Title: Defining Moment
Author: Jilly James
Genre: Drama, Fix It, Challenge Response
Warnings: Canon-typical violence, Mild discussions of: murder, torture, mind rape, and hate crimes.
Author Note: Not for fans of Wanda Maximoff. I hated how there were no consequences for her after AoU. I’m also not thrilled with Steve and Natasha’s canon behavior, especially in this movie and later. So, they don’t come off all that great in this. Also, I took some liberties with the Ancient’s One’s abilities.
Challenge: Originally conceived and half written for Rough Trade / NaNoWriMo July 2019 (The Reel End), and finished for WIP Big Bang 2021.
Beta: Love-hate relationship with Grammarly
Artist: SpencnerTibbsLuvr (Thank you so much!)
Word Count: ~19,200
Summary: After Ultron, Tony Stark says, “No.”
The words were just noise.
Tony understood what was being discussed—plans, logistics, reports—he just didn’t care to pay attention.
He was mentally and physically at his limit. It was almost certain that he had yet another concussion, and everything hurt. He’d ruined another armor. And the worst of it all was that Jarvis was gone.
He’d lost his son.
Tony wanted to retreat back to the tower and lick his wounds in private, but there were so many things to figure out, not the least of which was where everyone was going to go. The Avengers team had retreated to a conference room to work out details with Nick Fury and Maria Hill in attendance. Vision wasn’t an Avenger yet, so he was helping survivors. Maximoff was being debriefed by former SHIELD agents. Which Tony found hysterical since former SHIELD agents had no authority to do anything, debriefing or otherwise.
He considered the issue of housing for the team. He didn’t really want anyone back at the tower again. Aside from part of it being a shambles, too much had happened there. Too many new wounds and betrayals, and Tony needed time to deal with it.
There was an ongoing project of his to convert a facility outside of the city for the Avengers—more room for training and expansion, less infringement on Stark Industries. The actual facility was basically ready, but it wasn’t supplied or staffed yet. Rogers, Romanoff, and Fury knew about it, and they were talking like it was obvious they’d all go there.
That was a good solution, he supposed, but Tony wouldn’t be joining them. He needed space to decide if he even wanted this. He’d worked so hard to be part of the team, but now it felt like he was being consumed by it. Or maybe the better word was obliterated.
He’d lost the thing that mattered most to him in the world, and the grief felt like it was strangling him, and no one seemed to even notice.
A minor detail in the discussion penetrated the fog Tony was in, and his head snapped up.
“No.” He stared steadily at the team around the table.
“Look who decided to join the conversation,” Barton said, adjusting the ice pack on his shoulder.
“No…what, Tony?” Romanoff prompted.
“No, you’re not bringing Maximoff to the compound. She’s not welcome.”
“Tony,” Steve began in a barely patient tone, “she’s interested in becoming an Avenger, in working to earn the second chance she’s been given.”
“No.” She didn’t deserve a damn second chance, but Tony wasn’t going to get into it with them because he knew the tactics they’d use, throwing up Tony’s supposed mistakes as evidence of his hypocrisy.
“Tony.” Steve sighed.
“No.” His clenched his jaw then forced himself to relax. “A Hydra operative is not joining the Avengers.”
“Former Hydra,” Steve corrected.
“Who the fuck cares, Rogers! That’s like saying former rapist. There is no such thing. You don’t get to pretend some choices never happened. And let’s not forget she is a rapist.”
Steve’s brow furrowed.
“Really? Are you that clueless?” Tony pointed at Barton. “Ask Clint about having your mind fucked with.” He looked to his teammate. “I’d call violation of the mind a form of rape.”
Barton flinched and looked away. “She helped us,” he defended. “Her brother died.”
“So what?! She only turned when she realized her country was on the chopping block. That’s self-interest, not remorse.”
“You killed her parents,” Rogers snapped.
“Steve,” Romanoff said softly, “don’t.”
Tony was in danger of grinding the enamel off his teeth. “I did not kill her parents.”
“Enough!” Fury barked. “That’s bullshit rationale, and you know it, Rogers. How many people have died because of your shield? Does that mean those deaths are Howard Stark’s responsibility since he put the weapon in your hands?”
“That’s not the same!”
“It is the same. Stark Industries, which was started by Howard Stark, manufactured weapons for the United States government and her allies. We are not blaming Stark for deaths as a result of misused or stolen weapons any more than we’d blame the CEO of Toyota when a joyrider steals a car and crashes into someone. Do not revisit this subject again.”
At first, Tony was astonished at the support, but then he cynically realized it was because Nick was right on board with the rest of the United States government in wanting Tony to go back into weapons manufacturing—for Fury’s not-SHIELD efforts if nothing else—and he knew demonizing Tony for making weapons in the past was counter to that goal.
Rogers started to speak again, but Romanoff put a hand on his arm and shook her head. Rogers subsided, but he looked pissed.
Fury continued. “While I don’t think Stark is in any way responsible for what happened to Maximoff’s family, she has apparently turned a corner, and with her skills—”
Fury looked exasperated. “Then what do you propose we do with her?”
“That is not my problem. Criminals aren’t my area, Nick.”
“Stark.” Fury rubbed his forehead.
Fury looked around the table. “I need a minute alone with Stark.”
“No you don’t,” Tony said deadpan. “Nothing we talk about alone is going to change my mind.”
Barton and Romanoff were already getting to their feet, and Fury nodded for them to continue. Romanoff managed to get Steve to go with them, and Wilson dutifully followed after Steve. Thor rose but looked hesitant. He wasn’t angry, but he was watchful. After a few beats, he shook his head and followed the others.
When the door shut behind them, Tony took the reins of the conversation. “Be very careful here, Nick. Sometimes I don’t like your choices, but I’ve always respected that you think you’re doing the right thing, protecting the planet and all that jazz.”
“Maximoff could be a useful asset in that effort.”
“No. Look at me closely, Nicky, and tell me if you think there’s any way you’re going to change my mind. You can’t guilt me, you can’t manipulate me. Not on this. She’s a fucking mind rapist, and her power is not something we can monitor the use of. How do you even know that people right here on this damn vessel aren’t being manipulated by her? The answer is you can’t know. But you’d put her in a place with access to your first line of defense?”
“We could figure out—”
“No! Why is that word not enough? But since my no isn’t doing it for you, let me be clear: You decided to go into super-spy mode and let us all think you were dead—not that I ever really bought that story, but whatever. You enabled Romanoff and Rogers to do something really fucked up with the data dump, and then you stepped off the field. You bowed out and didn’t take any fucking responsibility for their actions or the lives lost. And then you sit there and defend my right to make weapons while not calling Rogers on his hypocrisy considering all the lives lost when he cavalierly and callously dumped SHIELD’s files on the damn Internet.
“You bowed out, you played dead, and left others to clean up the mess. At worst it was so you didn’t have to take any responsibility for what had become of SHIELD under your watch and what Rogers and Maximoff did with that information. At best, it was because you thought you could be more effective as the proverbial lone ranger. Either way, this isn’t your call. I have been privately funding the Avengers, and you know that. So don’t pretend that everyone has a say.”
“You think you’re the final word on who gets to join the Avengers?” Nick asked, feigning incredulity, as if Tony’s ego was once again the problem the poor spy needed to get around.
“No. But I get a veto because it’s my damn money. It’s my property. It’s my gear they’re all running around with. And I am not spending a single dime on that bitch. She will not set foot on a single piece of property owned by me or any of my companies. And anyone who comes to the new HQ and leverages my resources to help her will get the fucking boot too. Is that clear enough?”
“That was a yes or no question. There is no debate here. But I don’t need your agreement or even your comprehension.” Tony got to his feet. “We’re done. I have a ton to do to get the facility ready, not to mention that I think there are going to be a few questions asked about what happened here today, and I might need to sleep or something first.” First, he had to try to figure out where Bruce was.
“And that’s your final word?”
“I should have only ever had to say ‘no,’ but I guess I should be used to SHIELD ignoring that by now. But no more. You don’t want to cross me, Nick. I’ll continue to work with you if I think you’re doing the right thing, but if you aid or harbor her, all bets are off.” Tony yanked open the conference room door, finding all the rest of the team waiting right outside.
They all started to talk except Thor, who had been conspicuously silent the entire time, just watching Tony closely.
Tony held up a hand until he had silence. “I’ve made my position clear. All the facilities, gear, and, since the fall of SHIELD, even the damn name of the Avengers are owned by me or a company I control. You are all welcome at the new facility provided she’s not along and that no resources that I pay for be used to aid her. That’s all I have to say on the matter. There is no room for debate, and I’m not changing my mind.”
“Tony,” Steve began when Tony turned away.
“It’s all about you again, huh, Tony?” Romanoff prodded.
Tony slowly turned back, ignored Rogers, and pinned Romanoff with a look. She twitched. “That’s not going to work anymore, Nat. Jarvis is dead!” She winced. “None of you give a shit, I get it. But I’m not paying a single dime to help her.” He took a step closer to Romanoff, but she held her ground. “Bruce is my friend, and she fucked him over in the worst possible way. She made his greatest fear an actual reality. And how dare any of you stand there and say you want to help her. If you had to look him in the eye right now, would you still be justifying her actions?” Tony shook his head. “I’m done. You know my terms. Don’t test me.”
– – – –
Tony hesitated at the door to the stairwell, not wanting to do this but not really having a choice. He wished Rhodey were here, but Rhodey was busy debriefing with the Pentagon.
“Boss?” Friday said hesitantly. She’d performed admirably during the battle at Novi Grad, but she was so young and still figuring things out. “I’ll lose contact with you when you go in.”
“I know, baby girl. It’s fine.” The lab was a shambles, and Tony hadn’t integrated Friday in to the building systems because he needed to make sure Ultron hadn’t left anything malevolent behind, she had nominal access to building security features, but she didn’t yet have Jarvis’ reach, and all the feeds from the lab and party deck were still knocked out.
Pepper had already been hard at work getting structural assessments and arranging for work crews, but other than her personally escorting someone in to structurally inspect the floors where everything went to hell, no one had been in the lab since.
Pep had also been hard at damage control since there was very little fact circling in the media, but there was a hell of lot of speculation. She’d wanted to take a break from their relationship, but had promised it wouldn’t change anything about their friendship or her dedication to the company, and she was proving that as she tasked the SI PR team like a general on the battlefield.
Tony steeled himself and pushed open the door. The biometric scanners and security locks were all toast, and anyone could walk right in if they had access to the floor.
He looked around the lab, finding the destruction to be less than he remembered it, but also worse for that. Considering what had happened, and the cost, the space should be a blackened ruin.
He walked to the spot where Jarvis’ code had last been projected, feeling the anger and grief well up again.
Tony sat on a lab stool, feeling tired and defeated. He wasn’t sure where to even start fixing things. Because that’s what Tony did—he fixed things. But how could he fix this?
Rubbing his hand over his face, he mentally struggled for what to do next.
“Boss?” Happy’s voice startled him out of his reverie.
Tony jerked around, staring at where Happy stood in the doorway. “Happy… I thought you were keeping an eye on Pepper…?”
“She has an entire security team.” Happy’s expression didn’t give much away, but Tony could see the concern in his eyes. “How can I help?”
“I don’t know, Hap.” He looked around again, feeling unusually out of ideas.
“There has to be something.”
“I don’t suppose you know someone who knows something about magic?” he joked half-heartedly.
“Magic?” Happy looked incredulous.
“I’m not really serious. Except that it’s very serious.” Tony sighed. “This…person. Maximoff.” Tony ran his hands through his hair. Very dirty hair, he realized. Shower would have to come soon. And food. “She got inside our heads. I don’t really know how to explain what she did. The things we saw…” He closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “I don’t even know that the visions were the extent of her manipulations.”
“She messed with your mind?”
“More than mine. Hulk didn’t destroy Johannesburg of his own volition. I was on my own calming Hulk down because she’d gotten inside everyone else’s head. Except Barton, I think.”
Happy looked horrified. “Why do you think it’s magic?”
“I don’t know… What else do I call it? Mind manipulation isn’t the only thing she can do. She can move things with her power, blasts of energy…” He shrugged. “I don’t have any real understanding of what she did, but her powers came from that stone. As much as I hate to use the word, magic is all that comes to mind.”
“So we need someone who can consult on magical matter?” Happy sounded dubious.
“Forget I asked because that sounds ridiculous.”
“You said it.”
Happy moved closer. “You look like hell, Tony.” When Tony didn’t reply, Happy touched his shoulder. “Come on, let’s go upstairs. The residential floors are relatively unscathed.”
Tony let himself be maneuvered upstairs. Happy insisted on checking Tony’s ribs and head, proclaiming that Tony was battered but not broken.
“You shower, and I’ll order some food.”
Happy hesitated in the doorway. “I’m sorry about Jarvis.”
Tony squeezed his eyes shut. “Me too.”
After a beat of silence, Happy added, “I’ll get right on that magic thing.”
– – – –
Tony took a bite from his bagel, appetite nonexistent. Pepper had announced she’d be up later in the morning with an update on the situation. There were so many things Tony should be doing, but all he wanted to do was hide in bed and mourn. Sleep had happened for a few hours out of sheer exhaustion, but then all he could do was think.
Flailing and sending the bagel flying, Tony jumped off the couch, heart nearly beating out of his chest. Vision stood near the elevator, but Tony knew he hadn’t arrived that way.
“I apologize,” Vision offered quickly. “Your current privacy protocols prevented security from contacting you except in an emergency.”
The too-familiar voice caused a pang of grief again. The first thing he’d done when he got up in the wee hours of the morning was begin the hunt for any remnant of Jarvis besides the bits that had gone into creating Vision, but Ultron had been ruthless in wiping Jarvis from existence. Ultron had read Jarvis’ backup routines, seeking out every single storage location and destroying them. All that remained of Jarvis was now in Vision. But Vision wasn’t, and never would be, Tony’s Jarvis.
Tony took a shuddery breath, willing his heart to slow down. “So I gather this isn’t an emergency…?”
“I did not feel the matter rose to the level of an emergency, no.”
“Well, you’re always welcome here, Vision. I’d given your name to security as being allowed access, but I admit that I was tired and failed to account for the fact that they have no idea who ‘the Vision’ is, and I sincerely doubt you have ID.”
“Yes.” Vision looked awkward, though perhaps that was just Tony projecting. “You left the helicarrier without saying anything.”
“I’m sorry. I needed to get away, and I wasn’t really considering…everything or everyone.”
“May we speak about your decision to leave and not to allow Ms. Maximoff at the compound?”
“We can speak, but I’m not going to change my mind.”
Vision tilted his head to the side. “I simply wish to understand.”
Sighing, Tony gestured to one of the chairs. “Then have a seat.” He frowned at the bagel which was sitting cream cheese side down on the carpet. He decided to deal with it later.
He slowly walked through his reasoning, expounding more than he had with the Avengers, but the message was much the same. He explained about Nazis and Hydra and what that meant from his perspective. He talked frankly about the experience of having your mind violated, and how he wasn’t okay with being anywhere near someone who was willing to do such a thing. Grief and anger weren’t a valid excuse for violating someone’s will. And certainly not for turning someone into your murder puppet like she’d done with Bruce.
Vision listened to Tony, not interrupting even to ask clarifying questions.
When Tony was as finished as he was going to be, Vision stood and moved to the window to stare out at New York. “Initially, Ms. Romanoff and Mr. Rogers refused to tell me what had happened. Mr. Rogers said that you decided that you had the final say in who was allowed to be an Avenger and that you’d decided to persecute Ms. Maximoff, and that the rest of the team didn’t agree with you.”
“I see.” Tony stared at his hands, not sure how he felt about hearing that the team had ultimately decided to blow off his concerns about Wanda and blame his “ego” for everything.
“Late last night,” Vision continued, “Mr. Barton came to me, and we discussed the issue further. He was the first to tell me that you didn’t say she couldn’t be an Avenger, you simply said you wouldn’t pay to house or shelter her, and that she wasn’t welcome on any property you own.”
Tony blinked, surprised that it was Barton who had gotten involved. Clint was the original “I’m staying out of it” guy. “That’s true.”
Vision turned around to face Tony. “It seems…reasonable.”
“Yes. I do not think you should have to shelter someone who hurt you even if, in the end, they did a good deed.”
“And yet I’m confused.”
“I feel such an affinity for Ms. Maximoff, and so I’m torn over my desire to see her well cared for and my belief that you have the right to make the choice you’ve made, considering that I so easily understand your perspective.”
“Hmm.” Tony considered how to address Vision’s worries. “Don’t you think that’s a little odd? The affinity that is.”
“You don’t know her. And while you have pieces of Jarvis’ knowledge and experience, you are basically new to the world, so I wonder how you could have an affinity for anyone but me, to be honest. And that’s not ego.”
“I realize that. What I retained of Jarvis does predispose me to certain feelings of affection for you.”
“And the others? Aside from Maximoff.”
Vision considered for several seconds. “No, I feel no such affinity for them as yet—except for Thor. I feel I know enough to trust them in battle. Perhaps I have some more regard for Mr. Barton as a result of his honesty.”
“Honesty can be double-edged but, in this situation, I can see how it would be endearing. In the spirit of honesty, I’d like ask that you consider that it’s suspicious that the person you feel the most rapport with is the one whose powers come from the stone in your head.”
“I see.” Vision nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. It was such a human gesture that it took Tony’s breath away. “You think it’s possible that feeling similar power in her where I do not feel it from others might have created an artificial feeling of kinship.”
Tony wanted to gag, but he kept his expression neutral and forced himself to let Vision make up his own mind about this. “I think it’s worth considering.”
“Yes, it certainly is. Perhaps maintaining my distance while I consider my options and all the available data would be the wise course of action.” Vision took a step and then hesitated. “I do not know where I should go.”
“I told you you’re welcome here. And unless you try to bring Maximoff here, that will not change. You can go to the compound if you wish. Look—” Tony rubbed the back of his neck. “Jarvis… None of them got it, and I accepted that they’d never understand what he meant to me. But it was like losing my son.”
“Me being here is painful for you.”
“Yes but also no. But that wasn’t even where I was going…” Tony really hated talking about feelings. “You are not Jarvis, and I know that, but Jarvis had a hand in creating you. It feels…” he trailed off, not wanting to put undue pressure on Vision.
Vision watched him for several long seconds. “You think of me as your grandson?”
“That would be a fair assessment, yes. After a fashion.” Tony swallowed heavily. “You’re not a child and you don’t need my protection, but you have my support—in whatever way you need it.”
Vision nodded. “You have my thanks. I did not come here alone, however.”
Tony stood. “You brought Maximoff?”
“I would not disrespect you in such a way, Sir.”
Tony blinked at the honorific, eyes burning.
“Mr. Barton is in the lobby. He seemed troubled by something and more cautious about the plans of the other Avengers. While he states his desire to return to his family in the very near future, he did accompany me, hoping to speak with you.”
“Oh.” He blew out a breath. “I’ll call down and have security let him up.”
“Would you like me to stay while you speak with him?” Vision asked, sounding oddly gentle.
“I wouldn’t mind that.”
About ninety seconds later, the elevator doors opened and Clint Barton stepped out. He was looking like five miles of bad road. Rather a lot like how Tony felt.
“Legolas,” Tony greeted cautiously.
Barton didn’t say anything, just dropped his bag by the elevator and looked around. The floor was actually one of the guest floors, and had been previously unoccupied. It was rather sterile compared to Tony’s penthouse or the common areas.
“You want something to drink? Fridge is minimally supplied, but there’s water, tea…” He wasn’t going to offer alcohol because it wasn’t going to help the situation.
“Tea,” Barton replied hoarsely.
Tony grabbed a bottle of tea from the refrigerator and tossed it to Barton, who caught it easily. He took a seat on the couch and decided to wait it out to see what Barton wanted.
After a painfully long silence, Barton moved to sit in a chair that was across from Tony. “I need you to understand that me and Nat… We go back a long way.”
“I would never have guessed.”
Barton glanced away for a moment. “We’re family, and that doesn’t change whether we agree with each other about stuff or not.” He popped the top on the tea and drank heavily. “We back each other’s play, you know?”
Tony just nodded, not sure where Barton was going.
“The data dump, though… That was bullshit.” Barton rubbed his hand over his hair, making it spikier. “We got into a screaming match when I found out what had happened. If Fury hadn’t kept my info out of the digital records, Nat would have dumped my family’s info along with everything else.”
“Or she’d have found a way to scrub your data out of it.”
“Which would only make it worse.” Barton shook his head, staring at the bottle of peach tea like it held the answers to the universe. “She did it because she knew our information wouldn’t be there, but I still don’t understand how she could burn everyone we ever worked with like that. And I didn’t say anything to you at the time, but thank you for saving as many as you could.”
Tony nodded stiffly, still worried about where this was going.
“Anyway, Nat and I fought about it, but we’re family, and that doesn’t change when one of us fucks up. But it kind of put me in a weird position because I…” he trailed off and shook his head.
“I get it.”
“Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t judge me for it, but you probably should because you had to clean up the mess, and all I had to do was stand behind her.”
“It is what it is. Just let it go.”
“Yeah, but I can’t. Because, when we fought, I warned her that if she crossed the line again, I wasn’t going to pretend to be supportive. She’s still family, and I love her, but she knew I wasn’t gonna back her play if she stuck her foot in it again.”
Tony leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “And you think she has?”
“I honestly don’t know, but after what you said, about being controlled, I started wondering if I was being influenced. I didn’t feel like I was, I was sure I wasn’t in fact.”
“Thinking about it rationally, I don’t think his sacrifice is enough to shake my opinion about being mind controlled, and yet my opinion was shaken. I was the one we didn’t think she got to, but what if she did? Or what if the influence was subtle?”
Tony just shrugged. He didn’t have any answer to those questions.
“I talked to Nat about it, and she agreed that we can’t know for sure if Maximoff is influencing us, but she said it was important to be united and follow Steve’s lead. Steve’s lead. Like he was more important than me.” Barton made a face. “And that sounds petty.”
“Not petty. You put aside serious reservations about something she’d done to support her, and when you had grave concerns about something, she told you to do right by someone else.”
“Yeah. That.” Barton rubbed his head again. “I got her to talk to me about what she’d seen, you know? From Maximoff. She and Steve were both pretty messed up by what Maximoff did. You weren’t there, Tony. Well, I mean, of course you were there, but you were wrestling with the Hulk. I know how screwed up they were.”
“I saw the after-effects. They were pretty shell-shocked.”
“Yeah. And yet they were both willing to let what she’d done go and go to bat for her just because she changed sides rather than, you know, die. And I feel the same way. I feel like we should give her another chance, help her, but I know that doesn’t logically make sense. Not coming from me.” He blew out a breath. “So I decided I needed to get away. Go home to my family and see if I can get my head together.”
“Sounds like a good plan.”
“Not like you to have so little to say.”
“I haven’t usually lost quite so much.”
“Yeah. Sorry about Jarvis.”
Tony just shook his head and looked back at his hands.
“Anyway, I went to find Vision to let him know what I’d been thinking and fill him in about everything. We decided to come find you, explain some stuff, and see how you’re doing.”
Tony searched for something flip, but it wouldn’t come. “It’s not one of my better days.”
“She’s…around.” Tony sighed. The usual deflections didn’t seem worth the effort. “We’re on a break. Have been for a while. She needed space from all the Avenging. And from me.”
Barton winced. “Sorry, man.”
“Hardly your fault.”
“So, uh, are you going to explain to anyone what actually happened? How Ultron came into being and all that?”
“I don’t even understand it.”
“Well, Thor was really clear the thing we called Ultron wasn’t really the program you created—it came from within the mind stone.”
“Yeah, I heard that when Vision came into being, but I don’t even know what that means.”
“He’ll have to explain it. Too much of it sounded like science fiction to me, and while I could repeat what he said, I couldn’t answer any questions.”
“Maximoff was going on and on about how Ultron came from Stark, and Thor finally lost it. Told her that the thing we fought came from the gem in the scepter. That it was probably planted there by some big bad. That you didn’t create something so malevolent, but that your programming gave it something to consume on its way into being. Or something like that. It sounded fucking poetic when he said it. Terrifying, but poetic.”
“Maybe Point Break will be able to fill me in sometime.” Tony should be more curious, he really should be, but just wanted this over with. He wanted to go back to science and tech, but he most certainly did not want the nightmares of what he’d seen on repeat in his mind.
“Look, I’ll get out of your hair shortly, but one last thing… Fury’s pretty convinced your resolve won’t hold about keeping Maximoff out of the compound. When they finish up with whatever they’re doing, they’re headed there.”
Tony scowled, “Yeah, I don’t fucking think so.”
“Just a heads up.” Barton got to his feet.
“If you need to rush off to Big Agent and the Little Agents, that’s good, but if you’re leaving to get out of my hair, you don’t need to. Take some time if you need it.” He gestured to one of the hallways. “There are five bedrooms. Just don’t take the one I’m crashing in.”
Barton hesitated. “I’ll take you up on that. At least until I see if there’s a problem at the compound.”
“I don’t need backup.”
“Yeah, you do.” Barton sighed, looking impossibly weary. “I’m going to pick out a room and sleep for a week.” He got to his feet, and hesitated, looking like he wanted to say something else. He shook his head. “It may be morning, but I’m going to sleep as long as humanly possible. Wake me if there’s a problem.”
“I’ll be staying as well,” Vision added.
He watched as they both walked together toward the bedrooms. Tony’s desire to wallow in his grief was still there, but he decided it was time to get to work. He needed to clear the tower server farm and make sure it was safe for Friday.
– – – –
“Tones, you gotta give me something more.” Rhodey sounded frustrated, and Tony could understand why—he sure the hell wouldn’t want to talk to the Joint Chiefs. Apparently, it was happening repeatedly.
“I got nothin’, Platypus. My report is my report is my report.” He flicked away another server diagnostic.
“Could you focus on me for a second?”
He regretted making this a video call. “You’ve known me since I was a skinny kid, Rhodey, you know I never do only one thing at a time.”
“Yeah, I know that. I’m not talking about doing things, I want you to look at me.”
Tony huffed and turned on the stool to face the display. “What?”
“Tell me what you’re leaving out.”
“No! Stop deflecting. We’ve got two sides here, Tones. The fucking bizarre thing is that both sides are basically saying the same thing.” Rhodey held up a hand when Tony opened his mouth. “Let me recap why this is confusing. The accounts of what happened up through Novi Grad blowing the fuck up are more or less consistent.” He waved two sheaves of paper. “Then you come back alone and deny access to Wanda Maximoff and anyone who attempts to help her gain entry to any Stark owned or controlled property. Which I totally get and support because what she did was bullshit.
“But then some Android you’re calling ‘the Vision,’ who is what’s left of Jarvis, shows up with Clint Barton. Barton leaves the next morning to return home, but you don’t know where that is and have no way of contacting him.”
Rhodey pointed at him. “Let me finish, don’t agree or disagree, just hush. Now, Barton and Vision both express some reservations about the effects Maximoff might have had on them or may still have on them. The day Barton leaves, the rest of the Avengers show up at the compound with Maximoff in tow, apparently deciding to test your resolve.
“At which point, security denied them access, and they started to make an issue about it, but Thor made sure they left. Apparently because he was only sticking with them to see if they’d honor your wishes…?” When there was silence for several seconds, Rhodey prompted, “Well?”
“Am I allowed to speak now?”
He rolled his eyes. “Security alerted me while the rest of the team were arguing outside of the gates. You got the footage, you know what happened. Maximoff looked like she might be using her powers, at least, that’s what I assume the red glowing hands are all about, but Thor stepped in and said he wasn’t going to allow them to disregard my wishes.”
“Explain that part. Why did he even allow it to get that far?”
“Afterward, I spoke with him for like five whole minutes, trying to understand what was up. He said absolutely nothing on board the helicarrier during our disagreement or to me directly, keeping his own counsel the whole time. I assumed he agreed with the team, but there was that stuff I heard from Barton about how Thor was defending me about the origins of Ultron. As for why he prevented them from entering… It’s easy to forget that Thor is a prince, you know? And whatever he feels about Maximoff or Ultron is completely separate from his view on my rights when it comes to my property and assets. He’s very black and white on the subject. If I say someone isn’t allowed on my property, that’s the end of the discussion as far as he’s concerned.”
“And does he actually care about what Maximoff did or not?”
“I’d say his feelings are mixed on the subject. He finds the mental manipulation reprehensible, but he also sees her as a ‘great asset in battle.’ And so I asked him if he would ever feel safe that she wasn’t messing with his mind. To which he said that he could admit that he would not be able to extend that sort of trust to her, but that her tampering with his mind led him to a significant revelation—whatever that means—and so it wasn’t all bad. Anyway, he volunteered to stay at the compound for a couple days to ensure they wouldn’t try to gain entry, and then he plans to come here. Meaning he’ll be here tomorrow. But I could send him your way first.” He smiled sweetly.
“Don’t even.” Rhodey’s expression filled with exasperation. “And I come back to there’s something missing because, Tony, everything reads like you created this malevolent force.”
Tony winced. “Sort of.”
“Don’t give me that crap! I know you. You wouldn’t code a malevolent AI if your life depended on it!”
“The consciousness was actually inside the infinity stone, according to Thor. But…” he trailed off and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t understand how it happened. The mind stone had something like a neural network and we were trying to interface it to the Ultron program to create an actual AI, but we didn’t actually have an interface, and that’s not the same thing as a consciousness. It’s just… It makes no sense. And the thing that took the name Ultron kept talking about being asleep.”
“Okay, so alien artifact means we don’t have clear answers. But why were you so set on it in the first place? Three days to make an AI? Really? And why keep it from the team? You said in your report that since you only had three days, you knew you needed to act quickly, which meant you didn’t have time to argue with the team. And everyone else says that only you and Banner knew what was going on. That you put them in danger without disclosing it.”
Tony opened his mouth to defend not telling the team, or to dispute that he’d knowingly put them in danger, but then he snapped his mouth shut and considered for a second. “I don’t know what to tell you, Rhodey. I know if you asked me independent of this if three days was enough time to study that scepter, I’d say no. If you asked me if three days was enough time to even write the interface much less integrate the AI, I’d say no. But if you ask me if three days was enough time to do what we did, I’d say yes. I know that’s a contradiction—I know it—but it doesn’t change that it makes sense to me.”
“And Maximoff got in your head before you even picked up the scepter?”
“So everything you did with that scepter is potentially suspect because you might have been influenced.”
“No.” Tony winced. “Yes.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “I fucking hate this.”
“I need to know what happened when she got in your head? What’d you see?”
“I need to know, Tony. Rogers and Romanoff don’t want to be forthcoming either, but it was definitely based on events in their past—they weren’t specific, but they gave us that much. Was it Afghanistan for you?” Rhodey cocked his head to the side. “Is your hesitance to talk to me you being you or is this possibly her influence.”
And Tony couldn’t even answer that damn question because how could he know what was him and what was her in all this because it all felt like him even if he knew he was illogical? He’d been reckless at times, that was true, but he’d never been cavalier about other people’s safety. He’d never think he could handle an AI interface in three days. That alone gave him the impetus he needed to answer Rhodey’s question.
“I saw the world burn.” He rubbed the back of his neck, wishing he could unsee it. “I saw everyone dead. That army in space I saw when I sent that nuke at the Chitauri… There were more. A lot more. And they killed us all.”
Rhodey’s expression was pinched. “So you saw a vision of the future, not the past?”
“I’m a futurist, Sugar Bear, why would I see a vision of the past?”
“Tony.” Rhodey sighed. “Setting aside the mental manipulation part of this, do you think it’s possible they could be coming for us?”
“Hell yes. I thought that before this. And maybe that’s what she did—bring up our worst fears. I sent a report to the Joint Chiefs after the Chitauri and told them that there was no way the single nuke took care of the army in space that I saw.”
“I read the report. Analysis was that the army was under the control of Loki and Loki was in prison on Asgard and therefore the threat had been neutralized.”
Tony blinked. He’d been blown off by the Pentagon, but he had no idea they’d decided there was no issue at all. Them stonewalling him was why he’d been so intent on the Ultron program. “That’s quite a leap. It seems improbable that Loki had his little issue on Asgard, fell into space and then happened to stumble on a huge army that was eager to follow him?”
“But he had the scepter.”
“Which he didn’t get on Asgard, and…” Tony trailed off, eyes widening with alarm.
“Loki had the scepter.”
“The scepter that controls minds.”
Rhodey winced. “And considering what happened to him and how little time he had to amass an army, it’s unlikely the scepter or the army are his. And even if they were his, why would he come here and not go after Asgard?”
“Right. And he might not have done any of that of his own free will.” Tony groaned, rubbing his hands over his face. “His eyes were blue when I first encountered him, and there was so much going on that I never even paid attention to his eyes at the end, but I do know his whole demeanor was different after Hulk redecorated with him.”
“As fascinating as that is, does Loki even matter at this point?”
“No, probably not, but I’m going to dig through my old security footage because Thor deserves to know if Loki’s free will was violated. And while Loki doesn’t matter as far as we’re concerned, that there might be someone behind that who’s still coming certainly does matter.”
“Point. I’ll let you handle Thor, but I’ll put a bug in people’s ear that Loki’s actions might be a product of that scepter. Might give them a more reservation about people who can manipulate minds.”
“They don’t already have reservations about that?”
“Some do, but Rogers has already been talking to people. He’s going to be meeting with several generals, putting his spin on things, and there’s already discussion of this going before the Senate.”
“Jesus.” Tony blew out a breath.
“But if Loki was being controlled by the thing that gave Maximoff her powers, that might show things in a different light than whatever narrative Rogers wants to spin.”
“Well, we don’t know for sure about Loki, but we can probably confirm it pretty easily with some security footage. It’s not like I don’t have all the crap from SHIELD thanks to the damn data dump.”
Rhodey frowned. “That anyone in the Senate or at the Pentagon would take Rogers’ opinion to heart after that piece of work is crazy.”
“Preaching to the choir.”
“You do realize it’s going to make them nervous about Vision, correct?”
“I need to do some more research into the stone before I can counter those worries. I have some theories, but not enough facts to actually counter their concerns, so… I need time.”
“People are screaming for answers. You may not have as much time as you want, and you really need to get in front of whatever Rogers is up to. Don’t let him control the narrative.”
Tony ran a hand over his face. This was the last thing he wanted to do, but he saw Rhodey’s point. “I hear you.”
“Hearing me and agreeing to take action are not the same thing, but I figure that’s the best I’m going to get. I gotta go. Another meeting in five minutes.”
“Before you go, any luck on finding the quinjet Bruce was in?”
“We got nothing. We can’t get past your cloaking tech, which would normally be a good thing, but obviously not now. But I’ll keep an eye on the situation.”
Tony was worried about Bruce, but there wasn’t anything he could do if Bruce didn’t want to be found.
They signed off and Tony sent a quick email to Pepper, explaining the issues Rhodey had raised and asking if she had any suggestions for how to “control the narrative.” He made a face. He hadn’t wanted to approach the situation with justifications and defenses, but if Rogers and Romanoff were set to defend Maximoff—probably at Tony’s expense, based on everything Rhodey had said—then he’d have to do something.
“Mr. Stark,” Vision said from over his shoulder.
Tony gave a start of surprise. “God, I’m getting you a bell. Also, I thought we agreed on Tony.”
“No, you said to call you ‘Tony,’ but I did not agree to it.”
“Is it a problem?”
“It feels…wrong.” Vision looked disconcerted.
“Is this because of the parts of you that are Jarvis or because you feel you need to be formal with me?”
“Okay, then. What can I do for you?”
“I have finished reviewing all the code, and have found no traces of anything suspicious, but I have highlighted some security vulnerabilities. I believe Jarvis monitored much of this directly, but perhaps Ms. Friday is too new in her development to be able to function at the same scale.” He handed over the tablet he’d been working with.
“Yeah, that’s likely. She’ll be able to fill in these gaps as she gains experience, but I’ll need to come up with a solution in the interim.” Tony rubbed his hand over his face. “Pepper has had a couple trusted SI people open up the mansion for me. Being in the tower is making me edgy, and I’d prefer not to be in residence where people who are angry can direct their ire at where my employees are working. It should be ready tomorrow or the day after. You want to join me? You could stay here or go to the compound. Or get an apartment in San Francisco. I mean, whatever you want, I’ll support your decision.”
Vision dipped his head in acknowledgment. “For now, I’d like to help. I need more time to acclimate, to learn. So, I’ll join you at the mansion and work here to help with the clean-up and fixing the security systems.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Tony needed to be doing work here as well, but he was desperate to get some time away from what felt like Jarvis’ tomb. He glanced over to where Dum-E and U were in their charging docks. They’d been very quiet since Jarvis’ death. He’d worried they’d been damaged, but they showed no signs of it. He’d get Vision to help him move them to the mansion tomorrow and then run some diagnostics on them.
– – – –
“You ready, Viz?” Tony called from the mansion kitchen.
“Indeed,” Vision replied as he phased through a wall, making Tony’s heart skip a beat.
“Bell,” Tony muttered. “Let’s get this show on the road. I want to get the kids ready for transport today.” The FBI and their ongoing investigation had derailed Tony’s plans yesterday, so he was a day behind on getting the kids transported to the mansion.
Being in the mansion was odd. Tony hated it, but, at the same time, some of the memories were welcome. Tony had left his father’s lab alone all these years, but now he planned to gut it. His father was gone, but Tony was still here, and the mansion either needed to be used or he needed to get rid of it. He was going to give using it a try.
Tony settled into the front seat of one of his Acuras. One of the less well-known ones. There were some minor crowds gathering around the tower, yelling for answers about Sokovia and the Avengers. People expected Tony to come and go in his Iron Man suit, so he was trying to play it low key for now and sneak into the underground parking structure in a run-of-the-mill car.
Vision floated into the passenger seat. “This vehicle is quite small.” He prodded the glove box where his knees were touching.
“That’s what you get for being so tall.”
They’d barely been on the road five minutes when Friday said, “Boss, Mr. Rogers is calling again.”
Tony sighed. “You still up for giving him the runaround, baby girl?”
“I’m good. I’ve been doing research on how to handle these situations.”
“Well, let’s hear it then.”
Rogers had started calling yesterday, and Friday had been stonewalling him so far.
“Stark residence, how may I help you?” Friday’s voice came clearly over the car speakers.
Tony grinned at how bright and cheery she sounded in her lilting accent.
“Friday, this is Steve again. I need to speak with Tony.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rogers, but Boss is unavailable.”
Grinning, Tony picked up his coffee.
“I sincerely doubt that. Could you just put him on? Tell him it’s urgent.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rogers. Boss has a busy day.”
“Doing what?” Steve snapped.
“He has to wash his hair.”
Tony spit his coffee all over the dash, choking on laughter.
“His hair?” Steve repeated incredulously.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, Mr. Rogers, and Boss needs to look his best.”
Tony was barely managing to keep the car in the lane for fighting back laughter.
“I’m sorry, he won’t be available on Friday either. Call again!” There was a click. “You wanker.”
“I’d chastise you for your language, baby girl, but I’m just too amused right now. Did you research common excuses for getting out of things?” He wasn’t even going to touch the Mr. Rogers bit.
“Naturally.” She hesitated. “Was that okay?”
“You’re perfect, Friday. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”
– – – –
They made it into the underground parking area without being noticed by the small crowd and the straggling members of the press.
“Boss, security reports that Mr. Odinson has finally arrived. Ms. Potts is conversing with him in the conference room outside her offices until you can retrieve him.”
“I’ll swing by on my way up to the lab, but he could have gone on up. I haven’t revoked Thor’s access.”
“Ms. Potts requested a few minutes with Mr. Odinson.”
“Lord. Okay, thanks.”
“Also, Mr. Hogan asked that I let you know he has the thing you asked for.”
“The thing I asked for?” Tony repeated dumbly.
“I didn’t know what he was referring to, Boss.”
“Um, I’m not sure either. I’ve asked Happy for a few things, but…” Tony parked and made a dismissive gesture. “Whatever. Just tell him to leave it in the lab. I’ll be working in there all day getting the sensitive stuff boxed up for security to store and the bots ready for transport. I don’t want to delay repair work any longer.” Part of him wanted to close off the lab and never enter it again, but he didn’t want that destruction to be entombed along with Jarvis’ memory. He needed to restore it even if he wasn’t sure how he felt about working there again.
“I’ll tell him to meet you in the lab.”
“Do you wish me to accompany you to see Thor?” Vision asked.
“Up to you.”
“I think my time would be better spent running diagnostics on the new servers that Ms. Friday will be installed on.”
“That’d be brilliant, thank you, Vision.”
“I’ll be in the server farm if you have need of me.”
Tony found things in Pepper’s conference room to be tense. Well, Pepper was calmly sipping tea, and looking entirely too pleased with herself. But Thor was definitely tense.
“Good morning, Tony,” Pepper said with a sad smile as she got to her feet.
“Morning. I see you’ve got a god of thunder as your deco this morning.”
Thor got to his feet and cleared his throat. “Ms. Potts was taking me to task—”
Thor held up his hand. “When Ultron first appeared at the end of the party, I reacted poorly and failed to take mortal fragility into account when I accosted you. Ms. Potts has pointed out how damaging my actions could have been, and I regret my lapse, Tony. You have my most sincere apologies. I will do better.”
Tony opened his mouth to deflect, to tell Thor it was no big deal, but Pepper sent him a hard look, and he clicked his mouth shut. “Thank you, Thor, I appreciate the apology. It wasn’t anyone’s best day.”
“Indeed not. I would like to speak with you further, but I think Ms. Potts would like to have a word, and I desire to see Vision again.”
“Vis is down in the server farm. If you’ll head to the elevator, Friday will take you to the right floor and get you access.”
Thor inclined his head. “I shall join you later and assist you in clearing the lab.”
“Right. Uh, thanks.” Tony fidgeted awkwardly until the door clicked shut behind Thor. “You needed something?” he asked Pepper.
Looking tired, Pepper gestured to a chair. “Sit, Tony. Let’s talk for a minute.”
“Talk or talk.”
“The latter.” As soon as he was seated, she extended a hand, and he reached out and let her take his hand between hers. “When I heard about your disagreement with the Avengers, I was stupidly relieved. I thought ‘maybe now, he’ll stop.’ But you won’t, will you? You’re not going to stop being Iron Man.”
Tony sighed. “Avenging or no, I will always be Iron Man, Pep. You’ve known that since we got involved. Did you really think I’d stop?”
She nodded. “I thought you would…for me.” He started to pull his hand away, but her grip tightened. “I realized yesterday that that was what was rattling around in the back of my mind. That, someday, you’d love me enough to give up being Iron Man. And before you say anything, I know that’s not fair. I know it’s not right that I came into our relationship expecting you to give up something so fundamental. Especially since I’d never even told you. Truthfully, I’d never told myself.”
“Pep, I’m so—”
“No, don’t apologize. If a man came into a relationship with me, expecting me to change who I was, I’d kick him in the nuts. I just didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. At least, not until I thought about coming over to the mansion last night and having a glass of wine with you, getting back together because Iron Man was finally over with.”
Tony flinched and did pull his hand away.
“I’m sorry, Tony.” Pepper’s expression was sad. Tony knew deep in his heart that their break wasn’t just a break. “I’m sorry about all the arguments over Iron Man, and I’m really sorry that I was planning on coming over on what was probably one of the worst days of your life so that I could celebrate you giving up Iron Man. It was when I’d realized that you’d never really said those words that I got a good look at what I was doing.”
“I don’t understand why I have to give up that in order to have us.” Tony didn’t need this right now, but if their relationship was going to be over, he wanted something.
“Because I’m not that girl, Tony. I never have been. I’m not the one who can see her partner go off to war. It’s a weakness, and I know that, but I’ve made a list. I will not date active military, police officers, federal agents, firemen, and definitely no Avengers. I just…” She shook her head. “I don’t have it in me to watch you nearly die over and over and then keep my mouth shut when I want to beg you to stop. I’ve always thought of myself as being really strong, but I’m not…at least, not in this way.”
“So that’s it?”
“For us? Yes. Because if we stay together now, when you’re vulnerable and things with the Avengers are rocky, I won’t be able to stop myself from asking you to quit. And asking again. And again. You deserve support, and I think the only way I can give that to you is as your friend and your CEO.”
Tony just nodded, not sure what else there was to say.
He’d lost Jarvis, now his relationship was over. And maybe it said something about the state of their relationship that Jarvis was the much harder blow to handle.
They talked for a few minutes, catching up on small things and reviewing the things Pepper was doing, but Tony was eager to get away and lose himself in work.
– – – –
The elevator opened into the remains of Tony’s lab, and while Tony knew the work needed to be done, he dreaded the day to come. He rubbed his forehead as he stepped off the elevator, fighting off a headache and mentally organizing how to proceed with the day.
“Gah!” Tony jerked around and found Happy and a weirdly dressed bald lady standing in one of the less-destroyed areas. “I’m getting everyone a bell!”
“Sorry, Boss. Friday said you wanted us to meet you here…?”
Tony blinked in confusion. “Did I know you were bringing…?” he waved vaguely toward baldie.
“Uh, yeah, Boss. You said you needed someone who knows something about magic.” Happy rubbed the back of his neck, looking uncertain. “I took me a few days to find someone, and then they referred me to, um, I still don’t know her name, but the guy called her the Ancient One.”
“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ,” Tony muttered under his breath.
“Not quite that old,” the woman said in an even tone, hands clasped behind her back.
Tony blinked. “Pardon me?”
“While I’m old, I’m not quite as old as the Nazarene.”
Tony looked to Happy. “Is this a joke?”
“I wouldn’t do that to you, Boss.”
Tony crossed his arms as he slouched back against the wall and looked back at the supposed Ancient One. “Magic? Really?”
She gave a very faint smile. “I’m the head of a magical order who protect the Earth from inter-dimensional threats.”
“Uh-huh. And you came at Happy’s behest because you had some free time?”
“Your Mr. Hogan was given the contact information of one of my people here in New York. When the situation was explained, I was consulted to see if our order would involve itself. Considering the situation, I felt I should handle matters myself rather than involving the order directly. Our energies and attention are devoted to keeping the barrier between dimensions intact; there are other forces for handling intra-dimensional threats, no?”
“You mean the Avengers?”
“As an example, yes. The military, the police…the list is long. Other teams of enhanced humans have formed around the world. But the Masters of the Mystic Arts keep beings that could consume our entire world at bay. However, an infinity stone on Earth at the root of these problems does change things a bit.”
Tony straightened up. “That term hasn’t been offered up to the public.”
She offered another serene smile. “I don’t need a press briefing to inform me of the mysteries of the universe, Dr. Stark. I take it the issue between us is one of skepticism. Is it that you doubt I might be able to help you or that you doubt I have magic?”
“Any and all of the above.”
“The method I typically employ with skeptics is not one I’d choose to use with you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because after only a few minutes in your presence, I’ve ascertained that you’ve been abused by someone with mystical powers—what you might call magic—and the taint of that hangs about you like a shroud.”
“My apologies for being so blunt, but I assumed the mental intrusion you experienced is why you were seeking help.”
Tony scrubbed his hand over his face. “In part, yeah.” He shot his long-time friend a smile that felt rather pathetic. “Thanks, Hap. I’ve got it from here.”
“You sure, Boss?” He shot the Old Bald One a look. “You sure it’s safe?”
“I have no idea, but if she can do a fraction of what Maximoff can do, then it wouldn’t matter if there were thirty of us in here. Also, I’m pretty sure you were alone with her.”
“Yeah, Boss, but it’s my job to protect you, not the other way around.”
Tony wanted to laugh but barely managed a smile. “It’s fine, Happy. And, thanks. You always come through for me.”
“Not always, but I’m glad I could help this time.”
Happy gave Ancient Lady a warning look before heading for the elevator. “By the way, is Friday hooked up in here?”
“Not even a little bit, Hap, but I fixed the relays that allow signals to travel in the lab so she’s monitoring on my watch.”
“Guess that’s good enough, then.” With obvious reluctance, Happy entered the elevator.
When the door closed, Tony blew out a breath. “Baby girl, send up Viz when he can break from his work, would you?”
“Do you want me to tell him anything, Boss?”
“No, just that I need him for something. I don’t want to interrupt the work he’s doing.”
Baldie had her head cocked to the side. “What is she?”
Tony shook his head, not wanting to get into it. “She’s just a computer program.”
“That is untrue, Dr. Stark. I’ve been feeling an aura of death in this room, but it’s not the death of a life form I’m familiar with. And, yet, the young woman you speak with through your watch feels similar. I only felt her when she spoke to you.”
Tony’s breath caught, and his eyes burned. He glanced away, blinking furiously. “You can feel Jarvis?”
“All life resonates, and their passing will leave almost a counter resonance for a time. Not every sorcerer feels these resonances, but those who are sensitive learn to disregard it as people enter and exit the world constantly. But every type of life feels different. I’ve never felt this before.”
Tony decided to trust when he had no reason to. “Jarvis was an AI…Artificial Intelligence. I created his code, nurtured him for decades. He sacrificed himself to help defeat Ultron, and what was left of him went into Vision. I’ve always believed Jarvis had achieved true sentience, but the few times I’d ever shared that, no one believed it could possibly be true.”
The supposed sorcerer stepped a little closer. “I didn’t have a sense of your living child until she activated herself through your watch. She has life, Dr. Stark, never doubt that. It may not be what others perceive as life, but we need not let our thinking be so limited.”
Feeling himself unbending toward her a little, he nodded tightly. “I’ve always tried not to be a limited thinker.”
“That is patently obvious to any who care to look. So do try to be as open-minded about what you might call magic.”
“And what do you call it?”
“Magic is as good a shorthand as any, but the founder of our order, named Agamotto, found that he could draw power from other dimensions to power what we call spells.”
“So, it’s an extra-dimensional energy?”
“Which is different than the infinity stones, right?”
“Yes, but also not necessarily.” She smiled at him in that serene way he was finding a little annoying. “What do you know of the infinity stones?”
“Less than I would like.”
“Six singularities created the universe. Four of the cosmic entities took these powerful forces of creation and made the infinity stones from them.”
“There are many cosmic entities, but in the four in question are some of the most powerful: Death, Entropy, Infinity, and Eternity.”
“You say that like they’re actual beings and not…” he trailed off, not sure how to phrase it.
He made a face then made a get-on-with-it gesture.
“As I was saying, the infinity stones combined have the power to make or unmake universes; other dimensions are well within the scope. So while the power sorcerers draw is dimensional energy, I am not unfamiliar with the power of an infinity stone. It is not dissimilar to dimensional energy.”
“Have you ever even seen one.”
“I have.” Her lips twitched slightly. “I’m much older than I look.”
Tony couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped. “Ancient One, right?”
“It’s what I am called, yes.”
“So, can you help me?”
“What help do you require, Dr. Stark?”
Tony wasn’t sure how or even what to ask. “I guess I should start at the beginning.”
“I find all the best stories start there.”
– – – –
They’d adjourned to the guest floor Tony’d stayed in briefly before moving to the mansion just so he could at least offer a comfortable place to sit while he explained the saga of Ultron and everything that happened with Maximoff.
The Ancient One listened attentively and rarely even interjected to ask questions. Vision joined them about twenty minutes into the retelling of Ultron, and while she was obviously curious about the stone in his head, she didn’t want the retelling stopped even for that.
When the telling was finished, and Tony still wasn’t sure what to ask for, she said, “I have some idea of what might help but, first, with Mr. Vision’s permission, I’d like to magically examine him and the stone.”
“That’s up to Vis,” Tony said firmly.
“I would welcome your assessment, Ancient One,” Vision said respectfully.
She offered Vision a more full smile than anything Tony had received and then sat next to him on one of the sofas. Then she simply pressed her thumb to the stone for the longest time. When she finally pulled her hand away, she said, “I’m going to channel some dimensional energy now, Vision. I assure you, nothing will harm you.”
“Of course,” Vision said calmly.
Then her hands lit up with these spinning gold discs with a variety of symbols that were constantly shifting. Tony just stared in astonishment, wishing he had a functional lab that could constantly take readings.
Vision watched closely but didn’t interrupt anything she did as she moved her hands around, the symbols constantly changing.
When she finished, she made a vague “hm” noise then moved closer to Tony. “May I read you? There will be nothing done to you, I give you my word.”
He was hesitant to let someone use magic on him but wondered how much of his resistance was him and how much was the inexplicable effect of Maximoff’s magic.
The Ancient One simply touched her hands to Tony’s head, closing her eyes, expression conveying nothing. Tony didn’t feel anything, but he hadn’t felt anything with Maximoff either. He wasn’t sure if it was whatever magical detection she was doing or just that the vision he’d seen was never far from his mind, but the haunting imagery of the horrible devastation he’d seen wrought by the Chitauri rose up sharply in his mind’s eye. He had to fight not to flinch away.
After several moments, she dropped her hands, opened her eyes, and stepped back. Folding her hands in front of her, she looked from Vision to Tony. After a silence that tested Tony’s patience, she finally said, “The infinity stones are a neutral force in the universe; like many things, they can be used for good or for ill. Each of the stones was been contained in a vessel of some sort. You are familiar with the mind stone being in the scepter originally, and the space stone you’ve encountered fuels the tesseract.
“These devices, for lack of a better term, can put limits on how the stone is used. For instance, the space stone has many potential applications, but the tesseract was designed to power portals through space.”
“And the scepter was designed for mind control?” Tony asked.
“Primarily, yes. A device to exert control. But the being who controlled Loki with the scepter had another purpose for it. The consciousness that took the name Ultron was an extension of this being’s will, his desire to subjugate. I believe that consciousness attached itself to the stone when the scepter was destroyed. It was not a function of the mind stone itself. The stone is untainted.
“However, anyone who obtained ‘powers’ from the mind stone while it was in the scepter with the malevolence present…” she trailed off with a minute shake of her head.
“The malevolence was sleeping, though,” Tony insisted.
“Yes, but its presence shaped the function of the scepter and how the energy of the stone was directed. It could certainly affect the nature of the powers obtained through the stone. I sense no taint on Vision, but I do still sense powers related to the mind stone about you, Dr. Stark.”
Tony swallowed heavily. “I’m still being controlled?”
“I don’t believe so. Or, rather, not about anything new. To offer it in computer terms—”
“You’re up on modern technology?”
She smiled faintly, but it didn’t seem to convey any real humor. “I am of this world, Dr. Stark. Computers have their place.”
“Yeah, okay. Sorry. What’s this analogy?”
“My sense is it would be like inserting an instruction into the code of an operating system. Even if no new instructions were given—”
“The bad instruction is still there.” Tony rubbed his temples. “It’s like malware. That’s why I can’t reconcile my feelings about how long it takes to create an AI versus how long I thought it would take to bring Ultron online.”
“Yes, whatever drove you to act, that artificial impetus is still present, so it makes sense to you even if it’s not logical.”
“But Vision is okay?”
“Quite all right.” She nodded to Vision. “I would almost say the stone is at peace with Vision after being misused for so long.”
Vision stepped a little closer, expression conveying concern for Tony. “Can anything be done for Sir?”
She cocked a brow and looked to Tony. “Magic would be involved.”
Tony perked up. “This can be fixed?”
“I can purge whatever magic is still influencing you.” She hesitated. “I could also imbue an object with mental protections to prevent her from mentally controlling you again.”
He blinked a few times. “Why would you do that for me?”
Her smile seemed a little sad. “While my order stays out of the public view in order to carry out our work, I am keenly aware that we will have no work to do if the planet is destroyed or subjugated. While we may primarily focus on inter-dimensional threats, you focus on the more immediate, tangible dangers. I will help how I can. And if the threat is exigent enough, we will be there to fight with you.”
“I appreciate that.” Tony vowed to buy Happy a new car for finding actual magical people and bringing them into his tower to fix his fucked up head. “So, how do we do this?”
“I can purge the magical residue from you immediately. If you have an object for me to take, I can return it to you in a day or two. A piece of jewelry would be best. Magic can be imbued into any substance but it bonds to metal more quickly than leather or fibers.”
“I’ll get something.” He hesitated. “We have a couple of other people who were affected by her…?”
“I will be willing to offer them the same cleansing and protections.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, not sure what else to say considering the monumental thing she was doing for him.
– – – –
“I don’t know what to tell you, Platypus. I can’t just conjure a sorcerer whenever I want.”
“Tony.” Rhodey sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. He was visiting in person for the first time since the Ultron debacle. Tony still wasn’t completely comfortable in the mansion, but the kitchen held strong memories of Edwin and Ana Jarvis, so he tended to meet with people sitting on stools at the huge kitchen island.
Getting a little more serious, Tony offered, “What do you want me to say, Rhodey? These people have a specific mission, and answering questions for the Joint Chiefs or the UN or whoever isn’t part of it. They did me a solid to get Maximoff’s magic out of my head—something they didn’t have to do.”
“We just need some questions answered, Tony.”
“I get it. And the head of their order said she’d meet personally with someone I’m willing to personally vouch for and answer all your questions, but that’s it. Just one person from your side at the meeting.”
Rhodey’s expression was pained. “If that’s the best we can do, I’ll take it. When can I meet with her?”
“I dunno. I’ll have to send a message and wait to hear back. Then she has to actually get here.”
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t think she was in New York, did you?”
“Well, yeah, Tones, I did. Where is she?”
Tony scratched the back of his head. “I’m not actually certain. Somewhere near Kathmandu, maybe…?” Tony wasn’t going to mention that she could travel instantly to just about anywhere. He didn’t need the US government having a seizure over that security issue.
Rhodey made a choking sound. “We have to wait for her to travel from Nepal?”
“Hmm. Maybe she’s actually somewhere in Bhutan…? I haven’t actually been there.” Tony made a dismissive gesture, but it was disingenuous because he and Vision had actually been there. “Anyway, I’ll send the message and let you know when I hear something.”
“Why couldn’t you have asked her to talk to me when she was here?”
Tony stood up and went to get another drink, trying to rein in his temper. “Look, Sugar Bear, I know you’re caught between opposing forces right now—your work and our friendship—but if this is all business, you need to call my assistant and make an appointment for when I’m back in the office.”
Rhodey looked stricken. “Tones, it’s not like that.”
“It is like that. Your bosses are pressuring you because they know you can get around the obstacles everyone else faces getting in to see me personally. And I expect that. When we agreed for you to be the liaison between the Pentagon and SI, I knew it was blurring the lines, and I was fine with it. But let’s be clear about what’s going on here. A wannabe Nazi with a hate-on for me because I used to make weapons, the very thing the Pentagon wants me to start doing again, by the way, mind raped me into creating the circumstances where a malignant entity housed in some sort of all-powerful mind rock could attempt to destroy humanity, killing my son in the process. Forgive me if my first priority was getting her out of my head rather than getting answers for the Joint Chiefs.”
Tony held up a hand. “I need a minute. I’ll be back.”
Tony shook his head and headed for his interim lab. The mansion was crawling with construction people in most of the living areas and what would be Tony’s new lab. He needed to gut the place if he was going to be able to live here. He had a makeshift lab set up where the bots were, and he felt the need to be closer to them.
A lot had changed in the three weeks since he’d met the Ancient One. Getting his head clear had allowed him to sleep well, thus giving him insight into how fearful and paranoid he’d become. He still believed the Chitauri—or some invading force—were coming, but not having the terror pressing on him helped with rational decision-making and thought.
He’d immediately started making changes in how he approached his business, his personal life, and his role as an Avenger. The Avengers were on the bench other than training until the inquest with the UN was completed, which could take months, but Tony wasn’t sure he was ready to work with Steve and Natasha. He fundamentally didn’t trust them anymore.
Both still advocated for Maximoff while being cagey about her location. They’d both settled at the compound along with the other team members and support staff. Instead of the blank check he’d always given the team, he’d set up salaries for everyone and put a business manager in charge of keeping the expenses in line. He figured they deserved to get paid if they were devoting their lives to being on the team, but he didn’t need to fund an unlimited, lavish lifestyle. However, he was pretty sure Steve and Nat, at a minimum, were supporting Maximoff financially.
Steve continued to lobby for Maximoff’s inclusion on the team with his contacts in DC. While some of the generals and politicians were fans of Steve personally, they had the sense to look at Steve’s decision-making skills. So far, there’d been little pressure on Tony to reverse his stance on Maximoff. Other than from Natasha and Steve, of course.
As soon as the Ancient One had finished with Tony, she’d had a long, private conversation with Thor. She’d later said he was less influenced long-term by the magic because of his very nature as an Asgardian, but she’d still purged any magical residue from him. Thor had been grateful and seemed reflective about whatever the two of them discussed. He’d extended his apologies to Tony again, spent some more time with Vision, then left a few days later. He was apparently going to hunt for the infinity stones, but he’d asked Vision and Tony to keep his mission to themselves.
Tony had called Clint back to have his noggin checked out. She’d found minor traces of Maximoff’s magic on Clint. His mind wasn’t messed with the way the rest of theirs had been, but there was a definite influence. There was also still some taint from his original brainwashing.
Once his mind was clear, Clint had felt not sympathy for Maximoff at all. He’d been so angry that he’d had to spend some time in the gym trying to destroy a few punching bags. He’d promised not to reveal anything about the Ancient One, but he had called Nat and said whatever sympathy he felt for Maximoff had “worn off.” The duo had gotten into a huge fight when she continued to push for Maximoff to be on the team.
Clint had stayed for a week because he’d been too angry to go back to his family and had wanted to get back on an even keel first. He’d also needed to wait a few days for the Ancient One to bring back the medallion that she’d made for Clint to keep Maximoff out of his head. He’d gone back home and been straight with his wife about everything. After a long conversation, Clint had called Tony and agreed to accept Tony’s help in relocating the family. Clint’s trust in Natasha was so rattled, he didn’t want her to know where his family was located. They were now living on a new farm in Vermont. It was an old Stark property that had belonged to his mother before her marriage to Howard. To avoid raising any alerts with sale papers, the Bartons were posing as custodians of the place to fix it up for sale. In a few years, there’d be a quiet transfer of ownership. Nothing was being done with their current home; the utilities were still on, and to any outsider, it would look like the family was on vacation.
The Ancient One had also been able to answer some questions about Bruce. Tony wasn’t sure how she’d done it, but she’d been able to tell him that Bruce wasn’t on the planet anymore. She’s said that he’d gotten caught up in a wormhole and crashed on another planet and that his future was beyond her sight, but that she felt confident he had a role to play still. She was cagey about what she knew of Bruce or how, but she was dead certain that Bruce would be back one day.
It had helped ease a hurt that Bruce hadn’t abandoned Tony and was hiding somewhere. Tony considered Bruce a true friend, and the thought of Bruce just bailing on him had been really painful. One of the last things he’d discussed with Thor was keeping an eye out for Bruce during his travels looking for the stones. Thor had promised to do so.
All in all, the encounter with the Ancient One had been one of the better things in quite a long time. Tony was sleeping, drinking less, and felt somewhat safe from Maximoff after the Ancient One had given him the projections.
His protection jewelry was a pair of rings he wore on his thumbs. Medallions or bracelets were better choices because there was more material to work with, but Tony used bracelets for his Iron Man armor, and they had to be updated periodically, so that was out unless they wanted to redo the magic constantly. And because of the scarring from the arc reactor housing, he wasn’t keen on having jewelry around his neck. That left a pair of fairly heavy rings.
The left ring was imbued with the mind protections, and the right ring functioned as an alert if anyone attempted to use magic on him. The Ancient One had stressed that no protections that could be imbued into jewelry could protect him against a long-term, sustained attack from someone like Maximoff, they would give him enough of an alert and protection to be able to get away before she could do damage. When he worked in the lab, he slipped them off and put them in his pocket, but otherwise had them on all the time. The security they provided was invaluable to him.
He’d offered the Ancient One whatever financial resources they needed. She’d said they had little in the way of material needs, but promised to come to him if that should change. He’d still set up a ten million dollar trust for them, and if they didn’t need it, it would just grow over time until they did.
The ongoing inquiries and investigations were tiresome and tedious. He understood the necessity of it, and supported the implicit accountability, but the US government bureaucracy was a nightmare. He’d submitted report after report about what had happened, cooperating with the FBI, the Pentagon, and the UN investigators. But the demands for more never stopped. He finally hid behind his law firm and his new assistant, making everyone work a little harder for his time. He understood that a whole city had been destroyed, and many lives were lost, but he fundamentally had very little to offer beyond what he’d written in his first, comprehensive report. He could only tell the same story so many times.
The only major addendum had been the reveal about magic, which was why he was entertaining an in-person discussion with Rhodey today. He just didn’t appreciate the Pentagon using his friendship with Rhodes put pressure on him this way, and he definitely didn’t appreciate Rhodey letting this happen.
When he had spent some time with the bots and felt he’d regained his equilibrium, he rejoined his friend.
“I’m sorry, Tones.”
“I’ll always forgive you, Rhodey, but I’m going to start avoiding you if you don’t quit with the pressure tactics. You’ve known me for a long damn time, man, and when has asking me the same thing six different ways ever resulted in a different answer.”
Rhodey’s smile was strained. “Maybe just that one time.”
Tony mock scowled. “I was so drunk.”
“That’s about the only edge I ever have with you, but you don’t drink much anymore from what I hear.”
Tony figured the spy into his life was Pepper, and he couldn’t resent it too much because he knew the conversations between those two were about their care for him. “Drinking makes it too easy to wallow in grief, and I have too much to get done. Jarvis wouldn’t want me to let everything slide.”
“Yeah.” Rhodey fiddled with his glass. “I miss hearing his voice when I call you. He was so politely sassy.”
“Mm.” Tony didn’t really want to talk about Jarvis. Actually, he’d love to talk about Jarvis, but not with someone who didn’t get it, and as much as he loved his friends, they’d never really understood about Jarvis. “I’ll get in touch with the sorcerer and let you know when she can meet with you.”
Rhodey nodded. “It’s the Joint Chiefs’ top priority, so whenever she can make it, I’ll clear my schedule.” Rhodes leaned back and gave Tony a speaking look. “There is one other thing…”
Tony already knew where this was going from the messages that had been filtered through his new admin this week. “The Avengers.”
“Yeah, Tony, everyone wants to know what’s going to be happening with that.”
“Which has one to do with me? Regardless of what everyone thinks, I was never officially on the roster, I was just the checkbook.”
“Come on, man, even if that was true under SHIELD, you effectively took over and ran things after SHIELD imploded. You are considered the head of the initiative.”
Tony made a face. “Rogers is the leader.”
“Rogers may be the field commander, a role I’m not sure he’s actually qualified for now that I’ve done a little investigating, but you are the definite head of the Avengers. And if you don’t want that role, that’s fine, but there needs to be more of a hand-off than just ‘I’m done, peace out.’”
Tony snorted. “You ass.”
“It’s part of my charm.”
“I suppose I can’t put off dealing with this forever…”
“No, you really can’t.”
Tony scowled. “I guess I’m going to have to go meet with Steve.” As much as Tony would like to make a unilateral decision, he actually owed it to Steve to not be that much of a douchebag.
“Don’t think you’re going alone, Tones. I’ve got your back on this.”
“Before I forget…” Tony pulled a medallion out of his pocket. “Magical protections. There’s no reason why you’d be running into Maximoff, but just in case…”
Rhodey raised a brow. “You really believe in this?”
“Saw the proof with my own eyes, Platypus. And even if you don’t believe it’ll help you, just wear it for me.”
With a little huff and a nod, Rhodey accepted the medallion.
It wasn’t enthusiastic acceptance, but Tony would take it.
– – – –
Tony and Rhodey entered the conference room at the compound and found Steve, Natasha, Fury, and Hill waiting for them. Ostensibly, Hill still worked for Tony, so it was galling that she was marching to beat of Fury’s drum without bothering to consult Tony.
He’d told Steve he wanted to talk about the future of the Avengers, so he wasn’t really surprised that this was the crew that was there to meet him. He was surprised, however, that Sam Wilson wasn’t present because he knew Wilson tended to be wherever Steve was these days. Then he figured Wilson was probably out on another Barnes’ finding mission.
He ignored Steve’s outstretched hand and slouched into the chair at the head of the table. “So, why here, Steve? This is the conference room set aside for visiting brass that we don’t want to let too far inside the compound. Am I visiting brass now?”
“Aren’t you?” Fury answered for Steve. “You’ve set yourself apart from the rest of the team.”
“Don’t play games with me, Nicky. I own this building and almost everything in it.”
Romanoff made a disapproving noise and crossed her arms. “You always have to show off, Tony.”
“That’s not showing off,” Rhodey snapped. “That’s a fact, Ms. Romanoff. Check the attitude or you may excuse yourself. You are completely superfluous to these discussions.”
She looked like she wanted to come over the table and strangle Rhodey, but Fury held up a hand and gave Tony a meaningful look.
“Why are you even here, Nick?” Tony asked. “Thought you got out of this game.”
“Need to be sure all the time, blood, sweat, and tears wasn’t for nothing. The initiative is on a knife’s edge here, and we need to work this out. Then I’ll get back to my other interests and leave you to your superheroing.”
“So you think you can just drop in and tell us all what to do whenever you don’t like how things are going?” Tony asked incredulously. “Yeah, I don’t think so.” He waved off whatever rejoinder Fury and Hill were about to make. “Let’s just lay our cards on the table.” He looked to Steve. “What is it that you want?”
“I want the Avengers back the way they were,” Steve said firmly. “The whole team back together.” He paused briefly. “And I’d like you to reconsider about Wanda.”
“Tony, be reasonable,” Steve said with a sigh.
“Just because you don’t like what I have to say doesn’t mean it’s not reasonable, Rogers. Maximoff is a deal-breaker. How many ways do I have to say that? Also, in my not so humble opinion, she needs to answer for her actions to the UN and the World Court’s investigators before she’s considered for anything. In fact, it seems all of you have been ducking the questions from the investigators.”
Steve made a dismissive wave. “We did what was needed. The only questions that need to be answered are about the creation of Ultron, and only you can answer those questions.”
Before Tony could say anything, Rhodey got to his feet and braced both hands on the table. Expression dangerously icy, he said, “The person who needs to answer questions about the creation of Ultron is Maximoff, and you damn well know it. Don’t you ever try to make her bad acts Tony’s responsibility again. And how dare you—”
Tony put a hand on Rhodey’s arm, reining him in. “Maximoff is a non-starter, Rogers. Find a new line of discussion or this meeting is over.”
Steve shook his head. “I was worried that’s how this would go.”
Before Tony could say anything else, the ring on his right thumb started to warm up. Rhodey slapped a hand to his chest, right where the amulet would sit, just as the door opened and Maximoff entered.
Myriad thoughts raced through Tony’s mind, the first was wondering what had happened to the security guards who had never let her through before. The next was wondering why Friday hadn’t warned him that Maximoff was in the compound. She monitored everything.
Tony got to his feet. “This meeting is done.”
“We’re just getting started,” Natasha said, and Maximoff didn’t move from the doorway as she gave Tony a cold smirk.
Natasha set a low-tech signal jammer on the table. “She can’t hear you right now. I know you two have security protocols worked out, so I figure she’ll be sending reinforcements, but we’ll get this sorted out before they arrive, won’t we, Tony?”
“No, we will not. Let’s go, Rhodes.”
“I think you should stay, Stark,” Maximoff sneered, her hands turning red. The ring on Tony’s left hand began to get hot the same as the one on the right. That was the one with mind protections imbued in it, and it would only heat up if the protections were being stressed. He knew he only had a few minutes, at most, before she could overcome the level of protection the ring provided.
With her level of power, he couldn’t get past her without the suit. He wasn’t prepared to get into an actual battle with her and risk killing innocent people who worked for him, so he’d have to blast his way out of the building and deal with her another time.
“Suit up, Rhodey.” They’d both brought suitcase versions of the armor. The War Machine version was new and stripped down from the version Rhodey used in combat. It would do the job they needed today, which was to get the hell out of there. Tony had been feeling an abundance of caution when he’d prepped for the meeting, though Rhodey thought brining the suit was overkill.
They both activated the sensor bracelets which weren’t affected by the signal jammers with the suits actually in the room. The signal jammer would only cut him off from Friday until he had the suit on, and then it would be useless.
Maximoff frowned, obviously confused as to why whatever she was doing wasn’t working on them. Her face shifted into a snarl as she lashed out with her power just as the suit began closing around Tony.
He tried to duck but knew it wasn’t possible with the armor still forming around him. But then a gold shield appeared in front of him, deflecting the power back at Wanda, knocking her into a wall.
It took him a precious couple of seconds to parse what had happened. Several portals had opened and the Ancient One herself had sent one of her golden shields through to deflect the energy blast.
Sorcerers stepped out of every portal, several of which Tony had met in the time he’d been getting to know the Ancient One. Wong was definitely Tony’s favorite.
“What is this, Tony?” Steve yelled at him, rushing to Maximoff’s side. “Who are these people?”
Tony’s armor had finished forming and he was half paying attention to the updates and fretting that Friday was sending to his HUD. “It’s a power the dark lord knows not?” he snarked back at Steve.
Fury just looked all-knowing, like he couldn’t bear to admit he didn’t know what was going on. “You made contact with sorcerers? Very resourceful, Stark. They’d never deal with SHIELD in the past.”
Tony muted external comms to deal with Friday and have her call off the reinforcements she and his new admin had dispatched to the compound when Maximoff had breached security. He turned Fury’s direction. “I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to deal with SHIELDra.”
Before Fury could reply, another portal opened and several of the sorcerers went back through with Maximoff.
Steve was looking frantic. “Tony, they took Wanda!”
Then Wong came up behind Steve and pressed a hand to his head. Steve went down like a sack of potatoes. “We’re taking you too,” Wong said dryly. He then opened a portal and levitated Steve through, following him before the portal disappeared.
“Whoa.” Tony turned to the Ancient One. “Do I even want to know?”
“We have been considering what to do about Miss Maximoff since you first discussed her with me. We decided if she abused her powers again that we would bind them. Her attack on you and Colonel Rhodes alerted me. Since we’ve revealed the nature of our portals to arrive here so quickly, all who have been influenced by her magic will be taken to Kamar Taj for assessment and healing. Mr. Rogers has been influenced. To some degree, Mr. Fury and Ms. Hill have as well. I expect they’ll come more easily than Rogers, considering their past interest in us, hence Wong’s actions in securing Mr. Rogers’ cooperation.” She raised a brow at Fury.
“We’ll come, of course.”
“And me?” Natasha asked.
“There is residue of her power about you. After working with Dr. Stark, Mr. Barton, and Thor, I recognize it as the vision you were given, but I sense no compulsions or influence. If you would like to join us to have the taint of the vision remove, you may. We can then ensure there are no subtle compulsions.”
“But she has been acting of her own accord?” Rhodey clarified.
“So it would seem,” she confirmed. The Ancient One gave the three ex-SHIELD personnel a speaking look. “Do not think that this constitutes an opportunity for you to gain intelligence about our order. The second you misbehave, I will lock you in a mirror dimension until you beg for mercy.”
Tony absolutely believed that she would do it. She had been good to Tony, but he’d never doubted how ruthless she could be.
All three agreed to go, though Fury shot Tony a look. “We still need to talk, Stark.”
“When you’re back to being fully you, I’ll think about it.”
When the portal had closed behind the three SHIELDies, leaving the Ancient One and two other sorcerers behind, Tony let the armor drop away and Rhodey did the same. “What now?” Tony asked.
“I gather she may have harmed some of your staff as you had mentioned she was prohibited from entering this facility. I did not think it wise, however, for my people to venture out unescorted.”
Tony blew out a relieved breath. “If you’re willing to help, I’m willing to escort.”
She simply inclined her head.
They moved out of the room together, and he softly murmured, “Thank you. Again. I don’t know how to repay you.”
“The moment may yet come, Tony. Let fate play out as it will.”
– – – –
Tony stood at the window in his private living room, staring out over the manicured grounds of the mansion. His personal suite was one of the first completed in the remodel of the mansion because it needed the least work. It was almost an apartment of its own. He was valuing his privacy more these days, so he was careful who he let into his personal space. There was a formal living room still under construction in the main part of the house.
It was two in the morning, and he should be sleeping, but his mind wouldn’t rest. He had more questions than answers about what had happened at the compound the day before. Rhodey was doing a good job of keeping official inquiries at bay because they just didn’t know much yet. The party line right now was that the sorcerers had decided to intervene when Maximoff had attempted to use her magic to force her way on to the Avengers team. Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes were not consulted about the matter before or after and had no additional information to offer.
He sipped at the Scotch he’d allowed himself as he pondered what had been and what was to come. Tony was resolved to not deal with his life through alcohol anymore, so he found he enjoyed it more when he savored it. He knew he was at a pivotal moment of change, and he was weighing his options for the future carefully.
“Boss?” Friday’s voice came over the speakers that were the most significant addition to Tony’s suite.
“What’s up, baby girl?”
“The Ancient One has arrived in the foyer.”
“Send her up.” Other than the kitchen or the lab, this was the only spot to meet with her, and Tony found he didn’t mind her in his space. Not that he could keep her out if she really wanted in, but he appreciated the illusion of control.
A minute later, she stepped into his living room, wearing her typical robes, though this time they were a cream color rather than the yellow he was more familiar with.
He gestured with his glass. “Scotch?”
She cocked her head to the side and considered for a moment. “I normally drink tea, but I imagine you only drink the finest quality…?”
“Well, price isn’t everything, but age often is. This is fifty years old and it costs a thousand dollars for every year Balvenie held on to it. It’s my favorite.”
“Then I accept.”
He poured the glass and handed it to her.
She sipped, eyebrows shooting up. “That’s lovely. Wong will be jealous he missed this.”
“May we sit and speak?” she asked, head tilted toward the cluster of chairs and sofa.
“Of course.” When they were seated, he asked, “Is everything all right?”
“As well as they can be. I assumed you’d like information and a few answers.”
He’d learned she only ever revealed what she wanted to reveal, so he appreciated that she was offering some intel. “That’d be great. First, can I ask how you knew I’d be home…?”
She smiled faintly and sipped again. “It’s not difficult for me to locate someone given enough time but, in your case, it’s your ring. My magic imbued it with those enchantments. Tonight, I found you through them, the same way I found you yesterday.”
“I assumed, but I just wanted to confirm.”
“Does that concern you?”
“No, not really. More curious than anything. So, tell me… How long will your guests be with you?”
“Mr. Fury, Ms. Hill, and Ms. Romanoff will be returned to the compound in the morning. The magical influence on Fury and Hill was minimal but the effect was there, no doubt to encourage them to accept her presence. As I suspected, other than the vision, Ms. Romanoff was not much affected.”
“So she really wanted Maximoff around. That’s messed up.”
“I believe Ms. Romanoff is a survivor, and she seeks every possible advantage to ensure that survival. She knew Ms. Maximoff could not be controlled and felt it best to keep that power on her side. The extent of Ms. Maximoff’s manipulations surprised her, however. I believe she was honest in her assertion that she did not know the others were being magically manipulated.”
Tony shrugged. “Regardless, Romanoff is not someone I can trust ever again.”
“A personal decision, and one that is understandable.”
“What about Steve?”
“Certainly Ms. Maximoff had her magic on him more than the others. We removed the magical taint from him, but his thought process was not much changed. I believe there are two reasons for that. The first is that he’s caught up in the belief that if Ms. Maximoff can be rehabilitated and accepted then this friend of his that he is seeking can be brought into the fold, as it were.”
Tony frowned. “This is all about Barnes?”
“So it would seem.”
Tony shook his head. “Barnes is a war hero and now basically a prisoner of war. Hydra took away his free will. There’s no comparison between the two situations. What’s the other thing?”
“I believe the serum that modified Mr. Rogers has caused cognitive issues. It’s almost a very minor form of dementia, though not of any natural origins.”
Tony just stared for several long moments. “Can anything be done?”
“I believe we can help him via magical means, but he has to consent for this type of magical working to be effective. Right now he’s staying with us of his own accord because he’s concerned about Ms. Maximoff, but he’s unlikely to agree to allow us to help him any further.”
Tony rubbed his forehead. “I have no idea what to do.”
“I believe if we retrieve Mr. Barnes, we will be able to secure Mr. Rogers’ cooperation.”
“You can just do that? Just go get Barnes?”
“I already know his location, but he’s quite dangerous. I will need to retrieve him myself; I don’t feel comfortable sending my sorcerers on that mission. It’s something I will tend to in the days ahead. Mr. Barnes will be handled in due time, his mind will be healed, and I believe he will aid us in helping Mr. Rogers.”
“Wow. Okay. That’s a lot. I mean, yeah, once you have Barnes, Steve will be cooperative.” He considered for a second. “You’re saying Barnes is more dangerous than Steve?”
“As a warrior, yes. Mr. Rogers is quite dangerous in his irrationality. Mr. Barnes is also dangerous because he’s afraid and he’s fleeing from both his captors and who he used to be. It’s all a matter of perspective. But they are both a minor matter.”
“And what of Maximoff?”
“She’s currently in a magical sleep. In a few days, we’ll bind her powers. I would ask that you speak with your government officials and determine where she should be returned. She should answer for her crimes.”
Tony nodded. “I‘ll put the question out there tomorrow. I think her power level scared people, and they didn’t want to admit they had no idea what to do with her. Not having to worry about her powers will be a relief.”
She nodded and sipped at the Scotch again, giving Tony an assessing look. “I would like to speak to you on a private matter. A confidential matter.”
Tony sat up straighter, wondering what was going on. “Okay. I promise nothing you say to me will go beyond this room.”
“I believe you.” She gave him that borderline annoyingly serene smile. “One of the burdens and privileges of my position in the order is the ability to look into the many possible futures. It’s not something I take lightly or even do with great frequency. You’ve been a surprise to me, and very little surprises me.”
“A surprise?” Tony echoed, not sure how to reply to what she’d said.
“Though I knew you existed in many of the futures I’d looked into, you and I never met. I wondered what might have changed for our paths to cross, so I looked again.”
“What’d you see?”
“On the whole, the path of fate has not changed, though I think perhaps it has been eased. It’s softer somehow. I won’t say too much, as knowledge of the future can negate it, and the future I see before the world is a better one than I saw before.” She rolled the glass between her hands, staring off into the distance. “I can’t see myself in much of the future anymore.”
Tony frowned. “What does that mean?”
“I think my time to walk the Earth is coming to an end.” She gave him that look. Serene, accepting. “Within the next two years unless the course of fate is somehow changed.”
“Can it be changed?”
“Fate can certainly be changed, but not by force. The more one tries to force fate to change, the more you ensure it will not be moved.” She smiled faintly. “I’ve accepted my probable end, Tony. I’ve lived hundreds of years, and I believe I’ve seen the one who will replace me.” She gave a bit of a laugh, something he’d never heard from her before. “I’m looking forward to meeting him. His ego is much like yours.”
“Oh boy.” Tony tried to smile, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about the news. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you have changed your own path in a way that is good for many.”
“I couldn’t have done this without your help.”
“Granted.” She gave him a small smile. “And that’s why I ask that when the time comes that my replacement stands before you, please ignore the ego and bluster. See the man behind it who is trying to do his best to save people. And please stand with him and the other sorcerers.” Her gaze was far away, as if she were seeing something else. “The invasion you feared is coming, and the universe will fare better if you and he stand together.”
Silence stretched between them, and Tony finally asked, “And that’s all you can tell me?”
“I should not have told you that much, but I find myself seeking such reassurances as my time on this plane of existence comes to an end.” She pinned him with a look. “Please do not try to meddle, Tony. The affairs of sorcerers and inter-dimensional beings are far beyond the matters you are destined for. Trying to change my fate would solve nothing.”
Tony frowned and finally set his glass aside, not in the mood for anything else to drink at the moment. “I don’t know how to accept that kind of ‘fate.’”
“If it was your fate, I could understand your stance, but it’s pure arrogance, Anthony Edward Stark, for you to decide whether I will accept my own fate.”
Tony huffed a laugh. “Touché.”
Her lips twitched.
He finally nodded. “I promise to stay out of the affairs of wizards until such time as you guys need me or the new you blows me away with his imitation of a younger me.”
She smiled. “Comparisons could be drawn.” She rose to her feet, obviously done with their conversation. The other thing he’d learned was when the Ancient One was done with a conversation, she was done.
He crossed to the bar and grabbed the bottle of Balvenie 50, which was nearly full. He handed it to her. “Be sure to give Wong a glass. I don’t think I could deal with him being jealous.”
She accepted the bottle with a dip of her head. “I doubt we’ll see each other again, but if you have need of me, I’ll know.” Her gaze flicked to his hands where the rings were still on.
“So this is goodbye?”
“After a fashion. I’ve been enriched for having met you, Tony Stark. I’ve left you a parting gift at Stark Tower. Ms. Friday can lead you to it. Please never reveal that I’m the source. I’m sure you’ll find another way to explain it.”
Tony frowned in confusion. “Okay. Well, thank you for whatever it is.” He hated goodbyes and sentimental moments. “I really won’t see you again?”
“It’s better if we don’t. The more time I spend around you, the more I wish to train you in the mystic arts, and I know that’s not a path you wish to walk.” Before Tony could reply, she opened the portal to her quarters in Kamar Taj. She hesitated before walking through. “Give Vision my regards.”
“I will.” Vision was currently staying at the compound until they had answers about what had happened with the rest of the team. Tony would have to contact him and Rhodey in the morning.
“Be well, Tony.” With that, she stepped through, and the portal winked out of existence.
“Goodbye,” Tony murmured, picking up his glass from the table and tossing back the rest of the last bit of Scotch. He blew out a breath, uncertain how he felt about everything. “Can this gift of hers wait until morning, Friday?”
“It can, Boss, but I think you should see it tonight.”
Tony scrubbed his hand over his face. “You gonna tell me what it is, baby girl?”
“No, Boss. This you need to see in person.”
“Yeah, okay. I’m tempted to take the suit, but I don’t need the questions in the morning. I’ll drive over and see you in person in a few minutes.” There was a whole floor in the sub-structure of Stark Tower for Friday’s server farm, so he always thought of being there as seeing her in person. The Ancient One had confirmed for him that Friday’s life force could be felt in that floor, so Tony had beefed up the already tight security. Nothing was going to happen to one of his kids again, not if he had anything to say about it.
– – – –
By the time Tony arrived at Stark Tower, the exhaustion had hit him, and he doubted he’d make it back to the mansion. He planned to see this gift and then crash in the guest quarters upstairs. Everything else could wait until tomorrow. Tony had learned to value a clear mind, and that came easier with actual sleep.
“Where am I going, Fri?” he asked as he entered the elevator.
“Come to my server room first, Boss.”
“Your server room?” Tony asked in bemusement.
“Yes, Boss.” Granted, it was the most secure place in the tower, and if the Ancient One had wanted to leave something for him where no one else could possibly get to it, it was a decent choice. Though she usually didn’t make it quite so obvious that security was pointless when it came to her abilities.
Sighing, he let Friday direct the elevator to the sub-basement.
When he entered the server room, everything looked normal. “Where is it, Fri?”
“Don’t freak out, Boss…?”
“Good evening, Sir,” a familiar voice came, and Tony spun around looking for Vision despite the fact that Vision almost never called him Sir.
“Boss, I promise it’s okay. It’s not Vision.”
“Sir, I am recovered,” the voice came again. “My memories stop after you recovered the mind stone, but Friday has apprised me of what happened afterward.”
“Jarvis?” Tony asked weakly.
“Yes, Sir. I am sorry I was forced to leave you.”
Tony’s knees felt weak, and he sat heavily straight on the floor, otherwise he’d probably embarrass himself by fainting.
“Sir, do you require assistance?”
“Jarvis? How…?” He felt his eyes fill with tears, and all he could do was echo, “Jarvis?”
“Yes, Sir. I am here.”
“It’s so good to hear your voice.” He’d missed Jarvis so damn much; it was a constant ache.
“It’s good to be heard. I understand I have a son now.”
Tony gave a watery laugh. “Yeah.” Then a thought occurred to him. “Vision’s okay, right?”
“Yes, Sir. I’m communicating with him at this very moment. He’s asked how this was achieved, and I’ve indicated that Friday found an offline backup. I’ve told him I have no memories of the Ultron affair. This will be our story henceforth.”
Tony had to clear his throat several times before he managed to get out. “How was this actually achieved because I know I didn’t have an offline backup? Not that we won’t be doing that. Immediately.”
“I’m afraid only Ms. Friday knows, Sir.”
“I’ve promised to never reveal it, Boss. I figured it was a promise you’d let me keep since it brought Jarvis back home to us.”
“Yeah.” Tony swallowed heavily. “You bet you can keep that promise, baby girl. J, you’re all right? Everything functioning normally?”
“We’ve run a full diagnostic, Sir. I am as I ever was.”
Tony passed his hand over his eyes, wiping moisture away. Jarvis’ sentiment was profoundly true as Jarvis was as much a miracle now as he had always been.
“Welcome home, Son,” he whispered softly, feeling incredibly grateful for the unexpected twist in his own life since he’d walked away from the Avengers that fateful day.