The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal) – 1/3 – startabby

Title: The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal)
Author: startabby
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Action/Adventure, Drama, Dystopian
Relationship(s): Tony Stark & James Rhodes (friends), Tony Stark & Loki Odinson (mentor)
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Kidnapping, Violence-Canon-level
Author Notes: Beginning the tragic adventures of Tony Stark: Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist, Survivor…
Beta/Cheerleader: Rae
Word Count: 62,000
Summary: Anthony Edward Stark has survived the crucible of Afghanistan only to find that the Ten Rings was merely the tip of the iceberg. A cabal plot to see him removed from the playing field, brought under control by whatever means possible. But Tony Stark is nothing if not resourceful. Even from the depths of the Oubliette, he discovers that he possesses the will to survive, as well as a surprising new ally in his struggle.
While Tony fights for his freedom, his best friend James Rhodes has his own battles to wage. Taking the place that in another universe belonged to the younger man; he is swept up into the world of aliens and grand battles as the Iron Soldier. Unaware of the truth, he becomes a tool of the same cabal who holds his friend prisoner. But secrets cannot last forever, and a time of reckoning is coming…
Artist: taibhrigh


 

 


Chapter 1: Wandering

It was a bright and sunny day in the heart of the Afghan desert, one with not a single cloud in the sky. In this dry and arid landscape, the only sound to be heard was the whisper of the wind as it blew sand across the tops of the innumerable dunes.

But then, the wilderness’ peace was shattered by a booming crack. Off in the desolate mountain range barely visible on the northern horizon, some kind of explosion had occurred. The flare could be seen from miles away, as well as the smoky trail that shot upwards into the sky in the explosion’s aftermath.

The unexpected sound had startled a pair of lizards, who emerged from the safety of their rocky burrow to investigate. These tiny creatures were the only apparent observers as the trail which had erupted from the explosion’s site changed.  It faded and grew intermittent; before vanishing altogether just as it reached its apex.

After a moment, however, something else marred the clear blue sky. This time, it began a tiny – barely visible – speck high overhead. The speck grew rapidly, eventually resolving into a roughly human-shaped figure falling rapidly downwards towards the desert.

A whistling became audible; caused by air rushing past the falling object. It grew louder even as the figure finally reached the sand-strewn surface. Slamming into the side of a nearby dune, the mysterious object sent a massive plume of debris out in all directions.

From his place inside of the mystery object at the center of the impact crater, Anthony Edward Stark, the newly escaped former hostage of the Ten Rings, let out a pained groan.

Slamming into the solid earth at high speed was definitely not a pleasant experience, regardless of the protection around his body. His bastardized armor – originally shaped in a roughly human form – had borne the brunt of the impact, or he would likely have died. Still, he didn’t entirely avoid injury from the fall. Bruises and scrapes were likely, especially around where his chest was still compromised from the open-heart surgery that had saved his life.

After several months of near-constant pain, though, Tony had become a pro at pushing through the debilitation of intense physical discomfort. He never would have survived his time with the Ten Rings otherwise. Sucking in a breath of smoky air with a cough, Tony pulled his arms out of the armor’s upper appendages and brought them into the construct’s torso.

Many of the mechanical supports – whether welds or bolts – used in the armor’s assembly, had been damaged by the combination of extreme heat and hard impact with the ground. Now, all Tony had to do to free himself from his destroyed creation was to apply a bit of torque.

Using the armor’s shoulder joints as leverage, Tony oriented his palms in opposite directions. Then he braced his hips against the armor’s waist and twisted his upper body sharply.

Once… twice… three times.

The tortured metal gave with a high pitched groan. Sand began to pour into the opening at Tony’s waist as the last remaining supports snapped and the upper part of the armor began to rotate.

With a slight change of position, Tony was able to readjust his leverage. Now he pushed up. The armor split apart like a plastic Easter egg. As sand poured into the openings in the armor, gravity and the fact that Tony had landed on an incline came to his aid. The additional weight dragged the ‘legs’ of the armor downwards, even as Tony squirmed upwards.

Good thing I designed that feature… Tony thought as he worked his way out. I would have been trapped in here otherwise.

After all, the tools that Tony and his former companion and fellow prisoner – Ho Yinsen – had used in constructing his armor were not around. No, presumably they had been destroyed during the escape and ensuing firefight. And of course, even if they had survived, they were now miles away. So Tony was limited to the ‘basics’ in managing his extraction.

Eventually, though, his efforts paid off. The gap between the two parts of the suit grew wide enough to allow Tony’s evacuation from its protective embrace. Pushing through the pain, he contorted his body and pushed free.


Taking his first breath of un-contaminated air, Tony gasped at the influx of much-needed oxygen to his desperate lungs. A hot metal enclosure isn’t exactly the best air exchanger in the world, he mused. Then he snorted, and added, no duh.

His wry amusement only lasted a moment, though.

All too quickly, Tony’s mood changed. His heavy gasps became wrenching sobs as the anger and focus that had sustained him died out. Now, he had nothing to distract from the memory of recent events.

Yinsen.

The older man’s death during the escape had been a spike to Tony’s heart. Intellectually, he knew that their apparent close connection over the last several months was artificial, a consequence of shared pain through imprisonment and torture. Learning the truth of the man’s long dead family was evidence of that fact.

Still, he couldn’t help but mourn the loss. Yinsen had been the reason that Tony had survived the worst months of his life. Life-threatening injuries and torture aside, life in the Afghan caves was tough. It was only through a massive amount of disassociation and drive that he’d survived.

And this was just another challenge. He wouldn’t let an emotional breakdown stop him, not when he was so close…

Working through his sobs, Tony began to pull the shattered armor apart. One piece at a time, he demolished his work, tossing the pieces out as far as he could manage in his weakened condition.

No one else deserves to see Yinsen’s final project; especially not our captors. Not if I can help it.

Eventually, though, the emotional fit passed. Taking one final deep breath, the genius engineer shook off his oppressive grief. Focus on the present, Tony, he thought. Dwelling won’t help you survive this.


Tony and the armor had fallen into a depression between two sand dunes. From that vantage, all that he could see was an ocean of sand and the clear blue skies overhead

So, the first thing that Tony needed to do was to get oriented.

Climbing to his feet, he clumsily made his way up the nearest crest. Ascending the shifting surface wasn’t easy. Sand displacement constantly pushed Tony down, forcing him to retrace his steps multiple times.

Eventually, though, he did manage to reach the dune’s summit. With the benefit of the additional height, Tony could now see the distant mountain range from whence he had come. On one peak, residual smoke from the site of his former prison could still be seen.

Turning and looking in the opposite direction, Tony caught a glint of what looked like water.

It’s probably a mirage, he thought. Still, it is a destination.

Placing his back to the mountains, Tony began to walk.


In this land, the sun is a merciless foe; more deadly than the greatest of fighters.

The memory of Yinsen’s words echoed in Tony’s mind as he moved. At first, the heat had been a welcome change from the pervasive cold of the cave, but now it was beginning to grow uncomfortable. With a muffled groan – his stressed muscles protesting against the movement – Tony pulled his stiff jacket off of his back. The jacket had been protection, cushioning, against the hard sides and sharp edges of the armor. Now it was just an additional layer of fabric; one that would only make the heat from the sun worse.

He left his bottom layer – a thin, long-sleeved t-shirt – on to protect both his pale skin and the arc reactor from the sun’s rays. Meanwhile, he placed the jacket over his head, using the garment’s arms to tie it in a turban-like shape atop his skull.

Doubtless, he looked ridiculous, but at that moment he simply didn’t care. Survival was all…


As he finished assembling his ‘turban’, Tony noticed a small oblong object tucked inside one of the jacket’s inner pockets. Curious, he pulled it out. Once in Tony’s hand, it was easy to recognize as a simple USB stick; metallic and unobtrusive.

Looking at the device jogged Tony’s memory, reminding him of a conversation that he’d had a few weeks ago.


“What’s that?” Tony asked, glancing over at the ancient machine where Yinsen worked. A remnant of the ’90s, the computer which they had been given was barely even capable of running the basic programming that they needed for their work. And of course, it definitely didn’t connect to the internet.

He had seen the older man writing on the word processor before, a log of some kind. From what Tony could see from his seat, the document wasn’t written in English or any other familiar language. Given Yinsen’s fluency as a linguist, it wasn’t inconceivable, merely an irritation for a curious mind.

“It is nothing, Tony Stark, merely a record.”

“A record, huh?”

“Of the things that I have seen, that I have heard; what goes on in this place.”

Tony frowned, “and me, am I in your little record?”

“Nothing that you have spoken of in confidence, I assure you,” Yinsen replied, voice dry as dust as he pulled his sweater closer against the cave’s chill. “Merely a record of our captivity and our appalling treatment during said period. Also a listing of all that they possess.”

“Aaah,” Tony replied, “you’re a spy, then.”

Yinsen froze for a moment before continuing the conversation, but Tony was paying attention and caught the flinch. “Spy is such a common term. I much prefer procurer of information.”

His tone clearly indicated that this was not a topic which he wanted to continue discussing.

Fine, Tony thought as he nodded. I can accept that… for now.

He turned back to his soldering, leaving Yinsen to his ‘log’.


An unexpected rock in his path caused Tony to stumble, nearly sliding off the crest of the current dune. It was a meandering path that he walked, following the ridgelines. He’d rather move in a straight line, but that was not practical. Instead, he was forced to weave back and forth, making slow progress in his movement away from the crags.

With his physical injuries and the heat of the desert, Tony’s sense of time had become entirely unreliable. It felt like an age since he had begun to walk, and yet, when he looked back the mountains seemed no further away than at the start.

Tony’s body ached from myriad cuts and bruises caused by the fight with, and escape from, the Ten Rings encampment. His lips and throat were cracked and parched from lack of water. The skin under his eyes was dark from lack of sleep. In short, he was a mess.

Still, he was determined to keep walking for as long as his body would hold out. He refused to let the desert beat him, not when he had survived the Ten Rings.

The sun blazed high overhead while Tony walked onward; one foot in front of the other.


“How did you end up here?” Tony asked absently, his mind mostly focused on the finicky work in front of him.

“I… my family come from a location near to this place, a small town called Gulmira. You have seen my skills, the Ten Rings thought I would be useful, so…” Yinsen’s voice trailed off; leaving Tony’s mind to fill in what went unsaid.  Yinsen lifted his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose absently.

“Life in this place, it is not easy. My people, we are used by so many. The Ten Rings are merely the latest in a long line of conquerors.”

 “And that’s why you write?”

“Yes. Perhaps if I can make enough of an impression, it will be enough to make those in power want to protect my people.”

Tony hummed, understanding Yinsen’s motivation even if he thought the man idealistic at best. From his extensive experience with the US military and government, he knew that those institutions would take without giving proper recompense unless someone in a position of power forced them to do so. This was especially true with native populations in areas of conflict.

Still, if they did escape, maybe Tony could provide the leverage that Yinsen needed to help his people. It would be appropriate payment for the help that the other man had given him.

“That is a noble idea, Yins-y. Heh, Yins-y, I sound like the guys from the plant in Pittsburgh when dad took me on a tour there as a kid… But sometimes noble ideas are not enough.” Tony patted the older man’s back lightly. “Maybe, when we get out of here, I can help.”

“That is a most generous offer, friend Stark,” Yinsen replied.

“Not at all,” Tony said, trying to make a joke out of the whole thing. “After all,” he waved his arms, “I’m Tony Goddamn Stark – Billionaire, Playboy, American Royalty!” He threw Yinsen his patented media smile, hamming it up for an imaginary audience.

With the ease of – now – habit, Yinsen ignored Tony’s antics, focusing instead on the thought behind the younger man’s words.

“Still, I thank you.” Yinsen offered his hand, and Tony, dropping the act, gave it a decisive shake.

“Then we have a deal.”


Now Yinsen was gone, his grand ideals rendered null by his meaningless death in the caves. But Tony remained, and if he could just get home, he could make Yinsen’s sacrifice worth something.


Thwap, Thwap. Thwap.

The barely audible sound of an approaching helicopter impinged upon Tony’s consciousness. At first, the exhausted man dismissed it as a hallucination; brought on by his overheated, exhausted mind. But then, instead of disappearing, the sound became louder and more distinct.

Could it be? Tony thought. Almost involuntarily, he began to hope. At that moment, Tony didn’t care who was coming. All he knew was that he couldn’t survive out here for much longer. He had to get out of the merciless desert.

Shouldering the last of his waning energy, Tony raised his arms above his head. Waving them as well as he could, he tried to signal the as yet unseen chopper. He could only hope that his efforts were enough to grab their attention.

Remember, Anthony Stark. This is your life. Live it for yourself, and not for anyone else. Yinsen’s words echoed in Tony’s ears as he collapsed against the side of a dune, his energy now completely spent. He had nothing left.


After what seemed like no more than the time it took to blink twice, the gusts of wind from the helicopter’s landing began to buffet Tony’s collapsed frame.

To be fair, Tony found himself thinking absently as he winced at the sand blowing over him; it had probably taken more than that for the helicopter to arrive. I just missed it.

A moment later, he began to catch hints of human voices overlaying the chopper’s mechanical sounds.

“Oh… My God, it’s him!”

The words were English, English with an American accent; the familiar sounds music to Tony’s ears.

He sighed, allowing the muscles that had begun to tense up to relax once more. In less than a minute, the owners of the voices reached his side. A shadow fell over Tony’s face. Someone stood over him, blocking out the rays of the merciless sun.

“So. How was the fun-vee?”

Despite their positions preventing him from reading his friend’s face, Rhodey’s dry tone was just what Tony needed to hear. Letting out a sigh, his lips turned up in an involuntary smile before he surrendered to the exhaustion that swamped him and fell back. He was saved.


As the soldiers that accompanied Rhodey loaded him onto a stretcher, Tony grabbed his friend’s hand.

“Don’t let them take it out,” he insisted, placing the other man’s hand over the reactor in his chest.

“What-?”

“It’s necessary.”

“Tony, what are you-“ Rhodey began, and then interrupted himself, “Never mind. Rest, Tones, I’ll make sure that it stays there.”

He’s just saying that to humor me, Tony thought. Still, he knew that his old friend would do his best to live up to his promise. With that thought in mind, Tony accepted the encroaching blackness that he’d been holding off by sheer will.

We did it, Yinsen, was his last thought for a long time.

Chapter 2: An Unexpected Recovery

The noise of the chopper’s rotors ramping up in preparation for the flight was a comforting backdrop as Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes re-settled himself in the co-pilot’s seat. From his place at the front of the copter, he could no longer see the stretcher which held Tony’s unconscious form.

Despite the younger man being unconscious and out of his line of sight, James couldn’t stop himself from grinning.

Tony was alive!

It had been over three months since the attack on the convoy which had led to Tony’s kidnapping, and – in all honesty – James had nearly given up hope of ever finding him.


“Colonel Rhodes.”

“Sir.” James stood straight, holding himself in formal parade stance he came to stand in front of the desk.

“Have a seat, Colonel. You’re giving me a crick in the neck standing there.”

“Yes, Sir.”

James did his best to hold his composure as he took a seat across from his base commander. Having been under the man’s authority for the past three months, he had a great deal of respect for the General’s skills as an officer. Still, there was only one reason for him to be summoned to the older man’s office at this time of day. Something had changed – something to do with the hunt for Tony Stark.

“At ease, Rhodes, you’re not in trouble here.”

Despite his tension, James did his best to relax his shoulders in obedience to the order. Looking across the desk, he could see that his companion was somber but not stressed.

“As you are no doubt well aware, it has now been just over ninety days since Mister Stark’s convoy was attacked while returning to base from the demonstration site. The last viable intelligence gathered came from the bodies of those assailants who our people managed to take out before they were overwhelmed. Our analysts determined that the attackers were affiliated with a local terrorist group – possibly the Ten Rings – but nothing beyond that fact.”

“Since then, our information gathering efforts have been less than successful. We still have yet to identify exactly who ordered the attack and possible kidnapping. In fact, there has been no communication at all on that front. No ransom note, no claiming credit, nothing to even hint that Mister Stark is still in the land of the living.”

“I understand that sir, but-“

James was interrupted before he could finish speaking.

“I’m not finished yet, Colonel. Now, my superiors in the United States Armed Forces have allowed this search, extensive consumption of resources and manpower, to continue for an impressive amount of time. Their reasons for doing so were extensive.  For one, retrieving kidnapped citizens is a part of our mandate. Besides, Stark Industries has a long-standing professional relationship with the US Military, one which we would like to continue.”

“However, we cannot afford to waste resources forever. Stark Industries’ Board has recently informed the brass that they are getting pressure to have Mister Stark officially declared dead. With their CEO missing-in-action, certain high-level decisions simply cannot be completed. Their company bylaws are set such that the CEO’s formal approval is required for the business to move forward.”

The General offered James a sympathetic look as he continued.

“Thus, I have been ordered to cease our primary efforts in searching for Mister Stark. Our HumInt resources will continue to search, but their efforts will be directed towards identifying Mister Stark’s possible fate. They will operate under the assumption that he is likely no longer in the land of the living.”

“Sir.” James’ did his best to maintain a poker face, but he knew that any attempt to speak would reveal his true feelings. Clearly, his efforts at disguising his emotions were a failure, or his superior understood his dilemma, for he continued speaking as if James hadn’t interrupted.

“Given your long-standing relationship with Stark Industries in general and Mister Stark in particular, it is understandable that you may be reluctant to accept this decision. So, I have made certain arrangements that you may be interested in accepting.”

“From your reputation, and from what I have seen over the past three months, I know you to be an excellent officer. Indeed, I am happy to have you under my command, despite the reasons for your presence. With our mandate here in Afghanistan, we could certainly use a pilot of your caliber in our patrol roster.”

“Thus, I have put in a request for you to be assigned to my base’s fighter division. While you will be expected to take on the position’s customary responsibilities, including regular patrol flights, you may also continue a personal search for your friend during your leisure time.”

“Sir, -“

James was inclined to immediately accept the older man’s offer immediately, but the General held up a hand to prevent such a response.

“Don’t give me a response right away, Colonel. Take the afternoon to think about it first. If you’re going to be under my command, I need you to take the job seriously. You cannot neglect your duties to your fellow servicemen in your desire to find your friend. Is that clear?”

“Crystal, sir.”

“Good. Now, take the rest of the afternoon off. I expect you in my office first thing tomorrow morning with an answer.”

With that, the General picked up a document from his cluttered desk and began to read. Recognizing that the interview was at an end, James climbed to his feet to leave.

As he opened the office door, he glanced back at his superior. “Thank you for your candor, sir, as well as the offer. I know that you must have pulled some strings to make it possible.”

Then he turned and strode out, nodding absently at the officer’s assistant as he passed the man’s desk on his way.


Several hours after leaving the General’s office, James found himself in another depressing conversation. This time, it wasn’t a face-to-face meeting. Instead, James was in one of the cubicles in the Afghanistan Forward Operations Base’s communications building. Using one of the Base’s dedicated secure lines, he had reached out to Tony’s mentor Obadiah Stane.

While he did trust the base commander, he needed further confirmation of the man’s words. As Chairman of SI’s board and the company’s former CEO, Stane would know exactly what was going on with Stark Industries.


“I am afraid that your superior’s words were correct, Colonel Rhodes. While I do not want to give up on Tony any more than you do, I am afraid that the shareholders disagree. We’ve already taken a hit to our business because of Tony’s absence; if we don’t move forward now the damage to the company may be catastrophic. Now, the lawyers tell me that there is a way to handle things that will allow for a reversal if our assumptions are proven incorrect and Tony is recovered alive. I swear that I personally will not believe that Tony is dead until I see his body. In fact, I have personally pledged funds to pay for the limited search that the military is continuing.”

James sighed and nodded. “Thank you for that, Mister Stane. I know that Tony has always relied on you, especially after his parents’ death, and I can do nothing less.”

“Indeed, and you can call me Obadiah, Colonel Rhodes.”

“I am James, then, I suppose, sir. Will I be remaining SI’s military liaison with the transition?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Stane – Obadiah’s – smile was avuncular as he nodded at James.

“Now, pardon me if the question is inappropriate, but what are you intending to do about your commander’s offer?”

“No, no. If I’m still the SI liaison you need to know. I will be accepting it; with the understanding that it is a short term position up for re-negotiation should things change.”

Obadiah’s face grew distracted as he glanced at something just off the screen.

“Good. I will keep the Board informed. Now, if you will excuse me, I have another meeting in a minute,” he said genially.

“Of course. Have a good day, Mister Stane – Obadiah.”

 “You as well.”

With that, the screen went black.


Obadiah would be thrilled to hear that his careful arrangement with SI’s lawyers would be needed. Tony Stark could now officially be brought back from the dead.

Still, James knew that the adjustment would not be easy. After all, Tony had been gone – presumably held captive given the circumstances of his recovery – for an extensive period of time.

Besides, being a Prisoner-Of-War was not something that one could simply brush off. James had known fellow soldiers who spent time in captivity. All of them were irrevocably altered by their experiences, though the level of change varied. And those were trained men.

As a civilian, Tony had never had such training. James could only hope that his friend would be able to recover, both physically and mentally. Regardless, he would be there for Tony, no matter what.

Chapter 3: Mercy

It had been three days since Tony’s arrival at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.  Despite the short time, he was already sick having to explain the Arc Reactor embedded in his chest. Every single time he had a medical visitor he was forced to go through the same exact spiel.

I mean, Tony thought, how hard was it to understand?

I have an electromagnet powered by an experimental energy source embedded in my sternum. Its job is to keep the shrapnel in my chest – which came from one of my own missiles, by the way – from reaching my heart and killing me.

But no… it was all…

“Why did you get open heart surgery in an Afghan cave?”

“Hmm… let me think… because otherwise, I would have died.”

Or…

“How could you trust some random ‘doctor’ to perform such a risky procedure?”

“Well, golly, I was kind of unconscious and dying… and a prisoner of terrorists. I didn’t exactly sign an informed consent form here.”

Or… and this was his favorite response…

“But why would you put an experimental energy source in your body?”

“Um… because otherwise, I would never have been able to escape. It’s not like I could take out the terrorists with a car battery strapped to my chest.”

Morons.


It really was much easier when the doctors focused on the multitude of other injuries that he had sustained. Between his torture, the cold cave, the firefight and finally his desert walk, Tony’s body was a mess. Not only was he suffering from dehydration, heat-stroke, and second-degree sunburns, but the flesh around the arc reactor was infected.  His brief flight had also given him bone-deep bruises and a cracked collarbone. To make matters worse, the waterboarding and the chilly conditions in the caves had left Tony with a case of walking pneumonia.

He had been both amused and appalled when one of his doctors proposed doing an MRI on his chest to evaluate his lung function.

Really, magnetic imaging on a man with a metal object embedded in his sternum keeping him alive. That makes perfect sense… Idiot.

Fortunately, not only was that moron shot down immediately by his peers; but he was then promptly removed from Tony’s case.


For now, Tony was trapped in a hospital bed in Germany. His case of walking pneumonia – made worse by compromised lung function – would take some time before it reached the point where further travel was advised.

So there Tony sat, bored out of his mind. Even the television on the wall couldn’t distract him for long. It was almost all in German. Even if it wasn’t, the television content was of little interest to the injured billionaire.

Tony had requested his friend Rhodey, who’d accompanied him to Germany, to bring him a computer as a distraction.

But no, the traitor had refused, saying: “You need to focus on getting well, Tones.”

“Rhodey… Honey Bear…” Tony had given the older man his best puppy dog eyes, but the grump had stood his ground and refused to budge.

“Fine,” Tony had huffed, crossing his arms and conceded – for now. He’d just have to try again later or find another strategy.


Tony’s disgruntled musings were interrupted by a knock on the door to his hospital room. He didn’t bother responding. He knew whoever it was would come in anyways.

Sure enough, after a moment, it opened and a woman walked through. Dressed in mint green scrubs, at first glance the woman who entered looked like yet another nurse. Though, admittedly, this one was younger and much more beautiful than his normal attendants. Given her dark skin and beautiful thick hair up in some kind of complicated braid… thing, Tony would bet that she had Central African heritage.

Watching as she walked over to pick up his chart, Tony’s close examinations of her figure – What, it was just appreciation of a beautiful woman! He’d been without such sights for months of late, after all.  –  altered his opinion.

His first impression had clearly been a bit off the mark.

For one, the scrubs that the woman wore were the wrong size, as they fit awkwardly on her elegant frame. Besides, she was evidently unaccustomed to such garb.  Her movements also more closely resembled that of a dancer than a medical professional who worked long shifts on her feet. She walked on the balls of her feet, ready for quick movement, instead of remaining flat footed to minimize energy consumption.

Sure enough, once she had the chart in hand, the faux nurse didn’t follow the normal procedure. Instead, she looked up and met his eyes directly – capturing his gaze with intent.

“Mister Stark, I apologize for the intrusion, but I simply must speak to you. I know that you are recovering from a no-doubt horrible experience, but…” she hesitated for a moment and then continued. “… You are my only hope.”

Tony raised a single eyebrow but didn’t otherwise interrupt. He didn’t want the encounter to end. After all, this was better entertainment than he’d seen in days.

“My name is Mercy Mthosi. My cousin, who works here, mentioned that you were in treatment after having escaped from the Ten Rings.”

Tony tensed, hoping that this wasn’t another attempt to get an ‘exclusive interview’. It wouldn’t be the first time that the press used a beautiful woman as a foil. The blonde from right before he left for Afghanistan – Carrie? – was a recent example of that strategy.

Well, if that was the case it wasn’t gonna work. Not this time. The story of Yinsen’s life and death is not some journalist’s prize.

While he was momentarily distracted, his visitor had continued speaking. “… I have never managed to find anyone who has escaped from one of the Ten Rings’ Afghan compounds before. I am not a reporter, and I am not looking for information about your time in captivity. I am only looking for the answer to one question. Did you see any women in the camp while you were there?”

The question came as a surprise.

Women? As if. Tony snorted. No woman would be stupid enough to voluntarily spend time around that bunch of savages.

But that thought triggered another.

What if the women weren’t there voluntarily?

“Human trafficking?” He asked, uncertain.

Mercy nodded. “I work for an organization that tracks the trafficking of women across the world. My focus is on those taken from Central and Southern African nations. From our research, we’ve found that certain branches of the Ten Rings act as a clearinghouse for all manner of illegal activity in that region, including human trafficking. They don’t necessarily capture the girls, but they do move them.”

That explains the accent. She must be from one of those nations. South Africa, maybe? She seems well educated.

Tony shook his head. “I don’t recall seeing any women, directly. However, I was kept pretty tightly locked up and the camp where I was kept was fairly small and focused on the military side of things.”

He paused for a moment and then mentally shrugged. The distraction was better than sitting there being bored.

And besides, he thought, Yinsen did mention a few things while we were together.

“Would you be willing to tell me more about what you’ve learned? If we pool our knowledge it could reveal things otherwise buried in my subconscious.”

She hesitated, obviously weighing the pros and cons, and then looked down at her costume.

“I might be caught if I stay for too long,” she said, raising a single eyebrow. “But I suppose we could talk for a bit.”


For Tony, the discussion with Mercy proved educational, and an excellent distraction from his own depressing circumstances.

The pair ended up talking for hours; going from the Ten Rings’ operation and extending further into a general discussion of human trafficking and terrorist organizations. From there the conversation turned to the multitude of challenges that those from the developing world, and especially Africa and the Middle East, faced on a daily basis.

Tony’s initial impression of Mercy’s educational background had proved correct, as she easily kept up with him when the conversation jumped between topics. In some ways, the conversation reminded Tony of the hours in the Afghan cave as he and Yinsen did their best to keep themselves distracted from their current state.

Though, Tony couldn’t help thinking, she offers a much more attractive face to admire than Yinsen’s ugly mug.


At Tony’s behest, the conversation that they enjoyed was only the first of several visits from the African beauty. Mercy managed to sneak in several more times over the next few weeks. Each time she stayed several hours, discussing a wide variety of topics, and updating Tony on what he had missed during his captivity. Her visits also came with certain ‘presents’, as she brought both non-hospital food and reading materials to keep Tony busy after she left.

Somehow she always managed to evade the notice of both the hospital staff and the military ‘watchers’ who had been assigned to him. They had even managed to trick Rhodey when on one occasion he stopped by during her visit.

“Tony,” he had said when he realized that there was someone else present in the room, and a beautiful woman at that. “Stop flirting with your nurses and let them do their job.”

After she had left the room he had added in an aside, “not that I blame you for trying. She’s gorgeous.”

Oh, Honey Bear, you have no idea. Tony thought as he smirked as if in agreement with Rhodey’s aside. Mercy is far more than just a pretty face.


Thinking of that incident made Tony grin yet again.

By now, he was pretty sure that Mercy was more than just an aid worker. No simple aid worker would be so proficient at avoiding notice. She might even be a spy for some foreign government.

Still, no one could fake the type of passion that she showed when discussing the plight of the women trapped in the cycle of human trafficking. At least that part of her story was true.

So, when she stopped right before he headed off to the States, he made her an offer.

“I know that there’s more to your work than what you’ve shared,” he said as their conversation for the day reached an end. “But, you’ve been a great help for me in my incarceration.”

Tony’s words had the woman raising her eyebrow in a now customary manner. The idea that his stay in the hospital was another form of imprisonment had become a running joke between them.

“Assuming that your employer cares about the same things that you clearly do, I would like to make an offer. With my own personal resources and the reach of Stark Industries, combined with the infrastructure that I believe your organization possesses, there exists an excellent opportunity. I have confidence that we could build an alliance that will be of mutual benefit to both our interests.”

He waited, but she gave no response. Shrugging internally, he continued.

“Obviously, I have some things to sort out when I get home first. However, if you would pass the offer along, I would be happy to accept a meeting request once things have stabilized. Just contact my assistant, Ms. Virginia Potts, and tell her that it’s regarding…” he thought for a moment, and then came up with the perfect reference. “… Gulmira.”

Mercy rose from her seat and gave him her usual nod of farewell. As always, Tony was struck by how elegant – almost regal – her bearing became when she did so. Deep in the recesses of his brain, he wondered if she was perhaps African royalty of some kind.

What an idea, he thought as she left the room, sounds like something out of a movie. Oh, well… it’s a nice thought. But now… now I am finally going home.

The thought warmed his cyborg-ed heart.

Chapter 4: A Case of Envy

“…and for those reasons, Stark Industries will begin shutting down its Weapons division, effective immediately.” The words of Junior’s press conference were cut off as the video shrunk and shifted to a small window in the upper left corner of the screen. As it did so, the remainder of the screen filled with an expertly made-up female host dressed in a bright suit, her teeth gleaming as she spoke.

“That was the announcement made by Stark Industries CEO Tony Stark during the press conference held three days ago. The conference had been called immediately after his return to the United States for the first time since the attack that led to his three month disappearance. While we here in the Studio are sympathetic to Mr. Stark’s horrifying experiences, do they really justify such a drastic move for his multi-billion-dollar company? Let us turn to our experts to weigh in.”

As the screen split yet again to show another talking head, this one a man in a somber, navy suit, Obadiah shut off the television in the car with a snarl. Junior’s announcement had been run on all of the news channels – major and minor – for days. His shocking announcement had caused Obadiah’s phone to blow up with calls from partners and customers on both sides of his business – legal and illegal – alike. Everyone was outraged at Stark’s unilateral decision and many were concerned that their profit, or product, would dry up.

Once again, the spoiled brat makes a mess, and I’m left cleaning up. It’s no wonder I decided that it was time to get rid of him. After all, it’s not like he’s going to be my golden goose anymore from the sound of things.

“We’re here, Sir.”

His driver’s voice distracted Obadiah from his thoughts.

“Good. I should be a while.”

Scowling at the valet who opened the door, Obadiah stepped out of his town car and strode through the doors of his favorite local club. Inside, the hushed atmosphere of the exclusive establishment was a balm to his senses.

“Good Afternoon, Mister Stane.” The host’s bland tone gave away nothing as he greeted one of his institution’s most influential members. “What can we do for you today?”

“Tell the bar to fetch my usual. I’ll be in the library.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Excellent service, as always. Respectful without being obsequious, Obadiah thought as he headed down the hall.

There was a reason that this was his preferred club on the West Coast. The wood-paneled hall gave way to a large room lined with floor to ceiling bookcases. Inside them, elegant collections of books with jewel-toned covers gave the feel of an old-fashioned library. Scattered around the room were a number of leather chairs, some solitary while others were set in groupings of two or three.

Obadiah strode over to one of the solos, a large burgundy armchair with a high back.

He had no sooner taken a seat than a server arrived with a glass of his favorite scotch and the latest copy of the New York Times, both of which were set on the side table beside him.

Picking up the glass, Obadiah scowled down at it absently before taking a sip. The burn hit his throat, cooling his rage for a moment as he appreciated the quality liquor. That was one thing he did appreciate about the Starks, they always had a good eye for booze. The brand which he currently held was one that had originally been recommended to him by Stark Senior – back when the older man was alive.

Now that… that had been an exemplary job. Not only had the target been taken out, but it had been done in such a way as to make it look like an accident. Even Howard’s precious Peggy Carter had no idea that it was members of ‘her’ organization who had arranged for her friend’s assassination.  

Smirking slightly at the thought of the old woman’s current state, Obadiah took another sip. When he’d heard about the Carter woman’s diagnosis, he’d laughed aloud. She’d been a pain in his ass from the beginning, often managing to turn Howard away from his ideas for the business. While she’d never managed to discover the truth, her suspicions had kept him for acting openly for a long time. It was only after she was forced to retire as Director of SHIELD and was replaced by Alexander Pierce that he finally had the freedom to act.

And act he did.

He had had over four years of total control over the company, in accordance with Howard Stark’s will, before he was required to hand the reins over to Junior.

Obadiah had used that time well, establishing himself with the Board and the investors as a capable successor to Howard while placing his own people into key positions in the Company. Meanwhile, he had carefully groomed his godson in preparation for when the younger man would come into his inheritance.

Using carefully curated stories from Howard’s past, Obadiah had encouraged Tony’s reckless playboy tendencies. Then he took advantage of the – sometimes arranged – scandals to set himself up as a somber and reliable alternative to the feckless child.

On the other hand, he also made sure that Tony’s focus within the business was on the Research & Development side of things. After all, it was well known that Tony Stark was an engineering genius. Obadiah merely directed that energy into the areas that were most important.

When the younger Stark turned twenty-one, Uncle Obie had – outwardly happily – handed control of the company over to his godson. In the eyes of the public, Stark had stepped into his father’s shoes and taken over as CEO. Of course, the reality was that Obadiah still controlled the company. He simply did it now as Tony’s right hand instead of as CEO himself.

At first, it hadn’t been too bad being the ‘man behind the curtain’. But over the years, as Tony received praise and frequent accolades for the work that Obadiah had done, the older man grew tired of being a puppet-master. He craved the spotlight that he once had possessed.

That year’s Apogee award was the last straw. Junior was once again being recognized for work that he, Obadiah Stane, had done. So he had decided. It was time for Stark Industries to once again cope with a tragic loss – and come out stronger with Obadiah Stane at its head.

Why couldn’t Junior have been dealt with as neatly as Senior? But that’s what happens when you hire amateurs instead of relying on the true professionals. Too bad Pierce has decided that he’s too busy to take my calls.


Obadiah’s musings were interrupted by a server arriving with a second glass, this one with a pour of high-class bourbon

“What’s this?” he asked, with a snarl at the interruption.

“From the gentleman over there,” came the server’s deferential response, combined with a gesture across the room.

Following the server’s wave, Obadiah spotted that greasy annoyance, Justin Hammer, seated beside yet another familiar figure. The man, whose short gray cut contrasted his perfectly pressed Army dress uniform, waved his hand toward a third chair in the grouping.

This could be promising… or problematic.

Giving a nod of acknowledgment, Obie finished off the glass of Scotch that he had been nursing, picked up his new drink, and walked over.

“General,” he said with a nod as he took a seat beside his old ally, General Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross.

“Come now, there’s no need for formality between two old friends is there, Obadiah?”

So that’s how he wants to play it.

“Ted, then. What can I do for you?”

“Your golden boy has really stepped in it this time, hasn’t he?” Ross replied, the corner of his mouth curling in a brief sneer. Beside him, Hammer gave a sharp giggle.

“Don’t remind me,” Obie said, ignoring the younger man. “It almost makes me wish he’d stayed missing. The company was just starting to find its footing after the disappearance, and now this.”

“But surely you’re happy to have your pride and joy back, Obadiah? After all, he’s your golden goose, isn’t he?”

Obadiah snorted. “Yours too, Ted. He is the one who built all of that ‘special armament’ that you’ve been using to hunt that beast of yours, remember.”

Ross’ smug grin faded at the reminder and Obadiah crowed internally.

Point.

“Not that they worked.” Ross reminded him.

“Yes, and I’m sure that we could do much better,” Hammer tried to interject. The other two men ignored him.

Rebuttal.

“Now, now, Ted, you can’t blame the tools. Stark Industries’ equipment always performs as promised. It’s not our fault if your troops failed to use them properly,” was Obadiah’s response.

Counter. I do love a good volley.

“Don’t remind me. That monster has given me nothing but problems.”

“Yes, well, I’m afraid that we won’t be able to help in the future, assuming that Tony’s agenda is allowed to proceed as planned.”

Set the hook.

“And what are you planning to do about it?”

“I’m still working on it. In the short term, I can stall him with the Board…”

And…

“…but that’ll only work for so long,” Ross finished with a sigh. “The Joint Chiefs are already buzzing about it. So far all that they have come up with is the existing contracts – which will only last in the short term – and using their liaison. What’s his name, Rames?”

“Rhodes.”

“Yes, the Air Force Colonel. Stark’s friend.”

Nice try, pretending not to know anything, Ted. You know exactly who he is, old ‘friend’. I know that you’ve been cozying up to Rhodes recently, wooing him for your ‘mission’. He told me so, himself, not that he knows the truth about either of us.

Obadiah snorted. “Rhodes is useless. He has never managed to talk Stark out of anything… at least as far as I am aware. They’re old college buddies, you know, that’s the only reason that he has the job.”

Come on, take it. Take the bait.

“So then, what are you thinking? We can’t have America’s military capabilities crippled because one man decides that he wants to become a pacifist.” Ross slammed his fist into the arm of the chair where he sat.

That’s it…

“You know,” Obadiah offered, faux-casually, “I’m not sure it is pacifism. After all, Tony was in the hands of the terrorists for months. Who’s to say that he wasn’t… turned.”

The pair of conspirators exchanged sharp-edged grins as Hammer sat there, looking wide-eyed in shock. Clearly, this kind of discussion was new to him. Not that Obadiah was worried about Hammer causing trouble. He knew Hammer from the past. The man was an opportunist. He wouldn’t say anything. Not if keeping silent would work to his advantage.

“Indeed. That certainly is something worth considering.” Ross took a sip of his drink and then continued. “I will have to broach the idea with my contacts.”

Hah. Gotcha!

“As will I. Who knows what the Agencies might uncover.”

Chapter 5: Surprising Allies

The dulcet sounds of AC/DC greeted Tony as he woke with a grunt. Last night’s exciting adventure into the upper atmosphere had left him with a massive headache, no doubt caused by the changes in air pressure that were the result of his rapid fall. Complete atmospheric integrity hadn’t been a priority in that design. Well, that would change.

“Good morning, Sir. It is 9:24 AM here in Malibu, and the weather outside is a balmy 79 degrees Fahrenheit with sunny skies. I trust that you slept well after all of the excitement yesterday.” Despite its artificiality, JARVIS’ voice managed to hold just a hint of sarcasm.

Oh, baby boy, you’re all grown up and sassing me.

“I have already arranged with Ms. Potts to have the damage upstairs done by contractors from the approved list. I have informed her that the damage was caused by an experiment gone awry, and she expressed her disappointment and lack of surprise. Meanwhile, DUM-E and the others have been hard at work downstairs doing clean up. Also, the results from last night’s tests are compiled for your perusal.”

“Excellent work, J, as always. I’ll be down in a minute.” Tony replied absently, already flipping through the tabulated results.

“May I remind you, Sir, about the Gala this evening? You have arranged with the lovely Ms. Mercy to be your date.”

“Ah… yes, thank you, JARVIS. What would I do without you?”

“Muddle through, somehow, no doubt, Sir.”


In the months following Tony’s return from overseas, he had thrown himself into work. He had two projects to conduct, both linked to his experiences in Afghanistan.

The first and more public project was tied to the woman that he had met in Germany.

As he had suspected, Mercy Mthosi was indeed much more than she had originally claimed. She was an agent of the African country of Wakanda, a fact that Tony had only been able to ascertain when his investigation via JARVIS had run into that country’s impenetrable firewalls.

Stark Industries and Tony, in particular, numbered among a select group of individuals or organizations aware that the apparently impoverished country was more than it seemed. While he’d never managed to actually infiltrate said country’s network, he had been able to identify the unique ‘flavor’ of its technology. Thanks to his father’s obsession with Captain America, he even knew that said technology was in some way connected to Vibranium.

Unlike his earlier probes, which had been ignored after being rebuffed, this time his contact with the Wakandan firewall yielded a response. Less than twenty-four hours after his probe, Tony had received a surprising visitor.


“Sir.” JARVIS’ voice had interrupted Tony in the middle of a design binge. “We have an unexpected caller at our doorstep.”

“Who’s at the front gate, J?”

“Not the front gate, Sir, the front door.”

Tony blinked. His security had been set up to keep unannounced visitors from even approaching the house. The fact that there was someone at the front door indicated a hack. Not only that, but the hacker had managed to get past JARVIS and then stopped at the front door.

Interesting.

“Well, then, I’ll just have to see who has come to call.”

Tony climbed the stairs that led from his lab to the front door, having snagged a weapons prototype off one of the lab benches on the way there. If he had unexpected company he wasn’t about to go unarmed.

“I may have an answer to that, Sir,” came JARVIS’ surprising response. “Our visitors did introduce themselves as the Dora Milaje.”

Tony stopped for a moment, his mind racing. “Bodyguards to the Wakandan royal family? Do I have royalty visiting, J?”

Holding his weapon at his side, Tony approached the front door. Sure enough, the camera installed there showed a pair of statuesque African women dressed in rather impressive looking red armor. From what he could make out through the gaps between their bodies, there did appear to be more figures present, as well as a vehicle of some kind.

“Go ahead and open it, J. After all, we wouldn’t want to be rude to royalty, now would we?”

Tony could almost hear the virtual eye roll as JARVIS replied. “Of course not, sir. That would be inappropriate.”

He couldn’t help himself. Tony snickered. But then he sobered again. This was serious business.

As the door swung open at JARVIS’ command, the two bodyguards stepped inside, scanning the entry before moving to either side. One of them spoke in a surprisingly deep, somewhat raspy voice that reminded Tony of some of his mother’s old friends. Unlike those women, however, Tony was sure that this lady’s tone did not come from excessive cigarette smoking. Rather, it was probably the result of an old fighting injury.

“Presenting, his royal Majesty, King T’Chaka of Wakanda.”

Pasting on his most diplomatic smile Tony strolled forward to greet the other man. He stopped, nonplussed when he recognized the young woman who stood at King T’Chaka’s side.

“Mercy?” he asked, confused. It was one thing to have suspicions about his new friend, another to have them confirmed quite so blatantly. “What are you doing here?”

Tony’s blunt question broke the formality of the situation. Both Mercy and her companion smiled.

“Anthony Stark, it is a pleasure to see you again as well.”

Mercy’s smile turned wry, as she gestured to her companion, “I believe that you are aware of my employer, King T’Chaka.”

“Of course, it is a pleasure to meet you, Sir, though I must admit that it was a bit of a surprise to have you show up here at my doorstep.”

“Not surprised enough, though,” his royal Epicness said. “After all, you did manage to determine my dear Nakia’s connection to Us.”

Who?

“Who?”

King T’Chaka gestured towards Tony’s former conversational sparring partner.

Oh, shit, was I flirting with a Wakandan Princess?

“Do not worry, Mister Stark,” T’Chaka says, apparently reading Tony’s mind. “Nakia is not one of my children. She is merely a close friend of the family.”

He smiled at the young woman. “Besides, it would do my son good to have some competition, even if it is with an older man.”

Son?

“Nakia is beloved of my eldest child, T’Challa.”

Beside the King, Tony noticed Mercy – or rather Nakia, apparently – rolling her eyes.

“Stop it, Malume,” she said with a smile. “You know that T’Challa has not yet admitted any such thing.”

“To you, perhaps, but we all have witnessed his… attempts.”

To Tony’s surprise, even the previously stoic bodyguards smiled at that comment, breaking the somber atmosphere.

Huh, I must be okay, then. He thought as he relaxed.

“In that case, if I may be so bold, what can Stark Industries do for the country of Wakanda?”

Easily sliding into salesman mode, Tony gestured towards his living room. His body language was a clear invitation to continue the conversation in a more comfortable setting.

King T’Chaka was agreeable, and as the group moved forward, he spoke.

“It is not what Stark Industries can do for us, but rather what we may be able to accomplish together.”


If meeting the Wakandan King had been a surprise, the proposal he brought with him was even more astonishing.

It turned out that the Wakandans had been searching for a way to help their neighbors – without giving away their secrets to the rest of the world – for decades, if not centuries. While Tony was a white man, a ‘colonizer’ as some of the Wakandans called him, his status and plans also provided the perfect smokescreen. By arranging a partnership between Stark Industries and the organizations which the Wakandans currently used to funnel aid into the other countries, they would have an ideal excuse for an influx of both new funds and new technology into those organizations.

On the other side, the Wakandans’ contacts and organizations provided Tony with a pre-existing structure that he could use to pursue his new mission of helping the Developing World. As penance for his role as the ‘Merchant of Death’, he had already begun exploring ideas for how he could help those who’d been hurt or killed by weapons that he’d created.

Then there was the tech exchange. Tony had been offered limited access to the Wakandan network and ridiculously advanced technology, access that he was fairly certain few outsiders had been given. He was able to work with scientists and engineers at his own level, trading ideas and exchanging information. The Wakandan scientists had been particularly interested in JARVIS, as artificial intelligence was not an area in which they had focused. In fact, Tony was certain that they were giving his AI even greater access than he was allowed.

And then… then there was the Arc Reactor.


A few weeks after the partnership was arranged, Tony had a visitor arrive at his Malibu home. With JARVIS’ help, she had made her way down to the lab where Tony was hard at work.

“Nakia!” Tony called, waving his free hand. His other was trapped inside his current project, a boot for an upgraded version of the armor that he’d built in Afghanistan. “Grab a seat, I’ll be right with you.”

He turned back to the boot and made an adjustment. One of the exterior gears shifted.

“I just need to get this bit done, first.”

“No rush,” she called back as she greeted DUM-E. Tony’s Wakandan liaison, Nakia had been by the house several times. Thus, she had previously met the Bots. “And call me Mercy, remember. We wouldn’t want you making a mistake in public, now would we?”

“I suppose not,” he agreed. “But still, it seems a shame not to use your beautiful name.”

“Flirt.”

“Shameless, I know. So, my darling… Mercy, what brings you to my humble abode on this particular day?”

“I come bearing a gift.”

“Oh,” Tony replied absently, having finally managed to extract his hand. Grabbing a rag, he cleaned the worst of the grease off his hands.

“For little old me?  My lady, you shouldn’t have.” Using his now clean right hand, he lifted hers up for a kiss.

“I didn’t.”

Tony raised his brows.

“I believe that you’ve been discussing your new energy technology with our scientists?”

Nod.

“Well, you must have mentioned to one of them that you have a version of the reactor embedded in your sternum.”

The mention of his prosthetic made Tony compulsively rub his chest, right below the lower rim of the Arc Reactor. Though the site had healed, it still ached on occasion, especially given the extra weight on his damaged rib cage.

“One of your contacts is wed to a doctor. So, when she mentioned how you were using Palladium in the energy matrix, her husband brought up the issue of heavy metal poisoning.”

Nakia’s comment was enough to make Tony wince. The possibility of such contamination was something that he’d hypothesized, but so far there had been no significant signs of damage. Besides, he had had no luck in finding an alternative source that wasn’t equally toxic.

“Ah,” Nakia nodded, having caught his wince. “So you are aware. Good, that will make this easier.”

She pulled out a small package from her purse and offered it to him. “This is a gift from my people. Refined Vibranium, of the type used by my people for energy generation purposes. Unlike your Palladium, it is not harmful when placed inside a human body. However,” she warned, “there is only enough here to power YOUR prosthetic. Any other reactors that your company produces will have to use more conventional sources.”

Vibranium, Tony’s eyes widened. I never thought of that. Isn’t that supposed to be impossible to get outside of Wakanda – besides Captain America’s shield, that is?

“Please convey my thanks to your people,” he said, accepting the package. “Even if they hadn’t already been so helpful, this alone would have been enough to make me indebted to your country.”

“But of course, Tony Stark,” Nakia agreed easily. “This is merely the first step in our partnership. And as for the next, that is easy.” She offered a smooth smile. “You must act as my escort for the upcoming Stark Industries Gala. This will be an easy way to make our alliance public.”

“You in a dress, me in a tux, schmoozing the rich folks. Sounds like fun, babe,” Tony said, “I can do that in my sleep.” Seeing her frown, he backpedaled rapidly, “Not that I could ever be bored with you around.”

“Nice catch.”

“But of course, Ms. Mercy. Sir is always the epitome of tact.” JARVIS’ voice made both of them jump. “And I will ensure that Ms. Potts knows to keep Sir on task and ready for the event in question.”

“Thank you, JARVIS.”


Even as Tony embraced working with the Wakandans, he also had a second project. He wanted a second version – Mark II – of the armor which he had built in Afghanistan. It was this project that had kept him busy the night before. After three months of work, the Mark II had finally been ready for its first test flight. The test had gone remarkably well, despite the icing scare.

Of course, it did, Tony thought to himself, after all, I was the one who designed it.

He ignored the little voice in his head expressing its skepticism. It reminded him of all the lab incidents in his past. It was not uncommon for Tony to push his experiments too far during the testing phase and uncover new failure modes.

Still, JARVIS had been careful to ensure that Tony didn’t accidentally double book himself on this or any other day when he had Wakandan related business. According to J, It simply wouldn’t do to offend such excellent new allies with his maker’s bad habits.

What would he do without JARVIS?

Given that the Gala was this evening, it had been important for the first test flight to occur on the previous night. JARVIS was well aware that Tony handled important social events best in the immediate aftermath of a key experimental test run. That way he could run the calculations about improvements in the back of his mind whenever he started getting distracted from the ‘boring’ business of public relations.


This Wakandan alliance has proven to be even more of a boon than my – and J’s – best estimates, Tony mused later that evening as he waited for his date to arrive.

Not only have they helped me find purposeful ways to fulfill my new mission, but the announcement of our new partnership has also helped the company bounce back from the disaster that my – admittedly uncharacteristic – press conference caused. With well-known organizations as partners, my plans to focus on the other side of SI and further development of our non-weapons branches like the agricultural division and digging into clean energy are more acceptable to the stockholders.

Tony frowned as a black town car pulled up in front of the house. Still, it is concerning that the Board has been such idiots about the whole thing. I thought that Obie had them in hand better, or at least so he claimed.

As the driver of the town car, his friend and driver Harold ‘Happy’ Hogan, opened the vehicle’s back door, Tony’s musings came to a screeching halt. First came a spectacular gold heel, followed by a shapely leg, and then a slim hand accepted Happy’s arm and Nakia/Mercy emerged from the vehicle. Dressed in a shimmering gold dress that matched the heel that Tony had first seen, the young woman was a vision of grace and beauty.

“Close your mouth, Boss.” Happy commented drily as he stood in place beside the car door.

Rebooting his brain, Tony turned on the charm that he’d lost. “My dear Mercy, you look simply spectacular this evening. All eyes will be on you, instead of my humble self.”

Holding out an arm, he escorted his date over to a second vehicle parked there in the driveway. It was his favorite cherry red convertible, whose top he had raised out of consideration for his date’s hair. After helping her into her seat, Tony hurried around the front of the car to claim his own place in the driver’s seat.

“Okay,” he said as the vehicle headed out, Happy’s town car trailing behind them, “so, the game plan for tonight. The press has already heard rumors about SI’s new partnership with the Usapho Foundation, among others. Today we will be making the formal announcement, and talking about our first initiative, a microloan program that is being done in collaboration with the Maria Stark Foundation. The program targets women who have been rescued from sex trafficking rings such as the one coordinated by the Ten Rings, offering them startup funds to build new lives and find purpose outside their forced trade.”

“Yes. I will take the lead on that one, while you talk about the technology development side.”

“Right, the grant program for researchers to develop technologies intended to improve basic living in the Developing World. It will be required for each grant proposal to include a testing phase to be implemented locally in one of the areas where Usapho has been working, and priority will go to proposals which include local researchers.” Tony smirked as he added, “I managed to sell that to my board by including a limited right to patents from the grant research in the contract paperwork.”

“Yes. I know that my people have already begun discussions about projects to propose. My King mentioned that his younger daughter and her middle-grade class are even talking about trying for a grant.”

That idea made Tony choke in surprise, though on second thought he approved. “I take it the Princess is scientifically minded?”

“Yes. She is a prodigy, a bit like you at her age, from what I’ve heard. But it is not just the Royals. Many in our community, especially the young, have been searching for a way to make a difference for our less fortunate brothers and sisters around the world.”

“You included,” Tony said, recalling Nakia’s passionate arguments during the early days of their acquaintance.

“True.”

They sat in silence for a while, before Tony turned the conversation to more casual topics. It seemed like no time before he pulled up outside the Gala venue.

“Ready?”

Nakia nodded.

“Right.” Tony let out a breath before shutting off the car and stepping out of the driver’s door. He was nearly blinded by the flashes from numerous cameras as the press outside car screamed questions at him. Tossing the keys to the valet, he strolled around to the passenger side door and helped Mercy – getting into character – out of the car. Offering her his arm, the pair strode up to where Obie stood on the plush carpet, speaking to several reporters.

Working like a well-oiled machine, the pair of co-conspirators hijacked Obie’s conversation with the reporter and claimed the spotlight.


When they finally made it inside the venue, Tony was giddy, riding high off his success. So, when he spotted the lovely Pepper Potts, he didn’t hesitate in heading her direction. His executive assistant was dressed in a beautiful green gown that hugged her curves nicely. Tony was so focused on his goal that when a man in a cheap suit approached his side, he almost didn’t notice.

“Mister Stark,” the man began. Tony interrupted him.

“Not now,” he said brusquely. He brushed past the interloper and continued on toward his intended target.

“Good evening, Ms. Potts,” Tony said as he reached her. “Don’t you look beautiful this evening? I almost didn’t recognize you in that dress… especially from the back.”

“Mister Stark!” Pepper smacked him with her purse, scolding him for his inappropriate words. Then she asked, “So how did it go outside.”

“Brilliant. Mercy and I managed to twist the press around our fingers.” The red-head had managed to bond with Mercy through their joint exasperation at his antics, a fact that Tony appreciated even as he moaned about them ganging up on him. “I’m headed for the bar to grab us a drink and celebrate. Would you care to join us?”

Pepper nodded, and Tony offered her his arm to escort her towards the open bar. However, when he turned around he was once more assaulted by the same individual who had tried to bug him before.

“Mister Stark,” the man said, “I am Agent Coulson with…”

“I said not now,” Tony again interrupted. “If you have business with me, call the office and make an appointment.”

“Sir, I have been attempting to do so for the past three months, to no avail.”

Recognizing that the man wasn’t going to let up, Tony sighed in annoyance. “Fine, fine, if you call tomorrow morning Ms. Potts will see to it that you have an appointment later this week. Now, will you please leave us alone!”

Thankfully, the nuisance accepted this assurance as sufficient. He backed off. Relieved, Tony escorted Pepper over to where Mercy waited with a smile.

They get along a bit too well at times – Tony thought with a grimace as the pair greeted each other. They’ve already started teaming up – with JARVIS’ help, the traitor – to get me to do things.

“Ladies, what can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a Martini, dry, three olives,” Pepper replied easily.

“And I’ll just get a glass of the Champagne that’s going around,” Mercy added with a smile. “I wouldn’t want you to overburden yourself, after all, Tony.”

Acknowledging the hit with a grin, Tony headed for the bar. He had just ordered his and Pep’s drinks and was waiting for the bartender to finish making them when a body shoved in beside him and slammed a folder on the bar top.

“You know,” a familiar voice spoke in his ear. “I would have bought it, this ‘turning over a new leaf’ that you were selling out there. You’ve certainly gone out of your way to make it look real.”

Tony turned to see his current press nemesis, Christine Everhart, standing beside him.

“But we both know better, don’t we?” She hissed.

“What are you talking about, my dear Charlene?”

“Christine!”

“Whatever. I have been nothing but honest in my recent statements.” Tony smirked as he took a sip of his drink.

“Then how do you explain the situation in Gulmira?” Christine asked with a sharp sneer.

Gulmira.

The word sent a shiver down his spine. Tony had to work to keep his face calm and his hand from reaching up to touch the arc reactor.

“What are you talking about?” He said as coolly as he could.

Christine flipped open the folder that she had dropped onto the bar top, showing a drone surveillance shot of the Afghan village. It was in shambles, the result of heavy bombardment.

“Oh, haven’t you heard. Your favorite customers are once again acting out.”

Chapter 6: A Military Perspective

Squinting, Ted rubbed the bridge of his nose as he swept the reading glasses off his face with a groan. Despite his long-standing interest in the subject, scientific papers like…. Ted glanced down and read out the paper’s title.

REGULATED GAMMA RADIATION AS A NOVEL NEW STRATEGY FOR AFFECTING BENEFICIAL MAMMALIAN MUTATION

Ugh.

Even on the dozenth reading, most of the paper was nothing more than gibberish to his ‘uneducated’ eye.

The paper, an old treatise authored by his daughter Elizabeth and her partner, Robert ‘Bruce’ Banner, was what had originally brought the rogue scientist to Ted’s attention. He’d made a habit of keeping informed of his daughter’s research despite their estrangement. The ideas proposed in this paper and others like it had been immediately attractive as a way for the US Army to potentially gain another Captain America. The fact that it would also give Ted a chance to re-connect with his daughter had just been a nice bonus.

However, it didn’t take long for the experiment to take a turn for the disastrous.

Despite the early promise, Elizabeth and Banner had failed to deliver anything substantial after three years of work. Frustrated, Ted had pushed back, demanding results or the project would be shut down.  The scolding that he’d gotten from Elizabeth as a result had been bad enough, but then… then there was an accident.

Somehow, that imbecile Banner had managed to make himself a guinea pig, an unstable one at that.

Now, Ted’s reputation among his peers was irrevocably damaged. Banner’s monstrosity had rampaged through multiple locations and, to make matters worse, he still didn’t have any real results. The Hulk had disappeared, off in hiding somewhere beyond the reach of Ted’s people.

Meanwhile, most of Banner’s research had been destroyed by the unstable scientist.

The only good thing was that Elizabeth was safe and out of the line of fire back at Culver. Ted was going to make sure that it stayed that way.


His reassignment back into the Sandbox had been a direct consequence of the Banner fiasco.

The Brass had informed him that they needed time to clean up his messes and that he needed to be out of sight in the meantime. It had only been thanks to Ted’s extensive network of favors that he’d managed to avoid a demotion or something worse, instead.

Being stationed out in the field was bad enough. The only good thing about Afghanistan was that it made a better site from which to search for the still missing Banner.

Things had finally started to stabilize. He’d begun repairing some of the damage to his reputation. Finally, the Hulk mess wasn’t the first thing that came to his superiors’ mind when they heard his name.

And now, once again, a mad scientist – or in this case, engineer – was threatening Ted’s career through his ill-considered actions.

Gulmira. What a mess.

Damn that Tony Stark, Ted thought with a snarl. I’ve already been working with Stane on damage control for his stupid plan with SI, now I have to deal with him ruining our plans in Afghanistan as well? I should have told Stane to push things harder. That man is quite ruthless when needed, but Stark does seem to be his soft spot.

There was no doubt in his mind; the bogey that had shot through his interdiction zone and dropped into the town of Gulmira had something to do with Stark. It carried all the hallmarks of the – admittedly – genius weapons design that Stark Industries was famous for producing. That, plus the fact that Gulmira’s attackers had publically claimed membership in the Ten Rings, made it obvious.

Now, Ted was stuck waiting for updates while Stark did God-knew-what. No doubt blundering about getting people – including one of Ted’s – killed in the process and ruining the op that he’d spent the last three days setting up.


Jabbing the intercom button on his phone, Ted barked.

“Stevens. Get Colonel Rhodes over here. Now.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ted could hear the sound of typing. “Um… There’s a problem, sir?”

“What?” Stevens, who usually manned the night shift, wasn’t used to dealing directly with his boss, and it showed. He was quite capable of manning his duties during the off hours, which was why Ted had allowed him to stay, but it was a bit irritating at times. It was a shame that his usual admin was currently out – supervising preparations for the op that Stark had ruined – but needs must.

“Well, um, ” Stevens spoke with a bit of a stutter. “Colonel Rhodes, he’s been flying night patrols this week. He just got off-shift a few hours ago…”

“I don’t care if he’s off-duty. He’s Stark’s… ‘liaison’, it’s his job to deal with that man’s antics.”

“Stark, sir?”

“Never mind that, Stevens. Just get him here, pronto.”

Damnit.

Ted slammed the receiver back down and attempted to get back to his reading. It didn’t help. He couldn’t stop fuming over all the ways that this could go wrong.

After what seemed like an age, Ted’s fuming was interrupted by a knock on his door.

“Enter.” He barked.

The door opened, and Colonel Rhodes entered with minimal fuss.

Unlike what Stane had implied to him, Ted knew that the African-American officer was far from incompetent. He wouldn’t have been able to work his way up to such a high rank in the Air Force if he was, regardless of who he had as a friend. It wasn’t as if the position of SI liaison required a high ranked officer. Rhodes had held that position since he was still just a Captain.

Instead, the younger man was – by both reputation and Ted’s own observation – a fine officer. Upstanding and capable both in and out of the cockpit. Indeed, Ted had already begun wooing Rhodes into his sphere of influence back when Stark was believed to be deceased. It was a decision that he’d yet to regret.

Now, though, the black man was a stand-in for his current nemesis. So, regardless of his approval of the Colonel, Ted couldn’t help but snap.

“Sit down, Rhodes.”

Watching as his companion took a seat, Ted noticed signs that the man had likely just woken. Softening a bit, he jabbed the intercom button.

“Stevens. Fetch coffee for both the Colonel and myself.”

“General.”

“I know you’ve just woken up, Rhodes, so I’ll be blunt. There’s been a new development in the Gulmira situation.”

Ted’s statement had Rhodes leaning forward, intent.

“Another video?” He asked astutely. The reason that the press knew that the Ten Rings were the ones in Gulmira was thanks to a recent video that had been sent out by a man claiming membership in that organization. In the video, the man asserted that the deaths in Gulmira were in response to the “unjustified attack” on the Ten Rings base – in other words, Stark’s escape from their custody.

“I wish,” Ted said with a sigh. “That would have been simpler to deal with. No, we’ve got an unidentified bogey that has infiltrated the site and is currently engaging with the Ten Rings’ forces there. Its electronic signature indicates that it was likely built by SI, presumably a prototype of some kind.”

He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk and steepling his fingers as he looked at Rhodes. “Tell me, Colonel Rhodes, have you heard from your friend, Mister Stark, lately.”

“Damnit, Tony,” Rhodes muttered under his breath and rubbed his temple. Then he replied.

“I have not, Sir, not for several weeks. If he is involved with your bogey I was unaware.” He hesitated and then continued. “However, from what he has told me there is a link to Gulmira. Something about… another captive of the Ten Rings, I believe. One who died during the escape?”

“I see. Well, then, I believe you have a call to make.”

“Yes, Sir.” Rhodes stood up, preparing to leave the room.

“While you are doing so, Rhodes, I want you over in Flight Command. I’m putting you in charge of intercepting the bogey when it leaves Gulmira. I want answers, you hear.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The look on Rhodes’ face clearly indicated his willing agreement. He also wanted answers, like any good soldier.  If I can just get him away from Stark, Rhodes really would be a useful tool in my collection.

Chapter 7: Dogfighting

Soaring through the upper atmosphere at Mach 3, Tony could feel the eddies in the air around him as he sped his way back home. The Mark II armored suit had performed well in the field, standing up to the long flight at supersonic speeds and battle against armed terrorists with no serious issues. Tony, on the other hand, was still coming down off the adrenaline high that had kept him from panicking about his return to the Middle East.

Dealing with the Ten Rings in Gulmira had been both incredibly cathartic and emotionally draining. It was liberating in that he had the chance to take down a few more of his captors and their organization. But, it was difficult in that the wreckage of that little Afghan town reminded him of Yinsen and his stories about his home village. The older man had been so proud of the fact that his people had persevered despite their hardships and Tony had been planning to send relief funds to the community as a part of his new aid program.

He still would, of course, but now it would be in an effort to repair some of the damage caused by the Ten Rings’ attack and his own battle with their forces.

I wish that there was some way that I could figure out who was trustworthy there, who I could offer support and not have it used for the wrong things. The thought reminded Tony of Yinsen’s mysterious flash drive, hidden in the lab since his return to Malibu. If I were to crack it, I bet he has a list of good contacts buried in there.

Tony stopped this train of thoughts, and shook his head, taking care not to move the suit as he did so. At this speed, he had to control the suit’s motion carefully to ensure that his flight path remained steady. No, I won’t violate Yinsen’s trust in that way. He deserves for me to follow that last request.

Then he chuckled, perhaps that suit from the party – what was his name, Carlson? – is the contact? He sure fits the part.

Tony’s musings were interrupted by the sound of a ringing phone echoing through the headset.

“Ha, ha. Very funny, J,” he said. “Who is it?”

“Colonel Rhodes for you, Sir.” Despite the noise of the wind rushing past from outside, JARVIS’ voice came through loud and clear.

“Put him on.”

There was a click.

“Honey Bear!” Tony exclaimed. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you today. What’s up, homes?”

“Tony…” Despite there being no visual element to the call, Tony could easily imagine the face his best friend was making that moment. “Tell me that wasn’t you.”

“What wasn’t me? Rhodey, darling, you’re not making sense.”

“Gulmira, Tony. The Afghan village near where you were being held. The Ten Rings who had taken it hostage were taken out by some kind of experimental weapon. Sound familiar?”

“Oh, sweetheart, you know I’m not in the weapons business anymore. I had a press conference about it and everything. It simply wouldn’t do to go back on my word like that.”

“Tony!”

“What?”

“Tony, be serious. We know it’s there and no one here knows whose it is. Please tell me it’s not your version of revenge because I’m already on thin ice after my insistence on keeping up the search for you.”

Tony scoffed, before turning up the mic’s pick up to increase the sound of the air rushing past. Lowering his voice, he said, “sorry… canyon… breaking up…,” with long pauses between words letting the wind fill in the gaps. Then he ended the call.

“That should take care of that,” he said with a smirk. “J, any sign of trouble ahead?”

“No sir, we should have smooth flying…” JARVIS’ voice cut off for a moment before a radar schematic appeared in Tony’s heads up display. “Correction, we have two aircraft rapidly approaching our position. We are being hailed.”

“Unknown bogey, this is the United States Armed Forces. You are currently passing through restricted air space. Redirect your course to the transmitted heading, and prepare to be escorted to the landing site. If you deviate from these orders in any way you will be assumed a hostile and fired upon.”

“Well, that’s not good,” Tony said wryly. “J, give me distances and estimated time to intercept.”

Information was added to the heads-up display, even as Tony began to brainstorm.

“Unknown bogey, respond now or prepare to be fired upon.”

Once again, the American military transmission echoed through the suit.

“Sir, we have been targeted by the aircraft. Two missiles on approach”

“Can you shake them, J?”

“Firing decoys now, sir.”

The suit braked, redirecting its flight path to avoid the missiles. At the same time, JARVIS sent off a series of short-range flares designed to act as decoy targets for missiles and the like.

Initially, it looked like the decoys had worked, as one of the missiles detonated upon impact with a flare. However, the second corrected course and turned back towards the suit.

“JARVIS, call Rhodey back!” Tony yelled as he dodged and weaved, doing his best to shake his tail.

“Dialing, sir.”

“Tony.”

“Rhodey, tell them to stop shooting. It’s me.”

“I knew you were lying. But it’s too late. You should know better than to send a drone into contested space.”

“No, Rhodey, you don’t understand.” Tony just managed to dodge in time as the missile screamed past him. “Your bogey, it’s not a drone. It’s ME.”

“What?”

Before Tony could say anything else, the phone connection dropped. Then the missile came blasting directly towards him. Waiting until the last second, Tony had JARVIS release one final flare and then drop into free fall. The missile went off in a fireball as Tony used the distraction to latch on to the underside of one of his pursuers.

As he used the smoother ride to catch his breath, Tony began contemplating what had to be happening back at whatever Air Force command center was responsible for this region. Confused questions being yelled across the room as the techs tried to figure out what had happened. Meanwhile, Rhodey would be standing at the back, his hand pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to get Tony back on the line.

Tony swallowed the hysterical giggle that almost emerged from his throat, even as the plane to which he was attached began to move in a sweeping curve. Must have been ordered to fly a search grid, Tony thought.

But then, suddenly, the plane’s motion changed. Instead of a smooth glide, the plane’s motion became erratic, spinning and twisting until even the enhanced grip strength of the suit wasn’t enough to keep Tony in place.

The suit shot off the bottom of the plane, spinning end-over-end for a moment before Tony managed to engage his flight stabilizers. Tony was just reaching equilibrium when a massive explosion nearby sent him flying once again.

“What just happened, J?” Tony asked; dizzy from the repeated sharp course adjustments.

JARVIS’ voice was subdued, “It appears, Sir, that when the fighter’s pilot shook us off, the reaction force threw him directly into the flight path of the other jet.”

Tony blanched. “Tell me I didn’t…” he swallowed. “JARVIS, tell me that I didn’t just get more American soldiers killed.”

The AI’s voice was calm, in contrast to Tony’s panicked cry. “Regretfully, Sir, I am unable to do so.”

The suit’s interior was quiet, as Tony struggled to process what had just happened. The joy that he had felt at taking down the terrorists had turned to ashes.

“Sir, I believe it may be best if we vacate this location,” JARVIS’ voice broke the silence after a moment. “The military is unlikely to be reasonable if we are intercepted for a second time.”

“You’re right, as always, J,” Tony said. “Okay, baby boy. Take us home, quickly and quietly.”

“Yes, Sir. Calculating a route now.”

Even as JARVIS spoke, the suit began to act without any effort on Tony’s part. For this kind of long-distance travel, JARVIS’ skills as a co-pilot were invaluable. It would have been far too tedious if Tony had to do all of the necessary calculations on his own.

Going supersonic, the suit rapidly accelerated, flying in a straight line until it had passed beyond the range of the US military’s radar capabilities.

From there, JARVIS took a round-about path to avoid any possible tracking, alternating between ground-level and high-altitude flying as needed. He even hacked into multiple commercial aviation companies’ databases and used their flight paths to disguise his own as they flew an arc near the North Pole on their way back to the United States.

With JARVIS handling the suit, Tony spent the hours that it took to return to Malibu deep in thought, avoiding Rhodey’s increasingly frantic calls and sinking into a spiraling funk.

I’m cursed. Tony thought at one point. Even when I try to turn over a new leaf and do better; all I do is hurt others.


As the JARVIS-controlled suit turned on its final approach toward the California coast, Tony sent a single voice message to Rhodey. In it, he outlined the entire incident, from his initial contact with the reporter, Christine, to the fight with the Ten Rings’ goons, and then the tragic collision. He closed the message by saying that he would be returning to his Malibu home shortly.

“Should the United States Military wish to speak to me further about today’s events, they are welcome to call upon me at my Malibu residence at their convenience. I will be available any time in the immediate future.”

Chapter 8: Facing Fate

“Head up, Colonel.” The General’s face was sympathetic as he strode up to James’ side. “The incident was not you’re doing. The blame for the accident is entirely in Stark’s hands.”

“Thank you, sir,” James replied automatically, though his heart wasn’t in it.

The past eight hours had been a roller coaster of emotion. He was still in shock at the turns that his day had taken. Woken from a sound sleep in the midst of his ‘night’, he’d been summoned to General Ross’ office.

Once there, he had learned that Tony’s actions had once again managed to wreak havoc on James’ life. This time, the – still traumatized – billionaire had interfered with an ongoing military action for his own personal vendetta. Tony may have initially tried to deny it, but he had been James’ friend for far too many years.

James knew exactly what Tony’s voice sounded like when he was up to something and wanted to hide it. He sounded just like that one time when he’d wanted to thank James for his help with some muscle-bound idiot who’d been harassing the underage Stark heir. James had stumbled upon the bigger man trying to convince the genius to do all of the work on their group project. When Tony had refused, the bully had threatened violence. Without thinking about it, James had immediately stepped in, protecting the kid.

In a very typically Tony response, the kid had convinced a couple of his groupies, co-eds who hovered over the boy in an attempt to get a piece of his fortune, to help him out. With Tony’s help, the two women had snuck into James’ empty dorm room, undressed, and waited – naked – in his bed. When James returned from his evening lab and opened his door, the sight had him gaping in shock.

It wasn’t until one of the women spoke, “Come to bed, handsome. My friend and I could use a little filling in our sandwich,” that he was able to react.

When James had recovered from his unexpected, but enjoyable, encounter, he had immediately called Tony.  While the boy had tried to claim innocence, his tone was smugly pleased, just as it had been earlier that day.

Clearly, the billionaire had once again done something that he was proud of; something that he knew James would scold him for but reluctantly approve.

So, James had answered his friend’s call fully expecting the man to claim credit for the ‘drone’. Instead, Tony’s voice was panicked, frantic. He had only just realized what Tony was saying when the call dropped just as the bogey – Oh God, Tony! – disappeared from the Command Center’s radar display.

He had maybe a minute of thinking that he’d just gotten his best friend killed, and then all hell broke loose. James watched and listened in horror as one of his pilots tried to shake Tony’s craft off his plane’s belly, and then upon succeeding, slammed into his wingman’s nose.

The audio and visual feed from both pilots turned to static, even as an explosion disrupted radar tracking over the region. When the shock dissipated, the area was empty. Both the fighters and Tony’s mysterious aircraft had vanished.


The next few hours had been occupied with the consequences of the disaster. The second pair of fighters, sent out from the base after the crash, confirmed the presence of aircraft wreckage scattered across the landscape near the coordinates where the explosion had occurred. A convoy had also been sent out hoping to recover something useful from the wreckage. Meanwhile, analysts both on base and beyond were pouring over the footage searching for any and all advantageous material.

James had heard rumors that the General’s people on-site in and around Gulmira had also reported in, sharing tales of an armored suit. The suit had apparently fought the Ten Rings’ soldiers on the ground and in the air.

Sounds like Tony, James had thought, almost hysterically, he always was one for flash.

Then, fifteen minutes ago, he finally got a message from his friend.

While James was relieved to know that the younger man had once again managed to avoid facing his own mortality, it didn’t change what had happened. Thus, he had immediately passed the message along to his superiors, which had led to this moment.


James and General Ross had been summoned to join a video conference already in progress. They were there to provide witness testimony.

Reaching forward, Ross opened the conference room door. His body language showed no signs of hesitation, but rather only spoke of confidence. Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, James followed suit.

The room was dominated by a massive video screen that covered one wall, its display split to show multiple views. In one, James recognized the bald dome and fixed visage of Obadiah Stane, his expression set and serious. Yet another showed a conference table with a number of senior military officials, likely a room in the Pentagon, while a third was –

James suppressed a gasp. The third was the Oval Office. He recognized President Ellis, of course, alongside the Secretary of State – what was his name, Pierce?

As he came to a stop, James’ body straightened up almost automatically, following the routine that had been trained into it over the years. James’ hand snapped up in a salute, honoring both his superiors and, more importantly, the Commander-in-Chief. Out of the corner of his eye, James noticed almost absently that the General was doing the same.

“At ease, General. Colonel.” Even distorted by the medium of the digital screen, the President’s visage demonstrated a palpable sense of gravitas. “Thank you both for taking the time in this no-doubt stressful situation to debrief. Now, then, give me the latest update. What do we know?”

James listened as General Ross spoke, providing additional details when prompted. The General was blunt but fair in his assessment of the situation. Regardless, the story told was damning for James’ best friend. It was clear that if the President so desired, charges could be raised that would see Tony in prison for the rest of his days.

“If I may,” Stane – Obadiah – interjected when the General had finished. “I believe that we should not judge young Stark too harshly. As anyone who has been following the news from the last several months knows, he has not exactly demonstrated the wisest choices of late.”

Nods came from several of those on the call, particularly the military contingent.

“I believe that his time in Afghanistan may have done serious damage to poor Tony’s psyche, above and beyond the physical toll on his body.”

“That may be,” Secretary Pierce interrupted, briskly, “but it is no excuse. Past tragedies do not justify future crimes.”

James’ heart sank.

“I have a proposal for this august body. Let us have an independent party – someone from the intelligence community, perhaps – debrief Stark. Get his version of events. After all, we do need to know how he managed to evade our radar and wreck so much damage on the terrorists in Gulmira. We can postpone a decision at least that long.”

Everyone in attendance in the conference agreed, and James murmured a brief prayer under his breath as talk turned to the public announcement.

Please, Lord, let Tony take this seriously for once. I can’t lose him, not again.

Chapter 9: SHIELD

Less than four hours after Tony’s return from Afghanistan he received the expected ‘knock’ at his front gate.

“If that’s the government guys, go ahead and let them in J,” he said quietly. Upon his arrival in Malibu, he had taken a quick shower and cleaned himself up. With the help of JARVIS and the Bots, he had also performed basic first aid on his bruises and scrapes, including wrapping his bruised ribs and swallowing a few painkillers. Then he had headed down to the lab.

Given what had happened, Tony knew that the cat was out of the bag with respect to his suit. Keeping that fact in mind, he wanted to present it in the best possible light.

With JARVIS’ help, he had already begun analysis of the Mark II’s performance in the field, identifying areas of weakness and possible adjustments for future designs. Meanwhile, Tony and the Bots had begun maintenance on the existing suit, replacing compromised components and cleaning off the assorted junk that had managed to adhere to the metal and get stuck in the crevices during the various bouts and long flights.

By the time that Tony’s visitors had arrived, they had managed to repair the worst of the damage. There was still plenty of work to be done, but at least the suit was presentable.

Wanting to make the best impression, Tony took the time to thoroughly clean his hands and arms, wincing as he scrubbed across a few scrapes. Covering his grease-stained t-shirt with a long-sleeved collared shirt; Tony did up the buttons along the front. Snagging the tie that hung beside it, he wrapped a quick knot and pulled it snug under his neck. A glance at the mirror over the lab sink and a quick adjustment to his collar and Tony was ready to meet his visitors.

Making his way to the lab door, Tony walked through, closing and locking it behind him as he did so. Grabbing the suit jacket which hung on the wall beside the lab door, Tony swung it on, settling his shirt sleeves inside as he climbed the stairs to the main floor. Then, as he walked over to the front door and opened it, Tony pulled out his usual sunglasses from the jacket’s pocket and slid them on.

The sunglasses served two purposes. For one, they completed Tony’s transformation into his public persona. For two, they hid his bloodshot eyes and the dark circles underneath them from casual view.

Stepping out into the bright California sun, Tony found himself facing a trio of black SUVs with tinted windows pulled up in a line in his driveway. As he stepped forward onto the blacktop, Tony couldn’t help but put one hand into his jacket pocket. From there, he could feel a lump along the bottom seam. Inside the jacket’s hem, Tony had hidden the USB that Yinsen had entrusted with him. Given the nature of today’s meeting, there was a good chance that he would finally be able to pass it off to the appropriate parties.

Across the driveway, the driver of the second SUV opened his door and stepped out. To Tony’s surprise, he was not dressed in uniform despite his obvious military bearing. Instead, the driver wore a black suit not dissimilar to the ones which Happy wore while driving Tony around. All that was missing was the driver’s cap.

The man’s fair head was uncovered, which revealed a familiar military buzz cut. As he moved forward, the driver’s motion shifted his jacket, allowing Tony to catch a glimpse of his holstered sidearm.  Reaching out, the man opened the passenger door as Tony approached the vehicle. With his arm, he gestured for the approaching genius to climb inside.

Please don’t let it be Rhodey. Please don’t let it be Rhodey. As he followed the unspoken command, Tony mentally begged that his companion for the trip would be anyone other than his African American best friend. He wasn’t ready to deal with the Air Force officer’s disappointed face.

When Tony’s eyes adjusted to the dim interior, he was relieved to see that his companion was in fact not Rhodey. Instead, the man seated beside him was only vaguely familiar. Just like his driver, this man was dressed in a nondescript suit and gave the first impression of being an average bureaucrat. It took Tony a moment before he realized why he recognized the face.

“Agent…” he began before pausing.

What was his name again? Began with a C…

“Coulson,” the man finished, giving Tony a polite nod in acknowledgment. “You remember me from the other night, then. Good. I know that we were supposed to be meeting next week, but given yesterday’s events we thought it best to move the appointment up.”

“I see.” Tony hid his confusion behind his usual ‘public’ face. “And when you say ‘We’, you mean…”

“Right, I never did get a chance to finish that introduction, did I?” the other man gave a wry smile. “Well, then, I am Agent Coulson, and I represent the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” Tony blinked, nonplussed, and Agent sighed, and then added, “also known as SHIELD.”

That rang a bell. Something that Tony had overheard when Aunt Peggy used to visit Howard. Plus, Yinsen had mentioned something about a ‘shield to protect the world, Mister Stark.’

“SHIELD?”

“Yes, we handle matters of Global importance. Anything that is too big for a single country to handle is our purview.”

“And my… situation qualifies?”

“For several reasons,” Coulson said with a nod. “SHIELD is often the agency of choice when it comes to matters which transcend national boundaries, including terrorist groups. We have been working with the CIA in combatting the Ten Rings for a number of years. Besides, SHIELD has a long history of handling Stark Industries’ covert affairs.”

“I see.”

Looks like I might indeed finally be able to hand off Yinsen’s drive.

By the time that the SUV pulled up in front of a generic office building somewhere in East Los Angeles, Coulson had managed the start of a fairly thorough debriefing of Tony’s time as a hostage. Working from the interview that he’d given to – according to the last guy – the CIA, Coulson had managed to draw out details that even Tony had forgotten. Details about the Ten Rings’ operations, his own experiences, and even a bit about the technologies that he’d developed – the miniaturized arc reactor and the suit.

“That was impressive Agent C,” Tony commented as the SUV parked in an underground lot. “You’re very good at that.”

“Thank You, Mister Stark, I do try,” Coulson replied. “Now then, if you’ll come with me.”

The pair was escorted to an elevator, and Coulson hit the elevator for the fourth floor.

“Where are we going, then?”

“You have a meeting with my superior, Director Fury. He needs to discuss more recent events with you.”

Despite his best efforts, Tony couldn’t fully suppress the flinch that Coulson’s comment caused. The deaths of those pilots weighed heavily on his conscience. From his pants’ pocket, he felt his phone vibrate. It was JARVIS’ way of comforting him without words.

“Thanks, J,” he whispered under his breath, knowing that the AI would hear his words through the phone’s enhanced audio pickup, before turning to his companion.

“And just what does this Director… Fury, was it? What does he intend to do?”

“Nothing more than a discussion,” Coulson replied. “After all, you are an American icon, on American soil. You have nothing to fear, Mister Stark.”

Ri-ight, and you’re Mister George ‘I cannot tell a lie’ Washington, you are.

But given recent circumstances, Tony wasn’t quite up for his usual snappy come-backs. Instead, he kept his skepticism to himself, merely shrugging in response.

“We’ll see.”

The group in the elevator settled into an uneasy silence, the quiet broken only by the tinny sounds of smooth jazz coming through the compartment’s speakers and the creaks and groans of the elevator’s mechanisms.

After a minute, the elevator shuddered to a stop and the doors slid open with a groan.

Coulson gestured to Tony that he should exit first, and then followed him out of the compartment. Their guards stayed behind as the elevator doors shut once again.

“They have other tasks,” Coulson explained when he noticed Tony’s glance towards the closing doors, “and I am perfectly capable of escorting you from here.”

The Agent led the way down the corridor, passing a number of closed doors before they reached an open area. To the right, a large collection of cubicles were filled with workers, while to the left a glass door looked into a large conference room.

It was through this door that Tony was led. Coulson gave a brief knock before opening the door. As he did so, the large chair at the head of the table spun around to reveal an imposing figure in black.

Tony was taken aback at the sight of – he assumed – Director Fury. He had expected based upon Coulson’s disarmingly mundane appearance that the SHIELD director would be similarly bland and unremarkable. Instead, he was confronted with a severe-looking man dressed in black leather, one whose countenance was partially hidden behind a black leather eyepatch.

“Director Nicholas Fury, may I introduce you to Mister Anthony Stark.” Coulson’s tone was matter-of-fact as he led Tony around the side of the large conference table and approached Fury’s chair. Out of habit, Tony held his arm up for the older man to shake.

Fury’s handshake was perfunctory and firm, just as Tony had anticipated.

“Stark,” he said with a nod toward the chair beside him, “take a seat.” Then he turned to Coulson and added. “You’re dismissed, Coulson. I’ll page you when you’re needed again.”

“Yes, Director,” Coulson said with a nod. He strode out of the room, shutting the door behind him as he left.

“Now then, Tony Stark, what am I to do with you?” Fury asked rhetorically.

“Let me go?” Tony said brightly, faking confidence he didn’t feel.

Fury turned back to the low cabinet mounted to the wall behind him. Grabbing a stack of folders from its top, he set them on the table; one folder at a time

“Anthony Stark, the winner of this year’s Apogee award, heads to the Middle East to demonstrate his company’s newest line of missile-based armaments.”

“Terrorist group known as the Ten Rings attack a US Military Convoy.”

“An extensive search, conducted by an international task force, fails to find any evidence of the missing industrialist Anthony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries, either dead or alive.”

“Explosions at a Ten Rings encampment in the Afghan mountains result in the rescue of the missing billionaire.”

“Physical examination of the recovered captive shows significant damage due to torture and harsh conditions for an extended period.”

“CEO Stark returns to the US and immediately starts the process of shutting down his company’s weapons division.”

“Instead of focusing his efforts on improving the lives of the American public, Stark now turns his attention overseas with new partnerships and international aid targeted towards the same regions where his former captors are based.”

“A reclusive Stark locks himself away in his home, only allowing a few visitors.”

“Rumors spread of strange sounds and odd sightings outside Stark’s Malibu home.”

“A Ten Rings splinter cell attacks the small village of Gulmira, armed with SI products and taking hostages to prevent counter-attacks.”

“An armored figure frees Gulmira’s survivors/hostages from the Ten Rings’ insurgents.”

“Internal Report: Mysterious weapon from Gulmira causes American casualties when intercepted leaving the Afghan interdiction zone.”

With each statement, Fury sets down a folder onto the table. By the time he is finished, the entire stack has been transferred from the cabinet to the conference table.

“Well, Mister Tony Stark. You have certainly had a busy year so far.”

Busy! How dare…

Tony huffed in disbelief. “Busy…. Yeah, I guess that you could call being kidnapped, tortured and almost dying… busy.”

“To be sure, the attack on the convoy was regrettable, and your experience in those caves was… unfortunate. Still, you have to admit that to the outside observer your actions since your return have been…”

Fury allowed his voice to trail off suggestively.

Wha… But… he can’t possibly think?

Tony gaped at the other man in shock as Fury leaned back in his seat.

“You aren’t suggesting what it sounds like you’re suggesting, are you, Director?”

“That depends.”

“Depends?”

“On what you think I’m implying.”

That… bastard… He’s going to make me say it.

“It sounds like you think that I’ve been… turned… or something. Like their torture worked.”

Leaning forward again, Fury placed his elbows on the conference table and steepled his fingers together.

“And did it?”

“No!”

Tony winced as his voice cracked on that single word.

“So you say. I have to admit when I was first approached with the idea from a couple of my contacts I was skeptical. After all, Stark Industries has been an integral part of the American military and economy for decades. You’ve been an important part of that work in since you took over the position of CEO. Still, SHIELD’s mission meant that I had to investigate, and the more we looked, the more concerned I became. Yesterday’s incident was the final straw.”

Fury’s single eye bored into Tony’s. “Tell me the truth, Mister Stark. Did you meet someone in that Afghan cave, someone who might have convinced you to act contrary to our nation’s best interests? Or were you merely Icarus, burned by the sun that you flew too close to?”

The reference was the final piece of the puzzle, as Tony felt his breath catch in his throat.

“You… you know… about Yinsen?”

“Yinsen?” Fury’s severe demeanor faded, becoming more neutral. “Oh, yes, Yinsen. The informant whose body was recovered from among the dead left in the Ten Rings’ camp after your escape. He was a part of our network, an asset who had been thought long lost. I take it that you two were acquainted?”

“Yes.” Tony sighed. “He was the other prisoner in that cave. My translator and my assistant.”

“The one who you failed to name in your previous interview – the one conducted by the… CIA?” Fury’s voice held a hint of scorn as he spoke the name of the other intelligence agency.

Interesting. Leverage? Tony thought as he nodded. Any handle that he could get on the other man would be a help.

“He spoke of a shield for the world, but I had assumed that he was speaking metaphorically. Yinsen was the one who kept me from dying in that place. I would never have made it out of that desert without him. I owe him my life.”

Tony took a breath and then continued. “He did influence my recent decisions, but not in the way that you’re implying. His words… they inspired me to look at my life and find ways to do better, to be a better man. Everything that I have done, it has been with that goal in mind.”

By the time Tony finished his speech, the Director’s frown had faded. He was almost smiling as he nodded his agreement. “An excellent sentiment, indeed,” he said. “But unfortunately sentiment will not be enough after what happened yesterday. Tell me, is there anything else that you can offer as proof?”

Should I? Tony was torn. Could he trust that this man, a person who he’d just met, was the correct recipient of Yinsen’s legacy?

He did give the references. Tony reminded himself. That has to count for something.

Taking a deep breath, Tony nodded. “I have something. Something that Yinsen left me. His legacy if you would.”

“And what is that?” Fury leaned forward yet again as he asked.

“Information.”

“Information?”

“Evidence that he’d collected during his forced stay with the Ten Rings. Right before he died, he asked me to see that it made it into the right hands. From what you said, Director Fury, I believe that you are the hands that he meant.”

“And where is this – data?”

Tony smirked. “I was surprised when your goons did not bother to search me before I was brought to this office. I suppose that they thought the scanner embedded in the elevator was good enough.”

Fury’s single visible eyebrow rose as he took in Tony’s words. “You have it with you now?”

Tony nodded. “I just need to borrow a pair of scissors – or a knife – and it’ll be in your hands in a moment.”

Before he could say more, a small folding knife was on the table between him and Fury.

Picking up the knife, Tony flicked it open with a thumb, and then, with all the theatricality of a stage magician, he slit open the pouch in his jacket hem. Holding his other hand open with the palm facing up, Tony let the USB drive drop into it. Then he re-folded the knife and placed both objects on the table.

Reaching over to the conference phone set on the table, Fury barked out a quick, “get in here, now.”

Seconds later, another anonymous suit entered the room. Like Coulson, the woman appeared to be dressed to blend in rather than stand out. Despite the three-inch heels that Tony spotted on her feet, she was very efficient in her movement as she hurried over to Fury’s side.

Tony couldn’t hear everything that Fury said to his assistant, but he caught enough to know that the drive was going to be mined for any and all viable information.

“While we’re waiting for me to hear back from my people, tell me about yesterday.” Fury said as he pushed a tray with an insulated carafe, mugs, and all the coffee trimmings over to Tony’s side of the table.

Tony felt surprisingly comfortable as he began to tell the older man about the Mark II; something about the situation familiar in a fundamental way.

It was only after an hour – and a lunch of sandwiches brought by another suited peon – that Tony realized why. Fury’s approach was very similar to the way that Aunt Peggy had used to get him to ‘tell her stories’ after certain incidents. As a child, he hadn’t thought anything of that, but when he’d grown up he had realized that it was the older woman’s way of debriefing him after critical events. Going through his father’s papers after his parents’ death, he had found references to how ‘Peggy’s questioning of Tony yielded critical information about the kidnapping attempt.’

In fact, when he thought about it, Tony was fairly sure that Fury had been one of the unnamed agents prowling the Stark estate after his parents’ death.

He must have observed Aunt Peggy’s interviews or even been trained by her at some point. Tony mused as he sipped his coffee.

The older man had excused himself a moment before, presumably to talk to his minions without Tony listening in to the conversation. Whatever. Tony could use the time to check in with JARVIS.

He pulled out his phone. “How’s it going there, J?”

“Very well, sir. We’ve had a few extra eyes on the property. Oddly buff joggers, government vehicles driving past the gate, and I believe that there is a military team camped out on a nearby cliff doing long-distance surveillance. Otherwise, things have been quiet since your departure.”

“As long as all they’re doing is passive. You know what to do if someone tries to force their way inside.”

“Yes sir, the house protocol is engaged.”

“Good.”

Tony was scanning through the results from JARVIS’ simulations of yesterday’s incident when Fury finally came back from his ‘break’.

“Gotta go, J, old one-eye has returned,” Tony said as he snapped his phone off and tucked it away in a pocket.

“So,” he added, climbing to his feet, “what did your techy minions say? Am I in the clear?”

Fury nodded distractedly, his mind obviously already focused on the information that Tony had dropped off.

“You’re good, Stark. There’s just some paperwork that we need you to sign, validation of your statements, and then we’ll see you home. Just wait a minute; the secretary is printing things out now.”

Tony simply nodded. He was ready to get home, and if being polite would get him there quicker, he could play nice.

“By the way,” Director Fury turned back from where he stood at the conference room door. “The files make mention of an unnamed man, some high ranked individual who was the real shot caller, above even the Ten Rings’ leadership. But the techs haven’t managed to find a name for the leader so far. Yinsen didn’t happen to tell you that name, did he?”

After their comfortable discussion earlier, the question seemed normal enough. So, Tony had no qualms about answering. “Let me think for a moment.”

Digging through his memories, already brought to the surface by Fury and Coulson’s interviews, Tony managed to find the necessary reference. “I’m not certain,” Tony said hesitantly, “but I do remember Yinsen mentioning one name.”

“Oh, and what is that?”

“Pierce. Something Pierce.”

At the sound of that name, Fury’s whole body froze for a single brief instant.

Huh, must be someone that he knows.

“Something?”

“Yeah, I didn’t catch the first name, but I think… I think that it started with an A?”

The SHIELD Director’s face was impassive, but Tony could tell that the nonchalance was an act. Something about that name was important.

“Thank you for your time, Mister Stark. If you will just wait here for a moment, Agents will be in with that paperwork shortly.”

With a nod, Fury swept out of the room in a swirl of black leather, leaving Tony alone once again. As he flopped down in the conference room chair, putting his feet up on the table, Tony’s mind raced.

Pierce. One more name for JARVIS to investigate.

Caught up his thoughts, Tony didn’t notice the odd smell that began to permeate the room until it was too late. Against his will, he lost consciousness. The last thing he thought was…

Why?

Chapter 10: Decisions

“Ah. Nicholas, good to see you.”

Alexander Pierce’s public smile was all-too-familiar to his former subordinate as the SHIELD Director approached the table where the man was holding court.

Ostensibly the former SHIELD Director and current Secretary of State was in Los Angeles as a part of his tour of the US’s military facilities in the West Coast.  Thus, it was no surprise to find the man surrounded by admirers and sycophants alike. Nick easily recognized several of the local military brass – both by reputation and their polished dress uniforms – as well as representatives from defense contractors like Boeing and Northrup Grumman and even Hammer Industries.

Of course, Director Nick Fury was one of the few who knew the true reason for Pierce’s trip. Pierce was on the West Coast for the same reason that Nick himself was there – Anthony Stark.

“I believe that you’ve met General Campbell and Admiral Croft,” Pierce said, gesturing to two of his companions.

“Indeed,” Nick said with a nod, offering his hand to the men. Following Pierce’s lead, he allowed himself to be drawn into the conversation, easily slipping into the discussion like the trained infiltrator that he was.

To those not in the know, SHIELD was a government think-tank which specialized in international affairs and global politics. As such, Pierce’s transition from SHIELD Director into the Secretary of State position was publically known, as was Fury’s status as the organization’s new Director. This allowed the pair of master spies to interact with each other socially without comment.


It was over an hour before both Nick was able to extract Secretary Pierce from the ballroom, pulling him aside into one of the nearby libraries for a private conversation.

The Secretary’s smile faded the moment he was out of public view.

“Update me on the Stark situation,” he ordered abruptly, forgoing any illusion of propriety now that they were no longer in public.

“As requested, SHIELD took custody of Mister Stark following his return from the Middle East,” Nick stated. “Having conducted a thorough interview with Mister Stark, I am satisfied that he was not suborned during his captivity.”

Pierce frowned, but before he could say anything, Nick continued. “That being said, I am afraid that the rest of the news is not so positive.”

“Well?”

“As you know, Anthony Edward Stark is, in fact, a genius. His skills as an inventor and engineer are on par with if not beyond those of our top researchers at SHIELD.”

Once again Pierce frowned, displeased at the implication, but nodded his agreement.

“If he weren’t the Stark heir, he likely would have been recruited into our ranks back when he was still at MIT. But between Howard Stark and Peggy Carter’s insistence that he not be involved in SHIELD and the well-known playboy personality he projected, Mister Stark was viewed as an unacceptable risk, at least as a recruit.”

Nick knew that Pierce was well aware of these facts, but the reminder was always useful.

“Even after Howard and Maria Stark were murdered by the Winter Soldier, the decision was made to keep Stark Junior in the dark about his father’s involvement in our business. Instead, you as the new Director chose to use Obadiah Stane as our connection with SI.”

This time it was Nick who frowned when he recalled the investigation into the Starks’ murders. He had been merely an Agent at the time, and despite his team’s best efforts they had been unable to identify who had ordered the Starks’ deaths. The most that they’d been able to determine was that it was a murder and that the assassin used was likely the Winter Soldier.

At the time, newly promoted Director Pierce had ordered that the murders were covered up due to the circumstances surrounding the murders. He didn’t want it known that not only had SHIELD had access to a version of Erskine’s Serum, but that it was stolen without the culprits being apprehended or even identified. Pierce had even ordered the truth be kept from former Director Carter, using the older woman’s recent diagnosis with Alzheimer as an excuse.

“For the past two decades, Stane has managed to keep Stark unaware of the full extent of SI’s arrangement with our organization.”

“Indeed. I take it that there is a but?”

“Yes, sir.” Even though he didn’t officially work for the Secretary anymore, Nick couldn’t help the reflex. “Stark’s time in captivity, while it didn’t manage to suborn him, did redirect his rather impressive intellect. We’ve already seen the public side of this change, but it’s more than that.”

Nick hesitated for a moment, deciding which direction he wanted to go. Stark’s mention of Pierce’s name in connection to the Ten Rings had pinged his radar and he didn’t want to tip the older man off about his suspicions.

“He’s managed to link himself to the Wakandans, and we both know that they’re far more than the impoverished African nation that they portray to the public.”

“How did he manage that one, did he say?” Pierce asked, curious. SHIELD had been trying to get an in with the secretive country for decades but had never managed more than the most cursory investigation. They certainly hadn’t built a public alliance like the one recently announced between the Maria Stark Foundation and the Wakandan-controlled Usapho Foundation.

“Not in any detail,” Nick replied. “He indicated that they were the ones to reach out, but refused to provide any further information. Stark played like he knew nothing, but there is no way that he is unaware of the truth.”

“And you didn’t press?”

“It wasn’t the time, sir, as we were still using the soft approach.”

“And that’s changed?”

“Yes.” Nick had finally gotten to the important part of his debrief. “The soft approach turned out to be the right choice in this matter. It seems that Stark had a companion in the caves, one who was not a part of the Ten Rings’ organization.”

With a pained grimace, Nick paused for a moment before continuing. “Stark’s companion was one of ours.”

Pierce raised an eyebrow.  “There was a SHIELD agent in the encampment? Why is this the first that I’m hearing of it?”

“Not an agent, precisely. More of an… asset,” Nick said. “Doctor Ho Yinsen. He was a part of our intelligence network, an informant who passed along relevant data about the Afghan region in general and the Ten Rings in particular. When Yinsen’s entire family was murdered by that terrorist organization last year, we assumed that he’d died as well. According to Stark, the Ten Rings had decided to keep Yinsen instead due to his usefulness as a doctor and translator. They kept him locked up inside their encampments at all times. It was only thanks to Yinsen’s actions that Stark survived at all, a fact that the man easily admitted.”

“And this… Yinsen was it?… mentioned SHIELD to Stark?”

“Not explicitly, sir. However, Stark is not a genius for nothing. He made an intuitive leap based on something that the older man had said during their time together. Or at least that is what Stark claims, anyways. Furthermore, Stark handed over a hard drive to me during the interview, one which he said came from Yinsen. The drive is an absolute gold mine of information about everything happening in the Middle East at present, including our missions and presence.”

Nick could see that Pierce caught the implications as fast as he had.

“And did Stark say anything about the drive’s contents?”

“Well, he claims not to have read them…”

“…but you doubt that.” Pierce finished Nick’s sentence for him. “I see the problem. Where is Stark now?”

“We’ve neutralized him. He’s in custody, right now. Under sedation.”

Pierce paced for a moment, deliberating. Nick was certain that the Secretary would reach the same conclusion that he had already come to, but he wasn’t discounting the possibility that Pierce would be more aggressive than his successor.

“Stark is too well known to simply have him disappear without questions being raised,” he eventually said.

“And we can’t afford for the military to take custody, not since we don’t know what all he knows.” Nick nodded. “My people have a proposal.”

“Go on.”

“Why not use Stark’s recent public behavior to our advantage. Being held by terrorists could break anyone, after all.”

The beginnings of a smile appeared on Pierce’s face.

“You have a good relationship with Obadiah Stane. With his help, it would be easy to sell the idea that Stark had a mental break, and that he has voluntarily checked himself into a facility for treatment. Then all we have to do is keep him under wraps. The Sandbox, perhaps?”

“I like it,” Pierce said with a sharp nod. “Killing Stark now would be suspicious. But holding him in one of our facilities, that’s good. After all, he might be useful someday.”

Nick didn’t bother finishing Pierce’s thought. He knew that the Secretary was thinking of leverage with Stane. While the unscrupulous businessman was an ally of SHIELD’s right now, that could always change.

“I’ll leave the whole matter in your excellent hands, then, Nick.”

With that, Pierce strode out of the room, clearly intending to return to the ballroom.

Nick spared a moment to regret the waste of a brilliant mind. Tony Stark could have been a very useful asset for SHIELD if managed correctly, he thought.

Then he shrugged. But not now.

He swept out of the library. As he walked, his leather coat billowed around him. With rapid steps, Nick made his way out of the building and into his waiting vehicle.

There was much to do.


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startabby

Prolific lifetime reader in my 30s with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy, I fell down the rabbit hole of fan fiction a few years back. More recently, this has led me to write fiction of my own. This is my first attempt at a Big Bang, though I have participated in Rough Trade a few times in the past.

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