Chapter 27: Chapter 27
Summary: The rouge Avengers are pardoned under the influence of King T’Challa and it is up to Tony to ‘welcome’ them back. But as he and his new team are at the private airport, an unexpected fight breaks loose and the fate of the whole universe is changed when a wizard places himself as Tony Stark’s protector.
“You sure you want to do this, Merlin?” Tony asked as he stood with Peter, Loki, Heimdall, Bruce, Brunhilda and four of the six Guardians of the Galaxy to see off Thor, Rocket, Groot and Stephen to Nivadellir for Thor to get a Thanos-killing kind of weapon from the Dwarf king Eitri. Knowing what he does, Tony figures Stephen going is important to the overall outcome of their upcoming fight with Thanos but he’s not happy with the sorcerer leaving either way. Neither is Loki, who was tasked with Tony’s safety due to Wong having to watch the Sanctum in Stephen’s absence and all the other sorcerers have to be extra vigilant in the absence of the Sorcerer Supreme. Loki is also not pleased since Thor was also leaving Asgard in his care in his absence or that he had to stay on Earth without his brother acting as a wall between Thanos and his Tesseract carrying self. The others are just worried.
“It is the best option that we have. The more allies we make and ensure, the better it is in the long run.” The doctor explains as patiently as ever even as Quill, AKA Starlord, huffs.
“Why can’t we all have Thanos-killing weapons?”
“No. You simply lack the strength to wield them. Your bodies would crumble as your minds collapsed into madness.” Thor explained with a roll of his eyes. The other three Asgardians present ignored the nagging of the other aliens, just standing there and being silent support.
“Is it weird that I wanna do it even more now?” Rocket asked and Tony couldn’t help but send a disturbed look at the obviously mentally disturbed raccoon. Loki and Peter definitely shared his opinion.
“Mmm, a little bit, yeah.” Thor agrees, too, and Stephen just sighs in a manner Tony recognizes all too well. He doesn’t know whether he should pity the man or snicker at his own chosen torture. Seriously, for a guy who had seen fourteen million plus futures, he had to be pretty dumb not to have seen this headache in the making coming.
“Seeing as we’re facing a threat who plans to destroy life on a scale hitherto undreampt of, maybe we should minimize unnecessary injuries and maximize our power potentials and victory chances in the foreseeable future, hm?”
Tony does snicker this time. “Did you seriously just say ‘hitherto undreampt of’?”
“Did you seriously assign me to watch this mortal?” Loki said a beat after him, raising a challenging eyebrow at the Master of the New York Sanctum. Strange gave them both flat looks.
“Why?” The Trickster questioned again, the look on his face turning suspicious. Loki had been there when Stephen had informed the Accords approved team that Tony was being hunted by a rouge sorcerer who had turned away from the teachings of Kamar-Taj, but he, and no one else but Tony’s AIs, Wong and Stephen knew that Tony was receiving training in the Mystic Arts. Not that any of them would even believe it that Tony Stark, known hater of magic, was willingly learning it.
Stephen have him another flat look and Loki grumbled for whatever reason. Tony arched an eyebrow at Stephen, who returned to look while still managing to appear completely deadpan and unimpressed. Tony guessed Loki probably conceded to the fact that Tony was important in securing all of their safety from Thanos and had simply decided not to argue. God, how was this his life? Babysat by the very god of mischief who threw him out through the windows of his own Tower. Well, not that that was a problem anymore.
Tony wondered if he should tell anyone about Mark L and Extremis, if only for their piece of mind, but then decided he’s allowed to have a few of his own secrets. Strange may know about the Extremis but he had no idea how well Tony had mastered nanotech. Let T’Challa and Shuri and Wakanda and the rest of the world think the Black Panther suit is a big deal. Tony’s always been one for flashy and surprising entrances.
“When will you be getting back?” He instead asked and got a shrug from Thor. Strange, thankfully, had some sort of time frame.
“Sometime around tomorrow evening, I venture. The morning after, at the latest. I can’t afford to leave Earth unprotected any longer than that.” That was good to hear. The less time Strange is away, the less Tony had to worry about. JOCASTA had informed FRIDAY just a couple of hours ago that the rouges had snook out to go to a secret meeting between themselves, enjoying the freedom the disarray within the UN and the Accords now that they knew an intergalactic threat might come to Earth. He’d rather have Strange on Earth when they do something stupid than deal with it on his own.
So Tony shrugged, even though he was pretty sure Strange had seen his relief at him not staying away too long. “At least I don’t have to worry about my brain rotting away with boredom from lack of intelligent company in the lab all day.” Sure, Peter was okay, but the kid had school and May Parker would kill Tony if Peter skipped classes just to do science all day with him in his workshop. Not to mention that the Spiderling had a patrol, too, just after school and then homework, which he can do in the lab but Tony has to not bother him for an hour or two so he can finish it before they can get to the interesting stuff. No such worried with Stephen, even when he was studying something from his magic books. He was almost as good at actual multitasking like Tony was.
He thought he saw Bruce fidget or flinch from the corner of his eye but he didn’t look over to confirm it. Instead, he watched as the former neurosurgeon rolled his eyes and huffed in amusement. “Just don’t do anything stupid or get into trouble while I’m away.”
“Are you done?” Rocket, who was getting impatient to go to the place that makes the most powerful, horrific weapons to ever torment the universe as soon as possible, asked a little snappily. Stephen just sighed again before nodding to Tony and walking over to enter the escape pod that the Guardians had separated from the Milano in order to give the other group a ship for their journey. While Rocket and Groot were going to Nivadellir with Thor, Gamora, Drax, Mantis and Peter Quill will go to return the prisoners back to the prison from which they’d escaped from. After both teams are done with their missions, they are to return to Earth, as it was the most likely place Thanos will go to, next, what with their three Infinity Stones and the sixth Stone’s location still unknown.
“Try not to burn down the planet while I’m gone,” and with that, Sassy Supreme joined his group in the ship before Heimdall used the Bifrost and transported them to ... wherever Nivadellir was. Tony figured he should probably ask one of the Asgardians to give him the map of the universe since the other Guardians were also about to leave.
As if on cue, Quill came to stand in front of him and extended a hand for a shake. “Well, I guess this is it, for now. See you in a few days, I guess.”
“You’re always welcome on Earth. You are one of our own, even if only 50%.” He smirked at the blond, who only rolled his eyes in good humor before saying his goodbyes to everyone else. Mantis and Drax were also friendly and casual in their farewells but Gamora came up to Tony and extended her own hand for a firm shake. He yelped when she drew him in and handed something to him with a whispered “Take care,” before she was boarding her ship with her remaining teammates. Heimdall accessed the dark magic needed to call upon the Bifrost again - and wasn’t it just weird that he had apparently trained enough that he could feel it now? - and transported the Guardians away in the same flashy rainbow light show that the first ship had disappeared in. Tony sighed and looked down at the device in his hand. If he didn’t know any better, he would guess that it was a beacon. Or a thumb-drive.
‘JARVIS, buddy, start scanning this thing. FRIDAY, baby girl, I need you to prepare deciphering algorithms, deep space scanners and every tracking program we have. It looks like we’ll be busy, kids. Delegate everything else to JOCASTA, SARAH and KAREN. I need you on this.’ He instantly instructed, letting JARVIS get a good look at the device in his hand from the security cameras before pocketing the thing, nodding to the others and briskly walking away, heading somewhere he can activate his suit without anyone being around to see the nanobots cover his frame so he can head to his lab and work in peace.
-Preparations complete, Boss. I have a port primed and ready to extract whatever information is on the device and two terabytes of memory on our servers prepared to store the information.- FRIDAY told him when he was already preparing to lit off, the suit secure and snug around him. God, the Mark II had been a sports car but this? Sleek, smooth, robust, shinny and ten years more advanced than the first model, which had been twenty to thirty years advanced than anything else? This was a fucking space shuttle. Tony loved it.
-Scanners indicate that it is indeed a harmless storage device. Accessing primary information currently.- JARVIS informed him just as he was about to fire up the repulsors when he heard someone running up to him from behind.
“Tony, wait!” He couldn’t help but stiffen under the armor upon hearing Banner’s voice. Taking a deep breath before turning around to face his science bro - can he even still call them that? It was supposed to symbolize their friendship, but Bruce had turned on him and left when he had needed him the most. He hadn’t stopped Thor from choking him any more than any of the other Avengers had and Thor had actually sheepishly approached him after one of the UN meetings regarding New Asgard and apologized and thanked him for everything, respectively. Bruce hadn’t even bothered to talk to him until now - Tony had never before been so glad for the Iron Man mask and how well the armor hid his reactions. It allows him to look at Bruce and not show that he doesn’t see him as Bruce anymore. He is now Dr Banner.
“Can we, um?” The other scientist hesitated, fidgeting under Iron Man’s steely gaze. “Can we talk? It feels like it’s been ... forever since we talked at all. Like, not even in the meetings and that ... That sucks, Tony. Because I kind of screwed up and I’ve been feeling guilty ever since I turned back from the Hulk and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I practically abandoned you after the whole Ultron fiasco because I panicked because, you know, I’ve been managing to control the Hulk and stop him from getting out but then Maximoff fucked with my head and I was so scared, Tony. I was so scared because I didn’t trust in my ability to stay calm so I ran away and I wasn’t even sure if I was planning on coming back but then Brunhilda got me and took Hulk to Sakaar and I stayed there for two years until Thor came and the first thing I was aware of was that I was in the remains of a Quinjet on an alien planet billions of miles away from home and the only things that were familiar were Thor and your clothes - by the way, you really need to get looser clothes, Tony, because your pants are tight. How do you manage in them all day? - and I was clinging onto that little bit of normality-” It was at that point that Tony realized Bruce was wearing a suit jacket that the older man had no hope of affording, even in a dream and something warm and fond fluttered in his chest at his friend’s rambling, because who can stay mad at Bruce? “And then we went to Asgard and I had to play doctor for all those people who were in one way or another injured by Hela and all I could think was ‘How would Tony deal with all these people?’ And I just wanted to come back to the Tower and lock myself in your lab and maybe sleep and eat for a few days and get lost in your scientific ramblings that I sometimes have no hope of following and maybe just stay there and not think about the two year blackout I’ve had to not panic about and not worry about Loki and his damn knives and aliens and and-”
At this point, Tony decided Bruce had had enough and withdrew his gauntlets to put two hands in Banner’s shoulders and the man dove for a hug before Tony could register what was going on. He couldn’t feel it through the armor, but Tony was sure the grip was bruising and yet he didn’t mind, calmly putting his own arms around the other scientist. Affection surges through him as they just stand there and something in his heart finally softens and no longer feels like betrayal. They all make mistakes, he reminds himself. As long as they acknowledge them, account for them and set out to try and fix them, there is hope for things to get better. Bruce and he haven’t been friends for nothing. And even if Bruce can’t be that one friend to whom Tony can tell everything to, maybe he doesn’t have to be. It’s a little selfish of Tony to even think of actually making another share his burden. He’d never asked of Rhodey. Not the whole thing. Same with Pepper and Happy and everyone else whom he now deems close to himself. Only JARVIS ... And maybe one day FRIDAY. She’s still young. He still doesn’t want her to know about some of the shit he’s did and the things he regrets. And he has ... He had Yinsen at one point. He has Harley, for different things. They share the burden with him. Bruce shares just a part. He’s only human with his own shipload of trouble.
And Tony ... He’s human, too. And for the first time, he has someone who is like him to not only share his burden to but let Tony share their own. Doctor Stephen Strange was definitely a weird one. He wants to take the burden of the world from Tony’s shoulders by putting it on his own and yet doesn’t realize that he’s letting Tony do the same in return. They’re actually carrying it together. And isn’t that just a novel experience. He thinks he might like it.
But there’s another doctor clinging to him now - what is up with him and brilliant doctors, anyway? - to think about so Tony let’s his magic teacher fade from the forefront of his mind and focuses in on his science bro. “Brucie-bear, it’s allllright. We alllll make mistakes. It’s good you admitted to them.” He says, half joking, half dead serious. “Now, I do believe you are right. We have not had the chance to catch up.” He steps away from the alter ego of the Hulk and looks him up and down. “We could go on a shopping trip. I swear to god, if one more of my genius friends wears some weird ass shit instead of decent clothing, I am going to burn all your closets down.”
“Oh, do you mean Dr Strange? Yeah, that cape is a little ... uncommon.” Bruce tries diplomatically and Tony only rolls his eyes.
“One, it’s the Cloak of Levitation. Two, no, I didn’t mean the Cloak. It’s awesome and a badass. Three, it’s not just Strange and his stupid monk drags that somehow both accent and conceal his body build. There’s also Reed with his stretch spandex and Sue with his turning invisible spandex and Shuri with her Wanandan Princess wear, not that I have anything against traditional Wakandan clothing, it just looks ... uncommon outside of it. Then there’s Selvig and his house robe that he wears in his freaking state of the art lab, fucking weirdo, and then there’s Jane’s bunny slippers that have no place standing next to any of that beautiful tech. Not to mention Lang likes to loiter around in the Ant Man suit and that Pym dares enter a lab in that dreaded suit. If you’re gonna dress up for the machines, at least dress to impress. And Betty needs to stop wearing that nerdy sweater I got her for her birthday. It’s fucking freezing in her lab just so she could wear that shirt. There’s some sensitive instruments in that that, had they not been designed by me, would have suffered catastrophic failure-”
“Betty?” Tony blinks out of his own rambling binge in time to realize just what he had let slip and silently curses himself. Betty and Jane had made it clear that they didn’t want to talk with Bruce and Thor respectively until they signed the Accords. And the two brilliant women had stumbled upon s breakthrough in Jane’s project and, as far as he knew, didn’t want to be disturbed until they either finish or go crazy with the lack of sleep and overdose of caffeine so he knew he had fucked up and pretty bad, too. Even if it was one of their (ex?)boyfriends. “Tony? Where is Betty? And ... and did you just say Selvig? And Shuri? And Dr Foster? Are they at the Tower? Is Betty at the Tower?”
“Crap,” he mumbles under his breath and is already calculating how long it will take Jane and Betty to exact their revenge. He should have volunteered to go to Nivadellir.
“Since ... ?” Bruce starts awkwardly, not used to thinking about his first love and shifting in his place as he clumsily tried to ask about her like a schoolboy with a crush. A grown man should not be so adorable. It was good to have his science bro back. “Since when is that a thing? Is she okay? How is she? What is she up to these days?”
“Um ... A couple of months, now? Well, for Jane and Selvig and their motley crew. Betty came a few weeks after Civil War and offered up all the dirt she had on her dick of a father. Testimonied against him in court.” Tony replied, recalling his shock upon first seeing her on the doorstep of the Avengers Compound. She had lived with him there for the next couple of months before Tony started the move. She moved with him. They hadn’t talked nearly as much as two people who are living in such close proximity could but she was a friend none the less. “She stayed with me ever since. Has her own apartment and lab at the Tower. Right next to yours, actually. She and Jane and Helen are all awesome friends. She travels with Helen from time to time. I think U is in love with her, so you may have some competition.”
“Wait, Civil War? What Civil War? And why would she suddenly go to court when she’d been running away from it for so long? And why are all the others there, too, when the team is here? I mean, I know you guys had some sort of falling out because of the Accords but Thor and I never did get the full story ... ”
“Let me guess, Fury?” Bruce nodded and Tony feared his eyes will fall out with how hard he rolled them. “That explains it.”
“Tony, what’s going on?” Banner asked uncertainly, as though he really didn’t want to hear the answer. He had good instincts. If this were to have happened just a couple of years ago, there would have been the problem of a Hulk on a rampage and the need for a new Harlem. Or Manhattan. Again. Or at least something of that scale. “What happened? I mean, it was just some stupid political disagreement, right? Just your and Steve’s usual dance of who’s the leader, right?”
“It’s not that simple. Gosh, we really didn’t have time to catch up, did we?”
“No,” Bruce agrees hesitantly. Tony doesn’t blame him for not being around, not really. He now stands as New Asgard’s Official Human Relations Adviser and part of Thor’s court. New Asgard had only finished really settling in two weeks ago, when the last of the houses were built and the last of the families and people were moved into their new homes with what meager possessions they had managed to take with them before their home, the golden city, went boom. Thor had needed Bruce there as much as he had needed Loki. The blond king had at times looked like hell when Tony met him at UN or Accords meetings. It was good to know that Point Break had had a friend who saw him only as a friend and not as a king at his side. Especially since Loki had had his own hands full between securing his own pardon, position and Accords contract and plotting ways to stop Thanos with Tony and Stephen.
“The Avengers broke up. Like, right down the middle.”
“Broke up? What? Like a band? Like ... Like the Beatles?” Bruce asked incredulously, eyes wide and jaw on the floor.
“No, maybe more like The Police or The Eagles? Yeah, sounds about right. You know, you were right about us, Big Green.” Right now, Bruce looked like he wanted to be anything but right. “We were a ticking time bomb. Always were and always will be, the original lineup. It only got worse over the years. Toxic. I didn’t want to see it, you didn’t want to see it, no one did, but that’s how it was. How it is. We all did our own thing, rarely spending any time around each other outside of missions, or before or after missions despite all of you having floors at the Tower. We didn’t get along. We pretended. Sometimes, we tried being genuine. Maybe at times we succeeded. But we never really trusted each other. And with Steve and me both wanting for the team to go in two different directions, and the aftermath of Ultron ... It was bound to happen. That one last straw that broke the camel’s back. My back.”
“The Accords?” The other man guessed and Tony couldn’t really stop the sharp, bitter bark of laughter that escaped him before he could repress it. Bruce looked downright scared now. “Tony, what broke up the Avengers?”
“Some would say it was the Accords, RAFT and Ross. Other’s would say Zemo’s tricks. There are even those who claim I did it.”
“And the truth?” It was obvious he was trying not to react to the mention of his once hunter and tormentor. Tony would have usually tried to ease him into it. Today, he didn’t. Call him petty, but he didn’t.
“The Accords are an excuse. RAFT had been secret until the rouges were thrown in there.” Bruce had flinched slightly at the word ‘rouges’. Runaways. Like him. Again, Tony did nothing to coddle him. Those days were gone. He supported the Avengers Initiative and the Accords in whatever manner they needed but he no longer coddled anyone. Accountability and responsibility. That’s what he stood for. Face your mistakes. Make them right as best as you can. He’s done cleaning up other people’s messes while coddling and shielding them from a righteously angry world. “Ross was a dick but he showed his true intentions only after Germany. Although it might be true that I broke up the Avengers. I simply couldn’t stand for what Rogers had made them represent. That goes against everything this,” he taps the Arc Reactor, his reminder to never ignore the consequences his actions can have, responsibility, accountability, his legacy, everything Yinsen taught him. Everything he must never forget. “Represents. Everything I’ve stood for long before New York. After Ultron, I stepped back. Retired, even. Built the very Avengers Compound we are standing on, gave it to the others and left. A mistake on my part, since they took in Maximoff and she made a tragedy in Lagos not long before the Accords were publicly declared a must. People feared us, Bruce. We were the enemies now. Our actions killed people, destroyed homes and ruined lives every time the Avengers went out to ‘avenge’. Stark Relief and Maria Stark Foundation did their best to resolve it all but they were loose cannons and I was soon contacted. King T’Chaka was nice enough to give me a heads up. We worked together until he was killed and I tried working with T’Challa, but he ultimately took Rogers’ side when he learned it wasn’t Barnes who killed his father. He took them in after Siberia-”
“Siberia? What happened in Siberia?” Bruce already had a fair bit of green in his eyes so Tony made a snap decision, calling for Happy. They didn’t need an outbreak of a giant green rage monster in the Compound.
“I’ll meet you at the Tower and then we’ll talk.”
Besides, the Tower had Hulk’s panic room from which he can’t escape. And they’ll definitely need it and the close proximity of the Hulkbuster armor.
Judging from Bruce’s pale complexion, he understood that, too.