now to fighting with her, flung her at an incoming target, allowing her to climb onto the back of one of the chitauri, effectively taking over their flying vehicle.

Tony nodded to himself then before quickly darting back up to the skies to shoot at any chitauri he saw. He, noticing Natasha’s intentions to jump from one flying vehicle to the next, quickly flew towards her, catching her hand to help her get to her target, before allowing himself to drop, effectively crushing a chitauri that Steve had just been fighting with nearby.

He had to admit, it was rather strange seeing his former teammate fighting without the shield. He was obviously brilliant at hand to hand combat, but he was slower without his shield, and it was clear that with the right amount of enemies, or just the right bullet, he would be overwhelmed in no time.

Tony cursed underneath his breath as the caring he had thought long buried tugged at his heart, and he turned around and blasted down every enemy on Steve’s flank. Steve looked back with a hint of surprise, clearly not expecting Tony to be the one to help him. He gave the armored man a thankful nod, which Tony pointedly ignored as he took off again when he saw Wanda approach.

He was sure the witch was more than capable of helping Steve, and he didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to fight next to her just yet. Tony looked to his right and smiled softly as he saw Peter swing around Rhodes, both fighting together beautifully. Peter would wrap them and Rhodes would blast them, making the task much simpler for both of them.  It had taken them a while to perfect the technique of fighting together, as Peter’s webs could at times be unpredictable, for the terrain changed with every battle, but, after a few months of trial and error, he had learned how to swing from Rhodey himself when necessary.

It was a risky maneuver - and one that could send them both spiraling to the ground, but, in extreme cases where Peter didn’t have enough time to find a beam or a building, that’s what they used.

Tony had had to heavily reinforce Rhodey’s armor for that, though he still much preferred when Peter just grabbed one of the two by the hand and blasted anything within a fifteen mile radius.

“Tony,” T’Challa called, snapping Tony’s attention back to the fight. He immediately flew closer, just as T’Challa round kicked one of the aliens in the face, sending him spiraling up into the air for Tony to blast. The man did so immediately, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Alien’s chest as the blast burned away the chitauri’s flesh.

Kamala approached T’Challa then, who gave her a quick nod as they began fighting back to back, both experts in hand to hand combat. T’Challa was clearly more experienced than Kamala given that the man had been doing this for so much longer, but Kamala was holding her own.

Tony smiled proudly before flying away, this time to aid Vision, who was still hovering over the open portal. .

“I believe I know how to close this,” The android said as soon as Tony was close enough to hear him. “Though I’m not sure how long it will take me,” he admitted. “I need there to be no distractions.”

Tony nodded. “I’ll keep them away from you, you just do your thing.”

The android nodded, giving Tony a small smile before closing his eyes. He moved his arms outwards, keeping his biceps close to his torso even as he flexed his forearms. He opened his palms just as the mind stone began shining brightly. The air became denser around Vision, just as the translucent yellow light began expanding, forming a cocoon around the android.  

He murmured something under his breath, which Tony did not catch, as he was too busy taking down the chitauri now directly coming for the android.

“War Machine, a hand right about now would be nice,” Tony called out as he flung one chitauri against one of the flying vehicles, effectively destroying it with a small missile.

“Coming,” Rhodey said immediately, dropping Peter close enough to the ground for T’Challa to catch him, before taking off again to help Tony.

An arrow flew right past Tony, and he turned back sharply to find Clint and Kate, bows in hand, ready to help. “Take down their vehicles,” Tony instructed as he turned back to help Rhodes.

Vision flew higher then, as energy cackled all around him, exuding out of him.  He grunted softly as he extended his arms fully and shot a beam of yellow light at the edges of the portal. The deafening sound of the beam colliding with the portal gave everyone pause as adrenaline kicked into everyone’s system. The sound was soon followed by a gush of cold air as the portal shone yellow and began to close.

Vision groaned again and released more energy, feeling the resistance as he forced the portal shut. Soon enough, his efforts succeeded, and the portal ceded, leaving behind the carcasses of the chitauri that had fallen in the battle, as well as a few live ones that still needed to be disposed of.

Tony turned to congratulate the android, only to find him falling towards the ground, unconscious. “Shit,” Tony breathed out as he flew down to catch Vision before he could hit the ground. He grabbed him just in time, landing a little harder than usual, but not hard enough to break the armor. ‘Vision?” He asked immediately, putting him down on the ground.

Tony lifted his faceplate as he shook the android softly, his heart in his mouth. “I don’t… He needs medical help.”

“Pym and Banner are not here,” Clint said as he rapelled down from the top of the building.

Tony cursed under his breath. “FRIDAY, get them here as soon as possible-” Tony stopped mid track as the android suddenly sprung up, looking disoriented.

Tony immediately reached out to steady him, saying “whoa, there, are you alright?”

The android looked at him, as if confused, before nodding. “I… might have used more energy than I thought. I apologize.”

“Don’t apologize,” Tony said with a frown. “You just closed the portal, Viz.”

The android looked down at his hands, a frown forming on his face. “I… have never felt that drained.”

Tony licked his lips, worry clear on his face. “Bruce and Pym are on their way. We’ll check what happened.”

“It was Thanos,” The android was quick to say. “He has a few stones already,” Vision explained. “He… He knew there were less of us today,” Vision said as he looked into the distance, recalling the images that had crossed through his mind as his powers had made contact with the beam. “He… He was just testing our strength,” Vision said, his eyes finding Tony again. “He was measuring us, and we are… he has a vast army. Earth will not survive if we fight here.”

Tony swallowed hard then, and stood up. He rolled his shoulders backwards, shoving back his panic. Right now was not the time to allow the fear to eat him away. He needed to be strong.

“FRIDAY, pull up the recording of the battle of New York, and pull up the file for this last battle. Get me on the phone with Coulson and Fury, and get me the UN. Tell them it’s an emergency. Vision, go to Bruce’s lab and wait for him there.” Tony looked around at his team.

They all looked a bit beat up, but there didn’t seem to be any major injuries, at least the scanner in his retina was not showing anything. “I want you all to shower and change. We’ll meet in the common area in two hours. I need to go check in on Harley. Natasha I need you to take him back home. It’s too dangerous for him here.”

His wife nodded immediately, before turning back to check on Peter and Kamala.

“FRIDAY, try to locate Thor again with the radar,” Tony said as he began walking away, his mind going a mile a minute. “The UN will be shaken by what happened today.”

Steve watched Tony go with no small sense of awe. The man had just been thrown a curve ball, and yet he was taking control of the situation in a way Steve had never seen before. He still remembered the days when they had all fought together, and they had been a good unit, but Tony’s team.

Perhaps it was because they had been fighting together for five years, but the level of unspoken understanding amongst all of them was remarkable. Tony gave only general directions; he told them what to do, not how to it.

And, strangely enough, they followed. They didn’t need more instructions than that. Hell, half the battle had been fought without Tony giving any further instructions. The man just jumped in and out, whenever he saw a precarious opening.

“Are you alright?” Natasha asked, snapping him out of his reverie. “Is everyone in your team alright?”

“We’re fine,” Steve assured her, before looking back at the compound. “So that’s the general, huh?”

Natasha smiled - a small smile full of pride. “Yes, that’s the general.” She shifted on her feet before saying “I know it must be strange for you, but… it works for us.” She shrugged.

“He’s good,” Steve admitted with a small smile. “It’s good to see that he has grown into the role.”

Natasha chuckled. “He’s always been fitted to that role, Steve. It’s just that there was never an opportunity for him to show that.” She gave him an analysing look before saying “you should probably talk to him. He is not who you think he is, Steve… He never was.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked, his brow furrowed.

Natasha shook her head. “Talk to him,” she repeated. “You’ll have to do it, whether you want to or not, especially if you’ll be fighting with us.” She took a deep breath and said “our team only has one leader, Steve, and that’s Tony. So, you both need to figure out how you’re going to move around one another in the field. You can’t step into his territory, and he needs to know you have a territory too. It’s the only way this is going to work.”

Steve bit his lip, but didn’t say anything. For the past week or so, they had finally began working well with Natasha. She had allowed him to take command, but he deferred to her whenever she disagreed with his instructions. It was clear, however, that the same wouldn’t work for Tony.

Natasha, for all the respect she commanded within her team, was still not their leader. They had been answering somewhat positively to him because Tony had been too busy to be there. But, in a real battle, as he had just seen, the team looked at Tony for guidance.

So Natasha was right, they’d need to figure out a way to work together, to trust one another, to lead the whole team together.

Steve was not looking forward to that conversation.

Chapter Text

Steve knocked on the door that led to Tony’s study, feeling uncharacteristically awkward. He had asked FRIDAY to tell Tony if it was possible to speak to the man. And, perhaps it was him just recalling old habits, but he had half expected to be summoned to the man’s workshop, or perhaps the common room. Instead, he had been summoned to the man’s business study.

It wasn’t that Steve didn’t know the man had a study in the compound, it was just that he hadn’t really thought the man used it all that much. He had seen Tony use the study to meet with a few UN representatives that had come to check up on the Avengers, but that had been it. He may have not talked to the man in five years, but Steve still didn’t think the man was one for studies.

The concept itself felt a bit too strict for Tony. He was more a free spirit. He could lock himself up in his workshop and work for days at a time, but the workshop was a space for creating. A study felt a bit too much like a nine to five job, which just didn’t feel like something Tony would enjoy.

The door opened then, and Steve’s musings fell to the side as he saw the inside of Tony’s study for the first time. The room was unlike anything he had ever seen. There were holographic screens flying everywhere, and stacks of paper covering a rather large desk. Tony was standing behind the desk, hovering over it really as he read a document in his hand.

He could see Coulson’s face in one of the many holographic screens. The man looked up and stopped talking as soon as Steve walked in, giving him a small smile that made the whole situation even more awkward.

“Will you look over the report for me? I’ll call you back once Nick gets here. Just… I don’t care what you have to say to them, let them know Vision is off limits, and no, FRIDAY still hasn’t found Thor so everything’s up in the air right now.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Coulson said with a sigh as he rubbed his face. “At least you were able to contain the Chitauri, they might be more willing to back off. Alright, we’ll talk in a bit.” Coulson suddenly turned to look at Steve. “Goodnight Captain.”

Steve nodded at him respectfully, giving him a smile before the connection ended. He then turned to look at Tony and asked “What was that about?”  

Tony hummed noncommittally as he cleared a few of the screens. “The UN is getting nervous since Thor is still MIA, and Thanos just attacked.” Tony sighed. “All they know is that Thanos wants the mind stone, so they’re hoping if they use Vision as leverage we can get Thanos off our back.”

Steve squared his jaw. “Why am I not surprised?”

Tony sighed. “Not now, Steve, please,” Tony said, sounding weary.

“And I guess you’re going to let them take him?” Steve asked with a sigh, approaching the desk with a sad look on his face. “Tony… surely you must see… when will you say no to them?”

Tony’s eyes suddenly became murderous and he moved away from his desk and closer to Steve in seconds. “I have never left behind a teammate behind, Steve. I didn’t even leave you behind after all the shit you pulled when the accords first came out. I fucking broke the accords so I could go save your ass, so don’t you dare question my loyalties.” Tony stepped even closer, still looking livid. “For your information Steve, I don’t always say yes to them, I’m just not stupid enough to not, at the very least, hear what they have to say. And yes, I follow orders Steve. I play the game. But by playing their game, it allows me to have a voice, which I otherwise wouldn’t have, and that damn voice is strong enough to get me what I want when I need it, and if I say Vision doesn’t go anywhere then you can bet your ass he is not moving from this compound.”

Tony finally stepped away, still looking like he was ready to murder someone. “Now, did you come here so we could continue arguing about the same pointless bullshit that broke the avengers in the first place, or did you need something?”

Steve sighed. “Sorry, that was out of line. It’s just… frustrating”

Tony snorted, neither accepting nor rejecting the apology. “What do you need, Steve?”

“I wanted to talk about the coming battle,” Steve said hesitantly.

Tony quirked a brow and pointed to one of the chairs. “Please, sit down,” Tony said as he took a seat himself, resting his elbows on the armrests.

Before Steve could say anything more, however, a door on the back of the study opened, and out came Clint, who seemed surprised to see both men there. “Um, hi,” he said awkwardly to Steve before giving Tony a nod and moving away.

“Is someone else still in there?” Tony asked before Clint could leave the room.

“Yeah, Kate and Hope are in there, and I think Peter is coming with Kam, but I’ll let them all know that… the front room is busy.”

Tony’s lips twitched. “I still don’t understand why there is such a fascination with my study.”

Clint shrugged. “You’re the one that put the biggest TV there for us, and you also got the best couches there, so I think we can all agree it’s your fault we’re always there.” With that Clint left the room, probably going to go tell everyone that Tony’s study was, momentarily, off limits.

Steve frowned. “What’s back there?”

“My private study,” Tony replied smoothly.

“You have two studies?” Steve asked, brows raised.

“Yes, one for business, and one for personal use. Though, the latter has really been taken over as more of the family study since I never get any work done there because everyone is always there.” Tony shrugged. “So, you were saying?”

“Ah, right,” Steve said after a few seconds, shifting in his seat. He wasn’t surprised at Tony’s compartmentalization of his own life into business and pleasure, but it did sadden him to know that he no longer held the privilege to be called one of the man’s friends. “How do you want to proceed in the field?”

Tony frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, how are we going to go about it? I understand that I am not about to lead your team, nor am I asking for that, just like I know you’re not about to lead mine. So we have to be able to lead together.”

Tony’s brows shot up in surprise. “Lead… okay, hold up, backtrack,” Tony said as he leaned back. “I am not leading my team with you, capsicle,” Tony said, his tone light but sharp. “Nor will the UN be willing for you to lead the avengers. There is a reason why you are the consultant this time around, spangles.”

Steve held back the urge to roll his eyes. “Tony, we need able to stir both groups in the same direction, and for that we need to trust-”

Tony chuckled then, a cold chuckle that did not read his eyes. “Last time I trusted you, Steve, I ended up with a shield stuck on my arc reactor and a number of broken bones. Trust is not something you and I are going to achieve, buddy, and I don’t see how trust has anything to do with the matter at hand.”

Steve frowned. “Tony we are going into the field together . You need to know I have your back, just like I hope you’ll have mine if push comes to shove.”

Tony sighed. “Look, the best way this is going to work is if you lead your team and I lead mine-”

“I wasn’t suggesting otherwise, but the point is we both need to agree on what our boundaries are, and what the common goal is.”

“The goal is to take down Thanos,” Tony said as if Steve was being purposefully dense.

“Yes, but it’s important how we go about it,” Steve hissed out.

“Well yes, obviously , but no one knows how to go about it yet.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Look Steve… so far, most of the times in my experience, you can plan all you want, but once you are actually in the brawl everything goes to shit. Yeah, you want to be prepared, but there’s only so much you can do. Until Thor comes back, there’s little we can do since we don’t even know what can hurt this titan. And when the time comes... “ Tony sighed. “Well then I’ll figure something out, and we’ll go from there.”

Steve sighed but didn’t say anything else, knowing he wouldn’t get Tony to see his side, at least not tonight. If anything, he knew that, while they didn’t always see eye to eye, they had always fought together well. So even if Tony didn’t listen, Steve could at least comfort himself with the thought that, once the battle began, Tony would be more willing to work together to take Thanos down.

Still, it was an unsettling feeling to know there was no trust anymore. He didn’t know how to go into the field if there was no trust. He needed Tony to trust him, for otherwise the man would not delegate properly. He needed Tony to trust Steve’s team.

Steve needed to be able to trust that Tony wouldn’t get angry in the middle of the battle for old wounds. And he didn’t know how to get there with Tony. He had no idea what he could do to fix their past.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve said after a few seconds, straightening his shoulders like the soldier he was and staring right at Tony.

“For what?” Tony asked, confused.

“For everything,” Steve said with a sigh. “For… I know we may never agree over the accords, but I truly didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Tony smiled bitterly, his eyes becoming angry. He could feel years old anger tugging at his heart. He remembered the letter, the stupid idiotic piece of paper Steve had sent him, “leaving” him the avengers. He remembered the hypocrisy of it all.

He also remembered burning it alongside the phone one night where he had had far too much too drink and Rhodey had fallen one too many times while trying to adjust to his prosthetics.

“Tell me something, Steve, would you change anything?” Tony asked as he rested his elbows on the table and raised his forearms, allowing his fingertips to touch.

Steve frowned. “What?”

“If you could go back in time, would you change any of your actions?” Tony clarified.

“I would make sure I told you the truth about your parents,” Steve said almost immediately, looking chagrined.

Tony nodded tensely. “Anything else?” Tony looked at Steve then. “Would you sign the accords?”

Steve tilted his head, giving Tony a dry look. “You know I wouldn’t. I don’t like them Tony. I don’t agree with them.”

“So then don’t apologize,” Tony hissed out.

Steve wanted to bang his head against the desk. “My disagreeing with the accords does not mean I intended to harm you in any way.”

“Steve, the whole problem started because you refused to sign the damn papers, and then went after your friend - who at the time was thought of as a terrorist - like a maniac,” Tony said through clenched teeth.

“They were going to kill Bucky unjustly,” Steve said, sounding offended. “I protected an innocent life.”

“Did you forget we all thought he had just bombed the UN?”Tony said icily.

Steve shook his head. “I knew it wasn’t him. You don’t him like I do.”

“You didn’t know that, Steve! For all you knew that was still the damn soldier,” Tony barked out, sounding frustrated.

“He saved my life when we took SHIELD down. The soldier wouldn’t have done that,” Steve stressed. “Look Tony, I just knew it wasn’t-”

“You destroyed a German pass because of a hunch. You harmed civilians because you felt your friend was innocent when there was no evidence to prove this,” Tony said with a raised brow. “For fuck’s sake Steven, at least admit to yourself that what you did you did it because you prioritized your friend’s life over everyone else’s.”

“And you’re telling me you wouldn’t have done the same?” Steve said with a scoff. “If that would have been Rhodes that had been framed. You’re telling me you wouldn’t have gone to hell and back to keep him safe?”

“Yes I would have,” Tony said calmly, “but the difference between you and me is that I know my life and my priorities are not more important than the rest of the world, and that I don't get to dictate anything to the UN. I would have fought for Rhodey, but I would have done so by working with the system, not against it. So don’t apologize to me, if you don’t see anything wrong with what you did. You are not sorry about what you did,” Tony said firmly. “Sure you feel bad about the shit we had to go through, but that’s not the same thing, is it? So don’t apologize to me, because I don’t need you to lie to both of us to make yourself feel better. And even if you were sorry, it wouldn’t change anything in the way we do things.”

Steve sighed. “Tony-”

‘We’re talking in circles here, Steve,” Tony said tiredly. “I have work to do that I need to finish it quickly, because I promised Natasha I’d go to sleep at a decent time today and I really don’t want to piss my wife off considering we just fought aliens today.”

Steve nodded and stood up, knowing that no more would be accomplished today. “Have a goodnight then, Tony.”

“Same to you, Captain,” Tony said before turning away just as the screens turned back to life.

Steve exited quietly, feeling more frustrated than he had in a long time. He knew he had no right to rush the man into forgiving him - if he ever did, that is. But, at the end of the day, in a way, Tony was right. Steve couldn’t really apologize for disagreeing with Tony. He had done what he had thought was right, and he still believed the accords were not the most effective way to go about solving their problems.

He didn’t trust the UN, and Tony did.

But, old wounds aside, their differences didn’t matter all that much, not when the fate of the world was at hand, and Tony’s anger was preventing him from seeing this. Steve wasn’t asking for Tony to trust him with his private life. That was not something Steve would ever dare to ask for again, but, he did need there to be a mutual trust when it came to battle and that just wasn’t there yet.

“Mind telling me why you’re brooding outside of Tony’s office?” Fury said as he stepped out of the shadows.

The weren’t exactly outside of Tony’s study anymore. They were near the elevators, but Fury clearly knew Steve had been meeting with Tony.

“I’m not brooding. I’m just… a tad frustrated is all,” Steve said through a tight smile.

Fury hummed and leaned against the wall. “Why the frustration?”

Steve shook his head. “I’m trying to get Tony and I to work as a unit, but he just… he refuses to trust us as a unit, and we can’t fight like that.”

“Trust…” Fury chuckled sadly. “See that’s the main difference between you and Tony, Captain. You can only work with someone if you absolutely trust them, and agree with who they are as people.” Fury squared his shoulders, giving Steve a penetrating glance. “Life has been kind to you, in that sense. It has taught you to see the best in most, and, more importantly, it has taught you that you can only fight, and live with those you think are deserving of your full trust. Stark doesn’t work that way, Captain,” Fury informed him. “Life taught him a very different lesson; life taught him that human beings aren’t good by nature, and that you might find one or two people - at most - that you can fully trust in your lifetime.”

Steve huffed out a bitter laugh as he himself leaned against the wall. He tilted his head as he said. “Do you honestly want me to believe you know Tony Stark? Since when have you cared about him?”

“I never thought I’d say this, Captain, but yes, I know Tony Stark much better than you do,” Fury said calmly, aware that at this point Steve was just lashing out. “I have spent the past five years listening to that man, supporting him, helping him, and, unlike you, I always assess those I surround myself with like I would a target. I’m like Tony that way; I don’t trust people. I wouldn’t be alive today if I would.”

Steve sighed. “I understand, director, that in your line of work mistrust can help. But paranoia is not going to help us-”

Fury rolled his eyes. “Trust is a luxury, Captain, that should be awarded to people in small doses.” Fury stepped closer to Steve then. “You refused to sign the accords because you believe the government has an agenda, correct?”

“Are you telling me they don’t?” Steve said with a raised brow.

“Of course they do, but, l I hate to break it to you, Rogers, everyone has an agenda, even those you love,” Fury said dryly.

“Our only agenda is to help people,” Steve counteracted. “It’s not the same thing. We’re not working for our own interests. And we do not have the power governments have.”

“No, you have more power,” Fury half growled. “Governments may have legal power over you, but the avengers, as they were, had enough power to wipe out masses if you all so desired. And your personal agendas have changed with the years, captain, for you are all human.” Fury squared his jaw as he said “Trust in your friends and teammates blinds you Captain, which is why it is so dangerous. Tony Stark learned that lesson early on. Why do you think he doesn’t like to be handed things? Why do you think, on your first mission, the first thing he did when he stepped on that Helicarrier was to infiltrate SHIELD’s database?”

“You were angry when he did that,” Steve pointed out.

Fury smirked. “Of course I was. I had things to hide, and Tony searched for those secrets. He needed to understand who it was that he was working with, because he never trusted SHIELD. You did. He understood that we mutually needed one another, since we had the same goal, but having a similar goal does not mean you need to involve trust.”

Fury stepped back then, smirking at Steve’s half appalled look. “That is why the accords have worked so far, Captain; Tony Stark, just like you, does not fully trust governments. The difference is he doesn’t trust superheroes either, because he knows you are all flawed people. He understands the will of the masses must be respected, and most people find comfort in the law. He knows that, on a grand scheme, we all have the same goal, which is why working with the government is better in the long run. Not to mention, it’s the only way to keep all of your asses afloat. Do you honestly think he doesn’t have the UN security council closely monitored?” Fury scoffed, folding his arms smugly. “That man is aware of every small detail they have tried to change - or keep - in the accords, and is well aware of when their intentions are driven by personal benefit as opposed to public good. He is also aware of everything that goes on in this tower, and of everyone’s personal goals and dreams.”

Steve rubbed his eyes. “With all due respect, director, a good leader understand that trust is vital for cooperation. If he has to work that hard to keep the governments in check, and even then he doesn’t always succeed, then that just shows that our hands are still the best defense.” Steve shook his head. “But that’s beside the point. What’s important right now is at least a temporary truce so we can work together and trust that we will keep each other safe.”

Fury gave him a long, hard look. “You might not realize this yet, Captain, but he's a good leader. He never wanted that role for himself, but now that he has it, he’s done a good job of it. The problem is, cap, that leadership has forced you to trust people, particularly the people you command, and the people you allow to hold power over you, and, as I said, Tony Stark does not do trust. He has been betrayed by almost everyone he has ever held dear. He was put down by the asshole he had as a father, Edwin Jarvis died - which made him fend for himself. Obadiah Stane - the man that was supposed to love him like a fucking father - betrayed him, as did most of his friends and his board. Natasha betrayed him from the get go. His very creations have at times turned against him, and, the one team - the one leader - he thought he could put his faith in ended up betraying him too. So you can’t get so fucking pissy when he refuses to trust those that have betrayed him before.”

Steve did look sorry at that, but whispered “he seems to trust his team just fine, and Natasha and Clint are a part of it. Hell, he married her.” Steve said curtly. “Under your logic, he wouldn’t trust them either, Director.”

Fury laughed then. “He doesn’t fully trust his team, captain, not really,” Fury said simply. “He loves them, all of them, more than he loves his own life but he doesn’t necessarily trust all of them in equal measures. He trusts that they will keep one another safe if a battle breaks, and he trusts that they truly care for the people that live on this earth, and he trusts that over the years they have learned to truly care for one another. But, he doesn’t trust that they’ll keep him safe against all odds, and he will never trust the idea that this team will stay together forever. The reason why he treasures them all so much, is because he is convinced they will leave soon enough, even Natasha, and that’s not an idea I have been able to get out of his head,” Fury said, an undercurrent of sorrow in his voice. “He truly believes this team will remain together so long as they all have a common goal, but, after his fallout with you, he became painfully aware of how frail the bonds of friendship can be. He has counterplans in his files of what to do if the Avengers break down. He also has plans of how to move forward in the event that he dies. And all these plans came to be because he cannot in good conscience accept the fact that there might actually be people that love him just as much as he loves them. The only two people that Tony might believe loves him equally are Natasha, because she has nearly died a number of times to save him, and General Rhodes, because that man has not left Tony’s side since they were teenagers. So, no, Steve, like I said, Tony Stark is not someone that trusts easily. But, more importantly, Tony Stark no longer trusts you , and he will not hand over power to someone he doesn’t believe has his team’s best interests at heart.”

Steve swallowed hard, Fury’s words cutting deep into his heart. If he had been one of the instigators that made Tony this mistrustful…

“Is there any way I can help him see that trust is not as bad as he thinks?” Steve whispered.

“No,” Fury said, as brutally honest as always. “Just do your job and help him keep earth safe when you’re need, and try to open your mind a bit, Captain, you might find you actually agree with a lot of what Tony is saying.”

And with that, Fury moved away, leaving Steve alone to go meet with Tony. Steve looked as the man opened the door to the study without bothering to knock. He was surprised to see Fury’s usually cold and detached eyes turn soft and warm, reminding Steve of the way his own mother had looked at him many, many years ago.

-----------------------

“Hey Hope,” Scott said with a sly smile as he entered the gym, trying to hide how nervous he was.

The woman turned around and raised a brow but nodded in greeting. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to see if you wanted to train together,” Scott said, feeling his throat dry up.

She gave him an assessing look before nodding and walking over to the mats. “Alright, give me your best shot.”

He nodded and stepped up, bringing his forearms up. He threw the first punch and she immediately blocked him, throwing him to the ground. “You’re out of practice,” she noticed.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t have my training partner for five years,” he muttered as he got up.

“And whose fault is that,” she said through clenched teeth.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” he said with a shrug. “You’re going to say it was my fault. I’m going to say it was miscommunication and the government’s fault.”

“You’re unbelievable,” she said with an angry huff as she lunged forward, throwing him back to the ground.

He wheezed out after that, glaring at her. “Hey, I am just being honest.”

“No, Scott, you are running away from taking responsibility,” Hope hissed out. “ You chose to help Steve.”

“Falcon said they needed my help in saving the world, and that the government was hindering them, because of some accords, which, even if they had followed the accords, the papers would have delayed Steve enough to not make it to Siberia and a lot of people would have died.”

“There was nothing in Siberia!” Hope snapped.

“But Steve didn’t know that! He honestly thought they were about to release super soldiers trained to take down cities! He was doing his job and saving the world,” Scott huffed out as he stood back up. “And I know you don’t like him, but at least admit that he’s not the bad guy here.”

“And Tony is?” She asked sarcastically. “If Steve would have said something, Tony would have helped him.”

“He put us in a prison!” Scott said, sounding offended.

“Because you broke the goddamn law!” Hope retorted. “No one told you to get involved, Scott. It wasn’t even your fight! You have a daughter, for fuck’s sake. You dropped everything , just because-”

“Yes, I have a daughter, and I wanted to do better by her,” Scott said icily. “I wanted to be able to tell her that, even though things looked bleak, her daddy didn’t back up from a fight for what was right.”  

“You didn’t have the whole goddamn story,” Hope said, sounding disappointed. “And yet you went in anyway, like the impulsive idiot you are.” She stepped away then, taking off her gloves. “And fighting for what is right? That involves fighting to save people with their consent. That involves owning up to your mistakes. That involves answering to someone because you are not a fucking dictator that gets a free pass just because your intentions are good. Fighting for what is right also means knowing when enough is enough.”

Scott sighed, and got up, his eyes sad. “Hope-”

“You hate Tony, and yet you don’t even know half the story,” she said with a bitter smile.

“I don’t hate him,” Scott was quick to contradict. “I used to hate him, sure, but after the past few weeks… I don’t think he’s a bad man. He’s actually a pretty good leader. And Sure, I don’t like his personality, but I’m not blind enough to not see that he cares. “ He smiled softly as he looked at the door. “I just don’t understand how he could allow the government to toss his friends to the pit like that.”

“The soldiers that were coming after you went with orders to kill, and they had every right to kill your team,” Hope said, impassive. “Tony went in to capture you so that none of you would die. He did you a favor by allowing them to only send you to prison.”

“That’s exactly my problem. Why do they get to decide if we live or die?” Scott shook his head. “Just doesn’t sound right.”

Hope scoffed then. “Because the former Avengers weren’t making that same choice on a daily basis when they were active? They were choosing which problems to tackle. They were choosing which people they saved. They were making enemies and fighting wars without any regard for the field in which they were playing in. They went, saved some, and allowed many to be killed in their fights. If you don’t like the government getting to choose whether superhumans with the strength to wipe out nations get to live or die, then you, as one of those superpowered individuals, sure as shit don’t get to make that choice for the people of this earth.”

With that, Hope turned around and left the room, forcing back the tears, though whether they were tears of frustration or sadness she wasn’t sure.

She had never enjoyed fighting with Scott, and she enjoyed it even less now, because, while they were no longer together, she still cared for him, and she just hated the whole situation. But she wouldn’t let him see her cry. He didn’t have the right to see her like that anymore. Not ever again.


“Vision,” Wanda said with surprise as the man suddenly glided into the kitchen.

The android froze then, clearly unaware that there was someone already in the kitchen. “Wanda,” he breathed out, before collecting himself. He straightened his shoulders and gave her a small smile. “How are you?”

“I’m… good,” she said, feeling uncharacteristically awkward. “And you? Are you feeling better after yesterday? I saw you faint, but I didn’t know if-”

“I’m perfectly fine,” the android assured her. “I was just drained from energy, is all, but I was not harmed.

Wanda nodded, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “That’s… that’s good, yeah.”

Vision stayed quiet for a little bit, making the air in the room awkward again. “How have you been… this past five years I mean,” he said, his eyes as kind as always.

Wanda shrugged. “It’s been… I don’t know, hard I guess, but at least we were free,” she said with a longing look.

Vision tilted his head. “No you were not,” he corrected calmly. “You were under the illusion of freedom.”

She frowned. “What?”

“True freedom only comes when law is established and the people comply with said law. When you live outside of the law, that is not freedom. Every action has a consequence, and disobeying the law means accepting that your freedom will be taken from you. Yes, you were not in jail, but hiding in the shadows is no more liberating than a prison,” Vision said sadly. “Which is why I wanted you to stay in the compound until Mr. Stark could find a way to offer you true freedom.” He looked away then and sighed. “But I guess that does not matter any more as it is all in the past.”

He turned then and gave the shock woman a small nod. “I do hope you find your freedom, my dear Wanda,” he said fervently before exiting the room with sad eyes.

“Vis, you alright?” Kamala called out as she walked down the hallway, noticing Vision’s eyes immediately. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” the android said immediately, straightening up. “I was just-”

“Don’t lie to me,” Kamala said as she put her hands on her hips.

“I am sorry to interrupt, Ms. Khan, but Mrs. Mack is here now,” FRIDAY informed them.

“Oh, shit, I didn’t know Pepper was coming today,” Kamala whispered. “Alright come on, she’s probably here because of the attack. She’s gonna want to make sure we’re all alive.” With that she grabbed Vision’s hand and dragged him to the elevators. “And don’t think because Pepper’s here we are done with our conversation.”

Chapter Text

Pepper walked into the living room, her heels clicking softly against the floor as she reached the middle of the room. The first to walk out to greet her was Natasha, who was dressed in an elegant jumpsuit that highlighted her curvy figure.

“Hi, Pepper,” She said with an amicable smile, coming close to hug the woman. “I was beginning to wonder when you’d come visit. We hadn’t heard from you in a while.”

“I’ve tried contacting Tony for weeks, but he’s been ignoring me. I figured it was Avengers business, but when he didn’t show up to the first yearly meeting today I figured it was time to come and check to see what was happening,” Pepper explained with an exasperated sigh. “I saw you were attacked last night. Is everyone alright?”

“Yes, we’re all fine. A little shaken but fine,” Natasha assured her. “You should have called me,” Natasha said as she patted the woman’s hand. “You know how he gets when something is troubling him.”

Pepper huffed out in agreement. “God, you don’t have to remind me,” she shook her head fondly. “I figured I’d give him some time to figure everything out, but he can’t just disappear on me like that, and after yesterday… I just had to come.”

Natasha nodded. “I had this same discussion with him a few weeks ago when he disappeared for three days without telling anyone where he was going.”

“Oh my god,” she gaped, “he hasn’t done that since… What did you tell him?” Natasha merely smiled, which in turn elicited a chuckle from the blond woman. “Should I be worried for him?”

“Not more than usual,” Natasha said with a shrug as she pointed towards the couch. “Would you like to seat? I can go grab Tony for you.”

Before Pepper could answer, however, Kamala and Vision stepped out, quickly followed by Peter and Rhodey. “Hey Aunt Pepper,” both of the youngsters said as they came to greet the woman with happy hugs.

Rhodey and Vision did not approach her, but both gave her happy smiles and warm nods. “How have you been Pepper? How’s the hubby?” Rhodey asked with a smirk, coming to stand next to the two younglings who were now sitting on the couch opposite to Pepper.

“He’s good,” she said with a wink. “He was worried about all of you since we haven’t heard from any of you in a while. You didn’t even call to say Merry Christmas. Also, he was surprised to hear Steve is back.”

“He and his companions were brought back as consultants for the time being,” Vision explained.

“So that’s it then? He doesn’t have to answer for any of the crap he pulled?” Pepper asked incredulously.

“He will pay for his crimes later,” Rhodey assured her, “but right now he is needed. We have fucking Aliens coming to invade earth.”

“And you think you can trust him?” Pepper asked skeptically.

Rhodey shrugged, not answering aloud as he noticed Steve, Sam, and Bucky walking down the hallway. The man came to a halt when he saw Pepper, a small smile gracing his lips as he murmured “Pepper?”

The woman smiled tensely as she stood up. “Hello Steve,” she greeted, giving him a half wave.

Before anyone else could say anything, Tony’s booming voice resounded down the opposite hallway. “Pep! Light of my life, how nice of you to drop by,” Tony said with a bright smile as he came into the room, closing the space between them in three long strides. He kissed both of her cheeks before giving her a brief hug,

She smiled then, squeezing the man’s hand to keep him by her side. “You know if I didn’t know you, I’d say you have been avoiding me,” she said sarcastically, leveling Tony a look. “But I know you haven’t been doing that because you promised you wouldn’t do that again when I returned to my position of CEO.”

The man smiled bashfully and said “In my defense, it’s not like I have been partying twenty four seven. I have been trying to prevent a global crisis, pep.”

“You could have called, Tony,” she pointed out, not willing to deal with any bullshit. “We may not live together anymore but that doesn’t mean I want to find out you have been attacked by watching the morning news.”

“Oh god, they’re reporting on it already? Christ, what have they been saying?” Tony asked as he rubbed his face with his hand.

Pepper raised a brow. “You’re telling me you haven’t been watching?”

“Pep, I have had the UN up my ass since yesterday night. Fury is holed up in my office, talking non-stop with Coulson. Natasha had to force feed us twenty minutes ago. I haven’t exactly had time to watch the news.”

“Perhaps you should turn the TV on then,” Pepper suggested with a sad look. “You… might want to hear what they’re saying.”

Tony sighed, a new wave of weariness hitting his bones. It was days like this that made him hate his job. It was days like this that reminded him that he was the head of an organization that was expected to protect the world while also being scrutinized by all. “I have a meeting in an hour with the head of the Pentagon. I’ll go check it now.”

“I can give you a quick overview,” Pepper said, taking pity on the man. “C’mon, there’s other things I also want to discuss with you.” She let go of his hand then, making her way to his office knowing he’d follow.

“Right, okay,” Tony said, rubbing his eyes. He ruffled peter’s hair the way he knew the boy hated and kissed Kamala’s forehead before walking towards the hallway. “Rhodey, Nat,” he called, not needing to explain any further for them to know what he wanted. They both nodded immediately and came to flank his sides as he made his way to the study. Tony intertwined his fingers with his wife’s as Rhodey pushed open the door to his study.

The man walked up to the camouflaged door and placed his palm next to it, waiting a few seconds for the scanner to read it. He pushed the door open then to find Pepper greeting Fury who seemed to have been sprawled on the large black couch up until a minute ago.

Pepper walked up to Tony’s mahogany desk and leaned against it before saying “People are afraid the Avengers won’t be enough to stop the coming threat,” she said, going straight to the point, her voice sounding small.

“Well they’re not wrong,” Rhodey said wryly.

A flash of fear crossed Pepper’s eyes before saying “You truly think you won’t be able to stop them?”

“We don’t know how strong Thanos is,” Fury said, looking unhappy. “We’re flying blind and the only alien on our side that might know how to fight this thing is still MIA.”

“The UN is frustrated, but there’s only so much they can do. They are adding to the number of underground and above ground shelters they already have in place, so that we can get as many people into safe bunkers as possible. Countries are also adding bases of their own. I doubt there’ll be enough shelters for all the billions of people, but they’re doing the best. The good thing is that the panel has had five years to prepare fail saves, so they aren’t as badly prepared as when we were attacked in New York,” Tony said and, judging by the way Fury almost tuned out, this was a conversation they had had multiple times already. “We’ve managed to stall the idea of sending Vision away, mostly because he’s one of our strongest fighters and the situation could be much worse for us if Thanos catches him elsewhere and completes his collection of stones,” Tony explained. “They’re not particularly happy with me right now, though, which makes them very hard to work with.”

Pepper frowned. “Why are they mad at you now?”

“Well they are trusting me on this, and, considering I haven’t eliminated the threat yet, they are on edge. That and the fact that I pushed to bring Steve back… let’s just say the honeymoon phase is long gone.”

Pepper nodded in understanding. “Well, the media is also questioning your ability to control Steve,” Pepper admitted.

Natasha frowned, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “What do you mean?”

“You know he’s a loose cannon,”  Pepper said pointedly. “Last time Tony and Steve came head to head, he did not obey Tony’s orders, and a lot of people were injured. They’re wondering what has changed - if anything has, that is.”

“Well I can’t just get rid of Steve now,” Tony half growled out. “I may not like it, but he’s still a tank, and we’ll need him once the battle starts. Besides… the other option is sending them into a pit they’ll never be able to crawl out of and I… If I can avoid that, I will.” Tony swallowed hard, reeling at the the taste of his own admission.

Natasha grasped Tony’s hand, intertwining their fingers comfortingly as she said “I’ll deal with the media. You deal with the UN”

Tony breathed out a sigh of relief and leaned down to capture his wife’s lips. “Thank you,” he whispered as they parted.

“I’ll help you, Nat” Rhodey said from where he stood with his arms crossed, a hint of camaraderie in his voice; they had done this whole “pick Tony up before he crashes and burns” far too many times in the past five years not to know they would need each other to cover the other’s back. “We can cover more ground together.”

Natasha nodded, giving him a brilliant smile she reserved for the man.

“I’ll stall the board,” Pepper piped in, giving Tony a wink as she straightened up. “They’re out for blood since you haven’t come in in months.”

“You can tell those selfish assholes that they can go find another planet to live in if they want me in the office so badly,” Tony barked out, looking ready to chew someone out.

Fury’s eyes looked furic at the mention of Tony’s board. He had never given a damn about the board at Stark industries, but the assholes had tried to pull more than a few tricks on Tony on their quest to make money and, as his protective streak over Stark had grew over the years, his disgust for the board grew exponentially as well.

Tony patted the man’s back, knowing that look from a mile away. That was the I’m-about-to-murder-someone face, and it was never a good sign when it appeared. “Alright, let’s get back to task. The more productive we are right now, the less lives we’ll lose in the long run.”

-------------------

Steve sat down at the breakfast table, eyeing the green thick juice Sam had made for both of them. “No offense, Sam, but this looks disgusting,” Steve said with a small smile.

“Shut up and drink up,” Sam said with a half smile. “It’s good for your system.”

“I really don’t think my system needs it,” Steve said as he took the first sip, his nose scrunching up in distaste.

“You might be a supersoldier, but that doesn’t give you a pass to not take care of yourself,” Sam said as he downed half of his own drink. “Now stop complaining, pops, and drink up.”

“The things I do to keep you happy,” Steve teased before closing his eyes and kicking back the contents of the tall glass.

“Steve,” Pepper called out then from the door, causing the man to choke on his drink in surprise.

Sam patted him in the back with a worried look as the man coughed. His worries were settled quickly, however, as Steve managed to get ahold of himself.

“Sorry about that. You took me by surprise,” Steve said, eyes watery and voice rough. “How can I help you, Pepper?”

“I am pretty sure Natasha and Rhodey already did this, but I wanted to talk to you anyway,” she said, giving him a pleasant smile before she walked closer, invading the man’s personal space. “I know you did what you thought was right back then, Steve, and I really hope you’ve been able to see how wrong you were. But, I know you stubborn types enough to know you probably haven’t so I’m here to give you a warning. Don’t you dare betray Tony like that ever again,” she said, her voice icy cold. “We may no longer be together, but he’s one of my best friends, and I love him, so you two are going to learn to settle your disagreements like adults. Otherwise, you’ll be answering to me .”

She patted the side of his face softly, her eyes colder than even Natasha’s had been when he first saw her again. “You know, it’s actually good to have you back, Steve,” Pepper said finally, her eyes still cold and narrowed. “Just don’t do anything stupid”

With that, she turned around and left the room, leaving Steve feeling more apprehensive than he had when Natasha had punched him. Perhaps it was because with Natasha he knew exactly what would happen if he ever made Natasha reach her breaking point; she would kill him, no questions asked.

They might have been friends once, but he could now see just how important Tony had become to her, and, at the end of the day, she was a trained assassin. She would end it quickly, without thought, and without any show of remorse.

Pepper, however, was not as easy to read, and so he had know idea how afraid he had to be of the woman.

Of course, he wasn’t planning on intentionally hurting Tony - he never had, not even when they had disagreed - but all the same it was a sobering thought to know where he stood in the compound. It was… saddening. He had loved - still loved - his former team. Yes, he didn’t agree with them on certain issues, but he had come to care for them once they had been placed under his jurisdiction. He had considered Tony a good friend, if at times a bit too stubborn, a bit too full of himself and a bit too cruel with words. He still respected the man, despite their differences, but it was clear now that the friendship he had hoped to restore was so far gone it was impossible to get it back.

“I was not expecting that,” Sam admitted, patting Steve on the back. “I have never seen Pepper’s dark side.”

“We all have one,” Steve said, remembering his conversation with Tony, back when they had stayed at Clint’s farm.

Sam sighed. “You know I can’t help but wonder… “ Sam shook his head. “They really care for him. They don’t even seem aggravated by Stark’s… starkness. Makes you wonder if he’s changed,” Sam said pensively. “And he… he’s made it work. I never thought it would, but he’s made the accords work,” Sam admitted. “I read over the newest version of the damn papers, and it ain’t half as bad as the original one. They’ve worked on it to give the team more freedom to mobilize.”

Sam picked up his glass and took it to the sink. “I still don’t agree with a lot of the things he did, but… I don’t know. I can’t help but wonder whether we did the right thing or not, considering the outcome.” Sam sighed sadly. “I mean Rhodes got injured because-” Sam stopped abruptly, the topic still hard for him to talk about.

He knew it wasn’t really his fault that Rhodey had gotten injured. He had moved out of the way when he had seen Vision shoot that laser beam of his. But the thing was that Sam had known Vision was aiming for his pack. He had wanted to go with Steve, and so he had moved, but he had never considered that by moving he was allowing a fellow soldier to get hit in a place where he could actually get injured.

He hadn’t thought it would come to that. And yes, Tony had been a dick about it, but that didn’t mean Sam felt any less guilty.

Their fight had caused the injury, and so Rhodey’s wound rested on his shoulders, just as much as rested on Vision’s and Tony’s and everyone else’s shoulders.

And so it hurt - it hurt deeply to know that perhaps, just perhaps everything could have been avoided. For years he had thought Tony had gone back on his word and attacked Steve in siberia even after promising he was going to help. He had made of the man a villain in his mind, but now he knew why Tony had snapped. Now he knew that the man had actually gone to help, which meant that perhaps if they had just talked…

The idea was starting to haunt Sam.

He had made many mistakes in his life, and many for a good cause but this… this choice that he had made, if it indeed had been wrong…

“We should have talked to him,” Sam whispered finally, head bowed. “I still think we shouldn’t have signed it, at least not the version they had back then, but… we should have talked it out. We should have… We should have trusted him.”

“I know,” Steve said somberly, his eyes sad. “I know,” he repeated, because what else could he say? Yes, he hadn’t changed his mind about the papers, yes, he would still choose to save Bucky and his other teammates from the government’s unjust treatment, but Sam was right. He should have talked to the man. He had made far too many assumptions about Tony - something that continued to be the case, if the past few weeks were anything to go by.

God, he was asking the man to trust him and yet he hadn’t shown the same courtesy to Tony five years ago. “I… I am so sorry, Sam. I dragged you into this without-”

Sam placed his hand on Steve’s shoulder and squeezed it comfortingly. “Hey, I’m not blaming you. What’s done is done. We just gotta pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off.” The man placed his palm on Steve’s cheek to get the man to look at him. “We’re back so… let’s just make the most of it.”

With that, Sam nodded and turned around to leave the room, much to Steve’s surprise. “Where are you going?”

“I need to talk to Rhodes,” Sam admitted, a brittle smile on his face. “It’s time he and I have a talk. I won’t be able to live out my own advice otherwise.” He gave Steve a wink and then he was gone, leaving Steve to his own morose thoughts.

He wasn’t alone for long though, for a few seconds later Bruce walked in from the side door, looking slightly apologetic. “I… sorry, I overheard a bit of that,” he admitted.

Steve chuckled softly and nodded. “That’s alright. Wasn’t much of a secret anyway.” He smiled sadly before looking up at Bruce. “A lot has changed since I was last here… How are you doing, Bruce?”

“Yes, I bet it has,” Bruce said with a tentative smile as he came to rest his elbows on the breakfast table while still standing. “Is it strange to not be the one calling the shots?”

Steve laughed at that. “Tony seems to be doing a pretty good job with the new team and he wants me as far away from all of you as possible,” Steve shrugged. “That’s not my team to lead, anyway.”

Bruce hummed. “He’s rather protective of his team,” Bruce admitted. “He worries a lot, because he feels responsible for their well being - well, more than usual anyway.”

Steve nodded. “I… I just wish there was a way we could work together with a bit of trust.” Steve smiled bitterly. “But I guess I know why he doesn’t trust me.” Steve shook his head. “I… misjudged his course of action five years ago.”

“We all make mistakes,” Bruce said as he looked at his hands. “I know I did, when I came back.”

Steve’s eyes immediately snapped up and he gave Bruce a questioning glance.

“When you guys fought… I was keeping myself rather well hid, so I didn’t hear about it until a few years later. I got just scraps of news. I heard you were being hunted and that Tony was siding with the government. Then I heard he had worked with Ross and… Let’s just say neither I nor the Other Guy were very happy about it.” Bruce scrubbed his face. “I came back, not bothering to check the whole story, and then I confronted him. I accused him and incriminated him without even knowing what had happened. He tried to reason with me but… I hulked out,” Bruce admitted softly. “He called the suit and locked us in a room. We fought for a while, until he decided to call off his suit.” Bruce clenched his hands then. “The entire team was outside, screaming for him to get out, but he just… He talked to me and the other guy. He said he wasn’t going to apologize for doing what was right and that I was allowed to kill him if I wanted to. He dared me to prove him wrong in having trusted both me and the other guy.” Bruce eyes swelled with tears then. “I… punched him twice, hard enough to leave him unconscious, but after that the Other Guy remembered how attached he used to be to Tony, and stopped.” Bruce sighed. “Natasha threatened me and then didn’t speak to me at all for two months. Rhodes lasted longer; he ignored me completely for almost five months.”

Steve gaped, not having expected that story at all. “Did you… You two seem to be fine now.”

Bruce nodded. “Once I found out what had actually happened I apologized. We still disagree on a few things but… That doesn’t change the fact that I hurt the one man that was always kind to me, always trusted me and the other guy, and never once was afraid of me. I hurt someone I loved like a brother. I hurt him with my words and with my fists, and he never recriminated me but… that did set us back in the whole trust thing,” Bruce admitted. “We stopped working together for a while after that.” Bruce sighed again. “I can’t change what I did, but I made amends, and I can make sure I never do that again.”

Steve swallowed hard. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“You haven’t lost him completely,” Bruce said after a few seconds. “You’ll never get back the love and trust you once had. You hurt him too bad and it’s been far too many years. But, if you really want to set the record straight and someday get to a place where you can fight together with at least a semblance of trust and friendship, then it’s not too late to make amends.”

Chapter Text

The unmistakable sound of a crash in the living room had Tony scrambling to get to his feet and out of his study in seconds. He called on the suit as he ran, Fury hot on his heels. He came to a skidding halt once he reached the living room door, his suit firmly in place, ready to take down any enemies that might have breached in. He froze, however, when he realized it wasn’t an enemy that had decided to crash in his living room.

“What the fuck, point break?” Tony said, as he pulled back his helmet, gesturing with his hands at the now broken table. “Really? Five years and you still can’t land where you are supposed to?”

“Ah, I apologize, Tony,” the Asgardian said, smiling despite the chagrined look he gave Tony. “I didn’t specify a landing spot when Heimdall opened the portal,” he explained. 

“That’s the sixth table you’ve broken, wreck-it-ralph,” Tony half sneered, though he looked resigned.

“At least he didn’t land in the middle of the UN committee this time,” Fury said with a sigh, before he began chuckling next to Tony, because what else could he do? This was Thor they were talking about. The man still couldn’t quite grasp the importance of the laws they now followed.

Thor relaxed then, Fury’s laughter signaling that no, Tony wasn’t about to shoot him in the face out of frustration - which had never happened yet, but he was just waiting for the shoe to drop.

Natasha and Rhodes, as well as the rest of the inhabitants of the compound, walked in a few seconds later, all geared up and ready to fight.

“Stand down,” Tony said calmly, a small smile reaching his lips. “It was a false alarm.”

“Thor?” Steve asked, a smile on his lips.

“Captain!” Thor boomed, his eyes filled with surprise. “So you stayed after all. I am glad to see that you are well,” Thor said as he approached the man, offering Steve his hand. His eyes were not as warm as they once were, and Thor did not make any attempts to hug the man, but he still seemed genuinely happy to see Steve alive. “I had thought perhaps you would be unwilling to come peacefully. 

Steve gave him a sad smile. “Believe me, I don’t like fighting my friends any more than you do, but I won’t stand for something I do not believe in. I came because earth is in trouble, and I'm not going anywhere until it's safe. Well, I don't think I'll be going anywhere regardless, but that doesn't mean I really agree with everything the accords stand for. Though, they have bettered them, I’ll give you that.”

Thor hummed, shrugging. “I am afraid I can’t comment on the treaty, as I am not from this world, and humans do things differently than Asgardians. However, not signing their terms would have started an unnecessary war.” Thor shrugged. “I haven’t yet found anything to be troubled by with the accords.”

“To be fair, that’s because you’re not here half the time,” Clint sassed, chuckling when Natasha hit him on the shoulder.

Tony just smirked. “Well, I have to give Clint that one; you took your sweet time coming back, Shakespeare.”

“The stones were not easy to find,” the Asgardian said with a shrug, approaching Tony then to bring the man in for a tight hug.

“You’re gonna break the suit,” Tony said, slightly breathless, but smiled nonetheless. “Alright pointbreak, show me the goodies.”

Thor snorted but nodded, walking back to where he had landed to pick up a small golden chest. He opened it and pulled out a round, metal ball, which looked rather heavy. “The power stone is encased inside this orb,” he explained. “It’s power is… incomparable. It is impossible for most species to wield it, and you often need a weapon of great power in order to stabilize it.”

Tony raised his brows. “Okay, so we can’t use it is what you’re saying.”

“I might be able to encrust it in mjorlin if worse comes to worse, but it would be preferable if we can avoid using it,” Thor explained before pulling out a small, transparent glass container, which was filled with a red and black substance that kept reshaping itself every few seconds.

“This is the aether, or reality stone,” Thor said, his face looking somber and his voice sounding wary.

“I’ve seen that before,” Natasha said, frowning as she tried to recall where she’d seen it. Suddenly, she froze. “Isn’t that the stone that destroyed half of London?”

Thor nodded somberly. “The stone was used by Malekith, as the stone has great destructive powers. It gives its user almost limitless amounts of power, but very few can wield it without perishing.”

“I don’t see how these stones are useful if we can’t use them,” Hope said lightly, a frown gracing her features.

“The most important thing to do is to keep Thanos from acquiring them,” Thor stressed. “He has a gauntlet, which allows him to wield all the stones to amass their power. The power of such an object… He would probably be able to wipe out the galaxy in seconds.” 

That gave everyone pause.

“How do we keep them safe?” Tony asked after a few tense seconds.

Thor picked up the small, glass container and walked to Tony’s side. He placed the small, cylindrical container in the man’s hand, closing his fingers around Tony.

“We each keep one,” he said, turning to look at Vision. “And if we can’t defeat him… Then we make sure he can’t get all three of us.”

Tony paled even further. “You want me to look after the stone? Thor-”

“There is no one in Midgard I trust more than you,” he said, his voice holding a sense of finality. “You have led us well, Iron Man, and you are one of the strongest warriors I have fought alongside with. Besides, Thanos will not expect a human to be the one protecting the stone. He will assume I have moved it across the realm, or that I have left it with the allfather. It will give us a bit of an advantage if he believes there are only two stones with us.”

Tony looked like he wanted to argue every point the man had just made, but decided instead to say “How do you use it?”

Thor raised a brow in alarm. “You can’t. It will consume you in a matter of days - minutes if you are actively using it.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Got it the first time around, Zeus, but I need to know how to use it so that I don’t accidentally activate it.”

Thor mulled the thought over for a few seconds before finally nodding. “The stone, unlike the others, is liquid, because it enters its host. It cannot be held by a weapon, for the host must be that of a living body. It grants the user almost endless power, but it feeds off of your energy as trade.”

“So it goes into you?” Tony asked curiously as he raised the little container to look at it more closely. “And how do you get it out?”

“The only one we know that had the ability to “take it out”, as you say, was Malekith,” Thor said, looking uncomfortable. “Although, we did find an artifact, when we went to retrieve it after his death, in an old temple of the dark elves that allowed us to move the aether into this container-” Thor said pointing to the small glass Tony was holding“-but we have no idea if it’s powerful enough to will the stone to leave its host, or if it’s safe to use to begin with.”

“So you don’t really have a way of getting out,” Rhodey summarized, his eyes trained on Tony. “Which means you can’t let it touch you, Tony.”

“So long as it is encased, it is safe,” Thor assured the wary army soldier.

“Right,” Tony said, carefully closing his hand around it. “Well I’ll adjust the armor to be able to carry this safely. I have to redo certain parts of the armor anyway to include a bigger oxygen tank, in case we do fight in space.”

“We won’t be able to find him,” Thor informed him, his eyes grimm. “Thanos will only be found when he wants to. We will have to fight him on his terms.”

“We’ll see,” Tony said, deactivating the suit. “I’m going to go study the-”

“You can’t take it out of its container,” Thor warned again. “It is liquid, and it will immediately look for a living host.”

Tony eyed the aether more warily. “I’m gonna go restructure my armor then,” he said, walking on the opposite direction from his original direction. “Oh, and Thor,” he said as he turned back around while still walking towards the elevator. “The UN will probably want to talk more in depth about your travels and the stones, as do I.”

Thor nodded, understandingly. “I will meet you in your workshop shortly,” he assured Tony.

“The door will be on code red,” he warned the team, before disappearing down the hall. “Oh and there’s pop tarts in the cabinet.”

Thor smiled widely at the man and all but ran off into the kitchen, eager to get his treat. He hadn’t had his sweets in months now, and he had missed it.

“Code red?” Scott asked no one in particular, sounding slightly alarmed.

“Each one of us has an access code to go into his workshop and other areas of this compound, as well as to access the information that Friday stores for missions and the like” Clint explained. “Each code is linked with our personal profiles, and each profile has a different level of clearance.”

“How many levels are there?” Bucky asked curiously.

“There’s four levels labeled after colors,” Natasha said as she took off her gloves. “There is green, blue, red, and black. Black is the highest level of access.”

“So you guys don’t have the same levels of access?” Sam asked with a small, humorous smile.

“No of course not,” Fury bristled. “Tony handles a lot of sensitive information that is not meant to be reviewed by anyone else.”

“So he’s the only one that has the black code?” Wanda asked with a raised brow.

“Natasha, Fury, and myself  have code Black clearance,” Rhodey clarified. “Tony doesn’t have a code.”

Scott raised his brows. “What’s up with the double standards?”

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “The codes are for the team. He is team leader and the Avenger’s representative at the UN.”

“He also owns this compound,” Kamala noted as she sat down next to Natasha to lean against her. “He doesn’t need a code, because he created the damn system.” She shrugged.

“Like I said, Tony handles information that many times is meant only for his eyes,” Fury said calmly as he put his gun away.

“I meant within the team,” Scott clarified dryly. “Why don’t you all have the same level of clearance?”

“Because the only way you can get some privacy around this place is if you make it impossible for someone to get into a room,” Clint said with a devious smile. “For example, if Tony and Natasha are feeling particularly-”

“Oh my god stop-” Kamala said as she scrunched up her nose, burying her head in Natasha’s shoulder as the older woman laughed.

Scott didn’t seem convinced. “And the information? Why don’t you all have the same access to the information FRIDAY has?”

“Oh, because of UN regulation,” Clint said as he dropped right next to Natasha, leaning down to rest his head on the woman’s lap. “Not everyone has the same level of clearance, because not everybody is allowed to go on every mission. There are countries that refuse to let Vision in, while there are others that do not want a huge green rage giant running on their streets - unless, of course, there’s a world crisis. So, when we choose missions, or we are asked to go as a relief unit, the codes are a good way of remembering where we stand so that we can plan accordingly.”

Bucky hummed. “And I’m guessing not all of you can open a door that is on code red?”

“It’s his way of letting us know that he wants to speak with Thor in private,” Peter said pleasantly as he walked away to go into the kitchen. The asgardian had apparently already gone downstairs. “Nat, since Thor is back, we’ll need to order more food,” peter called from the kitchen.

“Crap, you’re right,” Natasha sighed. She looked up just as the boy came back into the livingroom. “Peter, would you mind-”

The boy walked closer to her and kissed the top of Natasha’s head, saying “‘course not. I’ll call and change the order.”

“Thank you, solnyshko ,” the woman said with a happy smile as she closed her eyes, clearly tired.

Bucky looked at Natasha in surprise, before a warm smile spread over his lips. It was… strange seeing her in such a domestic light. He could only remember her from her days in the Red Room, where it had been a kill or be killed policy. The girls had been taught to manipulate and kill not to love, and yet here she was; a married woman with one of her children draped on one side, a man that seemed to be her closest friend draped on the other, and her other child hovering close enough to be within patting distance.

It was mesmerizing to see such a change.

“вы смотрели,” Natasha said as she turned to gaze at Bucky, her eyes as sharp as always.

The man gave her a small, apologetic smile. “Ты выглядишь счастливым.”

“Ok, no,” Rhodey said, sitting on the couch opposite to Natasha. “No secret languages in this house,” Rhodey said firmly, which only made Natasha chuckle. “The two of you are the only ones that speak Russian, so no .”

“Don’t be jealous, Rhodey, you will always be Nat’s favorite James,” Clint grumbled as he buried his face in Natasha’s abdomen.

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Someday I’m going to stab you with one of your arrows, you smart ass.”

Clint chuckled, turning around to pick up a pillow, throwing it straight at Rhodey. “C’mon, I dare you to try,” he incited playfully, looking at Rhodey straight in the eye.

“You either stop or I will smack you both,” Fury growled from where he still stood, looking as severe as always.

“Killjoy,” Kate sighed, as she dropped next to Rhodey, resting her head against the man’s shoulder. “I haven’t seem them have a go in ages.”

“You are all so fucked up,” Rhodey said seriously as he looked at the girl now draped over his shoulder, but a smile betrayed him. Damn he could pretend to be annoyed all he wanted, but he loved all his teammates too much to stay mad for long.  

“And yet you still love us,” Kam pointed out, all but purring in delight as Natasha ran her hands through Kam’s hair.

“Debatable,” Rhodey deadpanned 

“Don’t make me shoot you in the ass, Rhodey,” Clint warned.

“I’d like to see you try, Barton,” Rhodey said in the same tone Clint had used just mere moments ago.

“I swear to god, if the two of you don’t stop I am dragging you both to Tony’s workshop,” Fury barked.

“It’s like watching a milder version of the two of you,” Scott said as he looked between Sam and Bucky. 

“Excuse me, I’m much better looking than pops over here,” Sam scoffed with a wink in Rhodey’s direction.

“I want to see just how pretty you are in ten years, Sammy,” Rhodey snarked with an easy smile.

“He’ll probably be so deep in denial he’ll still think he’s hot,” Bucky said with a laugh.

“Hey, fossils don’t have an opinion on beauty,” Sam said as he elbowed Bucky softly on the side.

“Why, Sam, are you jealous that a man in his nineties looks better than you?” Natasha teased.

“Why are you looking at the goods when you’re off the market already?” Sam parried. 

Clint laughed. “She’s married not blind.”

“So you’re saying you find the soldier hot, bud?” Kate asked as she leaned forward, her eyes twinkling.

Clint snorted. “Too supersoldiery for my taste, kate,” he said finally without opening his eyes.

The girl laughed but nodded, leaning back to rest her head against Rhodes shoulder again.

“Should I go get Tony and Thor? The food should be here soon,” Peter asked Natasha.

The woman shook her head. “Let them catch up. They’ll probably have an early meeting with the UN and it’s best if Tony is on top of the situation. I’ll make them eat something later.”

Peter nodded, biting his lip softly as he worried over the man that had come to be like a father to him.

--------------------

“You staring at a black screen isn’t going to solve your problems, Tony,” Fury commented lightly as he went into Tony’s workshop, where the man was sitting in darkness. “I’m guessing you spoke to Thor?”

“I don’t know how we’re going to take Thanos down,” Tony whispered, his eyes still frozen on the screen. “I don’t know how to save the planet… I don’t… My team-”

Fury approached Tony from behind and suddenly hugged the man, engulfing the man’s shaking body in his steady arms. They generally didn’t do this. It was too emotionally competent for both men to show physical emotional affection, but Fury also knew enough of Tony’s early childhood to know that even know, so many years later, a touch could still help soothe the touch-starved child calm down.

“I want the kids to sit this one out,” Tony admitted quietly “but they would never agree to it, and we can't afford to not use every hand we have on the field.” Tony buried his head in his hands. “I have been building… It’s just frustrating to try and find ways to keep them safe, since it doesn't seem to matter what I do. They’re still always in danger.”

Fury sighed as he straightened ul. “You need to rest, Tony. It won't do anyone any favors if you collapse now.”

Tony stood up then and walked towards the tallest bookcase in the room. He picked out a black book and a door to his left clicked open. Tony pushed it back and knelt on the floor, placing his palm on the fingerprint reader. He also opened his right eyes wide to let the retina scanner do its thing.

Once both devices made an agreeable beeping noise Tony took off his wedding band and pushed the top of the ring into a small opening next to the fingerprint scanner. The lock gave way once Tony gave it a full turn and he retrieved his ring as the door to the not so small vault finally opened.

Inside it there was a broken arc reactor, a relatively large pile of cash, a small notebook and a big, round vibranium shield that shone platinum as the bare metal reflected the dim lights of the vaults.

“Tony?” Fury said, sounding worried. “What are you doing?”

Tony picked up the shield, looking slightly pale as he felt the weight of it again. “We’re going to need everyone to be on top shape, and Rogers is not as effective without this shield,” Tony admitted reticently. “It will be a… temporary loan.”

“Are you sure about this?” Fury said, still looking unconvinced.

“Of course not,” Tony snorted. “But if it’ll help us keep more people safe…” He took a deep breath and murmured “FRIDAY, tell Natasha and Rhodey to come down to the living room. 

“You’re going to do it now?” Fury said as he raised his brows. “Don’t you want to sleep on it?”

“I’ve been sleeping on it since we were first attacked by the Chitauri,” Tony grumbled. “And if I don’t do it now, I will find an excuse not to do it later.”

“Are you sure you can fight with that thing flying around the battlefield?” Fury said as he stood up.

Tony tensed but didn’t reply immediately. “I’ll… deal with it.”

“No, Tony. Can you or can’t you? It’s more important to have you perform at your best than to give Rogers the goddamn shield. You are the team leader, so you can’t just freeze in the middle of a battle,” Fury said sharply, his eyes angry.

“I’ll be fine,” Tony assured him. “Besides, I am not actually fighting with him.” Tony shrugged. “It’s been five years. I think I can handle seeing this shield out again.”

“Have the nightmares stopped?” Fury asked knowingly.

“No,” Tony admitted easily. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t handle it.” Tony patted Fury’s arm. “Come on, They are waiting for us.”

Fury didn’t say anything more, but followed Tony quietly, still looking unconvinced by the whole idea. Tony just ignored him. He knew why Nick would not support him on this, and he loved the man for it, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have to do this anyway.

They reached the living room a few moments later and indeed Natasha and Rhodes were there, sitting on the couch talking quietly as they waited. Natasha turned to look at them and she froze, her smile dropping. “Tony?”

The man gave her a tense smiled and walked closer, leaning down to kiss her deeply, drawing strength from her touch. He buried one hand in her fiery red hair, biting her bottom lip as she ran comforting hands up and down his back, noticing the man’s tense state immediately.

Tony pulled away after a few seconds and grabbed Natasha by the hand. “I need you both to… come with me,” Tony said quietly, giving the two of them a meaningful look.

Rhodes eyes would not leave the shield. “Please tell me you’re not about to give him back the shield,” he groaned.

“I don’t have a choice, Rhodey. He’ll need it against the chitauri,” Tony said with a sigh.

Rhodey bit the inside of his cheek but nodded. “Just… make it clear he has to give it back, for the sake of my sanity,” he said tensely as he stood up.

Tony chuckled but nodded, taking ahold of Natasha’s hand as they walked to the quarters they had assigned to Steve and his team. They found them all of them chatting in their common room, looking more happy and relaxed than Tony had ever seen them since they had arrived.

The chatter stopped, however, once they saw Tony walk in with three somber looking people looming behind him.

Tony placed the shield on an empty space on the couch where Steve was sitting. The man looked between Tony and the shield with wide eyes, clearly unsure of what was happening.

Scott whistled low. “Is that… what happened to the colors of the shield?”

“It was time to shelf them." Tony said curtly.

“Why?” Scott asked, looking sadly at the shield. “A lot of people grew up loving that shield, you know?”

“Tell me Scott, would you feel safe if a superhuman dressed in the communist colors sporting a shield with the communist logo on it, that doesn’t even speak your language, came to the rescue?”

Scott gaped at the man. “Oh c’mon that’s different-" 

“How?” Fury asked sharply. “If you go to many places in the Middle East and you are sporting an American flag you will either be killed or you will find people avoiding you because they are terrified of you. If you go to many countries in Latin America or Asia you will be seen as an imperialist outsider.” Fury stepped closer to the man then, his voice having gone ice cold. “People are often afraid of Americans and, as a superpowered individual serving in the Avengers, you don’t need to give them more fucking reasons to want you dead.”

Tony sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Alright, we’re not here to argue. The shield will be at your disposal until we take Thanos down,” Tony informed Steve, keeping his voice void of all emotions. “After that, you can talk to the UN and see if, after the terms of your sentence are finalized, you can use it again for certain missions under UN jurisdiction. 

“So the UN really does own everyone’s weapons now?” Steve asked as he eyed his shield, not sure if he could touch it just yet. 

“No, I do,” Tony said without looking at the man. “We struck a deal when the amendments were passed. Since I built most of the weapons, suits, and defense gear used by every member of the team - both past and present - and I had a patent on everything, we agreed that I would keep the patents so that no country could reproduce my creations. However, they reserved the right to take any and all weapons out of commission if they saw fit.”

Steve finally took a hold of the shield, running a hand through the now bare metal. He ran his arm through the strong leather fastenings that always held his shield to his arm. It felt like having one of his limbs returned, and yet the memory of how he had lost it was still painfully vivid in his mind.

“Thank you,” he said honestly, clearing his throat as an emotion he couldn’t place pierced his heart.

“Save it, Steve,” Tony bristled, unwilling to let his heart soften. “I’m not giving it back because I want to or because you deserve it. I’m giving it back because you’ll need it soon.”

Natasha grasped Tony’s hand and pulled him back slightly, sensing the rising tension within her husband. “We should go rest,” she suggested, squeezing his hand softly. She leveled a glance at Steve, knowing that Rhodes was probably doing the same. “You should start training with it. We wouldn’t want you to misuse it again.”

She smiled sharply at the man as her thinly veiled threat lingered in the air. She was sure it wasn’t all that hard for Steve to see why they had all come with Tony; last time Steve had had the shield he had rammed it so deep into Tony’s chest he had actually fractured the man’s ribs and he had destroyed the reactor so completely Tony had had to build a new one.

It wasn’t that she believed Steve would do that again. She didn’t believe he had meant to go that far when he had fought Tony in Siberia, and the man had been desperate. She could understand that. However, the unnecessary brute force used against Tony’s suit had not bode well with Natasha when she had found out and it still made her uneasy.

Both Tony’s and Steve’s actions in Siberia had broken the very foundations of their friendship and she knew they could never get that back. She knew Tony would never again be able to look at Steve and think of safety. She knew the man was not comfortable with Steve using his father’s shield near him, so it was best if they just made it crystal clear to Steve that he was using the shield on borrowed time and that, if he even thought of refusing to comply with that, he would be facing all of them.

---------------------

“You ok?” Natasha asked softly as Tony shrugged off his shirt. She hopped on the bed and moved to where he was sitting, facing the window, and rested her chin on the man’s shoulder before bringing her hand up to caress her husband’s chest.

Tony put his hand on top of Natasha’s turning to kiss her forehead. “I’ll be fine.” He smiled bitterly. “I just can’t help  but wonder… what would Howard say if he could see his precious Steve now?” Tony shook his head. “He’d probably defend him.”

Natasha kissed the man’s shoulder. “Howard worshipped a ghost, Tony. We tend to remember only the good things about those that are dead. Steve was never perfect, Tony. No one is. If Howard were alive today, he would be forced to see the humanity he forgot Steve had.”

“To think he disappeared for months at a time to find him, every time coming back more bitter and more drunk.” Tony chuckled bitterly as he shook his head again. “Well, at least his unending search is over now.” He kissed Natasha’s forehead again and said “I need you to help me learn Russian.

Natasha smiled, thankful for the change in topic. “Any reason in particular?”

“I have to go to Russia to speak to President Aliyev about Steve’s fuckup in Russia. The Russians are still pretty pissed, particularly since Steve is now serving as a consultant, so I need to go calm the waters within the next week and I figured it was best if I learned some Russian.”

“Well you’ve always been very good with languages,” she commented as she sat on the man’s lap, smiling deviously at him. “Though I don’t think you can learn a language in a week.”

“Are you doubting my abilities?” Tony said, pretending to be offended.

Natasha’s cheshire grin widened and she leaned down to whisper “No, I’m doubting your incentives.” She ran a hand down his naked chest, kissing the shell of his ear. She grabbed both his hands and placed them on her rear, grinding firmly against him as she said “but perhaps I can help with that.”

Tony groaned in pleasure and squeezed her rear as he brought Natasha closer, latching onto her neck for a few moments, knowing just how much Natasha loved it when he paid attention to it. “I’m not learning any Russian tonight am I?” He asked as he flipped them over, yanking Natasha’s pajama pants down.

“вы узнаете,” Natasha panted out, bringing Tony down again for another searing kiss.

Chapter Text

“Alright Sam, I need you to try these,” Tony said as soon as he heard the two men walk into the door. He stood up quickly and turned to face them, pointing with his head to a pair of shiny, silver wings that were sitting on one of his workshop tables.

Sam had never set foot in the place, which made everything around him extra daunting. He didn’t want to accidentally break something or activate something that would end up attacking him. He wasn’t sure what exactly was proper etiquette in Tony’s workshop, particularly after the reaction he had received when Tony had called him and Bucky to come downstairs.

All the Avengers had looked like they were about to have a stroke, and Kamala had sent him a warning glance the minute he had stood up. Apparently, it had taken over a year for Clint to be allowed in, which then meant Sam was either in huge trouble or there was something unprecedented happening.

“What?” the man said after a few seconds, when he realized Tony was looking at him like he was dumb.

“Try the wings on,” Tony said slowly, as he turned to face Sam again, clearly far too tired to remember he hadn’t yet told Sam or Bucky a single thing regarding the reason behind them being there.

“Did you make these?” Sam asked as he approached the metal wings with caution, not yet daring to touch them as the awe of being in an environment so heavily saturated with unknown technology continued to permeate him.

“No, Sam, Tinkerbell left them on my doorstep last night,” Tony said as he rolled his eyes and stood up, a metal arm in his hand. “Of course I made it. I don’t know if you’ve realized but we are going into a battle and you are seriously unequipped. Like the dumbass in a class that never showed up and that studies five minutes before a quantum physics exam level of unequipped.”

“Well we are not all genius engineers and not all of us have had a sweet life for the past five years that allowed us to have time to think about armor,” Sam pointed out drily.

“Luckily for you, I exist,” Tony shot back just as drily. “And I just so happen to give a shit about whether or not you live or die. So, try the damn wings on and go out to test them. FRIDAY will monitor the progress to see if I need to make any adjustments.”

Before Sam could reply, Tony moved past him, walking straight up to the former Winter Soldier, who looked rather out of place.

“Alright Barnes, I need you to sit down,” Tony said as he pushed against the physically unmovable man who would not have budged had he not wanted to.

The man allowed himself to be led to the nearest stool, a curious look in his eyes. “What are you planning to do?”

“Your current arm isn’t meant for combat, and if you’re going to be helping us, then I need you to be combat ready,” Tony said without looking at him in the eye, instead choosing to busy himself  with finding another stool.

“You’re going to let him fight?” Sam asked, sounding surprised.

“I’m feeling a bit desperate,” Tony said in a clipped tone as he came to sit near Bucky. “I’ll need to remove the arm T’challa put in place to replace it with this one,” he said as he pointed to the arm now sitting on his lap.

Bucky nodded, extending and relaxing his metal arm. “Do what you have to do.”

Tony nodded and began examining the arm closely, trying to find the least messy way to disassemble the arm.

“I don’t feel my arm,” Bucky informed him after a few seconds. “You don’t have to worry about hurting me.”

“I know you don’t,” Tony said calmly touching the metal arm hesitantly. “It’s the principle of the thing. I… don’t really feel like blowing up your arm right now.”

Bucky’s eyes softened. “I’m not angry about it,” he said easily. “You had just found out I killed your parents.

Tony snorted. “You know most people don’t bring up things like that when someone is about to quite literally rip out a limb.”

“I’m just stating a fact,” Bucky continued, unperturbed. He could see how tense Tony was. “We can’t pretend like it didn’t happen.”

“Believe me, I couldn’t pretend if I tried,” Tony said coldly as he finally set to work on the arm.

“I really am sorry, Tony,” the soldier whispered, unable to look at Tony as he said it.

Tony sighed. “I already said it was fine.”

Bucky smiled sadly. “We both know you did it to help me deal with my memories,” Bucky said honestly. “And it definitely helped, but I’m not stupid Tony.”

Tony rubbed his eyes. “I told you already Barnes: you will always be the asshole that killed my parents, and I will always be the asshole that blew your arm up and tried to kill you.” Tony chuckled drily, his eyes sad. “That’s never going to change.”

“You know, I read somewhere that unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation and you realize that the situation is over, you can’t move on,” Bucky said, turning back to look at Tony.

Tony froze for a second before snarking “what are you, a self-help book?”

Bucky chuckled and shrugged. “I sure have read a whole lot of them.”

“And how is that working for you?” Tony shot back.

Bucky tilted his head to the side and shrugged. “It puts some things into perspective.”

Tony smirked. “Whatever Barnes, let’s just get this over with.”

“Bucky,” the man said firmly as Tony began disattaching the arm. “My name’s Bucky.”

Tony didn’t reply. Instead he concentrated on the arm, letting out a small breath of relief just as the arm finally gave way and came off the metal base that was too rooted inside the man to even attempt to take off. He placed the arm down and proceeded to lift up his own creation, feeling slightly sick to his stomach as he began working on attaching the arm without damaging the brilliant neural connection T’Challa had worked into the metal base.

It took him a good thirty minutes before he managed to get the arm properly set, but he knew the job was done when the arm came to life, a small blue light hissing to life, shining through a few delicate lines in the design of the arm.

Tony ran his hand down the soldier’s new arm, the brightness of the lights intensifying everywhere he ran his fingers. It felt like the metal knew it was him, which was in a way true given that he had put in a type of sensor that allowed him to control Bucky’s use of the arm - in case the man was triggered again.

“All done,” Tony said in a tight voice, not looking into Bucky’s eyes. “You should go to the gym and try it out. Spar with Rogers or something; with its current setting, you should have enough strength to overpower him.”

“What if he snaps?” Sam asked as he came to stand next to Bucky, donning his shiny new wings.

“Then the sensors I placed inside the arm will be triggered and he will lose control of it,” Tony said calmly, not seeing the point in beating the issue around the bush. It was best if Bucky knew exactly what would happen if he did eventually lose it.

Bucky nodded. “Thank you, Tony,” he said, giving the man an earnest smile.

Tony nodded, feeling slightly less uncomfortable than he had been when the two had first come in. Still, he needed a nice, long shower. “Try them out and I’ll check the progress to adjust anything that might need adjusting.”

With that, he turned away from the two, not feeling particularly up to exchanging any more pleasantries.  


“May I come in?” Bucky asked as he stood by the doorway, having waited almost five minutes before deciding that yes, it was best to interrupt the genius’s work than to be caught staring.

Tony turned quickly to look at the door, a brow raised in surprise. “Um, yes?” He said, though it sounded more like a question than anything else. “Did you train with Rogers?” Tony asked as he whirled away from his own armor to sit more towards the middle of the room.

Bucky nodded. “It’s working better than ever before. I was able to land Steve on his ass,” he said with a grin.

Tony chuckled. “Glad to hear. So, what can I do for you, Barnes?”

“Bucky,” the man said immediately.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Barnes-”

“Bucky,” the man said more forcefully.

Tony raised a brow. “Barnes.”

Bucky grabbed a stool and came to sit right in front of Tony, close enough to touch the man if he wanted to. “Bucky,” he said, this time more softly.

Tony got up suddenly then and walked to the back of his workshop. “I am not doing this sober,” he muttered to himself, before saying “drink?”

“It doesn’t do anything for me,” Barnes said in lieu of declining. “Besides, innit too early?”

“It’s… almost nine pm barnes,” Tony said as he looked at his watch. “I think I’m good.” He pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, going back to his seat almost reluctantly.

He passed Bucky a glass and poured into it, and the man just huffed good naturedly. Tony clinked his drink against the soldier’s before downing the contents of his tumbler in one go.

“Why are you here Barnes?”

“Bucky,” the man said, not ruffled at all.

“I am going to blast your ass if you don’t tell me why you’re stalking me, Bucky,” Tony half growled, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

Bucky chuckled. “I came to talk to you about the accords.”

Tony sat up straighter at that. “What about them?”

“I know you’ve been working to amend them, but I’m not a know-it-all like you, so I want you to walk me through them from your perspective,” Bucky said simply, sitting back, his body language showing an openness that made Tony feel much more at ease.

“Well… they’re there to hold us accountable and to keep us in check,” Tony started, not sure exactly what it was that the man wanted to know. “Because most of us are American, we can’t just go barging into other countries. In case of imminent attack, or alien threats, we have agreed with the UN that we do not need permission to cross national borders, unless of course we know about the attack in advance in which case we do need to formally petition for entry which we already got a green light on. If the problem at hand is internal - like a coup or anything of the sort - we are not allowed to intervene. If human rights are being violated, we are not allowed to intervene until the country has been sanctioned by the UN and other non-violent forms have been tried to end the problem. And even then, they might not send us but a regular military unit. In general, what they want is for us to stick to the idea that first brought about the Avengers initiative; a group of superpowered individuals that could fight the fights that normal governments and militaries could not.”

Bucky nodded. “So is that why you were not allowed to intervene in Kosovo two years ago?” Bucky asked. “Almost a hundred people died then,” he pointed out.  

Tony’s face looked grim but he nodded. “It… was less than ideal but Kosovo isn’t recognized as a nation state by all countries and Serbia had us as personae non grata, so we couldn’t go in. It was also an internal conflict so we weren’t allowed to intervene.” Tony sighed. “I know the accords aren’t always ideal Barnes,” he said calmly. “There have been a number of occasions where our hands have been tied and people have died, but it’s not up to us to decide for the world. We can’t force ourselves on countries. There is a reason why we have governments and there’s a reason why it’s not ok when a government uses military intervention to push an agenda on another. There’s always two sides of an argument and what we might consider the right side others might not. We can’t get involved in things like that, and they don’t want us to. We are not here to police the world based on what we think is right; we are here to defend it from external threats or world ending threats that threaten people’s lives.”

Bucky nodded slowly. “I… understand. It must be hard though, when your goal is to protect people.”

Tony nodded with a small sigh. “It certainly isn’t always easy to feel powerless when we know we could be helping, but most of the time we are allowed to help and we are held accountable if we screw up.” Tony shrugged. “It helps people around the world sleep better at night, and that’s all I care about.”

Bucky let out a shuddering breath and took the whiskey bottle from Tony’s hand, refilling both their glasses. “Yeah I get that,” he said before he kicked back the amber liquid.

Tony froze, the sick realization dawning on him that yeah if anyone could understand the feeling of wanting to ease people’s fears regarding oneself it would be Bucky. He suddenly laughed at the irony, his laughter half unhinged. “You… you are something else, aren’t you?” he conceded as he finally looked at the man in the eye. “You’re almost as fucked up as I am.”

“You are a hero,” Bucky contradicted leaning in closer “that’s what people see when they see you. When they see me… when you see me, you see a killer. So no, if anything you are less fucked up than me.”

Tony’s throat closed up, before he finally whispered “When I see you, I see a victim.”

Both men froze at the admission, Bucky’s eyes wide at the admission. “I told you already Barnes, you weren’t in control,” Tony said after a few seconds, realizing that he actually believed what he was saying.

He could try to wallow in his own pity party for the rest of his life, or he could finally admit that he and Bar- Bucky were more similar than he cared to admit.

Suddenly Tony reached out and offered the man his hand. Bucky eyed Tony’s hand for a second, mostly out of lingering shock, before he took it, aware that this wasn’t Tony putting on a brave face to help him get past his nightmares. This wasn’t a facade. This was a man that had lived through hell and back and still was willing to build bridges.

They remained like that, hands linked, for a few seconds, before finally letting go, a new level of understanding reaching each other’s eyes.

“I… well, I didn’t mean to keep ya so long,” Bucky said as he scratched his head with a soft smile.

Tony shrugged. “I need a break anyway. Natasha doesn’t generally like it when I work for longer than twenty four hours.”

Bucky’s brows rose. “You have not stopped in twenty four hours?”

Tony gave him one of his trademark smiles before quipping “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“I don’t think Natasha would appreciate that kind of talk,” Bucky pointed out with a raised brow. “And I’m not about being a tattle tale.”

Tony gave him a mock betrayed look. “Excuse you, siccing my wife on me is not something friends do.”

“I’m your friend then?”

Tony hummed. “Well you’re not my enemy,” Tony said with a wink as he stood up, neither agreeing nor denying. “Alright time I take my break. I’m gonna go get coffee.”

Bucky nodded and stood up as well, giving Tony a nod before saying “I’m gonna give Sam and Steve another run around the mill. They need it.”

Tony laughed, following the man out of the workshop. “If you get in a good punch, tell Friday to send Peter the clip. He’ll fanboy over your arm.”

“That kid of yours really is something else,” Bucky said warmly. “He’s just… it’s like looking at the sun.”

Tony smiled at the comparison. “I know I technically can’t say this, but he certainly has taken to heart that whole spiel about growing to be better than your parents. He’ll make a good leader someday.”

“You plannin’ on kicking back soon?” Bucky asked as they entered the elevator, looking slightly worried.

“Oh god no,” Tony said quickly. “I can’t just fuck off yet. They’re not ready, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to start prepping. You never what can happen.”

Bucky nodded, exiting the elevator first. “So long as you’re not actively trying to off yourself.” Bucky gave Tony one last smile. “Well, it was certainly good talking to you, General.”

Tony smirked. “The pleasure was mine, sergeant. Now if you’ll excuse me,” Tony said before walking away, feeling light on his feet for the first time after having a conversation with the soldier.

His good humor didn’t seem to be meant to last, however, as he came face to face with Wanda as soon as he walked into the kitchen. Tony froze by the door, not sure whether it was more rude for him to ignore her or tu just walk away right now.

“I’ve made coffee,” she said in lieu of a salute, though her tone was strained.

For a second, Tony wondered if he needed to worry about the contents of the coffee, before forcing his fear to settle down. If she hadn’t killed him while living in the compound after fucking around with his mind, then he was pretty sure she wouldn’t do so now.

“Thank you,” Tony said as he approached the coffee machine, grabbing a cup as he went.

“It’s nice, what you’ve built here,” she said as he poured himself a large cup of coffee.

“It’s the same compound with just a few more rooms,” Tony quipped.

“We both know that’s not what I mean-” Wanda said as she looked down at her tea. “You’ve… you never came to live here, but now you’ve made it into your home.”

“I… just couldn’t live here then,” Tony said, still not looking at Wanda. “Not after Ultron.”

He didn’t mention the fact that he also couldn’t bring himself to actually live with the witch. While he had come to care about her wellbeing while she was living in his compound, he had never really approached her. After she had entered his mind… it just felt like a barrier he couldn’t quite breach - a trust in himself he couldn’t quite regain.

“What happened to my things?” She asked softly, no real recrimination in her voice.

“Ah… I don’t know actually. I didn’t take care of that. Viz and Rhodey said they would clear the compound by the time I brought the new contractors and I didn’t have the time or the mind to ask about… anything really. Sorry,” Tony finished with a grimace.

“It’s okay, I wasn’t expecting to get my things back. I was just curious,” Wanda said with a tense smile. “Clint was here a while ago. He said one of his kids had sent you a video message.”

“Oh I’ll have to go find him later then. I would hate to not reply,” Tony said, beginning to retreat back to the door.

“You know it was… nice of you to save Clint,” Wanda said.

Tony froze. “Not really, I just provided legal assistance to get him a pardon.”

Wanda shrugged. “You still helped get him off his ridiculous sentence… and you helped Scott.”

Tony scratched the back of his head. “Yes, well, they have children, Wanda. We might not have agreed on the accords, but I wasn’t going to let their children suffer because their fathers fought a battle they should have never joined to begin with.”

Wanda nodded. “Is that why you didn’t come back for the rest of us?”

“Excuse me?”

Wanda fidgeted. “Well surely you saw how unfair the edict was, and Ross’s prison” Wanda said quietly. “That’s why you helped… I mean I know you did it mostly for their children, but you still brought them back to work for… with you. But you never came for the rest of us”

Tony felt a cold fury grab ahold of him. “First of all, I didn’t bring anyone in. Like you said, I had those pardons made because of the children. I never told Clint to come back to the Avengers. He came back out of his own volition. And, believe me, had it not been because we were short on staff at that point, I probably wouldn’t have allowed him to come back. Hell I didn’t fight alongside birdbrains for over a year. I didn’t want them here, which is why I didn’t try recruiting Scott. I wasn’t trying to get something out of helping them and I wasn’t choosing who to help based on you as people. I was just being practical.”

Wanda gave him a skeptical look. “Are you really saying your choice wasn’t influenced at all by the fact that you were angry at Steve?”

Tony forcefully put down his cup of coffee. “Of course I was angry at Steve! I still am angry, but that changes nothing. I couldn’t have gotten you all pardons even if I had tried.”

“But you didn’t try-”

“The shit I had to pull to get them pardoned was hefty enough as it was. I don’t know if you understand this Wanda, but most world leaders despised Steve and Barnes - and you, for that matter. Not only that but, for the past five years, you lot have continued to work as fucking vigilantes all over the world. How the hell, then, do you want me to vouch for you when you never stopped?”

Wanda gave him an offended look. “Scott has been with us for those five years!”

“The fucker becomes the size of an ant, Wanda! He isn’t as visible as the rest of you!” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, Wanda, no one told you to leave. You could have stayed here and-”

She looked ready to cry. “You were keeping me locked in my room-”

“You had just killed thirty people! What did you expect me to do?” Tony snarled. “People didn’t trust us, Wanda. They were afraid for their lives. I was trying to protect you. When people are afraid they do terrible things Wanda. Do you honestly think a mob wouldn’t have tried to get their hands on you? After the bullshit that was the fight at the German airport, there were multiple reports of superpowered individuals being harassed in New York and they didn’t even have a connection to us. You were seen helping Ultron, and then you lost control in Lagos,” Tony said, refusing to back down. “People were angry Wanda. 117 countries were angry. We might be “superheroes”, but that doesn’t mean we don’t answer to the law.” Tony sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. “If you would have just stayed put for a little while longer… I could have appeased the people, they would have trusted you, but you decided to join Rogers. And, no matter how much you blame me for your arrest, I didn’t make that choice for you. We all made choices, and we all paid for them.”

“I can’t make people trust me. I can’t make then not fear me,” she said, her eyes full of sadness.

“When the cause of their fear and mistrust and pain is your own course of action, then yes, you actually can make them trust you. It’s just a matter of changing your course.” Tony scoffed. “I don’t know who told you that bullshit, but I can assure you that shit won’t fly anywhere.”

Wanda’s hands glowed red as her anger rose. “And your course of action? You have harmed as many people - if not more - than the rest of us. Yes you didn’t end up in prison. You ended up being chosen to lead the Avengers. You didn’t pay for your actions, and you didn’t let us atone for ours. You chose to leave us there,” Wanda whispered, her voice sounding hurt. She was still sore about that.

“I have made my fair share of mistakes. I have caused more deaths than I care to count, but I have paid as best I can. I have tried to fix my mistakes. I have tried to do better. And now I will never be able to bring back those that have died because of me, but I can make damn sure no more people die under my watch.” Tony sounded desperate. “And how do you know I wouldn’t have tried getting you out of prison? You broke out of the prison a few days after Siberia. I may be good at talking to politicians, but I’m not that good, not when it’s Ross dealin under the table. I needed more time to uncover him, but in the end it didn’t matter. You left with Rogers,” Tony said matter of factly.

“Yes, but-”

“Do you honestly think that I couldn’t have brought you in if I wanted to? I have known your exact location for the past five years. You made the choice to leave with Cap, and I made the choice to let you go without having to pay the consequences for your actions. I paid for the consequences of all of your actions. I was the one that had to be there at the funerals for the people in Lagos even though I wasn’t even part of that mission. I was the one that had to look in the eye at the policemen in Germany who were so badly injured they were told they would not walk again. I was the one their mothers and wives screamed at and I was the one that had to hold them while they cried. I was the one that paid for their therapy. I was the one that settled the lawsuits that the German government levelled against the Avengers as an institution. I was the one that paid for the reparation in New York and Lagos and Sokovia. I was the one that funded the three hundred institutions that are currently operational worldwide cleaning up past and present mistakes of the Avengers, so really I don’t even know what the fuck we are arguing about here. You accuse me of being the asshole, but all I see is me footing the bill and giving you assholes a free pass that you do not deserve, nor did you manage correctly, but I still did it - do it, in fact - because I fucking cared about all of you.” Tony shook his head, the anger suddenly leaving him to leave him weary to the bone.

Wanda looked too shocked to speak.

“You know what? I’m done having this conversation with you. Goodnight,” Tony spat before leaving the kitchen, cup of coffee all but forgotten.

Before Wanda could react, Natasha and Vision walked in. She had no idea how long they had been listening in. The android looked angry but Natasha… Natasha looked ready to slit Wanda’s throat.

She approached her in mere seconds, grabbing her by her throat and pushing her against the table. “Listen to me, miss Maximoff, and listen to me carefully,” she said, her eyes lethal. “You and your words and your actions have done more than enough damage in this house. I don’t care whether you agree with my husband or not. I don’t care if you did what you thought was best. I don’t even care if this is all just a big bout of miscommunication, if I ever see you complain or talk back at him again after everything he has done to keep you people safe, I will personally see to it that your powers are eliminated and that you are barred from ever coming into this compound. Are we clear?”

“I am sure she understood you, Natasha,” Vision said calmly from behind her, touching her arms softly to get her to let go.

She knew the man had been controlling Wanda’s powers, which had allowed the assassin to get this close without the girl being able to fight back. And so, out of respect to the Android, she let go, leaving the kitchen to go comfort her husband.

Vision sighed. “I know you are young still, and there are things your life haven’t taught you yet, but gratitude is a trait you need to acquire my dear Ms. Maximoff. Mr. Stark has done more for this planet than most men. Of course, this does not exempt him of blame, but he doesn’t shy away from guilt my dear, he acts upon it - sometimes to his own detriment.”

Vision approached Wanda then, lifting her chin. He kissed her forehead before whispering “If I ever feel another bout of high hostile energy emanating from you while discussing anything with Mr. Stark, I will bind your powers permanently. I don’t want to harm you or limit you, but I cannot allow you to harm my leader just because you cannot control yourself when around him.”

The android moved away then, his eyes as sad as the night itself. Wanda stood frozen as she watched him go, feeling more afraid of him than of any threat Natasha could make.

Chapter Text

“Tony!” Steve called as he barged into the man’s workshop, looking furious.

Tony sighed, throwing his head back as he forced himself - yet again - to count all the reasons why Steve was a necessary addition to his life. This felt like a dejavu of their first weeks as a unit, when Steve had found a way to see a fault in everything Tony did and Tony had tried particularly hard to annoy Steve just to see how far he could push.

Of course, the difference was that now their strained relationship had nothing to do with bad first impressions and more to do with old betrayals and years of pent up rage and frustration on both sides. They had improved somewhat. Tony didn’t get the urge to scream or punch Steve every two seconds anymore and, for the past two weeks, Steve had been more receptive to Tony’s requests and actions, which was a nice change, but, just like at the beginning, the smallest thing could cause either one of them to yank the chain too hard.  

“I don’t remember inviting you in,” Tony said without turning to look at Steve. Steve was being uncharacteristically rude and Tony wasn’t about to give in to the man so easily. He had no idea why spangles had suddenly decided to give Tony a social call, but he didn’t particularly care. He was tired, he was hungry, and he was still angry due to his conversation with Wanda the night prior.

“Would it kill you to turn around?” Steve gritted out, forcing himself to take deep breaths.

“Oh, I don’t know, would it kill you to not show up unannounced and uninvited, screaming bloody murder?” Tony snapped back, whirling around to glare at Steve. “You do realize that this is my house and that you can’t just barge into my working space, right?” Tony grunted.

Steve sighed, rubbing his face. “I wasn’t trying to barge in on you. I needed to talk to you, and this was the only way to get you to talk to me.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “You should have still asked Friday if I was available,” Tony admonished. “But you’re here now, so just get it out, will you?”

“I found Wanda crying in her room this morning,” Steve said in an accusatory tone.

Tony stiffened, his glare turning dangerously angry. “If you’re here to-”

“I am not trying to excuse what happened five years ago, Tony, but she’s still a-”

“If you say she’s a kid, I will bash your head in with a repulsor,” Tony warned, standing up with a predatory growl. “She’s not a fucking kid, Steve. She wasn’t a kid five years ago, and she isn’t one now. I don’t give a fuck if you feel personally responsible for her happiness, I am done with hearing excuses about-”

Steve sighed. “I already told you I am not trying to excuse what happened five years ago, but Lagos was my fault, not hers. And, five years ago, she left because she was trying to atone for her mistakes not-”

“Oh give me a break!” Tony screamed, looking offended. “She acted like a brat, Steve. When are you going to-”

“Tony she’s not a bad kid!” Steve half yelled, trying to top the man’s voice. “I know she’s made mistakes. So have you, and so have I! Making her cry and spewing accusations at her isn’t going to help-”

“No one has accused her of anything!” Tony growled. “And if telling her a few facts is too much for her to handle, then she clearly has been too pampered, Steve. Yes, we have all made mistakes, but I don’t see her owning up to them. Come to think of it, you haven’t either-”

“I already told you I was sorry!” Steve said, his nostrils flaring.

“No Steve, you were sorry you hurt my feelings. You weren’t sorry for what you did. We already established that last time you and I had a little talk,” Tony clarified, closing in on the man. “There’s a difference, and I don’t even know if you can see it.” Tony sneered at the man. “Now, if you actually think you’re going to convince me to apologize to-”

“All I am asking is that you try to let go. It won’t kill you to try to be polite to her. I have already asked her to be polite to you,” Steve pushed, taking a step forward as he refused to be intimated by the furious man.

“So you want me to play nice, is that it?” Tony asked mockingly.

“She wasn’t the only one that made mistakes Tony, and she’s paid for them already. If you want to be angry at someone, then be angry at me. She lost her only friend, many people hate her, and the people living with her seem to want her to get lost. She gets it, Tony.”

“Does she? Because all I heard last night was how wrong it was for me to lock her in her room which, mind you, I did it to keep little red riding hood from being killed by the wolves,” Tony spit out.

Steve sighed. “Tony-”

“Don’t worry, I’ll steer clear of your precious Wanda,” Tony said icily, finally taking a step back. “Now get out of my workshop.”

Steve deflated at that. “We’re never going to move past this, are we?”

Tony turned around, his eyes a fraction less cold. Before he could answer, however, the compound shook, sending both men spiraling to the ground. Steve grabbed Tony by the hand and yanked him close, half covering the man with his body as part of the ceiling came down. They stayed still as an explosion brought yet another wall tumbling down.  

Tony waited a few seconds before pushing Steve away in order to get up. Tony grunted as he tried to stand up, feeling inordinately disoriented. “Not again,” he half whined just as another explosion shook the ground. “FRIDAY… Activate code Red,” Tony gasped, extending his hand as he called for his suit.

Friday blasted the first alarm through the sound system all around the compound, deploying half of the spare iron man suits.

“Sir, this wave appears to be much larger, and much stronger, than the one you faced a few days ago, and the Avengers are not currently in the compound,” FRIDAY informed Tony, who was busy suiting up.

“Steve, go get your damn shield,” Tony said, worry crossing his eyes. “Do you think you’ll make it to your room?”

“I’ll be fine,” Steve assured, getting to his feet in a second. “Go, I’ll catch up with you in a second.”

Tony nodded and quickly flew out of his workshop, his heart in his mouth. “Fry, where’s everyone?”

“Doctor Banner, Vision and Mr. Odinson are in the compound sir. Ms. Khan and Mr. Parker are at school sir, as you instructed, and Ms. Pym is in her office. General Rhodes, King T’Challa, and Mrs. Stark are at the UN with Mr. Fury, and Agent Barton is currently out testing his new weaponry.”

“Right, where is Steve’s team?” Tony asked, distantly noticing the fact that even now there was a clear divide between his people and Steve’s people.

“They are trying to fend off the wave on the west wing of the compound, sir, though I don’t believe they’ll be able to hold them off for much longer.”

“Dammit,” Tony cursed under his breath, propelling himself to the west side of the compound.

“Sir, the wave attacking the west side seems to be a decoy,” Friday informed him just as he reached Bucky, blasting the first ten enemies he saw.

“What?” He asked, bewildered, turning his attention back to bucky, who shielded himself with his arm and said “shoot, Stark!”

Tony frowned, a little slow on the uptake, before remembering that the new arm was made of vibranium.

Of course.

Tony directed his his blast at Bucky’s arm, which immediately bounced at an angle, hitting two aliens on the side. Bucky moved his arm slowly, changing the angle of the blast as he moved to hit as many targets as possible.

“Mr. Stark, there is another wave breaking in through the living room. It seems to be a highly specialized force.”

Tony cursed again. “Send all AI units to help. Can Vision and Thor hold them off?”

“I am afraid the target is running interference waves, sir, and I cannot control the suits at the moment. By my calculations, they will be needing help in the next seven minutes, as the wave is too large for just the two of them.”

“Try to find the source of interference and squash it, fry,” Tony said, sounding distressed.

Bucky punched one of the chitauri straight in the face before turning to look as a glass-shattering roar reached them. “Please tell me that’s not one of theirs.”

“No, that was the Hulk,” Tony said fairly confidently, a small smile on his lips. “Friday, find a way to direct him to the living room so he can help Thor and Viz.”

“Of course, sir.”

Tony turned to look at Sam then, ready to start giving out orders when a shield flew past him, hitting a rather large chitauri in the face, who had been standing right behind Tony. Tony hadn’t even noticed the alien had been standing behind him.

“Thank you,” Tony said to Steve, propelling himself to the air again.

A large, bear-looking alien chose that moment to break through the remainders of the wall, dragging everyone’s attention back to the problem at hand.  The beast growled, baring its large canines as saliva flew out of its mouth and onto the ground, making Tony feel slightly nauseous.

The animal crouched low, it’s powerful legs tensing as it prepared to jump, ready to claw out the eyes of any Avenger that had the misfortune of crossing the creature’s path.

Tony pushed Bucky away and extended his arm, blasting the beast before it could jump. The blast itself merely bounced off, forcing Tony to move to the side to avoid being hit by his own technology.

Tony’s lips twitched unhappily as the beast charged forward, it’s fiery eyes on Tony. He was at a loss as to how to take down the damn thing, given that his repulsor attacks had just been rendered useless.

“Fry, scan the beast’s body for any weaknesses,” Tony said as he dashed to the side, avoiding being hit by the skin of his teeth.

“The beast appears to have a weak underbelly, sir,” Friday informed him after a few more seconds of Tony playing bait.

“Alright, time to say bye bye princess,” Tony grunted as he flew dangerously close to the floor, getting himself right underneath the Belly’s beast. He extended his arms and thrust up his chest, blasting the beast with his chest reactor. The light and heat emanating from the beam illuminated the room, giving an edge to both Steve and Bucky who used the distraction to their favor by taking down the chitauri that were closest to the beast.

“Sir, there appears to be more of these creatures coming,” Friday informed Tony, “and there’s at least three currently assailing the living room.”

“Steve I need to go help Thor and the others,” Tony said once the beast finally succumbed. “There’s more of these fuckers, do you think you can handle them?”

“I can take them,” Wanda piped in, not turning back to look at the two as she was busy taking down a new wave of chitauri.

“Go, we’ll be fine,” Steve said with a small smile.

“Give ‘em hell,” Bucky quipped just before Tony zoomed out of the room.

“Sir, they seem to be interested in capturing Vision ” Friday began, sounding worried.

Tony froze in mid air. “What?”

“Their objective seems to be to take Vision alive. They have just reopened the portal, and are trying to subdue-”

“They’re after the fucking mind stone,” Tony whispered to himself, rushing towards the living room. “Friday don’t let them take him.”

“I am doing everything I can, sir,” the AI assured him. “Unfortunately, I cannot find the source of interference.”

“They’re using magic, then,” Tony grunted, reaching the living room just as one of the chitauri reached for Vision’s neck. The alien plastered a black patch on the android’s neck, much to said android’s surprise.

Clearly, he had been altering his mass weight, but the patch itself completely ignored Vision’s powers; the chitauri did not need to be able to touch the android to place the patch on his skin.

The android let out a surprised yelp, bringing his hand up immediately to cover his skin. His eyes widened as he realized he couldn’t take the blasted thing off. His eyes locked with Tony’s and, for the first time, the man saw actual fear in his creations’ clear blue eyes.

The fear soon turned to a blankness that made Tony’s blood run cold, before Vision’s eyes rolled back and the android fell limp to the ground.

“No!” Tony screamed, feeling as if everything was suddenly in slow motion and he couldn’t move.

One of the chitauri grabbed Vision’s hand and swung him over one of the bear-like beasts, which immediately took off, leaving the three remaining, disgruntled avengers behind.

Tony took off without conscious thought, his mind drowning out the fighting occurring all around him. There was only one thing that mattered right now and that was the android who was perilously dangling from the beast's back as it ran faster and faster towards the open portal.

He couldn’t lose Vision, not like this.


“Mr. Stark,” Vision greeted when Tony walked into the room, noticing the hard lines of tension on the man’s fance and the deep dark marks under his eyes showing his lack of sleep.

“Hi, Vision,” Tony said with a half, tense smile, his tone a bit too overtly polite to sound natural.

This was the first time the android had seen him in almost three weeks. Ever since he had returned from Siberia, he had taken to avoiding anyone that wasn’t colonel Rhodes. Vision knew the man was emotionally exhausted, but he also had the tingling certainty that the man was just too angry at Vision to even consider talking to him.

“Are you here to see Colonel Rhodes?” The Android asked, before the man could flee.

“Yeah,” Tony said, taking a step closer to the door. “I have been busy the past few days, so I haven’t been able to visit.” He smiled tensely again. “Anyway, I should-”

“Has the colonel shown any signs of improvement?” The android asked, unsure of whether or not he had the right to ask.

Tony shook his head, looking even more somber than before. “The doctors are not feeling too optimistic. He probably won’t be able to walk again on his own.”

Vision sighed. “I apologize. I… It wasn’t my intention to-”

“It’s fine,” Tony said quickly - a bit too quickly perhaps, because both he and Vision could tell he did not mean it. “I just… I should go.”

“Of course,” Vision said politely, taking a step back. “Perhaps… you can find a way to heal him,” Vision offered. “After all if you were able to create me…” Vision shrugged, unsure as to how to continue. “The possibilities offered by the arc seem almost endless.”

Tony froze, turning slowly to face Vision, his mind racing. “What?”

The android looked at Tony curiously, quite sure that he hadn’t seen that gleam of giddy mania in the genius’ eyes in a very long time. “Well, the arc was meant to heal, was it not? If you are able to refine the design-”

“Vision you are a genius. I could kiss you right now,” Tony breathed out before he ran out of the room. “Tell Rhodey I’ll come see him later!” he called out as he ran down to his make-do workshop, which he had been using for the past few weeks.

He couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to him to use Dr. Cho’s research to help Rhodey. It seemed so obvious now it was actually laughable. He was aware that, as it was now, her research wouldn’t be able to help Rhodey, but if the arc could be reconfigured…

“Jarvis contact Dr. Cho for me would you?” Tony said as he flopped down on a chair, grabbing a tablet as he went, feeling far too proud of his AI for having figured out a way to help his friend.

“Sir?” Friday began, sounding confused.

Tony stiffened then, his smile freezing on his thin lips as the stark reminder that despite the fact that there was a talking, breathing being that used his AI’s voice, his AI was long gone.


“Mr. Stark,” Vision called for the fourth time, feeling both mildly amused and fairly concerned about the state the genius was in.

He had been working for almost four days straight, which, according to the Android’s calculations, would soon end with the genius’s collapse. It truly baffled him to see Tony’s pseudo erratic behavior. The man barely took care of himself, even when he insisted on taking care of others. Of course, now that the team had grown and Tony’s estranged relationships with some of his former teammates had finally begun healing, he had people constantly worrying about his well being.

Still, there was still along way to go before the man could truly forgive the two former SHIELD agents, which meant that, despite the fact that they did care for the man, they couldn’t exactly ask him to go to sleep - hence why they had sent Vision to check in on the man.

Tony still seemed somewhat keen on avoiding Vision, which the android tried to respect as much as possible, but at times like this it was hard to avoid the man. The andorid knew he was a painful reminder of the AI Tony had so loved, which made it difficult at times for the genius to hold long conversations with the android, but Vision was not above using this reminder to get the man to, at the very least, eat.

“Mr. Stark,” Vision called again, this time more loudly.

Tony flinched and finally turned to look, his eyes slightly glassy. “Ah Jar- Vision,” Tony said, his tired mind unable to keep any pretense of a brain-to-mouth filter. “What can I do for you?”

“You have been working for over seventy-hours, sir. Your body isn’t responding properly anymore,” Vision said in a chiding tone. “You need rest.”

“I am fine,” Tony assured him. “I just need to finish this prototype for-”

Vision approached Tony, his eyes turning serious. “Sir, Mr. Fury has instructed me to take you to bed, regardless of how close you might be to finishing your project.”

Tony gaped, looking insulted. “I have mouths to feed, terminator. I just need to finish redesigning Hope’s suit, or I won’t get started on Rhodey’s new armor for another two weeks. Also, since when are you working with Fury to baby me?”

“I am doing no such thing,” Vision said as he tugged a tired Tony along, giving him a small smile. “I am merely making sure that you don’t kill yourself.”

“Now why would you do that?” Tony asked, trying to think of something to say that would allow him to go back to work.

“I may not be Jarvis, Mr. Stark, but I am your friend, and I have been reliably informed that friends take care of one another,” the android said simply, not realizing that his words shook Tony to his core.

Tony grumbled under his breath but allowed the andorid to drag him along, feeling, perhaps for the first time, at peace with himself while standing next to what could very well be called his greatest creation.


“I hate this game,” Tony grumbled as he moved his pawn, aware that Vision would probably win this round too.

Vision chuckled. “You hate losing,” the android corrected, his eyes on the board.

“Same thing,” Tony said with a dismissive wave.

“We can’t always win, Mr. Stark,” Vision said cryptically.

Tony bristled. “Of course you can. You can lose a battle and win the war. You just need time. I’ll have you know, you are the first person that has ever been able to beat me at this game, and that’s only because I haven’t been able to figure out your strategy yet.”

Vision’s lips twitched. “And you believe you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Tony stayed silent for a few seconds, observing the board. His eyes narrowed as his brain shuffled through the different possible outcomes. After a few minutes, his face broke into a dazzling smile. “I just did.”

Tony moved one of his pieces, raising a brow at the android. “We both know what’s going to happen next.”

It was Vision’s turn to look at the board, a hint of surprise in his eyes. He, much like Tony, could see the man’s clear path to victory. “Impressive.”

Tony’s smile widened. “Two out of three?” He asked, not bothering to look at the clock.

He already knew it was past one in the morning, and he definitely knew that he should have gone to bed hours ago, but this is what the two of them did when Tony couldn’t sleep. They played chess. They mentally engaged each other. They teased and pushed and distracted and analyzed one another.

And no, Vision would never be Jarvis. Tony had finally accepted the loss of his friend. He knew how different Vision was from his AI - but that was exactly the point. He didn’t like spending time with Vision because of Jarvis, but in spite of Jarvis.

He had lost a friend, but he had also gained a new one. And so they played chess when the nightmares became too much for Tony and the loneliness became too oppressive for Vision, because that was what friends were supposed to do; they helped one another.


“Why are you brooding?” Tony asked as he took off his long coat, placing it on the nearest couch.

Vision turned to look at the man, feeling surprised that he didn’t notice the man come in. “I am not brooding, Mr-”

“I thought we had already agreed you are to call me Tony,” the man said amicably, coming to stand next to the android, who had been looking out the glass wall that gave out to the backyard - though forest was a more accurate description of the land behind the compound. “All my friends call me that, remember?”

Vision smiled at Tony’s comment. After one too many late nights, he and the general had finally found a way to understand each other in such a way that was beneficial to both parties. They spent far more time together now. Vision was allowed to help in Tony’s workshop now, given that, intellectually, he could keep up with Tony. They treated each other with an unspoken familiarity that Vision had come to associate with friendship. Of course, he didn’t have enough friends to be certain that his assessment was entirely correct, which was why it was always nice to hear Tony refer to him as the man’s friend.

“Did the meeting go over well?” Vison asked, noticing the overtly expensive suit the man was wearing. Not that Tony didn’t wear suits like that all the time - but there were a few more expensive looking ones that he used only in special meetings with UN envoys.

Tony shrugged. “The ratifications pulled through, and Kamala and Peter have been legally recognized as my dependants, so at least I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

The android nodded. “I am sure they will be very happy to hear that.”

Tony hummed. “So, you’re going to tell me what was going through your mind that got you upset before I came in or do I have to guess?”

Vision’s smile turned sadder. “I was just thinking… do you think things would have worked out differently, if Wanda would have stayed here?”

“Probably,” Tony replied after a few seconds, observing his friend closely. They didn’t talk much about the witch, mostly because Vision avoided talking about her and Tony wasn’t one to pry unless prompted. Obviously, he knew Vision missed her greatly, particularly because she had made him feel new and exciting things that he hadn’t experienced before, but there was nothing Tony could do to help the android in that regard - except to listen. “Why?”

Vision shrugged, looking uncharacteristically awkward. “It just feels… wrong, that the world never saw the good that was… is in her.”

Tony hummed, neither agreeing nor denying. He didn’t quite understand Vision’s relationship with Wanda, and he was not about to pretend he did. All he could do was support the android through his grief. “You did everything you could to keep her here, but she made a choice, viz, and that’s not your fault. I know you miss her, and I’m sorry she isn’t here anymore, but… well I don’t know if this will make you feel better or worse, honestly… just remember that you’ll always have a family here.”

Vision looked at the man then, a warm look crossing his eyes. “It’s strange… feeling these emotions.” He shook his head. “It’s distracting.”

“Yeah, emotions can be a pain in the ass,” Tony agreed good-naturedly, knowing all too well what heartbreak felt like. “But without love and happiness and all that shit, life would suck even more, so… it’s a trade off, I guess.”

Vision nodded, still looking distracted. “I had assumed I, not being human, wouldn’t experience things such as love,” the android admitted.  This was the first time the man had openly admitted to loving the witch.

Tony didn’t know how to react.

Instincts kicking in, Tony’s lips twitched and he teased “Well you’re one of a kind, buddy, if anyone would be able to both have the logic of a machine and the heart of a human, it would be you.”

It was the android’s turn to remain silent.

“Alright, I’m going to order food, are you going to join us?” Tony asked as he took a step back, feeling like they had had enough of this awkward conversation.

“Sure,” the android replied, looking back out the window. “Tony-” he suddenly said, quickly turning back to look at the man before he could leave.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you,” the android said with a heartfelt smile.

Tony frowned, feeling confused. “For what?”

“For letting me be a part of your family,” Vision explained, feeling a smile tug at his lips as he saw Tony’s eyes widen comically, Vision’s words shaking the genius from the inside out.


Tony was thrown to the side by one of the Chitauri, having been too distracted with trying to get back Vision to notice the horde headed directly for him.

Tony growled dangerously, firing off a round of missiles at the aliens to get them off his back. “Thor, don’t let them get away!” He screamed as he blasted his way out of the compound.

The Asgardian, who had been fending off at least twenty assailants, finally looked up. He sucked in a breath when he realized Vision was no longer fighting next to him. He punched the chitauri trying to stab him and raised his hammer, electricity making the air crackle around him. He brought the hammer down with enough strength to crack the floor, sending rippling waves of electricity which brought down a number of the chitauri.

He took off, sending the hammer flying towards the beast that was dragging Vision along. His attack came too late, however, as the beast managed to reach the portal. The hammer collided with the beast’s ribcage, which sent it tumbling into the portal, as opposed to away from it.

The portal closed immediately, leaving the avengers to deal with the chitauri that hadn’t made it into the portal.

Tony screamed, enraged, taking his frustration out on the remaining chitauri. Now that the wave had ended, it wasn’t as difficult to take out the stragglers, particularly when Thor and Hulk seemed to be as enraged as he was.

“Tell me you can open that portal again, Thor,” Tony said once they managed to catch their breath.

The Asgardian looked regretfully at Tony as he shook his head. “I am afraid I don’t know enough of magic to open a portal. Besides, even if I did, the chances that any portal we open would lead us to the right location are slim.”

“This is why I hate magic," Tony said as he rubbed his temples, beginning to pace. "There has to be a way to-” Tony froze. “Wanda.”

Thor looked properly confused now. “What?”

Without bothering to respond, Tony flew back into the compound, calling out Wanda’s name as he went. He found the young woman with Steve, taking down the last of their own wave. “Wanda I need your help,” Tony said as he landed.

The woman turned, looking surprised. “With what?”

“Your powers are connected to Vision, right? Is there any way you can track his power output, or whatever the hell it is that the stone emanates?” Tony asked.

“Yes, I can feel his astral energy,” the young woman confirmed, looking more and more confused by the second. “But-”

“Can you create portals?” Tony asked, a glint of desperation in his eyes.

She swallowed hard. “I… yes, I have learned how to make portals, but I-”

“Great, I need you to find Vision, then, and I need you to make a portal to take us to him. They have him Wanda. Thanos wants the stone, and he’s going to kill Vision to get it,” Tony stressed the last part knowing that, regardless of their own personal disagreements, he and Wanda both had one similar want and that was to see Vision safe.

Wanda paled. “Tony I don’t know how to control… I don’t think I can get all of us to-”

“Can you get the two of us through a portal,” Tony asked, getting a hold of her arms as he looked deep into her eyes. “Just you and me.”

She gaped at Tony, not sure whether to feel uncomfortable at how close the man was “I… I can try, but I don’t think just the two of us will be able to-”

“I am not going to let Vision die, Wanda. We’ll be in and out. We’ll grab him and open another portal so that you can bring him back.” Tony pleaded, holding on to Wanda as if his life depended on it.

Wanda’s heart twisted painfully in sympathy as she finally saw something she had never truly seen before; Tony’s self-sacrificial devotion. He was aware that the chances of all of them coming back were slim, which is why he was asking Wanda to take him . Tony was planning to act as a decoy.

She nodded numbly. “I’m going to need a few minutes to locate him.”

“That’s fine. I need to talk to Thor first anyway,” Tony said with a weak smile. “Let me know when you’re ready, so we can go.”

Wanda nodded. “Tony-” she called before the man could leave the room. “You should talk to Natasha and your kids.”

Tony flinched slightly, a guilty look crossing his features before his usual blank mask settled in place. “I… yeah, maybe. We’ll see if there’s time… The priority right now is getting Vision back.”

Chapter Text

“Thor,” Tony called over the comms, clearing his throat softly. “They’ve taken Vision, but Wanda and I are going to get him back.”

Thor, who was far from Tony, stood up straight then, looking at the wall as if it had personally offended him. “Tony, you can’t go alone.”

“I won’t risk more people, Thor, not if Wanda isn’t even sure she can get us there. Look… Thanos is coming, and you’re our best shot. You know more about Thanos than all of us so just… if something happens… try to keep the fight away from earth, and please… take care of my family, will you?”

Thor swallowed thickly but nodded, a tear rolling down his dirty face. “You have my word, Tony, that, so long as I live, I will protect them all.”

Tony breathed out a sigh of relief and nodded, turning to face Wanda. “We’ll talk soon,” he whispered, not looking back at anyone else. Tony Stark didn’t do goodbyes. His team would find out soon enough that their leader was on a rescue mission and it wasn’t like he needed to say anything to Rogers.

He wanted to talk to Natasha and the kids. He wanted to be able to tell his petite redhead he loved her, one last time, but there was no point delaying the trip. He didn’t want to worry them, when his demise wasn’t assured and every second he remained on earth meant Vision’s possible death.

“Fry, get me Wanda’s mask,” he said calmly, extending his hand.

He locked eyes with Bucky, who was looking at him with a confused look in his eyes. Tony winked at him just as one of Tony’s bots reached them, dropping a bright red diadem on Tony’s outstretched palm. He walked closer to the witch, who had her eyes closed as she immersed himself in her magic.

“She enters into a sort of trance when using magic,” Steve explained, looking between the two.

Tony hummed, slowly putting the diadem on her, hoping she wouldn’t snap and kill him. The diadem immediately adapted to her face, extending an almost translucent mask down, which molded perfectly to give her enough space between the material and her face.

“It’ll allow her to breathe in space,” Tony explained to Steven’s very confused team.

“I have found him,” Wanda said, her voice monotone as her eyes wandered far away. After a few seconds, Wanda locked eyes with Tony’s mechanic ones, her eyes shimmering blood-red, making Tony pale.

He was thankful, yet again, for the protection the suit offered him. It allowed him to protect his heart. In the suit, he was outwardly fearless, powerful and coldly precise. It didn’t matter how he felt inside; the suit gave nothing away.

Wanda extended her hands and grabbed Tony’s metal-covered ones. A ball of red engulfed them both, and a wave of cold air swept them up into the air, forcing Tony to tighten his hold. Wanda didn’t even seem to notice, too deep in her trance-like state. She began muttering under her breath, her skin shining red. She pulled herself closer to Tony, releasing his hands in favor of hugging him by the waist. He swallowed down a scream, forcing himself not to panic. It wasn’t like Wanda was about to try to kill him. He hugged her back, aware that he wasn’t going anywhere without the witch.

Tony saw small red particles engulf him, sticking to the suit like distorted stars. They shone brightly enough to force him to close his eyes, which was probably for the best, because suddenly he felt the world tilt and then he felt himself free falling.

Wanda tensed in his arms, obviously feeling the free fall in the pit of her stomach as well. She buried her head in Tony’s suit for a few seconds, as if looking for comfort, before suddenly jerking back when they finally felt their feet softly touch firm ground.

Tony opened his eyes slowly, coming face to face with a tired-looking witch. He looked around himself, trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness. They seemed to be on one of the alien ships, if the glimmering blue runes and the weird, slimy looking walls were anything to go by.

“You did it,” Tony said in a wavering tone, starting to feel nauseous. That whole teletransportation thing had not agreed with his body. At all. “Thank you.”

Wanda nodded, smiling faintly. She had never been on a mission with Tony Stark, but she had expected him to be a bit more hostile towards her. “He should be somewhere in this ship,” she explained quietly, afraid of attracting any guards.

“Fry?” Tony asked, biting his lip as he waited for an answer. He had been working on satellites that could transmit Friday’s signal and space-proof suits for years, but he had never actually tested out whether it all worked.

“I’m here, sir,” the AI piped in, although her voice was harder to understand due to static.

“Is Vision’s tracker still active?” He asked, breathing a sigh of relief at knowing his trusted AI was still there with him, willing and ready to offer support.

“I can guide you to him,” The AI confirmed. “Although I must warn you, sir, he’s heavily guarded.”

Tony looked back at Wanda, letting his mask up. He was wearing a second mask, this one similar to Wanda’s, which allowed his features to be seen. There was a pressing question in his eyes. Wanda met his eyes straight on, knowing exactly what he was asking. Tony was a leader by nature, but, just like her, he had no idea how their relationship was supposed to look.

There were too many old resentments, too many wounds and poisonous words hurled by both that had never been retracted.

Wanda took a deep breath and remembered her brother’s smile. She remembered, too, how kind Tony had been to her after her brother’s death. He had taken her in, had pulled strings to get her papers to stay in the US, and had cleaned up after many of her mistakes.

Yes, he had done her wrong many times as well, but then again, so had she. Neither one was free of guilt.

“Lead the way,” she said, her voice warm and kind for once. “I’ll do whatever you ask.”

Tony seemed taken aback for a second, before warmth and gratefulness seeped into his eyes. “Thank you, Wanda,” he said with a deferent nod, before he lowered his mask again.

He knew they would never truly agree, but this, this lukewarm and hopeful truce, was more than he had ever hoped to achieve with the witch.

“Let’s go kick some alien ass,” Tony quipped, making the witch chuckle softly behind him.


“Mr. Stark,” T’Challa greeted warmly, offering his hand to the genius.

“Ah, King T’Challa,” Tony greeted affably, though his eyes were closed off and tired.

T’Challa felt a pang of pity. The American was dealing with quite a lot at the moment. Tony had daily UN meetings to hammer out the changes he had wanted to make to the accords. On top of that, Clint had returned only a few days ago, which only helped stress the engineer out. Not to mention, the UN had ordered evaluations of the team, and the team of psychologists had suggested the new Avengers needed team-building based training in order to actually be effective - something which Tony had no interest in doing, considering two of his current team members were not on his list of people he wanted to be near on a ten mile radius.

“I was hoping you and I could talk for a moment,” T’Challa explained, an apologetic smile graiing his lips.

Tony looked surprised for a second before nodding. “Please have a seat,” Tony said, pointing at the couch on the opposite end of the coffee table. “Has there been a problem?”

“No, no,” T’Challa was quick to assure him as he took a seat, leaning back with a relaxed expression. “I actually wanted to talk to you about the first mission your former team went on.”

Tony’s brows rose to his hairline. “You want to talk about New York?”

“Yes,” T’Challa confirmed, unruffled. “I was watching the footage of the battle on my way here, and I have some questions.”

Tony clenched his jaw involuntarily, the memory of the vastness of the alien ship enough to send shivers down his spine. He had been preparing for the worse ever since that battle, but every time he came up with a new plan to protect people it either backfired or felt like it wasn’t nearly enough.

“Fire away,” Tony said leaning back as well, though his shoulders were tense and his face was even more closed off than before.

“Do you believe there could ever be another attack like that?”

“Obviously,” Tony replied immediately, as if the question itself was silly. “We’re not alone in this Universe, and, as far as we know, we are severely overpowered. It would be stupid to assume we will always be safe from attack.”

T’Challa nodded, mulling his thoughts for a moment. “The reports said the chitauri seemed to have been connected to the mother ship, which you destroyed. Is that true?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said evasively. “All we know is that once we nuked what appeared to be the mother ship, all of the chitauri dropped dead.”

T’Challa nodded again. “Do you think there’s more of them out there?”

Tony remained silent for a few seconds, his eyes expressionless, before finally saying “It feels a bit too much like wishful thinking to assume that was the last of them.”

“How exactly did you take the ship down?” T’Challa asked, surging forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

“I nuked it.” Tony said in a clipped tone. “I took the warhead and flew it into space.”

“Was there lasting damage done to the suit?” T’Challa asked gently.

Tony closed his eyes for a second, remembering the vastness of the ship, the sheer fear coursing through his veins, before he blacked out all those years ago. “The suit was unusable after that mission,” Tony said with a sigh. “Everything was fried. My suit lost connection with my AI once I was out of satellite range, and because of the speed of heat loss in space, my suit died within a few minutes. What really screwed the suit up was coming back to earth, though. The suit wasn’t meant to handle that much pressure, especially since I was free falling.”

T’Challa nodded mutely, feeling a pang of guilt when he realized Tony looked ready to throw up. Clearly this wasn’t a comfortable topic for the man. “I… thank you for sharing that with me. I just… I have one more question,” he admitted. “Why did you do it?”

Tony’s eyes snapped up to meet T’Challa’s at that. “What?”

“We all have different reasons to do what we do, especially when it comes to saving people,” T’Challa explained, his eyes wise beyond his years. “So what was your reason?”

“I wasn’t going to let nine million people because of some trigger happy organization,” Tony said, as if it was a no brainer. “Besides, it was the most logical course of action. We needed to kill the fuckers, and I figured a nuke would be enough to at least make a scratch.”

“Still, you must have had to consider the fact that you wouldn’t be coming back from that,” T’Challa said with a raised brow.

Tony shrugged, looking confused. “Why would that matter? It doesn’t matter whether I live or die. I am expendable, T’Challa, most of us are. If it means saving the earth, then a single person is expendable.”

“And yet you didn’t let anyone else take that trip. You made the sacrifice. Would you have been okay with someone else on your team doing that?” He asked, finally getting at the core of the matter.

Tony wasn’t an easy man to understand, but this question, T’Challa felt, would answer quite a lot. It was clear from quick observation that Tony Stark cared more than he let on. It was also obvious to T’Challa that the man wasn’t afraid to sacrifice, if it meant saving others, so long as that was the most logical way to save them.

What he still didn’t understand, however, was whether or not the man valued himself, even in a small measure. He had been reading mission report after mission report, and there was something there, something that both made him respect the genius and pity him at the same time.

If he was reading the man correctly, then his selflessness was tinged with a self-deprecation that made him more willing to sacrifice himself than others.

“Why does that matter?” Tony asked suddenly defensive. “No one else could fly, so it’s not like someone else could have done it.” Tony looked away, a tired smile forming on his lips when he quipped “Besides, better me than them, right?”

Tony chuckled humorlessly and shook his head. “Why did you want to talk about this anyway?”

T’Challa shrugged. “I guess I wanted to know how this all began,” he said motioning towards the rest of the compound. “It’s always helpful, if you’re a part of someone or something’s new chapter, to know how the story began.”

Tony hummed, his eyes turning slightly melancholic. “When we first got together, Dr. Banner said that we were not a team. We were a time bomb ready to go off,” Tony said, his eyes far away. “In the end he was right. So I guess you could say the Avengers came to be due to external freaky alien pressures, and that the Avengers, or the original team at least, fell apart with one big, fucking messy bang.”

“And the new ones?”

"The first one didn't manage to bring me or the organization down, so I count it as a win. Perhaps this time they will. Who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?” Tony said airily, though there was little hope in his dark eyes.


"Vision!” Tony yelped once he managed to pry one of the ship’s doors open.

The android was chained to the wall. The chains themselves looked more like tentacles, which seemed to be draining the android of his energy. Tony shot at the damn things, making sure not to hit vision. The heat of the blast seemed to be particularly effective, for the tentacle-looking chain writhed, though it did not release its hold on Vision.

Wanda stepped up next to Tony and waved her hands, a rush of red light filling the room. The chains receded then, looking as if they had been burnt to the core.

Tony fell to his knees, pulling up vision to cradle him in his arms. He pulled up his outer mask, wanting to see the android with his own eyes. He tapped the man’s cheek gently, saying “Vision? You have to wake up, buddy we don’t have much time.”

The android stirred slowly, unable to focus his gaze on any one thing. Everything was blurry. “Tony?” He asked after a few nauseating seconds. “Tony, I-”

“Thank god, you’re alive. Do you think you can get up? We need to get you out of here,” tony prattled off, looking up at Wanda. “We-”

“He’s here, Tony, Thanos is on this ship,” Vision slurred, grabbing the man’s hand to get his attention. “He… put me in here to… drain my energy to take the stone out,” he explained weekly.

Tony’s eyes gleamed with rage and hope. “We have an opening,” he said to himself. “ His eyes snapped open, and he turned to look at Wanda again. “I need you to take Vision back to Earth,” Tony said.

“He’s too strong for you to take him on your own,” the android warned, his eyes pleading.

“He will wipe out the earth if we don’t take him out here,” Tony said, sounding resolute. “Wanda tell Thor to get Heimdall to track me to bring him here.”

Wanda knelt then, cradling Vision, before putting her hand on Tony’s forearm. “Tony, I don’t think… Thor won’t be enough help to-”

‘I should stay,” Vision said, trying to stand up, but Tony stopped him.

“You will go and regain your energy. I am not going to lose you here,” Tony warned, his eyes fiery. “Thor has one of the stones,” Tony said as a ways of explanation. “I have the other. If there’s anyone that can take this dude out, it’s the two of us.”

Vision groaned in pain. “Tony you can’t… you’ll die-”

“And my family will live ,” Tony said, looking straight into Vision’s eyes. He kissed the android’s forehead and winked at him, before standing up. “Wanda get him out of here we don’t have time. We can’t let him get his hands on the mindstone.” Tony leaned down and grabbed her hand and squeezed it gently. “Thank you for helping me, Wanda. I do appreciate it.”

“I’m so sorry, Tony,” she said, though she wasn’t exactly sure what she was apologizing for. She closed her eyes and held Vision even more tightly, allowing her powers to wrap around them both.

Tony watched them go with a pang of sadness, before shaking his head. They had found no guards on his way here, which meant that either the Titan was aware that they were here and had allowed them to take Vision away or he was too arrogant to believe anyone could reach him. Tony prayed it was the latter.

He looked around the room and felt his heart drop to his stomach. Here, in the darkness of an alien cell, he could admit it to himself; he was absolutely terrified .

He was terrified to fail, terrified to suffer at the hands of an angry Titan, terrified to die without being able to save earth, terrified for the safety of his family, terrified due to the PTSD that was getting worse and worse every second he was on the ship.

But now was not the time to be terrified. Now was the time to act. He had one shot. One shot to take Thanos down. If two stones couldn’t do it… then no weapon on earth could. If his plan was to work, he would need the element of surprise to be on his side.

“Fry… record a message for the team,” Tony whispered, his voice raspier than usual.

“Recording message,” The AI said, letting Tony know he could speak now.

“I… love you, and... I am sorry.” Tony whispered, taking a deep breath before saying “that’s all, Fry. If something happens to me… send it to them, will you?”

“Of course, Sir,” Friday said, sounding sad.

“Right, let’s get this over with,” he muttered under his breath, opening a small compartment on his wrist where he had stored the deathly liquid stone.  

Chapter Text

Tony took a deep breath, looking at the seemingly innocent liquid that was swirling in its crystalline encasement. He had seen the footage of London, and he knew exactly how dangerous this thing was. The problem was that Thor had never actually told him how to use it, so he had no idea whether or not he could actually work it.

Not that that mattered now; he had sent Wanda away. This was the only way forth. He picked up the small capsule and titled his head, unsure of how exactly to get it into the suit. Would it work if he just smashed it against the suit? Would it consume the suit and not himself? Could he get away with using the blasted thing without dying?

There was only one way to find out.

He smashed the glass against his arc reactor, the sound harsh in the quiet cell. His eyes widened involuntarily when he saw the liquid seep quickly into the metal, eclipsing the blue light completely. He waited a few seconds, and hummed when nothing happened, he tapped the reactor softly, feeling slightly confused.

The reactor suddenly sparked, a bright red light heating up Tony’s chest. Tony gasped in pain as he felt something freezing cold touch him near where his heart was. He felt it seep inside him, causing his chest muscles to clench painfully. He fell to his knees as the liquid began spreading inside of the armor and himself.  

The armor creaked as the corrosive liquid merged with the black metal. Tony placed both of his hands on the floor, looking at the metal as it was engulfed by the black liquid. He closed his eyes and gasped again as a shiver ran violently through him. He had never felt this cold, not even when the suit had shut down in the middle of nowhere and he had had to drag it across the snow in nothing more than jeans and a tee.

He could feel the liquid spreading inside of him, burning him as it went. There was an explosion of color behind his closed eyelids, where everything turned as red as fresh blood.

Tony let out a shuddering breath, feeling his consciousness slip away slowly. He fought against the sudden drowsiness that was trying to bring him down. He didn’t have time to sleep right now. He needed to move. He needed to kill Thanos.

Suddenly something dark and cruel inside his mind unfurled at the thought of destroying the Titan. It was like there was someone else inside his mind, a second voice which was laughing maniacally as images of Thanos’ broken body flashed past Tony’s closed eyelids.

The dark liquid in Tony’s blood suddenly ran hot, giving the man whiplash as the extreme cold he felt suddenly turned to a burning hot sensation. There were images swirling in his mind; images of burning worlds, of crumbling buildings, of darkness swallowing the light. He was pretty sure he had never been to any of the places swirling in his mind, and he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to know if he was seeing the future or the past. 

Suddenly, he felt a pair of cold, blue-grey eyes look at him from inside what felt like his very soul. He gasped in fear and snapped his eyes open, surprised to find his suit still enclosing him, protecting him. The suit looked different; however. The black metal seemed… darker, if that was possible. The black tint of his armor reminded tony of a black hole, and the sharper look of the metal made the suit look even more lethal than before.

He got up slowly, still feeling slightly shaky. Those pale, inhuman eyes were still trained on him, making him feel unnerved.

He extended his hand and turned it over, noticing that the blue glowing light his suit always emanated was gone. It had been replaced by a blood-red glow, which, for some reason, felt a little too sinister for Tony’s liking. He looked down and noticed that his reactor too now looked red. He touched it softly, feeling it vibrate with sheer power underneath his fingertips.

It was strange, while he felt mentally drained, and he also felt like he was about to drop any second, he also felt powerful . He felt like he could extend his hand and destroy the galaxy without batting an eye. He could change the very fabric of reality, laws of physics be damned. He could feel the aether pulsing inside of him, urging him to take, to manipulate, to destroy . There was something inside him making him long to stretch out his hand to allow the aether to come into contact with everything, to allow it to turn everything into dark matter.

He shook his head, knowing that he had very little time left. The aether, as Thor had explained, fed on his lifeforce, and, if he was planning to go berserk on Thanos, then the aether was going to sap up everything left in him, which was why he didn’t have any time left to waste.

He walked out of the cell, sensing exactly where the other stones where. It was like they were calling to him, or, more accurately, calling the reality stone currently residing inside his body. Before he could go find the stones, however, there was a loud cracking noise, which made Tony look back.

The cell shone brightly, before a heavily armored Thor appeared seemingly out of nowhere, hammer in hand. The Hammer itself did not look normal, for a purple light was surrounding it, making it seem bigger than it actually was. There was also a purple stone encrusted in the middle of the hammer, which Tony assumed to be the power stone. Vision was with him, looking much better than he had when Tony had first come for him. He still looked somewhat frail, but his eyes were shining yellow, and Tony could feel power brimming inside of him.

Tony had no idea what Vision had done to regain his energy, but, whatever it was, he was sure glad to see his friend looking better.

Thor opened his eyes then and looked up at Tony, his usually warm eyes looking thunderous. “I told you not to use the stone.”

“I made an executive decision,” Tony said, and the sound of his voice surprised him. It was a harsh, gravelly sound - deeper and colder than his usual tone. Tony extended his hand to help Thor up, squeezing his hand softly. “We need to kill him, Thor, so I need you to tell me how to use this blasted thing.”

Thor sighed but nodded, clasping Tony’s shoulder. “I have never wielded it myself, but according to our books the reality stone is fueled by your energy and your determination. It will feed off of you. You just have to channel it with your mind. It’s… it’s just like a living being, Tony, all the stones have some form of awareness of what’s happening around them. You have to use that to your advantage.”

Tony frowned softly but nodded, not sure what to make of such a vague explanation. This is exactly why he liked to get his hands on the source material first. He closed his eyes for a second and concentrated on the presence whose attention still seemed to be trained on him. He picturing himself reaching closer, touching the swirling dark energy running inside of him.

He needed its power, but he also needed to be in control. He could feel its want for destruction, for a spreading of darkness. This is probably why the stone had chosen the elves. Of what Thor had told him, they were a race hell bent on turning everything back to darkness.

We have differing life goals, Tony thought , but right now we both want something: to destroy the currently most powerful being on the Galaxy.

The stone wasn’t meant to be tamed. He wasn’t its master. Thanos would try to domineer it, would try to use it, but Tony knew that wasn’t the purpose of the stones. He would work with the reality stone, so long as they had the same goals, and once that changed…. Well the stone would probably dispose of him then. 

“Tony?” Thor asked after a few minutes, unsure as to what the man was doing. He could feel something inside the man shift as his energy became eclipsed by something much darker, and much more powerful, than the man.

“I think I know what I have to do to use the stone,” Tony said in an otherworldly tone, making Thor’s hair stand on edge. “Let’s go.”

The man stepped out of the room, his steps sure and steady. He could feel his energy being sapped slowly by the stone, even when most of its power was being contained by his suit and not his body, but he could also feel the stone feeding him its power. He knew it would sustain him long enough to get the job done, that was the deal, at least.

“Chitauri are approaching,” Vision said calmly from behind tony as he stepped forth, flying through the wall to their right.

Soon enough, blasts hit the wall near  where Tony and Thor stood, though neither looked too concerned as Vision quickly quipped “the hall is clear.”

Both men stepped into the hallway then, raising their eyebrows when they saw all the chitauri dead on the floor, their necks snapped or their hearts ripped out.

Vision shrugged and muttered “It was the most efficient way to finish them off,” before stepping back behind Tony, letting him lead.

“Remind me never to get on your bad side,” Tony hummed as he gave the Chitauri one last glance before proceeding on his way.

They were stopped again, however, as more chitauri came their way, baring their teeth as they prepared their weapons to fire.

“Thor,” Tony said softly, pointing to the chitauri with his head. He didn’t want to use his energy if possible. Thanos would take every single drop of his life force, and wasting it on the chitauri was just stupid.

Thor nodded and stepped forward with a growl, swirling his hammer in circles before bringing it down on the floor, a wave of purple energy shooting out as contact was made. Tony covered his eyes as the spaceship shook due to the strength of the blast. His eyes snapped up when he heard a challenging roar emanate from somewhere deeper inside the ship.

If Thanos didn’t know they were there already, he definitely knew now.

Thor stood slowly, giving a quick look to Tony before taking a hesitant step forward. His hesitation proved to be right as the doors at the end of the hall suddenly came unhinged by the brute force of the angry titan.

Thanos looked at the three of them and smirked, a twisted smirk that made Tony’s blood run cold. “What exactly was your plan, terran?” The Titan asked, a hint of boredom in his voice. “To bring the three stones directly to me?” The Titan chuckled. “Surely you know a mortal like you cannot defeat me.”

Tony smirked. “You just have two of the stones,” Tony pointed out as he looked at the gauntlet the man was displaying. Thor had said he had three stones; he had been wrong. They had a fairly good shot it seemed. “You may be a titan, but you’re not indestructible.”

The titan laughed and extended his hand, a beam of purple light emanating from his hand. Vision immediately came to stand in front of Tony, bringing his hands up to create a shield, which absorbed the powerful hit.

Wanda had transferred most of her energy to Vision, which had revitalized him considerably. Still, he knew he wasn’t at full power yet, but he couldn’t exactly let Tony take the hit, not in the man’s current state. A part of Vision could feel his creator’s death as imminent, but another part of him, his humane side, told him Tony would survive. He had to.

Tony propelled himself into the air, feeling the terrible power inside him awaken. He couldn’t let the Titan destroy earth. “Alright Barney, it’s time to get off the air.”

Thor ran forward and smashed down his hammer, creating an electromagnetic wave to destabilize the mother spaceship. The lights lighting up the hallway exploded at that, leaving them all plunged in darkness. Vision rose in the air next to Tony and dove forward, his stone giving off enough light to guide his path. He blasted the Titan before he could hit the three of them with another beam of his beam. Thanos grunted in annoyance and rose to his full height then, raising his hand up as a wave of something invisible to the human eye hit both Vision and Tony, sending them flying towards the back wall. Thor rose his hammer in front of his face, absorbing most of Thanos’ hit without being flung back that far back.

Thor ran towards the titan, flying up with his hammer in hand to hit him square in the chin. The hit did little damage however, as the Titan merely staggered a few steps, before grabbing Thor by his cape, throwing him on the ground.

Before he could crush a badly beaten Thor, however, Tony got up and leaned against the wall, exposing his chest to blast the titan square in the chest, the power of the aether strong enough to send Thanos flying into the room where he had come from. Tony stumbled forward for a second before leaning back against the wall, feeling terribly drain from just one blast. His propulsor blasts had turned into dark matter, thus allowing him to use the power of the aether in a much more condensed way.

“Tony?” Vision asked as he flew towards his leader, offering a steadying hand.

“I’m alright,” Tony assured him though he sounded a little out of breath. He patted Vision’s shoulder before taking off into the air. “We can finish this, he only has two of the stones.”

Before either of the other two could say anything, an explosion, coming from the control room where Thanos was, rocked the ship, sending all 3 of them tumbling to the ground.

“What the fuck was that?” Tony grunted as he got back up, looking at Thor with questioning eyes.

“GAMORA!” they heard the Titan roar, pure rage clear in his voice.

“The guardians,” Thor whispered, his eyes brightening considerably as he staggered to his feet.  

“Who?” Tony asked, propelling himself back to the air.

“The guardians of the galaxy - that is what they call themselves. They are similar to the group you lead, Tony, except they work across the galaxy to try to keep the different realms safe - at a cost, most of the times.”

“So like space cops?” Tony asked, sounding incredulous. “Why didn’t you mention them earlier? They could have helped us!”

“It sounds like they are,” Vision noted, as he looked past the two into the room, where the Titan seemed to be fighting an eclectic group of individuals.

“I wasn’t sure if they were real or not,” Thor admitted, looking slightly chagrined. “I… heard rumors of them, whispers while I searched for the power stone. I didn’t think it worth mentioning it before.”

“It’s fine, that’s not important right now. Let’s go help,” Tony said as he flew directly into the room, taking stock of just how many guardians they were.

His count soon fell short, however, when he realized a racoon was blasting at the titan with a gun bigger than itself.

“What the f-” Tony began to say, but was abruptly interrupted when a blue alien that looked like an android tried shooting him in the head. “Hey, irobot we’re on the same team here!”

A green-skinned woman looked up for a second at Tony then, frowning. “Who are you? Peter, is he a terran?” She shouted, looking back at a flying man whose face was fully covered.

Said man turned to look at him. “How did you get in here? Nebula stop shooting at him!”

“Does that matter?” Tony asked exasperated, flying towards the man. “I’m Tony Stark, leader of the Avengers. We’re on the same team, space cop. We both want this purple fucker dead.”

“I’ve heard of you!” Peter said, a hint of excitement in his voice. “They told us about a terran group protecting Earth in a quadrant near here. I thought they were joking.”

“Peter stop talking, start shooting!” the green woman growled, dodging one of Thanos’s beams by the skin of her teeth. The beam managed to destroy the bridge she had come from, forcing her into a corner, where she was rescued by the racoon.  

“Right, well, you should get out of here, this is about to get nasty,” Peter said, before turning away.

“No, spock, we’re here to kill him. We have three of the infinity stones,” tony said, grabbing Peter hard by the arm.  

That made Peter do a double take. “You what? How the hell-”

Tony pointed at Vision “The mind stone helped me bring him to life. Thor has the power stone, and I-”

“You’re letting the reality stone consume you,” Peter said in a whisper as he finally took a good look at Tony. “I… alright we need to get the gauntlet away from him. If the three of you feed off off each other you’ll be able to take him down. Your stone can bend reality, so you can just-”

“I’m afraid I don’t have enough juice power inside me,” Tony quipped as he dodged one of the blasts. He knew they didn’t have time. There was only so much distraction the guardians could provide.

“Have that dude,” Peter said, pointing at Thor, “feed you the energy from the power stone. I’ve used it once, that shit can help you tear through anything. The mind stone might be able to help focus the power in the power stone long enough to not kill you. I’m not sure how it works, nebula tried explaining it to us, but we were in the middle of a-”

“It’s fine that’s a more outlined plan than mine anyway,” Tony said with a dismissive wave.

“What was your plan?” Peter asked curiously.

“Attack,” Tony said simply before flying away to get to where Thor was. He didn’t miss, however, the surprised laughter coming from the guardian he had just been talking to. 

“Thor, bud, I know what we need to do to take this bastard out,” Tony said as he grabbed Thor by the arm, taking him with him to where Vision was. “I can take him out by bending reality, I just need you two to give me the juice to do it. That purple shit has enough power to use the full potential of the thing inside of me, we just need Viz to channel it,” Tony explained quickly, gesturing wildly.

Thor looked thoroughly unconvinced. “Tony-”

“We don’t have time to argue, that racoon can only hold-”

“Who ya callin’ a racoon, huh?”  The racoon screamed as he flew atop the three of them, looking like he was ready to shoot Tony.

“Pro-tip, just call him Rocket,” Peter yelled as he helped the green woman up from where the Titan had flung her. “Wait for my signal.”

“Can we argue about our names later?” The green woman asked, sounding extremely annoyed. “Duck!” She screamed at the three of them.

They obeyed without hesitation just in time to avoid being decapitated by a long sword of one of Thanos’ minions.

“Alright, we don’t have time. Thor, just do it.”

Thor bit the inside of his cheek before screaming “Guardians, you must evacuate the ship. Now!”

“What the frick is this jackass on about?” Rocket asked one of his comrades who was wielding two swords.

Peter looked back at Tony, the red of his eyepiece meeting the glowing red emanating from Tony’s armored covered eyes. “You heard ‘em boys, steer clear of Stark. He’s about to make things real interesting around here. Rocket we need that damn gauntlet. Are you ready? 

“I was born ready, baby,” Rocket said as he whistled at the tree, who extended his arms to provide Rocket cover while he ran towards the titan.

Gamora began fighting the Titan then, her vicious strikes met one by one by Thanos’s own sword. Peter blasted him from behind, but his thick armor prevented him from doing any real damage.

“Rocket now!” Gamora screamed as Thanos raised her sword, ready to take her out.

Rocket flew next to the Titan, sticking a black controller on the gauntlet. The controller cut through the metal and opened the gauntlet, allowing Gamora to catch it as it fell. She ran out of the way then, screaming when she felt her father use his telekinetic powers to hurt her.

Groot grabbed her with his branches and pulled her away quickly, before the Titan could grab the Gauntlet from her unmoving hands.

“It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, Peter,” Tony said nonchalantly, as he rose into the air, whistling to get Thanos’s attention away from the woman he was still trying to get his hands on. “Hey Barney, I’ve got a surprise for you!”

Thanos laughed as he finally turned to face Tony, his eyes gleaming. “You think you can control the stone inside of you? Think again, mortal, you can feel it’s already consuming the last remnants of your life force. Even without the stones, I am far stronger than all of you.”

“Good thing I have unlimited energy at my disposal,” Tony muttered under his breath as he turned to look back at Thor and Vision.

The android was levitating with his legs crossed, looking as if he was meditating. His whole body glowed yellow, the rays enveloping Thor’s hammer confidently. Thor grunted softly as he swung his hammer in circles, allowing the purple energy to mix with the thunder. 

His eyes drunk in Tony for a second longer before he finally extended his hand and allowed the blast to hit Tony in full.  

Tony grunted in pain as he forced the stone to absorb the colossal amount of energy being thrown at him. He could feel himself burning away slowly as the stones’ essence mixed inside of him, granting him a level of power he had never felt before.

He felt like a god . He could feel the very fabric of reality twisting around him, awaiting his command. He could also feel, however, death whispering his name, grabbing onto his shoulders as if ready to pull him at any second.

He didn’t have much time left.

Tony extended his hands, the aether seeping out to surround his body like snakes. He closed his eyes and concentrated on molding the dark matter that he could see inside of his mind. He allowed the presence he had been feeling with him from the beginning to reside fully in his body, dizzying him. He could feel the Titan using a number of different attacks to break his barrier, but the aether was stronger.

Tony opened his eyes, looking down with a hint of surprise when he saw a black and red cloud forming behind him, sharp and deadly. He raised his hand above his hand and made a fist, his whole suit glowing red as the cloud became a million little blasts that twisted around the titan, holding him down.

Rosaadh’ vathe!” Tony commanded, his voice not sounding like his own. It was an old voice, a dark voice, a voice who had seen and done many a thing in the name of the stone.

As soon as the words were spoken the cloud grew in size and the thousand little strands of darkness began moving fast all around the ship, destroying everything in their path. They wrapped around thanos and around the very foundation of the ship. Vision grabbed onto Thor and built a barrier around the two of them with the power of the mind stone, keeping them in an oasis of calm as chaos reigned around them.

Tony remained at the vortex of the chaos with his hands extended, allowing the energy of the aether to flow freely out of control within the ship. He could hear Thanos screaming in pain, but his mind was too far away, relieving wars fought long before his time. 

He didn’t know how much time passed before he began to feel something painful twist his heart. The aether was starting to spiral out of his own control.

“Tony you need to stop!” Thor bellowed. “He’s dead. Tony, you… if you don’t stop you will destroy more than just this ship, Tony, think of your children!

That, as Thor knew, was enough to snap Tony out of it. Tony cut the energy flow out of his body immediately, forcing it to bounce back into him which - in retrospect - was not the way to go about it, for his already frail body could not take such an intake of power anymore.

“Home,” Tony rasped, as he fell towards what at one point was the ship but now was just empty space. “I need to get home,” he repeated and raised his hand, using the last shreds of energy to open a portal.

He had no idea he was capable of doing it but, since Peter had mentioned something about being able to twist reality, the idea of being able to bend space didn’t seem that far off. He crossed the portal without thinking about whether or not it would actually take him home. He was too far gone to think too deeply right now.

He staggered into the now severely damaged common room, falling to his knees as his energy left him. He looked up, smiling softly as his family appeared at the doorway, all looking as if they were seeing a ghost.

“I love you,” he said simply, ignoring the fact that everything seemed to be dimming around him.

He couldn’t feel his left arm at all.

“Tony!” Natasha, who had just arrived at the compound a few minutes before, screamed, running towards her husband as he fell flat on the floor, his eyes rolling into his head. “NO!”

Chapter Text

Natasha watched the light leave Tony’s eyes as if in a dream. Everything around her felt like it was slow motion, even the way Tony fell backwards, his body collapsing against the cold marble floor. She could feel Peter and Kamala next to her. Their mouths were open, and their faces were twisted in horror and pain, but she could not hear their broken screams for she was deafened by her own piercing one.

She saw Peter dash forward at an almost inhuman speed, his first instinct to touch the man, to help him, to save him. Kamala and Natasha followed immediately, looking just as desperate to save the head of their household. They were stopped, however, by a red wall of energy that pushed them all back.

Natasha looked around her, trying to find the culprit. She would kill anyone that would keep her from her husband. Her eyes zeroed in on a pale looking Wanda, who was clearly using the last of her strength to keep the barrier up.

“How dare-” Natasha started, pulling out her gun. She had had it with the witch.

Wanda raised her hands, her eyes begging for a second to explain herself. “The aether is still inside of him. His body is barely surviving. If you touch him right now, it will attack you, and he will die.”

“How would you know that?” Kamala said, fresh tears in her eyes.

Wanda sat on the nearest couch, finally bringing down the barrier. “Because I can… sense it. I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, before a coughing fit seized her.

“Lay down, Wanda,” Clint said gently as he approached her, placing his hand on her neck and one under her legs to help her reach a lay down position on the sofa. “Your energy is depleted. You need to rest.”

Natasha ignored them, deciding instead to walk closer to Tony, feeling entirely hopeless. She fell to her knees next to him. “We need to help him,” she pleaded to no one in particular. “There must be a way…”

Before anyone could answer her, another portal opened, this time bringing Thor and the others, alongside a group of what Natasha assumed where aliens for they had a walking tree and a walking racoon with them.

“Where’s…. Tony,” Thor said under his breath, quickly moving to the man’s side. He did not dare touch him, though he was clearly itching to.

“You need to get that thing out of him,” a green woman said urgently. She was holding her abdomen tightly, but her fingers did little to stop the bleeding from the open wound she was sporting.

“Gamora, you need to lay down…. Rocket, do you have the kit?” A man, who looked human, said. He too looked worse for wear. His eye was purple and his right arm seemed to be broken.

“How the hell did ya expect me to carry that shit when we were up there fightin’ that fucker?” Rocket, the racoon, said, his worry coloring his voice. He was resting against the young tree. It didn’t seem like his right leg could support him.

“Nevermind me,” Gamora said, sounding exasperated, although her skin was sickly pale. “We need to worry about him . He’s the one with an infinity stone stuck inside his body.”

Kamala’s eyes widened at her words. “No… please… tell me he didn’t use… Thor, you didn’t…. You didn’t…. Tell me you didn’t let Tony-”

Thor couldn’t meet her eyes. “I need to take him with me. I can’t take the stone out here. If something goes wrong… I need to take Tony to Svartalfheim.”

A woman, that looked more like an android than a human, seemed to understand. “I’ll go with you,” she offered. “I’ve dealt with the elves before. I know how their magic works.”

Gamora looked at her, a trace of wariness in her eyes. “Nebula…”

“Don’t worry sister. I have no wish to seize the stone for myself. This man might not have been able to kill Thanos, but he was damn close. If anything, I am thankful for him,” she assured her sister, though her eyes remained cold and calculating.

Gamora gave her a node before swaying back and forth. An alien tattooed from head to toe broke her fall, grabbing her before she could hit the ground. He grimaced in pain, but did not let her go.

“Friday, get them all medical help,” Natasha said numbly, her eyes never leaving her husband’s slack face. “Medical assistance is on its way Mrs. Stark.”

The human whose name Natasha still had not learned looked at her with a strange look on his face. “You’re his wife?”

Natasha nodded stiffly, turning to look at Thor. “Take him, and bring me back my husband Thor. Bring him back to me alive .”   

Thor sighed and did not reply. He looked up at the ceiling and whispered “Heimdall.”

Nebula approached the two of them as a circle appeared on the ground. She knew enough of Asgardian magic to know this was the portal. They were gone in seconds, leaving behind a battered and anxious group of superheroes.

Natasha then turned to look at her new guests. There were EMTs rushing into the room, as well as some of Tony’s armors, to help the badly injured newcomers. 

Natasha followed the human, almost certain that he was the group’s leader. “Please… I need to know what happened.”

Peter was forced to sit on the sofa as some of the medics checked him over, begin to clean his wounds.

“I… well we went to fight Thanos and we found three of your own already in the ship. We… He told us they had three of the stones, so we helped them distract Thanos long enough for Stark to use them. He… he had the reality stone so he tried to bend reality to kill Thanos. The android helped him concentrate the energy in safe spaces and the dude with the hammer imbued Stark with power from the power stone in order for him to… well kill Thanos.”

“Did he kill him?” Natasha asked, forcing her voice to remain steady.

The man’s face fell. “We thought… the ship was completely destroyed and the amount of power emanating out of Stark… “ He shook his head. “Thanos was seriously injured but he’s not dead yet.”

Natasha’s eyes fell. She couldn’t bear the thought that her husband had given his life for naught. “I’ll… prepare my team. If we attack now we can still kill him.”

The man gave her a dubious look. “You have no one to transport you. How are you gonna keep yourself alive in space?”

“Tony made suits and masks to keep us alive… as for transport… perhaps Heimdall might be willing to help” she suggested, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “I need you to tell me where he is. I need to take him down.”

The man shook his head. “No, you’re not going out there alone. If anything, I owe your husband that much. We’ll go with you. Thanos will still be wounded in a few hours. We’ll leave together as soon as my team is ready to move, ok?”

“Your people are injured,” Natasha said. “You will get them killed.”

“No offense lady, but we’ve faced this asshole before. We know what we’re up against. You’ll need our help. Besides, I don’t need to be fully mobile if I’m shooting from my ship. Thanos is still dangerous, no matter how badly injured he is.” 

Natasha nodded solemnly, her hands shaking softly as she stepped away from the couch where the human was sitting. She walked back to sit next to a boy wearing a red and blue costume, who was still kneeling next to the spot where Stark had fallen.

“Hey, lady,” Peter said, still at a loss as to what to call the redhead. “Did you… do you guys have kids?” He asked softly, a flash of yondu’s last proud filled smile squeezing at his heart.

“Yeah, yeah they do,” the young man in the spider suit said, his voice breaking. His eyes were red and puffy from crying, and his eyes...that look was one of unbridled despair; one that Quill knew intimately enough  to know that this was one of said kids.

“Do you think… Do you think he’ll make it?” A young woman asked Gamora, her eyes wide and vulnerable. It was clear that a negative response would be enough to break her spirit.

Gamora opened and closed her mouth a few times, looking down at Rocket who has patching her up to see if he could help her. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. Gamora cleared her throat and looked back at the girl in the blue outfit. “I… don’t know. Mortals are not supposed to even come near the infinity stones… yet he used it.” She shook her head. “Perhaps… perhaps he’s different from the rest of mortals and he’ll survive.”  

She didn’t sound convinced by her own reassurances.


Heimdall dropped Thor, Nebula and Tony on the last remaining temple of the dark elves. Thor looked around him at the arid, deserted land surrounding him on all sides. Thor looked at Tony and took a deep breath, daring to brush the man’s shoulder softly, to see how the stone would react.

He breathed a sigh of relief when nothing happened. He picked Tony up gently and walked inside the temple, where he had found the aether after Malekith’s death. He placed Tony’s body on the central altar, pulling out the black, triangular artifact he had mentioned to Tony when he had first given him the reality stone for safekeeping.

He looked back at Nebula, clearly at a loss. “I… I am not sure if there’s a way to take the stone out. The only time I have seen it extricated out of a human being is when Malekith took it out of a human woman.”

Nebula tilted her head to the side, walking closer to the too. She leaned down and examined Tony’s increasingly pale body. She gently opened one of his eyes, and let out a sigh when she saw his irises were completely white and the sclera was black; the eyes of a dark elf. That meant the stone was now deeply rooted in him.

“We need to first take him out of this armor,” She said calmly. “We’ll have to break it.”

“No, that’s not necessary,” Thor said quickly, bringing his hand to Tony’s side. He touched something that wasn’t visible to nebula’s eyes. Whatever it was that he touched immediately retracted the suit, leaving behind a shivering, dying man.

Nebula opened her palm and moved her hand towards Thor, silently requesting that he hand over the black triangular object.

“Thanos used to tell us stories about the dark elves when my sister and I were small. He would terrorize us as he gloated on his ideas of seizing the reality stone. Of course, when he told us this, the stone was lost, but a part of him was sure that the stone remained inside one of the dead bodies buried in this wretched land,” Nebula said bitterly as she began moving the triangular object in precise motions, marking symbols and runes on every bit of Tony’s visible skin. She ripped his shirt open, marking his entire chest, despite the many scars found near his heart.  “He taught us how to take out the reality stone, in case he ever needed us to fetch it for him,” she explained as she pulled on two of the triangle’s sides, revealing a dark blade.

She looked at Thor with unseeing eyes as she muttered “Get the container ready.”

Thor paled. “What are you going to-”

Before he could finish his question she brought the blade down sharply, piercing Tony’s heart.

“NO!” Thor roared, freezing in horror. His horror soon gave way to rage as he jumped forward ready to kill the woman.

She pushed him back with a well placed kick into the center of his chest. “Calm down your fool, this isn’t going to be the thing that kills him,” she seethed, turning her attention back to Tony. She whispered something incomprehensible to Thor before pulling out the now red blade. The aether quickly torpedoed out of Tony through the open wound, furious to be taken out of its host.

Nebula quickly grabbed the container and encased the aether as it came out, forcing it all into the glass container. She closed the latch before the aether could spiral out of control. She had no wish to die today.

Thor scrambled to his feet, quickly coming to Tony’s aid. He was surprised to find the wound closed.

“How-” He turned to look at Nebula, clearly at a loss.

She shrugged. “I told you, this wouldn’t be the thing that killed him. It’s what comes after.”

Thor’s eyes immediately snapped up to meet hers. “What do you mean?”

“The stone drained him of his energy, which was killing him, but the stone was also supplying him enough energy to barely stay alive.” Nebula looked away, feeling a pang of pity for the man lying on the altar of the elves. “He doesn’t have the stone’s support anymore, which means he has to survive on his own.” She touched his scarred chest, feeling for a pulse.

She opened one of his eyes again, the inhuman white in his eyes still present. She touched his chest again and her lower lip trembled. “Dammit all to hell,” she seethed her fist clenching unconsciously. She looked at Thor with pity in her eyes. “He doesn’t have a pulse.”

Thor’s eyes widened and he approached Tony, moving Nebula out of the way as he began performing CPR on the man. He had never thought Tony’s CPR classes would actually come in handy, but here he was, using the rudimentary  human methods Tony had described as mildly efficient when trying to save a life.

Thor grunted in frustration picking up his hammer. “He needs a shock in his system,” he said, sounding more than a bit desperate. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the pulse of electricity emanating from the hammer. He concentrated the electric blow on the heart, opening his eyes after a few seconds. He began once again doing CPR for what felt like an eternity.

Eventually, Nebula put her hand on top of Thor’s, effectively stopping him. “His heart is still not beating… he’s mortal, Thor. There’s nothing you can do… not anymore.”

The Asgardian let out an inhuman scream, falling to his knees as he covered his face with his hands. This could not be happening. He could not lose Tony - his friend, his brother - like this. Not like this. Never like this.


Tony had never felt this light in his life. He couldn’t see anything, as everything was dark, but strangely enough, he felt like he was floating. He was laying down but there was no floor underneath him.

Not only that, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t wearing his suit. He sprang up into a sitting position, squinting his eyes as he tried to gleam into the darkness. He had no idea if he was alive or death. The last thing he could remember was throwing everything he had at Thanos.

The aether had probably ended up consuming him, if the darkness was anything to go by. Still, the most unnerving thing wasn’t the possibility of having been swallowed whole by an infinity stone, the really unnerving thing was that, despite the darkness, despite the fact that he couldn’t feel anyone near him, he knew he wasn’t alone.

“Hello?” Tony said, feeling both terrified and incredibly foolish. He was probably just paranoid. Why would someone else be inside a stone? 

He just needed to-

Ah, Anthony…. Finally, you’ve come. I’ve been expecting you for quite some time… I was intrigued to see what had become of the merchant of Death.”

Chapter Text

Tony stuttered out a shallow breath, scrambling to sit up immediately. That was…. No it couldn’t be. It was impossible. He was dead. Tony had seen him die with his own two eyes in a dark, stench-filled cave in Afghanistan.  

Suddenly a fire appeared near the two, lighting up the dark space. The man behind him chuckled softly, striding in half a circle to come face to face with Tony. He tilted his head slightly, his honey eyes looking alight by the fire. His kind yet reserved smile graced his lips.

Tony’s fingers shook, as he looked around him. He knew exactly where he was. He scrunched his eyes closed as his breath began coming faster. He thought he could still remember every horrific detail of his time in captivity, but he had forgotten how utterly cold the hard stone floor felt against his trembling bones. He had forgotten how much his heart hurt every time he had to suck in the putrid air.

“No… no, no no, what is happening?” Tony stammered out, forcing himself to his feat. “You’re dead… I… No, I killed them all already. I left this place. I. left. this. place.”

Yinsen looked confused for a moment, before understanding reached his eyes. He nodded softly, twirling his hand in the air. The cave around them immediately dissolved, though it quickly reconstructed itself, this time looking like the top of Tony’s former tower. “I apologize, I did not know the cave would have such a strong effect on you.”

“You’re dead ,” Tony said again, because what the fuck .

The man hummed. “Well, actually… you’re dead,” he deadpanned, his expression as calm as always.

Tony swallowed hard. The last thing he remembered was… killing Thanos. He remembered using the reality stone.

“He’s not dead,” Yinsen informed him, walking away from Tony to look down at the city.

“What? How do you know that?” Tony asked, still feeling like this was an out of body experience. Had he said that aloud? What in the world was happening? “What...Who the fuck are you? Yinsen died. I saw him die.”

The man looked back at Tony, a brow delicately raised. “I am Death,” he said simply before looking down again.

“What the fuck” Tony groaned, rubbing his head. “Look, can you give me a straight answer? None of this makes sense. Last thing I remember is-”

“You were fighting the mad titan, and you decided to use one of the six power stones. The reality stone to be exact. You let it consume you in order to use its powers.” The man sighed softly, his glasses falling slightly down his nose as he regarded Tony with a knowing look. “And so you died, but unfortunately, Thanos is much stronger than you think. He’s not dead… yet.”

“Well, fuck,” Tony sighed, coming to stand next to Yinsen. This was, hands down, the most bizarre experience he had ever had, and he still had no fucking clue what was happening, but the man - whoever he was - knew far too many details to not be telling the truth. “So is this like the afterlife or?”

The man hummed. “This is my realm,” he said. “This is… a place where you and I can chat freely.” The man turned to Tony, his eyes, still the same honey-green Tony remembered. “You don’t believe me.”

“No, I do. I don’t know how you know he’s not dead, but I believe you,” Tony said with a sigh.

The man shook his head. “You don’t believe that I am Death. You’ve seen armies tear through the universe. You’ve felt the power that emanates through the power stones and yet you doubt my words.”

“If you’re Death, then why do you look like Yinsen? You realize that opens a whole set of questions,” Tony said, trying to sound calm when he was anything but.

Because if this was death, then that meant either Yinsen hadn’t been real, or death was embodying Yinsen, and he was not okay with either option. Yinsen… Yinsen had opened his eyes. Yinsen had been the first person, outside of Pepper and Rhodey, to ever see past the masks, past the glamors. He had forced Tony to pick up a flashlight to shine it on his heart. He had forced Tony to be better, if only to atone for his many mistakes.

“I can take many forms, Mr. Stark, and I can present myself to different people in whatever way I choose,” he explained, sounding half amused. “Most call me mistress death,” he said jovially, “but I figured this form would be the most welcomed, considering how important Yinsen was in his short time with you.” He put his hand up and where one second ago there had been a hand, there was now a skeletal hand covered in flames.

“So you’re not Yinsen,” Tony half whispered, not sure if he was relieved or not.

“I’m not,” the man assured calmly. “This is just the form I have chosen to present myself in. I find Ho Yinsen to be a fascinating man, particularly when it comes to you.” Death turned to look at Tony, his eyes now looking more orange fire than honey. “His death… was your beginning, and his hands were the ones that took you from me.” He smiled. “It's fascinating, how much can blossom from one loss.”

“Took me from you?”

Death nodded. “You have slipped my hands time and time again,” Death said with a low chuckle that made Tony’s hair stand on edge. “The Merchant of Death that would not die…”

Tony grimaced. “Well, I’m here now,” he said tensely, starting to feel sick. This… creature was giving him the creeps.

“You know, I’ve wanted to speak to you for many years now,” Death said pleasantly.

Tony frowned. “Why?”

Death shrugged. “The mortal realm is a very interesting one to watch… every few hundred years, someone rises that peaks my attention,” he explained. “It's not often that someone is called the merchant of death,” he said, half amused. “I felt compelled to see who it was that was being called my merchant.”

Tony felt his face drain of color. He had fought so hard to turn away from the stains of his past. He had been a fool to trust Obadiah, and an even bigger fool to continue building his father’s weapons.

Death chuckled. “If it makes you feel any better, you're the first mortal man I have come across to be blamed for mass murder who didn't actually know mass murder was being committed in his name.”

“I should have known what was happening. Those deaths are still on me,” Tony said harshly, clenching his hands.

Death hummed, walking back as the scenery around them changed again. Tony held his breath as everything shifted, leaving the two of them in his private study. It was dark outside and the study was dim lit, making the study both look quaint and macabre at the same time.

“There's more to you than just weapons, Mr. Stark. You rose from your own ashes, and changed the direction of your life, and that is what fascinates me,” Death said, coming to sit in front of Tony’s desk. “Your heart… it’s quite something.”

Tony frowned. “If you’re death, shouldn't my becoming iron man be the part you don't like?”

Death chuckled. “Mr. Stark, I don't relish watching you mortals die. Well, no I do, but not in the way you might be thinking. Death is a natural process that comes to all. Mortality is what gives your kind their sense of purpose, they are fascinating because their time is limited and their wants are not.” He smiled, his face looking less and less like Yinsen by the minute. “I welcome all that come into my realm, but I don't advocate for the sudden end of mortals as we know it.”

Tony rounded his desk, sitting on his chair. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because while I abhor getting involved in petty mortal squabbles, I’m not quite interested in the overflow of souls that will come my way if Thanos manages to destroy the galaxy. Life is necessary in order to give importance to Death. If nothing, and no one, is alive, then death and life cease to matter, and as much as Eternity and I squabble, neither one of us is here to upset the balance of the cosmos. The Living Tribunal would be livid.” He finished with a flourish of his hand, before resting his head on his clasped hands, his expression one Tony had never seen on Yinsen’s face.

It was too calculating, too cold, too… inhuman.

Tony shook the idea away, trying to make sense of what Death was talking about. He had no idea who eternity was, or who the living tribunal was, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Worse of all, he couldn’t get a clear read of this… being. Death didn’t feel like a good being, but it didn’t feel like a bad one either. Death was just… it just was.

“So, let me see if I got this right. You want to stop Thanos?” Tony said, a glimmer of hope in his voice.

“Oh dear, no. I am a neutral party, Mr. Stark. I cannot get involved nor do I particularly want to.” He smiled pleasantly, leaning back on his chair.

Tony roll his eyes, he hadn't expected death to be this infuriating. “So then, I ask again, why are you telling me all this?”

“Because you died due to your involvement, which leads me to think you want this issue fixed as soon as possible.” death said in a bored tone.

Tony's eyes widened. Was this Death offering its help? If it would send him back... Tony could finish his job. He could save his family.

Death chuckled. “Your return would come at a price, Mr. Stark.” Death stood up, shedding away Yinsen’s form. A cloud of smoke covered Yinsen’s body, soon revealing  what seemed to be the skeleton of a woman, robed in all black. Tony felt a shiver run down his spine as the figure rose to her full height. He could see now why she had first appeared as Yinsen. He had been not only a familiar face, but a shield to her true nature.

Tony could feel the power emanating from Death, a dark, destructive thing that somehow managed to frighten him and to ease his fears of the future at the same time. It reminded him of what he had felt like when he had flown the nuke into space, when he had thought he was going to die.

He had been terrified, and yet, he had been at peace with the prospect of death if it meant saving the world.

“What is your price?” Tony asked, trying to sound as calm as possible.

Death chuckled. “It’s not so much a price as it is a reality. You are dead, mr. Stark, and no one goes back to the realm of the living unless they go through me or for me.”

Tony frowned. “You’re gonna have to speak in simpler terms if you want me to understand. I do science, not magic, and you make no sense.”

Death chuckled again. “I am the only being capable of crossing between the realm of the dead and the living realm. For you to be able to do the same, you and I would need to…. Form a contract of sorts. You see, only a servant of death - a merchant of death if you will,” death said, humor in her voice, “can do the same.” 

Tony paled. “And what exactly does the title “servant of death” entail?” Tony asked, not willing to be fooled. He could feel the destructive power emanating from Death, and he wanted no part of that.

Death stepped closer, the darkness around her becoming almost oppressive. “Everyone dies, Mr. Stark, and someone must guide them to me once their time is up. Not to mention, the cosmos is meant to be balanced. Too much evil… or too much good… is not ideal. You see, me and my siblings keep the balance in the cosmos. You would help me in that task.”

Tony swallowed hard,  the implications of such words weighing heavily upon him. He had no idea who Death’s siblings were, but that didn’t matter. A “balance” meant good people had to die. A “balance” meant committing atrocities as well as heroic acts in order to keep both good and evil alive. He felt sick to his core.

“And if I agree to be your… servant… can I go back and save my family? Save earth?” Tony asked, feeling as if he had been condemned to death row.

“Of course, Thanos’s death will bring back balance,” Death assured the mortal man. “Consider it your first task. So, Mr. Stark, do we have a deal?”

“Why me?” Tony asked suddenly. “I’m not the first mortal to die. Why do you want me to serve you?”

“I told you, every few eras, there’s a mortal that peaks my attention,” Death said, as if that was an explanation. “The universe is a vast place, Mr. Stark, and my servants keep track of it. They’re my companions for as long as I choose them to be. I wish for you to be one of them. It would be a waste to see your talents remain solely in my realm.” Death extended her hand, a blue glowing fire enveloping it. “Are you ready, Anthony?”

Tony stepped, closer, his heart hammering wildly in his chest. He wanted to laugh, wondering what his family would think if they could see him now… the actual merchant of death. Fuck .

He shook death’s hand, his eyes widening as a chain appeared out of nowhere linking their hands together tightly. The blue fire spread out, engulfing Tony’s hand, and then his body. He didn’t feel like he was being burned alive, but he did feel like his heart was exploding.

He fell to his knees due to the pain, forcing himself to remember why it was that he was doing this.

His family. Earth. He had to keep everyone safe.

After what felt like an eternity, Death released his hand, looking down at him with her hollow eyes. The fire was gone.

“Welcome to your new home, Anthony,” Death said pleasantly. “You may return to the realm of the living if you wish, but remember… your true place is now here.”  With that she disappeared, sending Tony spiraling down what felt like a literal rabbit hole, where everything went dark.


Nebula patted Thor’s shoulder, surprised at the amount of pain emanating from the man. Even now that Gamora and her were close, they were not this close. Thanos had made sure that both of them felt too much distrust to truly love each other.

In a way, she envied Thor and even Stark. She wondered what it was like to have a family that would mourn you this earnestly. She wondered too what it was like to be so willing to die time and time again for one’s loved ones.

Before she could ask Thor to collect himself so that they could go find Thanos and take Stark’s body back to Earth, the room shook violently, sending them both tumbling to the floor. Everything went dark around them, and a horrifying grunt echoed in the room. She picked up her sword, and searched for Thor in the dark. As soon as she found him, the darkness dissipated, allowing them to look for whoever it was that had come in.

Much to their surprise, no one had.

“Impossible,” Thor breathed out, his eyes glued to the altar.

Nebula followed the trajectory of his eyes, her breath coming to a halt when she saw what Thor was seeing. Tony Stark was sitting up, rubbing his head with a grimace. He was alive , sitting up.

“Stark?” Nebula asked quietly, her suspicions rising.

Tony looked to where the voice was calling him, still feeling off kilter. He definitely felt different. He felt light, and yet inexplicably strong, as if he could lift a pyramid without trying. He felt like he had frozen in time, leaving the world spinning slowly around him.

“Thor?” He asked, his voice sounding deeper than before.

Thor’s eyes widened as he felt a small pulse of the…. Energy, if one could call it that, emanating out of the newly revived man. “Tony… what have you done?”

Tony raised a brow, surprised at the question. “What?”

“So you’ve met Death,” Nebula said nonchalantly, feeling a small amount of trepidation as the man’s eyes fell on her. Thanos had been obsessed with Death, so much so that Nebula and Gamora had become deeply acquainted with anything regarding her, and Tony’s aura felt far too much like her own.

Tony clenched his jaw. “Yeah, no we’re not doing that right now. We can talk later. We have a Titan to kill.”

“The Avengers and the Guardians are on their way to kill him right now,” Thor informed Tony, his voice a little more guarded than usual.

“NO!” Tony half screamed, panic showing on his face. “They can’t… Thor they will die. You know how powerful Thanos is. I cannot let my family die. We have to go… now .”

Thor’s eyes softened at Tony’s words. So his friend was still himself. Thank heavens. “I’m afraid Heimdall cannot see this realm, and so I cannot ask him to transport us.”

Tony nodded, closing his eyes for a second to think of something. He still had no idea what sort of upgrades Death had given him, but considering the fact that he could walk between realms , he was pretty sure a simple portal would not be difficult to make. “Where is he?”

“He probably retreated to the moons of Saturn. He destroyed his brethren there, but he keeps many prized possessions there. If he’s wishing for a quick rest before attempting another attack, that’s where he’ll go,” Nebula was quick to answer.

Tony nodded again, raising his arm and extending his hand. A dark portal appeared from the tip of his fingertips, the black-hole look alike growing in size as it moved farther away from Tony.

“Let’s go,” he said calmly, trying his hardest to ignore the look Thor sent his way. “Later, Thor. We’ll talk about it later.”

“What about the remains of your suit?” Thor asked, looking back at the fallen metal pieces.

Tony looked back at his armor, a pang of nostalgia hitting him. He waved his hand, dissolving the metal into thin air. “That armor is done. It took too much damage. I’ll make a new one when we get back to Earth. Let’s go.”


Tony walked out of the portal with Nebula and Thanos in tow, both with their weapons at the ready. Thor still had the power stone with him, and now the aether in a container, but Tony felt no fear when looking at the stone anymore. The threatening power he had seen emanate out of the stone was not threatening anymore. He was sure that, if he were to pick it up, he wouldn’t have a problem doing so.

And that was actually the terrifying part.

“Over there,” Nebula said, raising her arm to point towards the distance. There on a stone throne, sat the injured Titan, clutching at one of his wounds near his abdomen. His eyes snapped up when he heard his daughter’s voice. He growled in rage as his eyes fell on the three small beings standing on his moon.

Tony walked forward at a calm pace, his eyes never leaving the Titan’s. He watched as the Titan stood, ready for another fight.

“You come to me armorless, mortal, and you hope to win?” He asked, his breath slightly labored.

“I don’t need my armor to defeat you , Thanos,” Tony sneered, the place growing darker as Tony’s rage rose.

Thanos looked around his, his brows shooting up in surprise. “Impossible,” he half whispered as he looked back at Tony. Death’s unmistakable mark visible in the man’s flaming eyes. He had only felt this aura twice before, and both times have been brief encounters with Mistress Death. “How are you alive?”

Tony didn’t answer, knowing he had little time before his family arrived. He didn’t want them to see him like this. He jumped forward, feeling light on his feet. He could feel the world around him almost screech to a halt, leaving the Titan defenseless. Thanos tried moving forward, a sword in his hand, but it felt like he was moving in slow motion, a Titan fighting against the current of his fate. Tony reached Thanos in seconds, and placed his hand on the Titan’s forehead. “You’ve upset the balance Death so cherishes,” Tony said, his voice sounding off and his eyes looking into the distance. A symbol appeared on both his hands, making Thanos scream. “And therefore it is time to die .”

The symbols on Tony’s hands glowed, engulfing the two of them. Thor and Nebula looked away immediately, having heard enough stories about Death’s dealings to know it wasn’t prudent for them to watch Tony carry out her commands. When they finally were able to look back at where the Titan had once stood, they found only Tony standing, with a dead Titan at his feet.

Tony had his eyes closed, his expression one of sorrow. He was glad the threat had finally been neutralized, but at what cost? He didn’t want… this. He didn’t want to know Death’s wishes better than his own. He didn’t want to be tied to an immensely powerful being whose will he now had to carry out. He didn’t want to think of what his family would think of him when they found out. He didn’t want the responsibilities and curses that came with his newfound powers.

“Let’s go home,” Tony said tiredly, not looking at either one of his companions in the eye. “They will be here soon.”

“Tony…”

Tony shook his head, looking ready to cry. “Please… not right now. Let’s get home first.”


“How far away are we?” Natasha asked, looking back at the injured Guardians.

Peter looked back from where he was sitting with Gamora, who still looked far too pale to be up and about yet.

“A few more minutes,” he said, looking at the coordinates which Rocket was using. “You should get everyone to suit up. He might be injured, but he’s no less lethal.

Natasha nodded, moving to the back of the ship where The avengers, both the old and the new, were waiting for her. They all seemed a little too somber, a little too worried. She looked over most of them, as if afraid she would not see them again, but she did not look back to her kids. She couldn’t. She knew how much pain they were in, and she could not deal with it right now. If she tried to help them, she would break too, and she needed to be strong right now. She needed to be strong for Tony, because they were the last hope Earth had.

“We’re here,” called Rocket after a few minutes, his voice tense. “I don’t see anyone. Gamora, you sure he’s here?”

She frowned. “This is the only place that I can think of that he would come to.”

“Scan the moon, Rocket, I’m sure we’ll find him if he is. He’s not exactly hard to miss,” Peter said, grunting softly when he accidentally jerked his injured arm forward.

“I see his throne, it’s over there,” Gamora said, looking paler and paler by the minute. Peter looked worriedly at her; they should never agreed to bring her with them. This was too dangerous.

“Oh my god,” Rhodey, who had been standing next to Rocket, exclaimed. “He’s on the ground. He’s…. I think he’s dead.”

A collective murmur blossomed on the ship, everyone casting worried glances to one another. They all seemed to be thinking the same thing: who the hell could have followed Thanos all the way here, and who the hell was powerful enough to take down the Titan, injuries or no injuries.

“Get us closer,” Gamora commanded, looking a little more alive than before.

Rocket pulled the ship as closed as he dared, while also accounting for a quick retreat. While the Titan appeared to be dead, he did not want to risk it. “Impossible,” Gamora whispered, getting up despite how weak her body currently felt.

Drax was at her side in an instant, knowing Peter was too injured to catch the woman if she fell.

“What’s impossible?” Spiderman asked, looking at her with his puffy, bloodshot eyes.

“Death… Death was here. Look at his forehead, that’s her mark,” Gamora breathed out, grabbing ahold of Drax to keep herself steady.

Quill frowned, looking extremely confused. “I thought you said Death didn’t really get involved in things like this.”

“Why are you talking about death as if she was an actual being?” Bruce piped up, his skin still alight hue of green.

“Because she is an actual being,” Rocket said with an eyeroll. “She’s one of the entities. Honestly, what the frick are they teachin’ ya back on earth? You all need some better education if ya ask me.”

“It can’t be Death,” Drax said, his face as serious as ever. “One of her servants perhaps, but Death herself is far above the lame work of taking down a Titan.”

“Lame? You call that lame? This dude was about to destroy the Galaxy,” Kate said, looking at Drax as if he had grown a third eye.

“Kate,” Natasha chastised. “Well, if he’s dead, then does that mean we can go back home? Can you locate Thor?”

Peter shook his head. “No, but we can locate Nebula if you want. If they’re still together, then we should be able to find him.”

Natasha nodded, giving one last look at the now broken Titan. She swallowed hard, knowing that she’d have to warn Tony about this - that is if he was....

She shook her head, not willing to think about any outcome where her husband was not alive. She would deal with one problem at a time, and the problem right now was this missing piece of information. She didn’t know who it was that had killed the Titan, and therefore she didn’t know if this being was a friend or a foe, and, considering the vast amount of power displayed so far, she knew it was not a being they wanted on the wrong side. They’d have to raise up protections earth, yet again, if only to be able to sleep at night with one eye closed.

Chapter Text

The portal opened in the middle of the empty living room, the room darkening as the portal seemed to absorb the light itself. Tony, Thor, and gamora stepped out of the portal without looking back. Tony waved his hand and the portal disappeared instantly, lighting up the room again.

“We have to talk about this, my friend,” Thor insisted, knowing an obstinate Tony when he saw one.

“What do you want me to say, Thor?” Tony half snapped, looking at the man with a raised brow. “I died. I was offered a chance to come back and finish things. I took it, end of the story,” he said, sounding weary.

“You took a deal with Death Tony, that’s not… You don’t understand yet what it means to be a servant of Death. This isn’t a choice you can go back from,” Thor said, anger in his voice, though Tony could tell it wasn’t exactly directed at him.

Tony shook his head. “What was the alternative, Thor? Let everyone die trying to take him down? Let him destroy earth and everyone we love? An infinity stone couldn’t kill that bastard! How exactly then were we supposed to defeat him?” Tony asked, looking at Thor expectantly. “I believe in the future, Thor, and in my idea of the future, there’s growth. One choice allowed me to keep the Earth spinning. One choice let me save millions, it let me saved the next generation of thinkers, explorers, dreamers, wrong doers, the whole nine yards.” Tony stepped closer, his eyes alight by a passion for the future Thor had seen on no one as keenly as in Tony. “One decision means Peter gets to see tomorrow. He gets to take Mary Jane on their next date, and, hell, maybe he’ll even marry her! One decisions lets my kam make her own decision in the future of how she wants to raise her family. One decision means keeping everyone; you, natasha, rhodes, clint, bruce, t’challa, hope and everyone else in the team alive - one choice means you all get to live !”  

You’re dead!” Thor bellowed, heartbreaking pain in his voice. “So it’s not all of us that get to live.”

Tony smiled sadly at his friend, grabbing the man softly by the cheeks. “Yes, I am dead, but I’m still here. One death… my death… it’s nothing when you look at the cost benefit. Nothing, I’m not willing to give away for the sake of my family… for the sake of the world.”

Thor touched Tony’s hand gently. “Will you tell everyone the truth?”

Tony retreated then, clasping his hands behind his back as he looked at the opposite wall, his eyes far away. “No,” he said his tone leaving no room for arguing. “Not yet, at least. I need… I need some time.”

“What do you plan on telling them?” Nebula asked, as stoic as ever.

She had never been one for overtly emotional expressions of affection, nor was she one for loyalty. Thanos had taken that out of her a long time ago, but she had to admit this man made her question some of her previously held beliefs.

She knew how terrifying it was to feel like one had no agency over one’s own actions. She knew how emotionally hollowing it was to gain strength and power by losing pieces of your past, of your body, of yourself. She knew what it was like to have to go through an internal purge just to look at yourself in the mirror. She knew too what it was like to want to keep that from those you loved.

She didn’t know this man, didn’t know his story or his past, but she knew what he had done to save those he deemed as family, and to save even those he didn’t know. She couldn’t quite understand his sacrifice, considering she herself had never dealt with death, but she felt a deep seated respect and admiration for the man currently looking away from her. Strange as it was, she felt willing to follow this man - something she hadn’t felt willing to do since Thanos had adopted her as a child.

Tony looked at her, mulling over her question. “We’ll tell them that I miraculously made it out alive,” Tony said, waving his hand in front of his body. In an instant, the wounds that he had been sporting before, the ones that had disappeared when he had woken up, were back, leaving him looking much less ethereal.

Thor immediately jumped to hold Tony’s hand, afraid that the man not only looked hurt but was actually hurt. Tony smiled at him and patted his hand, shaking his head.

“I’m fine Thor, this is just…”

“An illusion,” Nebula finished for him, knowing well of death’s love for disguises. She stepped closer, her arms crossed in front of her. “You should lay on the couch. Someone with your visible injuries would not be standing as you are.”

“I imagine it will take them at least half an hour to get here?” Tony said, looking back at Nebula.

“They warped to get there for sure, but now that there’s no rush, we might have a few hours. The less they warp, the easier the journey will be on their bodies, and, considering some of them are injured, I don’t think they’ll be wanting to warp.”

Tony nodded, sitting down on the couch. “Friday, contact the UN please. We might as well get started on informing world leaders of what’s been happening.” Tony rubbed his eyes again, feeling…. Strange. It was like he could feel people dying all around the city, even though he wasn’t actually there to see it. He could feel their pain, their worry, their very beings moving on past the living realm.

It was… too much if he was honest. It was too much information - unwanted information - all at once.  “Contact Fury as well, please,” he said breathlessly, paling more and more by the second. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to concentrate. He needed to quiet everything down. He would have to deal with… this thing, later.  

“Are you alright, Tony?” Thor asked again, looking at Tony as the man struggled to keep his composure.

Tony waved a dismissive hand. “I’m fine I’m just… adjusting I guess. I’ll be fine. I will rest as soon as the UN issue gets squared away.” Tony froze. “Oh, that reminds me I have to fly to Germany. The chancellor still wasn’t very happy about Rogers being here, so we need to reach some sort of agreement to avoid-”

Thor placed a hand on Tony, shivering slightly. “Tony, please, you need to rest. At least for five minutes. Take five minutes for yourself. Earth is safe, they can wait. Your body is probably experiencing many transitions that won’t be easy to adjust. You need to let yourself rest.”

Tony smiled at his old friend, and patted his hand. “I’ll… do my best.”

----------------

“They’re here,” Tony whispered, his dark eyes sparkling like molten fire as they narrowed down on an invisible point in the sky. “They’re safe.”

The other two nodded, neither needing to look at the man to ask for more assurances. Thor sat next to Tony, absently holding a wet towel near Tony’s forehead. He wasn’t exactly thrilled to lie to the people he considered family now, but he understood why Tony wanted to keep it to himself for now.

The man needed time to accept his own fate, time to explore it, time to understand it, and he couldn’t do that if he simultaneously had to deal with everyone’s reaction. Tony had always been their rock, their steady hand. He had been there every time there was a major event in their lives, and Thor knew Tony would be needed this time too.

So Thor kept quiet and went along with it.

Thor watched as the guardian’s plane descended, the hatch opening to reveal the rather massive group of tired-looking people - 20 of them to be exact. He saw their somber looks, and smiled softly as they entered, one by one. The first to notice that Tony was indeed alive - or at least looked alive -  was Peter, and the sound of pure joy he let out was music to Thor’s ears.

The boy ran quickly towards the man that had spent the last five years raising him and he fell at his feet, tears rolling down his face. “You’re alive… dad, you’re alive,” Peter whispered, his hands trembling as he dared to touch Tony.

Kamala and Natasha were quick to follow, both careful not to squeeze Tony too hard. Natasha caressed his cheek, a single tear rolling down her face. She kissed him once, twice, three times, her lips desperate to touch him.

“You’re a fucking moron,” she said sweetly, though it was clear to Tony that she was holding it together by a thin thread. “I know why you did it,” she whispered in his ear, running her hands through his hair, “but don’t fucking do that again. Please… just… we need you alive.”

Tony squeezed her hand, as a pang of guilt hit him. They needed him alive… alive, alive , but was being here not enough? Could that not count for something?

Natasha reached over to Thor, tears in her eyes. “Thank you,” she said, bringing him down to hug him tight. “Thank you for bringing him back home to me.”

Thor let out a shuddering breath, his own eyes filling with tears. He couldn’t respond to the earnestness of the woman, especially not when he knew he was lying to her. All he could do was hold her and keep himself from crying as he felt a little piece of his soul break away.

Tony reached down and squeezed Thor’s shoulder comfortingly as the Asgardian was now sitting on the floor with Natasha.  “Did you find Thanos?” Tony asked, changing the subject. He didn’t need Thor feeling more guilty than he already did.

“Bastard was already dead,” Rocket supplied flying around as he began inspecting the compound. “This is where ya live?”

“Yes, this is our home,” Tony said, half amused, recognizing the curious glint in Rocket’s eyes. For some reason, Tony knew Rocket was an inventor much like himself.

“I am Groot,” Groot said, looking at Quill.

Tony chuckled. “I’m pretty sure you don’t get bounties or rewards for saving the galaxy, unless you know something I don’t,” he said, his eyes still on groot.

The guardians all turned to look at him, their eyes wide. “How do you… you understood what he said” Rocket said, a hint of awe in his voice.

Tony went very still his face not betraying his surprise. “I…”

Rocket approached him quickly, despite his injuries, getting into Tony’s personal space to observe him. “Very few people understand him, you see,” Rocket said, tilting his head to the side.

“Rocket only you understand him,” Star Lord snorted, though his eyes never left Tony.

Tony swallowed thickly. “I make robots. I’m used to speaking to them… maybe at this point I’m just good at guessing based on inflections,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t know why I can understand him.”

Rocket didn’t seem to buy the lie, but he shrugged, stepping back with wary eyes. He only hummed, giving one pointed look at Gamora before stepping back towards Groot. “Alright, since Thanos is dead I think we should get going.”

“You can stay and rest if you wish,” Tony piped up quickly, forcing his fears of being discovered down. These people had helped him, the least he could do is help them in return. “You’re all injured. We have more than enough rooms to house everyone. You can stay and rest, eat something - I don’t know if we’ll have something edible for Groot, though.”

“Thank you, I think we might take you up on that for a night or two,” Peter said, giving a worried look to the pale assassin who was clutching at her injured waist.

“Friday, have the medical wing ready,” Tony said as he stood up, squeezing Natasha’s hand when she attempted to stand up with him, clearly worried. “I’d rather they check you all over properly this time, since you probably all ran off to fight Thanos without being properly checked. “ Tony walked to the middle of the room, looking at his team. “Vision, go rest, your energy was drained today. Rhodey, Natasha, I will need you with me later today. I have contacted the UN and given them a preliminary report, but they’ll be calling a general meeting in two days’ time. I can go but perhaps-”

“You’re injured, Tones, I’ll go,” Rhodey said immediately, his tone leaving no room for argument.

“I also need to go to Germany and talk to the chancellor. They’re not very happy about-”

“Tony… I will handle it,” Natasha said, giving him a fond look.

“Friday order pizza please, double the amount of our usual order. Clint, go home, Laura will probably be worried sick. T’Challa… I imagine you’re still needed in Wakanda, so if you need to go... “

The king nodded, stepping closer to Tony. “I’m one call away, if anything happens, anything at all… “

Tony clasped his shoulder, giving him a wink. “We’ll be fine hello kitty. Go.”

“Scott,” Tony barked, motioning with his hand for the man to come closer. Tony knelt slowly, pressing his thumb against the thumbprint reader on the ankle brace and typed something quickly. “Oh good, Natasha took care of this,” Tony said with a chuckle.

Natasha shrugged. ‘I needed to take them off planet, so I put in the emergency code into all of their braces.”

Tony grabbed Scott by the hand, making show of getting up as if he needed help. “Since Natasha deactivated the ankle braces, they will be down for the next twenty four hours. You can go see casie. Be back before the timer is out,” Tony warned, stepping away before the man could thank him. “Everyone else… you’re free to do as you please. I for one am going to go rest.”

Tony turned around, aware of the hard eyes drilling holes into his head. He turned his gaze towards Gamora then, meeting her stare head on. “Gamora… I know you’re injured, but could I have a quick chat with you? There’s…. something I need to ask.” Tony kept his tone light, aware that everyone was staring at him.

Tony wasn’t one for private meetings, not without his team at least having some knowledge of what was happening.

Gamora nodded, a hint of surprised in her eyes when nebula followed them close behind. “I don’t think he called you, sister.”

Nebula smirked. “Trust me, you want me there,” she half whispered, her words only for her sister.

“I’ll walk you to the med bay,” Tony offered, walking with her while leaving enough space between them to not make her uncomfortable. “You have questions,” Tony started once they were out of sight, keeping his voice calm.

“Do I?” Gamora said, looking straight ahead.

“You do,” Nebula answered, sounding bored. “Just spit it out, sister, he’s not gonna beat it around the bush with you, I don’t think.”

Gamora looked at Nebula, a hint of surprise in her eyes. “You killed him,” Gamora said finally, stopping in the middle of the hall to look at Tony. “I know you did, I can feel the difference in you.” She crossed her arms, keeping her head high. “You also held a stone and you survived. You held it for a long time. I don’t trust that.”

“I didn’t survive,” Tony said taking a step closer, his eyes shining like fire. “You said it yourself, no human can survive that.”

She let out a breath as she looked deep into his fire-like eyes, realization hitting her like a bag of bricks. She took a step back, throwing her arms to her sides. “You…”

“Yes,” Tony confirmed, giving her a tight smile. “Now please… keep it to yourself, or to your team if you must.”

She gaped at the man, turning slightly to look at her sister.

Nebula met her gaze straight on, nodding subtly, which surprised Gamora even more. She had never met anyone that had managed to garner such approval from her sister, which both made Gamora happy and suspicious. Nebula had come back to her a few years ago, reticently admitting that she would probably be needing help to defeat the mad titan.

They had grown much closer since then, but it was still very hard to get past the woman’s defences, after all the damage Thanos had done to her heart.

“I… okay,” Gamora said, still looking confused. “But… why?”

“Because… because my family needs a little more time before I tell them such news,” Tony said simply, motioning with his hand to keep them moving forward. True to his word, he walked her to the medical bay.

He showed her to one of the many rooms, patting the bed softly to indicate he wanted her to climb on. “Let me have a look at your injury,” he said, his wounds disappearing as he allowed for the mask to drop for a few moments.

Gamora did as she was told, still looking a little wary. She moved her shirt up, allowing Tony to remove the bandages. The man tsked, frowning softly. ‘You’ve lost a lot of blood,” he noted, sounding like a disapproving father.

“Sorry,” Gamora said immediately, his tone of voice producing a knee jerk reaction in her she didn’t even know she had.

He looked at the wound, his hands hovering over it. He looked at his hands, a question in his eyes. Could this new existence of his be more than just destruction? He desperately hoped so. He traced the wound gently with his hand, the large black symbols appearing on the back of his hands. Gamora all but held her breath, watching as Tony’s hands glowed softly, his hand looking eerily skeletal.

Tony pulled his hands away after a few minutes, releasing a small breath when he realized the wound was indeed much smaller, and gamora looked much stronger than she had a few minutes ago. It wasn’t gone, but he knew with certainty that the woman was not at risk of dying anymore. Something inside him tugged, and he knew immediately that he and Death would be having a chat about this later.

“I’m afraid I can’t fully heal it, but… that should help a bit,” Tony said, stepping away.

“Thank you,” she said, sitting up to look at his handy work. “I didn’t know someone like you could do that.”

Tony smirked. “Neither did I,” he admitted. “If you’ll excuse me… I should go back to the main room. My wife is waiting for me, and I’m sure she’s not please since I almost….”

“Since you died,” Gamora said, not beating around the bush.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Like I said, keep it between us… for now.” Tony took a step back, opening the door. “I’ll make sure your friends find you here, and that they’re taken care of.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stark,” Nebula said, a faint, amused smile on her lips.  


Tony opened the door to his study, his mouth going dry as he remembered his encounter with Death.

“Tony, you alright?” Natasha asked, worry clear in her voice.

It had been three days since their final stand against Thanos, and everyone was still walking on eggshells around Tony. Tony had mostly avoided people in those three days, as he had no idea what exactly to do with himself, but he had figured he couldn’t hide forever, and what better way to reintegrate himself than to gather everyone to watch a movie in his study.

“Always,” he replied with a smile, as he intertwined his fingers with Natasha’s, walking her deeper into the room. The team trickled in slowly, his kids at the helm. Peter sat on the floor, resting his back on Tony’s legs and his head on his lap. Kam sat down next to Peter, resting against Natasha. Tony smiled at the sheer normalcy of it all, as he began to run his hand through his son’s hair with his free hand.

Rhodey sat next to him, his back resting against Tony’s arm and his head on the man’s shoulder. “What the hell are we watching?” he asked, yawning softly. He had come back from Belgium just a few hours prior, and the jetlag was killing him.

Tony half shrugged. “I thought you all had already picked.”

“There’s always star wars,” Peter piped in with a devious smile.

“Oh, come on we’ve watched that movie a hundred times by now,” Clint whined, without any real fight in him.

“Then put on Stark Trek,” Kate said with a chuckle. “The old series though,” she called, before anyone could agree or disagree.

“You heard the boss, Friday,” Tony said as he rested his head against the plush cushions. Releasing Natasha’s hand in order to hug her close to him. He closed his eyes as the movie started, and let the sounds wash over him.

He concentrated on the beating hearts around him, the precious lives he had fought so hard to defend. The precious lives that would one day leave the realm of the living and join his own realm.

God, he hoped that would take a long time. He couldn’t bear of thinking about any of them dying, not now, not ever.

“Boss, Mr. Guterres is calling. He apologizes for the impromptu video conference but they have reached a resolution,” Friday piped in, pulling Tony out of his reverie.

Tony’s eyes flew open, smiling softly at the collective groan that ran around the room.

“But the show was just starting,” Peter whined when he felt Tony remove his hand from Peter’s hair, readying himself to stand up.

“I can’t say no to the Secretary General, Peter, you know that,” Tony said with a wink. “Don’t worry, I’ll probably be back before this thing ends,” Tony called out as he walked towards the door.

“Do they even realize you’re still injured?” Bruce asked curiously. “Or do they just not care?”

Tony shrugged. “They’re not asking me to go to battle brucie bear. They just want to talk to me. They just love me so much they can’t get enough of me,” Tony snarked, smiling to himself before turning around  and closing the soundproof door behind him.

He walked swiftly to his desk, the holograms appearing as soon as he was comfortably seated. “Establish the call Friday, let’s get this done.”

“Of course, boss, should I enable recording?” FRIDAY asked.

“Hmmm, probably yes, I might need to watch this again later,” Tony said as he fixed his collar.

“Mr. Stark,” said the Secretary General after a few seconds, smiling widely at Tony. “I apologize for calling without notice,” the man said immediately, as polite as ever.

Tony wave a hand, dismissing the issue. “It’s alright, it’s not a problem. FRIDAY informed me you had reached a resolution?”

The man nodded, his face devoid of all emotions. “Yes, the panel has reached a decision. Since the Titan has been defeated, and you have emerged victorious, the panel wants to invite you for a condecoration of your heroic actions. The panel is also wanting to know whether you believe Rogers and his team will be needed again,” the man said, testing the waters. “We have not forgotten his crimes, Mr. Stark, though we do appreciate the effort put in by him and his teammates.”

Tony nodded, looking pensive. “You will have to let me know when exactly you want to schedule this ceremony, and what it will entail. As for Rogers… there’s more evil in this universe than meets the eye, and as earth enters more and more into the galactic stage… I am sure more threats will also appear.” Tony closed his eyes, visions of fire and death accosting him. “Rogers… needs to face the consequences for his actions, on that we both agree, but I have no doubt that Earth will need him, and every other superhero, again at some point.”

The man nodded, looking somber. “We figured you would say something like that. The panel is willing to allow them to remain in the compound. They will be under house arrest for the next few years at least. We are hoping to keep your teams separate, as we do not want to use them unless the situation is dire.”

Tony nodded in understanding. “Is the plan a subdivision then?”

“Of sorts, yes, he will lead his team and report directly to you and will also send a report to the panel after every battle he partakes in. Of course, we are hoping that we can avoid having to bring them into the fray.” The man pressed his lips in a tense line, clearly mulling over something before saying “I am not entirely content with just house arrest, but it feels like the most humane response considering we are asking for possible future help.”

Tony gave him a rueful smile, half in understanding,. “They… are not bad people, not really. They’re mostly misguided, but they don’t have an ill will against earth, and with some… diplomatic coercion, they can be somewhat reasonable,” Tony said, not sure whether he was entirely joking or not.

The man chuckled, shaking his head softly. “We trust that you can keep them in line, Mr. Stark.”

Tony sighed. “I shall certainly do my best,” he said, not willing to promise more. He understood that they were trying to pin this entire problem on him. He also knew he was the most capable one to handle it, but he wasn’t Rogers’ caretaker, and he wouldn’t assume full responsibility. That’s why there was a panel now. “Do you wish me to relay your message?”

“Yes, please, I’m not entirely fond of the man to be quite honest, so if you could speak to the Captain and his team,” the man said with an apologetic smile which widened when Tony nodded in acquiescence. “Thank you, Mr. Stark, now, I do apologize, but the general assembly will be resuming the meeting soon, so I must go get ready. As always, if you need anything, I remain available to talk.”

Tony nodded, knowing a dismissal when he heard one. “Of course, it was pleasure speaking to you again, Secretary General. I will keep you updated.”

With that, Tony got up, letting Friday end the call. It was incredibly draining to always have to deal with all the diplomatic bullshit, but Tony had to admit, he was glad the system he had worked so hard to amend was working so well.

“Fry, call Rogers and his team. Tell them to meet me in the common room asap,” Tony said as he walked out of his studio, leaving behind his jacket.

He walked slowly into the common room he had given to Steve’s team, a small part of him still feeling like he was walking into enemy territory. It was ridiculous that after all these years his knee jerk reaction was still to fear the man and his shield, especially considering the fact that Steve could literally no longer hurt him - physically at least.

“Tony, did something happen? I thought you all were busy tonight,” Steve said as soon as he walked out of his room, his team trickling in slowly.

“My team’s watching a movie,” Tony explained, a small smile on his lips. “I unfortunately had a quick meeting with the UN so I’ll have to join them later. There’s no problem, by the way, the UN just wanted me to relay a message to you and your team.”

Steve visibly tensed. “And what would that be?”

“Now that the titan is dead, they want you under house arrest. I don’t know for how long, but for the foreseeable future none of you can leave the compound. You will be heading your team in a subdivision of the Avengers. I am not exactly certain what types of missions you will be handling, but I’m sure they’ll tell us in a few days or a few weeks. You will be reporting orally to me, and by writing to the panel.”

Steve’s brows shot up. “Why are they dividing the team?”

“They’re not. Your team will remain together,” Tony said, sounding confused.

“No, I meant… well I guess my team and your team. Why are they separating them?” Steve asked, blushing slightly.

Tony shrugged. “They’ve worked with us longer and therefore trust us more. Also, I think it’ll just be easier for everyone involved if you and I lead our own teams.” Tony gave him a sad smile. “You and I made different choices Steve, and that’s alright, but every choice has a consequence, trust me I know.” Tony took a step back, not meeting Steve’s eyes. “We’ll fight together when we have to, and when we don’t, well, I’ll give you your space and you’ll give me mine, that way we all win.”

He looked towards Bucky, giving the man a tentative smile, which Bucky returned without reservations.

“I have nothing against you or your team, Rogers,” Tony said, before the man could say anything else. “But I think… space is something precious that we both need.” He gave the man a sharp nod and walked away. “I will see you in the morning. Not because we won’t be fighting together means we’re not training together.” Tony raised a hand and waved goodbye, not bothering to look back.

“Tony,” Steve called out, making the man stop in his tracks. “I… I’m glad you’re doing well after your fight. A lot of people would have suffered… I certainly would have suffered if you would have died,” Steve said quietly, his words ringing with honesty .  

Tony looked back, a hint of surprise in his eyes. He nodded in acknowledgment. “Thank you, Cap,” he muttered just as quietly, before turning back around and leaving the room.

For once he actually felt at peace with Steve and his team. He didn’t feel fond of them and he certainly didn’t feel like spending much time with them, but he didn’t feel anger or resentment anymore, and for that he was grateful. He knew the fear would fade away eventually and perhaps, one day, he’d even be able to look at Steve fondly again. He wasn’t holding out too much hope though.

He would just take it one day at a time - a new life motto for him it appeared.


Tony walked out of his room quietly, not wanting to disturb his sleeping wife. He closed the door behind him, wondering whether it was a good idea to tinker right now. He wasn’t sure if that was the distraction he needed. He also didn’t know if Natasha would wake up. It has been almost a month since their encounter with Thanos, but his wife - and his family really - were still more clingy than usual, afraid of losing him. But staying in the room was impossible. It had been too long since he had actually fallen asleep, and the nagging feeling of otherness he felt at not being able to sleep was unbearable.

He walked silently, the very air seeming to quiet down as he stepped through. He walked past the empty common room, walking up the stairs to the open courtyard he had made a few years ago. He breathed in the fresh air, smiling as a chilly night breeze caressed his face. The night was as attractive to him as before his death, but something inside him was still restless as if something was missing, as if there was something he needed to do, but he didn’t know what .

He walked up to the railing, resting both his hands on it as he looked at the floor, taking deep breaths. He looked to the side, surprise to find Wanda’s flowers up here. Friday had informed him that the girl had started gardening not too long ago. She must have used some of her magic to make the flowers grow, for the little potted plants were looking far too big for it to have been regular growth.

Tony picked one up delicately, bringing the white flower up to rest on the railway. He looked at the frail and delicate flower and sighed. He waved his hand in front of it slowly, the now familiar symbols appearing on his hands. The flowered withered immediately, it’s white petals falling off slowly. Tony took a deep breath, waving his hand again, concentrating on the dying life in his hands. The flower pulsed at his command, slowly but surely growing back to its prior glory.

“Enjoying yourself?” Death suddenly asked, appearing behind Tony out of thin air.

Tony jumped slightly, still not used to the skeletal figure suddenly appearing as if ready to take him away at any minute. “Not really, I’m just trying to…” Tony shrugged, leaving the potted flower on the floor. “Nevermind.”

“You’re trying to understand what you are,” Death said, sounding amused. “What you can do… What you can’t do.” Death stepped next to Tony. She touched his hand, the black symbols on his hands darkening even more as he felt them burn somewhere deep inside him. The symbols extended, going further down his arm, to the point where Tony couldn’t see them anymore as they were hiding under his pajama shirt.

“You are mine, Tony Stark. You are… an extension of me, if you will. A representative of mine, and so there is very little you cannot do. As an entity… reality itself can be changed at my whim. However, there’s a difference between having the ability to do something and having permission to do so.” Death turned to face Tony, leaving her hand atop Tony’s. “Your purpose isn’t to extend people’s lives, as you did with Gamora,” she said, her tone severe. “You are here to help maintain a balance only when the balance is breached and you’re here to help the dead move on to our realm.”

Tony clenched his jaw looking away. “You can’t expect me to sit back and do nothing when someone attacks earth again.” Tony shook his head, looking haunted. “There’s thousands… millions of people dying right now. I can feel …. I can see them die and I know…” Tony paused, his voice cracking. “I know there’s nothing I can do about that, but I will not hang back when earth needs my help.”

Death hummed. “You can take the hero out of the world but you can’t take the world out of the hero, huh?” She sighed. “Like I said before, you are free to roam this realm so long as I don’t need you. However, your abilities come from me and therefore you shall not misuse them, Stark. Play the hero like the rest of the mortals if you wish, but do not tamper with the balance.”

Tony breathed out, a flutter of hope in his eyes. “So as long as I don’t use-”

“There will be times you will remain a neutral party,” Death warned, her voice leaving no room for argument. “And if death must come to many, and I permit it, then you will not intervene. Is that understood?”

Tony swallowed hard but nodded, knowing there was no use arguing. Death had already been flexible enough to allow him to remain at least somewhat true to who he was. There was only so much he could ask of this creature.

“Why are you here?” Tony asked, trying to sound as polite as possible.

“To prepare you,” she said enigmatically. “Your time will come soon, Anthony.” Death moved her hand away, taking a step away from Tony.

Tony felt a strange sense of loss when Death’s ice cold touch disappeared. “What do you mean?”

“You are here as a guide for the dead,” Death said, sounding unimpressed. “Soon, you will have to step up to perform your role.”

Tony felt his mouth dry up. “I don’t… how am I supposed to-”

Death chuckled again. She waved her hand and a myriad of lights appeared, illuminating the dark night sky. All of them flew to the same point high in the sky, seemingly dissolving once they reached it. “Have you not felt that restlessness inside of you? They’re calling for a guide.”

Tony gaped, feeling tears beginning to roll down his face when he looked closer at the lights. He didn’t know what to say.

“You will know what to do… when the time comes. For now… enjoy your family, Anthony. You are one of the few whom I have granted the gift of returning to their home world. Cherish it, for you might not always be here,” Death warned, not unkindly. With that death disappeared, leaving Tony more confused and apprehensive than before.   

“Tony?” Bucky said, his voice wavering with a hint of fear.

Tony jumped, whipping his head around, eyes wide. “Barnes?! What are you… why are you awake?”

The man swallowed hard. “I… nightmares,” he said quietly with a shrug. “It’s hard to… sleep, for long periods of time.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to disturb you, I… I just heard your voice and-”

Tony waved his hand, with a rueful smile. He couldn’t see the lights anymore, but the restlessness was even more acutely present in his heart. “It’s fine, no need to apologize. I just wasn’t expecting company this late at night.”

The man nodded, slowly approaching Tony. “Um, I realize it’s not my place but… ah, well… “

Tony rolled his eyes. “Spit it out Barnes, I’m not gonna bite.”

“You were talking to yourself,” he said quietly, sounding worried. “And your arms… there were marks on your arms.” The man bit his lip, side eyeing Tony. “I… are you alright?”

“No,” Tony sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” the man said, looking worn out. “It’s… a long story.”

Bucky nodded in understanding. “Well, I have all night,” the man offered, not looking at Tony in the eye.

Tony chuckled at the irony of it all. “The stone I used when I tried to kill Thanos… let’s just say it took me to neverland and I didn’t really come back.”

“I don’t…” Bucky shook his head, looking at Tony more closely.

“I died Barnes, Thor didn’t manage to save me,” Tony finally said, feeling a small amount of satisfaction at finally telling someone that might somewhat understand his plight.

Bucky frowned, looking utterly confused. “But then how-”

“Mistress Death offered me a deal, and I took it,” Tony said still not looking at the man. It felt weird to address Death that way, but at this point it was a knee jerk reaction to be at least somewhat respectful to the woman. It was probably something she had done.

Tony raised his hand, the symbols appearing for Bucky to peruse.

“What do they say?” Bucky asked quietly, afraid to make Tony uncomfortable by touching him.

“They’re the marks of a servant of Death,” Tony said, trying not to sound too morose. “These are her symbols.”

Bucky breathed out slowly, his eyes widening slightly. “Wait so you were… you weren’t speaking to yourself were you?” He asked, not really needing the answer.

Tony shook his head, waving his hand as the marks dissipated. “How do you accept the fact that you no longer are the master of your own life? How do you tell others that you’re… that you’ve changed?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky admitted, giving Tony a pitying look. “I… I guess I just had to accept that the things that happened to me… that most of the things I did… were beyond my control. Sometimes… sometimes it doesn’t matter what you wish for, or what you believe in. Reality is what it is, and you just… have to accept it, or go crazy.” Bucky shrugged.

Tony nodded, thankful for the honesty. “How are you adjusting?” He asked, wanting nothing more than to deflect attention away from himself.

Bucky shrugged, but smile. “I’m hanging in there. Somedays it gets easier, and somedays… somedays I can’t remember how to forgive myself.”

Tony nodded, hesitantly extending his hand. He hovered over Bucky’s hand for a few seconds, before finally letting his hand fall gently atop the other man’s, squeezing his hand as a show of comfort. “I know this won’t really make sense to you but… she truly doesn’t mind anymore. My mother, I mean. She’s… at peace with your involvement in our lives.”

Bucky’s face shot up at Tony’s words, stuttering out a breath when he saw how the man seemed to be looking at everything and yet at nothing at all. “How do you-”

“I haven’t spoken to her… I’m not even sure I can, but… I can feel it.” Tony shook his head, patting Bucky’s hand as he got out of his trance. “I don’t get it either, but trust me on this, you don’t have to blame yourself, at least not because of my parents.” He looked back out, at the open forest. “You should go rest, Bucky.”

Bucky nodded, knowing a dismissal when he heard one. “Will I see you in the morning?”

Tony raised a brow. “Afraid I’ll be gone by then?” Tony teased goodnaturedly.

“Honestly? Yes,” Bucky said, not willing to let Tony off the hook.

The man sobered up then, sighing. “I will be here, Bucky. Don’t worry. She doesn’t need me… not yet anyway.”


“Friday, jot down the dates for the week long conference, will you?” Tony asked, sounding tired. He looked at his watch, sighing when he saw the time. He had been gone for almost four days to deal with the various political aspects which came with the accords - something he had never liked but had always been good at.

It had been almost a year now since he had killed Thanos, and things at the UN were pretty much back to normal. They were still unwilling to use Rogers and his team - which Tony wholeheartedly supported. Still, he felt bad for them, considering how restless they were becoming, faced with the prospect of being unable to do anything to help people.

Tony now understood that feeling keenly. He had begun guiding people at Death’s request not too long ago, but that feeling of powerlessness every time he felt, or saw, someone die, was excruciating. He was forced to watch day in and day out how the world continued spinning despite the fact that thousands of lives were lost everyday.

Some days, it was harder than others.

He mostly performed his duties at night, taking advantage of the fact that his family was asleep and he could disappear without anyone noticing his absence. Natasha noticed sometimes, but he always said he was back in his workshop - tinkering. He was pretty sure she knew he was lying, but so far he hadn’t called him out on it, and he wasn’t about to help her prod. Still, the lying was also eating away at him. He hated keeping things from his family.

Tony quietly slid into his room, freezing when he realized there were three people in his bed. There in the middle of his bed was Peter, a deep frown disrupting his features. Natasha was holding him tightly, despite the fact that she was asleep. Kam was holding Peter’s hand like a lifeline, as if he would disappear if she let go.

Nightmares

Tony sighed, looking sadly at his family. Peter and Kamala had started having nightmares again after Thanos. Seeing Tony’s broken body had been enough to reignite the night terrors they had first suffered when their families had died. Tony was usually there to calm them down, to hold them as they fell back asleep, but when he wasn’t they always went to Natasha, hoping that somehow her words of reassurance would be enough.

The nightmares always got worse when Tony left the tower for meetings abroad, which was why he avoided said meetings.

He approached the bed slowly, caressing Peter’s face and kissing kam’s forehead softly, trying not to disturb them. He looked at his wife and smiled softly, wishing he could make all the bad dreams vanish.

Tony straightened then, taking off his tie and his jacket. A part of him longed for nothing more than to lay down with his family and rest, but another part of him, a bigger part of him, didn’t know if he had the right, not when he was keeping secrets, not when he was not the same person they knew and loved.

He walked out of the room quietly, heading back to the by now familiar courtyard where Death occasionally came to chat with him. He had actually grown used to the woman now, rather enjoying her company on occasion. She was dry but witty, and could keep up with Tony on every subject he could think of.

Still, she wasn’t the best to talk to about the conundrum that was his life. He groaned as he leaned against the rail, feeling so tired. He needed…. He needed someone to talk to that was not Death.

He remembered going back to Jarvis’ grave and smiled to himself. Natasha would probably blow a fuse if he dared go back there without leaving with some warning. Perhaps if he left a note… he just needed a few minutes of comfort, but there was nowhere he could find it.

“Perhaps some tea will help quiet down your mind, sir,” a voice suddenly said from behind him, leaving Tony struck to his spot.

Tony turned around slowly, his eyes as wide as saucers. “Jarvis…” He whispered, tripping over himself as he made his way towards the older man. “Impossible…”

The man smiled kindly, catching Tony before he could fall, just like he had done countless times when the boy was growing up. “Oh my, you look old now,” the man teased, “but your eyes have not changed,” the man said, as if confessing a secret. “They're still as expressive as I remember.”

Tony gaped at Jarvis’s nonchalance, raising a trembling hand slowly to touch the man’s face. He gasped when he felt flesh and bone beneath his hand. His eyes filled with tears that he had refused to shed years ago when he had first been told that his sole loving protector was dead. He felt Jarvis tighten his arms around him as he eased them both to their knees, given that Tony’s knees had decided to completely give out.

He hugged Jarvis close to him and let out a choked sob, not caring, for a brief second, whether this was real or not. The man rubbed Tony’s back comfortingly just like he used to do when the man was a young boy, hiding from his father who detested to see his son showing “weakness” by crying.

“It’s alright, my boy, it’s alright,” the man said comfortingly.

“Am I going insane?” He asked, mostly directing the question at himself, tears still streaming down his face.

The man chuckled. “We’re both dead, Tony. It’s only natural that we’re allowed to speak now… when Death allows it,” he reasoned, a small smile on his lips.

Tony hummed, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Why are you here? Not that I don’t want you here but-”

“Because you needed me,” the man replied simply, his voice as quiet as the gentle breeze playing with Tony’s hair.

Tony shook his head, more tears falling down. “Oh god, I… I’m sorry.” Tony covered his eyes with his hand. “I’m supposed to be the dependable one in this family, and look at me now,” Tony snorted, wiping his face clean, his eyes hardening.

“Don’t do that,” Jarvis chastised, his eyes serious. “It’s okay to need help. I know there haven’t really been very many people willing to offer you help, and I know you have had to endure most hardships in your life alone, but that doesn’t mean you always have to hide them.”

Tony did not respond, instead choosing to rest his head against Jarvis’s shoulder, feeling incredibly tired. “I’m so sorry I was an asshole to you. You deserved so much better. I never… I should have gone to see you. I should have-”

Jarvis patted his hand, dismissing the issue. “My dear boy, I’m not mad at you. We all get lost at some point. What’s important is whether or not we find our way back. Admittedly it took you longer than most people,” he said honestly, but without judgment. “But your turnabout… truly a thing to behold, sir.”

Tony shook his head. “What are you talking about? When you died… I was probably drunk somewhere sleeping with-”

“I might not have been alive to see you become a hero,” the man admitted, “ but I certainly have been watching. Death has been interested in you for years, dear boy, which was rather helpful for me since it meant I could get glimpses of your life from time to time.” Jarvis grabbed Tony by the face, looking into his eyes. “I am very proud of the man you have become, and I am particularly proud of how loving you are to your children.”

Tony felt everything slow down to a screeching halt and he felt like he was five years old again, looking for Jarvis’s approval given that he knew he would never have Howard’s.

Tony shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He gave Jarvis an inquisitive look. “You know her? You know Death?”

“Everyone that enters her realm knows her in some capacity,” Jarvis said with a shrug. “I happened to talk more often to her than most since I knew you.”

“What a stalker,” Tony snorted, finally disengaging Jarvis, feeling shook to his core. “Well she got what she wanted,” he mused, finally standing back up.

Jarvis hummed, looking somewhat somber. “You know, it always hurt my heart to see you this sad.” The man stood up with Tony, gently placing his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Let me help you.”

Tony shook his head. “You can’t help me.” Tony sighed, looking up at the sky. “I just feel… helpless. I carry their souls over and I just… I can’t save them. I can’t save any of them. There’s children, Jarvis… children, and families… They all die, and I have to see it, let it happen. There’s so much sickness, and hunger and-”

“Dear boy, everyone dies,” Jarvis said firmly. “You couldn’t stop them from dying before, and you can’t stop it now. You didn’t even know about them before. There’s some you can help - which you already do. I’ve seen the foundations and hospitals and centers you’ve built,” Jarvis reminded him warmly. “You help people everyday, Tony. Your job is to guide them to her.” Jarvis sighed. “I know this might be hard to hear, but this world is not your sole responsibility. There’s billions of people in this planet, and they all are accountable. You cannot bear the weight of the world alone. It will crush you.”

Tony sighed but distantly nodded, he looked up at the sky and waved his hand, thousands of lights appearing all at once. He walked towards the rail, resting his hands there. Jarvis followed, looking up at the sky.

“There’s something else weighing you down,” the man said, unwilling to back down. “It is the fact you haven’t told them yet?”

Tony huffed out a humorless laugh. “How exactly do you tell someone something like this? Hey honey by the way I’m dead and work for Death now. Don’t mind me, I’m just gonna get a boat and become Charon for the rest of my existence.”

Jarvis rolled his eyes but smiled fondly at the man. “There’s nothing shameful about what happened to you, and there’s nothing shameful about serving Death, Tony. She might not be good, but she’s not bad either. They are your family and they deserve the truth. You yourself have been lied to before about matters close to your heart,” Jarvis reminded him sharply. “Don’t repeat others’ mistakes. Talk to them. They’re not children. They can handle themselves.”

Tony looked back at Jarvis, raising a brow. “You know I don’t remember you being this bossy,” he noted with a smile.

“Do not change the subject young man,” Jarvis warned.

Tony laughed. “I’m not young anymore, not by any stretch of the imagination.”

“You are still far younger than me,” The man said with an elegant shrug. “Now, back to the topic.”

“I… will talk to them soon,” Tony promised, looking down at the deep dark marks on his skin.

Jarvis nodded, patting Tony’s back. “Don’t worry so much. They love you. You will all get through it just fine. You’ll see,” the man said, taking a step back.

Tony hummed again, looking back to reply. He closed his mouth when he saw that Jarvis was gone, leaving behind nothing but the cold night air. “Thank you, Jarvis,” Tony whispered, a few more tears rolling down his face.

He hated saying goodbye.


Tony sat tapping his hand against the table, looking visibly nervous. He watched as the team made their way into the room one by one, giving Tony varying looks of curiosity and wariness. Thor gave him a knowing, and surprisingly approving, look, while Fury just looked done.

“So, what’s up sweet cheeks?” Fury said calmly, standing at the other edge of the table. “You don’t generally call big ass meetings without at least giving us all some packet to read, and you sure as shit don’t warn me an hour before a meeting.”

Tony smiled slightly.  “Yeah, about that, I actually did send you the invite two days ago, but apparently your new secretary sucks at her job.”

Fury grunted, neither admitting nor denying. He sat down with a flourish, signaling that Tony was free to speak.

He stood up and looked over at where Natasha was sitting next to Kam and Peter. The sitting arrangement had been slightly modified, mostly because Tony still felt a little calmer if his kids were not sitting directly next to Steve.

“Right, so I called this meeting because I have some news for all of you. News I should have told you quite some time ago, but… I wasn’t sure how to do it.”

That got everyone’s attention rather quickly.

“Are you finally going to tell us where you sneak off to at night?” Natasha asked, sounding angry.

Oh, fuck. Here it was.

Tony opened and closed his mouth a few times, before sighing. “Yes, I guess you could say that I am.”

Clint raised his brows, clearly prepping for the worse. In all the years he had known Tony, he had never seen the man sneak around, particularly not around his wife, which made this a huge red flag.

“A year ago, I held an infinity stone,” Tony started, standing up. “I knew it would kill me,” he admitted, locking eyes with his wife for a second before looking away. “The stone isn’t meant to be held by humans. We’re not designed to hold that much power. However, I was desperate, and in the end, the stone did at least hurt him pretty bad.”

“Why are you telling us all this?” Bruce asked, sounding wary.

“Because the night that Thor took the stone out of my body… I…” Tony looked at Thor, as if asking for help.

“I didn’t save him,” Thor said finally, resting his half tormented eyes on Tony. “Nebula and I took him to the temple of the elves to remove the stone, which we did, but he had used too much power. His body could not sustain life anymore,” Thor’s hands shook as he remembered that day. “He died that day, and no matter what I tried, his heart would not restart.”

The room went unnaturally quiet. Everyone was looking between the two men with varying degrees of shock, anger, and fear.

“But… you’re here,” Kate said, sitting up straight. “I don’t get it. If you’re saying Thor couldn’t save you then-”

“I died, but I made a deal, Kate,” Tony said, looking at the table as he took a deep breath. “I made a deal with Mistress Death.”

“Wait, what?” Rhodey said, looking confused. “Who-”

Tony sighed, giving his best friend an apologetic smile. “I know it’s a little hard to believe but-”

‘Mistress Death is one of the entities in the Universe,” Thor said seriously, his eyes not leaving Tony. “She is very much real, I assure you.”

“So… what this woman controls death and let you come back?” Kam asked, still looking confused, though there was a hint of fear in her eyes. “I don’t understand what do you mean with a deal? Like a trade? What did you trade with her?”

Tony looked out the window, unable to keep staring at his family. “You can’t come back from her realm, not once you’re dead. The only way back is… through her or for her.” Tony smiled at himself, remembering how confused he had been the first time she had said that to him.

“For her?” Peter asked meekly, leaning over, as if wanting to get closer to Tony. “Tony are you alright?”

Tony took off his suit jacket and folded up his sleeves all the way to his elbows. The symbols that had begun on his hands had grown over the past year. They had started growing when Death had first held his hand all those months ago in his balcony. She hadn’t really told him why they were growing, except that it was a natural progression - whatever the hell that meant.

“What are you doing?” Bruce asked, startled by Tony’s frankly strange behavior.

Tony extended his palms, allowing the black symbols to appear. They etched themselves wide across his exposed skin, the symbols making his bones look more prominent and his skin more ethereal. A collective gasp ran around the room as they looked at Tony, noticing his changed appearance and his eyes.

“Death has many servants… the deal was I would be allowed to return, as one of them.” Tony brought his hand up, still feeling the faint burn that came every time the symbols appeared. “It didn’t seem like too big a price since it meant keeping you all safe.”

“Dad,” Peter said, feeling confused and angry and just unwilling to let go. “Dad, you’re scaring me.”

Tony’s eyes went wide at that and he immediately brought his hands down, the marks disappearing in an instant. “I’m sorry,” he breathed out, his hands trembling.

“What does this mean… for our family,” Natasha said after a few tense seconds. “Are you… still human? I mean do you… are you gonna stay? How does this work?”

Tony bit the inside of his cheek, feeling the sting of her words. Based on Peter’s reaction, he thought it safe to assume that his continued presence in their life was probably no longer wanted. “I… I can leave, you don’t have to… I will leave after this meeting if you wish. I’d rather have a few days to settle things at the UN since leadership would have to be passed unto another person but-”

“If you’re leaving who will we be reporting to?” Sam asked, looking between Natasha and Tony.

Tony swallowed hard. “Uh, I imagine Natasha will be taking over my position, as…” As Peter is too young to do so.

“Wait, hold up, no one said you had to leave,” Rhodey said, standing up to lean over the table, resting his weight on his hands.

Tony smiled sadly at his friend. “It’s alright honey bunch, I… I understand that this isn’t… I’m not the same, and I know you all probably don’t like this or want this, and... “ he sighed, not daring to look over at his family. “Like I said, I can leave as soon as the meeting is over.”

“You haven’t changed,” Bucky piped in, looking calmly at Tony. He remained calm as he felt everyone’s attention switch to him. “You’ve been… back from the dead for a year now, and you have not changed, stud. I still see you sitting down in the evenings to help Peter or kam or kate or that other kid, Harley, when they need you. You still tinker for unhealthy amounts of time in order to improve everyone’s gadgets. You still pay for shit, and deal with the UN, and help run a company, and are a good leader for your team.” Bucky stood up and approached Tony slowly. “The only difference I have noticed in the year I’ve known you as the new Peter Pan is that you now have added even more to your plate as you guide souls every night to get to neverland,” Bucky said, using the same analogy Tony had used a year ago.

He had seen the man guide souls a few times now. Since Bucky was the only one that knew, and could rarely sleep, he had begun spending quite a lot of time with the man in the courtyard as he set about his task. He couldn’t see all of it of course,a s half the time Tony would literally disappear, but he had seen enough to be both scared and awed.

“I knew the truth,” he admitted, looking back at the table. “And I can assure you that not for even a second have I doubted this man’s intentions.” Bucky pulled out the BARF glasses out of his pocket and placed him in Tony’s hand. “You’re a good man, Tony Stark, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re alive or dead, if you’re human or not. I trust you.”

“I noticed your energy change a year ago when you came back,” Vision piped in immediately, his intelligent eyes landing calmly on Tony. “It certainly feels…. destructive, but it is not evil. It is a surprisingly balanced energy. It’s far stronger than anything I’ve felt, and I have an infinity stone on my head,” he teased, giving Tony a warm smile.

“Why did you never ask?” Tony asked with curiosity

“You have never given me any reason to distrust you,” Vision said simply. “I knew that whatever it was, you would handle it, or you would involve us if you needed help.”

Tony nodded, giving him a grateful nod for the vote of confidence. “Right, well… thank you, both of you. Still, like I said, it’s not a problem for me to leave. I just need a few days to talk  to the UN council.”

“Rhodey’s right,” Natasha finally said, her eyes still not quite meeting her husband. “No one said you had to leave,” she whispered, taking a deep breath after. “You can’t expect us to just… say ok and move on when you drop news like that out of nowhere,” she half snapped, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “But that doesn’t mean we want you gone.”

Tony hummed noncommittally, looking at Natasha with pained eyes.

“This team is a family,” Fury said as he stood up, his words holding an air of finality. He looked around the table with sharp eyes. “Whatever this new development means we will get through it as a family, and that is that. Now wipe the frowns off your fucking faces. Nothing is different from what it was ten minutes ago. He’s… had this condition for a year. None of us noticed.” Fury shrugged. “So, we’ll deal with it one day at a time. Period. The end. Time to move on. We all have better things to do than to mope. If you have questions for this motherfucker ask them now, if not, then we can call it a day.”

Fury nodded at the silence that followed. He knew they all had many questions, but none of them dared ask, not yet at least. He also knew, however, that they would each come to Tony on their own time, when they were ready to understand their new reality.  “Ok, good. Then I’m ending this clustefuck of a meeting.” He walked towards the door, pausing for a moment to say “Oh, and Tony? Next time don’t be an asshole and wait a year to tell everyone. I get why you did it, but we could have helped. You didn’t have to get used to the changes alone, you idiot.”

Tony gave the man a sad smile. “I’ll see you later, Nick.”

The man nodded and with one final grunt he left.

Kamala stood then, biting her lip softly. She looked at the man standing at the head of the table. The man that had raised her and loved her for over five years now. The man who now couldn’t look at them, for fear of what he would find in their eyes.

She walked towards him, feeling a pang of pity when she noticed him tensing, as if ready to be yelled at. She threw her arms around him, squeezing him close to her. “I love you, baba.”

Tony froze for a second before hugging her tight, releasing a choked breath as he said “I love you too, baby girl.” He closed his eyes, cherishing every second.

It was strange to not know whether his family still accepted him as one of their own. He had been the head of his household for so many years now he wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself when the thought of that no longer being true assaulted him. This is exactly why he hadn’t wanted to talk about this.

Peter stood up quietly, looking at kam and Tony with both confusion and longing. He approached them hesitantly, reaching out his hand to grab then hand Tony wasn’t using to hug Kam. Tony’s eyes snapped open, looking surprised.

Peter held onto his father’s hand awkwardly for a few seconds, as if testing his own courage, before finally closing the rest of the distance, hugging both kam and Tony. “Please… just don’t leave. I can’t… I can’t lose you too,” he confessed as he buried his head in the nook of Tony’s neck. “Please, not you too.”

Tony’s heart skipped a beat. “You will never lose me, Peter. Never.” Tony pressed him closed and kissed his forehead. “I might be dead, but I will never be gone.”

He didn’t mention the fact that they would all die long before he left earth. He didn’t mention that his existence was now tied to Death itself. He didn’t tell them that he would probably be the one to carry their souls.

He didn’t need them to dwell on such morbid and sad thoughts.

“Come on,” Natasha said to no one in particular. “I’m gonna order food, and I expect everyone to be in the common room in the next twenty minutes.” Finally she turned to look at Tony, giving him a small smile. “We’re gonna watch a movie and just… deal with it later.”

Tony nodded, dragging his kids with him as the team began filing out, chatting once again like their world hadn’t just been turned upside down. Tony smiled, finally feeling at peace with his past, his present, and even with his future.

The past was done, and he would deal with the future one day at a time. And the present… the present was his for the taking. 

Chapter Text

Tony stood behind Peter, watching him as he ran a hand through his hair, yet again, clearly nervous. “You know, it’s going to start looking greasy if you don’t stop doing that,” Tony reminded him gently, a hint of humour in his voice.

Peter looked back at the man, blushing softly. “Sorry, I’m just nervous is all.”

“I know,” Tony said calmly taking a step closer. “But there’s no need for you to be nervous. You’ve been waiting for this for over a year.”

Peter bit his lip. “I know but what if something bad happens today? Today has to be perfect or Mary Jane will be so unhappy. We already had to postpone once and-”

Tony put his hand on Peter’s shoulder. “If some asshole decides to play villain of the week today, we - meaning the rest of the Avengers and myself - will handle it, Peter. You won’t even notice there’s a problem.”

Peter shook his head. “If trouble breaks out I can’t just let you guys-”

“Peter, for once the entire team is gonna be there. Steve’s team is going to be there. The guardians are going to be there. Even Strange has decided to grace us with his presence. Do you seriously think we wouldn’t be able to handle a threat without you?” Tony scoffed goodnaturedly. “You should have more faith in us kid, besides, if worse comes to worse,” he said as he looked deep into Peter’s eyes, his eyes changing color. “I will personally handle it.”

Peter gaped at Tony for a second, before finally smiling. “Thanks, dad,” he whispered, leaning in to rest his head against Tony’s shoulder.

The man smiled. “Well it is your wedding day. You’re not the only one that wants it to be perfect.”

“Tony!” Kamala yelled as she burst into the room, her long blue dress making a small wave behind her. “The guardians are here, baba. They’re waiting for you in the hangar.”

Tony nodded, clapping his son in the back once, giving him a wink. “I’m going to deal with our guests. Kam, you’re on babysitting duty. Don’t let Peter hyperventilate himself to death.”

“I’m not hyperventilating,” he whines, sounding just like when he had been sixteen.

God, how the time flied.

He had known Peter for over ten years - nine of which he had been in his custody. Of course, now at twenty six, he was a man in his own right. Had been for a few years in fact. Both him and Kamala had finally assumed full positions as Avengers after graduating college, and, much to Tony’s dismay, they had moved out of the compound.

Peter was working at a newspaper, the same one Mary Jane was at in fact, and Kam had started her own NGO, liking the hands on work that provided when it came to helping those most in need. Of course, they were generally a call away if something truly dire happened - all the avengers were, but, for better or worse, they had all taken on different projects that often took them away for undetermined periods of time.

All of them were just as close as they had been five years ago, but there wasn’t a need to be in the same space every minute of every day anymore. Perhaps it was because they had all finally healed from what had happened ten years ago, or perhaps it was because all the kids were growing and thus there wasn’t a palpable need for every adult to be on deck 24/7, but it felt like finally their familial bonds could survive time and space without them having to worry as much as they had once.

Hope was still busy running her company, and T’Challa had a lot on his plate as king. Bruce had way too many experiments going on for Tony to even attempt to keep track of, and Clint spent more and more time away either with his family or training people for the pseudo SHIELD that had been created a few years back under Steve’s leadership. Kate was always busy - with what, Tony could never quite tell as her work was often classified - and Rhodey had gotten married so he was MIA half the time as well. Thor was king now and thus had to be out of the fucking planet more often than not and Vision… well Vision and Wanda had finally settled their differences once Wanda had seen the error in her ways - so he, much like Rhodey, was off in wedded bliss. His once little Harley was almost done with college, and Bucky - whom he had formed a rather strange but strong friendship with - was travelling around every single city in the goddamn country.

So, yeah, all in all the weekly team movie nights were more of a maybe-we’ll-meet-up-in-a-few-months type of deal now. The only one that remained a fully constant presence in his life was his own wife, whom hadn’t wavered - not even after everything that had changed in his life.

Of course, he missed seeing them all dearly, but they all still talked every day by phone, in a stupid chat Peter had made years ago. It was kind of nice, Tony had to admit, to wake up to 500+ texts every morning as all of them were on different schedules.

But, they hadn’t all been present in the same room at the same time since the last Christmas, and they hadn’t been all together - meaning his team, steve’s team, and the guardians - in about three years now, so it was quite an exhilarating day for all.

Granted, it was never particularly fun to be in the same room as Steve for extended periods of time, but, after so many years, they had finally found the right friendship for them. They were not close, not by any stretch of the imagination, but finally each could respect the other without fear of being stabbed in the back.

But he got to spend an evening with the guardians and now that did sound like a fun evening for all. He saw the guardians more often that the rest of his team did, given that his position as servant of death often took him out of the planet, which enabled him to establish a constant friendship with everyone in their group. They had taken to Tony as a fish does to water, all sharing different quirks Tony himself possessed. Rocket shared his love for technology. Peter shared his love for sarcasm. Drax shared his love for family.  Groot shared his enthusiasm for the vastness and the beauty found all across the universe, and gamora and Nebula shared a strange bond with him formed shortly after his return from the dead. Thus, his time in space with them was always more than enjoyable.

“Tony!” Peter called out, a goofy grin on his face. He ran towards the man, throwing both arms around Tony to squeeze him into a breathless hug.

“Hey Quill,” Tony said once the man finally released him. “Long time no see.”

“And who’s fault is that?” Rocket quipped as he finally reached the two men, a small smile playing on his face.

“Pretty sure it’s yours. I invited you to come this past Christmas and you assholes decided to ignore me,” Tony said sweetly as the greeted the rest of the group.

“I am Groot,” Groot said solemnly.

“I know you would have come, big guy. Don’t worry, I blame it all on Peter.”

“Fuck you, Stark!” Quill quipped as he chuckled, making his way inside as if he owned the place.

“Is the magic asshole coming?” Rocket asked Tony as they walked together back into the compound, letting the other guardians roam around by themselves.

“Yes,” Tony said with an apologetic smile. Rocket hated magic even more than himself - and that was saying something. “However, your seat is going to be on the other side of the room, and there’s like a hundred people coming so you don’t have to worry about talking to him.”

Rocket nodded, seemingly appeased by Tony’s words. “Alright, now where’s the fricking groom? I have something for him.”

“It better not contain explosives,” Tony warned seriously, a glint of fire in his eyes.

“You take the fun out of everything,” Rocket sighed.

“It’s his wedding day Rocket. I will break your ship if you so much as think of a prank,” Tony warned. "Or I will send Rhodey to break your toys." 

“Jeez, have they told you you are a little overprotective of your kid?” Roket asked as they finally reached the common room.

“Every day since he adopted him,” Clint called out as he himself came into the room, fixing the lapels of his tux. Tony grinned at his friend, not even a little bit embarrassed.

“Tony have you seen my knives? I am sure I left them here when I came by last week,” Kate called out as she ran into the room, wearing a tight purple dress that accentuated her figure beautifully.

“I don’t think you’ll be needing them,” Tony said weakly, before giving in to her glare. “They’re in the training room. Harley was practicing with them last week since Nat is training him on their spare time.”

“Honey, you need to go give this to Mary Jane,” Natasha called from behind him, handing him a black box.

“Oh thank god, you found it. I was looking for it yesterday and couldn’t find it, but then I forgot to ask you for it,” Tony said as he took it from his wife’s hands, planting a quick kiss on her lips.

“You never asked me for it. I’ve had it since you gave it to me weeks ago,” she huffed out with a laugh.

“Well excuse me , I have been a little busy. It’s not easy to get everybody in one room, particularly with all the safety issues. Alright I’ll be back later. Rocket, Bruce wanted to show you a new project before the ceremony, he’s in his lab. Do not blow anything up ,” Tony called before leaving the room, not bothering to wait for the Raccoon to finish complaining.

He ran into the elevator, closing his eyes for a second as Friday took him three levels up. It was days like today where he loved the fact that he didn’t need sleep anymore. He would have dropped from exhaustion weeks ago otherwise. He opened his eyes and looked at his reflection on the elevator door, for a second letting the mirage drop.

His body was immediately covered by the dark marks of death as his skin paled, making his bones look ethereal. His eyes swirled with death’s fire in them, making look Tony anything but human. It was strange, at first he had been terrified of his own reflection, particularly when the changes had begun turning more and more pronounced. It had taken him over a year to discover that the reason why the changes to his appearance kept becoming more and more pronounced was because he wasn’t just Death’s servant. He was her fucking right hand - something she had conveniently forgotten to mention for over a fucking year.

He smiled again, raising up the mirage once again once he reached the room where Mary Jane was getting ready. He had finally come to terms with both his appearance and his role. It had taken a little while, but there was nothing he could change, and so he had accepted it and moved on. It wasn’t all that bad most of the time. Death wasn’t the worst eternal companion to have - and wasn’t that fucking morbid.

Still, while he himself had accepted his reality, he knew his friends and family sometimes still struggled with his new condition. Sometimes it was easy for them to forget Tony wasn’t actually alive anymore, wasn’t even human really. It was easy to forget how terrifyingly powerful he was and how devastatingly neutral he could be when he had to. It wasn’t always pleasant to love Tony - but it never had been, so they all coped the best way they could, and he in turn made sure to support them by protecting their hearts from the worst of it.

He knocked softly on the door, smiling when a wild looking Mary Jane opened the door. The poor girl clearly had not slept at all the night prior.

“Tony! Oh my god, sorry everything is a mess. Please come in,” She squeaked, her usually calm demeanor all but gone today.

“It’s quite alright my dear, that’s why I hire maids,” He said with a wink. “Now, I am actually here to give you a little present, and then you can go back to freaking out with Pepper,” Tony chuckled as his friend came out of the closet, carrying a veil.

She rolled her eyes at him. “She’s not freaking out, thank you very much. She’ll be just fine in a few hours,” Pepper said assertively, her voice a calm in the storm that was Mary Jane right now. “So, go on give her your present and then shoo, we have things to do.”

Tony smiled fondly at both women, still not quite sure how it was that they had come to be so close. Not that he minded, Pepper was a brilliant woman, and he was glad his son’s soon to be wife had her to rely on, especially since Pepper understood what it was like to be with an Avenger.

Tony opened the box as he approached Mary Jane, smiling when he heard her soft gasp. “I hear it is traditional to get something old, and something blue. This right here is both old and blue,” Tony said as he picked up the bright necklace.

“What… is this part of your arc reactor?” She asked with wide eyes, not daring to touch the beautiful jewel. It shone as bright as the reactor in Tony’s chestplate usually did.

Tony nodded. “This is a piece of the energy ring I used on the second model I built,” he explained as he helped her put it on. “It powers itself with sunlight, and can hold enough energy to light up a few houses if you ever need it. It also has a built in distress signal, if you ever need me.”

Mary Jane smiled at the man, her eyes watery. “Thank you so much, Tony. This is… This is really kind of you.”

He kissed the top of her head, the same way he did with his own daughter. “Welcome to the family, MJ,” he said softly as he pulled away.

For a second, his gaze unfocused as Death’s presence flooded his system. He could feel her watching him. “Well, I should get back to Peter, he’s just as nervous as you are and someone has to calm that boy down.”

The young woman chuckled but nodded, clearing away her thankful tears. “Oh, Tony, I’ve been meaning to ask. Well… I mean as you know my dad is… well he passed away so I was wondering if you could… I mean if it’s not too much trouble-”

“It would be my honor, dear,” Tony said immediately, not needing her to finish the question. “I will send Peter ahead first, and I’ll take you to the chapel myself, that way we don’t have to wait for anyone.”

She nodded, looking ready to cry again. Tony gave her a wink and then left the room, knowing Death wasn’t the most patient woman out there.

“If you think I’m going to miss my son’s wedding-” Tony started, turning to glare at the skeletal form as soon as he was out of view.

She chuckled. “Don’t worry, Anthony, I’m not here to take you away to your next assignment just yet,” she said sw