The Stark helicopter must have just landed, its blades still blurring with movement and creating a gust of wind that swept up Pepper Potts' hair as she leaned over the gurney, one hand on the sidebar and the other on the Iron Man face plate. The seemingly invincible Iron Man, always in motion and soaring through the skies of New York, lied eerily still. The structure of the stretcher and the angle obscured the torso of the suit, though marks of damage were visible – particularly the harsh horizontal line across the chest. Vision floated above the frenzied swarm of medical personnel, amber eyes cast downward. Near the doors leading into Columbia Medical, James Rhodes sat in his wheelchair, fear and fury warring in his narrowed eyes, thinned lips, and tensed shoulders.
Tony returned from Siberia with three broken ribs, five bruised ones, and one shattered artificial sternum. He also had a severe concussion, bronchitis, and the beginnings of cardiac failure. The doctors said it was sheer luck, an absolute miracle, that Tony did not suffer any internal bleeding.
Pepper shook her head, ruefully noting that Tony's never really been lucky while Jim clasped his hand and said a prayer for his friend.
The surgeries took place over three days. FRIDAY had provided necessary documents and instructions for reconstructing the sternum, nothing more and nothing less. She would protect Boss in her own way. Vision stood guard outside Tony's private room and watched everything with cautious and regretful eyes.
Government officials, domestic and international, fought over who would be first in line to question Tony when he woke from the medically induced coma – Jim found comfort in their certainty that Tony would wake. General Ross, however, was not one of them; anonymous files containing his illegal and inhumane activities were delivered to the United Nations as well as each of the 117 countries that supported the Accords.
While he was not a showman, Jim had learned a thing or two from Tony over the years and managed to soothe most of the ruffled feathers by either calling in favors owed or appealing to egos. None of Ross' allies spoke up in his defense, resulting in the former General receiving the maximum sentence for his many crimes.
"Tony would have been proud." Jim thought as he exited the latest joint panel meeting.
"Colonel. A moment." General Summers said, posture unyielding as he joined Jim's wait for the elevator. It was clearly a command and not a question, given the fact that General Summers had a long and decorated military career and was used to giving orders. "The Army will be making a formal announcement to strip Mr. Rogers of his title in the next few days. I imagine the Air Force will do so similarly with Mr. Wilson's status."
"Yes." General Rosenberg joined them, back straight and shoulders stiff. "We don't take kindly to deserters."
"Nor those who would leave a fellow soldier behind." General Summers added sternly, then his tone shifted to something kinder. "How goes your recovery, Colonel?"
Jim looked up, he was always looking up these days. "As well as to be expected, sir."
The downward arrow lit up and the doors slid open. General Rosenberg walked in first, extending a hand to keep the doors open. "I've seen Mr. Stark accomplish some extraordinary things, I've no doubt he'll continue to do so. The Iron Patriot will fly again."
"Thank you, sir." With steady movements, Jim maneuvered the wheelchair into the elevator, pivoting to face away from two of the most powerful men in the United States armed forces. He couldn't care less about War Machine, he would be happy looking up at the sky for the rest of his life as long as it meant Iron Man would be soaring above.
Pepper held the Stark Industries board at bay, both with her particular brand of polite threats and new schematics FRIDAY provided for the next generation of Stark Phones. She hosted several press conferences, addressing inquiries about Tony Stark with her usual precision and professionalism. The quiver in her request for prayers for Tony, who remained in intensive care, garnered astonishing airtime.
The most popular clip, however, was the interview she granted Christine Everhart. It started out cordial enough, given the history they shared, but soon derailed into animosity as soon as the Avengers were brought up.
"Miss Potts, how do you respond to allegations that Mr. Stark drove the Avengers apart through his unwillingness to listen to other points of view?" Christine said, voice saccharine and eyes vicious.
"Is it unwillingness to listen if Mr. Rogers never said anything of substance?" Pepper parried. "My understanding is that Tony reached out multiple times to open a line of communication and Mr. Rogers shut down each attempt with increasing hostility. Tony has repeatedly pled their case and sought pardons and leniency for these fugitives–"
"Fugitives? That's rather harsh, don't you think?" Christine interrupted. "It makes me question your objectivity."
"I never claimed to be objective. I can proudly say I'm entirely subjective on this matter, because I'm Tony's friend. I'm devastated to see my friend struggling for his life, yet again. And I'm concerned for you and your lack of vocabulary – what else would you call a group of criminals who are hiding from law enforcement agencies if not fugitives?"
Christine's lips thinned. "Let's talk about the Accords."
"Of course. Where would you like to start?" Pepper was the epitome of graciousness, with the air of an adult humoring a small child. "Let's start with the absolute need for oversight to prevent criminals like Rogers, Wilson, Romanoff, Barton, and Maximoff from invading sovereign countries. Or how we need a system in place for reviews and resolutions to address the terrorist acts that collapsed a tunnel in Romania and destroyed an airport in Germany? If international crimes are out of your scope, how about Barton who committed a felony breaking into the Avengers Compound? We can talk for days about the importance of having a vetting process and training requirements for new Avengers so we can prevent tragedies like Lagos because Maxmoff was clearly not in control of her powers during that disaster." Pepper smiled, slow and with teeth. "Tell me, Christine, where would you like to start?"
Christine opened and closed her mouth a few times, an embarrassed flush coloring her cheeks.
"We can come back to that." Pepper offered kindly. "I'd like to clear up a few points regarding Stark Industries while you collect your thoughts."
A blank look was Christine's response, which Pepper took as agreement for the change in topic.
"Stark Industries has no plans to terminate employment, contracts, or production. I understand this is a major concern for most of you watching, and I'd like to state publicly that Stark Industries, following the guidelines set forth by Tony Stark after his return from Afghanistan, will continue to protect and provide for those in its employ and care." Pepper stated, knowing full well that the American public had little care for tragedies oversea or ideological debates when their financial stability was threatened. Mentioning Afghanistan was a strategic move, as it would no doubt trigger memories of those dark days of economic uncertainty and remind the viewers that Tony was a different man since then. "Tony Stark has not deserted you, and I ask that you do not desert him in his hour of need."
By the time Christine recovered her composure, Pepper had already accomplished what she set out to do beautifully. The very people Steve Rogers claimed to protect were now rallying behind the Accords and Tony Stark.
FRIDAY and Vision coordinated their efforts to both repair the damages done to the compound and research possible candidates to boost the number of Avengers on the roster.
She scheduled workmen, technicians, and decorators with enthusiasm. Not only the Avengers Compound, which would be left unused for the moment, but also the Avengers Tower in the heart of New York city. The compound repairs were straightforward and practical. The redesign of the tower, however, had a more personal purpose. FRIDAY redesigned the previously personalized floors with glee and her final act of vindictive triumph was to revert the tower to its original name.
Vision meticulously documented any acts out of the ordinary, searching for commonalities and anomalies with ease. If he seemed to emphasize stability, both the ability to modulate one's powers and the mental health of the individual, it was understood and supported given recent events. He had also expressed desire to remain in the tower and reluctance to return to the compound. Both emotions were perfectly understandable.
Where they had given their trust and assistance freely, they were now guarded and wary. FRIDAY and Vision had not been present when the original Avengers were assembled, and had thus taken their cues from their creator, who had a heart prone to trusting and breaking. When new members were added to the Avengers roster, they had not had a voice. Now, however, they would make themselves heard.
When Tony opened his eyes, two weeks post-Siberia, he was greeted with warmth, relief, and a new world where people strived to carry their own weight and would gladly shoulder his when he could not.
Tony Stark and Stephen Strange, dressed impeccably in their three-piece suits, slumped against the wall in a manner of careless exhaustion. The hallway was dimly lit, with slivers of light shining through the double doors of the ballroom. Stephen's eyes were closed while Tony's remained open, the blank gaze unfocused. They seemed older and younger at once, back in their former uniforms as the brilliant businessman and the renowned surgeon and out of their respective metal and magical armors.
Stephen and Tony, while aware of each other, had never been introduced. When they finally encountered each other at a ceremony with Christine as one of its honorees, both froze for an awkward minute before heading in opposite directions. Tony was there on behalf of Stark Industries' research and development department, who had recently announced its plan to prototype leg braces with built-in neurotransmitters for paralysis rehabilitation. Stephen's presence was strongly requested by Christine, insisting he attend an event that was ‘about her' after spectacularly disrupting her workplace earlier that month.
When they met again in the hallway, feeling suffocated in their chests and craving escape from the crowds, they exchanged barely perceptible nods and settled in silently next to each other.
"I used to have a higher tolerance for these events." Tony finally said, his strained words thunderous in the quietness.
"Likewise." Stephen sighed and tilted his head slightly toward the closed doors of the ballroom, checking if Christine's name had been called.
"Dr. Palmer is slated to be announced within the next ten minutes." A feminine voice supplied, originating from Tony's watch.
"Thanks FRIDAY." He shrugged, slanting a look in Stephen's direction. "My kind of magic."
They did not speak after that, each focusing on the steady in and out of their breathing. Stephen headed back in first, his shoulder bumping lightly into Tony's as he pushed himself to stand. Tony soon followed, sliding into his seat as Christine exited the stage.
A week later, Tony sought Stephen out by interrupting his Netflix time. To have Tony's face pop up when Derek decided to give up the brain-mapping initiative in DC ruined the moment quite sufficiently. Stephen struggled maintain an appearance of dignity as the billionaire guffawed.
"What do you want, Mr. Stark?"
"It's Tony, McDreamy." Another fit of laughter undoubtedly inspired by the blackmail material he had just acquired. "I'd like a consult, actually."
"Make an appointment." Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't take walk-ins."
"Funny you should say that." Tony replied, though his tone not particularly humorous. "I want to talk about walking, General Hospital."
Stephen sat up at that, the only inquiries he received were of the magical nature, which only made him more aware of the slight tremors in his hands. "Miscommunication between the hardware and synapses?"
"Got it in one, Doogie."
"Hit me, AstroBoy."
They spent hours discussing nanotechnology and exoskeletons, weighing the pros and cons of implanted receptors, and good-naturedly trashing each other's questionable television viewing preferences.
As they said their goodbyes, Tony couldn't resist throwing out one last comment about what Stephen had been watching when their conversation started. "Tell me, do you like that show because their names spelled out ‘magic'?"
Stephen pondered this. "Meredith, Alex, George, Izzie, Cristina. Huh, I haven't noticed that before...but you did." He smirked when he made the connection. "I take it you're a fan too? Where exactly did you get the idea for robotic limbs that could be controlled through thoughts? Did you consult Dr. Torres by chance?"
Tony's sputtering face and the hastiness with which he ended the call kept Stephen smiling for the rest of the week. Wong was instantly suspicious.
Stephen and Tony hovered somewhere between acquaintances and friends, skirting around important issues that cut too close to the heart yet willing to offer assistance without question.
When Pangborn contacted him, distraught over his non-functional legs and Mordo's attack, Stephen called Tony immediately, who assured him it was no chore to create one or two sets of leg braces.
They never talked about the Accords. Or magic. Stephen wasn't sure why that bothered him.
The car Tony was trapped under was blue, almost an exact match for Steve's shield. For a moment, he was back in Siberia, cold blue flashing before his eyes followed by excruciating pressure crushing his chest. He could blast his way out, could take the car apart, could even call a tow truck, but Tony didn't want to. He just wanted to lie down and stare up at the sky.
The New Avengers, a neat trio made up of Tony, Vision, and Bruce, were stretched thin, especially with War Machine still benched pending review and Spider-man's individual contract awaiting approval. Bruce was en route to meet Thor in Australia, which left Vision and Iron Man to handle the latest aspiring villain. The fight was, even considering the flying cars, fairly straightforward. Vision had apprehended the culprit and was delivering him to the proper authorities, which left Tony.
Vision and FRIDAY had compiled an impressive list of possible recruits to fill their ranks. Tony had given it a cursory glance, noting Stephen's name, but hadn't made any moves to follow up. The risk of him offending these people just by being himself were equaled to the possibility of them rejecting the Accords and throwing their hats in with Steve.
The Rogue Avengers were in Wakanda, an easily deduced and verified conclusion. The UN had been in contact with King T'Challa and were kept apprised of any developments. It was in everyone's best interest to leave them be at the moment, no country wanted the responsibility of securing them and any imprisonment seen as inhumane would derail the public support they'd painstakingly nurtured.
It was a delicate balance, and Tony was rightfully wary to tip it. But that also left them shorthanded and eventually the public would notice and clamor for Captain American to step in when Iron Man faltered.
Which meant he really needed to get up. Now. Except he didn't want to.
Tony didn't carry the weight of the world alone anymore, that much was true. However, the years of handling everything by himself had left an emotional and physical deficit that seemed impossible to catch up.
The car started shrinking until it was the size of his hand, shaking Tony out of his reverie and revealing an amused Sorcerer Supreme standing before him.
"Hey, Wall-E." Stephen greeted. "This is my kind of magic."
Tony stood up quickly, slightly embarrassed, and set the car down. He was pleased to note that in his armor, he and Stephen were the same height. Not that he was sensitive about being short or anything. "Hey, Ravenclaw. What are you doing here?"
"Haven't you heard? I'm a new New Avenger." Stephen returned the car back to its original size then turned to repair the damaged street with a sort of efficiency that was, well, magical. "Ugh, they need to change the name."
Tony nodded in agreement regarding the name change but then frowned at the other information. "Wait, what?"
"I'm going to assume you aren't asking about my distaste for the horribly unimaginative name and are instead asking about my new status."
"Well, when you assume you make an ass out of...?"
"How original." Satisfied with the restoration, Stephen faced Tony so the other man could see his clearly unimpressed eye roll. "I signed the Accords and was sent to assist with the cleanup."
"You signed?" Tony felt something bloom in his chest. He had wanted to ask Stephen because they could really use a magic user on the team and because he could count the number of people who understood his ramblings on one hand. Stephen's secret obsession with Shonda Rhimes shows was also a factor, one that Tony would never say aloud or put in writing. But he had kept his silence because while he could survive another rejection, it didn't mean he wanted to.
"Did you hit your head?" Stephen scoffed, though a layer of worry coated his words. "I signed and now I'm on your insipidly named team."
Tony meant to say he didn't have anything to do with the name, but what came out was "Why?" He grimaced at the uncertainty in his voice.
"I took the Hippocratic Oath, to do no harm." Stephen said, eyes sad and serious though his lips were faintly curved into the beginning of a grin. "Plus, I wanted to help out a friend."
"Friend." Tony said, the word sounded foreign though not unpleasant. Stephen had taken the first step, a giant leap really, in signing the Accords. For his own reasons with Tony being one of them. "Yeah, I can live with that."
It was a beautiful New York afternoon. The primary colors reflected in the bright yellow of the taxis, the gentle red of the bricks, and the various shades of blue found in business suits, school uniforms, and casual denim. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner were inconspicuous in their dark jeans and gray shirts, the magazine that published the photo had drawn a bright yellow circle around them to highlight their presence. They were chatting amicably, sitting across from each other at an outdoor table of a relatively unknown café that would no doubt skyrocket in popularity soon.
Bruce appreciated being outdoors, the fresh air and open space made him feel like he wasn't too big for his own skin. His favorite place, though, was the three floors of lab space at the Stark Tower. The remodeling was completed in record time, FRIDAY coordinating various contractors seamlessly and Tony speeding the process with some of his non-public technology. Bruce had smothered a grin when he realized the ‘experimental explosive enclosure' – Tony did like his alliterations – previously belonged to Rogers. Not Steve.
Since moving back, Tony hadn't said anything about the fugitives since that first day and Bruce hadn't pushed. Even though he had received a new key card and a few of Tony's unguarded smiles, he knew nothing was back to the way it was. He wouldn't want it to be, anyway. Their entire dynamic was dysfunctional and he stood by his initial assessment: we're a chemical mixture that makes chaos, we're a time bomb. And it was an extraordinary explosion with one man at the epicenter to bear the brunt of the damages.
the Hulk roared with a ferocity that echoed in Bruce's head and made him wince.
"Hey." Tony's hand landed solidly on his shoulder. "You got your Jolly Green face on."
"Yeah." Bruce said hesitantly, the Hulk was still rippling under his skin. "Rough week."
It had been a rough week.
A PETA enthusiast had taken it upon herself to liberate the animals from the Bronx zoo, which normally wouldn't have fallen under Avengers' jurisdiction if not for her background in biology and the serum she added to the water supply. Rampaging animals were difficult enough to contain as they were and especially not when they were doubled their original size.
Iron Man and Vision had been called and contained the situation with minimal physical effort. The animals' intelligence had not increased in proportion to their size, thankfully.
Bruce had stayed behind, focusing on reversing the process through an analysis of the tainted water. It had taken him less than an hour though it had felt much longer. The animals were innocent, reacting only to their fear and confusion. the Hulk had raged within. By the time Bruce had prepared and packed the antidote for transport, his eyes had shone emerald.
Tony and Vision had managed to corralled most of the animals through either incapacitation or restraints, which calmed Bruce somewhat. Everything had seemed to be going smoothly, a surefire sign that something would soon go wrong.
An extremely unhappy grizzly bear had woken up while Bruce had been administering the shot.
Amidst Tony's alarmed shout and Vision's panicked warning, the Hulk had broken through and responded in the only way he knew – smash!
Bruce hadn't been surprised when the animal activists formed a picket line outside the tower the next day. He knew his other self would bring trouble to Tony's doorstep eventually, he just didn't expect it to be so soon.
He had only moved back in two weeks ago. His first instinct was to leave, thinking perhaps the blame would depart with him. He had been reaching for his suitcase when shame rooted him in place and stilled his outstretched arm.
After a few moments, he lowered his arm and concentrated on moving his legs toward Tony's workshop, where FRIDAY relayed Tony's invitation to join him at a local café.
"Hm." Tony nodded absently, taking a sip. "Need a break?"
Bruce bristled at the obvious distrust in the other man's voice, the question an obvious test. As quickly as the irritation came, it seeped out of his body. Tony had no reason to think Bruce would stay, not when he had contemplated leaving less than an hour ago. Fleetingly, he wondered if FRIDAY had alerted Tony of his cowardice. "No, I'm good where I am." He said stiffly.
Tony peered at him, the cup obscuring the lower half of his face and his usually expressive eyes covered by his sunglasses. "Doesn't look like it to me." An arched brow accompanied a sigh. "I get it if you want to bail, no judgement. Well, maybe a little, well, a lot, because I'm me but you know, it'll be okay because I get it, really."
"Tony." Bruce started, though he had no idea what he was going to say.
"Really, it's fine. Been there, done that. I can handle it." The speed with which Tony jumped from one emotion to another was dizzying, the needling tone turned resignedly supportive at the blink of an eye. "I can, Bruce. I can handle all of it if this is too much. Just take care of you, alright?"
Something tensed and unfurled at once in his chest, a sensation Bruce was starting to associate with Tony and his unbelievably generous heart and equally unbelievable self-sacrificing tendencies. "I'm a big boy, I can take care of myself." The smile on his face was mostly genuine and only slightly calculated to avoid Tony interpreting it as a rejection. "I'll spend some time in the garden but that can wait until we do some damage control."
"You sure? It's really not-"
"I'm sure." Bruce stated. "I do need you to do something for me though."
Tony stiffened slightly, reaching up to adjust his sunglasses which sat perfectly on the bridge of his nose. "Hm?"
"Hold off on blowing things up for at least a day, alright? Big Guy doesn't like things that go boom too much." Bruce grinned, and was pleased when Tony barked out a laugh.
"Done." Tony winked. "Now, let's talk about the plan Pepper, sunshine and scheming in human form, so thoughtfully devised for us."
A video of the Hulk apologizing, eyes moist and head bowed, circulated among morning shows.
Stark Industries offered to assist with the reconstruction efforts.
The New Avengers spent a weekend volunteering at other zoos around New York.
It was the best weekend Bruce and the Hulk could remember having in a long time.
Some days, Tony spent hours staring at a flip phone with his hands cupped protectively over his chest.
As much as Bruce wanted to drag Tony out of his workshop to eat, sleep, or just smash the phone to pieces, it wasn't about him. His previous efforts to engage Tony had been to alleviate his own conscience, and his criticism had been to cover up his annoyance at Tony for not going along with his script.
Bruce felt cold, blood chilling and bone freezing cold, when he realized how selfish his friendship with Tony had been.
So Bruce let Tony be on those days, and he was pleasantly surprised when Tony surfaced sooner without the constant and well-meaning but ultimately empty gestures of years past.
"Thanks, Brucie Bear." Tony had mumbled, shuffling out of the elevator after hiding away for almost twenty-four hours. "I know what you're doing, or not doing, actually."
Bruce smiled, plucking the coffee mug out of Tony's hands and replacing it with a cup of chamomile tea. "Any time."
One month after his return, Jim met with Bruce to fill him in on what happened in Siberia, small details that wouldn't betray Tony's confidence but would give Bruce a better idea overall.
Tony never told Bruce anything specific and Bruce didn't ask because Tony did not need to relive the trauma to satisfy his curiosity. He had seen the damaged suit and drew his own conclusions.
Most importantly, Bruce came back to support his friend and the sentiment behind the Accords – that would not change with or without knowing what happened in the Siberian bunker.
Jim was shaking with barely controlled anger as he spat out. "Steve lied. Captain Asshole lied and used Tony while standing on his moral high horse of bullshit."
Bruce nodded, waiting for the colonel to continue and calming the Hulk, who had picked up on the rage and wanted to join in.
"They attacked him, two against one, then left him to freeze in a HYDRA bunker." Jim howled with a sound too fragile to be a laugh but too menacing to be a sob. "They left him to die."
"Good thing Tony isn't one to do what people want." Bruce said, allowing Jim to see the green hue of his clasped hands. "And he's got people to even those odds now."
Bruce stretched his legs and looked out the window, noting the clear blue sky as the plane flew over the Atlantic Ocean.
Unlike his last flight, Bruce felt like a different man. Lighter in spirit but heavier in resolve. Thor had been reaching out to Tony, no doubt confused as to what happened with his shield brothers. FRIDAY had accidentally – Tony had scoffed disbelievingly and affectionately – forwarded one of the many emails to Bruce instead of deleting it.
Tony had a small, shyly thankful smile when Bruce volunteered to meet with Thor. It quickly turned into an offended gasp when Bruce said the trip would be a welcome break from the pissing contest between Tony and Stephen.
The Sorcerer Supreme was a person of interest, though Tony seemed content to limit their interactions to medical inquiries and pop culture references. Bruce didn't push for recruitment, understanding Tony's rightful wariness and also selfishly wanting to spend more time with his friend before the dynamic between them changed.
Bruce did like Stephen, the man's brilliance rivaled his own. He did not, however, like to be dragged into their never-ending competitions of who was the most knowledgeable at insert TV show, music genre, or film series. Mostly because he thought FRIDAY was clearly the winner and Tony was not allowed to claim her victory as his by virtue of being her creator, unless he was willing to forfeit his claim that FRIDAY was a learning AI and capable of acquiring knowledge on her own.
Adjusting his seat and pivoting so his head rested against the reclined seat comfortably, Bruce smiled as he remembered Tony's face when they said goodbye at the airport.
"See ya in a few days, Spicy Brucie!" Tony had shouted, uncaring of the attention from the bystanders.
"Stay out of trouble and don't call me about who knows the most Backstreet Boys trivia." Bruce had leveled a stern look. "Because there are no winners there, Tony Rigatoni."
the Hulk and Bruce agreed that Tony's startled laughter was worth every single ridiculous nickname and every effort to stifle their urge to flee, because some people were worth staying for.
Hope van Dyne was reaching to close the passenger door of Tony Stark's Audi R8 V10 Plus, painted hotrod red. Tony had one arm draped across the back of her seat, intimate and familiar. They were spotted outside of Pym Technologies during the middle of the lunch hour. The milling crowd, clad mostly in subdued shades of gray, black, and navy, highlighted the ostentatious vehicle and its occupants.
"You know people are going to assume we're dating." Hope commented, rotating her neck to relieve the tension from sitting in front of screens all morning. "Maybe even some tragic tale about star-crossed lovers."
Tony spared a glance in her direction, voice pitching into a distinctively unfeminine high falsetto. "Oh Iron Man, Iron Man. Wherefore art thou Iron Man?"
"Yeah, I'll pass." He shrugged, maneuvering the car seamlessly onto the freeway. "No offense, Buttercup."
"None taken, Blossom." A smirk curled at the edge of her lips. "Does this make Pepper Bubbles?"
"One, I'm not Blossom just because I like red. Two, Pepper is obviously Bubbles. Three, we are ending this PowerPuff Girls nonsense right now." Tony made, in his opinion, a threatening motion with his hand, and was baffled when the car behind them waved cheerfully in return.
Hope snorted. "You brought it up."
"Only because you baited me with that haircut of yours."
They lapsed into silence for a while, the years of friendship between them making the quiet comfortable and companionable.
"Don't join up for him." Tony spoke up once they pulled into the parking garage at Stark Tower, grip tight on the steering wheel. "Do it for you, not for him."
Hope considered it for a moment, the him Tony was referring to could be either Hank or Scott. Both men factored into her decision to join the New Avengers as the Wasp, but neither of them was the cause. "I'm not. This is for me." She vowed.
"Good, then let's meet the team."
Tony and Hope met at Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school popular among the scientific elites. They had commiserated over the fame of their fathers and their classmates' attitudes, ranging from fawning to hostile. The shared interest in science and appreciation for intelligence had transformed their casual rapport into a real friendship.
Despite the rumors, the love and admiration between Tony and Hope remained platonic. Tony was brought up disillusioned about the all-conquering power of love and Hope saw firsthand the wide-reaching devastation of heartbreak. Friendship was safer and stronger; for two people who grew up feeling wary and weak, it was all they needed.
Tony threw the label of friend around carelessly, delineating the roles he'd assigned each supposed friend with a lifted brow, a subtle quirk, and a tightened jaw. The number of people Tony actually considered to be true friends, said with a softness in his eyes, could be counted on one hand. Even with the Avengers, Tony needed both hands but the circle remained small. After Siberia, however, Tony had some extra fingers free to point at himself as he assigned blame for everything that went wrong.
Hope visited Tony two days after he'd been discharged. They sat together, a bowl of mac and cheese between them, and watched the rebooted PowerPuff Girls in silence – just as they had done after Tony gave a stilted speech at his parents' wake.
"Would you say I have control issues?" Tony tossed out that grenade of a question with the indifference of someone throwing away a crumbled up napkin.
"Yes." Hope answered. "Everyone does, but–"
"Right, my ego–"
She continued as though she hadn't heard him. "–what makes you special is the kind of control issues you have. See, other people-" Hope spat out the word in a way that suggested she thought it was too good for the scums she had in mind. "-hang on to control because then they don't have to acknowledge that they screwed up. They can go on thinking they know better than anyone else."
"The safest hands are our own." Tony parroted hollowly.
"That's not you. You learn from your mistakes, and take every precaution to not repeat them. You need control for that. You need a lot of control for that." Hope moved the empty bowl into her lap so she could position herself closer to Tony. "So I guess in a long-winded and roundabout way–"
"–you're saying I'm so special that even my issues are specialized?" Tony's head dropped onto her shoulder, eyes fluttering closed and harsh lines easing from his forehead.
"So very special." Hope leaned into the couch, letting it support her weight while she supported Tony's, and let the happy voices of the PowerPuff Girls wash over them.
Hope was texting Tony about the PowerPuff Girls reboot, he was in dire need of a mental health day, when her assistant alerted her of the incident in Leipzig. Disaster would have been more accurate.
As soon as Hope saw the security footage of a monstrous Ant Man in Leipzig, she felt a migraine forming. The pain throbbing behind her eyes was a welcome distraction to the tearing ache in her chest. She wasn't sure if it was fury or worry that kept her eyes glued to the screen but she sat, unblinking, and watched the video to the end.
Her vision blurred when she finally blinked, realizing belatedly that she was crying. Scott's betrayal twisted her insides and Hope wondered despairingly if it had been caused by something she did or didn't do. A sob-smothered laugh tore out of her throat, she was starting to sound like Tony.
Hope's heart seized. She knew how hard he had worked on the Accords, the long hours spent pouring over international laws and regulations, researching any underlying connections among dignitaries and ambassadors, and planning and preparing for all imaginable contingencies. All the while keeping his efforts away from the Avengers.
"Something's coming for us out there, and something's coming for us down here too." Tony had said cryptically during one of their sporadic phone calls. "I already failed once but I can do this right. I was born to do this."
"You don't have to do it alone." Hope had chided gently.
"I wouldn't inflict Ross on anyone else."
"Other than yourself?"
"I can take it, I'm Iron Man." He had assured but Hope had heard. "I should take it, I'm Iron Man."
Tony used can and should interchangeably, despite the drastic difference in meanings. She wondered perhaps it wasn't a conscious choice, but an internalized shift because Tony had always been too willing to accept responsibility and make amends since Afghanistan.
Hope had wanted to say something to snap him out of this downward spiral of self-blame but Tony had disconnected the call with a hurried good-bye. Now, as she listened to the newscasters drone on about the list of damages and criminal charges, she knew what she needed to do and what she wanted to say.
Hope was surprised when her hands remained steady as she picked up the phone to dial Maggie's number. It rang three times and went straight to voicemail, not surprising given Maggie's habit of leaving her phone on silent, so Hope left a message. She then repeated the process with a call and a voicemail to Jim. Her third call was answered on the first ring.
"I need the Wasp suit." Hope said with a calm she didn't feel and cutting off Hank's gruff greeting. "I'm ready."
Tony Stark was on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, speaking with Father Lantom while another man, likely with impaired vision based on the cane in his hand, stood nearby. The man was later identified as Matt Murdock, his blindness confirmed in an article that ran a tasteless Who Wore It Better side-by-side comparing Tony's red tinted sunglasses to Matt's. Tony's visit seemed casual, unplanned, except for the fact that he hadn't set foot inside a church since his parents' funeral.
Daredevil expected a visit from Iron Man since Claire had expressed her concerns for his privacy and safety in the aftermath of this so-called Civil War. She had said she knew someone who knew someone who could get him in touch with Iron Man.
Matt Murdock, whoever, did not expect a visit from Tony Stark.
"Hey Dread Pirate Roberts." Tony greeted. "Let's skip the cover story and get to the good stuff, the less time I have to spend here the better."
Matt pinched his lips, clearly torn between running the ruse as an act of defiance and being blunt for the sake of ending this encounter sooner. The latter won. "How can I help you, Mr. Stark?"
"Ah, it's more how I can help you." A tablet landed in Matt's lap, forcing him to remove his steepled hands away from his face. "On this groundbreaking technological marvel of a tablet, you'll find a copy of the Accords, with associated amendments. I'd pay attention to the one outlining individual jurisdictions, if I were you."
"A tablet, really?" Matt huffed, dismayed by the inconsideration and annoyed by the overestimation of his ability to see. He was still blind, maybe not in the superhero sense of the word but definitely in the everyday living aspect.
Tony reached over, apparently mindful to shake his arm so his watch shifted with a light clink and snapped his fingers before grabbing Matt's hand and placing it gently on the smooth screen.
Matt found Tony's efforts were unnecessary but appreciated them nonetheless.
Not just any tablet, a tactile tablet! Comes equipped with braille conversion, a couple games, a library, and a kickass painting app."
Trailing his fingers over the bumps and ridges that materialized, Matt swallowed down the tremors wavering in his throat. "Painting?"
"Um, yeah. I tweaked an old painting app to include temperature ranges with each color and different textures for different mediums. I know it's not the same as seeing but it's something at least, right?" Tony's heartbeat picked up, a panicked staccato. "Oh shit, did I do something dick-ish?"
Matt cleared his throat. "Not at all, I look forward to trying it out." He curled his hands protectively and reverently around the tablet. "Thank you."
"Great, glad to hear it. Let me know if you encounter any bugs. Look at the other stuff too."
Tony honestly didn't expect to hear back from Matt, he had told Stephen so and considered the whole matter closed. Which was why he threw the bowl of popcorn, in a manner befitting of an impatient flower girl at a wedding, when he saw Matt sitting in the common area, in full Daredevil costume and with the StarkPad in hand. "Jesus!"
"Language, Mr. Stark." Matt said, the small smirk disappeared as he tilted his head toward the sound of Tony's racing heart. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Tony choked out, arms wrapped protectively around his torso, the empty bowl clutched loosely in one hand. "What are you doing here, Beelzebub?"
A moment of hesitation before Matt smoothed his frown into a neutral expression. "I want to talk about the Accords."
Tony counted his breaths as he approached the couch, each step a part of a shutdown sequence to keep unwanted memories at bay and focus on the present. "Let's talk."
Hours flew by in a blur of legalese, pizza, revisions, beer, and an analysis of international relations among the one hundred the twenty two countries now in support of the Accords.
Matt was surprised to find that they agreed on more points than they did not, and the disagreements were turned into compromises with unexpected willingness. The United Nations had little interest in a single New York neighborhood, whereas Matt did.
The individualized jurisdiction clause would allow Daredevil to dictate whether or not the New Avengers would be needed in an event uncontrollable by the local law enforcement, provided the affected area remained within Hell's Kitchen. Should the situation warrant the New Avengers' intervention or extend outside of Hell's Kitchen, Daredevil would be second in command for the operation, focusing primarily on his own neighborhood.
"Well, the old me would say it's time to celebrate with some hard liquor but the now older me just wants to go to bed." Tony yawned. "Ugh. I'm disgusted with myself."
Matt chuckled and shook his head at Tony's antics. "I'll let you get some rest." He set the tablet down gently on the coffee table. "Thanks for letting me borrow this."
"Borrow? Who said anything about borrowing? Starks don't do borrowing. It's yours for the low, low price of an honest review."
"You actually mean that." Matt stated, Tony's steady heartbeat thudding in his ear.
"Don't sound so shocked, Dust Devil."
Despite not knowing Tony for long, Matt knew enough to skip any attempts at apologizing and jump straight to answering the indirect inquiry. "The braille program works great, but there are some glitches with PDF files. I haven't gotten around to the games or the library yet. The painting program..." Matt paused, closing his eyes and trying to find the appropriate words for just what a gift Tony had given him. "...was eye-opening."
Tony laughed, a shocked but pleased sound. "Good to know. I'll keep you posted on any updates."
"Thank you." Matt cleared his throat then repeated it, willing his voice to carry the weight of his gratitude. "Thank you."
"It's no big deal, already had the codes anyway. Glad someone's getting something out of them."
Matt could hear the other man's heartbeat, hammering painfully the way Matt's did when Foggy accused him of faking his blindness, the ache had lingered long after they began to repair their friendship. The media had a wild array of theories about what happened between Captain America and Iron Man, with most of the public opinion leaning in favor of Iron Man because of the severity of his injuries and the very fact that he was still protecting the city while Captain America wasn't. Matt didn't need to ask for the cause or details, not when he could hear the result loud and clear.
"I'll send a few people your way. They should find this individualized jurisdiction relevant." Matt said instead.
"Tell them to use the door, or better yet, make an appointment." Tony's mock annoyance barely concealed his delight that his work was appreciated and acknowledged, the joy was evident in the pitch of his voice. "I'd rather not waste more popcorn."
"Where's the fun in that?" Matt teased, before leaping into the elevator in a series of wholly unnecessarily complicated flips.
Iron Man was hovering in the air, the sunset a stunning backdrop against the red and gold of his armor. Across from him, Spider-man was hanging upside down off of the George Washington Bridge and swaying with the evening breeze across the Hudson River. Emergency vehicles and personnel worked in tandem with the Stark Disaster Relief teams, evacuating unharmed civilians and transporting the injured to the nearest hospitals. Iron Man and Spider-man appeared to be in the middle of debriefing, or possibly sharing an inside joke, both superheroes' postures were relaxed and comfortable.
Peter ducked his head as the recap of the GW Bridge incident scrolled across the bottom of the screen during the morning news. It was still strange to see himself on television, though he had gotten used to his YouTube popularity. Mr. Stark, Tony, would say it's a product of Peter's generation then complain about the young whipper-snappers in an exaggerated nasally voice meant to portray a cantankerous elderly man protective of his lawn.
It was a good day, Peter reflected. The portal that had opened over the traffic lanes was closed before anything unspeakable could come through, but not before it caused a mass panic resulting in multiple multi-lane multi-car pileups. But overall, it was a good day. Any day where there were no fatalities was a good day. Any day where Peter did his job correctly was a good day. Any day where Mr. Stark didn't have to rush off and could stay to chat for a bit was a good day.
As the New Avengers found their footing and adapted to coordinating with and responding to local and federal agencies, they started to have more good days and fewer not-so-good days. They weren't supposed to say ‘bad days' after Mr. Stark issued a No-Negative-Nancy rule, which they somewhat followed with liberal use of air quotes and eye rolls. Then Colonel Rhodes brought up the argument that ‘Negative Nancy' could be construed as sexist and that opened up a whole other debate so extensive and exhausting that Peter wondered if it was all some kind of double or reverse trolling. Or maybe it was a completely underhanded team bonding activity.
Whatever it was, Peter was grateful to be a part of the team. Mr. Stark had vouched for him, keeping his identity secret on account of him being a minor. Peter had his own version of the Accords, tailored to include limitations as to where and when he could act but also offered privacy, a fair trade-off.
Aunt May turned off the TV as she grabbed her purse, and Peter waved goodbye absently while slurping up the sugary milk from his cereal bowl. He reminded her that he had a meeting at Stark Industries to discuss an upcoming summer internship after school before she slipped out the door with a kiss on his hair.
Peter rinsed his bowl with a smile, shrugging on his jacket. Today was going to be a good day too, because any day where he got to hang out with Mr. Stark as Peter, not as Spider-man, was totally absolutely definitely a good day.
No matter how many times Peter had been in Mr. Stark's lab, it still reduced him to a gaping fanboy stuttering with awe. FRIDAY liked to tease him by announcing his heightened heart rate and increased perspiration, and DUM-E would bring him a smoothie to sooth his distressed fragile soul.
Peter wondered if it was good that his inner thoughts are starting to sound like Mr. Stark.
"Hey kiddo." Tony greeted, an ever-present cup of coffee in one hand and the other manipulating holograms with ease. "Come check these out."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Stark. Tony. Tony Stark. That's your name, right." Peter made the wise choice to click his jaw shut. He joined Mr. Stark at the work bench, concern creasing his forehead because of the lack of commentary on his less-than-graceful social skills.
"These are prototypes for different kinds of webbing. Here's one with increased durability for load bearing tasks, this one is more flexible, oh this one has thermal activated bonding..." Tony listed off, swiping images across like he was shuffling a deck of cards.
Peter watched, wide-eyed and unblinking. Mr. Stark's generosity never ceased to amaze him, the genius wasn't just supplying Peter with new webbing but also explaining the chemical composition of each kind. Others might see it as bragging, but Peter knew it was the opposite. A show-off wouldn't disclose how a trick was done, opting to keep it secret for the added advantage. Mr. Stark always answered Peter's questions, sometimes too quickly and randomly, but he always answered and encouraged clarifications. The willingness to teach and to share made Peter feel valued and like an equal.
"I'm working on converting this one to an explosive webbing, though I'm not entirely sure if you'd need that and I don't know what kids are into these days but shooting fireworks out of your hands sounds like it could be cool?"
"Katy Perry shot fireworks out of her boobs." Once again, Peter snapped his mouth shut, face red and burning with embarrassment.
Tony paused, pivoting to face Peter so he could fully take in Peter's slow death by mortification. "There are so many things I want to say but I'm having trouble figuring out which ones I can say without invoking Pepper's frankly terrifying fury and buying out Jimmy Choo's spring line. So..."
"Let's pretend it never happened and you can go back to telling me about making things go boom?"
"Sure, sure." The corners of Tony's mouth were still tugging upward, but he did return to the holograms. "Like I said, not done converting these yet but give it a few more days and you can come test these out."
Desperate to steer the conversation as far away from firework boobs as possible, Peter asked. "Converting them? From what?"
With a wave of his hand, the schematic disappeared along with the mirth on Tony's face. "Um, arrows."
Peter noticed the shift immediately and barely stopped slapping himself on the forehead when he remembered the airport fight. One of the other guys had a bow and arrows. He hadn't just put his foot in his mouth this time, he had stepped on a landmine.
Tony seemed to take Peter's silence as disapproval. "I'm not giving you second-hand goods, Peter. I promise. No leftovers. When I say convert I just meant taking the idea and applying it and not literally making arrows into webbing because that's not efficient at all and probably a pain in the ass. Not saying I can't do it because hello, genius, but I'm an important man with many demands on my time. Um, but you're important too so that's not what I'm saying–"
Peter was startled out his panic when Mr. Stark used his name and he listened to the other man's rambling explanations and backtracking with something akin to wrath blossoming in his chest. An emotion unfamiliar yet fitting, it should have scared him but it didn't. Mr. Stark was mind-bogglingly marvelous, yet something as simple as silence turned him uncomfortable and hesitant. Peter had a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Stark's former teammates might have used words, or lack thereof, as weapons. The enthusiasm when Peter first asked a question suddenly seemed less exciting and more heartbreaking.
"As long as I don't have to shoot it out of my, um, chest area, I'm good with testing them." Peter interrupted, purposely keeping his posture relaxed and a grin fixed on his face.
Tony huffed out a laugh, or possibly a sigh. "Alright, let's take a look at your suit."
Peter bumped his shoulder against Mr. Stark's as they bent over the designs. When FRIDAY started playing Fireworks over the speakers and Mr. Stark was shaking with laughter, Peter thought to himself. "Yep, a good day."