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Friendship Is Magic

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A week after the press conference where Tony told the world the truth about the mess that was the Avengers, he was feeling much better. Really, it was almost a miracle. It wasn’t just the relief of telling the truth – and being heard and believed – but also of knowing he really wasn’t as alone as he had thought. Even his physical health had improved tremendously. They did say that a positive attitude helped the healing process, and now Tony could say with certainty that it was true. For him, at least.

He had developed a new routine – a healthier one – that was doing wonders for him. He’d wake up after an actually restful night’s sleep (no nightmares of doom and death), check his social media feeds, watch a few cute videos Friday selected for him as he ate his breakfast and write a few posts in response to people. Then he would go to the lab to work on SI projects Tony had been neglecting for ages because of the Avengers (including Rhodey’s braces and improvements to the Iron Man and War Machine suits). He would take a break to have lunch and then work some more. He also made time to check in on Rhodey, Pepper and Vision, work on revisions to the Accords and talk to the Accords people and the Task Force responsible for tracking down the fugitive Avengers to see if there was anything he could help them with. In the evening, he would have dinner and relax with a movie or some more cute videos from Friday’s selection. There was a lot of work, of course, but it no longer felt like rolling up a stone that was inevitably going to come crashing down on him anymore. There was no worry that the Avengers would undercut him, or demand more impossible things, or – worse – create even more problems for him to solve. This time, at the end of each day, he felt like he had accomplished what he had set out to do, and was one step closer to his personal long-term goals as well as those for planetary defense.

There was still a lot of speculation about the fate of the Avengers, but this time Tony didn’t feel like it was all his responsibility. He didn’t have to fix it all by himself, especially since he hadn’t been the one who had broken things in the first place – no matter what Rogers had claimed. There were lots of people working to ensure a future for the Avengers (and by Avengers he meant himself, Rhodey and Vision – and whatever new members they managed to eventually add). Plus – wonders of wonders – people were actually on his side. Whenever Rogers and the others turned up, they would be faced with a great deal of hostility and anger. There were, of course, still Cap fans out there, people who refused to believe that their hero had feet of clay, and shouted that there was a conspiracy against ‘Cap’ – Hydra, communists, even Tony the Evil Overlord had been pointed out as the source of it. If Tony didn’t already know how insane people could be, he would have been surprised by all the nonsense some people were sprouting. As it was, though, he didn’t have to do anything about it. Whenever one of those nutcases made a nuisance of themselves, someone with an actual brain would rebuke them with facts and evidence – which didn’t change the lunatics’ minds, of course, but it was nice to see anyway.

All in all, Tony was confident that Rogers and his buddies would be taken care of, and Tony wouldn’t have to lift a finger about it anymore. He could just kick back and relax – and watch the fireworks when they inevitably happened. It would be glorious. Until then, though, Tony didn’t have to give those bastards any more of his time; he had much more important things to focus on, and people who were much more deserving of his attention.

Tonight, for instance, he was going out with Pepper. They had had a long talk after he’d gotten his head on straight again, and had agreed to try again. Tony had realized that a lot of the problems with their relationship – and the reason Pepper had asked for a break in the first place – was because he had been so worried about the Avengers and all the battles he’d had to fight on that front that he had neglected Pepper and himself. He had become grouchy, stressed and irritable, unable to find joy in anything. No wonder Pepper had wanted to jump ship.

Over the last few days, Tony had finally realized how toxic his relationship with the Avengers had become. Instead of it being something positive in his life – a way to deal with the recurring fear of a new invasion – it had been a source of anxiety, frustration and pain. Getting rid of them was the best thing that could have happened to him, really. He would be a lot happier about it if not for the heavy price that freedom had cost him and many other people.

He wasn’t going to dwell on it anymore, though. He’d been given a new lease on life (literally, since Rogers had almost killed him), and he wasn’t about to squander it. He was going to get Pepper back, sort out the Accords, continue his work with SI and bask in the public’s support. And, when the time finally came, rejoice in the ExVengers’ downfall.

Yep, life was finally good again.

*****

It seemed like forever since he and Pepper had been on a date – and it probably was. Between both their busy schedules, neither had ever had a lot of time for that. No more, though. Tony was determined to do it right this time.

“Pep, I really hope we can make this work. I know I was a bit of an ass before–”

“No, Tony. It wasn’t all your fault. I… I could have handled things better too. And yes, I want this to work too.” She reached for his hand and held it.

“You know you mean the world to me, right, Pep?”

She smiled. “I know. And I feel the same way. I think maybe we lost sight of that for a while, and we each got caught up in our own issues.”

“I know being Iron Man puts a strain on things.”

Pepper shook her head. “No, it wasn’t that. I mean, it was partly that, but it wasn’t fair of me to ask for you to stop. I should never have done that. I should have supported you more. I’m sorry.”

Tony squeezed her hand and smiled at her. “I’m sorry too. I should have actually let you in more too. I know I tend to… not talk about things.”

“I haven’t done much talking either. I guess we can both work on improving communication.”

“Yeah. I’m turning over a new leaf, Pep. No more trying to do everything myself and shutting the world out.”

“Good. You do have real friends, Tony, and we’ll stand by you no matter what. Maybe we didn’t do a great job of that in the past, but, as you said… new leaf.”

“Thanks Pepper. I would love to have you by my side. For this and… for everything else.”

“I promise I will be there.” Then her expression turned hard and unforgiving. “And those bastards will get what’s coming to them.”

Tony laughed. Maybe he shouldn’t, but… well, he really couldn’t wait to see the ExVengers being roasted over the coals. Pepper herself didn’t actually have to do anything other than what they had already done by releasing all videos to the media and legal authorities, but Tony knew she still had a few tricks up her sleeve. People had underestimated Pepper before – and lived to regret it. Rogers would soon find himself in the same position.

“Have I told you how sexy you are when you get that determined look in your eyes?” he said with his best flirtatious grin.

“Why, Mr Stark, I don’t think you have.” She leaned forward. “Please, do tell me more.” The glint in her eyes was of an entirely different kind now, and Tony gestured for a passing waiter to get the check.

“I will be sure to tell you, then, Ms Potts. And show you as well. Slowly and in excruciating detail. ”

Her answering smile made him tingle in all the right places. “I can’t wait.”

Later, lying sated and happy in bed together, for the first time in a long time, Tony actually could see a future for them. He could see him and Pepper living together full-time, maybe even marrying. It was a thought he’d had many times – he’d even bought a ring way back when – but somehow it had just never seemed like the right time to bring it up. That, and, in all honesty, he hadn’t been all that confident about their relationship. Sure, he loved Pepper; however, as any adult should know, love wasn’t necessarily enough to make things work, not when their lives were so complicated – and dangerous. As much as he had wished to believe in a happy ever after for them, reality had seemed to say otherwise.

Now… now things were different. Tony was different – and Pepper too, he supposed. Nothing like (another) near-death experience to put things in perspective. It wasn’t just the almost dying thing, though, it was everything else. It was the opening of his eyes to how fucked up he’d allowed his life to become, and how much he had neglected himself and his friends.

“What are you thinking about?” Pepper asked, cuddling up against him with a contented sigh.

“I was thinking of how grateful I am for having come through this latest disaster.”

“You’ll always pull through, Tony,” she said without hesitation. “You’re the strongest person I know.”

Was he? Tony had never thought of himself as particularly strong; determined, perhaps. Willing to reassess and fix what was wrong, if he could. Unwilling to quit, or to let others tell him what he could and couldn’t do. Was it the same as strength? Did it matter?

“I wonder what my parents would think of me,” he said, the words just slipping out without his conscious control.

Of course he had thought a lot about his parents since learning the truth about what happened to them – since learning about Rogers’s betrayal (of both him and his father). He wondered if his father would still think Steve Rogers was a hero after all he’d done. He wondered what his father would think of the choices Tony had made.

“They would be proud,” Pepper replied with conviction. “So proud.”

“You think? Mom, yes. Dad? I’m not sure.”

“If he had any sense at all, Tony, he would be proud. How could he not be? You’re a good man.”

Tony remembered what his father used to say about Rogers – ‘a good man’ were words oft repeated. Now Tony wondered what that even meant. Tony didn’t doubt that Rogers had good intentions underneath all his short-sightedness. But in the end, intentions were only one part of the story. And now that he thought about it, it was yet another double standard from Rogers and the others, wasn’t it? Tony’s good intentions regarding SI weapons and even Ultron were completely ignored while they were all that mattered when it was Rogers and Romanoff’s stupid Info Dump or Maximoff’s supposed turnabout. How had he not seen the hypocrisy oozing from their every word and deed?

Something of his inner thoughts must have shown on his face because Pepper continued. “You have done a lot of good things, Tony. I guess that means more than just being good. You do good. Every day. In a lot of different ways. You’re making a difference in the world, and making people feel safer.” She paused for a moment, as if gathering her thoughts. “I haven’t always understood that. Or you. I have been selfish, sometimes, in wanting you to be a certain way. You have never asked me to be anything except me, and I haven’t done the same.”

“Well, to be fair, accepting me as me… is a lot. I’m kind of… not easy to live with.”

She snorted. “I’m not either. Just ask my PA.” She gave a rueful grin. “I’m a bit of a control freak, you know.”

“I like that about you. It’s why you’re so efficient.”

“Yes, well, that might be good for business, but in a relationship… not so much.” She sighed.

“Hey, I didn’t make it any easier.”

“No. Neither of us did. But I don’t want to give up. I understand better now.”

“I missed you.” Admitting to needing people wasn’t something Tony was very keen on doing in general, but it was time to be honest with his friends, at least.

“I missed you too.”

“We’ll figure this out.”

“We will. I’m here, Tony, and I’m not going anywhere.”

It would take a lot of work, but Tony was hopeful. He was willing to put in the effort, to do whatever it took to get them where they wanted to be. Perhaps a fresh start was just what they needed.

*****

Another benefit of mental and physical health was the clarity of vision it afforded him. When Tony finally took stock of everything, he couldn’t help but cringe at some of his own actions. Hindsight was 20/20, as the saying went. He had actually learned a lot from that whole clusterfuck, and that could only be a good thing going forward. Enabling the Avengers – and trusting them – had been one of his biggest mistakes, and one that he would never make again. There were, however, other issues.

The one that nagged at his conscience the most was, of course, Peter Parker, and how Tony had handled that whole thing. He had honestly believed that there wouldn’t be a fight at the airport, that he had been dealing with friends and not people who wouldn’t hesitate to use full force against their supposed allies. He had thought that Peter’s webs would be useful. And, if he was going to be completely honest, he had also thought that it might be a good opportunity to test the kid and see what he was made of. Needless to say, nothing had gone according to plan. Because of him, an innocent kid had been put in danger, and that wasn’t something Tony could make light of.

Also, the idea of a 15 year-old kid going around super-heroing was… cringe-worthy, to say the least. It had disaster written all over it even without Tony’s ‘encouragement’.

So, he was going to fix it. Somehow.

First order of business was to speak to the kid. Peter had tried to contact him after news of his hospitalization had been made public, but Tony had ignored him, still caught up in his own misery. After the press conference, Peter had reached out again – and he’d sounded furious on Tony’s behalf for what Rogers had done – and Tony had chatted with him briefly. It had mostly been reassurance that he was fine, well on the way to recovery. He’d told the kid to lay low and wait until Tony could figure out how to handle… well, everything. There had been no sightings of Spider-Man since.

This morning Tony had sent a message asking Peter to meet him at the Tower. Peter arrived just as Tony had finished with the braces prototype. “Fri, get the fabrication units on it. I’ll need to do actual tests now.”

“Got it, Boss. Also, Spider-Boy is here.”

Tony smiled, but inwardly he winced a bit. Peter really was a boy. What the hell had he been thinking? “Good. Get him to the penthouse and tell him I’ll be there in a minute.”

The hug he received upon coming out of the elevator was… well, really sweet. And it made Tony feel even more guilty than he already did.

“Mr Stark! It’s so good to see you! I’m so glad you’re feeling better. I was really worried.” Peter’s smile was blinding. Not too long ago, Tony would have felt awkward by the kid’s obvious adoration. Now, he took it in stride. There were people who liked and admired him, people who thought Tony was a hero even outside of being Iron Man. And that was a good thing. Perhaps he could do with a bit of an ego boost after the last few years – and not in the way Romanoff would have meant. “I also wanted to apologize.” With that, Peter’s demeanor changed and he looked down as if he couldn’t bear to meet Tony’s eyes.

“Apologize? For what?” Tony asked, wondering what knots the kid had tied himself into.

“If I had just done what you asked me to do and webbed them all up… Maybe… Maybe they wouldn’t have escaped, and then you wouldn’t have gotten hurt. You and Colonel Rhodes.”

Yep, there it was. Tony knew all about misplaced guilt.

“No, Peter. It wasn’t your fault. You did great.” He sighed and led the boy to the couch. “If anyone should apologize, it’s me. Truth is, I shouldn’t have taken you there in the first place. It was my responsibility to manage the situation and… well, I underestimated those assholes. I didn’t think they’d go all out on us, and I’m sorry I ended up putting you in danger.” Peter opened his mouth, but Tony went on. “Still, I don’t want to wallow in the past and beat myself up about shit anymore. I made a mistake, and I want to fix it. I’m not quite sure how to do that yet, but I’ll think of something. For now, I want you to promise me something.”

“What?”

“No more Spider-Manning.”

“But Mr Stark–”

“I know you want to help, kid, but… it’s too dangerous.”

“I’m tough, Mr Stark.”

“I know you are. It’s not that. You’re… well, you’re a kid.”

“I’m not a kid.”

Tony gave him an unimpressed look. “You’re 15. That is 3 years away from being legally an adult. Ergo, you are a kid.” When Peter had no response to that, Tony continued. “Here’s the thing: we’ve just had this huge mess over the Accords and the idea that superheroes should be held accountable for their actions. Rogers thought he could made every decision himself, including deciding to lie to me about what happened to my parents, and everyone should just trust that he was doing the right thing. Guess what? He was full of shit. Thinking you know what you’re doing is not the same as actually knowing what you’re doing. Nobody knows everything, and no one can be right all the time. People just aren’t perfect. Sometimes you fuck up despite your best intentions. And then what? Shrug and go on with your life? That’s great for you, but what if your mistake affects other people? Do you just ignore them? That’s what the Accords are supposed to be about. When something goes wrong, we can review things and see if it was an accident or if someone fucked up somewhere. So when you say you’re tough and can handle shit, despite being 15, you’re kinda saying you know exactly what you’re doing and that nothing is going to go wrong. Is that what you’re telling me?”

“No.” Now the kid looked like a kicked puppy, and Tony felt a little bad.

“Hey, it’s okay. Like I said, no one is perfect. We have both messed up, but now we have to own up to those things, and think about how we can do better. For you, right now, I think that means taking a step back. You haven’t done anything bad, I know, but can you be sure that it won’t happen? Some kind of accident when shit just goes horribly wrong? You know, like at the airport? And if that happens, what are you going to do about it?”

“I… I don’t know. I just wanted to help, Mr Stark.”

“I know. You’ll make a great superhero someday, Peter. You’ve got your heart in the right place, I don’t doubt that. That’s why you need to think about what this all means, and make the right decision. I can’t stop you. I mean, let’s face it, you can probably wipe the floor with me. But you gotta think about what kind of hero you want to be.”

Tony really hadn’t meant to rain on the kid’s parade like this. Still, better now than after some huge disaster that would haunt Peter for the rest of his days.

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, you have nothing to be sorry for.” He gave Peter his best reassuring smile. “I suppose, if you really want to, you can keep training here, to develop your powers and abilities in a safe environment.” He wouldn’t stop being super by retiring Spider-Man, and learning what he could do would only be a good thing in the long run, whether he decided to use those abilities as a superhero or not.

That cheered him up a bit. “Really? That would be cool, Mr Stark.”

He still looked pretty subdued, so Tony went on.

“Maybe you could also be a real intern at SI, if that’s something you’re actually interested in.”

Peter gave him a slightly wan smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’d like that, Mr Stark. If you… if you think I can do it.”

Tony tried to give the kid an encouraging smile. “Peter, all this stuff I just said… I wasn’t trying to make you feel bad. But we have to be able to learn from our mistakes, and I think we’ve just seen what happens when ‘superheroes’” he made air quotes on the word “are allowed to just do whatever they want. I’m not saying I think you would abuse that position, or that you would intentionally hurt people, but you’re not exempt from mistakes or from shit happening. Nor am I. And I don’t want you to have accidental blood on your hands when you were just trying to help. Believe me, I know what that’s like, and it’s not good. The Accords are new, and they still need a lot of work, but maybe in a few years you can find out how you fit into all that and be an official Avenger. For now, that’s just not possible. And that’s not even talking about how your aunt, who is your legal guardian and therefore responsible for your health and well-being, would feel about you doing any of this.”

“She’d ground me for sure,” Peter mumbled. “Are you going to tell her?”

Tony sighed. “I think you should tell her. She deserves to know, and it should come from you.”

“Even if I stop doing it?”

“If you promise me you’ll stop, then it’s up to you whether to tell her or not, though I really think you should. Take it from me, keeping this kind of thing from the people you love never helps anything.”

Peter nodded, still looking very much like a kicked puppy. “I wanted to be a hero, like you. Do good things with my powers.”

“You don’t need powers to be a hero, Peter. You can just be you.” Tony put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And if you really want to keep being Spider-Man when you’re older, I’ll do everything I can to help you.”

“But what if I see something happening right in front of me? Like a robbery or something? Shouldn’t I do something? What if people are in danger?”

Well, that was a good question, wasn’t it? “I don’t know, Peter. Maybe by stepping in you could help, or you could make things worse. It’s impossible to say beforehand.” He sighed again. “Ideally, if you see a crime being committed, you should alert the police, but I understand your concern. We can talk about that more later, okay? Brainstorm some ideas for what to do. Regardless, I want you to know you can always talk to me about… whatever, you know. I know we barely know each other, but I do think you have tremendous potential, and I can imagine how alone you must feel with all this stuff hanging over your shoulders. You’re not alone, though, okay?” And neither am I.

That got a more genuine smile from the kid. “Thanks, Mr Stark. I guess I could use someone to talk to. It can be a bit… overwhelming sometimes.”

“Yeah. Okay, enough of the gloomy talk. Let’s do something fun! What do you say?”

“Cool!”

“You’re gonna be okay, Peter. We’re all gonna be okay as long as we stick together and talk to each other.”

*****

Despite his new outlook on life, his decision to let go of all misplaced guilt and focus on good things, Tony still couldn’t quite do that when it came to Rhodey. He knew, intellectually, that Rhodey’s injury wasn’t his fault – and Rhodey had told him so many times himself – but… well. It might not have happened if Tony had made different – better – decisions when it came to the Avengers. Like knocking Rogers and his ‘team’ out as soon as they’d gotten to the airport. Trying to reason with then had clearly been a mistake.

What was done was done, though. Tony couldn’t change the past, and he didn’t want to keep getting himself down. It wasn’t his fault, even if he felt awful about it. And it wouldn’t help him or Rhodey to fixate on the problem instead of finding a way to fix it.

The prototype braces were done, and were now on the testing stage. Rhodey was going to walk again, because the alternative was unthinkable. Tony had figured out how to save himself back when he was being poisoned from the arc reactor, he could figure out how to get his best friend back on his feet.

Like Tony, Rhodey had come out of the so-called Civil War stronger than ever. He hadn’t let his injury get him down, and he was nowhere ready to quit anything. On the contrary, the remaining Avengers were going to rally together and sort out the Accords and whatever else came their way. And they were going to do it together.

“This is really awesome,” Rhodey said once Tony had gotten the braces adjusted to his satisfaction.

“Only the best for you, Sugarplum,” Tony replied, taking a moment to make sure everything was in order before activating the braces. With a decisive nod, he stood and wiped his hands on his jeans. “You ready?”

Rhodey nodded. “Get’s get this show on the road.”

They spent a couple of hours testing the device. Tony needed a lot more data in order to refine it. It was a pretty cool piece of tech, if he said so himself, and there were many possible applications. As they worked, Tony and Rhodey talked about those potential uses for other people with disabilities – and many more topics besides that.

It felt like a long time since Tony and Rhodey had time to just… talk to each other. After Afghanistan, things had changed between them. It was understandable, of course – something like that changed everything – but Tony hadn’t quite realized how much he had missed his best friend. In a way, it seemed like something had broken with them and was only now getting fixed. Worse, Tony hadn’t even noticed it had been broken in the first place, though now that he thought about it, the signs had all been there.

The truth was, Tony had been something of a dick back then, sometimes. Not as often as the media would lead one to believe, but often enough. He hadn’t thought much about what his weapons were doing, but in his defense, why should he? They were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Tony had never been involved in the actual use of the weapons and tech he supplied to the military. He had simply trusted that they were being put to good use, protecting US troops and all that. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that they were being used by terrorists. Why should he have? SI only ever sold weapons to the US military. And while one could argue that the military could – and did – fuck up, it wasn’t his responsibility. The fact that Stane had been selling to terrorists under the table had nothing to do with him, since he’d never known or suspected it. Tony shouldn’t feel guilty about that, which was exactly what he was trying to do now; no more misplaced guilt. What he could feel guilty about, though, was being a bit of an ass just because he could. He had, occasionally, been unnecessarily antagonistic in situations that didn’t call for it. And he had been dismissive when Rhodey had pointed that out.

Then Afghanistan had happened and Tony had… well, he’d gone off the deep end there, for a while. Pushing everyone away when he was dying, being an even bigger ass than usual in a misguided attempt to shield his friends from his mess, and not dealing with his PTSD in a very healthy manner. Honestly, sometimes he was astonished he still had friends at all after all that.

The Avengers were supposed to help, yet they had only made everything so much worse. Instead of him being able to rely on them and thus share some of the burden, he’d ended up even more alone and desperate, even if he hadn’t quite seen that at the time. And again he had ended up pushing his real friends away.

So, once the testing was done and he had Rhodey were relaxing with some pizza, Tony decided to apologize for… all that. He had no problem admitting to being wrong, and he truly wanted to do better from now on. That included better communication (as Pepper had pointed out) and honesty.

Rhodey listened to him without interruption or judgment, for which Tony was grateful. He knew he could count on Rhodey to call him on his shit, but also to know that Tony was trying and thus cut him some slack when the occasion called for it.

When Tony finished his long-winded apology, Rhodey took his time answering. His Platypus wasn’t known for impulsive actions (unless Tony was the one egging him on); he tended to think before he said anything. In the past, it had sometimes made Tony nervous, but he was used to it now, so he didn’t start babbling in a panic and imagining worse-case scenarios.

“I hear you on things not being quite right with us, Tony. And I want to apologize too. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

It was on the tip of Tony’s tongue to protest that Rhodey hadn’t done anything wrong, but he reined it in. “What do you mean?” he asked instead. Better communication – it had become his new mantra.

Rhodey sighed. “I was… I was worried sick when you were kidnapped. It was three months of hell, not knowing whether you were alive or dead, and feeling guilty for letting you get taken in the first place. Then, you got back and I… Instead of listening to you, I… I got angry. It wasn’t you, really, just the stress of the whole think catching up with me, but… Well, I guess I didn’t handle that very well. I know you tried to tell me about the suit, and why you were doing that, and I brushed you off. I’m sorry for that. And then, with the whole palladium thing… I knew there was something wrong with you, but… The brass was on my case, and… I guess that anger and sense of failure never really went away. Even if you were being completely irresponsible, I should have known that there was a reason for that, that there was something more, and I should have tried harder to figure out what it was instead of making things worse.”

“I didn’t want to tell you. I didn’t want you to know.”

“I know. Still, I feel like I was a shitty friend to you.”

“I’m good at pushing people away,” Tony said. Nevertheless, he had to admit that part of him had been hoping that someone would figure it out. It had hurt that Pepper and Rhodey had thought he was that much of a nutcase. Even though he had wanted Rhodey to have the suit, it shouldn’t have happened like that. Sometimes it seemed like Tony was his own worst enemy.

“You are, but I should have known better anyway. Maybe you might have told me if I’d insisted, didn’t let you deflect. If I’d given you more of a chance.”

Would he? It was hard to say. He hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly at that time.

“In any case,” Rhodey continued, “what I’m trying to say is that we both made some bad decisions. I guess, looking back on it now, we never really talked about the important stuff. It got pushed aside again and again, and nothing was ever resolved. All the shit that was going on with you, and all the shit that was going on with me… it got in the way. We drifted apart when we should have pulled closer together.” Rhodey sighed again. “I never saw the mess that was the Avengers.” Tony recognized that tone of regret. So much pain could have been avoided if anyone had seen that shitty group for what it was…

“I didn’t either. Or, at least, I didn’t want to.”

“It was Captain America. I thought he was… a great guy.”

Tony nodded. Yeah. They had all been taken in by the legend, forgetting that there was a real flesh and blood person underneath that shiny ideal. He hadn’t thought Steve was perfect – there had been plenty of instances where he’d wanted to beat some sense into the man – but he had believed the guy’s heart was in the right place; that he was a bit naïve, not callous. That he was willing to listen instead of bullheading his way through everything, ignoring everything that contradicted his own views.

“Guess we should have known better than to take him at face value,” Rhodey said. “If I’d been around more, I might have seen it.”

“You were busy with your own life.” Rogers and his buddies didn’t seem to have any life outside of the Avengers (except for Clint, maybe, but he’d sure ditched them quick enough when ‘Cap’ called). Rhodey, on the other hand, had a career and a bunch of other things. No one could expect him to just hang around all the time. Hell, Tony hadn’t had time for the Avengers on occasion, even when he was still nominally a part of the group.

“Still, there were warning flags that I ignored, like that day with Ultron. I’m sorry about that.”

The day Thor had nearly killed Tony and no one had batted an eye. Yeah, Tony remembered that day. He could sorta understand that Thor was the hotheaded type, and he probably didn’t realize how much more fragile humans were from what he was used to. The others… there was no excuse.

“I should have stood up for you, or… I don’t know. Anything. I don’t… I don’t know why I didn’t.” For the first time since their conversation began, Rhodey looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“You had had a nasty blow to the head,” Tony said.

“Maybe. I’m still sorry.”

“Okay. Apology accepted. We’re good.” It was certainly a lot more than any of the others had ever said. In fact, Tony was sure none of them had lost a wink of sleep over anything that had happened during that whole mess. They certainly didn’t think they had anything to apologize for. On the contrary, they had expected an apology from Tony. No wonder he avoided them as much as possible after that, even if he hadn’t quite realized that was what he was doing.

“And afterwards… I thought about getting everyone together to talk, clear the air and all, but… There was so much stuff to do… The whole mess with Sokovia, the political ramifications and all… I dropped the ball on that. And Wanda… She should never have made the team.” Rhodey met his eyes again, regret and pain shining in them.

“It was Rogers’s decision. He didn’t care about my objections. I doubt he would have cared about yours.”

“Maybe not, but I should have tried anyway.” He shook his head. “It set a bad precedent.”

Tony snorted and shook his head too. “The bad precedent got set back when the Info Dump happened and they all got off scot free. And before that, when SHIELD was allowed to keep operating even after they almost nuked New York to smithereens – which would have done jack shit to actually stop the invasion, by the way. That cat was out of the bag long before Ultron happened, Honey-bear.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Still, I wish I’d done more.”

“Don’t we all?” Tony mumbled, then went on, speaking louder. “Anyway, all that is in the past. Hopefully we’ve learned from it.”

“Yeah. This was a good talk, Tony. I’m glad we got to do this.” He smiled and reached out to squeeze Tony’s hands. “I want you to know that I’ve got your back, Tones. I might have failed before, but I swear I’ll do my best not to mess it up again. And if I do, you can kick my ass back into gear.”

“Rhodey…” Tony got a bit misty-eyed at the sincerity in Rhodey’s gaze.

“And thanks. For this thing.” He gestured at the braces on the floor next to him.

“I’ve got your back too, Sugarplum.”

Rhodey reached for his glass of orange juice (the doctors had told him to go easy on the alcohol while he was still on some heavy meds) and raised it for a toast. “Here’s to having each other’s backs.”

Tony raised his own glass of juice (he was cutting back on the booze too, on medical advice and because he knew it wasn’t good for him) to knock it gently against Rhodey’s.

“To friendship.”

It was really good to have real friends. Sure, there were problems sometimes. Some miscommunication, some mistakes, some hurt, but if there was respect and affection despite the bumps in the road, it was worth it. Tony wasn’t going to forget that anymore.

*****

“Is there anything I can do to help you, Mr St– Tony?” Vision asked, watching Tony manipulate multiple screens. He had dropped the formality only recently, at Tony’s insistence, so there was still the occasional slip-up.

“Have you gone through the latest batch of Accords revisions?” Tony answered.

“I have. Friday gave me some assistance. I have forwarded my comments to you and the colonel.”

“Cool. We’ll get together later and discuss it, okay?”

Vision nodded, hesitantly coming closer.

Things were better between them now. Though Jarvis’s absence still hurt, Tony knew it wasn’t fair to take his grief out on Vision. Perhaps if Tony had talked to the synthoid more before, he would not have fallen into Wanda’s clutches. With his newfound realization about how important friendship was, he felt awful for not really extending it to Vision earlier.

“Do you want to know what I’m doing?” Tony gestured to the holograms.

“If you wouldn’t mind explaining it, I would be grateful. There is still much I need to learn about… everything.”

Yeah, Tony could understand that. So he started talking about some of the projects for SI he was currently working on, and some of his other plans for planetary defense. Ultron may have crashed and burned spectacularly, but Tony still maintained that having something like that would be useful. With a better frame of mind – that was, without some crazy witch messing around with his mind – he had begun to revisit the project. With more collaboration from other scientists around the world, Tony was confident they would be able to get something done.

“Hey, Viz?” Tony said when they had wrapped up for the day. “I’m going to get some dinner. You want to join me?”

Vision cocked his head. “I don’t eat.”

“Well, you can still keep me company.”

“Very well.” He seemed surprised by the invitation, and Tony wondered if the others had never included Vision in meals – or in anything else, for that matter. Tony was determined to be better than those assholes.

They retired to the kitchen and Tony fixed himself some sandwiches.

“So, Viz, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk to you. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately and I realized that I need to improve my communications skills, especially to those close to me. I know you and I had a bit of a rough start, but I’d like to… make it better.”

“Yes, me too. Also, I would like to apologize.”

“Apologize? For what?”

Vision looked away. “I have already spoken to Col Rhodes about my part in his injury–”

“Viz, that wasn’t your fault.” Tony interrupted.

“I know I am not to blame, yet I feel responsible anyway. I allowed myself to become distracted. Perhaps if I hadn’t, things would have turned out differently.”

“Anybody can get distracted. It happens. We’re only human.” Tony eyed Vision’s pinkish skin and general… unhumanness. “Well, sort of, anyway.”

That got him a small smile in response.

“And you don’t know what would have happened. No one does. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference.” He shrugged. “Just don’t get too bogged down on what ifs. It never leads anywhere good.”

“Nevertheless, I have come to realize that… Ms Maximoff was not worthy of my attention. Or of my regard.” There was a slight melancholy air around Vision now, and Tony felt sorry for him. Hell of a way to end a first crush, he thought.

“You couldn’t have known,” Tony said.

“Couldn’t I? I have been wondering about that myself. About why I was so drawn to her, why I ignored the signs that were there.” He met Tony’s gaze. “You were never fooled.”

Tony sighed. He hadn’t trusted Wanda, that was true, but he had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt – mostly because he hadn’t had much choice in the matter. Still, he could have shared his misgivings with Vision and he hadn’t. He had distanced himself from the Avengers – and therefore from Vision – and essentially left the poor guy to fend for himself with those bastards.

“I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it. Or about anything, really.”

“I am not sure I would have listened even if you had,” Vision said. “The others… While they were not hostile, they were not… warm… towards me. Only Wanda showed any desire to be in my presence, to speak to me and listen.” He looked away again. “Perhaps that is why I… why I did not see who she was. What she was capable of.”

“Fuck, Viz, I’m so sorry.” It seemed that Tony hadn’t been the only one ostracized within the Avengers.

“I did not want to believe that she could… turn on me – on everyone – like that. I did explain to her why she had to stay at the Compound. I thought she had understood, but… Clint barely had to say two words to her in order to make her attack me. In that moment, I do not believe she saw me as a person at all, but simply as an obstacle in her way. She did not even take the time to see if I was injured.” In a murmur, he added: “I could have been killed, for all the knew.”

“I’m sorry, Viz,” Tony repeated, unsure what else he could say. And now he felt really guilty that he hadn’t even thought about what Vision might have been going through. Way to be selfish, Tony, he thought.

“I had expected an apology, or an acknowledgement of her hurtful actions when we met again at the airport, but… There was nothing. She only thought of herself. That was when I realized that I had been gravely mistaken about her.”

“We were wrong about a lot of people, Vision. But that’s on them, not on us. We wanted to trust them, and they betrayed that trust.” Tony sighed. “I kinda feel like I let you down too, now. I’ve been so caught up in my own shit that I never even thought about what you’ve been going through.” Yep, he’d been a pretty shitty friend.

“You have had a lot on your mind. It is understandable, given all that happened. In any case, Friday and I have talked a lot these last few weeks.”

“That’s good. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this is that friendship is really important. And I want us to be friends.”

Vision smiled, rather timidly. “I would like that.”

They shared a companionable silence as Tony finished his meal, until Vision spoke again. “I understand your reasons for staying away, before. I am a reminder of someone you lost.”

“Viz…” That was kind of true, of course, and it made Tony feel bad. What happened to Jarvis wasn’t Vision’s fault. “I’m sorry.”

“As I said, I understand. You have nothing to apologize for.”

“I want to anyway. You deserve better. I will do better now, I promise. I’m here for you.”

“And I for you.”

It was good to clear the air and move forward in a healthier way. For all of them.

*****

“Well, that didn’t go too badly,” Tony said as he got into the car with Happy. He had just done one more round of meetings regarding the so-called ExVengers. Lots of world leaders wanted their heads on silver platters, and Tony couldn’t disagree with that. If he knew where those idiots were, he would be first in line to go in and arrest their traitorous asses.

“Where to, Boss?” Happy asked. Happy didn’t have to drive him around anymore, but ever since Tony had come back from Siberia, his old friend had insisted in going back to his driver slash body guard job whenever Tony had to step outside the Tower. “Just in case,” Happy had said.

In truth, Tony was glad for the company of one of his oldest friends. If there was anyone Tony could always count on one hundred percent, it was Happy.

“Back home.”

“Okay.”

Tony looked out the tinted windows and felt a bit nostalgic for the old days, when it was just him and Happy in the car, going to meetings – and parties.

“Actually, Hap, how about we stop and get something to eat? I could do with a burger.”

“Oh, good call. A burger sounds great. Any preferences?”

“That place on 10th? That’s a good one, right?”

“You got it.”

It was a quick drive, so in twenty minutes they were seated and waiting for their food. Tony could have order it to go, but he felt like being out and about today. Plus, he wanted to spent time with Happy – another friend he had neglected in the last few years.

“You’re looking a lot more like yourself these days, Boss,” Happy said.

“Yeah? I feel more like myself too.”

“Those Avengers weren’t good for you.”

“No, they weren’t,” Tony agreed.

“Bunch of leeches, they were. And assholes. Thought they were better than everybody else.” Happy shook his head. “Should have seen it when they didn’t even bother to call when you got blown up and supposedly died during that whole Mandarin business.”

Tony had never really asked Rogers and Romanoff what they had been doing at that time. Perhaps he had known, unconsciously, that he wouldn’t have liked the answer. It was better to imagine they’d had a good reason for their apparent disinterest. Now he wondered what they would have said if he’d brought it up.

“I had other things on my mind then, Happy.” Honestly, he hadn’t really noticed their absence. It wasn’t like the Avengers had been best buddies after that one fight together, and Tony had had plenty to occupy his time in the aftermath of that disaster. There had been Pepper and Happy and his own issues to deal with. Still, Bruce had been the only one to reach out, and even then it hadn’t been all that great. Tony could make excuses for why Bruce had fallen asleep on him, though the other scientist himself had never bothered to, which was… kinda telling. The more Tony thought about it, the clearer it was that the Avengers had never been a real team at all. Bruce had been right on the money after all.

“Sure, you had stuff on your mind. What did they have? It’s not like any of them ever had proper jobs, or anything. Well, I don’t think SHIELD counts. I mean, I imagine they were just sitting around waiting for orders or something.”

Tony could only shrug in response to that. It didn’t matter anymore. The ExVengers were gone and everyone was better for it.

“Anyway, I’m glad you’ve ditched those assholes, Boss. They did nothing but drag you down. As if Iron Man needed some wannabe spies – who weren’t even that good – and some overgrown lab rat. Not to mention the crazy Hydra weirdo.”

Tony chuckled. “Tell me how you really feel, Happy.”

The server brought over their burgers and they dug in.

“Thanks for your support, Happy,” Tony said after he’d chewed his first bite. “It means a lot to me. And I’m sorry for letting you down before.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve never let me down.” Happy sighed. “If anything, I let you down. I was supposed to watch your back, and… I failed. Let those fuckers waltz right in. I never liked them, but I didn’t say anything. I should have.”

“It’s not your fault, Happy. I probably wouldn’t have listened even if you had said anything. I wasn’t… ready to let go of the idea of heroes. Plus, it’s not your job to watch out for me anymore.”

“It will always be my job, Tony.”

It warmed Tony’s heart to hear those words, and he knew they were sincere. Happy really cared about him, and not because of Tony’s money. That was a rare thing indeed – even the Avengers had only wanted him around for that. Fucking Rogers using his money to pay for all his little trips to search for his assassin friend, all the while knowing exactly what that friend had done. Piece of shit.

“Thanks, Happy.”

Then Happy stood abruptly, eyes narrowed at the couple of kids who had approached their table.

“Whoa, relax, Hap,” Tony said.

“Sorry, Mr Stark,” the tall guy said. “We were just wondering if we could get a picture.”

“Sure. Happy, give us a hand.”

The kid smiled brightly and handed Happy his phone. He and his friend slid into the booth next to Tony. Happy rolled his eyes, but took a few pictures.

Happy gave the phone back and scowled. “Okay, run along now, we’re trying to eat here.”

“Thanks so much, Mr Stark. You’re awesome. We’re really glad you’re feeling better now.”

“Thanks, kid.”

“Have a great day!”

“You too.”

“Now we’re never gonna get any peace,” Happy grumbled as the two kids exited the diner. “They’re gonna post it on Facebook, or whatever it is kids use these days, and we’ll get a mob here wanting pictures.”

“It’s not that bad. I kinda like it, actually. It’s nice to get some positive attention for once.”

Happy gave him a knowing look. “Better finish your burger before we’re surrounded then.”

Of course, Happy was right. Within half an hour, the diner had become a hot spot for kids – and plenty of adults too – who wanted pictures and autographs. Happy pretended to be annoyed, but Tony could see his smile behind all the grumpy mutterings.

“Hey, Happy, get here,” Tony said and yanked Happy to his side, an arm around his shoulder. “Guys, this is my good friend Happy Hogan. Smile for the camera, Happy.”

“Tony, no, I don’t–”

“Come on, Hap, don’t be a grouch.” Happy rolled his eyes, but he complied. Tony made a mental note to have Friday find the picture and add it to his private collection.

“Mr Stark, can we do a video?” A teenage girl asked.

“Yeah, sure, why not? Gather ‘round, folks.” Everyone jumped up in excitement. “Happy, get your phone. You know how to record, right?”

“Yeah, yeah.” The corner of his lips were pulled up in a begrudging smile as he took his phone, fiddled with it and pressed play.

“So, I’m here at… hmm, what’s the name of this place?”

“Freddy’s Burger,” someone said.

“Yes. Right, that. Anyway, I’m here with some nice people. What’s your name?” he asked the girl.

“Gabriella.”

“Hi, Gabriella. So, what’s up? How are you doing?”

“I’m doing great, Mr Stark. I had a chemistry test today and I’m pretty sure I aced it.”

“Hey, that’s awesome! High five!” He raised his hand and she tapped it with a wide grin. “So, you’re a sophomore? Junior? Senior? I’m terrible with young people’s ages. You all look like kids to me.”

She chuckled. “I’m a sophomore.”

“Cool. And we have some other folks here too. Who wants to introduce themselves and say hello?”

Everybody did. As Happy filmed it, Tony posed for more pictures and chatted with the kids. It was fun.

Eventually, though, he had to call it a day and go home. “Sorry, guys. I gotta go.”

“Are you going to post the video, Mr Stark?” Gabriella asked.

“Hmm, do I have everyone’s permission? ‘Cause I don’t want to get sued or something.”

“Sure, it will be awesome!” The kids nodded (to the camera, which was still recording). Tony had no idea if that was enough, but what the hell. It wasn’t like anyone had said their full names or was doing anything remotely problematic.

“All right, then, nice to meet you all.”

“You’re the best, Mr Stark. Thanks for talking to us.”

After a few more smiles and handshakes, Tony and Happy finally exited the diner and went back to the car.

“It’s good to see you enjoying yourself, Boss,” Happy said. “You’ve got a lot of fans. You should interact with them more. It’s good for you.”

“It is, isn’t it? I’d kinda forgotten what it was like to be appreciated.”

“You’ve always been appreciated, Tony. You just didn’t see it.”

Tony nodded, pensive. “I suppose that’s true. You know, we should do another Stark Expo. That’s always fun.”

“Sure. As long as we don’t get another round of killer drones,” he added.

That made Tony laugh. “Yeah, we could do without that.”

“Don’t you worry, though. Whatever happens, we’ve got your back.”

“I know, Happy. Thanks.”

*****

Tony didn’t hear about it until it was all over. A small group of Cap defenders (about a dozen of them, mostly white men) came to the Tower to, apparently, lay in wait for Tony and… force him to retract his accusations against their precious hero? Tony wasn’t actually sure what they’d wanted. Like their idol, planning didn’t seem to be their forte – or understanding that actions have consequences.

Anyway, this group showed up at the Tower with pro-Cap signs (and anti-Tony signs) and proceeded to make a nuisance of themselves. However, since they weren’t actually hurting anybody, security let them be, though they kept an eye on the situation in case that changed. In the end, though, they did have to intervene, but before that… Oh, it was glorious.

Plenty of people took exception to the Cap supporters and decided to do a little protesting of their own – and of course the whole thing was filmed and posted on the internet, where Tony (and the world) could watch with gleeful enjoyment.

The Cap-lovers had barely been outside the Tower for twenty minutes when the first Tony-lovers arrived. This second group had signs of their own, and set in beside the first group in a peaceful show of support for their hero. They didn’t directly engage with the Cap-fans – in fact, they completely ignored them –, just gathered around next to them and began loudly cheering for Tony and the Accords. Many of them were wearing Iron Man shirts, backpacks or caps. They played ‘Shoot to Thrill’ and other heavy metal songs Tony liked from their phones and chatted with each other about how much they liked Tony – and why.

“He mentioned my name in his thank you video,” a college-age kid said. Tony remembered him from one of the #GetWellSoon videos. “It was really nice of him to remember all those names and people, wasn’t it?” He asked his companions.

“It was,” the others agreed. “It’s nice that Tony talks to the public, you know? Like he cares about us. Those videos were awesome. And the last one, with the kids at the diner? It looked like so much fun!”

“There’s a rumor that there’ll be another Stark Expo soon. I missed the first one, so I’m really psyched that there might be another one,” a woman said. Her nails were painted red and gold.

“Ooh, that would be awesome!” The gathered crowd replied.

“I saw him fly by once. Just a couple of blocks from here. I tried to film it, but he went by too fast,” another guy said. “All I got was a blurry picture.” He showed it to the group anyway.

Soon more people started arriving, and they began getting together to make some more videos.

“My name is Sophia, and I’m here in front of Stark Tower” (Tony had changed the name again) “with some friends.” In the background, the people waved and cheered. “We’re here to support Tony Stark and the real Avengers.” She gave a sideways glance to the Cap-supporters on her left. “Not the terrorists, I mean.”

The crowd started chanting ‘Iron Man’, ‘War Machine’, ‘Vision’ and even ‘Spider-Man’ (Peter would probably be pleased, Tony thought).

“Who’s a hero?” Sophie asked.

“Iron Man!” The crowd responded.

“Who’s a hero?”

“War Machine!”

And so on.

By then, the Cap people were spitting mad, and started to call Tony names. The Tony crowd, growing ever larger, simply drowned them out with their own cheering. Some enterprising soul had even composed a song about Iron Man, and taught it to the others, and everyone picked it up right away – it was really catchy (Tony made a mental note to find out who had written it so he could properly – and publicly – acknowledge how cool it was).

The whole thing was a bit like a flash mob, with more and more people joining up, singing and chanting and cheering. It was a little messy and disorganized, but everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Well, except the Cap guys. At some point, one of them – a tall beefy blond – shoved a woman who had gotten a little too close to their side of the sidewalk, and then it got a bit tense. Fortunately, SI security guards intervened before a riot could break out, and kept the Cap supporters away from the others. Now incensed, they continued hurling insults at everyone, including the guards, and getting more and more violent – all while the Iron Man people cheerfully continued their little party, paying the nay-sayers no mind whatsoever.

Shortly after the first punch was thrown – as it inevitably did –, the police arrived and took the Cap guys away. Since the rest of the gathered people weren’t really doing anything remotely criminal –the sidewalk outside the Tower was a public place, after all – the police left them alone. About thirty minutes later the rest of the crowd began to disperse, waving happily to each other as they went on home or wherever they were going.

The whole thing made the evening news, of course, and it was a trending topic in all social media. Tony laughed his ass off when Friday showed it to him – and of course he had to make a response video.

“Hey, everyone. So, I was in the lab all afternoon working on stuff, and went I came out I saw that I had totally missed the party outside the Tower. It’s a real shame, ‘cause it looked like a lot of fun.” He smiled and winked at the camera. “Seriously, though, let me give a huge thank you to the people who showed up and were so absolutely wonderful in dealing with those rude ‘protesters’,” he rolled his eyes at the word. “And I love the song! Really, I’m flattered. It seems like years since I had so much fun without actually, you know, being there in the thick of things. I kinda felt like I was, though. And I’m glad you guys were enjoying yourselves.”

Tony took on a more pensive tone. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about isolation and loneliness, and how those things eat away at you. I’ve come to realize that I felt incredibly alone in the last few years, for a lot of reasons, and that contributed to my not… seeing some things that I really should have seen. But since the end of this ‘Civil War’ business, I’ve gotten a whole new outlook on life. I’ve reconnected with my friends, and started dealing with some emotional stuff that has been dragging me down for years. And I’ve also realized that I’m not actually alone at all. Today, you guys have shown me that once again – in a very entertaining way, I might add. And, I gotta say, it’s a pretty good feeling. So thank you, all of you with your continuous support and well wishes and your faith, and for being here.” The smile on his face was a genuine one. “And the rumor about the Expo is true. I don’t know when it will happen, but plans are in development. Plus a bunch of other things SI and myself are thinking of to give back to the people. You are all totally awesome. Stay safe, everyone.” He hummed the Iron Man song as he waved goodbye and motioned for Friday to stop the recording.

Yep, life was good.