This is a story based on the lovely Oceanbreeze7's Merchant of Death.
It is such an awesome story, I was asked to write one following the same story line as if the team knew what was happening.
I hope you enjoy :)
Eggs. Steve wasn't the greatest cook, but one of the things he found educational was to use the tablet his best friend had given him and to find a recipe, and make it. He would use the stove, and the microwave, and would slowly come to understand the world around him a bit better.
He liked his method better than Tony's, which was to shove a high-tech phone at him and watch gleefully while he muddles his way around the phone before a horrified look takes over him when he breaks it. Accidently, of course.
So, here he was, making eggs. For just one.
It felt strange, not having to shove food down the billionaire's throat. Natasha sat watching him, amused, as he turned back to the recipe, fumbling a bit with the pan.
"Seriously Steve, relax," she said, patience and humour colouring her tone.
"Hmm?" He asked, shoving the pan on the stove again to cook the eggs a bit longer.
"We can get to Japan in three hours if we need to. He'll be fine."
"I just don't like being there when someone is apart from the team," Steve's weak explanation fell from his lips. Natasha grinned. She knew that well. Every time one of them took off, whether it was Tony on one of his frequent business trips or Clint or Natasha on a mission, Steve worried. He felt most comfortable with everyone under one roof, in one room, all together. He was clearly the one used to working on a team.
"I can't help thinking something bad will happen, and that we'll never see each other again, and Tony and I got in an argument again, and he left mad at me, and if he dies mad at me, I don't know what I'll do, because—"
"Steve, seriously, shut up." Clint raised his head from his arms. "It's too early to be thinking about death. You and Tony fight all the time."
"I know, but—"
"Steve!" Natasha interrupted. "If it's bothering you that much, just call him. I mean, the man's still on the plane. He won't even be busy."
Steve looked doubtful.
"Steve?" Clint said again, his head falling back down to where his arms formed a pillow on the counter.
"Your eggs are burning."
The super soldier swore, turning back to the pan.
Bruce walked in, and gazed calmly at the scene before him. The Captain stared sorrowfully back with wide eyes, a pan with smoke coming out of it, and a morose sigh leaving his lips.
Bruce's lips twitched, but he sat down anyway for breakfast with the family.
Later that day, as in, after breakfast, Steve called Tony. He put it on speakerphone so the rest of the team could pass on messages of their own, mainly requests for souvenirs, which Tony assured he wouldn't have time to go shopping for, but promised that the next time he went to Japan, he would pick something up.
As their talk was winding down, Steve asked if Tony needed them over in Japan.
"Naah, I'm fine. I'm only in the plane, Cap, and after that a quick business meeting. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure Tony?" Steve gnawed at his bottom lip, twisting his hand. Natasha grinned, at the video that JARVIS had accessed for them. They had asked if they could follow Tony's progress with hidden cameras. JARVIS had agreed, surprisingly quickly.
"It isn't that much of a problem," Steve continued, "I know Clint's been dying to se-"
"Oh, shut up spangles." Tony voice was amused and a long suffering sigh dogged his tone. The video showed him sitting comfortably in his jet, grinning at nothing as he listened to Steve. It was weird, seeing the unguarded reactions that Tony showed when he thought no one was looking.
"But what if-"
"Rogers. I've gone on dozens of business trips after letting the public know I'm Iron Man, don't get your panties in a twist." Despite that biting words, Tony's tone was warm and affectionate. Steve scowled, spinning again, huffing. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth however, which is what Natasha knew Tony was aiming for. Steve to loosen up, and to be reassured Tony was fine.
"Fine." Steve said resigned. Clint scowled. He had wanted to go to Japan. "Call if you need help over in Japan." Blue eyes sought out Natasha. She held up three fingers and the Captain nodded at her. "Natasha says that we can make it there in almost three hours at top speed—" He paused, listening to Natasha. "...and she wants me to tell you that she hopes to trip on the way down."
Laughter pushed its way out of Tony's mouth.
"Yeah, well, tell the itsy-bitsy-spider I love her too," They watched the video feed as Tony hung up quickly. The video didn't disappear however. Instead, it stayed running.
"Perhaps there is a malfunction," The AI replied calmly. Steve raised an eyebrow, and Natasha snorted.
There was no malfunction, but apparently JARVIS wanted them to see something. The image playing on the TV, they sat down and watched.
It was exceedingly boring. They knew it would be hours before Tony would land in Japan, and apparently what JARVIS wanted them to see was not something from the plane. Tony was working on his phone, and drinking. Not much else was happening.
Eventually, Clint sighed and dealt Thor, Bruce and him a hand of cards. Natasha wasn't allowed to play because she 'cheated', and Tony wasn't allowed to play because he counted cards. He didn't even think he was, his brain just moved that fast.
Their attention drifted from the television where the video was playing. They didn't see Tony's expression darken, his eyes narrow slightly. They didn't see the pensive, angry expression that flitted across his face. When they glanced back at the screen, he was stepping out onto a tarmac. This time, the camera was a security camera, JARVIS automatically switching views.
They watched the baggage be loaded into the Audi, and Clint leaned forward, frowning.
"I've never been to Japan, but I have to admit, I didn't really think it would look quite like this." That got the attention of the others. Natasha shifted forward, looking at the landscape. It was grey and rainy.
"Is that the Seattle airport?" She asks, eyes narrowing.
Bruce hummed in agreement, and suddenly the television became more interesting.
Clearly, this was something Tony had planned. He transitioned smoothly from the airplane into an Audi, and was moving quickly. People flocked around him, an umbrella placed over his head, his bags automatically moving to the trunk. The suitcase armour clutched in his hand, his drink smoothly removed before he left the plane. The car door was held open for him, and he slid in the driver's seat easily. The camera switched from an airport view to road cameras and a visual feed from inside the car.
Rain splattered against the windshield. He squealed out of the airport and onto the open road, windshield wipers working furiously.
"Sir, are you positive that this is the best course of action?" JARVIS's voice fed through the video of Tony. Obviously, the AI knew where his creator was heading, and was reluctant to fully endorse the expedition.
"Why didn't JARVIS just tell us what was going on instead of doing this weird stalker thing?" Clint asked mulishly. Natasha shrugged, while Bruce cleared his throat.
"Tony can restrict what JARVIS can tell us. I think he told JARVIS not to tell us what he was doing. JARVIS is smart enough that he decided to show us instead. He can find the loopholes but he can't disobey a direct command from Tony." The other scientist said softly.
"No – but if I don't do this now, it's only going to get worse." Tony was talking back to JARVIS, his voice muted and his eyes shadowed. Steve made a worried noise at the back of his throat.
"What's going on?" He asked urgently. "Is Tony in trouble, did he not tell us something?"
"Mr. Stark is fine, Captain." JARVIS spoke to Steve while telling Tony where to turn on the video feed. Clint found it rather disconcerting.
Steve fell silent, but was obviously unhappy about having to ignore his instincts to run to his friends side and help him with whatever was going on.
Clearly something was troubling Tony, and none of them knew what. The landscape grew more and more rural, until JARVIS finally instructed Tony to pull in to a small bar.
Bruce's face was a strange combination of curiosity, worry, and a tiny bit of recognition.
Tony slipped out of the Audi and walked to a clean(ish) bar. A hat was placed on his head, hiding his face from the patrons. The surveillance video in the area was grainy, but before Tony left the car, an amiable expression slid onto his face, while his eyes remained hard. He clutched the suitcase armour close to his side, and walked into the bar.
"What's he doing in there?" Steve asked, confused.
"Did he travel to Seattle to drink?" Natasha asked incredulously.
"He's looking for something," Bruce piped in quietly. They looked closer at the feed from the bar, and indeed, Tony's eyes were scanning back and forth. His phone lit up, and JARVIS spoke out of it.
"Three booths to your left, sir. I shall remain on silent until the need arises." The phone went quiet.
"He's looking for someone." Clint murmured. "Who's important enough for Tony Stark to fly to Seattle for?"
Tony approached behind the man.
"Go 'way. Said I don' want anything." The man slurred. Bruce stiffened, his spine going rigid.
"No. That can't be," he whispered, almost to himself. Clint turned to see a look of intense betrayal forming in Bruce's eye.
Tony cleared his throat. The man looked up, and as his eyes slid up, the security camera caught his profile. Bruce pushed back.
"Bruce, what's wrong?" Natasha asked urgently. Bruce was shaking his head murmuring 'no,' over and over.
"How could he do that?" Bruce asked, choked. "How could he?"
"What bothers you?" Thor boomed. "Our shield brother has done nothing!"
"Bruce, man, calm down," Clint's voice broke in, uneasy. Tony was the only one to confront Bruce on his 'minor rage problem', as he called it, in a comfortable, straightforward way.
"What?" The man growled, scowling. Tony slid smoothly in the opposite side of the booth.
"That man." Bruce choked out. "Is General Ross,"
Natasha let out a soft 'oh', and slid her hand gently on Bruce's.
"I'm sure it's not what it looks like," she said smoothly. "You're Tony's best friend Bruce, he wouldn't hurt you like this, not the way you're thinking."
The man allowed Tony to sit.
Bruce looked at her shakily.
"No." Natasha replied, brutally honest as ever. "But we should wait before jumping to conclusions."
"Hello," Tony said easily on the video feed. "I hope you aren't busy tonight." Ross looked up, and this time registered who was in front of him.
"Why do you say tha-Oh..." The newspaper was placed on the table. A cold expression crept onto his face.
"See Bruce, they aren't friends."
"What did Ross do to you?" Steve asked softly.
"He hunted me," shadowed brown eyes met bright blue ones. "And he's never let me rest. The Hulk tore my life apart, and I thought I could put the shreds back together. But Ross was the one who burned what was left of my life so I couldn't go back, so that I had nothing to go back for."
There was a standoff on the screen, neither man speaking for a period of time. Finally Ross broke the silence.
"Tony Stark. I've seen you on TV." Hatred showed clearly on his face. The video switched angles, and found an angle that showed both expressions on the men's faces. A cold smile crept up on Tony's face as well.
"Yes, and I've seen you on SHIELD's databases."
"What the hell is he doing?" Clint asked. "Ross is powerful, Tony knows that."
"Those files were deleted." Natasha scowled. "He can't have seen them, he's lying."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Bruce said, his hands still trembling minutely, Steve's protective gaze following him. "Tony hacks into government agencies for fun, I'm sure recovering a deleted file is like sneaking candy from the candy jar."
"Those were lies – the real files were deleted." The man snapped. Tony kept smirking, a cold little smile that was so unlike his easy grin and amicable laugh that Steve felt uncomfortable seeing it. He felt like he and Tony were back in the first stages of their relationship, where they would bicker and fight, and aim to hurt.
"And I recovered them." Silence fell.
"How much do you want? I'm sure I have more money on me at this moment then you've ever gained in a year." Tony said, still in a conversational tone. Clint frowned.
"What's he talking about? Why is he offering that man money?" Steve asked, angry.
Tony's hand crept towards his wallet, an easy grin on his face, amicable, friendly, and the polar opposite of the cold, predatory smile he had worn not just two seconds before. The man snorted.
The scowl stayed on his face.
"I don't want your money, Stark." He said testily. "I want that thing dead." Tony frowned, as did Clint. Natasha's face twitched and Thor angrily stood up and bellowed at the man on the television.
Steve looked devastated, and Bruce just leaned forward to see Tony's reaction.
The suitcase was pulled onto the table. The ostentatious colours glittered in the dimmed lights of the bar. Ross knew what that was, there was no doubt. Tony looked up, a frown still on his lips.
"Do you really want to play this game?"
"What game?" Clint scowled. "They're just threatening each other."
"I think playing this game isn't very smart." Tony continued. Ross looked livid.
"I have files," he retorted. Tony wiped away the spit that flew onto his cheek. He didn't look overly concerned.
"And we have a demigod." Tony replied.
"Why is he bringing us into this?" Natasha asked, the same time Steve said "What files?"
The man didn't look too bothered either. He leaned back, arms crossing over his chest.
"You don't scare me, Stark. I've seen enough things that could make you run home to your mama crying. Now, leave the nasty business to the professionals."
Tony's frown deepened.
Tony was just a civilian, Steve knew. Out of everyone on the Avengers, he wasn't a soldier, or a spy, or a God. He didn't change forms, and he had never been trained or raised to be someone fighting daily for peace and justice.
But he still put himself out there, everyday, and tried his hardest to make a difference.
"I wish he had taken someone who could influence Ross with him," he said wistfully, disliking the man. "Then maybe Ross would be intimidated and leave Bruce alone,"
Bruce's earlier fear about Tony's betrayal had faded completely.
"Don't underestimate him," he said softly. "It's what he wants."
Steve watched the screen as everything he associated with Tony bled away. Tony was warm and comforting when Steve woke up, shivering and choking on icy water.
Tony was friendly, charming and witty when they were together, as a team, and he was cocky and arrogant with the press. Iron Man was strong, and arrogant as well, but was more of a soldier than Tony wanted to admit.
This Tony Stark was none of those. No, this Tony was cold, calculating, angry. His eyes were dark, a black fire making them seem predatory and haunting. Steve shivered.
"You really want to play this game, General Ross?" He repeated. "I'll tell you, as the Merchant of Death, I rarely lose."
"Who is this Death seller?" Thor asked.
"Tony was a weapons dealer, before he was Iron Man," Clint replied. "He was called the Merchant of Death, because in the arms market he made unbeatable weapons and he was ruthless. He got a reputation. He left it behind him when he became Iron Man."
The bar seemed to be silent at the two men stared at each other. Tony waited.
"You want to play this game, kid?" Ross asked. His moustache quivered with anger, and he ran a hand over it. Tony glared, ice cold eyes cutting.
"Kid?" He asked, furiously. "I am no kid, Ross. No kid would stand up to you and knock you back to the shadow where you belong. No listen to me. If you make one move on Bruce—"
Bruce startled, hearing his name after watching so intently.
"-a single toe out of line and you'll regret it." Tony snarled. Ross didn't seem intimidated.
"You threatening me?" He asked, sounding a little incredulous. Tony leaned back a bit.
"This isn't Canada, Ross. This is America."
The whole team frowned. They were shocked to see Tony so angry, but Natasha felt that Ross had a valid point. What threat was Tony, without the Iron Man suit. She liked the guy, but what could he do without the machine he built for himself.
Ross looked Tony up and down and sneered.
"You don't have the guts." The newspaper found its way back into Ross's hand, and his eyes left the billionaire.
His hand didn't get far. A tight grip prevented him from moving.
Tony leaned in slightly, and stared steadily at Ross.
"I don't have the guts? Shall we test that, Ross?" His voice was hard. "What will it take, you know, 'nothing'? I can delete your entire existence, your records, credit, bank account if I wanted to." Tony seemed nonchalant. He shrugged.
Ross glared back, anger burning in his eyes.
"SHIELD doesn't do that sort of stuff," he bit out.
"What does he know about SHIELD," Natasha grumbled. Clint's lips twitched, but his attention was drawn back to this stranger on screen, this man he thought he had known well, but was being shown a completely different side to.
Tony leaned forward, and whispered,
"I am not SHIELD." He leaned back, mask back in place. Bored expression on his face. Ross stared at him.
There was silence in the room with the rest of the Avengers as well.
"Well, that one wasn't a surprise at least," Steve said, a little shakily. "He's always insisted he isn't with SHIELD."
"You're blackmailing me? Forcing me to end everything I've done?" Ross asked.
"It's a good question," Natasha hummed. "What's his end goal here? To ruin Ross or just get him off our back?" Bruce shot her a short look.
"You don't have to avoid the subject," he said shortly. "I know it's me he's after. He doesn't care about the rest of you."
A cruel smile slid back on Tony's face. He tilted his head a bit.
"Blackmail is such a...ugly word. Cliché, yet ugly." Tony grinned a little. "I prefer the term 'assure the protection' of someone."
"Of a monster!" Ross snapped.
Bruce stiffened again, the tendons in his neck showing, his jaw working silently.
Tony didn't answer.
"You and your little innocent group sheltering that thing! That wild animal! Oh – but you're not so innocent, are you?" Ross was on the attack, snarling at Tony. Tony didn't answer. He sat still, an eyebrow cocked in anticipation of what Ross was going to say.
"Two assassin's protecting the people?" Ross spat. "They deserve justice; not having a fear that their protector is a murderer!"
Natasha's eyes narrowed, but Clint just looked thoughtful.
"Don't you dare," she whispered to him. "You don't get to agree with this idiot."
"Funny, coming from you." Tony finally retorted. Ross growled.
"And what about you? The perfect little soldier?" Tony's eyes narrowed.
"He hates being called a soldier," Steve breathed.
"Never, ever call me that." Tony snapped. It was clear Ross had touched a nerve with the way Tony's hands bunched into fists on the table. Ross chuckled. He knew his advantage as well.
"Oh? Why not, wonder boy not wanting the truth? You've served your army, Stark. You've served them well."
Faster than they could follow, Tony lunged forward and grabbed Ross's tie. Steve's eyebrow raised incredulously and Ross slammed into the tableside. Tony looked barely restrained, barely human. He looked primal and murderous.
"Odd little anger you have there," Ross grinned a little, staring into Tony's eyes.
"I think we all have a little anger in us, don't we?" Tony replied sharply. An almost commiserating look was shared between them. If a commiserating look could be hateful, that is.
"I see it on your face, Stark. I see in on my captured and wounded soldiers that I see return from a field of combat, after using their ally's corpse as a meat shield – you've seen the darkness, haven't you? You've seen the greed those monsters have—"
"You seem well informed, Ross." Tony interrupted.
"What does he mean?" Steve asked.
"Have you read Tony's file?" Natasha asked softly.
"The basic file. Just the information I need."
"Afghanistan," Bruce said softly. "He was kidnapped and tortured in Afghanistan for three months. It hardens someone. He's seen the life of a soldier."
"The great Tony Stark," Ross mocked. "Whatever happened to the billionaire playboy? Whatever happened to the man who bought a casino when the paint was bothering him?" Ross asked, cold and cutting.
It was silent for a moment.
"I'm still here." Tony said softly. Ross frowned.
"No, you aren't. You're just like them, those fools who attack America every day, siding with the bad guys and joining the monsters – part of you died and was reborn in that cave, eh?"
Tony clearly reacted to his statement.
"No." He answered, solidly. "No, I never died, Ross. The Merchant of Death? Was just simply...expressed, in different ways."
Ross just stared back.
"What does he mean?" Steve asked softly.
"Tony changed, Steve," Natasha replied, equally quiet. "He came back from Afghanistan and changed who he was. He frightened a lot of people with the way he was acting. He was self absorbed, and focused on the job before. He didn't deal with things well then, and Afghanistan just let him finally see what was going on around him."
"Howard messed Tony up a long time ago," Bruce said softly, "and all he wanted to do since he was a child was to meet expectations and to surpass goals set for him. He just wanted him father to pay him some attention and tell him that he was proud of him. Tony never got that, and so he made his own lifestyle, so people would expect things from him that he could do. He buried himself so deep that no one would know who the real Tony Stark was, so they couldn't be disappointed in him, not like his father."
"You know, I'm not going to rest until that monster's dead." Ross said conversationally, leaning back against the booth.
"I assumed records and the previous blackmail wouldn't let your morals die?" Ross snorted.
"Nor the fact Bruce is in public favour, and one of the Avengers, now worldwide known?" Tony asked, innocently. Tony pulled the disappointed face as he casually examined his hands.
Ross piped up, "If you expect the government to try and stop me-"
"But I never anticipated them being involved with this, now don't lie, you never were going to get them on your side, nor mine. So why don't we throw this little fairy tale out of the window, hmm?" Tony said, still casually. The tense silence fell again.
"You can't touch me, Stark. You've got nothing on me." Ross said quietly.
Tony looked at him, looked him over again.
"What's to say I couldn't kill you?"
There was silence in the bar and the room back in New York.
"What. The. Hell." Clint bit out.
"Tony wouldn't kill someone, not without them attacking him first," Steve said, trying to convince the others as much as himself.
"He massacred entire villages in Afghanistan," Natasha pointed out.
"He was a fucking weapons dealer," Bruce snapped. "His job was to create weapons to kill people. Even if he didn't sell to terrorists, he knew they would be used against someone. Tony's not an innocent in this team. He killed more than a lot of us."
"How can he be so calm about it?" Steve asked. He didn't like seeing his friend casually threaten people's lives. He didn't enjoy seeing Tony be forced to step up and defend Bruce.
"What's to say you never make it home? What's to say a mugger or a horrible gas accident won't happen? Hell, who's to say that Iron Man won't put an end to your sudden existence?" Tony asked calmly. He spoke in a pondering tone, while Ross froze.
The General swallowed loudly. Tony didn't move.
"Monster hunting – looks like I have two beasts to rid this world of, and put the people at ease." Ross snarled, spit flying again. Tony flinched minutely.
They stared at each other. Ross looked slightly relieved. Tony without a comeback.
Suddenly a small smile on the billionaire's face made Ross look nervous again.
Banner startled again.
"Who's Elizabeth, Bruce?" Natasha asked.
"I loved her," he said. "Her name was Betty, and we loved each other, and Ross broke my connections with her, forbid me from ever seeing her again. Wouldn't let me call her. I haven't seen her or heard of her in a long time."
"Daughter of Karen Lee – now deceased, and you. 5'6", blue eyes and brown hair."
Horror filled Ross's face.
"No – not her! She didn't do anything!" Ross hissed, panic barely disguised in his tone. Tony looked cold, empty and heartlessly at Ross.
"Shame you had to bring her into this, I'd prefer if she wasn't aware of our exchange," he said back to Ross.
"You don't know where she is!" He said, grasping at straws.
"New Mexico. 5499 West Moore Street. In a flash of an eye, I could let her be attacked by an assassin, or I could let her live. A life for a life,oryou could let Bruce go, and keep Betty Ross alive." Tony tugged out his phone.
"You're a monster." Ross choked out, falling back into the booth, looking desperate. Tony just looked at him impassively.
He started to type in a number into the cell phone.
"Fine – keep him. Just let her go. Let her go and never bother her again you – you traitor." Ross gasped. He trembled as Tony stood.
Collecting his things, grabbing his suitcase, he started to leave before he heard one last thing Ross wanted to say.
The General was almost in tears.
"How – how do you live with yourself?"
The camera showed Tony look a little shaken at the question, but he blinked and had a calm, cold persona on again.
"Sometimes-" He said softly,
There was more he wasn't saying. Something that he wouldn't tell Ross.
"I feel like I did die back in that cave."
The video feed suddenly cut, leaving the team in silence. Bruce got up, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
"He really loves you," Natasha said. "You're really important to him, for him to protect you like that."
"No," Bruce said. "He'd do it for anyone. He stands up against unjust things. He wouldn't have let it stand." A small smile graced his face.
"But it is good to know that he'd do that. For me. It makes you feel wanted again, you know? I never really got a lot of that on the run."
"He threatened your ex-girlfriend," Clint pointed out.
"I don't think he'd kill her," Bruce said. "If he went through all this trouble to protect me, I don't think he'd do something to hurt me. Not like that."
"He'd probably just cut Ross off from her," Natasha cut in. "He knew what he was doing."
When Tony returned that night, Bruce was waiting for him. The others listened in as Bruce greeted Tony in the foyer.
"Would you have done it?" He asked. "Would you have done everything you threatened to do?"
Tony didn't respond immediately. A sigh sounded.
"Bruce, I would do what it takes to protect you. Whatever that may be." He clapped Bruce on the shoulder, and turned to the lab. The chilling expression he had on his face fled at the sight of his friends.
Bruce stood at his shoulder, a hand touching Tony's wrist, a connection he wanted to be reminded of. Steve smiled at Tony and gave a small wave.
And thus, the Merchant of Death left.
And Tony gave his friends a small smile.
Thanks to Oceanbreeze7 for letting me use her story, and paisley15 for the wonderful prompt
Hope you enjoyed it :)