Chapter Six: We Band of Kissing Cousins

x

Credit where credit is due:

"Heil this, motherfucker!" is a reference to Steve Rogers at 100: Celebrating Captain America on Film by eleveninches, Febricant, hellotailor, M_Leigh, neenya and tigrrmilk. It is an amazing work of art with a huge cultural impact, and chances are that you have already read it, but if you have not, then I recommend it to everybody. To be found at archive of our own. The exact address is /works/ 1599293 - after you remove the spaces, because there is some really aggressive programming on ffnet that won't let me put the damn address here without eating two thirds of it.

x

"Again?" Pepper despaired, exercising an admirable strength of will to refrain from throwing the magazine in her hands across the room. From what little he could see via the feed, Tony had graced the front cover. And pages 5, 6 and 7.

Tony was a little too busy exercising his strength of will to keep his excesses within the limits of normal for him: promiscuity, a bit of gambling and a lot of booze were alright, potentially suicidal dares and drugs were not.

He didn't want to go back to his twenties. Especially not because of Robert Banner. Too much irony. He didn't even remember exactly what they had taken, just that there had been a lot of it, with the kind of variety a million-dollar trust-fund baby could afford and the kind a genius chemist could cook. Which was a lot of variety.

"Tony?" Pepper spoke again, pulling him out of the contemplation. "Tony, are you listening to me?"

"I always listen to you, creampuff," Tony lied.

"Are you okay? Jarvis, is he okay?"

Calumny! Tony was outraged by this outrageous calumny!

"Mr Stark is indisposed," Jay said like the diplomatic diplomat he was. Where had he gotten that? It wasn't from Tony. Or Rhodey. Or even Pep. Peppy-Pep could smile like honey and poison your bank accounts.

"…drunk," Pepper concluded. "He's drinking again? I thought we were done with that! He's stopped! Well… toned it down to almost healthy levels but…"

Tony stuck out his tongue at the nearest camera. And fluffed up his hair. He'd bet he looked kinda like Einstein.

"If I may…?" Jay prevaricated.

"What is it, Jarvis?" demanded the extant chief executive officer.

And Jay, because he was a treacherous traitor that betrayed, blabbed. "For the past fourteen months, Mr Stark's periods of relative sobriety coincided with Dr Banner's presence."

Tony had the very rare opportunity to hear Virginia Potts curse like a sailor with a hangnail.

x

"Pepper?" Tony inquired blearily, squinting into the dimly lit workshop. "Whoa, babe. Babes. Haven't had this dream for a while."

He reached out. Both Peppers deftly avoided his grab.

They usually didn't do this. Also, they usually wore less clothes. Lingerie, if anything, but mostly they didn't bother. Oh, and there was that one time with one of them in the Iron Man armor-

"Why, Tony?!" they demanded.

It was the headache that alerted Tony to the fact that he wasn't dreaming. Pepper – Pepper Potts, his once-girlfriend, who had broken up with him and didn't hate him, and continued to direct his Fortune 500 company to the best of her considerable ability – had come to pull his drunk ass out of his workshop in the middle of the ni-

Oh. In the middle of this fine day.

He was handed a glass. He drank. It was one of those disgusting alka-seltzer mass-produced hangover remedies. Robert would have been appalled.

"…Banner's the only one that talks to me," Tony explained. He emptied the glass. His stomach swam. The workshop swam. Both Peppers swam.

Both Peppers despaired of him. "Plenty of people talk to you! Your investors talk to you. SHIELD agents talk to you. I talk to you! I'm talking to you right now."

Tony stared at them.

Peppers got it. "Dr Banner is the only one who talks science to you on your level."

Not quite, but almost. And Banner had the same… innovative type of thinking as Tony. He saw potentials and built paths from existing solutions to those visions, and if he wasn't as good at engineering… so what? Tony liked lording his superiority over anybody.

Peppers nudged two empty bottles with the toes of their pumps. "You're drinking out of… loneliness?"

"I try my best, Miss Potts," said JARVIS, "but I am still merely Mr Stark's extension."

"Sorry, Jay," Tony muttered, closing his eyes with the intention of going back to sleep to find the dream Pepper (or Peppers, he wouldn't mind two of them in the dream) who had no qualms whatsoever about fucking him. "Not your fault."

"And yet, Mr Stark," JARVIS replied with as much despondency as he could effect.

"Don't you dare go back to sleep!" insisted the waking-life Peppers. "Up. Up!"

"Stop yelling," Tony complained.

"How does this help?!" Peppers demanded helplessly.

"It's a reverse relativity thing, Peps," Tony explained. "Booze has this way of contracting time and dilating space. Time runs by faster when I'm buzzed, and then it's tomorrow. It's always tomorrow. I'm a futurist."

Peppers shouted, something wordless and unintelligible and with that guttural sound people usually made when they were either very sick or professional death metal singers. "Get up right now, you useless lump of an engineer! If you're not out of the shower in ten minutes, I'll beggar you!"

Tony staggered roughly in the direction of the nearest bathroom.

x

Tony was sober enough to only see one of Pepper – and one of Happy, and one of Rhodey. Seeing all three of these people together amounted to an emergency meeting, so it followed (preceded?) that there was an emergency to worry about.

It couldn't have been Tony's bender. Each of these three people was used to Tony's benders and well equipped to deal with them alone.

"So," Tony said, lowering himself into a chair in an honest-to-god conference room slowly, because things were hurting. Not hurting like enthusiastic sex last night – hurting like not having slept in a proper bed for a week. And being on the wrong fucking side of forty. "Where's the fire?"

His closest people exchanged worried expressions.

Rhodey pushed a tablet over the gleaming plastic – formica? was that formica? – surface of the table. It landed within arm's reach of Tony, who pulled it closer and started reading. He was glad for his sunglasses now, since he was pretty sure that his eyes were getting bigger and bigger behind the lenses.

"So…" He pulled a mock-thoughtful duckface. "A warrant for Cap's arrest-"

"Neutralization," Rhodey cut in. "It's a kill order. I know you don't like the guy, Tony, but even you have to admit that this is absurd."

"The Nazi kind of absurd," Tony agreed. This had state-mandated decommission all over it. Oh, how poetic. Even after seventy years frozen inside an iceberg, Stevie Rogers, the junkie next door, was still fighting Nazis full throttle.

"How do you mean-?" Poor Rhodey didn't even know what to ask.

Well, between the poster boy for the Chair Force with his once shiny armor hidden under the fugly new paintjob and the perpetually bored billionaire inventor, which one had fought more terrorist organizations? Spoilers: it was not the phone Colonel with his fancy silver oak leaf.

"Jay," Tony said, too headachy to deal with this particular clusterfuck so early in the afternoon, "crack it. Crack it all. Gut SHIELD if you have to, because I know that if Cap fucked up enough to dunk half of the West Coast in the ocean, Fury would still have him come out the other end smelling like the fucking roses. That's the fucking point of exhuming the fucking state symbol."

"Director Fury is dead," JARVIS reminded.

"Yes," Tony agreed, "so I just read."

"You don't believe the report?" Pepper asked pragmatically, because she was very hot – competent, that is what Tony meant, not that there was a huge difference between those two descriptors – going through presumably her own version of the report on her personal tablet.

Not S.I. business then. Iron Man stuff. If Pepper was dealing with Iron Man stuff personally and willingly, things really must have been in the crapper.

"I wouldn't believe Fury if he told me he was an Afro-American male. That coat can hide a lot of stuff. And have you seen the photostatic veils out of SHIELD's lab? In fact, how do I know you're not Romanov-"

"I'll quit, Stark," Pepper threatened.

Tony considered this threat seriously. "It's something she would have known to say if she were impersonating you. She did her stint as-"

"My P.A., I know, Tony, I was there." The rage in Pepper's eyes certainly looked authentic.

Tony shrugged. "Fair enough. So, Fury may or may not be dead, but in any case some fucker high up in SHIELD or, more likely, in the World Security Council-"

"The people who authorized the Manhattan nuclear strike last year?" Pepper inquired off-handedly.

"The what?!"

Ah. Apparently Air Force Lieutenant Colonels weren't high enough up the chain to be informed about these little intelligence agencies' mishaps.

"Yep," Tony agreed with a mirthless grin, "those people. For a given value of 'people'. In any case, someone is scapegoating Steven Rogers in ways that are frankly absurd even in legalese, and legalese is a language devised to make absurd things sound non-absurd, so it leads me to believe that this is someone getting Captain America out of the way."

He paused to down a plastic cup of water – Banner would have had a conniption at the amount of plastic cups stacked by every S.I. water cooler, and Tony had vindictively grabbed two, taking vicarious revenge on the environment.

"I've met Captain America. He's a puppet. He can be maneuvered, and if some asshole out there wants to destroy him they're either stupid or it's personal. I don't think they're stupid, 'cause Fury wouldn't play possum – or die, that's still an option – for someone stupid."

"And who's got personal issues with Captain America?" Rhodey asked rhetorically.

"It's still a reach," Pepper pointed out.

Tony shrugged. "Yeah, Jay actually cracked a couple of their firewalls while I was in the shower. I already knew it was Hydra when I got here."

Rhodey face-palmed. "I hate you, little man."

x

"Days like these, I miss Loki," Tony whined. "Back in my day, supervillains used to have class."

"Lack of class?!" Rhodey would have spat nails if he had any. Aside from those on his fingers and toes, of course. "That's what's bothering you?!"

"Strung a little high?" Tony quipped. This was so familiar that he barely even remembered he was supposed to be pushing Rhodey out of the inner circle. Nigh on thirty years of habit were an iron shirt, ha ha. Still, he passed over two fingers of scotch. "On the rocks. You're off duty, Colonel, might as well enjoy it-"

"Tony, we're in the middle of a security nightmare-"

"Nah." Tony watched the holoscreens spread around the penthouse. Pepper was sipping on her second glass of champagne, doing a little light work and monitoring Tony's alcohol intake.

Tony was actually so busy seconding JARVIS' virtual incursion into SHIELD that he was only on his second glass, too. Rhodey was really getting on his nerves with all the jitteriness. Nerves of steel Tony's ass.

"Sir," Jay piped in before Tony snapped at his friend to go for a damn flight and clear his head. "I have uncovered concerning software. Please review Project Insight immediately."

"That's the one with the new Helicarriers?" Tony asked.

Stark Industries had made good business on the engines for those. Fury with four Helicarriers was a funny notion. Hydra with four Helicarriers raised all sorts of alarms. And, whoa, look at it – they had scheduled Tony for termination in three days. How nice of them.

"I'll call Legal," Pepper remarked, and made a note in her itinerary. Under the men's quizzical stares she explained: "Tony's got that look. He's going to blow up people, and you know the fallout always rains down on the company."

"If I might make a suggestion?" said the resident A.I.

"By all means, Jarvis," Pepper bade him.

"If we are not invested in Captain Rogers', Agent Romanov's or Director Fury's survival, there is no need for the intervention of the Iron Man. In fact, I am in the perfect position to acquire the complete contents of the enemy's servers and initiate self-destruct on most of the infiltrated vessels."

Tony grinned. And couldn't stop grinning. It was all he could do to hold back from outright cackling.

"Oh god," Pepper moaned. "Of all the things you could inherit from your programmer…" She downed the rest of her glass, poured another, downed that, and had to be stopped by Rhodey from doing the same with a third one.

Tony rubbed his palms together. "I am so proud of you, Jarvis. Let's do this."

x

"Sir?" JARVIS said about thirty hours later. He sounded uncharacteristically subdued.

"Yeah, buddy?"

"I… have uncovered a file in SHIELD's servers that you need to view. But I am concerned about your reaction. Perhaps you might ask Mr Rhodes or Mr Hogan-"

"No." Now Tony was worried. If there was something that could make him go green, metaphorically speaking, it had to be a huge, stinking pile of shit. JARVIS wasn't giving him any details, and without having at least an idea of what he would see, he didn't want to bring anyone else into it.

"Show me," he ordered.

Jay made a show of his reluctance, but he obeyed.

Tony watched his parents die in surprisingly high definition. He sat in front of the screen for a long time after the video had ended. He wasn't so much deciding what to do next, as he was trying to rediscover some semblance of sanity.

So, by chance Howard hadn't actually killed his mother drunk-driving. Statistics were a bitch. And so were Hydra.

They should have let it be. They shouldn't have come back quarter of a century later to finish the job with Tony; might have even gotten away with it. Well, they were asking for it, weren't they?

"Good job, baby," Tony said to his A.I., smiling a wry smile. "Go on as we planned. And, oh, if you get the chance, salt the earth afterwards."

Honestly, Tony didn't have two fucks left to give about what would happen to the miserable remnants of SHIELD in the aftermath.

x

Rhodey dropped back in at T minus thirty-one hours (of Project Insight's projected commencement – projected onto the wall of the room, too) and found Tony contemplating the pros and cons of going after the Winter Soldier loaded for bear. Or for tank.

"I'm worried about you, Tones," Rhodey professed. "You never went people hunting before."

Tony was tempted to stare like he was questioning the intelligence of the speaker of that outrageous sentence, but fortunately he wore sunglasses that protected him from making such a theatrical gesture. What did Rhodey think Tony had been doing in Gulmira? And what about those five and quarter illegal caches of Stark weaponry he had destroyed since?

Maybe he went hunting with intelligent missiles and lasers and repulsors instead of a rifle – but did that make it less of a sport?

"Thanks for confirming that for me, honeybear," Tony said dryly. "Robert did say I wouldn't go that far away from a workshop."

Rhodey must have been too discombobulated by the mere fact that Tony was casually talking to him like nothing had broken between them to notice that he was being made fun of. Or he was distracted by something else. He was definitely looking at Tony very oddly.

"What?"

Rhodey clapped Tony on the back and bumped their shoulders together. Apparently, he had decided on the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to the reparation of their friendship. Tony didn't believe it would work – no one had ever managed to get him to trust them again after he had stopped once – but he did care about Rhodey-bear enough to ply him with the L-word when the situation warranted it, so he was willing to be surprised.

"You're not that attached to your workshop," Rhodey mock-confided. "I could have sold you the trip as field-testing for your latest rifle design, even if you were stone cold sober."

"Why didn't you?" Tony wondered.

"Because hunting humans is evil and those who do it deserve to be shot themselves."

Tony reminded himself that Rhodey didn't mean it like that – that he was parroting the line that had been fed to him by his teachers at West Point and was still being determined by some paper pusher in the Pentagon or the White House, who knew? Who cared?

Rhodey was thinking of those recreational excursions when the organizers cordoned off an area and sent in some poor little men and women who owed money to the wrong people or fell into slave trade, and there was a group of drunk (or maybe high) white people with overinflated sense of importance coming after them with dogs and shotguns.

Sure, that happened. It sounded perfectly inane.

"Yes, yes," Tony agreed, "you're a moral man. Why didn't anybody else?" He had been drunk and high and young and white and loaded and terminally bored once, in the company of like-minded people. That self-entitled asshole with the shotgun could have been him.

"It's too easy," Rhodey dismissed the idea. "There's no challenge in it. You'd get the same satisfaction from shooting at a piece of cardboard."

Tony turned back to the picture of the Winter Soldier. There was just enough Hydra footage on him to make it clear that he was also a victim in this setup, and that he might welcome death as mercy.

Maybe Captain America or the Black Widow would take care of it and make the point moot.

x

T minus thirteen hours and thirty-five minutes, Tony was eating late dinner/early breakfast with Pepper.

It consisted of an assortment of sandwiches.

His stomach responded as if it hadn't gotten anything to eat for days which… was unfortunately plausible.

Even more unfortunately, upon learning that JARVIS already had Hydra by the throat, and there was no emergency to speak of anymore, Pepper veered sharply away from the topic of the fight on terrorism to the topic of Tony's personal life.

For once she seemed to accept that 'normal-people' standards didn't apply to Tony and decided to bulldoze through all the 'normal' crap by acting as if the episode of them being lovers had never happened, and she was back to the starting point of being one of his best friends.

"Dish," she demanded. "Before I take Rhodey's word on it and bury Banner under so many restraining orders that he wouldn't dare step foot into the same country as you for the rest of your natural life."

Tony tried to think back to the now-hazy times at MIT. And afterwards. Banner did his doctorate elsewhere, later, but they had started out during his Masters. Tony had been finishing his own doctorate. His second doctorate? In any case, for a semester, they were both at MIT.

"I met Robert when I was… eighteen? Eighteen, I think. Through Ty Stone, or one of Ty's 'friends'. I don't know. Just – he's brilliant, he's loudly brilliant, I couldn't have passed on someone like that."

"So," Pepper guessed, wise to his ways, "you cheated on Stone."

"I didn't," Tony argued. It was the same argument all over again. "I didn't lie to him about it. It's the exact same thing-"

"You did to me," Pepper filled in. The same argument all over again. "You forgot you were spoken for."

"That should tell you how unnatural your idea of monogamy really is."

"Asshole," she grumbled. Then she drew a figurative thick, permanent black marker line behind that argument, shelved it, stamped it as obsolete, and ruined Tony's attempts at dissembling by returning back to the original topic. "You were telling me about Dr Banner."

"Robert," Tony said with a little too much genuine emotion to it. "Dr Banner's kind of a different person. Mostly."

"I noticed he doesn't beat on you," she pointed out. "Rhodey told me-"

"I know what he told you. Jarvis replayed the whole scene for me. Very touching."

"I should have expected that. You have no idea what privacy is."

"My tower," Tony pointed out.

"Yes, I know." Pepper stole the last roast beef sandwich just as Tony was reaching for it. She showed a blatant lack of remorse for this act of thievery. "So, you met Robert, and he was very smart, so you slept with him. Even though he hit you."

"No!" Tony rolled his eyes as theatrically as he could. "Potts, I've got my masochistic moments like any other guy, but-"

"Stark, was this some hardcore BDSM thing that you let Jim misinterpret-?"

"No." He sighed and cast about for an explanation that would sound remotely understandable to a sane, neurotypical person like his ex-girlfriend. "Look, Pepper… by the time I met Robert, I was used to being hit. Howard trained me pretty good, and Ty taught me to expect it in romantic context." He stressed the word mockingly, because there was little to no romance in most of his relationships – usually he would just say 'sexual', but when talking about hitting that had a different connotation.

Pepper stared at him with that hateful mixture of exasperation and pity that made him want to walk away and get drunk. But if he did that, the woman would just reopen the topic on another day, and Tony would have had to do all this again.

"The difference was that Robert never hit me to put me down, or make me afraid or control me. Just plain reacted when he got angry. There was never any sort of manipulation behind it." This was why Tony had known exactly what to expect from the Hulk even before he had met him. "It was an honest reaction – more honest than anything I'd ever gotten out of anyone."

"You're really messed up," Pepper informed him, but at least she eased on the pity.

Tony decided to get rid of the rest of it. "Less than I was then. Because, Potts, what I said about putting someone down? I did that to him. I mocked him, and I kept bringing up his painful memories and generally did whatever I could to get him angry enough to lash out. With full knowledge of the consequences and of the fact that he hated himself afterwards for every time he hurt me."

There. The pity was now gone completely, replaced with horror. Pepper flushed; her eyes narrowed and lines bisected her forehead. She looked like she was considering punching Tony herself.

He smirked. "So, see? You want to make a case for abuse? Sure, but, between the two of us, Robert was the victim."

Pepper stood and shook her head. "No. You were both victims."

"If I may, Miss Potts," JARVIS spoke before Tony could make the mistake of telling his CEO to pack up her bleeding heart and take it out of his presence before he showed her how much of a victim he wasn't, "I believe sir prefers survivor. Likewise, Dr Banner has deserved this appellation beyond a shred of doubt. Please do not discount their agency based on your inability to empathize with their experience."

Pepper's jaw sank. It was a funny sight – this perpetually calm and collected CEO stumped that Tony's A.I. called her on her shit. He was going to ask JARVIS for the picture later. Maybe put in on Pep's Wikipedia page.

"We're different now," Tony said, and laughed. "Comes with the territory."

Banner hadn't hit Tony at all since they met on the Helicarrier. Tony was shocked by the realization that he hadn't missed it. At all.

After Pep went off to prepare for another business day – as usual (Hydra? What Hydra? Nothing to see here, move it along) – at S.I., Tony pressed a kiss to his fingers and let it fly in the direction of the camera mounted in the opposite corner of the room.

"Thanks, buddy."

"I have your back, sir," Jay assured him. "Although, you were quite convincing even before I interrupted."

"Eh," Tony shrugged. "I'm a good liar."

x

T minus one minute, Tony and JARVIS were as ready as they ever would be.

"I feel like I should be delivering a speech," Tony said, eyes sliding over the kaleidoscope of switching security feeds from all over the Triskelion. "Something like, we few, we happy few, we band of… insert applicable relation?"

"Daddy?" the A.I. suggested dryly.

Tony rolled his eyes. "Okay. How about the Captain America classic: 'heil this, motherfucker!'?"

"I have detected an unrelated breach of SHIELD firewalls, sir."

"Okay." Tony shrugged. "Release the Kraken!"

He had gone with the theme of Greek mythology. Trojans were left behind, of course, just as plan Y contingency, but Tony took his inspiration from the W.S.C. nuke, and between Jay and him designed the virtual equivalent. See them walk this off.

No matter how hard they formatted, anything saved on those servers in the next fifty years would come out mutated. Ha!

"The Kraken is on the loose, sir," the A.I. informed him. "The fuse blowers are ready to detonate at your will."

Tony had not gone near the newly constructed Helicarriers, as a matter of fact, since Fury, Coulson and Hill were en masse paranoid enough to not let him near their babies, but he had installed a kill switch in the casings of his arc reactors. Moreover, he hadn't asked, but there was a very good chance of Jay having commandeered an LMD to plant more FB's all through the vessels.

"Thy will be done," Tony muttered to himself.

He watched the 'carriers rise out of the Potomac. There was a battle going on throughout the Triskelion – he assumed that was Rogers, Romanov and Barton. The air support was new, but should it have been surprising to see Hawkeye with wings?

"According to the schematics, they reach actionable height at three thousand feet, sir," JARVIS warned him.

"Blow everything at three hundred," Tony told him. "Let's make a splash worthy of a Kraken."

x

JARVIS blew Hydra into the water (of the Potomac) and then out of the water (metaphorically), and robbed them of all they were worth information-wise while they fled for high ground. Or to lie low.

Tony strolled by the crash site in D.C., with Pepper in a stunning light blue executive suit and a retinue of lawyers that made up the perfect background for her splendor. The attending techs with Tony at the helm salvaged whatever was salvageable, because while Fury might have paid through his nose for the repulsor tech, that didn't mean Tony was just going to let it go. Tony had kept an eye on it for a reason. Aside from all others (apparently very real) considerations, he had a way of remotely destroying the arc reactors and the repulsors if someone started taking them apart to find out how they worked.

The contract stated that Tony was the only one to do any maintenance on the repulsors. The arc reactors were coded to his biometrics, because he didn't trust their integrity to a mere contract, notwithstanding that Fury cared about contracts like he cared about weather – it was important to have some in place, but it did not affect him personally – so of course he was going to get some of his minions to try and take the technology apart.

Not even speaking about the very real possibility that any SHIELD vessel might fall into enemy hands.

To watch Rogers not tell it, that was just what happened.

Speaking of.

"Rogers did a thorough job on these," Tony mentioned from the innards of a wet wreck hanging from four cranes.

"I'd love to see SHIELD try to sue him after this mess," replied one of the attending lawyers. Who, under that off-the-rack suit, was probably in fact an ex-agent of SHIELD. Possibly an active agent of SHIELD, provided that enough of the organisation survived on paper.

Tony had his hang-ups about paper, but a time came in the life of an intelligence agency when a paper archive turned out to be really fucking practical.

Tony had to respect Fury's paranoia when it came to this.

"There is a reason for not suing the victims of your own manhunts," said one of Pepper's lawyers to her buddy, who looked about as receptive as a marble statue.

"Especially one as high-profile as Captain America," the buddy replied coldly.

"That was all Hydra, thanks a lot," said the possibly-still-SHIELD agent, offended. "Miss Potts, is there any way of finding out for certain what side Hawkeye was on?"

Wily fucker.

Pepper shifted into her 'talk to the hand' stance, although the hand was not literal in her case, because she had too much class. Tony was very attracted to her. He was also too wet at the moment to properly appreciate the hotness, so he turned most of his attention back to dismantling the bedding of the Aramis arc reactor.

If SHIELD wanted it back, they were welcome to pay for it again.

"The only involved combatants confirmed to oppose the Hydra were Steven Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Samuel Wilson and Sharon Carter," Pepper was saying, as much to the reporters behind the police line as to the questioner. "Assume all others to be compromised. For more details, I recommend contacting the Department of Defense," she concluded.

Tony had provided the comprehensive listing of known Hydra agents, together with their files and laundry lists of crimes to not only the DoD, but also the CIA, the FBI, and the Interpol. Likely as not, the alphabet soup was also infiltrated, but the redundancy almost guaranteed that the mugshots and the names would get into the relevant databases.

If not, JARVIS could also slip them in directly.

And identify the people involved in stalling the process.

Tony loved it when a plan came together. Loved it exponentially more when he didn't have to walk out of his door to make it happen.

"Miss Potts, Miss Potts!" shouted someone from behind the line – by the sound of it they carried their own sound system on their person, because all other voices formed a barrier that would have been impenetrable without technological add-ons. "What is Stark Industries' official stand on the so-called Fall of SHIELD?"

Pepper pretended she hadn't heard anything from that side.

Later, still wet and cold and smelling like a river, Tony found a text from her. It contained the time and place for his press conference, and the cheerful message: 'Clean up your own mess, Iron Man'.

x

"Did the emergence of Hydra affect you personally, Mr Stark?" was the first question directed at him after he had finished reading the text Pepper's PR people prepared for him, and opened the floor.

Tony speared the olive in his martini with a toothpick and swirled it around the glass. "Sure it did," he said, trying to find the balance between his don't-give-a-fuck public persona and the good-boy persona Pepper tried to mold him into. "It's a black day for everybody when we find Nazis among us. Iron Man – that's me-"

Cue obligatory laughs in response to his faux-drunk grin.

"-is not as much of a symbol of freedom and justice as Captain America – let's face it, this is me-"

Cue more obligatory laughs, and some mean real laughs, too.

"-but if you look back, Iron Man always stood against terrorism." Tony managed to turn the mood somber enough to stave off any further laughs. He leaned his elbows against the speaker's desk, bent his head closer to the microphones, and set his voice lower. "I always stood against terrorism. If you feel like you need to wage the war to protect your own rights – that happens. Unfortunately, humankind is not historically a species that can resolve interpersonal conflicts without warfare. But nothing, nothing ever gives anyone the right to turn weapons on the armless, the helpless, the infirm – the civilian. And I will not stand by while this is happening."

He took a deep breath, ostensibly readying himself for a yet more dramatic proclamation. Most of the audience stared at him, hungry for his words.

"Especially," Tony continued, "while this is happening within our own country. I, like the good men and women in law enforcement, will stand against terror! I stand against Hydra!"

Here was the perfect moment to say 'I stand with Captain America', and if Tony were someone else, he might have used it.

But he wasn't. He was the Iron Man. If Rogers wanted, he was welcome to hold a press conference himself and state that he stood with Iron Man. It would have been immensely satisfying, but it wasn't likely to happen.

"What would you say to Captain America?!" asked a reporter that might have heard those unuttered words in the pause there.

Fortunately, Tony had expected this one. "Yeah," he said, "here's looking at you, Cap." He raised his glass of martini. Humphrey, eat your heart out.

The crowd went wild. Tony sent off a few kisses, complete with the 'mwah' sound effects, except someone in the backstage had been quick enough to turn off the mikes, so his sound effects were lost.

Never mind. Tony grinned at the flashes and raised his arm, showing the victory sign. Then he turned his hand around without changing the configuration of his fingers, and showed it to the cameras that way.

Three guesses which of the photos would appear on the covers tomorrow. Pepper might plot to kill him for the cinch, but even she would have to concede that the asshole Tony Stark had always sold better than the reluctantly sympathetic Tony Stark.

x

Banner was only a little startled when the Iron Man armor landed on the dirt path outside the shabby (to the point of uninhabitability) house. He looked around for witnesses, found a few cocoa-brown street rats, and resigned himself to his fate with a sigh.

"Sentinel mode," Tony muttered.

The armor petaled open and let him step out. It was a brand new feature that Banner hadn't ever seen before. Sadly, he seemed more exasperated than impressed with Tony's genius.

He looked good. Too thin, and habitually stooped, but active and full of that odd vim that in him seemed to ebb and flow according to some unpredictable chart.

"I've got bad news and good news," Tony informed him grandiosely. "Bad news is that if it weren't for Captain Icicle-up-the-ass, Hydra would have killed us both." There was a chance that Tony or JARVIS might have cracked Project Insight even without the calling sign of a hunt on Cap, but it wasn't all that likely – and why mess with a great line?

"Or," Tony admitted, "more likely killed me and pissed off Big and Laconic. I don't think they actually had enough fire power to deal him significant damage. Aaanyway…" He rocked on his heels.

Banner hoisted his bag, adjusted the strap, and surveyed Tony over a frankly horrible mess of a stubble. Didn't they have any razors in… Côte d'Ivoire? Was that it? Tony had flown straight to the coordinates; he wasn't sure on which side of the border he had landed.

"I've heard a little about that on the radio," Banner admitted. On the radio, for fuck's sake. "It does explain the encounter I had with Agent Sitwell."

And that explained Banner's sudden flight and subsequent prolonged absence, although why he couldn't send a fucking postcard from an airport Tony didn't have a clue.

"The good news?" Banner inquired.

The good news, as far as Tony was concerned, was that his not-fiancé hadn't done a runner yet. Which meant he was at least inclined to listen. Which he had better fucking be, after Tony had built him an orbital station to coddle his issues.

"The good news," Tony said instead, "is that I've managed to salvage their programming." Between his forefinger and his thumb he lifted a data card with his personal key to the Project Insight files on his very secret server farm. "Wanna come play Whack-a-terrorist with me and Veronica?"