Tony woke up to the clatter of Rhodey’s wheelchair as he pushed his way into Tony’s room. The hospital catered to his wealth with large open spaces, heavy expensive curtains, guest sofas and a small electronic store’s worth of technical equipment, but practicality demanded the same easy to clean plastic floors of any other hospital room, for all that it pretended to be wood, and the sound of it was quite distinct.
“Rhodey,” he greeted, putting on a fair appearance of happiness.
“Colonel Rhodes,” greeted FRIDAY at the same time from Tony’s tablet. One of the things too many people had complained about was FRIDAY ‘spying’ on them, so he’d worked through the protocols with her. If they knew she was in the room, then they had no cause to object to her listening to them.
Rhodes ignored both greetings.
“This wasn’t your fault,” Rhodey said intensely.
“Okay?” asked Tony. They’d had this conversation about Rhodey’s injuries already. Not that Tony believed Rhodey, but still, they’d covered it. It wasn’t like Rhodey to try a second round so quickly. “What are you talking about?”
“The retrieval team passed us the footage from Siberia. None of it was your fault. Steve has a long history of lying to get what he wants. You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last.”
Tony’s breath caught. He hadn’t intended Rhodey to find out about it so quickly. Not before he’d had time to prepare the ground for Campaign ‘Captain America is not always right’. “I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to point out he was mostly lied in order to save the world, or some shit like that.”
Rhodey made a dismissive gesture. “Remember that time when the Air Force they kept forcing me to serve as a prosecutor?”
That was a left turn, even for the type of conversations Tony tended to have with people. But any diversion was a good diversion. He put a teasing note into his voice. “Yep. Have to hand it to the military to just straight up acknowledge reality – defence gets real lawyers, while prosecution gets some random person out of the corridor.”
“Anyway!” said Rhodey, overriding him. “I went into it thinking motives would matter. Like we had one kid who was UA because he’d been drunk, and another because his girlfriend had threatened suicide. I thought that’s what would be important about whether they got another chance. But it turned out that motives meant jack. They didn’t even understand their own motives. The kid who got drunk for the first time learnt not to rely on friends to draw the line for him and never had a problem again. The kid with the girlfriend had a string of high drama relationships and never believed he had a responsibility to draw a line at all. What mattered to determine future behaviour was past behaviour. And time and time again, Captain America finds the need to lie, to disobey authority, break the law, and endanger innocents who are just trying to do the right thing. I don’t care how much of a man crush you have on him, you cannot let him jerk you around anymore.”
Huh. Tony should have known. Of course Rhodey would not only have followed his logic, but would have arrived there before him. He had always been better at this dealing with other people thing. “Okay.”
Rhodey narrowed his eyes.
Tony smiled as much as he could from beneath his bandages. “No, I’m serious. I had a lot of time to think before the hypothermia kicked in. You’re right. I mean, I screwed up too. I turned this all into some sort of test to see whether they still trusted me, like some idiot kid who doesn’t mention his birthday to see whether people remember anyway. But the people I failed were people like Charlie Spencer and the Spider kid. The people who die when superheroes charge in without thinking. The psychics who get painted with the same brush as Wanda Maximoff. I didn’t fail Steve Rogers. His choices are his own, and he made some really bad ones.”
“Okay,” echoed Rhodey, sounding bemused. “Okay.”
“Sorry,” said Tony insincerely. “I didn’t mean to make you waste your whole intervention speech by being reasonable. I could pretend, if you like? If you put a lot of work into--”
“Ass,” said Rhodey, relaxing for the first time since he had entered the room.
“And such an awesome ass it is, too.”
“I’m afraid you’ve lost out. And it was good stuff. A whole bit about how I became friends with the Tony Stark who could convince anyone into doing anything. A really killer couple of lines about how the uptight angsty superhero fashion really doesn’t look good on you.”
“I will get FRIDAY to steal your written notes, and tease you forever.”
“Seriously, though, Tony. You seem… well?” said Rhodey, turning it into a question.
Tony knew Rhodey didn’t mean physically. No-one looked well when bundled up like a trainer for attack dogs. But he was okay. Tony had plenty of experience pretending not to give a fuck, but the current almost-euphoria was less familiar. It was like there was a window between him and the guilt and the fear. He could see the possible consequences lying before him, but the worst no longer had power over him. His most personal failure had already happened.
“Surprisingly so.” Tony agreed. “I must still be in shock or something. I’d never be this adult-like naturally.”
Rhodey awkwardly patted the blanket the last nurse had used to trap Tony into position, and the two of them almost had a moment.
“I quit the game,” continued Tony. Rhodey’s eyes widened, and Tony realised what it had sounded like. “No, no, I don’t mean I’m suicidal or anything. Jesus, platypus, what do you take me for? I’m not quitting the Tony Stark game; just the Tony 2.0 game. See, thing is, I realised I’ve been going about this all the wrong way. You know when Yinsen told me not to waste my life? I’ve been acting like he’s sitting in the afterlife assigning experience points like the most asshole GM in existence. Every time I got a negative score, I figured I had to work twice as hard to make up for it. But I was freezing there, pretty sure that this time I really was going to die, and I had a revelation. Do you know what the most lifesaving action I’ve ever been part of was?”
Rhodey said, tentatively, like it was a trick question. “Re-directing the nuke in Manhattan?”
“Nope. Inventing mosquito-repellent fibre. We sell the bedsheets and curtains and clothes and car interiors, but we give away the nets. Used to be, a million people each and every year would die from a mosquito borne illness. Now those diseases are almost eradicated. The people I helped to do that weren’t superpowers. They were normal volunteers who will never get a parade or even get excused a parking ticket for their sacrifices. They were health officials who have to choose who lives and who dies every day because there just aren’t enough resources to save everyone. They were government officials in places like Sri Lanka who decided that civil war wasn’t a good enough reason to step back from malaria prevention.”
Rhodey wheeled himself back and forward a few times, considering that. “Not the arc reactor?”
Tony tilted the bundle that hid his hand back and forth. “We’ll only know how big an impact it had on global warming in a hundred years. So potentially it will save every single future human – and potentially it won’t save anyone.”
Then something that had been nagging on the corner of his mind came to full view. “Wait. You said they showed ‘us’ the details? ‘Us’ who?”
“Hello, Tony,” said Pepper, coming to the other side of the bed.
“Jesus, Pep. Were you just waiting in the corridor until the best intro line? You’re not secretly Agent Coulson, are you? I mean, I haven’t seen Agent since he got himself un-deaded. Rhodey,” he said in a fake whisper, “are you sure that’s Pepper?”
“Tony,” she said in a familiar tone of exasperation. “There was outstanding paperwork, and James wanted a word first. Now, how are you doing? Without the bullshit, if you don’t mind.”
Tony couldn’t see much past the bandages on his face, but he tapped the bundles that concealed his hands lightly against the sheets. The IV moved something, and he had to wriggle his wrists a few times to get the trapped hairs to stop pulling. “Did they tell you about the frostbite?
“The mummy impression is kind of a clue,” said Rhodey.
Tony gave him a look over his non-existent sunglasses.
“Not the details,” said Pepper. “Seeing as how you’re awake and able to manage your own treatment. How bad is it?”
“They think my face and feet will recover. My hands aren’t so lucky. Turns out that the metal I used to make my gloves more responsive conducted heat much better than just some air. So, that’s a thing. In about six months, they’re going to amputate the tips of my fingers. They’re leaving it because they don’t know how much they’ll need to take off, not because they have any hope that they won’t have to take any. Peps, you’re going to have a SI stock dip to ride out. And Rhodey, I’m afraid figuring out your whole leg situation is going to take a little longer than I’d hoped.”
“Jesus, Tony.” Rhodey paused, then breathed out rapidly. “I almost don’t want to ask, but… The Cradle?”
“Or Extremis?” asked Pepper.
Tony let his head fall back to the pillow, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Rhodey, remember that poli-sci course we crashed because it was run by that Heinlein fanboy? He said the prime consideration for a law should never be whether it allows you to do good, but whether it will allow your worst enemy to do evil when he acquires your position in the future.”
Tony swallowed dryly, and Pepper reached out to help him with the adult sippy cup that was insultingly not in red and gold. “I think we all agree we’ve been pissing all over that. If I’m going to do better, then accountability has to mean something. We can’t keep locking bad guys up for an action and doing exactly the same thing behind closed doors. Not if we want to continue to call ourselves good guys. So. Would either of you allow Thunderbolt Ross access to Extremis?”
Neither of them answered, which was answer enough. Tony’s heart broke a little at the pain in their expressions. He waited out the screech-clang of the cleaner working his way past Tony’s door, the room filling with a lemon smell that almost, but not quite, entirely failed to conceal the smell of bleach.
“Look, you know me. I’m not going to be defeated by gravity or a little bit of bad weather. But any treatment I take, and any treatment I give, will be ones that will be released to the general public. It has to be, for this whole thing to have been worth anything.” Tony was surprised at the bleakness in his own tone, but he didn’t try to cover it up. They both deserved more from him after all the shit they’d already put up with.
Rhodes nodded. “I get it. I mean, I wish I didn’t. Part of me really, really wishes you’d delayed having this revelation until after you’d performed whatever miracle you have in the back of your mind to get me walking again.”
Tony winced, shaken in his conviction. It was easy to say he was making a decision for himself, but did he have the right to make it when it also affected other people? Wasn’t that precisely what the rest of the team had been so upset about?
Rhodes continued, “But I get it. And I agree.”
“I’m proud of you,” said Pepper.
Tony stared at them, open mouthed. “Yeah. None of that now. Just because I’d too injured to run away doesn’t mean a man has to be ambushed with that kind of emotional thing.”
Pepper smiled in return. “I hate to enable you by breaking the moment, but we should probably get on to making Russia happy sooner rather than later.”
“Damn,” said Rhodey. “You broke the Accords chasing Captain America. Ross is going to--”
“—do absolutely nothing,” Interrupted Tony. “I only broke the Accords if Russia makes an appeal to the council to handle me as a threat beyond their ability to cope. Otherwise, I’m not Iron Man, the superhero. I’m just Tony Stark, the ordinary law-breaker. Russia hates Ross. I doubt they’d ask for help from him if an alien portal opened up in front of the Kremlin. But SI, on the other hand? We get along fine since I stopped selling weapons to their enemies and started selling them clean energy. I’ll plead whatever their equivalent of no contest is, and pay the fines for illegal entry, and, I don’t know, disturbance of the peace?”
Rhodey sounded horrified. “Wait, throw yourself on the mercy of the courts? They’re the ones behind the Red Room. They’re probably the ones who funded the entire Winter Soldier program with Hydra.”
“You’re falling into the same trap as Steve Rogers, there, Rhodey. Most people are not part of multi-generational secret organisations. Most people, even most people in government, are just people. And yeah, unfair as fuck, but I’m Tony Stark in case you’d forgotten. They aren’t going to piss me or Pepper off by demanding jail time or whisking me away to do illegal experiments.”
“I agree,” said Pepper. “I’ll set it in motion. They know you’re incapacitated at the moment so we have a bit of time, but it will prove good will to start as soon as possible. We have a lot to get through.”
We. Tony really should have brought Pepper on board as soon as the other Avengers had made clear that ‘we’ didn’t include Tony. “Capsicle and his ice friend can wait a bit – and I have something Rhodey inspired that will confuse the whole issue quite nicely if I can pull it off -- but we should probably get a move on with handling the bunch in the raft.”
Tony’s phone beeped. “Ah, boss? I might have news about that.”
“Go ahead, Fri.”
“From my observations of Ms. Romanoff’s online actions, I believe she and probably Mr Rogers and Mr Barnes are going to attempt to break them out of jail shortly.”
Tony closed his eyes, and sighed deeply. “Of course they are. Damn it. I’m going to need to establish an alibi.”
“You’re literally restricted to bed, Tony. I think you’re covered,” said Rhodey.
Tony snorted. “Disadvantages of being known to be as skilled as I am. I probably could organise a jailbreak from my bed, and they know that too. I guess I’m going to have to actively and aggressively campaign to have them released on bail, then.”
“Why didn’t you do that before?” asked Pepper.
Tony almost bit back, but realised a second later that it had just been a question, not an accusation. It was a bit disturbing how unfamiliar it was to talk to someone who didn’t automatically blame him for everything.
“It totally wrecks the plans I had to counter Ross, and makes things worse for them in the long run. The more official paperwork there is, the less room we have for official bullshit later on. As long as there isn’t an arrest record for them, I could still negotiate a complete pardon. But if they are released on bail, then they’ll have to face a real trial. And frankly, that isn’t something they’re likely to win.”
Rhodes said, “you don’t owe them anything, Tony. They decided to support Captain Asshole of their own free will.”
“They did,” agreed Tony, still mentally inventing and discarding approaches. It was amazing how many options opened up to him now that ‘saving the team’ was no longer a goal. “But their problems spill over and become my problems, and I want to stop that getting out of hand. Fri, my darling, do any of the official German, Romanian or UN bodies have those nifty systems that escalate correspondence to a supervisor if it goes un-actioned after… call it two days? Some timeframe prior to me leaving for Siberia.”
A moment’s silence. “Yes, boss. I’ve found someone in the German UN team in Vienna whose away message was incorrectly set when she was hospitalised in the blast. If you can give me something in the next twenty minutes, I can insert it into a queue that will be noticed within an hour.”
“Good girl,” said Tony, feeling the warmth of Friday anticipating his plan. She really was growing up fast. “Put together something suitably official sounding asking for a writ of habeas corpus for a bail hearing for them all.”
“Would that be effective?” asked Rhodes.
“Legally speaking? Not at all. I have absolutely no standing, and Germany are hardly the only complainants. What it will do is remind them that being on international waters does not mean law ceases to exist, and that Ross does have the obligation to present the prisoners to the various countries as required for court dates. But the important thing is so that I can mention it in a press statement. The mere suggestion that Ross is trying to start up yet another Guantanamo Bay using UN resources is going to make the international media light up. They adore the ‘America is indifferent to basic human rights’ story. Most of them think even the regular American jails are inhumane breeding grounds for future, angrier, criminals; the Raft is going to have them sputtering with outrage. No matter how high anti-super sentiment is, the German government will be tripping over themselves to distance themselves from imprisoning anyone there. Which will harden Ross’s stance against them and make their eventual treatment worse, but the bulk of audience isn’t going to care about that.”
Rhodey nodded. “And they won’t jump to the conclusion you broke the Avengers out of jail if you look like you still had reason to believe the legal way would work.”
“Exactly. Ironically, this is just the kind of moralistic high horse good-in-the-short-term but bad-in-the-long-term approach Cap… Rogers always wanted me to take. Well, bad in the long term for everyone except for the ant kid, I guess. This is his best shot of getting clear of it all, considering he has no prior involvement.”
“So. Press statement.”
“Actually,” said Tony, feeling the momentum build inside him. “Let’s go all out and make it an interview. Can you find me someone who will come here tomorrow? See if you can convince them that getting my raw medical files is the bribe to play nice and follow our script. But someone the public would expect to play softball anyway – it’s an interview from a hospital bed; we don’t want to oversell it.”
“You want your medical files released?” asked Pepper.
Tony understood exactly why she was so surprised, but he had been sincere that he was playing a different game now. According to this game’s rulebook, being seen to be vulnerable was a positive, not a negative. “If I’m provably physically incapable, it will stop a good twenty, maybe thirty percent of the public from demanding to know why I’m not out there doing something. It’ll give me the time I need to get everything else in order. The extent of my injuries is going to come out sooner or later, so let’s give it plenty of time to get boring before I actually have to deal with people, shall we?”
“Of course, Tony,” said Pepper, leaning forward to kiss him on the temple. It almost made his eyes water, but he pulled himself together and started the details of his planning. Rhodey and Pepper were kind enough to let him. It was one advantage of having so many things collapse at once, he thought. There was always something else to distract him.
Pepper pulled out a table that had been cleverly concealed to hold her own tablet, adjusted Tony’s bed, and then found the remote control that adjusted the lighting. Tension Tony hadn’t even realised he’d been carrying loosened as his eyes relaxed. He could do this. He had his mind, and his bots, and his friends. He could cope without his hands.