After the Ultron debacle, Tony expects to come home to a wrecked tower. In a way, he is almost looking forward to it, because it gives him something tangible to fix instead of leaving him just with the mess inside him.
Everything went to hell so quickly. One moment, they were a team, working so well together as if they have done so for years. And then. Tony is not even sure what to blame it on, at what point things started to crack.
There was the witch who had certainly played her part. The question is whether she really put ideas in Tony’s head or whether she just amplified what was already there. Not much is needed, apparently, to get him to build a murder bot bent on destroying the very world Tony is claiming to protect.
That is over now, of course. He has handed in his resignation from the Avengers, has built them a new compound so they would not have to be so close to him, so he would not get in the way. That leaves him to deal with his guilt complex and his broken tower on his own. He can handle it, though. He always has.
Tony is surprised when he steps out of the elevator into a pristine foyer. No more glass shards, no more broken furniture, no more blood and robot parts. It looks like nothing ever happened.
A shiver runs down Tony’s back as he wonders whether his mind is truly his own again or whether there is still a remnant of Wanda’s magic at work. Perhaps Ultron was a dream. Perhaps defeating him was.
Before Tony can explore that thought further, he hears a noise coming from further ahead. His hand is shooting up without him making any conscious decision to do so. The watch turns into a repulsor and it powers up before he can even make out what made that noise.
This is how he finds himself pointing an Iron Man gauntlet at his only friends in the entire world.
Rhodey stands in the hallway to the living room, Pepper and Happy at his side. They do not look surprised at his reaction, but Tony knows Pepper’s face of disapproval too well to miss it, even though it is gone as quickly as it appeared.
Sheepishly, Tony lowers his hand. This could still be an illusion, but it does not matter whether this is real or not, he will not point a weapon at his family.
“Surprise,” Rhodey says, his tone at once dry and worried.
He wears that expression that means he would like nothing more than to tuck Tony in to bed and let whatever storm is brewing pass before he lets him out again. As if not all of Tony’s life is one storm or another.
“What?” Tony asks dumbly. His mind has not yet caught up with the fact that his tower appears whole again and that he is not alone.
“Come on, your favourite people are here,” Rhodey explains, almost too cheerful. Even more pointedly, he adds, “We’ve got cake, too. Don’t tell me you really need a banner with Surprise Party written on it to know what this is.”
Tony flinches at Rhodey’s use of banner and hates himself for it. Another thing he is not sure how to fix.
Instead of dwelling on that, on the fact that Bruce took the quinjet and disappeared, cutting off all communication, Tony walks towards his friends. Exhaustion is catching up with him, now that he has apparently been robbed of his next big task of tidying up his tower.
They should not be here. Pepper should be out saving Stark Industries from the expected stock crash that comes with Tony messing up again and almost ending the world. Happy is usually following her these days, but he too must have enough actual work. And Rhodey – Rhodey should be with the Avengers. Training with them, coordinating his future involvement with Steve. He should be taking over Tony’s job, with promises of doing it much better. That is mostly guaranteed even.
They should not bother with him, should not feel obliged to pick up another one of his messes. He has dragged them into too many of those already, and he should really make them stop piecing him back together.
“No, don’t do that,” Rhodey says. He sounds much closer now, and when Tony blinks back into reality, Rhodey is standing right in front of him. “Don’t withdraw into your head. We’re here.”
Tony’s head is not even a safe place, and yet he always gets lost in there.
“You shouldn’t be,” Tony replies tonelessly. He is not going to say how glad he is they are here. That would make it impossible for them to leave, which would be the sensible thing to do. For some reason, though, they care. About him and his well-being.
“Could we skip the part where you’re convinced you don’t deserve anything good in your life?” Rhodey asks. He is utterly serious. There is not even any exasperation to be found in his expression, although this is far from the first time Tony proves to be difficult.
“You don’t understand –” Tony tries to say, but lets himself be cut off easily.
“Tones.” His name in Rhodey’s voice is the softest thing Tony can imagine. It is a tone that promises everything will be well. After all these years, Tony still falls for that, no matter how often life proves them wrong. “I’ve been with you longer than anyone else,” Rhodey continues, “I understand. We all do.”
Tony is not convinced they do. A sickness sits inside him that he cannot get rid of, no matter how hard he tries. After Afghanistan, after becoming Iron Man, he was supposed to be better, less prone to always making things worse.
For some reason, Rhodey chooses to see Tony as someone who is good, who can do good. It has always been this way even back at MIT, no matter how many parties Tony crashed, how often he had to be carried home because he got blackout drunk, how often they argued over his stupid decisions.
“I –” Tony says but trails off. Rhodey is close enough now that Tony can pretend there is nothing in this world but the two of them. He feels immediately calmer like that.
“Come here,” Rhodey says and opens his arms.
While some part of Tony’s mind screams that he hardly deserves to be comforted, he moves immediately into the offered embrace. Rhodey’s warmth engulfs him, chasing away the lingering cold from Sokovia.
This is the one place in the world where he feels utterly safe. He has a talent for doubting everything, but Rhodey’s arms around him will always be right.
Distantly, Tony notices Pepper and Happy vanishing back down the hallway to give them some privacy, and he is glad for it. He uses the opportunity to bury himself further into Rhodey’s touch, hiding his face against Rhodey’s shoulder.
Positioned like this, he hears Rhodey’s heartbeat. Strong and calm. The most familiar sound in the world.
When Tony finally disentangles from Rhodey, his cheeks are damp but Rhodey does not mention it. Nobody here sees any shame in crying. They are all used to having to seem strong all the time. They are at home now, however, where they can just be themselves.
Without saying anything, Rhodey guides Tony towards the living room and pushes him down on the couch before following suit. Tony has not noticed how tired his legs were until he takes his weight off them. His entire body is on the brink of utter exhaustions. It feels like he has been running on just adrenaline and spite since Ultron interrupted their party.
He leans against Rhodey’s shoulder, unwilling to leave even an inch of distance between them, and sighs happily when Rhodey intertwines their fingers. Nothing grounds him as much as this.
As if on unspoken command, Pepper and Happy come back. They are talking quietly about nothing consequential, filling the room with enough harmless background noise to help Tony calm down further.
As promised, they have brought cake. Blueberry. Tony’s favourite.
That is a silly tradition from their college days. Comfort food, Rhodey had called it when he was trying to convince Tony that he needed to do something nice for himself whenever things go wrong, whether that was an argument with his father or a botched project. Tony had naturally argued it is easier to get drunk to put his mind on other things, but Rhodey insisted that it had to be something special. Self-Care Cake became a thing after that.
It is a nice touch, even though Tony hardly thinks he deserves cake after the stunt he pulled. Still, he does not stop Pepper when she cuts it and puts a piece on each of the four plates she brought.
Then, she puts one of the plates down in his lap before she takes a seat next to him, moving close until they are touching too. They fill each other’s space with an ease borne from decades spent together.
Happy takes an armchair, delicately holding his plate. Nobody says anything for a long moment.
“Eat something,” Pepper then prompts, as if food is actually going to make anything better.
The cake will not, Tony knows, but his people will. Rhodey, who should already be back with the military or at the compound, taking over as the Avenger’s aerial support, Iron Man’s successor. Pepper, who is so used to fixing Tony’s messes that she barely blinks anymore when he shows up with another one in tow. Happy, in a way the steadiest of Tony’s friends, who is always there to catch Tony.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Tony repeats, although he sounds far less convinced this time. It is harder to reject other people’s kindness when he knows they do not have an ulterior motive. Well, other than to make him take care of himself.
“Give us one good reason why,” Pepper says, while Rhodey is still busy bristling at Tony’s other side. Happy looks decidedly unamused too.
Lowering his eyes, Tony focuses on his cake, counts the blueberries, and wonders whether it will be as good as the ones he used to make with Rhodey in their tiny dorm kitchen.
“I created Ultron,” he says, his tone flat.
They know that, of course, but they obviously need the reminder. For years, he has created weapons, destructive in their own right. This was a giant step up, farther than Tony thought he could go. Yet he did, and the Avengers and Sokovia, the entire world even, barely made it out alive.
“You tried to do something good and it misfired,” Rhodey says, squeezing Tony’s hand in what would be a show of comfort or a warning. It is probably both.
That makes it worse.
“Ultron came from my brain, from my servers,” Tony snaps. “He was supposed to protect the earth and yet the only way he thought he could do it was by destroying it.” Much quieter, he adds something he has barely dared to think up until now. “What does that say about me?”
Ultron is arguably as much Tony’s child as JARVIS or the bots, only he turned out far less willing to do his creator’s bidding than them. He grossly misinterpreted the purpose Tony gave him, at least.
“It says that you care,” Rhodey says, voice tight. “That you know there is danger coming and that we need to act. That you see your mistakes and immediately get to work to fix them.”
The ultimate goal would be to not make mistakes like this. He should know better, be better. Not just as a former Avenger, but as a self-proclaimed futurist.
“I created –”
“First off, stop with the I,” Rhodey cuts him off. He shifts just far enough to better look at Tony, his face stern. “If I recall correctly, Dr. Banner was part of the whole process. Then there was the sceptre, which messed with all of your heads once before. And that witch kid? What did she make you see?”
So much death. That army Loki brought to Earth. A reminder that Tony will never be enough. Tony has his experience with nightmares. This one felt more like a prophecy. Like something he could prevent if only he were a better person.
“What if I’m going to make a mistake I can’t fix?” Tony asks instead of answering.
He has spoken about the army coming for them before and people have put it down as tale gone wild due to the trauma he suffered. His family might listen, but how could they believe without having seen it?
“You’ve done so many miraculous things, boss,” Happy speaks up while Rhodey and Pepper share a look, silently debating whether they should pry further into the topic of Wanda Maximoff. “You wouldn’t have done even one of them if you were afraid of going wrong at some point.”
Studiously not looking at any of his friends, Tony says, “These days, my failures tend to have bigger consequences than just setting our dorm on fire.”
“They have bigger gains, too,” Happy answers without the slightest bit of hesitation.
Tony does not deserve them. Not Happy’s loyalty, not Pepper’s patience, not Rhodey’s friendship. He has never deserved them, and yet he always manages to drag them along, from one disaster into the next.
“I can’t –” Tony says but does not know how to end his sentence. There are so many things he cannot do, and more still that he should not.
“You don’t have to,” Rhodey answers nonetheless. His grip on Tony’s hand is hard enough to anchor him. “I mean it, Tones. You don’t owe anyone anything.” He pauses a minute to convey how serious he is, then his expression morphs into something softer. “Wait, that’s not true. You owe me a vacation. Caribbean if I remember correctly.”
Clenching his jaw, Tony shifts a little so he is not as pressed into Rhodey’s side anymore.
“You shouldn’t make fun of this,” he says, although part of him wants to pick up the familiar banter, to let go of the horror of the past days.
“I’m not,” Rhodey promises. “You just shouldn’t feel like the entire world rests on your shoulders.”
“Sometimes it feels like it does,” Tony says quietly.
In Sokovia it had. Literally, even, as he tried to keep the flying city from wiping out mankind. He feels like he is stuck in that moment, straining against the entirety of his bad decisions threatening to crush him.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Pepper says on his other side. “To help you carry it.”
Tony looks at them. At their determined faces, tinged with worry. At the way they are all slightly leaned towards him. At the readiness with which they are going to counter any and all arguments he can think of.
He truly does not deserve them, but he would give up anything for them. He has known that before. Every time they do not give up on him despite plenty of reasons to, he realizes that a bit more.
“Can we go right now?” Tony asks, the words tumbling out unbidden. “To the Caribbean?”
He sees the way Rhodey’s face softens, and Happy and Pepper lose some of their tension. They all know this is not over yet – Tony’s self-doubt is legendary after all – but it feels like the immediate crisis has been averted.
“You know the answer, Tones,” Rhodey says lightly. “If it were up to me, we’d have gone long ago and never come back.”
As far as fantasies go, this one has very little chance of ever becoming reality.
“You’d get bored within a week,” Tony cautions, mostly because boredom is a better alternative than Rhodey getting fed up with him and finally noticing that Tony is not worth all the work they have put into him over the years.
“Time with you is never boring,” Rhodey argues, smiling when Happy is chuckling in agreement.
As far as virtues go, there might be worse, but Rhodey could still do so much better.
“Well, you’d get bored as soon as I accidentally burn down the entire island,” Tony amends. His limbs are growing heavier by the minute, slowly giving in to the exhaustion.
Rhodey shrugs, never disputing that Tony would actually manage to do that. “We’ll have to invent fire-proof palm trees then.”
With definite fondness, Tony looks up. “Do you have an answer to everything?”
Of course, Rhodey does. He has had years of practice after all.
“With you? Definitely,” Rhodey replies as if there is nothing to it, as if he would change nothing if he had the chance, “Since you tend to ask the same questions over and over again. The answers are simple.” He focuses completely on Tony now, making it clear he means everything he says. “You’re going to fix it. You’re going to make it better. I love you. That’s all I need to know.”
Warmth spreads through Tony like it always does when Rhodey looks at him like that, when he speaks of love with that same wonder he had decades ago. It is enough to make Tony believe that he is not a complete burden, not all the time.
“I love you too, honey bear,” Tony says and puts his head down against Rhodey’s shoulder, too tired to keep himself upright and trusting Rhodey to carry him.
“Good talk,” Rhodey says, his smile audible in his voice. He nudges Tony’s plate. “Now eat your cake or you might not get any.”
The tension in the air mellows into something far more palatable as they all pick up their forks to eat their cake. This is not all they are going to talk about the matter, but it is enough for now. Like this, Tony is almost certain he can sleep tonight and meet his own eyes in the mirror in the morning.
“Thanks for being here,” Tony says in between bites of cake. He takes care to look at all of them, both so they know he means all of them, and so he can memorize them here with him, ready to catch them when he falls.
“Where else would we be?” Rhodey asks, speaking for all of them.
That is the thing about a family that is hard won as theirs. Despite the misery still sitting in the depth of his chest, Tony believes them without hesitation. Things will be better again. Until then, he has them to hold him up.