Tony announced his decision to leave the Avengers on a Monday morning, none of that bury-the-release-on-a-Friday-afternoon bullshit for him. He was Tony Stark, and he wasn't just part of the news cycle, he dominated it.
His former teammates, former consultees, stood behind him on the podium. Their appearance was meant to be a show of support, though it just felt like an impenetrable wall of no return. Tony wasn't sure what Wanda was doing there, flanked between Steve and Natasha. He could feel her glare and glee at his back, intangible but present like her invasive magic mind tricks.
In the first part of his speech, Tony revealed his consultant status, thereby distancing the Avengers from any of his mistakes. The second part of his speech addressed his biggest mistake to date: Ultron. He wasn't surprised when no one spoke up, Bruce was long gone and the rest of them had dismissed Tony's explanations already. The silence was expected, the fact that he was still bothered by it was not.
Tony took full responsibility for Ultron, admitting his role in its creation and apologizing for his arrogance. The press and the public loved a good show, so he made sure to loosen his shoulders and kept his head slightly tilted downward. It was the universal 'kicked puppy' expression, which worked extremely well with his dark brown eyes. The smallest hint of tears, reflecting the camera flashes and clumping his lashes, completed the effect. His sincerity and regret were legitimate, so the hoarseness in his voice rang true and steady.
He resisted the urge to glance back at Wanda.
Tony assumed the costs for reconstruction and revitalization, it was a sum that most people could not comprehend but manageable for a billionaire provided he appeased the public and their stock prices held. It was time to bring out the heavy hitter: personal penance.
Effective as of today, Tony would no longer be a part of the Avengers Initiative. He gifted the new Avengers Compound to the silent group behind him. The tower would be renamed Stark Tower, and Tony would continue to serve the public as Iron Man, but with a bit more discretion and direction from a United Nations panel. Rhodey had heard whispers of proposed legislative changes and warned his friend accordingly. This was the time to shore up political currency and Tony was a billionaire in more than just the monetary sense.
Iron Man would focus primarily on stabilizing countries that had been disrupted by Ultron, as well as assisting various local and international governments with clean-up efforts. The Avengers had always left the reconstruction to the local communities, taking off the moment the super villains had been captured and the secret lairs blown up. They had rained down whatever destruction they deemed fit in the name of freedom and justice; ideals that could not repair collapsed buildings or broken roadways.
Tony didn't mind being relegated to what some may consider grunt work. It was time to get back to basics, so to speak. Leave the crazed gods and alien spaceships and nuclear missiles to someone else. He'd laid down on the wire once and he wasn't in a hurry to repeat the experience.
"The real superheroes can have the flashy jobs, I'll stick to the flashy cameras and flash drives." Tony winked, preferring to end the press conference on a high note and to give as many witty soundbites as he could. Currency with the press was also a valuable commodity, especially with the ever-shifting perception of superheroes.
Wanda was announced as the new addition to the Avengers team before Tony even stepped off the stage. Bitterness lingered on his tongue, overflowing from his heart.
Tony spent his free time updating and upgrading his suits, finally able to add improvements he'd always wanted but never had a moment of spare time for. Now he had hours of it without the Avengers clamoring for inventions, repairs, and maintenance. The first month was spent in blind panic at the unfilled hours, but now he held a sort of productive appreciation for the flexibility in his calendar. DUM-E was pleased that 'smoothie time' was back on the schedule. It helped that they took everything with them, not only battle equipment and personal data but also toiletries and dinnerware, leaving nothing behind for Tony to obsess over or tinker with. He considered sending a message conveying his concern over the obvious financial hardship the Avengers were experiencing, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth his time.
The Stark Industries Board was happy with Tony's productivity, a rare occurrence, and he caught Pepper pinching herself more than once when he delivered schematics ahead of schedule. While he played up his irresponsible attitude in the media, Tony understood the almost inconceivable financial burden he'd saddled Stark Industries with. Offsetting that cost with new prototypes and models was effortless, and the cost-benefit ratio definitively tilted in Tony's favor.
Tony caught the end of Pepper's most recent press conference as he was putting the finishing touches on Mark XVII.
"Yes, I spoke with Captain Rogers. Stark Industries would be honored to outfit the Avengers. Unfortunately, we cannot provide them at no charge as Captain Rogers requested because we prioritize taking care of our employees and their livelihood. The cost of materials alone would be in the six figures for what Captain Rogers requested. However, we are willing to forego any design or labor fees after careful consideration of Tony's history with the Avengers. I have not received a reply as of this time." Pepper was all smiles and warmth, but Tony knew the twinkle in her eyes was anything but.
A reporter asked why Captain Rogers did not contact Mr. Stark directly.
The glint sharpened as Pepper answered, "Captain Rogers does not have Tony's personal number." A lift of an eyebrow combined with a quirk of her lips as Pepper anticipated the follow-up question. "Tony's pretty sentimental and hasn't changed it in years. As far as I know, the Avengers never asked for it."
Tony turned away before another round of hands shot into the air. He knew what Pepper was doing and as much as he wanted to, he couldn't fault her for it. She had trusted them too.
"FRIDAY, did they send me anything?" He asked.
"Yes, Boss. An email from Ms. Hill claiming the quote was outrageous and another from Ms. Romanoff voicing a similar opinion but with more colorful language." FRIDAY chimed, smugly monotonous. "I did not alert you to these correspondences as I had classified them similar to the distasteful one Mr. Barton had sent three weeks ago and sorted them accordingly. Did I misjudge the situation?"
Tony rubbed a hand over his face, the news visible through the gaps of his fingers. A montage of the Avengers and their scuffed gear – Steve's armor missing its sheen and Clint's bow with a few dents. He felt a pang in his heart and his fingers twitched with all the repairs he could do. Then he remembered Clint's angry accusations that friendship can't be bought, asshole when Tony had drunkenly sent the archer an offer of arrow upgrades, and his hands stilled.
Tony dragged his glance to one of the many cameras in the lab. "No, FRIDAY. You did great, keep doing what you're doing."
Tony forgot how nice it was to find his leftovers where he put them. No former spies eating his jambalaya and no super soldier taking the last half of the pizza. Best of all, no one belittling Tony when he complained about his missing food and no more traumatic spray bottles in his face as though he was a misbehaving pet when he ate someone else's food by mistake.
The spray bottle incident only happened once, but it was enough to leave a lasting impression. The mist was aimed directly at Tony's face and the unwanted moisture near his nose nearly triggered a panic attack. He wondered if Natasha ever cared to notice the lack of bathtubs in the tower or read between the lines to discover what he didn't say about Afghanistan.
No and no.
Pepper had frozen all of Tony's credit cards and applied for replacements without his knowledge. He only figured it out when his eidetic memory snagged on a receipt for Chinese take outs. FRIDAY must have updated his accounts for him.
Tony made yet another note to never upset Pepper and FRIDAY, not that he would ever forget but their combined fearsomeness was impressive enough to warrant another mention. Plus, FRIDAY seemed pleased to be asked to remind her creator to treat her with the utmost respect.
FRIDAY informed him that something of interest was on the news. The video quality was decent but the wielder had difficulty maintaining steady hand, possibly because they were trying to record the exchange surreptitiously.
"I'm really very sorry, sir." Steve said, flushed with embarrassment, "I didn't bring my wallet because I thought there was a card on file."
"There is a card but it's not yours." The owner of the pizzeria sniffed, suspicion evident in his voice. "I don't know who you are, but I know you definitely aren't Tony Stark."
Steve seemed more alarmed than baffled. "Wait, you don't know who I am?"
"No, but I'm sure the cops will find out when they drag your freeloading ass to jail."
Sam, who was seated across from Steve, winced and reached for his wallet. "I got this, man."
Stubbornness was really an unattractive trait. Good thing Tony had always considered himself to be tenacious.
Steve crossed his arms, posture immediately going from apologetic to defensive. "No, I said this is my treat. I just need to call Tony and figure out what happened." He addressed the owner. "I'm Steve Rogers."
A markedly unimpressed pause.
"Oh, that guy. Didn't recognize you without the spandex." The old man groused and Steve enjoyed a moment of short-lived relief. "How are you going to call Tony Stark, huh? You don't have his number."
"C'mon man. Let me pay so we can get out of here. People are staring." Sam cast an uneasy glance around, making accidental eye contact with the person recording this debacle. "You can get the next one." When he dropped his credit card in the check tray, Steve did not protest.
"Turn it off." Tony slumped into his chair, overwhelmed by the absurdity of this entire situation.
Steve somehow thought Tony would continue to cover not only their professional expenses but also their personal ones. And to think Tony's first feeling was panic, worried that Steve would be upset that Tony blocked him from committing credit card fraud. How far down had Tony let them push him that they'd assume they could still reap the benefits of his friendship without actually being his friends?
The one highlight was the pizzeria owner's reactions. Tony thought back to the flat look on the old man's face and a chuckle escaped his lips. Soon after he was doubled over with breathless laughter.
"FRIDAY, play it again." Wiping the tears from the corners of his eyes, a strangely cathartic act, Tony leaned back in his chair. "And let's order their entire menu, plus a 200% tip for the staff."
"Sure thing, Boss. Are we expecting company?"
Tony considered this. The size of the order he placed was mostly on a whim – and an unpleasant habit of the past – but he did have enough food to host a viewing party. "See if Rhodey, Vision, and Strange are available."
The Sorcerer Supreme had made his entrance in New York last week. The fact that Strange had agreed to meet Tony instead of the Avengers, who undoubtedly tried to recruit him to temper Wanda's increasingly unstable outbursts, delighted Tony. The two men spent many hours together discussing the intersection and interactions between magic and science.
"Done. Shall I pull the latest Twitter posts while you wait?"
"You're spoiling me." Tony headed into the kitchen while FRIDAY confirmed the arrival times of his guests and the pizza. This occasion called for popcorn and, for once, Tony knew exactly where he could find it.
The Avengers Compound was designed to be environmentally friendly and energy efficient. It was not self-sustaining like Stark Tower, but Tony thought it would be maintainable for the Avengers and the less-than-generous government funding they receive. So he was a little surprised when Natasha cornered him in the parking garage.
"Natasha." Tony hoped his cool tone covered the hammering of his heart.
"You're a hard man to get a hold of."
"I'm in high demand." He shrugged, pocketing his car keys. "What do you want?"
She took a step closer. "A friendly chat? It's hurtful you'd assume I have no other reason to visit."
"Truth hurts, I guess." Tony snorted. This particular combination of mentioning the word friend and eliciting guilt had worked in the past, but he had half of a year to enjoy his new found freedom and reflect on his poor life choices. "What do you want?"
Natasha narrowed her eyes and after a brief pause, no doubt calculating for other weaknesses to exploit and not finding any, she spoke. "You have something that doesn't belong to you. We'd like it back."
"The proceeds from the items made in the Avengers' images." Natasha phrased delicately, as though she'd memorized it from a memo. "You have no rights to them."
Sheer self-preservation instinct and the refusal to give them the satisfaction to know they could still hurt him kept him from lashing out. How had he considered these people worthy of his friendship? Once upon a time, Tony would have blamed himself, but distance and the endless ridicule hurled at the Avengers had given him perspective.
Clint's snide remarks during one of their many media appearances recently – likely an effort to boost the Avengers' public standing and, Tony suspected, an alternative source of income – confirmed Tony's suspicion and cemented his conviction to stay the fuck away.
When the host had asked about their living situation, an expected question to build rapport, Clint had told a charming anecdote about Steve's fascination with recycling. It had all gone off the rails when the host made a comment about the Avengers Compound and how surely Captain Rogers appreciates its environmentally friendly features.
Clint's angry snarl had been memed immediately and FRIDAY was crafting a parody using various soundbites from the rant, with the sentence "it's entrapment!" prominently featured. The archer had ranted about Tony screwing over the Avengers by gifting them with an overly extravagant compound, filled with unnecessary amenities that he had said he enjoyed only a moment earlier.
"Well?" The impatient tap of Natasha's heel signaled that threat of physical harm was imminent.
Knowing from experience that she had no qualms about carrying out said threats, Tony replied, "The proceeds go toward the restoration efforts-"
"Which you are responsible for-"
"Not for the mess you made in Argentina." Tony snapped, losing control of his temper for a moment.
Her eyes narrowed, "You wanted to oversee the reparations and we let you, Tony, because we are looking out for you. You need something to keep your ego in check and to channel your self-destructive tendencies toward. You don't get to throw that back at us as though you're doing us a favor."
This time Tony did bark out a growl, poorly disguised as laughter. "Sure, wow. Whatever. You can have it. Take it and leave me the hell alone." He stepped around her toward his car.
Natasha's grip on his forearm was fast and painful. "I'm expecting the transfer by end of business tomorrow." She hissed.
Vision floated through the wall at that moment, eyes instantly sharp and assessing. "Ms. Romanoff."
Tony ripped his arm free and pinned Natasha with a vicious glare. "You can have your Avengers merchandise, I don't really give a damn. I didn't when I was barely part of that exclusive club of yours. And now that the avenging business has definitely lost its intrigue, you should know this. Once something stops being important to me, my memory gets a little fuzzy. So, next time you decide to jump me, I'll treat it like any run-of-the-mill assassination attempt. If you want to have a conversation, call and make an appointment like the civilized person you pretend to be. " The threat hung in the air between them.
Natasha nodded tersely, understanding she'd exhausted the last of Tony's good will, and disappeared into the shadows with a disquieting amount of ease.
"Are you alright?" Vision asked, concerned.
"Yeah, can you believe I'm actually glad she paid me a visit?" Tony rubbed absently at the bruise that was no doubt forming.
Vision studied Tony, noting the relief in the other man's posture. "I can, though I do not understand it."
"That makes two of us." Tony muttered. "I'll see you upstairs."
While in the elevator, Tony called Pepper, alerting her to this new development and reassuring her that he was mostly unharmed. She was livid, but agreed to let go of this last tie between Tony and the Avengers and to make the announcement in the morning.
By the time he walked in the kitchen, Vision concentrating intensely at the microwave as it warmed up the leftover Thai, Tony felt lighter than he had in years.
Tony traveled quite a bit in his Iron Man suit, both for his personal commitment to the rebuilding efforts and for missions from the United Nations approved by Tony and the panel. For all the suit's advancements, entertainment was not one of them.
Rhodey had strictly forbidden any movie from being shown during these flights after hearing about one minor collision with a flock of geese. Tony obviously overestimated his friend's sense of humor. After all, watching Birds while being attacked by said animal was comedy gold. Tony miscalculated again when he tried to appeal to Pepper's love of irony, which was why he was banned from non-essential visual input while in transit.
FRIDAY, despite siding with Pepper and Rhodey, offered to provide Tony with audio entertainment. Music, podcasts, and updates. Listening to music without the ability to tinker proved to be more of an annoyance and Tony had never liked people talking at him. So he settled for the third option, and once FRIDAY had successfully hacked into the Avengers Compound, it became his favorite. Of course, the official reason was that of concern for his former associates and their recent troubles.
The Avengers were sent out on fewer and fewer missions, the scope of their destruction nearly unmanageable and their success rate steadily decreasing. Tony was thankful that Maria had wisely routed missions located in populated areas to government agencies and Iron Man before any fatalities could occur.
Through FRIDAY's mischief, Tony learned that for all her boasting, Natasha was actually a terrible hacker. She was fantastic at infiltrating an enemy base, but the theory of her applying those same skills to accessing hidden information failed spectacularly in practice. After several failed missions, ending either with partially retrieved or entirely false data, the Avengers contacted Stark Industries to request the creation of a tailored artificial intelligence assistant.
Maria must have learned from the previous public relations disaster, because she included an offer to compensate Tony for his time. It was an insulting number. Tony seethed at how little they valued his work and their audacity to ask for an A.I. when they had crucified Tony for Ultron. Had they forgotten the fervor of their disapproval and animosity?
In the end, Tony did construct a rudimentary A.I. for the Avengers' needs. It could perform basic operational duties as well as some advanced technological tasks. The grin on his face when he delivered the data core was equal parts pleased and vicious. He shook Steve's hand and assured them that he personally consulted on the code when Steve seemed displeased that Tony did not write it himself.
"You know, after Ultron, I just didn't feel comfortable." The with you was left unsaid. Tony knew Steve would misinterpret the sentiment and wasted no time correcting him of it.
"I get that, Tony." Steve was all grating sympathy and chafing condescension. "Can I have a word?"
"Anthropomorphic, all yours. Enjoy." Tony snarked, brushing his way past the stunned super soldier and out the door before anyone could stop him.
All in all, Tony considered himself to be doing alright.
Tony landed in Lagos just as FRIDAY finished relating the latest technological mishap to befall the Avengers. The A.I. was competent but it was no JARVIS or FRIDAY, which was apparently their expectation. Maria's screeching rant demanding updates and a refund was considered legendary, used every year at Stark Industries' customer service training seminars.
Scanning the area for a specific heat signature, Tony double-checked he was in stealth mode before approaching the target.
"Gotcha." He hummed as the system locked in on Brock Rumlow and his suicide bomber vest.
"They asked me again." Lex mentioned offhandedly, placing his empty glass on a passing tray. "Third time this year. I think they're actually considering adding the LuthorCorp's logo on Captain America's uniform if it meant I'd be a sponsor."
"Desperation will always outweigh shame." Bruce commented. "The Widow visited Wayne Enterprise last week, though she didn't make it past the lobby."
"No one ever visits me." Tony whined halfheartedly, deriving an unholy amount of glee from his friends' suffering.
T'Challa joined their conversation. "Greetings, gentlemen. What holds your attention this evening?"
Bruce and Lex exchanged a long-suffered look while Tony's grin grew indecently smug.
"The Avengers." Lex explained.
"How unfortunate." T'Challa grimaced. "They've pestered the Dora so thoroughly that I fear Okoye will strike without hesitation when she meets the Captain in person."
"Better not bring her to Vienna next month, then." Tony smirked. "Kitty cat."
"We would not be subjected to this if you hadn't ceased your sponsorship." T'Challa frowned, though quickly regretted and reassessed his words when Bruce and Lex stiffened. "I apologize for my hasty words, you are not the cause of my irritation. I can understand your decision and admire your fortitude to withstand their company for years."
Tony, for the most part, seemed unconcerned and waved off any perceived slight. "I'm an impressive man."
"Bragging again, Stark?" Hank's harsh voice sounded, all four men shifting to regard the older scientist.
"Is it bragging if it's true?"
"We were admiring Tony's high tolerance of the Avengers' antics." Bruce offered. "And commiserating over their attention on us."
"Our funds, actually." Lex added.
"Ugh." Hank groaned. "Those idiots make me miss Howard."
Tony perked up with curiosity. "Really? I thought you hated dad."
"Howard was an asshole but at least he's a smart asshole." Hank's disdain was unambiguous. "Let's hope the Accords can rein them in a bit."
By the time the Accords were presented to the Avengers, it carried a long list of signatures from known superheroes around the globe.
Tony, Rhodey and Vision were the first ones, given their involvement in the drafting process. The Black Panther signed the same day as King T'Chaka announced Wakanda's intention to rejoin the world. The Fantastic Four and the Defenders followed soon after. The X-Men were next, after successfully securing organizational autonomy on matters of discipline and assessment to fit their unique needs. The Wasp and Ant Man added their names to the list, and Hank grumbled good-naturedly about throwing his hat in with a Stark. Spiderman approached Tony and disclosed his status as minor, which led to another amendment being drafted to accommodate for this unforeseen but not entirely uncommon situation.
The inactivity of the Avengers over the past year invalidated many of the more restrictive clauses. Despite these allowances, the Avengers, as expected, rejected the Accords, citing paranoia of government agendas while subsisting on government funding. Their subsequent rebellion was as predictable as their refusal. It was a brief affair and quashed immediately before they could board the plane departing New York.
The signing ceremony transpired without interruption, the Human Torch containing and extinguishing the car bomb effortlessly. Zemo was arrested. As he was hauled away by the less-than-gentle hands of the Black Panther, the HYDRA agent howled coercion and pleas for Tony to investigate a bunker in Siberia.
Curiosity coupled with boredom convinced Tony to find out what lurked in the wintry mountain. Caution and a strong desire to not die meant he dragged Rhodey and Vision along for the adventure.
Tony reduced the deserted HYDRA base to rubble in less than ten minutes. His grief was aggressive and unforgiving. FRIDAY preserved a copy of the nightmarish footage, knowing her creator would want to examine every detail in his search for answers.
"I know the Winter Soldier murdered my parents." Tony started without preamble, standing tall before the imprisoned Avengers. "And I think you did too." He looked into Steve's eyes and knew he was correct when the super soldier shifted his stare first.
Natasha and Clint looked contemplative, though unsurprised. Tony wished for his gauntlet.
Sam looked bewildered and Wanda glared vengefully at Tony. Nothing new there.
"I have some things to get off of my chest. I don't need to say them, but I think you need to hear them." Tony cleared his throat. "You took advantage of my generosity. You lied to me. You used and manipulated me. Deep down you know it's all true, but you still think you're ultimately right and the end justifies the means. Except look at where you are." He scanned the faces of his former almost friends, snagging briefly on Wanda's hateful scowl. "This doesn't have to be where the Avengers end, you know what to do."
"Bucky-" Steve started.
"Mr. Barnes was apprehended and is currently undergoing evaluations to determine how to best rehabilitate his mental state." FRIDAY supplied helpfully.
"You didn't kill him?" Steve asked, shock plain on his face.
"Unlike some people," Tony glanced at Wanda, "I know who the real monsters are."
"How dare you!" Wanda screamed, jerking into standing. "You killed my parents! You are the monster!" A strand of red lightning struck out from her outstretched hand, hurling toward Tony with murderous intent. It dissipated before it could reach its target.
Tony left as pandemonium broke out in the room, the Avengers scrambling to calm and restrain the incensed Scarlet Witch. The deafening explosion of crimson mist shook the building but caused no lasting damages. Dr. Strange, a member of their team, anticipated the potential attack and warded the room accordingly.
While in recovery, the original Avengers signed the Accords without comment. Steve did so with his trademark frown of great sacrifice. Sam opted for retirement, turning in his wings with an air of disillusioned hero worship. The two former SHIELD agents affixed their names to the Accords within a month of each other. Thor signed with a flourish during his next visit to New Mexico, these types of agreements apparently commonplace for an Asgardian prince. Bruce returned to the solitude he preferred with the stipulation that he maintain monthly contact with a pre-approved party. Tony was the clear choice and despite Bruce's abandonment, he was happy to talk science.
Tony continued as he had for the past two years, focusing his energy and time on protection and restoration. Avenging was a distant memory. His new team kept the Avengers at bay, maintaining strained civility and careful distance.
"With teammates like you, who needs friends?" Tony had declared once, after staying up for too many hours on too little food and walking straight into a debriefing for a mission he hadn't been on.
"We are your friends, Tony." Stephen said with fond exasperation, a sentiment mirrored by others gathered in the conference room.
"You are friends, I'm his brother." Rhodey added, preening proudly at Peter who was an unrepentant Tony Stark fanboy.
Tony stared in awe, and felt the last of the bitterness chased away.