It’s been four days – four horribly long horribly endless days – since Rhodey was supposed to come home on leave.
It’s not the first time this has happened and normally Tony wouldn’t worry.
But this time is different. This time Rhodey isn’t home because he still hasn’t returned from his mission; this time he’s listed as missing in action and this time it’s been almost a year since Tony lost Jarvis, five years since he lost his parents, and he isn’t ready to lose anyone else, not when the only person he really has left is Rhodey.
He’s in the middle of hacking his way into the personnel files of Air Force One, not at all phased by the serious ramifications that will come if he gets caught, when the sound of something hitting the floor makes him spin round in surprise.
And there’s Rhodey. Exhausted, bruised, alive and smiling Rhodey standing in his doorway with a hint of a smile on his lips and a bag at his feet.
''Sorry I’m late.''
A million reprimands dance with a thousand sarcastic retorts in Tony’s mind, leaving him floundering for the barest second before he chooses to forgo all words and crosses the distance between them in record time, eyes scanning Rhodey for any obviously terrible injuries before he throws his arms around his best friend’s neck.
Rhodey returns the hug just as fiercely, grabbing Tony around the middle and practically hoisting him from the floor. It’s warm and familiar and bordering on painful but Tony doesn’t care. He tucks his face into the hollow of Rhodey’s neck and breathes in deep, gritting his teeth as the tangy scent of sweat and gasoline and Rhodey floods his senses.
''You goddamn idiot,'' Tony hisses.
''I’m sorry, Tones,'' Rhodey whispers as he rubs his hands soothingly up Tony’s back.
''Sometimes I really don’t like you, platypus.''
Rhodey snorts and squeezes him tight. ''Shut up.''
They’re in the middle of leaving the press conference when it happens.
The streets outside the building are teaming with reporters and members of the public, creating a deafening din that makes Tony wince. It’s not surprising really seeing as he’s just announced to the collective world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. He readjusts his shades and sticks close to Happy as the man leads him and Pepper down the small parting in the crowd. He reaches out a hand instinctively to linger just over the small of Pepper’s back as they near the car, feeling more on edge than he usually does at these things.
All it takes is for a scream of ''he’s got a gun!'' to hit the air before everything descends into madness. A hand curls around the back of Tony’s head and shoves him down hard just as the sound of a gunshot rings out. Tony’s fingers immediately find Pepper’s as she crouches down beside him on the ground, eyes wide as she looks at him.
Another gunshot comes and then Happy’s got Tony by the collar of his shirt and is pulling him upwards, manoeuvring himself to cover both Tony and Pepper as he backs them towards where their car is waiting. Tony pulls Pepper close to his side and keeps her in between him and Happy as they move, head jerking wildly in every direction, trying to find the source of this chaos amidst the sea of fleeing people.
He’s knocked from behind as he spots the gleam of gunmetal in the sunshine. He barely has time to call Happy’s name before the man turns and shoves both him and Pepper to the floor just as a bullet whizzes over them, missing Happy’s head by a fraction. Tony’s skull throbs from where it smacks against the sidewalk and he can only swear dazedly as Pepper tugs him into the backseat of the car.
Tony collapses onto the seat as the door closes and immediately tries to right himself, needing to get his eyes on Happy because there is no way he’s leaving the man out there while –
The gun goes off again and more people scream in a way that tells Tony that someone has been hit.
Pepper’s hands holding the back of his jacket do nothing to stop him from scrabbling for the door. He forces it open and finds himself face to face with a breathless and red-faced Happy.
''It’s okay,'' Happy breathes, waving a hand in the air, ''it’s okay. They got him.''
Tony blinks twice before stepping out of the car and pulling Happy into a hug. He can feel the sweat dampening Happy’s suit and his head is spinning like mad but he doesn’t care, because right now all that matters is that Happy is standing in front of him, not sprawled out on the sidewalk with rivers of red coursing out of him.
Happy permits himself a moment or two of hugging Tony back before he goes back to business with an almost startling seriousness, holding Tony at arm’s length before stuffing him back into the car, checking in on Pepper before closing the door again. This leaves Tony and Pepper to breathe deeply in the quietness of the backseat, shoulders touching together for silent reassurance as they wait for Happy to return from going to yell at whoever needs yelling at.
Things smashing isn’t exactly an uncommon sound in the compound, but it’s been long enough since he heard such a thing that Tony immediately runs in the direction of the chaos, heartbeat picking up a little bit in anticipation for what he might find.
He comes across Nebula, surrounded by broken machinery and dissembled weaponry. Music that he recognises from the continuous loop that played during their stint in space flows from what looks like Rhodey’s phone on a table in the corner, though there’s no sign of the man himself. Tony pauses in the doorway as he watches Nebula launch a wrench into the wall with a pained cry before seizing her customary baton and proceeding to beat the hell out of everything.
It’s the dampness on her face that has Tony stepping forward without a second thought.
''Whoa, hey – calm it down, Nebs – hey!''
With a furious cry, Nebula whirls on the spot and slams a metal forearm into his chest before a hand curls around his throat. Tony grunts in surprise as he’s propelled backwards into the nearby wall but makes no move to fight back. Tools rain down on either side of him from the shelving above, glancing off his shoulders in painful hits but Tony’s too focused on the fist looming an inch from his nose to really notice. Nebula’s chest heaves and there’s a snarl on her face so livid that Tony isn’t quite sure how she’s managed to stop herself from actually striking him.
He locks eyes with her, expecting to see a veil of rage covering her gaze, but all he sees is a bitter sorrow beneath the wetness of her tears.
She jerks at the sound of his voice.
''I…I…'' Nebula’s eyes are impossibly wide, turning her expression so strangely youthful that Peter’s face superimposes over hers in Tony’s mind for a split second, making him flinch. The hand around his throat vanishes and he slouches down against the wall, giving his head a wobble as Nebula backs away from him.
He sees the past racing up within her like a visible tide, crushing over her and turning everything cold and hardened, revealing the years of pain that she still carries inside.
''Hey, it’s okay,'' Tony says softly, hands extended in front of himself like he’s about to approach a dangerous animal. ''You’re alright''
The fierceness in her stance and the tension in her jaw slackens as he approaches, though she still regards him warily, an age-old suspicion that Tony knows she’ll likely never fully be free from.
''It’s me, Bluebell, just me.''
Nebula blinks slowly. ''Tony,'' she murmurs.
The relief that rushes over him is instantaneous. ''Yep, that’s me. Hi,'' Tony smiles, stepping closer, hands lowering a fraction, ''you with me?''
''Yes,'' Nebula nods, fists uncurling, giving Tony all the incentive he needs to reach out and gently touch her arm. When she doesn’t flinch or pull away, he gives into instinct and loops his arms around her in a gentle embrace, leaving enough looseness in the hold for her to break free should she want to.
She doesn’t return the hug but her forehead tipping forward to rest against his shoulder is good enough for him.
Tony rakes his hands through his hair, trying to steady his breathing. The stabbing sensation in his chest isn’t letting up; in fact it seems to get worse with each passing second.
He wants to call Pepper; wants to pick up the phone and hear her voice trying to say all the typical things that anyone does in times like this, but deep down he knows even she won’t know what to say to make any of this better.
Nat is gone.
No matter how many times he repeats the words in his head, Tony still can’t reconcile them with what he knows, and what he knows is that Nat is Nat; fierce, bold, loyal and infinitely caring and deserving of so much more and death doesn’t suit her in the slightest.
What he knows is that Natasha Romanoff is dead and the world is a hundred times crueller than it already is.
Tony knows that he needs to get it together; that time is running out and that they can’t let Nat’s death be in vain, but the grief pressing in on him is overbearing and crippling and right now, it’s the only thing that matters.
He isn’t sure how long he sits there, huddled in a chair out of sight, before he hears the crying.
It’s broken, deep and guttural; heartache personified.
Tony’s legs move before his mind really registers what he’s doing. He circles around into one of their little meeting rooms, the one where he and Nat had stretched out top to tail on the table with Bruce talking up at them from the floor, locked in some twistedly comforting sensation of being together again whilst trying to find a way to heal all the hurt that had befallen them and the rest of the world.
It seems like such a long time ago now.
Tony makes it ten steps into the room before he spots Thor, huddled in the corner with his knees to his chest and his face buried into his hands as he sobs.
It’s a jarring sight. Despite all the changes that have taken place over the last five years, Thor is still very much Thor, albeit a darker version of himself. There’s been glimpses though, beneath the matted beard and excessive eating and consuming guilt that visibly clings to him, of the person that Tony knows; of that kind-hearted and brave guy who never has a single second thought about protecting and fighting for those that he loves.
(''Why we acting like she’s dead? We have the stones, right? As long as we have the stones, Cap, we can bring her back, isn’t that right? So stop this shit, we’re the Avengers, get it together!'')
Right now, he’s a very far cry from the angry man standing on the dock, snarling his denial through gritted teeth while the rest of them sink acceptingly into the despair that comes with the loss of their friend.
Tony takes a seat beside him, not saying a word but touching his shoulder against Thor’s quivering one to quietly announce his presence. There’s a momentary pause in Thor’s crying where one of his eyes, the golden brown one, peeks tearfully out at Tony.
''Hey, Point Break,'' Tony says, voice cracking into a whisper on the nickname.
They move at the same time, Tony lifting his arm and Thor tilting to the side until they’re pressed up against each other, Thor’s face tucked into Tony’s neck and Tony’s chin resting atop the wild mess of Thor's hair. The tears come from both of them, wrenchingly loud from Thor and silently streaming from Tony, and that’s how they stay for a good while, wrapped up together in their grief, until the call of the world beckons them once again.
In the seconds after Thanos pummels Tony to the ground, Tony becomes aware of two things. One is that Carol has appeared in front of him, incandescent with light and throbbing with power. The other is that Peter is flying through the air towards Thanos, mask gone and full desperate ferocity etched all over his young face.
The hand wearing the gauntlet arcs back as Thanos turns to face Peter and Tony can only react on pure instinctive terror. He launches himself forwards with a yell, moving in tandem with Carol as she goes for the gauntlet. He whirls over Thanos and collides with Peter, wrapping himself around as much of the kid as he can, and everything rushes past them in a sickening blur until they hit the ground.
The force of the impact breaks them apart, sending them skidding away from each other. Tony lifts his head as he hears Peter call his name but there’s no sign of the kid. In front of him, surrounded by the chaos of war, is Thanos and Carol, locked in a furious exchange of blows whilst the gauntlet rests on the ground between them.
With a deadly grimace and a pulse of power, Carol surges upwards with a roar and throws herself into Thanos. They careen backwards, crashing through debris and vanishing into the melee, leaving Tony within reaching distance of the stones.
He sees Peter then. The kid is running; running straight for the gauntlet.
Tony gets there first.
''What are you doing?'' Peter yells as the stones wind their way from the gauntlet and knit their way into the metal of Tony’s suit. ''You can’t!''
Tony yanks his arm back as Peter reaches for it, fighting hard to stay upright as blinding agony sears through him like molten fire, caught between wanting to hold the kid close and push him as far away as possible.
''Mister Stark, please – ''
''Underoos,’’ Tony rasps, all shuddering breaths and trembling words as the power of the cosmos charters fury and livid pain through every inch of him. ''For once, kiddo, just do what I say and c’mere.''
They have all of ten seconds where it’s just them, locked together and holding on for dear life, the stones still licking their path across Tony’s skin, unable to even take a chance of latching onto Peter before Tony’s shoving him away with all the strength he has. He can’t look at the stunned hurt on kid’s face, not when Thanos is bearing down upon him, not when all he can see now is the entire expanse of the universe shimmering before his very eyes.
When he snaps his fingers, multiple voices cry out his name.
For what feels like forever, all Tony knows is the different hands that curl a protective grasp around his own and a seemingly endless tide of voices urging him to open his eyes.
When he finally does, it’s Pepper and Morgan waiting by his side. He only has to blink twice before Morgan whispers ‘’Daddy’’ and crawls onto the bed he’s lying in to burrow against his chest. Pepper quickly follows their daughter’s example and huddles in close, warm and soft and sweet. Their arms wrap around him as much as they can, unable to fit into the space where his back is touching the mattress, and for a long while all Tony knows is the sensation of thankful relief.
Pepper’s voice is strong and soothing when she tells Tony that his arm is gone, that he’s been asleep for weeks, that everyone is alive and well, that the entire universe has been singing songs of Iron Man and what he did to bring them all back from the darkness.
She tells him that they won.
It’s fantastic, incredible, a heady rush of so many emotions that Tony will probably never truly comprehend, but there’s really only one thing that Tony wants to know.
Pepper's beaming smile tells him everything.
When he steps out of the hospital a day later, Morgan’s hand tucked into the only one he has left, Happy is waiting with the car. They stand and regard one another for a moment before identical grins break out on their faces, Tony politely ignoring the tears glistening in Happy’s eyes as the man reaches out to hug him.
When Tony steps out of the car at the cabin, he nearly collapses against the door at the sight that awaits him.
Everyone waiting for him, smiling at him with nothing but joy on their faces, no trace of grief or sorrow to be seen.
The last time such a sight had met Tony’s eyes, everyone had been racing forward in a furious tide of heroic will, all of them bound together by fierce bravery and unbreakable resolve as they hurtled headfirst into the fight of their lives.
Now, he’s looking at them all again, and they’re all looking back, and it’s the greatest kind of reward he could ever ask for.
Pepper gives Tony a kiss on the cheek and gently urges him forward.
Hands come down on him from all angles in soft pats of greeting and fond delight. Strange’s cloak flicks him playfully on the chest and the two men share a wry narrowing of eyes; Scott grins at him and gives him a mock salute while Carol and Rocket smirk teasingly at him, relief clear on their faces. There’s an exchange of nods with Bucky, the past long brushed aside in favour of what exists now, and Fury is all loud, bold laughter and a tap of a finger beneath his remaining eye.
Quill cackles happily before stepping forward, radiating exuberant energy and contagious joy, and gives Tony a quick but so very welcomed hug.
Nebula is gentle and graceful, uncertain but strong in the way she embraces him, and Tony finds himself momentarily back in that faraway moment of timid smiles being exchanged over games of paper football.
When Nat comes into view, Tony’s knees buckle. She and Clint are there in an instant, propping him up and sandwiching him between them, arms locked tight and grips firm and unyielding. Tony angles his head to look at Nat, unashamedly drinking in the sight of her face, and she smiles tearfully before finding his hand to give it a squeeze.
Thor gets him in a bear hug and lifts him clean off the ground with a delighted chuckle that’s as loud as his war cry but so much warmer, curling around Tony like liquid sunshine and drawing out a chest-deep laugh of his own.
Then it’s Bruce, so big and green and yet so careful in the way he pulls Tony against his chest, almost completely shielding him from view as he holds him close. Tony closes his eyes as they lean together and fumbles for the cuff of Bruce’s shirt to hold it between his fingers.
Steve looks at Tony in that soft way of his, eyes twinkling and smile tender, and they meet in a fierce hug that has them puffing out breaths of air to steady themselves against the tears suddenly threatening to fall. Tony chuckles quietly as they part and jostles Steve with his shoulder. Steve tilts backwards under the pressure, though they both know he’s doing it for show, and shakes his head with a snort.
Tony keeps it together just about until he sees Rhodey.
''Honeybear,'' Tony mumbles as they pull each other in like they always do, secure and steadfast like it’s always been. He feels Rhodey’s tears fall into his collar but says nothing, just buries himself further into his friend for another moment or two.
And then there’s Peter.
Peter, teary and grinning and trembling from head to toe and so beautifully alive and real. Tony takes his time, lifting his remaining arm to rest his hand against Peter’s cheek, thumb stroking away some of the tears that linger there.
A choked laugh comes out of Peter and it’s the best thing Tony’s ever heard.
''Mister Stark,'' he croaks, falling forward and snuggling into Tony’s chest with his head tucked under Tony’s chin and his arms looped tightly around his waist, hands splayed against Tony’s back and fingers clenching into the back of his shirt.
Tony grits his teeth but lets his own tears fall freely as he curls his arm around Peter’s shoulders, capturing the back of Peter’s head in the crook of his elbow and pressing his face against that wonderful mess of curls. His lips find Peter’s temple and he lays a firm kiss there, eyes squeezing shut as the reality of the moment overcomes him.
Tony smiles. ''Yeah, kid. I’m okay.''
And just like that, the world begins to turn once again.