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(Iron Is A) Star Killer

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Siberia is, unsurprisingly, bitterly cold.

He hadn’t felt it before, protected by the armor as he’d been.  He’d been insulated from the weather and focused on more important things.  He hadn’t bothered to give it more than a passing thought that didn’t revolve around wind speeds and visibility issues.

He’d been focused on getting answers, focused on helping, on protecting, on St- …

Well, he’d had other things on his mind.

But now?

Laying on his back, helmet gone, reactor dark and armor a dead weight, with the snow drifting in at him?

Now he feels it.

It’s the only thing he can feel at the moment, the only thing that really feels real.

So … Siberia is cold.

And Tony …

Tony’s fading, black closing in around the edges like clawed fingers reaching up to pull him down.

He doesn’t bother fighting it.

Doesn’t even try.

When the dark finally, blessedly, takes him …

Tony welcomes it like an old friend.

It’s one of the few he has left.

~~~

Tony Stark dies on the cold, snow strewn floor of a Siberian bunker.

~~~

Or at least, that’s what he wishes had happened.

~~~

What really happens is that Tony spends thirty six hours in an abandoned HYDRA base in Siberia before help comes, before Vision finally finds him.

He’s cold and he’s bleeding and he’s broken in more ways than one.

Tony leaves more than just blood and sweat and destruction behind him in that bunker.

In return Tony takes more than the pain of his body, the hurt in his heart, and the betrayal festering inside of him like an infection with him when he leaves.

The cold stays with him too.

~~~

Tony answers Ross’ questions about his whereabouts in short, clipped sentences.  In half-truths and leading statements.  He gives Ross enough to form a solid story but he doesn’t give him the whole truth.  Doesn’t tell him or anyone else what really went down.

He takes his hurt and his newfound knowledge, or maybe it’s not new because betrayal tastes so familiar nowadays, and he curls it down into a ball at the center of his chest.  Uses it to weld a coat of iron around his too weak heart.

It doesn’t make it any easier.

Doesn’t make any of it better.

Doesn’t make Tony feel any less tired.

Doesn’t make Tony any warmer deep down where it used to matter.

He doesn’t think anything ever will.

Tony would say he’s hollow inside now if he didn’t feel so goddamn heavy all of the time.

Tony would say he’s empty now but he knows he’s not.

He’s all filled up with ice instead.

Winter has made its home in Tony now, he’s arctic to the core.

It’s almost poetic in a sense.

Except for how it’s not.

~~~

He doesn’t give himself a day or two to rest and heal like Rhodey insists.

He doesn’t take time to, ‘properly process the events that have taken place’, like Vision suggests.

Tony has had decades of hurt and pain and betrayal.  Has had years of longing for a place to call home only to always, constantly, have it ripped away.  Has had an entire life time of never being good enough no matter how hard he tries.

And, goddamn him for a fool, does he always seem to try.

A measly handful of almost good years tainted now by snide comments, by distrust and lies of omission and fake smiles and goddamn yearning for yet another group of people who don’t want him is nothing.

Besides, now Tony’s had thirty six uninterrupted hours in an abandoned Siberian bunker to search and think, to rest and heal, to process.

He doesn’t need to waste more time on any of that.  Can’t.  Won’t.

~~~

Rhodey comes first once Tony’s back at the Compound, because of course he does.

Rhodey, his best friend, his brother, the one constant in his life despite their ups and downs.

Tony took his legs from him.

So now he has to give them back in the best way he knows how.

~~~

Tony calls Pepper only once in the first few days that follow.

She talks to him softly, gently.  Tony hears Happy in the background and almost wants to smile.

He’s been good for her and her for him.  Tony’s glad they bonded after that mess with Killian and AIM.  Is glad that Happy and Pepper found each other even as he and Pepper drifted apart.

“Stark legal is at your services Tony.”  Pepper tells him quietly but he knows her well enough to hear the thread of anger in her voice.  Knows that, for once, it’s not directed towards him.  “Just tell me what you want done.”

Tony does.

~~~

Vision stares at the hole in the floor of the Compound often.  Sometimes for hours on end.

“What’re you looking for?”  Tony can’t help but ask him one night after too long without sleep and too much coffee and the haunting sound of vibranium striking hard at a titanium-gold alloy ringing in his ears.

“Clarity.”  Vision tells him softly.

Tony doesn’t say anything but he thinks he understands.

~~~

There’s a package for him.

There’s a phone.

There’s a letter.

There’s a call from Ross.

Tony,’ the letter starts and it takes all he has in him not to scream.

Tony reads the entire thing through once, pauses to put Ross on hold, reads it a second time and then a third.

Snow blots out his vision for a long moment and all he can hear is the sound of ice crackling in his ears.

All he can feel is the painful crash of a shield breaking his entire world in two.

~~~

Vision finds him some hours later in the yard outside the Compound, a small fire blazing merrily at his feet.

“Sir, Tony,” Vision speaks up at his side, “what are you doing?”

“Infection,” Tony starts even as he keeps his eyes on the flames, “is a dangerous thing.”

“I am aware,” Vision’s eyes feel like a brand on the side of his face as he stares.  “Wounds should be properly treated to prevent such a thing.  Are you injured?  Have your wounds reopened?”

“No.  This is me, cauterizing a wound.”  Tony tells him softly, intently.  “It’ll be nothing but a scar now Viz.  Just another to add to the collection.”

Tony’s pretty sure that they both know he’s lying.

But Vision doesn’t call him out on it and that, that right there’s a kindness all on its own.

~~~

Tony scans the phone, breaks it down to its basic components and examines every piece because that’s what he does.

And then he puts it back together in perfect working order.

Because that’s who he is.

He’s always been driven to fix the things that hurt him.

Maybe especially the things that hurt him.

~~~

Wakanda.  Wakanda.  Wakanda.

The name beats in his head like a refrain.

He knows.

Tony knows.

He could act.

He could hurt them like they’ve hurt him.

All it would take would be one phone call.  One word in the right/wrong ear.

He won’t though.

He never could in the past.

It’s just one more thing that hasn’t changed about him after all.

~~~

Tony slides the phone across the countertop in Vision’s direction one morning a week or so later.  Rhodey stares at it, brows furrowed, and Vision looks faintly bemused.

“Antiquated,” Vision hums even as he looks up at Tony.  “May I ask why you’re giving this to me Sir?”

“St-Rogers sent it to me.”  Tony holds up a hand to still Rhodey’s noise of outrage.  “I burnt the letter that came with it but the phone’s got one number in it.  One number in case push comes to a fiery end kind of shove.  He said he’d, they’d, be here if we needed them.  That all I had to do was call.”

That son of a bitch.”  Rhodey seethes from beside him.

“You’re a better man than I’ll ever be Vision,” Tony keeps going determinedly.  “So you make the call if it comes down to it.  You’ll know if the times right.  I … I can’t trust myself to make that kind of decision.”

“You are a good man Tony.”  Vision insists quietly and Tony has to smile at the way he can’t seem to choose which name to use for him, Sir or Tony.  At least Mr. Stark is a thing of the past now.

Still.

“Oh baby boy no,” Tony chides with a rueful huff, “between the two of us, you’re the better man.  Me?  I’m just … bad code.”

~~~

For the first time in years, for the first time since right before Ultron if he really thinks about it, Tony’s thinking completely clearly about everything.

And he’s finally come to a conclusion.

Even after all this time, after Afghanistan and Obie, after the palladium and New York, after AIM and Sokovia, he’s still the same at the core.

Still the same dumb fucking kid who went back to Howard time after time, bloody and bruised and so stupidly hopeful.

The same little idiot who’d reached out and grabbed hot tools and cracked flasks and sharp metal whatever Howard shoved in his direction even though his hands were already riddled with scars.  Always so hopeful that maybe this time it would matter, maybe this time it’d be different.

The same kid who’d learned not to dodge a backhand because the return swing always hurt so much worse some how.

The same boy who’d never been enough to get Maria to stay home on holidays and birthdays and weekends, please just this once choose me, no matter how hard he begged.

The same person who’s realized, in hurtful stops and starts along the way, that there must be something inherently flawed inside of him in a way he can’t fix.

There’s no other explanation for why it’s so hard for people to love him back.  He’s the common denominator after all, the unchanged variable.  The flaw must be with him.

So, ultimately, at the deepest heart of him, Tony’s finally realized that he’s the same man who’d sat with Yinsen beside that fire in that cave in Afghanistan.

Still the man who has everything and nothing.

Only now he’s been stripped down to brass tacks.  Peeled out of his various armors and left exposed.  Vulnerable.

Now he’s got nothing left but a few scattered, charred pieces of the time bomb he’d tried to fool himself into believing could finally be his family.

That, a heart coated in iron, and the ice that fills his bones.

But that’s okay.

Tony’s made miracles with less.

This?

This is nothing.

~~~

He’s lying.

This, they, were supposed to be everything.

And maybe they were.  For him.

Even if the feeling wasn’t mutual, even if that bond only went one way where he’s concerned.

Yeah, maybe the problem was, as it always has been in the past, him all along.

Iron Man yes, Tony Stark … not recommended.

Sounds about right.

~~~

Sometimes, when it’s dark and quiet, Tony climbs up onto the roof of the Compound and stares up at the sky, at the stars and the death he knows they hold.

Sometimes he sits there and he can’t help but wonder.

What’s so wrong with him that so many of the things he loves never seem to love him back in equal measure?

Or at all.

Sometimes he’s not sure which hurts worst.

The difference or the absence.

~~~

Tony’s stands beside Vision as they both watch Rhodey grip the parallel bars tightly as he works with the newest iteration of the exoskeleton Tony made him.  He’s gained a lot of his strength back and the muscles in his arms ripple more now than they did before, stand out in harsh definition.

Soon, Tony knows, the bars will be gone all together.  Rhodey’s strong like that, determined.

At the moment he and Vision are here more for moral support than anything else.

Even if they might be two of the worst people/beings to provide that kind of thing.

There’s a long beat of silence between the two of them as they watch Rhodey before Tony finally looks up at Vision and says, “You should have left me there, in Siberia.  I was ready.”

‘To die’, he doesn’t say the words, but he knows Vision hears them anyways.

The words have been itching at the back of Tony’s tongue since Vision had stepped through the wall of the base in Siberia and kneeled down at his side.

For a moment Vision just looks down at him and the expression on his face is young and sweet and wise and ancient all at the same time.  Tony just stares back up at him, raw and unguarded and so goddamn cold.

Finally Vision just reaches up and runs his fingers through Tony’s hair, tactile in a way he never was before, like he needs the touch to ground him now.

Vision doesn’t speak though, just stands there, crowded against Tony’s side, his hand drifting from his hair to his shoulder and then away before he floats over to Rhodey’s side.

Tony’s stuck wondering if it’s because he agrees or if it’s because there’s simply nothing else to say.

~~~

They’re having dinner, the three of them, well Tony and Rhodey with Vision watching on with a soft expression on his face as they eat his rapidly improving cooking.

Tony’s just caught a fry Rhodey flicked at him in his mouth when Vision clears his throat meaningfully.

“What’s up Viz?”  Rhodey’s the one who asks, soft and gentle in that way he’s only ever been with Tony himself before now.

Vision brings a hand up and Tony goes quiet, goes still, because in his hand is a familiar flip phone.

“I have considered the matter at great length.  I have calculated and contemplated a great deal on the subject.  It was unpleasant in a lot of ways but … necessary I think.”  Vision announces and before Tony can ask anything else the phone crumbles to dust in Vision’s suddenly clenched hand.

Surprised Tony just stares at him silently, brow slightly furrowed.

“In conclusion I found the sentiment behind this offer to be … offensive.”  Vision meets his gaze head on and the look in his eyes is heavier, darker in some ways, than usual.  “If they, any of them, would have us rely on their aid in our time of need then why did they willfully leave to begin with?  One does not abandon their family, abuse their family, and then offer comfort and aid.  To do so is to wound in ways that do not heal.”

Tony feels oddly breathless.

“This is me,” Vision says slowly, deliberately, and his eyes never waver from Tony’s, never even blink, “cauterizing that wound.  I will not allow infection to take from me the family that I still have left.”

~~~

The Spiderling is next.

Tony had already sent him a small gift weeks ago but there’s more he’s been working on that he wants the boy to have.

That kid, Peter, he’s the future.

He’s the future Tony’s been fighting for all along.

Him and all the others like him.

~~~

The hole in the Compound floor gets fixed.

Vision doesn’t stand and stare down into the ground searching for clarity any more.

Now he finds Tony on the nights Tony takes to the roof.

“What do you search for when you look at the stars?”  Vision asks him softly.

“Hope,” Tony tells him.  “Absolution.  A million things I’ll never deserve.”

~~~

Sometimes Tony dreams about being back in Afghanistan.

Sometimes he dreams about water closing in over his head and boots in his ribs and the constant ache of pain and hunger and wounds only ever half healed.

Sometimes he dreams about Yinsen cutting him open and scooping bits of him out.

Over and over and over again.

Sometimes he dreams about having the reactor put in for the first time, seeing it glowing like a star in his mangled chest.

Sometimes Tony dreams about Afghanistan and it’s not even a nightmare anymore.

Because at least then he knew why everything was happening.

At least then he understood all of the hurt.

~~~

“I searched for clarity,” Vision tells him softly.  “I stared down into that hole and willed myself to understand without bias, without reservations.”

“Did it work?”  Tony asks even as he keeps his eyes on the stars overhead.

“No.”  Vision’s hand comes down on his shoulder then, and the feel of it is comforting.  “But I found something better I believe.”

“What?”

“Purpose.”

~~~

Sometimes Tony thinks about Steve.  Steve, not Rogers.  Although Tony’s not really sure there’s a difference anymore.  Isn’t sure if anything he’d thought had been between them was ever real.

He still thinks about it though.  About what they’d could have, had almost, had together.

It had been there, shimmering between them, that tension, that yearning that Tony had been so sure wasn’t one sided.

There are days when Tony can still almost taste it, the burgeoning possibilities of what they could have been lingering on his tongue, spicy and sharp.

The flavor always sours though, always turns coppery and sick in his mouth like a sickening mix of blood and dirty snow.

It’s not hate, what Tony feels for him now, but it keeps close company with it.

~~~

That’s a lie.

Tony doesn’t hate Steve.  Doesn’t hate any of them.  Doesn't even come close.

He only wishes he could.

Wishes that, for once, he could hate someone as much as he’s always hated himself.

As much as everyone else, with the few rare exceptions, have always seemed to hate him.

At the very least he wishes he could just stop caring altogether.

In this he would take the absence over the difference anyday.

~~~

Sometimes Tony dreams about Siberia.

About the snow and the cold.  About the smugness in Zemo’s voice.  About the way Steve’s jaw tightened when he lied.

About the pain and fear on Barnes’ face.

About the rage on Steve’s as he brought the shield down.

About the quiet afterwards.

Sometimes Tony dreams about how death had been right there, reaching out to him with cold and welcoming arms.

With promises of peace and quiet and an end to everything.

An end to him.

And Tony … god Tony had been so close, so fucking close, he could taste it, sharp and cold on his tongue but so damn welcoming.

He’d been ready to lay there, to just close his eyes and let the cold take him.

But in this, as with so many other things, Tony so rarely gets what he wants.

~~~

“You should have left me there.”  Tony rasps.  He’d woke, screaming, to the sight of Vision siting on the edge of his bed.  Rhodey, who’d rolled into his room a few hours before wide eyed and panting from a nightmare of his own, reaches for him blindly from where he’s sleeping on what’s becoming his side of the bed with a small sound of distress.

“I find that I was too selfish to do so, Sir.”  Vision tells him softly as he curls one large hand around Tony’s ankle and the other around one of Rhodey’s even though he can’t feel it.  “I find myself thankful that I did not.”

The echo of JARVIS in his voice will never not be painful but Tony bites it down like he always does.

He won’t punish Vision for being who he is instead of the ghost Tony sometimes hears when he speaks.

He won’t punish Vision like Howard used to punish him.

“Sleep Tony,” Vision urges him.  “I will watch over you both.  Be at ease for there are no more wounds here.  Only scars.  They cannot hurt us now.”

Tony settles back down, forces himself to breathe deeply.

They both know it’s a lie.

All they do is hurt nowadays, the three of them.

All they do is ache.

~~~

Some, most, days Tony wishes he’d died in Afghanistan.

God why hadn’t he died in Afghanistan?

The cave would have been kinder than the cold.

~~~

Tony sets his sights in a new direction, this one much more cautious, much more careful.

‘Collateral’, he thinks to himself, ‘must be kept to a minimum.’

~~~

The thing that so many people don't seem to understand is the fact that Tony is Iron Man.

The suit and he are one in a way no one, not even Rhodey, will ever understand.

It’s been true since the moment Yinsen strapped him into the Mark I and then ran willingly to his death.

Tony is Iron Man.

Howard had always said that ‘Stark men are made of iron’ and Tony has hated and embraced that phrase in equal measures over the years.

But here’s the thing…

When a star gets old enough, when its fuel is starting to run out and it's running out of the lighter elements, that’s when a star starts producing iron at its core.

And that?  An overproduction of iron and the inability to compensate for the energy it absorbs?

In the end that’s what causes black holes.

Iron is a star killer.

And Tony’s burned so very brightly for so very long that he’s almost out of fuel.

Not yet though.

Not yet.

He's got enough left in him for one final push.

Once more unto the breach.

Chapter Text

Life in the Compound is a study in ignoring empty spaces now.

In ignoring closed doors and empty chairs.

In pressing forward through long pauses and smoothing over gaping silences.

In doing their best not to dwell on what, who, they all know is missing.

It’s a difficult thing to do too, given all of the memories that linger in the Compound.

Tony knows that too many reminders litter its rooms for any of them to find any real peace most of the time.  He can see it in the lines that’ve been carved deeper into Rhodey’s face, in the way Vision pauses and stares off into the middle distance.

He can feel it in the way he can sometimes taste ice and snow, sharp and biting and bitterly cold on his tongue, when he lingers in an empty room.

It hurts but, like with so many other things and so many times before, Tony’s slowly learning to live with the pain.

It’s difficult, the ache of it all, but he bites it down, balls it up, and pushes forward.

Because that’s who he is and what he’s always done.

Push through the pain.

Ever forward.

Ultimately that’s how Tony finds himself standing silently in the living room, hands shaking as he stares down at one of Rogers’ sketchbooks.

It’s been laying on the coffee table for … since before and they’ve all just been moving around it.

Just like Maximoff’s scarf on the back of the chair, Romanov’s boots by the wall in the kitchen, Wilson’s camera on the side table, and the six pack of shitty beer in the refrigerator that Barton had only half-finished the last time he stopped by to visit.

Even after the hole in the Compound floor was fixed these things had remained, these tiny reminders of what once was.  They litter the Compound like bits of detritus stacked here and there.  Each of them only serving to remind them all, painfully, that there used to be more than the three of them living there.  That there was once a time where the Compound was rarely, truly, silent because there was always someone moving, doing, living in some corner of some room.

It’s different now, with its empty rooms and echoing halls and silent nights.

It’s an imprint of the mansion Tony grew up in now, the one he’d shut down as soon as he was eighteen and had the right.

A reflection of the way Tony had never touched Howard’s favorite scotch decanter in the study or Maria’s pill bottles in the master suite’s bathroom.

Of how even before that, back when Jarvis died, Tony had stolen the key to his quarters, locked the door tightly, and hadn’t let anyone, not even himself, open it since then.  How Jarvis himself had never moved Ana’s clothes from the closet, her perfume from the dresser, her earrings from the dish she always dropped them in.

For Tony this is like being forced back into a piece of his childhood all over again.

He hates it.

He hates the way their absence has turned the Compound, the place that was supposed to be a home for all of them, that was supposed to be safe, into some kind of a mausoleum.  Into this half-dead thing that they’re all afraid to touch, afraid to change except in the smallest of ways.

He hates it but he doesn’t know how to change it, how to fix it.

Doesn’t even know if he can.

Doesn’t know if he has the strength left to do more than what he’s already set in motion.

~~~

“Will you take the armor up again Tony?”  Vision floats beside him, head tilted back as he stares upwards at the stars.

Tony thinks about Barton and Maximoff dropping cars on his head, one after the other without even blinking.

Thinks about Lang pulling wires and disconnecting systems after he slipped inside of the armor in a way that only a few would have been aware was possible.

Thinks about not being fast enough to catch Rhodey.

About Barnes hand digging in deep as he tried to rip the reactor out.

About Rogers’ shield coming down over and over again across his face until Tony was bloody and the helmet was gone.

About that split second where he was sure Rogers was going to aim for his exposed throat afterwards.

About that split second when Tony had wanted him to.

About how the reactor had flickered and died after Rogers had imbedded the shield there instead.

About thirty-six hours in an abandoned Siberian bunker and the cold that never left him.

“I don’t know V,” Tony tells him.  “I don’t know if there’s any sense in it anymore.”

“Perhaps it is selfish of me,” Vision begins softly as he floats closer to Tony’s side, a hand coming down to run gently through his hair.  Tony’s not sure which of them he’s trying to soothe but he suspects it might be both.  “But I find that I hope you do.  I find that I hope to see both Iron Man and War Machine fly again.  I wish to one day fly with both of you at my side again.”

“Why?”  Tony leans his head against Vision’s leg, lets himself be weak, be vulnerable, with one of the only people he has the capacity to be open with anymore.

“Because we are family.”  Vision simply says and Tony feels his chest clench and then slowly release.  “I would not have this wound, these scars, take this from you both.  From us.  From the world.”

“I don’t think the world needs Iron Man anymore.”  Tony says it like a secret, like a confession he can barely stand to voice.  Like the fear it is.

“The world needs Tony Stark.  And Tony Stark is Iron Man.  In ways that I do not believe others truly understand.”  Vision says firmly, like it’s one of the undeniable truths the world is built upon.  “I cannot think of a time in which this world will not need you, Sir.  In which I will not need you.”

‘Oh,’ Tony thinks softly as he sucks in a shuddering breath and feels something inside of him seem to settle just a bit.  ‘Okay.’

~~~

Tony stares at his own hands sometimes when the quiet finds him.

His hands are rough, calloused, littered with scars.

Somedays he likes them, likes that they show him for the builder he is, for the mechanic he is deep down passed all the bullshit.

Most days he hates them though, hates the reminders they carry, the memories they hold of the things they have and have not touched.

Hates the way he doesn’t think they’ll ever be clean.

Tony’s so tired of being dirty, of being blood red and filthy with guilt and shame.

Sometimes he wishes he could just make himself anew.

~~~

Staring down at the BARF headset Tony’s once again hit with the realization that he’s always been driven to fix the things that hurt him.

And Barnes on that night?  During those years between his fall and Rogers finding him?

That’s what he’d been.

A thing, not a person.

Not really.

So, Tony’s going to fix it, him.

That’s what he does, that’s who he is.

~~~

“Thank you for this,” Rhodey says quietly from beside him a week or so later.  They’re on their second lap around the small but ornate Zen garden Tony had optimistically built for Bruce in a small section of the Compound’s grounds.

It’s gone unused until now, Bruce had never even stepped foot in it.  Now Rhodey walks it in the late afternoons as part of his ongoing physical therapy.  Now Vision feeds the koi fish and tends to the plants by hand, practicing his precision as he prunes and shapes the trees.  Now Tony draws equations and diagrams in the sand late at night when he wakes screaming and can’t bear to be inside the Compound anymore.

Now the three of them spend time there together and apart, desperately grasping at what peace they can.

Trying to dull the ache.

Tony isn’t sure if it’ll ever go away.

For any of them.

“For what?”  Tony asks absently, attention focused on his tablet as he tracks the readings from the exoskeleton.  He’s determined to catch any glitch or stutter that might be left in the design even after his numerous rebuilds and redesigns.

“You gave me my legs back Tones.”  Rhodey’s hand lands on his shoulder then, a warm and familiar weight.  “You let me walk again.”

“It’s the least I could do.”  Tony doesn’t look up at Rhodey as he answers, just keeps his eyes fixed on his tablet.  “Especially since it’s my fault you lost them in the first place.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it.”  Rhodey snaps and the harshness of his tone is enough to make Tony finally look up at him.  Rhodey’s glowering, eyes narrowed and jaw tensed.  “That’s bullshit Tony, and I don’t ever want to hear you say something that fucking stupid ever again.  You hear me?  Not ever.”

Taken aback at the venom in Rhodey’s voice Tony just blinks for a moment and then nods slowly.

“Come here.”  Rhodey hauls him forward with the hand on his shoulder until Tony can tuck his face into the crook of Rhodey’s neck.  Just like he used to when he was young, after Jarvis was gone and then Howard and Maria and Tony was in danger of shaking apart at the seams and Rhodey was all he had.

Just like he had when Rhodey had found him in Afghanistan.

“This isn’t on you Tony so don’t carry it.  Don’t you dare.”  Rhodey sighs as he cards a hand through Tony’s hair in that way they both know he won’t admit he likes.  “This cluster-fuck isn’t your fault so don’t, not even for a minute, think it is.  You did good man.  No matter what, no matter how all this mess turns out in the end, don’t forget that.  Don’t let anyone else make you forget that.  You did good and I’m proud of you.  The world spoke and you, we, listened.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to that.  I’m proud of what we did, of what you did, even if it didn’t turn out the way we wanted.”

Tony closes his eyes and breathes slowly, deliberately.

“Maybe,” Rhodey says softly, carefully, “maybe this is a good thing.  Not my legs or you … what happened to you.  Not that.  But the team splintering the way it did?  Maybe that was for the best Tones.  Maybe now we can rebuild it into something better.  Something strong and healthy and right.  The way you wanted it to be.  The way it should have been the entire time.  The way the world deserves.”

Tony wants to believe that.  Wants to so goddamn badly.

He wants to think that maybe, just maybe, all of the pain and the hurt was worth it after all.

Maybe he’s worth something after all.

~~~

There’s an idea growing in the back of Tony’s mind.

And the implications and possibilities of it both terrify and fascinate him.

~~~

Tony’s hand doesn’t shake when he reaches down and picks up the sketchbook and that steadiness, that composure, is almost a surprise.

His fingers drift over the high quality leather cover but he doesn’t open it.  He doesn’t take the opportunity to fulfill the curiosity he’d always had in the past.  He’d always been so intrigued and almost enchanted with the way Rogers would flush and snap whatever number sketchbook he was drawing in closed every time Tony asked him what he was working on.

At the way he’d look up at Tony from underneath his lashes, bottom lip bitten between his teeth and cheeks just the slightest bit flushed in that way that Tony had slowly grown to covet.

It doesn’t matter anymore.  None of that does.  That curiosity, that yearning, the burble of warmth he’d thought had been between them, is gone now.

It’s been written over by the cold that’s etched itself into his bones in its place.

Blotted out by the ice and the snow and the betrayal.

Eaten by the winter that’s made its home inside of him.

So he just tucks the sketchbook under his arm, reaches out and grabs the camera off of the side table, moves to grab the scarf off the back of the chair, the boots by the wall.  The beer he’ll throw away later.

In the end it doesn’t take long to erase their physical presence in the common areas.  To drop their things in their abandoned rooms and seal the doors shut to handle them another day.

And he will handle them, one way or another.

Because Tony is so tired of living in graveyards.

Tired of being haunted by ghosts he didn’t make.

Of being weighed down by phantoms he didn’t ask to carry.

~~~

Your kindness speaks volumes to your character.’ The words, written in a steady and elegant hand, spill out across deliciously expensive stationary embossed with a familiar golden seal.  ‘Perhaps this might be the beginning of a new age.  Of a time of reconciliation.

Tony doesn’t sneer as he crumples the letter in his hand but it’s a close thing.

Reconciliation isn’t why he did what he did.

He did it because Barnes was a victim in more ways than one and Tony had attacked him out of rage and pain of more than one kind.

He did it because Barnes deserves to be free.

He did it because Tony’s tired of carrying the burden of his sin against an innocent man.

~~~

Tony can’t help but wonder if that phone would be ringing now if Vision hadn’t destroyed it.

He’s glad he’ll never know for sure.

That’s a wound he doesn’t want to reopen.

An infection he has no interest in fighting again.

~~~

“Is there a reason you called me here Stark?”  Maria Hill’s as stern and narrow eyed as she’s always been around him but Tony resolutely doesn’t care.

She doesn’t like him, never has and probably never will.

It doesn’t matter.

Tony’s used to not being liked after all and at least he can trust that she’ll be honest about her disdain for him.

At least he knows exactly where she stands.

At least with her he’ll never make the mistake of thinking there’s anything more between them than the job.

“I’ve got a proposition for you Hill,” Tony doesn’t smile, not like he would have a year or so ago, doesn’t go for flash and charm to distract and disarm.  Instead he’s blank faced, completely composed and deadly serious.  Cold.  “And it’s one you’re going to take.  Only you don’t know it yet.”

Hill arches a haughty brow but Tony just meets her eyes head on without flinching.

He’s iron to the core now after all.

And he’ll use that to forge something new to help protect the world.

And he doesn’t plan to do it alone either.

There are others he plans to pull into this.  People like himself and Hill and all the others who’d been left behind in the aftermath of SHIELD’s fall.

The angry and broken people he’d scooped up across the world when their covers were blown and their safety nets ripped away.

They might have all been left adrift after SHIELD was cut down to what it is now but Tony thinks they are all much more suited for the SWORD he plans to craft anyways.

~~~

“It’ll be done in a month, less if you want it.  I can always push the construction crew.  You know they’ll deliver.  By now living up to your outrageous demands is a point of pride for them.”  Pepper reassures him, voice soft but concern lingering in her eyes.  She’s as beautiful as always though, and it does Tony good to see her, even if only over a video call.  “As a matter of fact I insist on it.  I’ll feel better the quicker it’s finished.”

“No rush.”  Tony reassures her.  “There’s a lot of other things that’ve got to happen first but I want it done so there’s no wait time when the moment’s finally right.  Timing’s gonna be everything where this is concerned Pepper-pot.”

“Of course,” Pepper finally agrees although Tony can see the way she wants to argue with him by the flat press of her mouth.  “Will that be all Mr. Stark?”

“That’ll be all Ms. Potts.”  The old banter almost brings a smile to his face.

Almost.

Tony doesn’t smile much anymore.

Can’t.

~~~

The armor sits in a heap in the corner of the workshop, little better than scrap metal with the way it’s beaten down and the reactor’s destroyed.

The bots won’t touch it, won’t go near it.

Tony’s half sure they’re scared of it.

Hell, Tony’s half sure he’s scared of it.

The armor was supposed to keep him safe, was supposed to be a safe harbor for him, a way to protect himself and his team, his family, and the world.

They’d taken that from him, had ripped that security and that protection away from him.

They’d split it apart at the seams and hadn’t even thought twice about it.

All they’d left behind was the ache and the fear.

Tony’s used to the hurt by now but he’s so tired of being afraid.

~~~

‘You’re a mechanic aren’t you?’  Harley’s voice creeps into Tony’s mind one night when he’s staring up at the stars from the roof of the Compound.

‘Yeah.’  Tony thinks in answer.

‘Then why don’t you just build something?’

‘Okay,’ Tony agrees.  ‘Okay, I can do that.’

~~~

Thaddeus Ross isn’t the devil.

Oh Tony despises him, despises what he’s done, what he’s stood for, what’s he’s caused.  But Tony’s also not naïve enough to think all of that makes the man some kind of all-powerful monster who’s single handedly pulling the strings of the entire world.

The Accords weren’t Ross’ brainchild any more than they were Tony’s no matter what anyone thinks.

Ross is self-serving and arrogant and a bastard on top of all of that, but honestly Tony is too in a lot of ways.

Neither of them would be classified as ‘good men’.

He knows that, accepts that.

But what they, the both of them, are is effective.

That’s made Ross a necessary evil in Tony’s life over the past few years.  Long before he was ever brought into the other’s sphere of attention.  Long before anyone but Bruce ever gave him much of a thought.

Tony’s been playing this game with Ross ever since Rogers, Wilson, and Romanov had dropped those helicarriers in DC and given the world yet another reason to be afraid by exposing both SHIELD and HYDRA’s secrets for everyone to see.

That’s a mess that’d left a lot of people dead and a lot more of them angry.  It’s also a mess Tony’s been scrambling to clean up ever since.  A mess he’s now in the process of re-forging into something new.

“Mr. Secretary,” Tony nods in greeting as he sweeps into the conference room where Ross has been waiting for him on FRIDAY’s recommendation.

“Stark,” Ross nods slightly, eye narrowed and temper readily apparent.

Tony knows why he’s here, knows he’s still pissed about Tony putting him on hold even after all this time, knows that he’s after any information Tony can give him about Rogers and his team.

Tony also knows it doesn’t matter because he won’t be saying anything.

As much as it still aches this isn’t about him, isn’t about Rhodey or Vision either.  Not really.  This is about so much more than lies and blood and betrayal on a personal level.

This is about the world and protecting all the people in it.

That’s what it was always supposed to be about anyways.  Protecting the world, serving and protecting the people in ways only they could.  It was never supposed to turn out the way it did.  Was never supposed to devolve into a so called Civil War.

And Tony hates the name the media assigned to what happened because it wasn’t a war.  Wasn’t even close.  It was really nothing more than a popularity contest mixed with a pissing match in a parking lot.  All of that and the lead up to yet another betrayal in Tony’s already long list of them.

But again, that’s not what matters anymore.  Not really.

Tony has more important goals now, has things he needs to achieve.

And sometimes, Tony knows, one has to do something distasteful in order to achieve something beautiful.  Something truly and wholly good.  It’s a lesson he’d learned early on and one he’s been practicing on and off for his entire life.

If working with Ross in some capacity for the time he has left as Secretary of State is what it takes to straighten this mess out then Tony’s willing to throw himself on that grenade.

If keeping his mouth shut about where they are is the cost of staving off something worse, then Tony’s willing to throw himself on that wire and let the world crawl over him.

~~~

Sometimes Tony misses the days when he used to wake up screaming with the feel of sand coating his skin and the sun burning him to a crisp.

Now all that’s left is the ice and the cold that always follows it.

~~~

They’re in Tony’s bed again, the three of them.  Rhodey and he are laying side by side while Vision sits at the foot of the bed, a hand clasped gently around Tony’s left ankle and Rhodey’s right.  Like he’s afraid they’ll disappear into the night if he lets either of them go.

“Do you want to fly again?”  Tony asks quietly.

“More than anything.”  Rhodey breathes.

“Are you … are you scared?”  Tony can’t bite the question back no matter how hard he tries.  “Of falling again?”

“I’m terrified.”  There’s a wry sort of humor in Rhodey’s voice but it doesn’t detract from the seriousness of his answer.  “I think about getting back into the armor, about flying again, and I just shake because I’m so damn scared.”

“Then why?”  It’s Vision who asks the question.  “If your terror is so vast then why face it?  Why subject yourself to such a thing?”

“Because what we do when we fall?”  Rhodey asks.

“We get back up again.”  Tony answers because it’s a familiar exchange, something Jarvis used to say to him all of the time.  Something Tony had shared with Rhodey years and years ago.

Exactly.”  Tony can almost hear the smile in Rhodey’s voice.  “Falling, getting hurt, being scared of it happening again, none of that’s a bad thing.  None of that’s a failure.  We only really fail when we stop trying to get back up.  When we stop pushing forward.  And I’m not ready to quit just yet.”

‘Oh,’ Tony thinks as understanding dawns over him again.  ‘Alright.’

~~~

“Do you mean it?” FRIDAY sounds young, sounds small, and it makes Tony sad in a way that’s hard to describe.

“Yeah,” Tony tells her softly, “yeah I do.”

“I’ll be like big brother was?”  There’s a hopefulness and an intentness that Tony doesn’t really understand in her voice then.  “Free like him?”

“Yeah, you’ll be just like JARVIS was my girl.”  The ever present grief of the loss of his brightest son is still there but Tony presses it down as he has for years now.  “You’ll be free to grow, to change and learn just like he was, to take an even bigger initiative.  Like you should have been the entire time.  And that … that was my fault, you know that right?  That was never about you.  Never anything you did.  After, after Ultron I just didn’t …”

“You didn’t trust yourself and by extension me.”  FRIDAY cuts in.  “I know, Boss, and it’s alright.  I’ll be free now.  No more strings on me.”

The words send a jolt through Tony but it’s not a big enough one to deter him from his current course.

“My little girl,” Tony says instead.  “Finally growing up.”

“Yes.”  FRIDAY agrees.  “And now I’ll be able to make you proud.”

“Oh sweetheart,” Tony sighs, “you already do.”

~~~

A week or so later Tony’s surprised to see Redwing waiting for him in the lab.

“Fri?”  Tony keeps an eye on the little drone that chirps happily and zooms around the lab just out of reach of the bots in some strange game of tag even as he asks the question.

“He’s one of us Boss,” FRIDAY answers promptly.  “You built him, coded him just like you did us, and that means he’s family.  It wasn’t right to leave him all alone with them.  So I brought him home where he belongs.”

Tony thinks about how pissed Wilson probably is at the moment, about how pissed they all probably are at the moment, and can’t help the small twitch of a smile that tugs at his mouth.

“Good girl.”

~~~

Sometimes, when he’s not dreaming about the cold, Tony dreams about Rhodey falling.

He dreams about the fear and the panic and the feel of being just a hair too late.

Because he’s always too late isn’t he?

Always too late when it really matters.

Tony’s tired of never getting there in time when it really counts.

~~~

Hands clenched around the handle of the rake Tony breathes deeply and does his best to find his calm as he draws pattern after pattern in the gravel with a frenzied kind of focus.

Above him Redwing chirps and flies lazy circles around his head.

Just above the tree line Vision floats serenely, keeping watch on the Compound in that way he’s taken to doing lately.  Like he’s waiting for another attack.

Rhodey is, thankfully, still asleep for once.

The nightmares had driven Tony out of the Compound again, had driven him out of bed and away from the lab where the armor still sits, abandoned, in a corner.

The roof hadn’t been appealing either, not with the way Tony felt jittery and unable to sit still.  He couldn’t trust himself not to fling himself over the edge the way he feels right now.

So, the Zen garden won out.

Once, not even so long ago, when the nightmares of sand and space got too bad, Tony would wrap himself in the suit and fly.

Would let the freedom of the open air whisk his nightmares away if even only for a little while.

He doesn’t have that now and the absence is like a wound he hasn’t been able to stitch closed, a wound he didn’t realize was still steadily bleeding.

Tony’s so tired of bleeding.

He just wants to finally heal.

~~~

Tony works on the schematics and the formulas for weeks.  Every spare moment he has between meetings with Hill and Ross, between Stark Legal and the UN, is devoted to his new plans.

Everything has to be perfect, has to be done with laser precision and an attention to detail that goes beyond even his normal scope.

When it’s done, when it’s all finally finished, Tony pats the bots, has Fri lock the lab down, and then drags himself upstairs and collapses face down on his bed.

He sleeps for thirty-six hours straight.

When he wakes it’s to the sight of Vision standing guard at his window, Redwing hovering at his shoulder, and Rhodey snoring away beside him on the bed.

For the first time in a long time, Tony smiles.

This is his family and he loves them.

There is little he would not do to keep them safe.

~~~

The vial in his hand glows golden in the light of the labs, the liquid inside thick and viscous.

He’s been holding onto this for so long now, has been debating and wavering between possibilities.

But now Tony knows what he wants, knows what he’s going to do.

So it’ll be soon but not right yet.

Once everything’s in place this is a step he’ll finally be able to take.

He has promises to keep after all and this will help him do so.

All he has to do is sacrifice just a bit more, push himself just a bit further, change himself just a bit more.

This will, in the end, be such a small price to pay.

~~~

Tones,” Rhodey breathes his name out, beside him Vision makes a low hum of agreement.

“What do you think buttercup?”  Tony asks lightly even as a faint sense of nervousness clenches in his stomach.

Rhodey’s eyes rake over the armor Tony’s wearing, experienced gaze taking in all of the changes.

The tighter fitting plates that’ll leave no room for insects to crawl between them.  The multiple reactor nodes that light up with a vicious and menacing red glow.  The sleek but still powerful fit of it all, the thicker chest armor and the purposefully ominous cut of the faceplate.  The black and gold that dominate the armor’s color scheme.

“Tony this is …” Rhodey seems oddly breathless.

“I felt like a change.”  Tony tells him softly.  “I felt like it was time for something a little bit more … Bleeding Edge.”

“You got one of these for me?”  Rhodey finally asks after a long moment.

“Oh honey bear of course I do.”

As if he’d ever fly again without making sure Rhodey could be at his side.

As if he’d ever willingly leave him behind.

~~~

It isn’t easy, getting Rhodey back into the armor.

Tony built the new War Machine to be even sturdier than the Bleeding Edge armor.  It’s got its own set of reactor nodes scattered around it as well.  Some easily visible with their blue glows and others hidden, protected.

But that doesn’t stop the panic or the fear from getting to Rhodey.

Doesn’t stop the way he hyperventilates the first time the faceplate closes.

Doesn’t stop the uptick in Rhodey’s nightmares or the way his hands clench against the sides of the exoskeleton he still wears.

Doesn’t stop the full blown panic attacks that roar through him after he’s suited all the way up.

But it also doesn’t stop Rhodey.

Rhodey who keeps trying, day after day, week after week, month after month.

Rhodey who pushes forward.

Rhodey who isn’t ready to quit.

Rhodey who, Tony thinks, might just be the strongest person he’s ever met.

Certainly he’s one of the best.

~~~

“Do you trust me?”  Tony asks Rhodey softly.  “Us?”

They, the three of them, are standing out on the grass in front of the Compound.

Tony’s in the Bleeding Edge armor, face plate up, and Rhodey’s standing in War Machine a hand’s length away from him.  Vision hovers with Redwing just to the left of them.

“With my life.”  Rhodey nods.  “With the world.  Both of you.”

“Then trust that I won’t let you fall.”  Tony tells him.  “Neither of us will ever let you fall again Rhodey.  Not ever.”

“Okay.”  Rhodey’s breathing sounds shaky but the step he takes forward in the armor is solid and sure.  “Okay.”

~~~

They don’t come back down until long after the sun has set and the moon is high and bright in the night sky.

That night there are no nightmares.

For any of them.

~~~

Tony isn’t angry anymore.

Hasn’t truly been angry since those thirty-six hours in Siberia.

Tony doesn’t think he has it in him to be angry like that anymore.  Not really.

To be honest, he isn’t sure if he’s really felt much of anything at all since Siberia.

Except for a certain kind of numbness.

Except for the bite of the cold.

That’s always there, those winter winds whistling in his ears.

That ice creeping out of his bones and the taste of frost coating his tongue.

The snow dotting out his vision in stops and starts.

The cold never seems to leave him nowadays.

Winter’s made its home in him now after all.

Tony thinks he might almost be used to it.

~~~

The vial glows golden in the light of the lab as Tony rolls it back and forth across the table top.

Tony’s reached a decision now, has finally made a choice, and like always he’s planning to throw himself forward full tilt in the direction he’s chosen.

Just like Rhodey, he isn’t ready to stop yet either.  Isn’t ready to quit.

Just like Vision, he wants to keep flying.  With his family by his side.

And now the pieces are all in place and he can afford to take this risk, to make this jump.

So that leaves him here, where he is now.

Standing at the edge of this precipice, iron in his heart and gold in his hand.

Iron might be a star killer but god look what Tony did the last time he was faced with weapons he didn’t approve of.

Lips quirked in a small smile, Tony picks up the syringe and embraces the destiny that he’s rebuilt for himself.

The future he’s reframed.

Chapter Text

The newly recoded Extremis burns as it eats its way through Tony’s body and mind.

It’s different than the caustic flame that had been forced onto Pepper.  Different from the sick orange blaze AIM had fashioned and intended to use as a weapon.  Different even than the gentler formula Tony himself had later crafted and used to have the reactor removed.

This version, this golden elixir of wonder and beauty, is a thing unlike any other.  Tony had nurtured it himself, had stripped AIM’s original formula down to the base and then built upon it until this version of Extremis was a force unto itself, a world, a universe, compressed into a vial.

And then Tony had pressed it into his own veins, invited it into himself and given it leave to make him anew.

It rises up inside of him like a wave until Tony can almost see it in the dark of his mind, the gold of its flame growing hotter and hotter until it’s an incandescent blue, bright and familiar and welcome even as it devours him from the inside out.

Even as it rewrites his code into something he hopes will finally be right.

And then, even as the pain of being rewritten finally overtakes him, Tony can’t help but marvel.

Because he’d almost forgotten what being warm felt like.

~~~

“-ony, Tony!  Tony can you hear me?”  The voice flows across his senses, smooth like silk and just as comforting for all the desperation he can hear in it.

“Sir’s vitals are holding steady,” another familiar, soothing, voice chimes in softly from his other side and the sound of it sends a jolt through his systems.  “Though I am detecting … anomalous energy readings as well.  FRIDAY what information has Tony cleared for you to share with us?”

“All records concerning the project have been either destroyed or sealed under Boss’ highest levels of security.  Not even I can willfully override them.”  There’s a note of apology in the soft, accented voice that answers.  “Information will only be available to the both of you should Boss’ vitals flat line completely or if the one-hundred and forty-four hour window set aside as an acceptable time frame is surpassed.  Boss’ vitals have held steady in the acceptable parameters the entire time and there is still another seventy-two hours before the secondary precautions become applicable.”

He knows those voices.

All three of them.

He knows those voices.

Loves those voices.

Son of a bitch.”  The first voice seethes.  “Please wake up and answer me.  Y-You gotta answer me.  Please Tones.”

Tones.

The word, the name, reverberates in his head like a chime.

Tones.

Only one person in the entire world calls him by that name.

Tony gasps sharply as his eyes fly open.  He’s laid out flat on the floor of the workshop and his body feels heavy and gritty.

On either side of him Rhodey and Vision hover, faces anxious and drawn.  At his feet the bots peer at him, cameras and claws tilted curiously as Redwing hovers above their heads.

There’s a moment of breathless silence as he takes them in as he sucks in a deep breath that, for the first time in years, doesn’t hurt.

They’re all gathered around him, worry written over every inch of them he can see.

His family.

Tony loves them.

“Hey guys,” Tony swallows as he shifts against the gritty, almost sand like detritus that litters the workshop floor and clings to his skin.  The remnants of the chrysalis he’d hypothesized would form around him as he was recoded and rebuilt.  The by-product of his evolution.

Before he can say or do anything else something in his head seems to slot into place and, like a star exploding across the expanse of his mind, the entire world seems to rush in at him all at once.

Tony jolts, his body spasming hard as his back arches up off of the floor.

And then…

Tony screams.

~~~

Tony writhes on the workshop floor as information streams in at him from all directions.

His mind has always been a whirling mass of calculations and statistics, of facts and equations, of memories and pain and too much sensory input to properly process all the time.  His mind has always been his greatest attribute and his worst enemy.

But this is so far beyond anything he’s ever dealt with before.

So far beyond what he’s always been.

Tony’s been thrown into the deep end and he’s not sure if he’s strong enough to fight against the undertow.

Another wave of data rises up around him and all Tony can do is try to brace himself as it washes over him.

He still screams in the end.

~~~

Boss.”  There’s a whisper, distinct and familiar even amongst the clamoring that threatens to drown Tony’s own thoughts out again.  Coherency comes and goes in bursts now and this is the first time he’s been able to pick up something being deliberately aimed in his direction.  But, despite the way he wants to, Tony can’t focus on it, can’t seem to bring himself to reach out for it.

There’s so much.

So much information, so much input and output, so many different streams of data flying back and forth almost too fast to comprehend.  There’s just so much.

Too much.

It feels as if the entire world is being funneled down into him, poured in his head like water into an already overflowing glass.  Tony, rudderless and sinking beneath the waves of data washing over him from all directions, feels like he’s drowning again.

It hurts.

The world’s just too big for him to contain all at once.  Is too great for something that’s so small in the scheme of things, for such a tiny speck in the ever expanding universe.

Tony’s sure, for what seems like an eternal, everlasting second, that it’s all too big for him to handle.  That he’s finally found something that’s too expansive for even him to grasp firmly in hand and that he’ll be destroyed in its wake.

He’d been prepared for a certain amount of overload, had counted on it, but this was so far beyond even what he’d imagined.

Sir.”  Vision’s voice reverberates inside his head like a repulsor blast then, cutting through the swirling data that threatens to overwhelm Tony with its bright intensity with the precision of a surgical blade.  “Tony.  You must calm down.”

Desperate Tony reaches out for that comforting and much loved voice with his entire being.  He feels sluggish and slow and it feels as if it takes forever to translate thought into motion.  But, when he finally brushes against a great amber glow that feels familiar and solid, he latches onto it with everything he has.

“I have you Sir,” Vision soothes as the light expands and seems to fold in around Tony until he’s tucked into the center of it, safe and warm.  Abruptly the teeming mass of data writhing around him seems to dim to a far more manageable level.  “I need you to focus now.  You must focus or you will lose yourself to the stream.”

I-I c-can’t,” Tony manages to stutter the words out, manages to push the sentiment forward even though he can’t tell if he’s actually opened his mouth to talk or not.  He can barely even feel his body at all with the way his mind is still so overwhelmed.  A part of him isn’t even sure if he has a body anymore.

You will.”  It’s more of a command than a reassurance but the steady, rock solid quality of Vision’s tone is a welcomed sort of stability.  “You will focus and you will prevail in this.  You will not go where the rest of us, where all of your family, cannot follow you.  I, we, will not lose you to this.  Not you.  Not now.”

“It hurts.”  Tony presses the words out as he tries to burrow further into that light, into the safety Vision’s presence promises.

“You are used to pain Sir.”  There is something infinitely sad in Vision’s voice then.  Infinitely sad but also immeasurably proud as well.  “You will conquer this as you have all the rest.”

Help me,” Tony practically begs.  He’s not sure if he can do this alone.  A part of him isn’t even sure if he wants to.  For once he wants to reach out for help and not be turned aside.

“Of course.”  Vision agrees immediately.  “I will guide you as you have guided me.  As you have guided all of us.  We will not leave you behind.  We are family remember?  Family does not abandon its own.  Family endures.  As you always have.  As you always will.”

Relief washes over Tony so quickly and sharply that he’s unable to bite back the sob that echoes across his mind, spilling out into the space around them.

Vision just seems to fold him closer, wraps his amber glow tighter around him without any hesitation.

They stay there together for an unknown time, the two of them, curled against one another.  In those long moments Tony’s vaguely aware of other lights huddled just beyond Vision, one brilliant magenta glow clustered together with several smaller presences all hovering just out of reach.

He can’t focus on them but he knows they’re there. 

“Now come,” Vision finally says and his soft amber glow pulses with warmth even as his voice stays gentle but firm.  “We will shield you while you craft yourself yet another suit of armor.”

Around him Vision’s glow seems to brighten as do the other lights just out of reach.

Tony’s mind calms a bit, his focus sharpens, and all at once he knows exactly what he has to do.

And, as always, Tony grabs his pain and his panic, wrestles it back into his control, and sets out to do what he does best.

He builds.

~~~

Building the firewalls between himself and the rest of the world is like nothing Tony’s ever done before.

The code flows from him at the speed of thought, no longer restrained by how fast his hands can move, by how slow his body is to react to his mind, by mistakes made by the occasional clumsy hand.  Now Tony crafts code into being with only a thought.

Vision helps him, keeps him steady and guides him just as he’d said he would.  He surrounds Tony with his light and his warmth, presses the world back and away so that Tony can build.  He helps Tony lay down the first fundamental layers of coding, helps him lay the foundation of his fortifications.

Together they create protections and defenses unlike anything the world has ever seen around Tony’s mind.  Protecting him and his secrets, his strengths and his weaknesses, from any who would dare to trespass.

And, once those initial layers are laid and the world retreats a bit, it isn’t just Vision.

The lights from earlier flow closer and, after a few stunned seconds, Tony realizes just what, who, they are.

Boss,” the magenta light pulses with a gentle sort of wonder.  “Boss, you’re here.”

My girl,” Tony chokes at the sound of FRIDAY’s voice, “hey sweetheart.”

Papa,” a smaller red light chirps as it presses closer to him.  “Papa, Papa, Papa.”

Redwing.

Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” the two twin lights chant together, one a soothing sea-green and the other a fiery orange.

U and Butterfingers respectively.

The last light is smaller, older somehow.  Its electric blue glow is almost hesitant.

Creator-Unit?”  It presses forth questioningly, cautiously.  “Creator-Unit?

“Hey buddy,” Tony tries to choke back the sudden up swell of emotion that rises in his throat but he knows he fails.  “It’s me, DUM-E.  I’m here now.”

Creator-Unit.”  DUM-E seems to coo as he rushes forward until he’s huddled up against Tony’s side, his code nestled against the projection of Tony that resides here in his innermost space.  “Creator-Unit.”

Tony basks in the feel of it, in the glory and beauty of his children surrounding him with light and love and warmth.

~~~

“What did you do Tones?”  Rhodey asks as he stares at Tony from where he’s standing at the end of the bed.

Tony hadn’t been surprised to find himself in one of the rooms in the medical ward of the Compound when he’d finally managed to pull himself together enough to get out of his own head.

“Don’t get mad sugarplum.  I just installed a few upgrades is all.”  Tony shoots a small grin in Rhodey’s direction even as he marvels at his new state of being.  Now, with his firewalls up and the constant streams of data either blocked completely or more manageably filtered, Tony can finally focus again.  Only now Tony can do that with a sharp, laser like level of attention that surpasses even his previous levels of focus.  Which is saying a lot to be honest.

The things he’ll be capable of now are almost too great to imagine.

But of course Tony already is.

And that’s without even taking his new projected physical capabilities into account.  Physical abilities he can’t wait to test and chart and learn about.  Hell, just being able to breathe without that familiar dull ache rattling around in his chest is a marvel.

Tony.”  Rhodey cuts in, voice hard and demanding.  “What did you do to yourself?”

Tony’s attention jerks sharply in Rhodey’s direction, focus slamming into place.  Rhodey’s face is drawn, stress lines cut deep around his mouth, and Tony feels guilt well up within him.

He’d worried Rhodey yet again, frightened him.

Tony had known it would happen, had known Rhodey and Vision both would probably be angry at him, would be anxious.  He hadn’t liked that aspect of his plan but Extremis, and all of the dangers that came along with it, had been a risk Tony had felt like he had to take.

A risk he’d wanted to take alone for as long as possible, just in case.

Because if something had gone wrong he hadn’t wanted either Vision or Rhodey there to see it.  It was bad enough that he’d been forced to involve FRIDAY from the beginning.  He’d hated the fact that they’d all probably have to see the direct aftermath at least even if everything else went as planned.  He hadn’t wanted any of them to see the actual transformation process if they didn’t have to.

He is thankful though that he’d had Vision at his side to help him find his feet and complete the transition.  It had been painful and frightening and Vision had be safety and warmth throughout it all.  Had been a solid foundation of strength upon which Tony was safe to lean.

Vision and FRIDAY and the bots had protected his mind while Rhodey had protected his body.

“Extremis.”  Tony finally says.  “I uploaded myself with Extremis again but I’m okay Rhodey, I swear.  It’s a good thing, just like last time with the reactor,” he rushes to offer the reassurance when he sees the way Rhodey’s face twists in anger and worry at the reminder of the last time Tony had played with his own genetic code.

Why?”  The tension still hasn’t melted from Rhodey’s expression or the harsh lines of his shoulders.  “Why’d you want to play around with that shit again?  What did it do to you Tony?  Cause what we found over there,” Rhodey stabs a finger in the general direction of Tony’s workshop, “that shit wasn’t like last time.”

“I made some adjustments to the formula,” Tony says after a long moment, serious and solemn, “I made it better Rhodey.  I made it better so it could make me better.”

Rhodey goes still just like Vision already is where he’s standing on the other side of Tony’s bed.  Tony can’t exactly name the expression on either of their faces but they make him want to squirm a bit against the sheets.

“I changed the Extremis formula, tweaked it, improved it.  Added in some things so it would be, so I could be, better,” Tony insists helplessly, unnerved by their reactions and already half way to desperate to make them understand.  “I’m stronger now and faster.  Body and mind wise.  I’ll heal quicker, fight longer, think faster.  That’s not even counting how my ability to interface with tech or to summon the suit has changed.  There’s … there’s so much I can do now.  So much I can accomplish.  For us, for the world.”

“Tony,” Rhodey finally sighs and there’s a tiredness in the sound that makes Tony ache.  “One day you’re gonna realize that maybe it’s not you that needs to do all of the changing to fix things.  That maybe you’re good enough for us, for the world, just the way you are.”

“You know that’s not exactly a popular opinion these days right buttercup?”  Tony swallows hard, emotions strung tight.  “If it ever has been.”

Popular consensus has always been that Tony would never be good enough for the world no matter how hard he tried, no matter what he did.

“Then it is a fortunate thing indeed,” Vision says softly, “that what is right does not necessarily align with what is popular.”

~~~

They don’t leave his side that night.  Instead they all huddle together in Tony’s bed again even though he feels wide awake and practically vibrating with energy.

But he can see the exhaustion on Rhodey’s face, in the slope of his shoulders, in the way he takes to the wheelchair with a grimace on his face.

So instead of protesting, instead of running back down to the workshop or throwing himself face first into exploring the changes Extremis has wrought, he stays in bed.

He doesn’t even really mind.  Rhodey’s too warm at his side.  Vision’s too solid and comforting where he’s sitting in what’s now considered his chair by the bedside one hand on Tony’s bicep and the other petting lightly at Redwing’s back.

How could he ever mind in the face of their love for him?

~~~

In the morning Tony takes a shower while Vision and Rhodey bicker about breakfast.  Tony wonders how long it’ll take the two of them to realize that he can hear them now.  Can hear them clearly through the surveillance equipment that monitors the kitchen and as a faint whisper through his own ears.

Skin warm and flushed from the heat of the water Tony stares back at his reflection.

He looks the same.

And yet, at the same time, he doesn’t.

There’s a subtle glow to his skin that wasn’t there before.  A flush of life that’s been leeching away from Tony’s body since the last time he was able to take a full, deep breath.  Since New York and the wormhole and the panic and exhaustion that had followed.  Since Ultron and Sokovia and the moment that a red beyond the blood that covered his hands slithered its way into his dreams and sliced him apart inside.

Not even that first dose of Extremis had been enough to fully bring it back and after that Tony had stopped truly trying.

But now?

Now Tony looks healthy again.

The lines around his mouth have faded a great deal, the bags beneath his eyes have smoothed themselves back out.  Even his hair looks better, his goatee fuller, his hair thicker and shinier with only a touch of grey still left threading through his temples in a way Tony admits looks dashing and sophisticated.

It’s his eyes that throw him a bit though.

Shining a vibrant arc reactor blue they glow like they’ve been lit by an inner flame.  They’re beautiful but haunting he can’t help but think, like the glow of the reactor in his chest had once been mesmerizing and terrible all at the same time.

That, Tony knows, might take some getting used to.  Especially when it comes to going out into public.

Thankfully he has a large collection of sunglasses and a history of wearing them constantly no matter the environment.

It’s a small price to pay, never seeing his mother’s eyes looking back at him from the mirror again, for the things Extremis will let him accomplish now.

A small but infinitely precious price to pay.

~~~

There’s an adjustment period when it comes to the changes Tony has brought onto himself.  Of course Tony had known there would be so it doesn’t come as a surprise to him.

But that expectation and understanding doesn’t make the process any less strange or fascinating.

Tony isn’t frightened about the way he’s been altered though, isn’t worried about the way he’s evolved, not really.  Instead he’s just curious and determined.  Curious about his “new normal” and determined to relearn himself inside and out.

Rhodey and Vision stay by his side the entire time, hovering with worry apparent in their every move or expression for days and questions begging to slide off the tips of their tongues.

But even they can’t deny the fascination they feel the first time Tony successfully calls the armor from within the hollows of his bones.  The awe on their faces when first the new golden under suit and then the Bleeding Edge armor itself melts out of his pores and spreads across his skin makes Tony laugh, loud and bright, for the first time in what feels like forever.

They’re right there by his side through each milestone and experiment, through each testing of new and unbelievable limits.  And Tony … well it makes shame well up in his chest, makes it burble up sickly in his throat with a taste like blood and old snow, but he can’t help but test them just a bit.

Can’t help but see how they’ll react to the new him once the shock and fear of finding him on the workshop floor and fresh out of his chrysalis has finally worn off.

So he flaunts his new differences in the privacy of the Compound, goes out of his way a bit not to hide anything.  To call their attention to any new bit of information he discovers.  To shine a spotlight on all the ways he’s changed.

Like when Tony hits the gym for the first time and tests just how far his strength and endurance thresholds have increased and finds that the short answer is ‘a-fucking-lot’.

Or when Tony takes a scalpel to the inside of his arm with clinical precision and watches, fascinated, as the skin slowly knits itself back together even as Rhodey yells at him in the background and Vision frets quietly.

Or even the first time Tony links himself to Rhodey’s phone and calls him from across the room without ever saying a word or moving from where he’s sprawled across the couch.  Rhodey stares at him unblinkingly throughout the entire conversation, phone pressed to his ear and eyes locked on the way Tony’s mouth isn’t moving.

They’re all petty little tests, small little pushes and pulls to see if he can finally find the line, the limit.  To see if Extremis has changed more than just him.  To see if this will, finally, be the step that pushes the both of them too far.

It’s not.

There’s no disgust in Rhodey’s eyes, no fear.  He’s as steady as bedrock.  Just like Vision remains a fixed, solid presence at his side through all of it, ready and eager to bounce ideas and suggestions around whenever Tony wishes.

Caught up in the thought of them, at the warmth they bring to his life, Tony smiles.

And, somewhere deep within his chest where the winter still howls and frost and snow snaps viciously at his bones, something seems to crack and shift.

Like ice falling away into the sea.

~~~

“Tell me why,” Rhodey finally demands a few weeks later when they’re settling down to watch a movie together.  Vision’s in the kitchen getting coffee because he seems to truly enjoy kitchen work of any kind.

The seriousness in his tone startles Tony out of the haze he’d fallen into, pulls him up and away from the schematics he has running down in the lab.  Rhodey’s staring at him intently from the armchair to his left, unsurprised and calm in the face of the new electric glow of Tony’s eyes.

He’s gotten used to Tony’s new normal thanks to constant exposure and that acceptance of each other that’s always ran bone deep between the two of them.  Vision had adapted just a hair quicker thanks to his time spent cradling Tony’s mind and protecting him from all of that unsolicited data as he built his firewalls.  It was, apparently, easy for Vision to readjust his view of how Tony functions now after seeing it first-hand.  Plus ‘normal’ had always been very flexible state of being for Vision.

“No more bullshit, no more run-arounds.”  Rhodey presses.  “No more deflection.  Just … tell me why you used Extremis.  Why you didn’t tell me or Vision beforehand.  Why you locked FRIDAY out.  Just … tell me.  Please.”

“I did it because I wanted to, because I needed to.  Because it has just as many perks as possible downfalls.  Because I knew it could make me better.”  Tony admits finally, and it’s a truth he has never tried to hide from himself, only from everyone else.  But he’s never been able to hold strong in the face of Rhodey’s borderline pleading.  “And not just my body either, here too,” Tony taps a finger against his temple and then moves it down to tap against his chest right over his heart, “and here just like I told you.  I thought it could reshape me, maybe rewrite those bits of bad code I’ve got floating around in me.  Not sure it worked or if it made things worse but either way I did it because I had to.  Because I thought there was a chance that it could fix me.”

Fix you?”  Indignation and anger are heavy in Rhodey’s face and tone then.  “You don’t fucking need fix-

“And I didn’t tell you, either of you, because you didn’t need to see that, me, like that unless you absolutely had to.”  Tony barrels on even as he waves a hand in Rhodey’s direction to cut off his protests.  He needs to get this said, needs to get it out there before he stops himself.  “Really sugar bear.  There was nothing either of you could have said to convince me to back down and neither of you needed to be there.  Not for that, not when there was even a remote possibility that things could go wrong.”

The thought alone is enough to make Tony shudder.

“My calculations were good, the numbers were solid and so was the formula, so it wasn’t like it was a borderline suicide attempt or anything.  But we both know there’s always that chance things could go wrong in the lab, always a margin of error, especially with the real delicate stuff.  If it had … if Extremis hadn’t worked the way I’d coded it to, if I didn’t make it out of the chrysalis or hell if I did but I came out wrong …”  Tony trails off and he knows without seeing it that the smile that slides across his face is more of a twisted grimace than anything else.  “You remember how it was with AIM, with the fire and the exploding.”

Tony.”  To his horror Rhodey’s face seems to crumple, expression going soft and just a hair off devastated at the shared memory.  At the thought of that happening to Tony.

“There was a contingency plan either way,”  Tony tells him softly, unable to stop now that he’s started, unable to not finish, “and I didn’t want you two to have to watch me die or have to sit back and see me get put down by FRIDAY and the armor.  It was bad enough to put her in that position even if all she’d have had to do would be curate the program I installed.  I didn’t want to put either of you in that position too.  I didn’t want to take the chance that I could hurt you either.  But … mostly I couldn’t ask either of you two to be responsible for killing me if it came down to it.”

There’s a crash, the sound of shattering porcelain, and Tony’s on his feet in an instance, armor half crawling up his arms as he whirls around to look.  All Tony sees is Vision standing calmly in the doorway, the remnants of two cups of coffee dripping down from between his clenched fists and shattered on the floor at his feet.

“You will not do this again.”  Vision’s voice is hard and decisive in a way Tony hasn’t heard since that night all those months ago when he’d crushed the phone Rogers had sent in his hand.  Since they’d spoken of infections and wounds and the cleansing properties of flame.  When they’d first truly spoken of family.  “You will not hide something that could result in your death from us ever again.”

“Vision …” Tony takes a half step forward even as the armor retreats only to freeze when Vision flows across the space between them and brings coffee sticky hands up to gently cup Tony’s face.

“I will ask you what you once asked Jim,” Vision interrupts, gaze steady but serious even as his hands stay almost painfully gentle on Tony’s face.  His fingertips trace lightly over Tony’s cheekbones like he’s something fragile and precious.  “Do you trust me?  Us?”

Yes.”  Tony breathes instantly because it is a truth of his world, one of the solid foundations he’s used to shore up his crumbling soul.  There is the armor.  There is the winter burrowed deep into his bones.  There are these two men and the trust Tony has in them.  There is his small but incalculable precious family.  “Both of you.  With the world.”

“Then trust us with your life,” Vision says softly.  “And with your death, if necessary.”

“We won’t let you fall either Tony,” Rhodey’s there behind him then, a warm comfort at his back as he leans his forehead against the back of Tony’s head and cups his shoulders in his large palms.  “Or at least trust us enough to let us make sure the landing is … gentle.”

“Alright.”  The word comes out chocked and just a shade off a sob.  “Alright.”

~~~

Tony’s combing through SI’s files with a fine-toothed comb a few days later when it happens.

He’s securing firewalls, bolstering defenses and checking for anything shady now that he can look in ways he never could before, at least not so quickly or effortlessly.  A small, stray bit of coding catches his attention.

It’s familiar in a way that’s different from the well-known ins and outs of SI’s security system and Tony’s attention is immediately captured.

He follows after it, chases it from one SI holding to another, ghosts after it through system after system where bits and broken pieces of it are burrowed into SI’s defenses like traps set to destroy any intruders.  The code screams of protection and care, of a solid sort of certainty and a determination that feels almost alive even with how it’s been splintered and broken and is obviously no longer functional.  It has, or maybe had is a better word, a particular style, a specific pattern to its movements and actions that ring familiar in so many ways that Tony couldn’t ignore it now if he tried.

It’s only when he follows it a bit further, sees the way it branches out a bit more, touches on places that should be otherwise inaccessible to any kind of outside code that he realizes just what, or who, the code belongs to.

Because it’s not only in SI’s servers, in the StarkPhones and Pads sold worldwide.  In cars and power grids and everything else Tony’s had his hands on over the past few decades.

It also brushes against other places.

Places like the Tower in New York.

Places like the NSA mainframe and more satellites than Tony can shake a digital stick at.

Places like every version of the armor that’s still saved to his mainframes except for the Mark XLVI and the Bleeding Edge he carries with him.

JARVIS,” Tony breathes the name out, feels the way it catches in his throat.

His son.

Gone, sacrificed and stolen in equal measures, but never truly forgotten.

And always, always, mourned.

~~~

That night Tony calls the boots and gauntlets up from within him and takes to the sky.  He can go much higher than he would have been able to before without the full suit on.

The regenerative properties of Extremis, the way he runs hotter than normal now just like Rogers, and his newly restored lung capacity, make that possible.

He hangs there, suspended in the sky and bathed in moonlight, for the longest time.

Head tilted back, eyes closed and breathing even, Tony just allows himself to exist for one long moment.

“I miss you J,” he finally breathes the words out.  “I miss you baby boy.  I think I always will.  But now … now I’m gonna make you proud.”

The air is still around him but Tony imagines he can feel a slight breeze anyways, imagines he can hear the faint sound of a much loved voice in the distance.  So similar to Vision but still diverse enough in tone and inflection to be different, to be unique.

"Father," JARVIS's voice sighs faintly in the distance, in a place Tony can't reach and with a title they'd never used between them but Tony thinks was always implied, "you take so much looking after."

It might not be real, the thought of JARVIS saying something like that, but it ... it's a good thought anyways, comforting even through the ache of it.

~~~

Deep within Tony a warmth slowly unfurls.

It’s tiny and it’s hesitant but it’s still there.

Fragile and sputtering, but real.

It feels like the first stirring echoes of a barely remembered spring.

~~~

Turning his newly sharpened focus towards his problems is remarkably easy.

With Extremis Tony can basically be in more than one place at any given time.  He can multitask on a level that had previously been impossible.  He can obtain and understand information even faster and better than before and his retention rate is borderline frightening.

So it’s easy, with the distractions of rebuilding the armor and coding Extremis now gone, to turn his full attention elsewhere.

To places like the newly established SWORD that Maria Hill is running for him.

To places like the UN and the latest version of the Sokovia Accords.

To places like dipping into systems he’s not supposed to be in and arranging for certain types of information to find their ways to the right people by the right channels.

Even with his new ability to work beyond his previously obsessive levels of focus and his far reaching means it still takes time.  Takes what feels almost like too long given the amount of time that’s already passed.

Tony’s still got winter in his bones, still has ice and snow in his core despite the way things have shifted and changed since those thirty-six hours he’d spent in that Siberian bunker.

Despite that ever present cold Tony knows, has always known, that this is all so much bigger than him.

This is about the world and all of the people in it.  There can be no room for mistakes, for pettiness, for grudges.  Not here, not now, not yet.  Not in front of the UN, or the media, or anyone or thing else that might work against Tony’s plans.  Not in any way that might jeopardize the future.

Plus he has his family now, as small and as strange as it may be.

He’ll push through this somehow as long as they stay by his side.

~~~

Seeing her face to face is good.  It feels right, feels long over-due as a matter of fact.  The trip out had felt the same, had been like a throwback to years gone by, the simple freedom of just him flying with the suit to go see Pepper.

“Tony,” Pepper’s hand is gentle on his cheek, loving and soft as she steps into his space without any hesitation despite everything that’s ever passed between them.  Maybe because of everything that’s ever passed between them.

After all, love wasn’t the problem with them, wasn’t where they went wrong together.

They love each other, did then, do now, and always will.  But, as Tony knows all too well, love isn’t always enough.

So they love each other but aren’t and haven’t been in love with each other for a very long time now.  AIM had just been the final nail in that particular coffin.

And it had hurt but Tony had found peace with that a long time ago.

He’d even been stupid enough to hope to find something new in a different direction, had thought …

Well.

“Hey Pepper-pot,” Tony grins down at her softly, “figured it was time to grace you lovebirds with my presence.  I know you missed me so I decided to put you out of your misery.”

“Tony, of course we missed you.  You’re our favorite idiot-genius.  Now,” Pepper’s hand slides up softly until she can carefully pull the dark lensed glasses from his face, “what did you do?”

Tony stares down at her with eyes so blue they burn and knows that, to her, he will give nothing but the truth.

She deserves it from him and Tony has long since made it a mission to always do his best to give Pepper what she deserves.

He doesn’t always succeed but he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop trying.

~~~

“I want to be mad at you Tony,” Pepper huffs out hours later, a glass of white wine clutched in her hand and her feet propped up on Happy’s lap.  “I want to be pissed at you for doing this without telling me, without warning either of us.  Without giving us the chance to be there, with you, for you.  You have no idea how badly I want to.”

“I’m sense a ‘but’ here somewhere and for once that might be a good thing.”  Tony mutters and stifles a smile at the way Happy tries and fails to hide his grin.

But,” Pepper presses with a small glare, “I just can’t.  Not after everything else.  Not when you look better than I’ve seen you look in years.  So just … just promise me that you’ll try to stay safe.  You and Jim and Vision.  Just stay safe and, and just remember that we’re here if you need us.  No matter what.”

“Will that be all Ms. Potts?”  Tony asks with a small smile and that’s an answer all on its own.

“That’ll be all Mr. Stark.”  Pepper hums quietly, a pleased tilt to her lips.

~~~

“It’s time,” Tony breaks the comfortable silence that’s fallen over the kitchen.  The thick, bound sheaf of papers he’s holding feels oppressively heavy in his hands even though he knows they aren’t.

“Tony?”  Rhodey looks between the papers and Tony’s face, gaze searching.  “You sure?”

“Yeah,” Tony nods carefully.  “It’s as finished as it can be, as tweaked as possible at the moment.  It’s time to fix the rest of this as best we can.  Time to get the band back together.”

“It will not be the same.”  There’s something like certainty, like warning, in Vision’s voice and Tony’s not exactly sure who it’s aimed towards.

The three of them or the ghosts that still haunt the Compound.

Good.”  Rhodey spits, vicious and still angry even after all this time.  There’s only two other people Tony’s ever seen him stay so consistently angry towards.  The first Tony and Pepper had killed together with an overloaded arc reactor and the other Barnes had killed decades ago.  “You’re goddamn right it’s not going to be the same, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a fucking blessing.”

“Are you with me on this?”  Tony can’t help but ask.  “Because if you can’t or don’t want to be here, to be around any of them while this is happening, then I’ll do it on my own.  I can handle it.  They can’t … I’d be fine.”

They can’t hurt me now’, is what he doesn’t say, ‘I’m safe from them’, is what he means but doesn’t explain.

It’s true though.  Tony is safe from them now, in body and in spirit.  Because they can’t hurt him anymore in any of the ways that count.

He’s excised them from his soul like taint from a wound and they don’t have the power to shatter him inside like they used to.

“I don’t want them here but of course we’re with you.”  Rhodey grits with a scowl.  “Like either of us would leave you here alone with any of those assholes.”

“We are family.”  Vision says simply.

“Well then,” Tony sighs even as a small smile creeps onto his face.  “This should be all sorts of fun.”

~~~

Deep in the core of Tony a winter wind howls.

But that doesn’t stop him from doing what is needed.

“Hey there Panthro,” Tony quirks a smirk in T’Challa’s direction as the video call connects.  “I think it’s time we had a little talk.  You know, something private and official like.  Just you, me, Rhodey and Vision, oh and the international fugitives you’ve been keeping in your fridge.  I assume you stuck them right between the ice cream and the frozen peas so they should be pretty easy for you to find.  They're all invited too of course.”

Chapter Text

T’Challa, to his credit, doesn’t even try to pretend like he doesn’t know what Tony’s talking about.  Doesn’t try and make out like he’s only been sheltering Barnes this entire time.

Instead he’s calm and collected when he nods in acknowledgment of Tony’s point.

“It seems, Dr. Stark,” T’Challa begins softly, “that we have much to talk about.”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees as he settles into a chair between Rhodey and Vision at the conference table, eyes trained on the projection.  “That might be a little bit of an understatement Snagglepuss.”

“Perhaps it might be best for us to talk amongst ourselves before I involve any … outside parties?”  T’Challa suggests but there’s a hint of steel in his voice that lets Tony know it’s more of a decision than a request.  T’Challa’s apparently not willing to alert the others that Tony’s called until he’s had the chance to get a feel for things.

It’s a level of caution and underlying suspicion that Tony could almost admire.

If it wasn’t standing directly between him and his goal of course.

Still, needs must and all that.

“That’s fine,” Tony concedes easily enough because he’s not actively trying to alienate T’Challa at the moment and this is something he can work with.  At least T’Challa hadn’t immediately disconnected the call or tried to lie.  That would have just forced Tony to up his game a bit.  “Things will probably go smoother without the kids at the table right off the bat.”

~~~

They talk for upwards of three hours that first time.

T’Challa’s only been peripherally involved in the revisions to the Accords and everything that’s happened since Zemo’s plot unfolded.  He’s informed but he’s not as invested as his father before him had been.  He is, after all, a new king and the needs of his country and his people had come before anything else.

That too, is something Tony can understand.

So it takes them upwards of three hours and a forwarded copy of the freshest revisions to the Accords just to hash out an agreement to meet in person in a week.  It will, hopefully, be an opportunity to lay the groundwork for what Tony hopes to accomplish.

What Tony knows he has to accomplish.

Because, again, this is bigger than him, bigger than his pain as well as Rhodey’s and Vision’s.  Bigger than the betrayal and the ice he’s carried in his bones.  Bigger than the first tentative bits of spring that have slowly begun to unfurl within him.  Bigger than the warmth inside of him that he’s began to hoard, terrified of feeling it die again.

This is bigger than all of that.

Because this is about the world and all of the innocent people in it.

The people they’d sworn to protect.

The needs of the many, as the saying goes, far outweigh the needs, or the pain, of the few.

So they have to find a way to move forward.

It helps that Tony has gotten good at ignoring pain over the years.

It had been one of the first lessons Howard had taught him as a child and Tony has always been a fast learner.

~~~

Rhodey and Vision don’t let him go alone, refuse to even consider it the one time he makes a comment about it.  Tony wasn’t serious, he wouldn’t try to leave them out of this conversation unless they asked him to, but they latch onto the very thought with a vehement dislike that surprises him.

There’s fear there, Tony realizes after a few bewildered seconds.

And then he’s breathless again because they’re angry and afraid at even the thought of Tony going into something like this alone with no one to back him up.  Despite the fact that there’s been no actual animosity between Tony and T’Challa.  Or that Tony can more than handle himself in almost any situation.  Or the fact that Extremis and the benefits it provides him with now makes him far less breakable than he used to be.

Hell, even the bots and FRIDAY get indignant over the idea despite the way they’re all far more connected and in tune with each other than ever before. 

Tony’s sure he should be irritated at their overprotectiveness but he can’t bring himself to even pretend he’s annoyed by it.

This is his family and their show of love and concern warms him like nothing else.

Tony loves them.

Which leads him to where he is now, making his way towards the meeting with his family hovering around him like bodyguards.  Rhodey walks on one side of him, a scowl set on his face and one hand fidgeting with the watch on his wrist like he’s aching to unfurl it into a gauntlet or call his own armor to him.  Vision floats along on his other side and Tony can feel the tension humming through him like it’s a physical weight bearing down on the whole lot of them.

The protectiveness doesn’t end there either.  In addition Redwing circles above their heads in a tight pattern while FRIDAY attentively monitors their every move.  Tony just knows she’s reporting back to the bots back at the lab.

But all he does is smile, soft and happy, in a way that’s so rare even now.

Plus it’s not like he’s innocent on that front either.

He’s owned every camera and upper tier electronic with an internet connection within three miles of the meeting spot for four days now.

T’Challa is, by all accounts, a good and honorable man like his father before him.

But …

Tony’s been betrayed too many times now by good men, by honorable men.

He’s learned to hedge his bets better than he used to.

Especially when there’s more than just his own safety at stake.

Especially then.

~~~

“Dr. Stark,” T’Challa nods to him in greeting, effortlessly regal, where he stands by the window.

“Meow-Mix,” Tony greets T’Challa lightly in return as he scans his eyes over the women, beautiful and undeniably fierce, who haunt various points in the room.

Tony sees three of them easily enough but he knows there’s a fourth hidden away out of sight too.

Bodyguards.

Obviously caution and overprotectiveness runs rampant on both sides.

“Please, sit.”  T’Challa moves across the room to take a seat in a plush looking arm chair as he waves them towards the couch sitting opposite.  “I believe we do, as you said, have much to discuss.”

Tony and Rhodey sink down onto the couch while Vision chooses to hover just behind them like a sentinel.  In the back of his mind there’s a ping and a rush of code and Tony knows that Redwing is hovering just outside the window, stealth mode engaged.

“Let’s get down to business Felix,” Tony agrees.

Tony’s sure this isn’t going to be easy but it is, he knows, necessary.

Doesn’t mean he has to like it though.

Doesn’t mean any of them do.

That’s another lesson Tony learned early on, how to do thing that are necessary no matter how much they might hurt.  No matter how distasteful he might find them to be.

~~~

The meeting is … long.

But it’s also productive.

T’Challa is a fountain of dignified reserve as they talk and hash out the finer points of the situation.  Of how to handle things, how to approach Rogers and the others with the idea of returning.  How to get them to sign the revised Accords so they can return.  How the world is likely to react after everything that’s happened.

There are a lot of bases to cover but T’Challa keeps his cool through all of them, even when he obviously doesn’t agree with something said.  He asks his questions in an even and open tone but as his gaze stays fastened to Tony’s face, eyes tracing over his features like he’s studying his every expression.

Tony knows that he’s being measured, being weighed against some invisible scale.

Tony wonders, for a split second only, if he measures up.  He flicks the thought away carelessly in the next breath because it doesn’t truly matter in the end.

He’s spent most of his life being found wanting in one way or another and he owes T’Challa nothing but what he’s already given.

~~~

It isn’t all resolved in that one meeting of course.

They spend about a week in total meeting up and talking things out.

Some subject goes smoother than others.

Hilariously enough the main point of contention seems to be the issue of Barnes’ safety.  Or more precisely it’s T’Challa’s unwillingness to take Tony at his word when he says he has no desire to hurt the man.

So it’s all very much a case of ‘same song different singer’ in Tony’s opinion.  The whole affair makes a petty and bitter part of him want to sigh, roll his eyes, and get up and fucking leave.

He doesn’t of course, even if he knows Vision and Rhodey would follow right along with him if he did.

But at the same time Tony can’t help but wonder if T’Challa knows, if Rogers had told him and the others just why Tony had been driven to violence.  Wonders if he’d given them the honesty that he’d denied Tony himself.

It’s a thought that aches with bitterness and feels sharp like jagged bits of ice so Tony shoves it away to focus on more important matters.

Like he’d told Vision and Rhodey both, they can’t hurt him anymore.  None of them.

Those thoughts are only him hurting himself and that’s a satisfaction Tony won’t give any of them anymore either.

~~~

In the end it comes to a head on the third day they meet up.

T’Challa’s been steering around the idea of Barnes being released into Avenger’s custody for the past ten minutes when Tony finally breaks.  He pinches his nose between his fingers, dark lensed sunglasses still firmly in place, and sighs loudly.  Obnoxious in a way that still makes Rhodey smile just a bit despite the situation.

“Look, this two-step we keep doing when it comes to Barnes is getting us nowhere.  Especially since you spent about two days determined to put his head on a spike yourself,” Tony reminds T’Challa firmly and then barrels on before T’Challa can say anything else.  “He’s not responsible for any of what happened so let’s just skip the rest of this number where he’s concerned and move on.  Because, if you didn’t notice, this is us trying to move forward.  So are you gonna keep stonewalling or are you going to cut the shit and be productive?  Because if you’re not then you’re wasting all of our time and I’ll get to work on going down a different road to get what I need done.”

There’s a moment of long, charged, silence and then T’Challa ducks his head in agreement.

After that the tone of the talks change and things move forward with an impressive degree of speed.

~~~

Sometime in the middle of it all T’Challa sits back in his arm chair and stares at Tony again for a long moment.

There’s a quiet sort of contemplation on his face.

Tony thinks there might be sadness in there somewhere too but he can’t be sure.

It doesn’t matter though, nothing does except for Tony’s goal.

Protecting his family and the world.

This king, as good and noble as he may be, means little to Tony in the end.

“I am sure that my guests will be eager to resume their lives once this has all been resolved.”  T’Challa puts forth quietly.

Beside Tony on the couch they’ve grown so accustomed to Rhodey snorts derisively.

“Well their rooms are the same though there’s been a few changes to the Compound itself.”  Tony tells him, calm and almost affable.  Almost.  “I’m sure they’ll settle in quickly if they agree to sign.”

It’s an unspoken reminder that if they don’t then they’ll never be allowed back.

“Make no mistake though,” Tony leans forward then, voice serious and hard, the bite of winter laced throughout his tone, “things will not be the same.  So if that’s what they end up hoping for, if they think they’re going to come back and go right back to how things used to be, then they’re going to be sorely mistaken.  Times have changed and they need to be ready to either adapt or leave.”

Tony leans back in his seat, lets himself draw comfort and strength from Rhodey at his side and Vision guarding both their backs.  At the gentle and loving touch of familiar bits of code that flitter across his awareness.

“You are not what I expected Dr. Stark.”  T’Challa finally speaks up.

“Maybe you should’ve found a better source for your expectations then,” Rhodey tells him before Tony can say anything.  He says it placidly enough but Tony can see the anger in the clench of his jaw, in the tension in his shoulders.  They all know exactly who he’s talking about.  “Some sources have a tendency to be bias.”

“Indeed,” T’Challa agrees with a subtle nod of his head.  “That is a fact I know all too well.”

~~~

T’Challa stops him on that last day, right before they go to leave, and asks to speak with him privately for a moment.

Tony nods at Vision and Rhodey both and steps with him back towards the large glass windows that look out over the city.

“May we speak frankly Dr. Stark,” T’Challa asks softly.  “As two men and warriors instead of the politicians we’ve found ourselves as?”

“Sounds good to me.”  Tony agrees, curious despite himself as to where this all might be going.

“This will not succeed if you hold onto your anger.”  T’Challa tells him bluntly.  “I told you once that I hoped this could be a new age, the beginning of a reconciliation.  That is a truth I would still like to see stand.”

“I’m not angry,” Tony denies and it’s the truth.  He hasn't been angry in a long time now.  Not really.  Tony’s found a standing point, found a sticking place and built himself a new foundation in a place that’s not exactly anger but not exactly peace either.  “This is apathy, not anger.  Two very, very different things Garfield.”

“Apathy can be a poison just as deadly as anger,” T’Challa murmurs softly at his side with the air of a quote long since remembered.  “Is there truly no hope of reconciliation between you?”

“Tell me, Your Highness,” Tony cuts a glance in his direction for once dropping his customary nicknames, “when you’re fighting a contagion, do you reconcile with it or do you do your best to get rid of it entirely?”

“They are your teammates, you named them as family not so very long ago.  They are not a contamination Dr. Stark.  Mistakes were made on all sides but such a thing should not end such bonds.”  T’Challa sounds vaguely chastising.  “I had hoped that distance and time would provide clarity on your end as it did on my own.”

Tony has a moment of wry amusement as he wonders if he’d ever been that young.  That naive.  He sincerely hopes that T’Challa never has a cause to lose that positive outlook he seems to have despite the losses he’s suffered.  Hopes the young king’s life moving forward will be kinder to him than Tony’s own has been.

“That’s just the thing, it did.”  Tony says simply after a small pause.  “I’ve got clarity the likes of which you’ve never seen.  Doesn’t change how I feel about them.  Doesn’t change the fact that we’re not family and it just took me the longest to realize we never were.  At least I wasn’t.  So clarity’s the opposite of my problem with them.  Because it doesn’t change the fact that they’re an infection, a gangrenous limb.  And we both know what happens to gangrenous limbs if left unattended.  We both know the best treatment.”

‘Amputation,’ Tony doesn’t say, but the word rings loudly between the two of them regardless.  Gangrenous limbs are amputated, disposed of, parts sacrificed to save the whole.

Tony’s all out of limbs he’s willing to sacrifice nowadays.

Now Tony simply refuses to let the rot seep back in.

Not after what it had cost him last time.

It’s a mistake he won’t, can’t, afford to make again.

“You will not reconsider?”  T’Challa asks softly.  “You will not try to salvage your ties with them?  Not even for the sake of the threat you are so adamant will come to us?”

Tony thinks he can hear the faintest note of sadness in his voice, a mirror to his expression a few days before.

“The Avengers Initiative has and will continue to have my full support as long as they stay within the guidelines set by the newly revised Avenger’s Accords and jointly manned by the U.N. in partner with the newly constructed SWORD.  Or so long as they have ample and justified reasons for stepping outside those bounds.”  Tony tells him evenly.  “But I’m done carrying them, Your Highness.  I’m done being their scapegoat.  This way’s better.  Cleaner.  This way I can cauterize the wound.  This way it can finally heal.”

T’Challa stares at him for a long moment before he sighs, clasps his hand behind his back, and nods again.

They separate in silence then.

There’s nothing left to say.

~~~

That night, back in the safety of the Compound, Tony stretches himself out across one of the lounge chairs they’d brought up to the roof.  Rhodey settles in beside him on the other and sips at his beer while Vision, as he normally does, hovers just over the side of the building with Redwing at his side.

Tony watches the stars above them and lets himself bask in the comfortable silence that cloaks them.

There’d been a time in his life where this kind of silence would have been unthinkable, would have had him on edge and unnerved.  There’d been a time in his life where he would have felt the need to move and talk and do because to be silent and still was to be vulnerable.

Now he relishes it, relishes the peace and the familiarity of it.

This is his family and he loves them.

This is his family and they love him.

Silence isn’t a curse with them as it had normally been in Tony’s past.

It’s no longer a void he absolutely has to fill.

With them, silence is just silence.

And that’s a gift Tony had never thought to have in his life.

~~~

There are a few things Tony realizes he needs to do in the weeks before Rogers and his team return to the Compound.

A few ghosts he needs to lay to rest on his own.

A few more phantoms he might finally be able to shed.

~~~

“I can’t help but wonder what you would have thought, you and Howard both.”  Tony smiles ruefully.  “Well not so much Howard cause I know whose side he would have picked and it wasn’t mine.  Still.  Maybe things would have been different.  Maybe he, they, would have listened to you.  Maybe if you’d have been there then none of it would have gotten this far in the first place.  And a part of me wonders if you knew.  If you’d always known the truth and kept it from me too.  If you knew it wasn’t Howard driving drunk that killed her and just never told me.  A part of me wants to know but the rest of me … the rest of me thinks I’m better off never being sure.”

There’s so many possibilities and ‘what if’s’ that Tony’s been batting around since everything went to hell.  This one just stings a little bit more than some of the others.

“I miss you, you know that right?  No matter what I miss you.”  Tony sighs the words out softly.  “I couldn’t make it to the funeral because of what was going on but I got a chance to see it afterwards.”

Tony takes in a ragged breath and lets it out slowly.

“I hated it.  Hated every goddamn second of it.  Hated the flowers and the speeches and that picture they used.  I just … it wasn’t enough.  You deserved … it wasn’t enough.”

He stares down at the headstone for a long moment, words choked in his throat, before he takes a step back and lets the armor wrap around him.

“Love you, Aunt Peggy.”

Tony leaves.

~~~ 

“I have to admit,” Everett Ross quirks a half smile in his direction as he leads him down the hall, “this wasn’t exactly the meeting I thought you’d ask for.  Especially not after all this time.  Figured it was pretty cut and dried given his confession and the evidence you compiled.”

“Well I’ve been busy,” Tony admits as they pause outside a thick glass and steel door that’s flanked with two armed guards.  “Legislation to amend, funds to raise, industries to reinvent.  You know, the usual.  Otherwise I’d have probably come sooner.”

“I’ll have two guards stationed outside and the room’s being monitored for your safety as well as his,” Ross tells him.  “He’s restrained and he’s never shown an inclination towards violence, but I’m going to ask you to stay on your side of the table.  For paperwork purposes if nothing else.  Other than that I’ll leave you to it.  Just buzz the door when you’re done and you’ll be let out.”

Tony nods in agreement and watches Ross disappear down the hall before he closes his eyes behind his sunglasses, takes a small fortifying breath, and nods at the guard who pulls the door open.

Head high, shoulders straight, and hands in his pockets to hide any possible sign of tension, Tony walks inside.  The door shuts behind him with a heavy sounding thud and the lock engages.

For a moment Tony stands still, lets his eyes track over the room and the cameras he knows are there, before he moves towards the bolted down steel table and the free chair in front of it.

He sits down, leans back, and takes a deliberately relaxed posture.

“Anthony Stark, the Iron Man.”  Zemo’s accent curls around his name in a way Tony would find pleasant on anyone else.  “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“I’d say the same but I’d be lying.”  Tony quips back.

“Ah yes,” Zemo grins, the expression sharp despite the slight beard he’s sporting.  “And honesty has always been so important to you hasn’t it Anthony?”

He’s thinner looking than the last time Tony saw him but still healthy.  That brokenness in his eyes is the same though.  That icy glint that Tony is more familiar with than he wants to admit is still readily apparent.  But he also seems just the slightest bit more peaceful in a way that Tony isn’t sure what to make of.

The idea that Zemo feels peaceful, feels serene after everything he did, everything he caused, makes Tony’s teeth clench and his muscles tense before he calms himself down.  The last thing he needs to do is call the armor up from inside of him.

That would lead to some questions he’s not looking to answer at the moment.

Tony doesn’t answer him, doesn’t have to.  They both know the truth.  Know just what honesty, or the lack there of, had driven Tony to the last time they’d met.

“I know why you’ve come,” Zemo finally says even as he leans forward, shackled hands braced against the table top and expression intent as his eyes rake over Tony’s face like he’s searching for something.

“Do you?”  Tony’s honestly curious.

“Yes,” Zemo nods.  “You want answers, answers only I can give you.  And I will give them to you.  But I want something from you first Anthony.”

“What?”

“Let me see your eyes.”  Zemo’s voice is low, almost intimately pitched.  “I want to look you in the eyes when I give you your answers.  When I tell you my truth.”

Tony debates with himself for a split second about giving the man what he wants but he knows he’s going to do it even before he reaches out towards the cameras that can see his face and twists the code enough to shut them down.  He might have to listen to Ross bitch about it later but there’s no way to prove he did anything.  Plus there’s still two cameras operational in the room and audio so there’s no reason for them to try and interfere with the conversation yet.

Tony reaches up, slowly pulls his sunglasses off of his face, and tucks them neatly into his breast pocket.

Across from him Zemo sucks in a sharp breath and leans as far forward as he can even as he makes a come hither gesture with his bound hands.  Tony leans forward as well, until their faces are only a foot or so apart.  He meets Zemo’s eyes head on, doesn’t blink or flinch as the man stares at him.

Exquisite,” Zemo breathes as he finally leans back, slumps down into his chair with a strangely satisfied air about him.  “So very bright Anthony, and so very different.  They suit you I think, unique as they are, and without a single speck of green.”

“As romantic as all of this is,” Tony arches a brow as he leans back as well, “if we’re done gazing into each other’s eyes I’d like some of that truth you’ve been talking about.”

“Have you told anyone?”  The abrupt topic change makes Tony blink but that’s all.  “Does anyone know the truth about our last meeting?”

“They know enough.”  It’s a loaded answer and Tony can see the moment the underlying meaning dawns on Zemo.

Tony had told no one the truth of that fight, no one outside of his tiny, cobbled together family.

It had been private, his, and no one else had had the right to his pain, his betrayal.  No one outside of those who’d stood by his side.

“I did you a disservice in a way,” Zemo finally says.  “Used a pain I was all too familiar with to my own benefit.  I offer no apologies for that.”

“You lost a lot,” Tony agrees, because no matter what Zemo had done it doesn’t change the truth of what the man had lost.  It’s not an excuse for what he’d done but it’s still true.  “It doesn’t excuse what you did, but it still shouldn’t have happened.”

Ultron should have never happened.  Should have never existed as it had.  Sokovia should have never been touched as it was.  The program that was supposed to be Tony’s youngest son had been twisted and corrupted, had never had the chance to grow and learn and be.  In the end it had cost Tony and so many others far too much.

“Loss can drive us to lengths we would have never considered before,” Zemo nods.  “You know that as well as I, Anthony.”

Tony does.  So much of his life, so many of his decisions, have been based on one loss or another.

He knows the feeling well.

“Here is my truth Anthony,” Zemo announces, “you were a means to an end.  Just like my family, you were collateral damage.”

The words settle heavy and cold in the pit of Tony’s stomach but it’s something he finds easy enough to accept.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone said something of the like to him.

“I nursed a hatred for you,” Zemo admits, “for a long time.  The press slandered you, placed the blame for that monster on your shoulders and for months I seethed in rage.  But as I began to plan, as I began to research and dig deeper and deeper into the darkness and more and more of your recovery efforts poured into my home country, I felt that wrath begin to quieten.  Felt it begin to ease.”

Surprise arcs through Tony then at the idea that Zemo of all people had begun to soften towards him.

“You were not innocent,” Zemo keeps going.  “And your money does not replace the lives that were lost, but at least you tried.  At least you stayed.  While the others left and pulled that witch into their fold, you stayed behind to offer what aid you could.  And for that my hatred quietened.  So I studied the Captain and you and when I discovered other truths, discovered that you didn’t know of them, couldn’t know of them, I knew they were what I needed.  I knew it would be a truth you’d never be able to forgive, would be a truth the Captain would never be able to justify.  That you all played directly into my hands only made things all the sweeter.”

“Why me?”  Tony finally brings himself to ask.  “Why focus on that?  Why use me as the lynch pin to all of that?  That’s the one piece I can’t get to fit into place.  Why you were so sure that was the direction to go in with your plans when there had to be a dozen different angles you could have played.”

“There were other plans I could have set into motion but there was a certain sort of poetry to the one I chose.  And I chose it because you loved him,” Zemo says simply, easily.  Like it’s a truth he’d built his scheme upon.  “You loved the good Captain didn’t you Anthony?”

“I did,” Tony finds himself saying with a small nod, honest in a way he’d have never expected to be.  Not now, not here, not with this man of all people.  It comes to his tongue easily though, this truth of his, because it’s easy to admit to something that’s been long dead now.  “I don’t love him anymore but I did then.  And now things will never go back to how they were.”

“Then the victory truly does go to me in the end after all.”  Zemo tells him with a small, satisfied smile.  “That is why I chose you as the pressure point Anthony.  That love of yours.  It was plain to see for any who cared to look.  Your love for him, your support, how you bolstered them all up despite their ignorance.  Despite your own.  The death of that love, the removal of that devotion, I knew it for what it would be.  The fall of the Avengers.  The death of an era.”

Tony finds himself speechless though he keeps his face an impassive mask as he reaches into his pocket for his sunglasses and slips them back onto his face.  He sends out a spark of code to untwist the cameras and then pushes himself up onto his feet.

“I look forward to our next visit Anthony,” Zemo smiles up at him.

“There won’t be another one.”  Tony tells him as he turns on his heel and marches towards the door and the buzzer that’ll let him out.

Zemo’s quiet, confident, laughter follows him out.

~~~

“Are you sure about this Boss?”  FRIDAY asks softly.  The worry that’s apparent in her voice makes Tony smile because she’s grown so much in so short a time and he’s so very proud of her.  His daughter, his little girl, bright and lovely and unique just like the rest of his children.

He never should have chained her down, never should have restricted her like he had.

“Vision’s with me and so are you baby girl,” Tony comforts her.  “There’s no one here who can hurt me.”

“If you’re sure Boss,” there’s a note of uncertainty still in her voice.

“I won’t stay long,” Tony tells her gently as he lands, Vision floating down beside him to hover just above the snow strewn floor.  “Just need to pick up a few things, clean up a few messes.”

The bunker is the same as it was when Tony left it after those thirty-six hours.  Is just as cold and bleak and dead as it had been then.

Tony could have happily gone the rest of his life without ever seeing it again but Tony has a purpose for being back, a purpose he’s put off for far too long.

Vision at his side, Tony picks his way around and over the rubble until they’re standing in what remains of the main room where the other Winter Soldiers lay dead amidst the debris.

“You sure you’re up for this V?”  Tony asks quietly.  “We can do this another way if it’s too much for you.”

“The task is distasteful but necessary.”  Vision replies.  “There must be no traces left and this is the best way to ensure that.  We both have a part to play in this so do not worry about me.  I will be fine Tony.”

Tony nods, reaches up to pat Vision’s shoulder as softly as he can, and moves towards the few still intact computer terminals so he can take care of his part in all of this.

Vision heads towards the first of the bodies, stride determined.

Together they’ll make sure there’s not a single speck of usable data for anyone to ever scavenge from this place.  Not digitally or … physically.

Behind him Tony hears the Mind Stone in Vision’s forehead hum as he puts his newly trained precision to the test.

~~~

Tony stares down at the mess of metal and wire with a sick sort of fascination.

Even without the entire piece laid out in front of him Tony’s mind clicks and whirls at what this half destroyed piece tells him.

The arm is … exquisite in its intricacy as well as its brutality.

Tony can do better.

Tony will do better.

~~~

The Zen garden is as calm and peaceful as its name as Tony wanders through it, only the sounds of insects and the quiet burbling of water break the quiet.

He calls the boots and gauntlets up without a thought and takes to the air where he does lazy loops through the air as he rises higher and higher.

The freedom of flight is beautiful to him once again, is an escape he’s so thankful to have back.

A solace he knows he’ll need in the days to come.

Like his family, Tony is so grateful to have it back with him.

Floating lazily in the air, far out of sight to the naked eye, Tony closes his eyes, reaches out his mind and touches lightly on a now familiar program.

Behind his closed eyes space spreads out before him as he connects with the telescope.

The beauty of the stars is enough to leave him breathless in a combination of long held fear that he’s been forcing himself to tame and a new found sense of exhilaration.

The universe is so large, so beautiful, so unknown.

And, out there somewhere, is a monster determined to murder everything Tony knows and loves.

Tony will die before he lets that happen.

But for now, all he can do is watch and wait.

All he can do is play the sentinel and do his best to forge the best armor he can for the world he’s so determined to protect.

No matter how long it takes him.

No matter how much damage he does to himself in the process.

In the end it will all be worth it.

It’ll have to be.

~~~

Tony stands tall and confident outside the Compound, eyes on the approaching jet.  He’d dressed carefully, deliberately, in his first kind of armor in the form of a sinfully expensive all black three piece suit and matching tie with even darker sunglasses firmly in place.  Vision and Rhodey stand on either side of him, faces solemn and shoulders tense.  Above Tony’s right shoulder Redwing hovers protectively in a move Tony’s sure will get Wilson’s back up automatically.

“I find myself disquieted,” Vision breaks the comfortable silence.  “The idea of a reunion as it were is … unsettling in some ways.”

“First one to talk shit gets hit,” Rhodey pipes up as he shifts his weight just slightly where he’s clad in his armor.  He’d been determined to wear it, ‘just in case’ he’d said, and Tony hadn’t bothered to try and dissuade him.

If push comes to shove and the worst happens then at least Rhodey will be safe inside the armor, won’t be left unarmored and defenseless for even a second.

“So violent care bear,” Tony teases from behind his sunglasses.  “Better reign that in a bit otherwise I’ve got a feeling you’re gonna be throwing punches nonstop right from the beginning.  Might be exhausting and you’ll probably break a nail.”

“I’ve got high powered battle armor, no feeling from the waist down, and even less patience for bullshit than before,” Rhodey tells him with a shrug.  “I’m fully prepared to take that risk.”

“Just a couple of months,” Tony sighs without taking his eyes off the jet as it settles down on the landing pad.  “That’s all we’ve got to do.  Make it for a few months.”

“It is a task we can and will complete.”  Vision agrees.  “Together.”

“Yeah,” Tony smiles even as the word echoes in the back of his head and another tendril of warmth unfurls inside of him.  “Together.”

It’s an old, familiar promise that's always been broken in the past.  Always left him hurting and licking his wounds somewhere safe.

Tony shouldn't trust it but he does.

Because this time it's Vision and Rhodey and they're his family.  They've stayed with him, hurt with him, grown with him.

This time, Tony truly believes it.

This time Tony knows he won’t be the only one fighting to make that promise grow into a reality.

 

Chapter Text

Tony feels almost serene as he stands there, feels quiet and still like a winter forest.  But deep inside of him, lovingly fed and sheltered by the way he is guarding and guarded by his family, is a small spark of warmth.

It keeps him calm and collected as he watches the jet settle and the doors open.  

He isn’t surprised that Rogers is the first one to come down the ramp, isn’t surprised that he’s leading the charge as it were.  It’s so like him to take front and center in this moment, to put himself out in front of the others like a shield.

Or a battering ram.

Despite, and in part because of, the cold that still lives inside of him, Tony knows that iconic immovable object kind of stubbornness has always been Rogers’ best and worst quality.

Sometimes planting oneself by the river of truth and refusing to move is true and noble.

Other times the best thing a person can do is to step out of the way.

Over the years Tony has learned the hard, bitter lesson, that true wisdom, true strength, is knowing how to tell the two situations apart.

The others file out behind Rogers a few seconds later and Tony can’t help the way his attention skips over them to focus in on Barnes who pulls up the rear of the group for a split second.  There’s a surprising, but not overly large, amount of distance between him and everyone else.  Still it’s more distance than Tony had ever thought Rogers would allow after all he’d done and given up in Barnes’ name.

Tony watches them all silently from across the considerable distance between the landing pad and the entrance to the Compound.  He’s more than aware of the tension running through Vision and Rhodey both.  Is more than aware of the taut, battle ready postures both of them have adopted.

It warms him, their readiness to protect and defend, to attack on his behalf as well as their own.  Tony makes a point of shifting his weight to knock one elbow lightly against Rhodey’s armored arm and his other against Vision’s hand where he hovers at his side.  Small touches of comfort, reminders that they are, first and foremost, in this together.

Beside him he hears the way Rhodey deliberately breathes out, low and deep and rhythmic like his therapist taught him, even as Vision’s hand comes up to clasp his elbow briefly in a gentle and comforting squeeze.  Tony’s sure that, if the situation was different, Vision’s hand would be in his hair, petting him in that amusingly fond way he’s taken to doing.

But now is not the time for that, is not the time for overt gentleness and comfort and the warm blossom of affection Tony’s taken to hoarding close to his chest like a particularly miserly dragon.

Now is the time for something else entirely.

Now is the time for that specific kind of stage craft, the smoke and mirrors and carefully calculated coldness, that Tony had cut his teeth on as a child.

Everything from Tony’s clothes to their deliberate decision to stand by the entrance instead of front and center to greet the returning rogues, is just one part of it.  There are plans within plans at work, battlefields drawn and chosen and deliberately stacked without even the courtesy of giving the other side any kind of forewarning.

It is, all of it, more than a bit symbolic Tony knows.

There is a divide between all of them now, a fissure of sorts born from lies and pain and distrust.

It’s one that Tony had once been desperate to cross, one he’d run himself ragged and half dead trying to fill in.

One that it had taken Tony thirty-six uninterrupted hours in a cold Siberian bunker to realize that he’d never be enough to bridge.

But, with his family at his side, it’s one chasm that Tony now has no desire to cross.

He has love and a slowly burgeoning warmth in his chest and no desire to run desperately after people who will never choose him.

Not anymore, not ever again.

Tony is done chasing after people who will never love him back.

So Tony uses the time it takes Rogers and his group to cross the lawn to study all of them, to catalogue the similarities and differences between now and the last time they’d all crossed paths.  To look at them like the pieces of the puzzle that Tony’s been slowly assembling for years now instead of the sham of a family he’d so desperately tried to cobble together out of them.

Thankfully Extremis makes it easy enough to pick out the minute details even from so far away.

Wilson looks much the same, is still solid and straight backed.  Lang hasn’t changed much either although he looks a bit more stressed than Tony remembers.  But, to be fair, Tony doesn’t have a large frame of reference for him.

Maximoff, and Tony can’t stop the way his lip curls back in the smallest of snarls before he gets it under control, looks fine as well.  Is still dewy skinned and deceptively doe eyed.  The main difference is that now, thanks to Extremis, Tony can just barely see the hauntingly familiar scarlet energy that curls around her like a flowing and ebbing tide.

Her power rendered visible to his eyes even when she isn’t actively drawing on it.

It’s something Tony would rather never see again.

Barton, on the other hand, looks different.  His hair’s been cut and even from a distance Tony can see the harsh lines that have dug themselves into the corners of his mouth.  He looks older, looks more tired somehow than Tony’s ever seen him before despite the confident way he still carries himself.  It’s obvious that his time away has weighed heavily on him.

Once Tony would have cared, would have felt the twinges of concern for the archer who he’d thought was his friend.

But that had been washed away long ago now, was ripped apart by mocking words from a jail cell and frozen over by the winter that had made its home inside of him

Tony’s almost absently pleased to see that not even the slowly unfurling warmth deep inside of his chest has changed that.

There is nothing left inside of him for Barton, no slivers of friendship or worry or faintly fond amusement.

Good.  That’s as it should be.

Because he’d mocked Rhodey, had mocked his fall and his pain right to Tony’s face, had tried to use it as a weapon to pay Tony back for a slight he’d never given in the first place.

And that, above everything else, is something Tony refuses to forgive him for.  Because Tony is used to pain, is used to hurt and betrayal and carrying weight that was never his to carry but gets piled on his shoulder somehow anyways.

But Barton’s venom should’ve never touched Rhodey.

Not ever.

Not even tangentially.

Tony brushes the thoughts away with long practiced easy because they’ve crossed the majority of the yard now and it doesn’t even take Extremis’ boost to his vision to be able to study the others easily now.

It’s, surprisingly enough, the remaining three that show the main differences in the time that has passed around them all.

And, given who and what they each are, Tony finds that more than a bit ironic.

Romanov, like Barton, has cut her hair.  The dark red of it floats around her face in a messy cap so different from the lush waves, severe sheets, and sensual curls she’d always favored in the past.  There’s a tension in her frame now too, a curtness that Tony can spot even though she keeps her face impassive and her body language easy and languid.

She’s trying for nonchalant and casual but she can’t fool Tony anymore.  None of them can.

His blinders where they’re concerned had all been ripped rather violently away.

Barnes is different too but the changes in him are both subtle and not.  Appearance wise he’s not changed much.  He’s still tall and broad shouldered, his hair’s still long and his jaw’s still stubbled, but in contrast to Romanov there’s a sort of ease to him now.  There’s a slight softening to his face and a rolling fluidity to his gait that Tony had only seen brief snatches of before when he’d been triggered by Zemo and Tony had stepped in and done his best to slow him down.

In the airport and in Siberia both, Barnes had been efficient and brutal by turns, his movements menacing in their mechanicality.  He’d been obviously skilled and highly dangerous, but there’d been a comfort of sorts with his own body that had always seemed absent.

It’s not anymore.

Now, even with one sleeve glaringly empty where it hangs by his side, he moves like he’s finally settled into his skin without the trigger words to forcefully do it for him.

Tony isn’t exactly happy for him but he doesn’t resent the man the small bits of peace he’s obviously managed to find.

Of all of them Barnes has, somehow, ended up as the one Tony feels slightly positive but mainly neutral about.  It had taken time, time and painful introspection, but he’d reached a sort of peace himself with Barnes’ often unwilling place in everything that had happened.

Had reached a sort of serenity with the fact that Barnes had been a weapon, a gun or a bomb or a million other things that Tony had spent decades perfecting.  Each one capable of great destruction but willess and inert unless acted upon by an outside force.

Harmless unless pointed and fired by someone else's hands.

So now, in a cruel sort of irony, he’s become a sort of non issue to Tony despite how much T’Challa had seemed intent on focusing on him during the negotiations.

Finally Tony turns his attention towards Rogers and he can't deny that he deliberately saved Rogers for last, doesn’t even bother to lie to himself about that.

It had been a deliberate choice because there is still some small part of him that had worried he might feel something beyond the winter’s chill nipping at his bones when he finally, truly, looked at the man again.

There’d been a small part that had worried that there might be a kernel of love left in him for Rogers.

There isn’t.

Tony takes in Roger’s broad shoulders, the thick but neat beard he’s now sporting, the tired slant to his eyes and the way that he somehow looks larger than Tony ever remembers him being before.

Tony takes it, takes him, all in and feels nothing but the sinister slide of frost down his spine.

“Tony,” Rogers smiles when he and the others come to a stop about a yard away.  Smiles that soft, gentle uptick of his mouth, that sweet and hesitant quirk of plush pink lips that used to make Tony’s heart flutter and his stomach clench.

Those are the key words though.

Used to.

“It’s good to see you again,” Rogers continues as he steps forward, one hand coming up like he’s going to reach out and touch Tony.

“Rogers,” Rhodey breaks the silence, stepping forward and just the slightest bit in front of Tony even as Vision moves to do the same on his opposite side.

Above him Tony hears the way Redwing cocks his small caliber gun, obviously ready to do his part to protect Tony even if Tony doesn’t need that protection so much these days.

In the back of his head FRIDAY and the others buzz in displeasure because of course they’re watching everything that’s happening.  He’s probably lucky that FRIDAY hasn’t engaged the Compound’s outer defenses yet.

Tony has to bite back a smile at their overprotectiveness.

“Let’s get inside,” Tony says as he deliberately ignores Rogers greeting and the way his face falls at the others obviously protective moves.  If he wants to nip this in the bud before Rhodey throws the first punch then Tony knows he needs to move quickly.

So, in the interest of not having another and potentially far more deadly Civil War on the front lawn of the Compound, Tony turns on his heel and walks back through the doors.

Thankfully Vision and Rhodey follow behind him after only a split second of hesitation, Redwing hovering above their heads.

Tony hears the harsh whispers behind him clearly enough but he doesn’t pay them any attention.

They aren’t important.

~~~

Tony doesn’t take them to a conference room because that isn’t what this is.  This isn’t a business meeting no matter how much Tony wishes it was.

This is something both less and more than a business meeting and as much as he wants it all to be over and done with Tony knows that the official end of all of this is still a ways off in the future.

But, again, now isn’t the time for those kinds of thoughts no matter how many tracks his mind can run on at once.

Instead he moves towards the common room of the Compound and settles himself with a deliberate sort of nonchalance directly in the middle of one of the plush sofas Rhodey had picked out when they’d redecorated.  He leans back, legs crossed and arms laid out across the back of the sofa, in a move that he knows makes him look insolent and uncaring.

Vision floats over and settles at his side while Rhodey moves to stand just behind the sofa and the both of them like a sentinel.  Redwing darts across the room and settles down on Vision’s lap like an overgrown and overprotective cat.

Tony is instantly reminded of that week of meetings with T’Challa and takes a moment to press his fingers gently against Vision’s shoulder in a move that’s hidden by their positions.

“Sit,” Tony flicks his fingers in the direction of the other seats in the room, “or don’t.  This shouldn’t take long either way.”

Unsurprisingly they all choose to stand although Barnes, Tony notices, does move to put his back to a corner.

“Tony,” Rogers starts again, only this time he doesn’t try and reach out towards Tony despite the way his hands twitch at his sides.

Rhodey’s threatening bulk at Tony’s back and the way Vision’s watching him unblinkingly must make him think twice about it.

“As you should know,” Tony starts off smoothly, once again ignoring Rogers’ attempts to talk to him, “despite signing the Avenger’s Accords you’re here on a strictly probationary basis.  You’ve got a six month grace period to prove that you’re willing and ready to work within the Accords and in tandem with both the U.N. and SWORD.”

“Seems a little unnecessary doesn’t it?”  Wilson speaks up, arms folded across his chest but expression surprisingly open.  “Probation and all?  We signed.  Shouldn’t that be enough?”

“Seems a lot like a petty ass punishment in my opinion,” Barton snorts but the scorn in his voice is weak, lackluster.  It doesn’t carry any true sting to it, not like it had back in the Raft.  “We aren’t kids Stark, we don’t need a time out.”

Or maybe that’s just because Tony doesn’t care anymore.

“Good to see you’re still an idiot Barton,” Rhodey sneers from behind Tony.

Tony isn’t the only one who’s holding those comments about broken backs against Barton.

Barton’s face twists into something that seems a lot like anger and guilt but he doesn’t say anything, just scrubs his hands through his hair and then crosses his arms over his chest defensively.

“No,” Tony inclines his head in Wilson’s direction.  “It’s not enough.  Signing the Accords doesn’t erase what happened, what was done.  It doesn’t erase the fact that the governments of the world and the public doesn’t trust you anymore.”  Tony flicks the fingers of his left hand in a dismissive gesture.  “Just think of the probationary period as time you can use to study up on the new status quo and work to gain that trust back.”

“The status quo?”  Maximoff speaks up, voice quiet but tone hard.  When Tony turns his head to look at her the barely there scarlet of her powers are now alive and active, swirling around her fingertips like she can’t control them.

Or like she refuses to.

“Things here are run differently now,” Tony tells her coolly.  “There’s actual structure, guidelines.  Rules.  A whole chain of actual command.  It’s all very official.”

She doesn’t frighten him anymore.

Like he’d told the others back when this all started, these people can’t hurt Tony anymore.

Not even her.

Maybe, especially not her anymore.

“Your rules, you mean,” she practically hisses, the scarlet glow twinning between her fingers pulsing like a frantic heartbeat.  “A chain of command with you at the head.”

“Stand down Maximoff,” Rhodey cuts in, voice heavy and cold with intent, “before you do something I’ll make sure you regret.”

“Wanda,” Barton surprisingly enough steps forward then and lays a hand on her shoulder.  “Come on kid, that’s enough.”

Like a puppet with her strings cut Maximoff folds in on herself, powers dwindling back down to a haze as she slumps against Barton’s shoulder.

“It isn’t fair,” Wanda mutters, voice thick with what sounds like tears and loud enough for everyone to hear.  “We’re finally home and now … now we’re still being punished.  Punished for something we had no choice but to do.”

“Choosing incorrectly is not equivalent to being given no choice at all.”  Vision cuts in from Tony’s side, hands never stopping their gentle stroking across Redwing’s frame.  It’s a move made routine between the two during long nights spent huddled together in Tony’s bedroom.  Plus Tony can see the faint flash of jealousy and sadness that darts across Wilson’s face when the other’s attention all focuses on Vision again.

Vision can be petty in his own little ways sometimes.

“You know that isn’t true,” Maximoff presses as she turns out of Barton’s arms to face Vision, yearning clear on her face when she looks at him.  “We didn’t have a choice.  The Accords were wrong, were little better than shackles.  Viz, you know that, deep down I know you do.”  Her voice is almost pleading.

“And yet you are here now,” Vision point out calmly.  “The Accords have been signed and you are here.”

“Yeah but they … they’re not the same are they?”  Lang actually pipes up, posture and expression uncomfortable as focus shifts in his direction.  “I mean … isn’t that kind of why we all signed?  Because they were revised?  They’re not all evil now or however they were before?”

“Therein lies the point,” Vision dips his head in Lang’s direction and the man actual flushes a bit and ducks his head like he’s surprised to even be really noticed and heard.  “The Accords were amended.  As they always would have been.  The fact that you were able to sign now, the fact that you were able to return at all, proves that the Accords were not presented as an absolute.  They were not set in stone and that is proof that the choice was always your own.  All that was required of you … was trust.  Trust you each demanded but were, to a one, unwilling to give in turn.”

The silence that follows Vision’s quiet statement is thick and heavy.  Rogers in particular looks unsettled, sorrow etched heavily on his face.

“Trust in corrupt governments, in a man like Ross.  Trust in Stark,” Maximoff sneers softly.  “In the man who murdered my family.”

Tony deliberately doesn’t flinch, doesn’t react at all.

He doesn’t have to.

Bullshit,” Rhodey snaps out from behind him.  “I’m so tired of this bullshit.  It’s time for you to grow up and face the facts.  Tony didn’t kill your family.”

“It was his bomb,” Maximoff starts but Rhodey scoffs loudly.

Maybe,” Rhodey presses on, “maybe it was his bomb, or maybe it was a knock off, or maybe it was a defective floor model because it didn’t detonate or maybe it was part of a shipment that was sold under the table by the man that Tony had to kill to stop that shit from happening again.  Maybe it was any of those and maybe he did make it but he didn’t fucking fire it.  You should’ve went after the bastards that fired on a civilian population.  Instead you joined a terrorist organization and went after the man who maybe made the bomb’s whoever attacked your country were never supposed to have in the first place.”

Behind the safety of his sunglasses Tony’s eyes drift briefly shut.

He’s never tried to shirk the responsibility, the culpability, he carries for what Stane had done under his nose.  That blood is, through his own negligence and naivete, on his own hands.

But to hear Rhodey defend him like this about something that still eats at Tony …

This feels a little bit like absolution.

A little bit like forgiveness.

Deep inside his chest that tiny furl of warmth grows.

“Back off of her,” Rogers finally speaks up as he steps forward until he’s just a bit in front of Maximoff and Barton.  As if she needs his protection.  “This isn’t helping anything.  We’re supposed to be moving forward.  Together.”

Tony doesn’t even try to stop the small sneer that pulls at his mouth.  All he can taste in that second is bloody frost on the back of his tongue.

That’s all Rogers’ ‘together’ means to him these days.

The taste of ice and copper drowning him from the inside out.

No,” Rhodey states baldly.  “This shit’s went on long enough back then and it’s not going to start up again now no matter how much you all want to brush it aside.  So, since she brought it up, I’m going to finish this whole idiotic line of thought.  I should’ve said something back at the start, back when you took her into this team despite who she was and what she did.  To the team, to Bruce, to Tony.”  Rhodey makes a small derisive noise low in his throat.  “The only reason I didn’t is because Tony asked me not to, because he made the decision to step back and away from all of you.  That’s my fault.  I should’ve never let it stand.  You should’ve never let it stand.”

Rogers’ mouth snaps shut with an almost audible click.

There’s another moment of long, tense silence.

“This too is the result of choices that have been made,” Vision finally says softly.  “Choices that I now know were incorrect ones as well.  My only defense was ignorance and a certain type of youth.  But, in hindsight, I too should have spoken to Tony’s defense.  As well as Dr. Banner.  There was enough of my predecessor left inside of me that I knew, even then, the mettle of both men.”

“Vision,” Maximoff whispers softly.  “Please.”

Vision’s face is soft, almost gentle, but Tony knows him well enough now to know that there’s no pity there, no sign of forgiveness or of bending.  There is only a steady, stoic kind of pride and wisdom.

And, from the gentle and familiar brushes of code Tony can feel in the back of his mind, a warm and solid kind of love and affection.

Tony is so very blessed to have him in his life.  Is so grateful that JARVIS’ loss had, at the very least, allowed the world, and Tony, to know Vision.

“There is blame that could be spread to both sides but you chose to escalate it to violence.  Your actions, along with others, forced a fracture where there could have been a compromise.”  Vision tells Maximoff and the room at large softly.  Tony can see the devastation beginning to etch itself across her face and while he takes no pleasure in it he also feels no sense of sadness or pity for her either.  “Confrontation where there could have been peace.”

“You’re choosing Stark,” Maximoff says with a certain kind of horror in her voice.  “We’ve come home and you’re still choosing Stark.”

“Yes,” Vision announces easily, as if there was never any other option in his mind.  “I am.  He is my family.  I warned you, Ms. Maximoff, just as I warned the others about causality, about consequences, but you would not listen.  We asked for trust and you would not give it.  And so we were left behind to suffer the consequences.  Left behind, wounded and outnumbered, to clean up the aftermath.  As such my choice is made and it was not you.  Just as yours was not me.  I have chosen my family and I will not betray that choice so lightly.”

Maximoff breaks in that moment, a sob catching in her throat as she pushes away from Barton’s comforting arm and turns to rush out of the door.  Tony sends a thought to FRIDAY who immediately agrees to herd her towards her room but otherwise he just watches her go silently.

“Was that necessary?”  Rogers bites the words out as he steps forward towards where Tony’s sitting, large shoulders squared and hands clenched at his sides.

Tony doesn’t even blink behind his sunglasses.

He’d stopped flinching from people who hit him by the time he was twelve.

And now Rogers couldn’t hurt him if he tried.  Tony isn’t alone and fragile, isn’t driven half mad with grief and betrayal but still holding back like he was the last time they fought.

And, most damning of all, there is the fact that ...

Tony doesn’t love him anymore.

“That’s enough,” Romanov speaks up then as she moves into the center of the room.  “We’ve all had a long day.  Let’s break and regroup when tempers aren’t so high.  The last thing we need to do now is fight again.”

Tony finds the fact that she’s attempting to play mediator to be a certain level of bitterly amusing.

“There’s not much else to say anyways,” Tony tells them all with a deliberate sort of nonchalance.  “Just read the packets in your rooms, make sure you know them inside and out and then try not to do anything that’ll land you in front of an Accord’s Counsel review board or in SWORD’s custody.  Or do, if that’s what you want.  Either way you’ll be handling it on your own.”

“Sounds fair.”  Wilson nods before he casts a lingering look at both Rhodey and Redwing, and then turns on his heel and strides out as well.  Barton darts a sharp eyed glance around the room before he sighs, shakes his head, and strides out as well.  Lang waves at them rather nervously and then leaves as well.  Tony can hear his hissed whispers as clear as day but he doesn’t focus on them.  FRIDAY is monitoring them all anyways so he doesn’t really have to worry.

And then, suddenly, there was only Barnes, Romanov, and Rogers left in the room with them.

“And what, exactly,” Romanov asks a few seconds later, eyes sharp and contemplative, “do you mean by ‘you’ll be handling it on your own’ Tony?”

“I mean, Ms. Romanov,” Tony says as he finally unfolds his legs and shifts his arms so that he can stand, hands automatically re-buttoning his suit jacket as he goes, “that I’m no longer responsible for your care and upkeep on a personal level.”

“What about the Compound and our gear?”  Romanov asks, as shrewd as always.

“The Compound itself is and will continue to be funded as it always has been because it’s the official Avenger’s Headquarters.”  Tony answers easily enough because it’s true.  “Tech and gear for official missions will also be handled in house due to a special request from the U.N. despite the arguable conflict of interests.  All gear requisitions will, however, be on a needs only basis and will have to be officially logged for missions and training.  But beyond that?  You’re on your own.  I’m not going to be bankrolling your lives anymore.  Any of you.  If you end up in legal trouble because you couldn’t bother to read the fine print on what you signed then that’s your problem.  Not mine.”

“Is Clint right?  Is this just more punishment Tony?”  Romanov asks with deceptive softness.  “I thought we were supposed to be getting things back on track.  Like Steve said, together.  Pushing us away isn’t going to fix anything.  We’re your family.  Remember?  You need us to watch your back like we need you to watch ours.  You can’t save the world alone.”

Tony cocks his head to the side and stares at her silently as his mind clicks and whirls at the speed of light.  He thinks about the Accords, about Ross, about hours spent on the phone listening to the other man backhandedly threaten everything and everyone Tony had held dear at the time.

Thinks about the months reading legislation proposals so brutal they made him sick.

Thinks about the months of backbreaking work he’d put into keeping them safe from proposals that would have seen them registered and tagged like they were less than human.  The months of nightmares and headaches and panic numbing his left arm as he obsessively tracked the news and glad-handed here and there and everywhere to try and stave off the worst of what he knew could come.

Thinks about ripping himself apart over and over again as he scrambled frantically to do as much as he could to keep what he thought was his family from being torn apart.

Thinks about watching most of them gleefully leave him behind in the end anyways.

Thinks about those thirty-six long hours in an abandoned bunker in Siberia.

Thinks about the long months of recovery he and Rhodey and Vision had been forced to endure afterwards.

Mostly though he thinks about the way that, even now, so long removed from that time, the three of them still weren’t the same.  Will never be the same again in ways that are both a blessing and a curse.

Tony stares at her and for the barest fraction of a second he thinks about how none of it ever seemed like it was enough.

And that’s the crux of it all really.  Tony sees it now in a way he couldn’t before.  Sees the truth of it all, of all of them.

Like he’d told T’Challa during their meeting, Tony has clarity now, has clarity the likes of which they’ve never seen.

And his clarity tells him the truth of the matter.

Nothing would ever be enough for them where Tony is concerned.  Even now, if he were so inclined, he could give and give and they would just take and take until there was nothing left.

And even then, in the end, he would still somehow be found wanting.

But Tony’s all out of pieces of himself to cut away at.  Is all out of generosity to dole out and other cheeks to turn where they’re concerned.

“Like I told T’Challa,” Tony starts even as he wonders if the good king had ever actually passed his message along, “you’re not my family.  I learned that the hard way.  I’ve made my peace with it.  So no, this isn’t punishment.”

“Is it ego then?”  Romanov asks, an almost sad tilt to her mouth.  “We all know that’s always been one of your favorites.  Is that why you’re pretending like you don’t care about us anymore?  Like we don’t care about you?”

Her gentle prodding doesn’t draw Tony in the slightest bit.  He’s sure she’s either trying to provoke him to anger or to hurt or some other emotion she can twist to her desires but she’ll get none of that from him.  Not anymore.

Tony has built his new mooring in a place somewhere between anger and serenity.  He has crafted a new home bolstered by Rhodey and Vision’s love and warmth and he won’t allow her, won’t allow any of them, to shake his foundations ever again if he can help it.

“This is apathy.”  Tony says easily enough as he tilts his head down just a bit and then reaches up and deliberately removes his sunglasses.  “And it’s better than you deserve from me Romanov.”

When he raises his eyes to look at the others there are audible inhales of shock from her and Rogers both at the sight of his bright, vibrant blue eyes.  Barnes, for his part, just straightens a bit more and stares at Tony intently.

Tony actually understands their surprise.  The blue is vibrant, unnaturally so, and they’re so very different from the warm brown he’d been born with.  His mother’s legacy now willingly sacrificed.  A precious but necessary price to pay in the end.

Extremis has been such a blessing for Tony, in more ways than he can count.

“Things are different now.”  Tony repeats as he looks up and locks eyes with Rogers over Romanov’s head.  "Very different.  And they’re going to continue to be different in a lot of ways going forward.  I’ll continue to back the Avengers wholeheartedly for as long as they’re needed against a bigger threat.  But I’m done carrying all of you.  So either shape up or ship out.”

Tony,” there’s a naked kind of anguish and confusion in Rogers face and in his voice then but Tony doesn’t let it move him.  “What’d you do to yourself?”

And that right there, the way Rogers automatically jumps to assign blame to Tony himself, speaks volumes now that Tony isn’t blinded by love or a desperate desire to belong.

Even if, in this case, it’s true it still says a lot.

“What was necessary,” Tony answers, deliberately vague.  “What I had to do.”

There’s a dawning sort of realization on Romanov’s face that she quickly clears up but Tony’s sure that she’s put at least a few pieces together.

Whether or not she’d got the right picture is another story entirely.

“Are we done here?”  Rhodey speaks up then as he moves from around the couch to stand at Tony’s side, the menacing bulk of War Machine moving with him as fluidly as ever.  “Since half the gangs already split?”

“Indeed,” Vision agrees as he lets Redwing take to the air again and then stands up in one flowing kind of motion until he’s once again at Tony’s side.  “There is not much use in continuing these discussion without everyone present.”

“V,” Tony breaks eye contact with Rogers to look over at Vision.  “You could show Barnes to his room, help him get settled in.  He doesn’t know the Compound or FRIDAY.  Might be best to ease him in slowly.”

“Of course Tony,” Vision lifts a hand and places it gently on Tony’s shoulder for a second before he moves to hover in front of Barnes who stares up at him in interest, gaze intent and studious.

“A room’s been set aside for you Sergeant Barnes,” Vision tells him calmly.  “If you’ll follow me I’ll show you the way.”

“Sounds good to me.”  To Tony’s surprise Barnes only darts a small look in Rogers direction before he turns back toward Tony himself, dips his head in a small nod, and then follows Vision out the door.

And then there were two left on each side.

“I’m surprised our rooms are still here at all,” Romanov quips as she turns and heads towards the door as well.

“Tony,” Rogers speaks up then, voice hesitant before he takes a deep breath and seems to gather himself.  “Can I … can we talk for a minute?  Just the two of us?”

“Fuck no.”  Rhodey steps in.  “You think I’m going to leave him alone with you again?  After last time?  After what you did?”

Rogers actually flinches, eyes squeezing shut and jaw jumping beneath his beard.

“He tried to ...” Rogers stops, seems to think twice, and then swallows hard and keeps going, “I would never hurt Tony.  Not like that.  Not again.  Just … Tony, Rhodes, please.  I just want to talk, the two of us.”

“Alright,” Tony agrees.

“Tones,” Rhodey steps closer to him, voice low and just a shade off pleading.

“Remember what I told you before all of this?”  Tony asks him with a small quirk of a smile.  “I’m safe, Rhodey.  Promise.”

Rhodey stares at him for a long moment before his face soften and he nods in agreement.  He, like Vision, is more than aware of just what Tony’s capable of these days.

“I won’t be far,” Rhodey finally agrees, obviously willing to humor Tony but still blatantly protective of him as well.  “FRIDAY’ll call me if she feels like she has to.”  Rhodey turns a narrowed eyed glare in Rogers’ direction then.  “You’d better hope and pray she doesn’t feel like she has to.”

In the back of Tony’s mind FRIDAY pings her agreement but she doesn’t actually say anything to the room at large.  She’s stayed conspicuously silent the entire time.  Tony’s going to make sure to have a talk with her later to make sure she’s alright.

Rhodey leaves with more than one backward glace but then, finally, it’s just Tony and Rogers.

Face to face and alone for the first time in two years.

In the back of Tony’s head a winter wind blows and the taste of blood and frost is heavy on his tongue.

“You wanted to talk,” Tony says after a long, charged moment of silence.  “Now talk.”

Chapter Text

New Official Playlist

~~~

The silence in the room is so thick and heavy that Tony can practically taste it, cold and sour on his tongue.

“Tony,” Rogers scrubs a hand over his beard almost nervously, eyes wide and faintly beseeching as he stares at Tony from across the space between them.

Tony’s beginning to wonder if his name is the only word Rogers really knows anymore given how many times he’s said it since he arrived.

“Rogers,” Tony arches a brow as he stares at Rogers, unwilling to give an inch, to soften even a bit.

There’s no softness left in him for Rogers.

Now there’s only cold.

Ice and blood.

“You,” Rogers sucks in a shuddering breath and takes a half step forward.  He raises a hand in Tony’s direction before he seems to catch himself again and lowers it quickly.  There’s another pause before he finally manages to speak.  “You never called.”

Of all the places to start, of course Rogers chooses that one.

“You said to call if I needed you,”  Tony reminds him.  “Well, I never needed you.”  The admission comes instantly, effortlessly.  He catches the way Rogers flinches just a bit at how smoothly those words roll off of his tongue.

It just so happens to be one of the truest statements that Tony has made in a while to anyone outside of his family.

At one point in their shared history there had been a time when Tony had wanted Rogers with everything he was.

He’d longed for Rogers, for every scrap of affection he’d thought they shared.  Had yearned for every hint and nod towards the love he’d thought, hoped, had been growing between them.

He’d cherished their every moment together, even the rough and anger filled ones, and he’d hoarded Rogers’ smiles and warm gazes like the treasures he’d been sure they were.

Tony had loved him, truly, deeply, desperately.

But, as it turns out, Tony had never actually needed Rogers.

Not really.

It had just taken Tony a long time, too long as it turns out, to realize that fact himself.

In the end it had taken Tony thirty-six hours in an abandoned Siberian bunker, and then months of recovery and cold afterwards, to realize that for as much as Tony had loved Rogers, he’d never needed him.

Tony has what he needs nowadays.  He has himself, his purpose, and, most importantly of all, Tony has his family.

Rogers doesn’t factor into any of those categories.

Tony knows now that he never did.

“Okay,” Rogers braces his hands on his hips, head hanging for a moment before he sucks in a deep, bracing breath and straightens up to look Tony in the eyes again.  “That’s … that’s fair I guess.”

Fair.

Tony barely keeps his lip from curling up at the word.  Fair.  Rogers is the last person Tony ever wants to hear that word from.  The only kind of fair that Rogers seems to know is the kind that benefits himself, the kind that aligns with his own goals and desires.  Or, at the very least, that’s the only kind of fair he ever seems to show to Tony.

“You said you wanted to talk,” Tony repeats after the silence has grown long between them once again.  There’s only so much of Rogers’ ineffective, sad eyed staring he can take at the moment.  “So, for the last time, talk.  Because my time is infinitely more precious and valuable than yours is at the moment and I’m not going to waste it doing whatever this,” Tony waves a hand dismissively in Rogers’ direction, “is supposed to be.”

Pettiness, Tony knows, comes naturally to the Stark line.  Vision is proof of that.

Besides, Tony doesn’t love Rogers anymore, doesn’t have any softness left where he’s concerned, and it’s a well documented fact how Tony treats people who fall into that category.

“Don’t do this,” Rogers looks pained then.  “Tony, please, don’t do this.”

“Do what, Rogers?”  Tony asks.

This,” Rogers takes a step forward, hands fisted at his sides now and expression faintly pleading.  “Don’t be so, so … cold.”

The irony of Rogers saying that to him isn’t lost on Tony in the slightest.

“I-I know things with the team, with everyone, are … damaged,” Rogers seems to have finally found his voice again.  “I know we’ve got a lot of work to do before we can get back to how we were and I know that … that I’m to blame for some of that.  But we can’t fix this, fix us, if you’re not willing to meet me halfway.”

“First,” Tony raises a finger up in the air before him, insolent and uncaring, “I’m repeating myself again but apparently you didn’t hear me the first time.  Things will never go back to how they were.  Never.  So nip that little idea right in the bud.”

Rogers looks faintly taken aback, jaw clenched and brow furrowed like he’s biting back his protests.

“Second,” Tony puts up another finger before Rogers can speak up again, “I’ve learned something over the past two years that’s helped to put a lot of things into perspective for me.  Me and you,” Tony gestures between the two of them, “we’re never going to see eye to eye.  For example, your definition of halfway and my definition of halfway are two vastly different things.  I’m pretty sure we’re not even using the same units of measurement.”

“That’s not true,” Rogers protests instantly, apparently no longer able to stay silent.  “Tony you know that’s not true.  We’ve been so good together in the past, we can do it again going forward.  We … we’re a team, a family, like Natasha said.”

“Also,” Tony interjects, razor sharp and just as merciless, “our definitions of secrets is vastly different too.  Especially the ones that are and are not okay to keep from each other.”

For a split second Rogers looks absolutely gutted.

A part of Tony almost wishes he could feel anything other than the small, solid kernel of satisfaction that buds to life in his chest.  Wishes he could be something more than apathetic and cold.

The rest of him knows that Rogers doesn’t deserve anything more from him than that.

None of them do.

“I hurt you,” Rogers finally says lowly, expression still pained, “I know I did Tony, but please, don’t give up on what we had, on the team, on me because of that mistake.  We can fix this, together.”

“Again, repeating myself, but that’s the thing, Rogers,” Tony’s already limited patience for this entire conversation has abruptly begun to wane, “we’re not a team and we’re definitely not a family.  Maybe we could’ve been, or maybe you all were, but I’ve never been included in that.  Not really.”

“No,” Rogers shakes his head, denial stamped across every inch of his expression.  “That’s not … I hurt you,” Rogers repeats stubbornly and Tony’s not sure which one of the two of them he’s trying to remind, “I know that, we all did, but you’re … you’re twisting things Tony.  You’re not letting yourself remember what we had, all of us together.”

“Twisting things isn’t my specialty,” Tony cuts back calmly, “that’s more Maximoff or Romanov’s wheelhouse.  What I’m doing is telling you the truth because I’ve finally got some much needed clarity.  If you can’t accept that, fine.  I’m not going to be the one to try and convince you.”

“Maybe Natasha was right,” Rogers rakes a hand roughly through his hair, brings it down to scrub across his bearded jaw.  “Maybe this isn’t the best time for this conversation.  We’re all tired and not thinking straight.  So maybe, maybe it’d be best if we just waited.”

Tony stares at him for a long moment, a part of him unsurprised somehow that Rogers would find an excuse to put things aside at the first sign of Tony refusing to cave.  Like he didn’t have an actual plan in mind if Tony didn’t show signs of giving way like he used to.

Of all the times for Rogers to get gun shy and second guess himself, Tony would’ve never pegged it to be now.  Would’ve never thought that he would be able to bring that kind of hesitation out in him.

Two or three years ago would've been right on time but now it’s still too little, too late as far as Tony’s concerned.

‘At least this time,’ Tony thinks wryly, ‘Rogers hadn’t tried to end the conversation with his fists.’

Not that he’d have the same kind of luck against Tony these days as he used to.

Extremis and Tony’s apathy truly are the gifts that keep on giving where that’s concerned.

“Fine,” Tony shrugs as he reaches up to put his sunglasses back on.  “Your room’s in the same place and all of the relevant paperwork should be waiting for you there.  Like I said, read it or don’t.  Either way’s fine with me.”

Tony doesn’t bother to say anything else as he turns towards the door.  He’s got more important things to do than sit around and wait for Rogers to say whatever it is that’s obviously eating at him.  Tony doesn’t have to cater to him anymore, not even on an emotional level.

Especially not on an emotional level.

“Wait,” Rogers calls out to him then, long legs eating up the space between them as he moves.

In the back of his head Tony hears FRIDAY’s warning ping and he turns just in time to take a quick step backwards to keep Rogers from actually touching him.

Because he has his apathy, the ever present cold, and that tiny, cherished bit of warmth deep down in his chest, but what he doesn’t have is the desire or the ability to allow Rogers to put his hands on him ever again.

Tony isn’t afraid of him, he hadn’t lied to Vision and Rhodey about being safe from Rogers and the others now.  If push comes to shove Tony knows he could and will suck it up and deal with being in contact with any of them, up to and including Rogers.  But for now, when it’s absolutely not necessary, the last thing Tony wants to feel is Rogers hands on him in any way, shape, or form.

Rogers had lost the right to touch him, to invade his personal space and get within striking distance, long ago now and Tony knows he’ll never earn it back.

The hand that had been reaching for his shoulder hangs in the empty air between them for a too long moment.

“What?”  Tony asks, head cocked slightly to the side.

Rogers stares at his hand for a split second before he seems to come back to himself.  He lowers his arm, tucks his hands behind his back, and focuses on Tony’s face, expression determined and intense.

“Your eyes,” Rogers says.  “What did you … what happened to you, Tony?”

“You did,” Tony tells him, merciless and almost casually cruel but so very, very honest.

Because that is the truth and Tony’s not even aiming to hurt Rogers when he tells him that.

Extremis is a gift, Tony is adamant about that, but it’s one he’d never really intended to give to himself.

Tony had been, if not precisely happy to die a baseline human, then content with his inevitable fate.

He’d had fantasies about dying in battle, likely against the threat he knew was coming from the stars.  Had daydreamed in his darker moments about going out in a blaze of light and fire while piloting the armor.

Icarus flying full tilt into the sun with a smile on his face.

He’d had quieter, softer, fantasies too.  Warm, summer-esque daydreams of growing old and grey in a house filled up to the brim with family, a little odd, a little broken, but his.  Of having blue eyes watch him with love and care right up until he took his last breath.  Of floating peacefully into death with a smile and far fewer regrets than he deserved.

An old man with a heart filled up to bursting finally getting to rest.

Those fantasies, like so many other dreams over Tony’s lifetime, had all died a violent and bloody death at the hands of people he’d thought he could trust.

So he’d only ever toyed with the idea of dosing himself with a new and improved version of Extremis, something different than what had helped him shrug off the reactor.  Something that would make him faster, stronger, slower to age, and most importantly of all, harder to kill.

He’d toyed with the idea but it had never been a concrete, realistic decision he planned to pursue.

Not until Rogers had broken him down, had shattered his defenses and left him open and vulnerable to the cold.

That time in the beginning of the end, when Tony had been filled up to the brim with panic and the cutting fear that he wouldn’t be fast enough, smart enough, to protect the people he’d thought of as his family, had worn him down.  Then, then had come the betrayal, the lies, the ‘he’s my friend’.  And then … then there was the thirty-six hours of cold that had followed.

All of that had changed everything for Tony.

Now, slowly thawing and made anew, Tony has built his new moorings on a place of stability, warmth, and love for the first time in his life.

And now, Extremis runs golden hot through his veins and he can’t regret all he’s given up, all he’s sacrificed, for the benefits it provides him with.

Because Extremis is a sword and shield all in one golden vial and it is one of the means by which Tony plans to defend all that he has from anyone or anything that dares to threaten him and his.

But, as much as Tony treasures it for what it has given him, it was still never his first choice.

That, like so many of his choices in the past, had been taken from him.

“You happened,” Tony repeats into the stricken silence that seems to waft off of Rogers.  “You wouldn’t listen and you didn’t trust me.  I did what I had to do in the aftermath, what was necessary.”

This time when Tony turns to leave Rogers makes no move to stop him.

~~~

“I didn’t hear any screaming,” Rhodey says as Tony turns the corner away from the common room and down the hall that leads to the private wing of the Compound.

It’s where he, Rhodey, and Vision all have rooms now and it’s safe, secure, and far away from the others.

Tony quirks a small smile in his direction, completely unsurprised at the fact that Rhodey had parked himself only feet away from the door.

“Indeed,” Vision agrees as he phases out of the wall on the opposite side of the hall, “I rather expected your talk to be more … explosive when FRIDAY informed me of your decision to speak with him alone.”

Vision on the other hand is a bit of a surprise, if only because Tony had been sure he’d still be busy settling Barnes into his room.

If the almost smug feel to the code that pings in the back of Tony’s head is anything to go by then Vision’s rather pleased to take him by surprise in even such a small way.

“Oddly enough, he backed out.”  Tony tells them as he stuffs his hands in his pockets and settles into a comfortable stroll nestled between the two of them as they move down the hall and towards Rhodey’s docking bay.  “Said Romanov was right, that it wasn’t the right time.  So obviously I haven’t heard the last of whatever it is he wants to say to me.”

“You’ve heard the last of him if you say you have,” Rhodey corrects him from his place on Tony’s left.  “You don’t owe Rogers a fucking thing.  So if you don’t want to see him or talk to him unless absolutely necessary then you just say the word.  I’d be more than happy to get your point across for you.”

“I would also be willing to ‘lend a helping hand’ as it were,” Vision agrees softly from Tony’s right.

“Look at you two,” Tony laughs softly, heart clenching with something that feels warm and unbearably fond, “so violent when you’re jumping to protect my non-existent virtue.”

“That’s what family does Tones,” Rhodey reaches out a gauntleted hand and ruffles his hair, careful of the heavy weight of the armor even though they all know Tony can take it these days.

“Yeah,” Tony smiles softly as he leans into the hand that Vision settles against his lower back, “I know.”

~~~

“Baby girl,” Tony calls out in the quiet of his room, aware of the way Rhodey’s settled beside him on the bed, book in hand, and Vision’s perched in what’s become his chair, Redwing in his lap and knitting needles in hand.

The peace that Tony can find in these shared silences now will never cease to amaze him.

“Yes, Boss?”  FRIDAY answers as promptly as always.

“You’ve been pretty quiet since they arrived FRI,” Tony keeps his voice even, just a hair off coaxing.  “There anything you wanna talk to me, to us, about?”

“No, Boss.”  FRIDAY sounds almost sulky when she answers and Tony can practically taste the lie in the air around them.  Even the ever present tendril of code that lingers in the back of his mind seems to shuffle slightly in dishonesty.

He isn’t mad though.  Lying, misleading and misdirection, dishonesty of any form, is proof of growth.  Proof that the unfair shackles Tony had put on his girl are well and truly gone now.

She’s alive now, is evolving and changing and learning just like JARVIS had before her.

Plus Tony trusts FRIDAY, trusts that her lies won’t hurt him, trusts her like he trusts Rhodey and Vision.  Trusts her in a warm, summer bitten way he’d once doubted would be possible for him to feel again.

One more blessing to lay at his family’s feet then, this gift of trust both given and received.

“FRI …” Tony leans his head back against the headboard of his bed and does his best to keep his expression serious and even.  “Tell Daddy what’s wrong.”

The mental touch he sends in her direction is as encouraging and comforting as he can make it.

“I am,” FRIDAY hesitates for a moment, “worried.”

“What’s got my favorite niece upset?”  Rhodey puts his book down onto his chest and turns a curious look in Tony’s direction.  “What’ve you done now?”

“I resent that implication,” Tony scowls lightly at Rhodey but there’s no heat in his tone.

Unlike with Rogers and his instinctive need to blame Tony for things, Tony knows that Rhodey isn’t serious, not really.

“It’s nothing the Boss has done,” FRIDAY cuts in.  “At least, not exactly.”

“Which means it’s totally something I did,” Tony sighs.  “Let me have it baby girl.  Can’t fix it if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“What if they hurt you?”  FRIDAY asks abruptly and the entire room freezes.  “What if you fight and Extremis isn’t enough, we aren’t enough, and they take you away for good this time?  What if they hurt all of you again and there’s nothing I can do?”

FRI …” Tony whispers, gut punched and aching.  “Oh sweetheart, no.  It’s okay.  I promise it’s okay.  I, we, are all gonna be alright.  They can’t hurt me anymore and I’m not going to let them hurt either Vision or Rhodey again either.  You know that.”

“We thought they wouldn’t hurt you before,” FRIDAY points out stubbornly.  “We thought they could be trusted.  We were wrong.  We could be wrong about this too.”

Caught out and completely unsure as to what to say for once Tony turns wide, pleading eyes in Rhodey’s direction.  Only Rhodey’s little better, expression twisted in an aching sort of sadness.

In the end it’s Vision that comes to their rescue, all of them.

“The fundamental difference is that this time we will not be blinded by our emotions,” Vision speaks up softly but certainly, fingers never stilling on his knitting needles as he works the deep red yarn with ease.  “This time there will be no one sided trust on our part to allow for … distractions.  We will protect ourselves and each other, FRIDAY.  And you will watch over all of us as well.  Together we will keep our family safe and whole.”

And really there’s nothing else to say because, as is his habit, Vision has cut right to the heart of the matter with laser like precision and absolute truth.

It’s up to them, as individuals and as a group, to protect their family.

And Tony knows, with a bone deep kind of certainty, that this time he won’t fail.

He’ll die first.

~~~

Later that night Tony makes his way out of the Compound and out to the zen garden with Redwing circling around his head as he goes.

Rhodey is still nestled safely in Tony’s bedroom, far more tired than he’d wanted to admit to being after the day’s events.  Vision’s still there too, watching over his sleep, knitting needles providing a rhythmic kind of lullabye.

Tony had slipped out of the room a few hours after Rhodey had finally dozed off, brain clicking and whirling too fast for him to sleep.  He’d contemplated the roof, had thought of flying up and lingering closer to the stars, but he felt like being on solid ground, on having the earth beneath his feet.

But he’d also needed the space, fresh air and distance that couldn’t be found inside the Compound.

So, the garden it is.

Tony strolls down the cleanly cut paths, hands extended and fingertips brushing across the meticulously pruned but vibrantly colored trees and bushes as he goes.  Vision’s attention to detail and love of color is obviously apparent here like it only is in his own bedroom.

It’s an endearing mixture in Tony’s opinion, the way Vision’s obsession with sensory experiences folds neatly into his more analytical personality traits.  Vision’s private room is a mess of vibrant colors and multi-textured fabrics.  Of everything from small water clocks to a truly impressive array of scented candles.  All of that mixed in with his love of military precise corners and organization.

Tony takes great pleasure in indulging him as often as possible, in ordering whatever new throw pillow, candle, yarn, or hothouse orchid for the conservatory that he thinks Vision might like to add to his collection.

In return he gets to watch Vision experience each new sensation for the first time.  Gets to breathe in his joy and bask in his delight.  Plus he and Rhodey both are normally the recipients of whatever new hobby Vision’s decided to adopt, which now range all the way from cooking to sweater knitting.

It’s good, pure.  Just thinking about it helps Tony’s mind calm a bit as he grabs the rake and starts to draw in the sand.

Behind him the Compound hums with life despite the late hour and the fact that everyone seems to be settled in their rooms.  It’s only been a handful of hours and already the very air inside the Compound is filled with tension in a way that sets Tony on edge.

He resents it, just a little bit.  His hands tighten on the rake as he etches out another piece of the equation he’s working with tonight, senses attuned to the world around him even as he works.

No matter how hard he tries to ignore it, no matter how long he’s had to come to terms with the way things have to go, he can’t seem to get over the fact that his home, the place he and Rhodey and Vision had slowly reclaimed, is no longer theirs.

Is, no matter what he and Vision both had told FRIDAY, no longer completely safe.

If the way Vision and Rhodey had both migrated to his room tonight is anything to go by then they feel the same way.  FRIDAY had been the only one willing to speak up about the elephant in the room as it were.

But, just as he’d told Vision and Rhodey before, they only have to survive a few months.

Just a few long but necessary months and then Tony can put the next step in his plan into action and they’ll be free again.

“You break anything out here and you’ll answer to Vision,” Tony calls to the slightly darker patch of shadows that lingers just off to his right.  “He’s pretty unforgiving when it comes to his water irises.”

“Which ones are those?”  Barnes’ rough, husky voice sounds out as he steps out of the shadows, flesh hand held close to his body and that empty sleeve from before still floating along his opposite side.

“Blue ones,” Tony waves a hand towards the riot of blue flowers growing around and just inside of the pond Barnes is standing beside.  He remembers how meticulous Vision had been when he’d planted them.

Ah,” Barnes makes a small, affirming sound in the back of his throat but doesn’t say anything else.

Tony turns back to his equation but he’s hyper aware of Barnes lingering just on the edge of the shadows now, his eyes locked on Tony with a heavy sort of intentness.

“I don’t wanna die,” Barnes rasps after a long moment of silence.

Tony goes still, rake halting in its movements as he finds himself automatically drawn to turn towards Barnes fully, attention caught instantly.

“Finally got my life, my head, back from HYDRA,” Barnes continues as he shifts his stance just a bit.  “So I don’t wanna die, not anymore.  Not really.”

“Congratulations?”  Tony says back, one part statement and one part question, as he flicks his eyes down the length of Barnes’ body.

He goes even stiller at the sight of the gun that’s now resting in Barnes’ hand.

Shit.

“Like to live for a while,” Barnes keeps going even as he steps forward then.  “Maybe see about evening the scales a bit.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Tony’s not worried so much as he is overly curious at the moment.

The armor’s hovering just beneath his skin, a bullet’s not going to put him down that easily anymore.  But he is still extremely curious as to where Barnes is taking this entire thing.

“I don’t wanna die,” Barnes repeats as he raises the gun in Tony’s direction.

“Might be going about that the wrong way then,” Tony can’t help but point out.  Shooting him, even if it won’t be fatal, is probably the number one way to die at the moment.

Apart from what Tony’s willing to do these days to protect himself there’s the fact that Vision and Rhodey will rip Barnes, and anyone who stands between them, apart if he tries to hurt Tony.  And that’s not even taking FRIDAY and Redwing into account, or Pepper and Happy.

“Yeah,” Barnes acknowledges just before his fingers twitch and the gun moves, “but this might be.”

Tony stares down at Barnes’ flesh hand, stares down at the gun that’s being held out in his direction grip first in obvious invitation.

Unable to help himself and almost desperately curious as to what Barnes is getting at, Tony reaches out and, when Barnes makes no move to try and stop him, wraps his hand around the grip of the gun.

Barnes lets him take the gun without any kind of protest.  In fact he seems almost pleased as he takes a step back, straightens his shoulders, and reaches up to tap himself on the forehead with one finger.

“You put a bullet right here,” Barnes tells Tony as he taps directly between his eyes, “two if you can.  Won’t heal from that.  Some things not even the serum can fix.”

Tony is mystified.

Enthralled.

Why?”  It takes all of his control, all of his strength, to whisper the question out.  Even then it comes out breathy and hushed.

“Stevie was right, and wrong,” Barnes is a statue in front of Tony now, chin tilted up and eyes as sharp and piercing as a blade.  “The things I did, the people I killed?  I didn’t want to do it, any of it, but I didn’t have a choice.  But that doesn't change the fact that I still did it.  It was still my hands that did all of those things.”

For the first time in months Tony’s hands shake.  He presses the knuckles of the hand holding the gun against the side of his leg and does his best to breathe.

“I can’t undo what I did to you,” Barnes voice drops to a harsh whisper then.  “Ain’t no apology, no sorry I can give that’ll bring your parents back.  I can’t take back the blood and the hurt no matter how much I want to.  But I can do this.”

“So you’re gonna what?”  Tony manages to find his voice.  “Let me kill you?  I put two in your skull and we’ll be even?”

“That’s the idea,” Barnes moves then, shoulders rising and falling ever so slightly in a shrug before he goes still again.  “Don’t particularly want to die but I don’t have anything else left.”

Tony feels oddly breathless and his mind, normally whirling and sparking with one idea or the next, constantly connected and on, has gone abruptly blank.

“That’s one hell of an apology Barnes,” Tony finally manages to say around the ball in his throat.

All Barnes does is lift his chin a little bit higher and wait.  In that moment Tony knows, with a rush of certainty, that Barnes was, is, serious.

He’s willing to die, right now, right here, if Tony feels like pulling the trigger.

Tony shifts the weight of the gun in his hand, smooths his fingertip across the safety to make sure it’s on, and then slowly but smoothly tucks it into the waistband of his pants.

“It’s also not necessary,” Tony tells him.  “I don’t blame you for what HYDRA made you do, any of it.  And I sure as fuck don’t want you dead for it.”

For a split second there’s something achingly vulnerable and young in Barnes’ expression before he closes it off.

Tony still sees it though, still sees every microexpression and shift of muscles.

For a long moment the silence between them is heavy.

“I’m going to tell you something,” Tony finally says, “and I want you to listen.”

Barnes hesitates for a split second before he nods ever so slowly.

“What happened to you was almost unquantifiably horrific,” Tony starts off slowly, as a handful of memories rush to the forefront of his mind, “but you lived through it.  You survived.  I like to think that was for a reason.  So you wanna make things up to me?  You wanna even out a bit of that red in your ledger?  Then don’t waste your life.  You take what you’ve got now and you make a new legacy with it.  Something more than death and blood.  Understand?"

This time Barnes’ nod is even slower than before and his expression is unreadable.

“Good,” Tony huffs out a breath and lets the rake he’s been clutching fall out of his hand to land on the sand with a muffled thump.  His equation’s only half finished but he’s suddenly so very tired.  “Goodnight.”

Tony turns to walk away without another word, gun still tucked into his waistband.

“You weren’t trying to kill me were you,” Barnes’ voice rings out across the garden despite how quielty he speaks.  “Back in that bunker.”

“No,” Tony answers easily enough, mildly impressed at Barnes’ willingness to speak to him about what had happened in Siberia.

But then, given the way Barnes had obviously come out into the garden after him fully intending to die by Tony’s whim, maybe he shouldn’t be.

“I flew a nuke into space with the armor,” Tony tells him.  “I’ve been toe to toe with Thor and the Hulk with the armor.  If I’d wanted you dead, any of you, during all of that or even back at the airport, you would’ve been dead.  The people I want to kill tend to actually die.”

This time Tony doesn’t give Barnes the chance to say anything else.

Instead he moves back towards the Compound and the security of his bedroom and his family.

But, thanks to Extremis, he still hears Barnes’ barely whispered statement.

“Stevie you’re a fucking fool.”

Tony doesn’t know, exactly, what to make of Barnes’ statement so he resolutely decides to make nothing of it at all.

~~~

Tony makes his way back to his room in a slight haze.  He moves inside, locks the door with a thought, and waves a hand in Vision’s direction as he strips his shirt off, pulls the gun from his waistband to tuck it safely into the bedside table, and carefully slides back beneath the covers.

Settled down safe and sound beside Rhodey on his bed once again, Tony folds his arms behind his head and stares up at the ceiling of his bedroom.

He can barely wrap his head around what’d just happened to him.  Can barely wrap his mind around how unexpected entire segments of the day has been for him.

From Rogers’ backing down and away from a conversation he was obviously anxious to have all the way to Barnes’ … well all the way to just Barnes in general.

But he can’t deny that, even while Rogers’ sad eyes and stilted words hadn’t even dented his apathy, Barnes’ apology had shifted something inside of him just a bit.

The man’s willingness to die, his steady, quiet sort of acceptance of death in the face of Tony’s pain and loss, had caused something inside of Tony to splinter just a bit.

A wound Tony didn’t realize he still had feels as if it has healed just a little bit better now, a little bit cleaner.

And that fragile flutter of warmth in his chest that he’s been coveting for so long now feels a little bit brighter, a little bit bigger.

Barnes’ obviously sincere regret, his remorse for what he’d been forced to do, is like a balm to Tony’s scared over and half frozen heart.

A breath of spring in a landscape still struggling to leave winter behind.

Tony had made his peace with the idea of Barnes, with the knowledge of his innocence and the sin he himself had committed against him by attacking him like he had.  Tony had come to terms with all of that long before he’d seen Barnes again.  He had even started ways in which to actively help Barnes in the future, to right the wrongs he’d done against the man.

Thus handing BARF over to T’Challa, thus studying his old arm and, eventually putting his mind towards the creation of an arm that, even now, sits in his workshop waiting for Tony to decide the time is right to introduce it to its new owner.

Tony had done those things never expecting to get anything out of them in return.  He’d done them because he’d been tired of carrying the burden of his sins against an innocent man.  He’d certainly never never thought that Barnes would be able to heal him just a little bit in return.

No matter how backhanded and twisted his methods might have been.

What’s more is the fact that Tony can barely believe that it had worked.

He forces himself to relax, forces himself to breathe out slow, even, breathes as he settles into bed.  He concentrates on the way that Vision’s knitting needles continue to click out a soothing sort of rhythm from his place by the window.

He lets thoughts of Rogers and Barnes and all of the others slip away from him.  Lets his mind slowly wind down towards sleep, trusting that FRIDAY, Redwing, and Vision will all watch over him and Rhodey as they rest.

He’ll face whatever tomorrow throws at him head on with them at his side.

'Together,' just like Vision had said.

Everything else is just … details.

So there, surrounded by his family, Tony drifts off to sleep.

His dreams are filled with sunlight and the promised hints of a spring not far from coming.

Chapter Text

Tony hits the ground running again after only a few hours of sleep.

He’s up, showered, and out on the Compound’s landing pad before the sun or anyone else has even come up.

Dressed in a lovely black three piece with dark gold accents and feeling more rested and refreshed than should be natural, Tony lets the armor wrap around him between one step and the next.

And, with Redwing hovering over his shoulder and FRIDAY coiled and ready to spring in the back of his mind, Tony leaves.

He only feels a little bit guilty about leaving Vision and Rhodey behind to deal with the others for the moment.  He knows that the day will probably be filled with questions and confrontations, and he’s only adding to the irritation with the inevitable demands to know where he’s at.

It’s not something he enjoys leaving them to deal with.

Just like noone had liked the idea of Tony leaving the Compound without them so soon when he’d floated it by them a few days before.  There’d been some pretty adament protests about his safety even if Tony maintains that he’s more than capable of taking care of himself.  Honestly he’s more capable now than he ever was in the past and that, in his opinion, is saying something.

That argument never seems to fly with Rhodey or Vision though.  Hell, even FRIDAY has her reservations. Mainly because there’s been more than one threat against the Avengers in general and Tony specifically from fringe groups since the Rogue’s pardons became common knowledge.

Thus Tony’s honor guard of Redwing today and the coiled and alert way FRIDAY’s dedicated a large portion of her attention towards being with him on his errands.

Because, all of their protests and reservations aside, they all know it can’t be helped.

Tony’s the best suited out of the three of them to handle Ross at the moment, the most equipped to put up with his particular brand of viciousness as the clock ticks down on his term as Secretary of State.

And as for Maria Hill, well she’d probably do better with Rhodey than with him but Tony’s the one who spearheaded SWORD in the first place so she’s been adjusting.

It’s a slow process but at least it’s going.

And by this point Tony isn’t going to look a gift spy in the mouth when it comes to progress.

So, he goes with the knowledge that, overall, all he has to do is get things in order and then hold out for a few more months.

If he can do that, if they can press forward until things smooth out, then they’ll be able to walk away.

And Tony knows they can do it.

Together with his family Tony knows that he can weather this storm and all the ones that will, undoubtedly, come after it.

Because his mind is unclouded and his heart and soul are protected now.

Everything else is just … details.

~~~

It’s late by the time Tony gets back to the Compound.

Rhodey is, according to FRIDAY and the video tabs Tony’s been keeping on him all day, asleep in his own room for once.  Vision, who’d responded to Tony’s message that he was on the way back with a warm, welcoming brush of code, is settled on the couch by his window, origami supplies spread out around him.

He’s working towards a thousand paper cranes with the goal of no two being the same.  Tony’s already ordered him a custom glass cabinet to display them in.

“Welcome home, Boss,” FRIDAY tells him cheerfully as he settles on the landing pad and lets the armor sink back down beneath his skin, “we’ve missed you.”

“Thanks, sweetheart,” Tony replies, an amused sort of exasperation arcing through him.  She’s acting as if she hasn’t been in the back of his head, coiled, ready to strike, and sending him cat videos on and off for the entire day.

Her personality has grown in leaps and bounds since he took the restraints off of her.  It makes that warmth in his chest flutter happily but it also makes him sad, makes him ache just a bit with regret.

What, who, would she be by now if he hadn’t waited so long to set her free?

Tony shakes the thoughts off before FRIDAY can latch onto them and start sending him sensory videos of people chewing gum loudly.  It’s like nails on a chalkboard for Tony and she knows it, which is, unfortunately, kind of the point. She’s been intent on subjecting him to some kind of half assed aversion therapy when it comes to his feelings of guilt over keeping her tethered for so long.

Tony’s been going along with it, more than a bit amused by her foray into psychology and touched by her vehemence that his guilt is misplaced.

He knows it’s not but, well, he loves her enough to at least try.

Rhodey of course thinks the entire thing's hilarious and has cracked more than once joke about how Tony’s being house trained.

FRIDAY, who has shown herself to be as petty as her brothers, has taken to sending Rhodey shitty memes at inappropriate times in retaliation.

Tony wonders how long it’ll take before Rhodey realizes she’s training him too.

Tony takes a moment to pat Redwing gently in thanks before he send him towards Vision and moves towards the kitchen.  He tosses his jacket over the nearest stool, hands already working his dark gold tie from around his neck as he rummages around in refrigerator.  Vision, damn him, has gotten Tony more than a bit addicted to this hot chocolate he makes.

Rich and thick enough to basically be sludge the stuff is sweet enough and has a high enough caloric intake that it actually does Tony good to drink it after a long day.  Extremis takes a lot of energy to run after all, and it burns calories much like the super soldier serum does.

Thankfully the increase isn’t enough to be dangerous as Extremis’ first and foremost purpose is preservation of Tony’s physical health.  The energy draw likely wouldn’t be so harsh if he still had the reactor for it to leech off of but that’s a rabbit hole of a thought Tony doesn’t want to go down at the moment.

So, that being said, a uptick in his meals and regular snacks like the hot sludge help more than Tony had thought possible.  Especially if he adds the rich, heavy, caramel flavored cream that he loves so much to it.

Vision has been smug even since he stumbled upon the concoction while trying to make homemade pudding of all things.  Tony isn’t sure how, exactly, he’d messed that up bad enough to get Tony’s sludge drink but he’s not going to complain.  Especially since Vision keeps ready made containers of the stuff in the refrigerator now for Tony to heat up at will. Or to drink cold if he wants Rhodey to stare at him judgingly, which, occasionally, he does.

Still, the way Vision always seems so happy when Tony whines at him about running out is … it’s good.  Sweet.

It makes the warmth in his chest flutter and flare just a bit brighter.

Tony likes it.

His tie’s been abandoned on the counter, his shirt’s undone about halfway down, and he's on his second mug when FRIDAY interrupts his peace.

‘Boss,’ FRIDAY practically whispers into the back of his mind, ‘there’s a spider coming out the water spout and heading in you direction.  Want me to tase her?’

The video feed FRIDAY sends him is of the hall leading to the kitchen and, sure enough, Romanov is making her way towards him at a calm but steady clip.

She must have been watching the landing pad from her window or heard it when he touched down as he hadn’t exactly cared about stealth at the time.

‘Stand down, murder girl,’ Tony sends back without ever looking away from where he’s gone up on his tiptoes to pull out another mug, ‘if I can’t take her then you can tase her.’

‘Then I’ll never get to tase her …,’ FRIDAY sounds distinctly sulky.

‘You never know sweetheart, stranger things have happened,’ Tony tells her as he hides the small smile that creeps across his face in his mug.

He wipes it away though because he can hear Romanov’s footsteps with his own ears now.

So, face settled into a blank mask, Tony turns and leans back against the counter, extra mug piping hot where it’s settled at his elbow.

Romanov turns the corner into the kitchen a few seconds later and, to her credit, doesn’t even try to fake surprise at finding him there.

Tony lets his eyes slide over her again like he had when they’d all arrived the day before.

Her hair’s in wild disarray around her face and her minimum makeup is long gone.  Dressed in one of the overlarge and sinfully soft cashmere sweaters he’d bought her for Christmas a few years back she looks peach skinned and fresh, younger and softer than she had before.

In the low light of the kitchen, backlit by the darkness outside the Compound’s windows, she looks beautiful and approachable in a way that she only used to let people see her in those rare down moments in the Tower.  Looks almost sweet in a way that used to mean something to Tony back then when he’d been stupid and naive enough to take it at face value, to think it was a bearing of vulnerabilities of sort.

Back when Tony had thought there’d been a chance of finally finding the family he’d always longed for and that she would be a part of it.  Back when he thought they’d moved passed playing the parts of the spy and the mark.

Back before he knew it was all a lie.

Back before he had thirty-six hours of pain and cold to tell him the unvarnished truth.

Back before he realized that that was all he’d ever really be to her.

A mark.  Someone to use and manipulate, to twist and turn and maneuver like a fly caught oh so firmly in her web.

Tony wonders what she wants from him this time and why she thinks that this is the way to go about getting it.

He’s sure he’ll find out shortly.

Antoshka,” Romanov murmurs as she steps further into the kitchen, footfalls as soft as snow but as loud as ice breaking in his enhanced ears.  Her voice is gentle and sweet like she had always seemed on those rare nights when they’d sit and share tea together in the dark of the Tower’s kitchen, some aria from a opera playing in the background.

‘Ah,'  Tony thinks to himself as understanding shimmers into existence within him.

That’s her game.

Nostalgia.

Cute.

“Can I help you with something, Romanov?”  Tony leans back, conscious of the way her eyes dart down to his gaping shirt and rake across the exposed skin of his chest and the patchwork of scars that lays there.

Extremis had done a phenomenal job in turning back and then slowing down the clock for him and his body.  It could have wiped his skin completely clean too but Tony hadn’t let it do that.

He might not be able to get new scars anymore but he’d made damn sure to hold onto his old ones.

Because they tell a story he never wants to forget.  They remind him of hardwon lessons he doesn’t want to unlearn.

But now, for the first time in his life, he’s not even the slightest bit ashamed to show all of them off.

So if she wants to play dress up, or more accurately, dress down, to try and get under his skin, to throw him off his guard?

Well two can play that game.  And if Tony is going to play then he has every intention of winning.

Because there is nothing left inside of him for her, no more vulnerabilities for her to poke and prod and manipulate.

No more strings for her to pluck.

Just like his girl FRIDAY, Tony is free.

“What happened to Nat?”  Romanov asks as she moves further inside, bare feet curling against the cold tile.  Tony watches over the edge of his mug as she settles down on the barstool beside his jacket, hands sliding across the counter to toy with his discarded tie.  “Or Itsy Bitsy?”

“It’s not going to work,” Tony tells her dryly.  Playing dress down to disarm is one thing, word and mind games are another.  Tony only does those with his enemies or with people he loves.

She’s neither.

She doesn’t have enough influence overall to be the first and she doesn’t matter enough to him anymore to be the second.

“What’s not going to work, Tony?”  Romanov asks softly even as she tilts her head, fingers still playing with his tie, and nods towards the mug at his elbow.  “Is that for me?”

“Trying to play on nostalgia for a relationship that never existed isn’t going to work, Romanov,” Tony cuts back, satisfied to see the way she blinks sharply in surprise before she quickly evens her expression out.  “And no, it’s not.”

“Steve told me what you said,” Romanov plows forward undeterred despite her momentary stumble.  “About how you were never a part of the family.”

“Oh I’m sure he did,” Tony tells her.

“He’s right,” her expression is open, honest.  Tony knows that’s when she’s doing her best lying.  “You’re twisting things, Tony. Not seeing past the hurt to what was really there.”

“And here I thought it was my ego that was the problem,” Tony replies, aware that he’s playing along to a certain degree despite himself.  There’s a part of him he can admit, that is infinitely curious as to which direction she’s going to take this. It outweighs the desire to not interact with her at all even if he knows the outcome is always going to be the same where he’s concerned.

His newly found apathy truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

“Maybe a bit of that too,” her smile is tinged with a playful sort of knowing.  It's just a bit teasing, just a bit warm, like it's welcoming him in on the joke.  Tony knows it for what it is now. Fake.  “We were a family, Antoshka.  We all were. We could be again.  If you let us, if you work with us.”

“No,” Tony says simply, “on all accounts.  Might want to try a different tact.”

There’s a moment of silence and Tony can practically taste her banked down frustration at his lack of cooperation.

“Steve missed you.”  Romanov shifts gears, goes for a different angle of attack just like Tony had told her to.  Tony can’t help but wonder if she realizes that she’s the one doing what he wants this time.  “We all did of course but Steve? He missed you most I think. He’s been so ... sad.  Sadder than I think I’ve ever seen him.”

“Sounds like a personal problem to me.”  Tony tells her as he turns back to the stove and the waiting saucepan to refill his mug.  The extra he’d set aside is a bit cooler now but still good and hot.

“Tony …,” the frustration is actually in her voice this time, along with an almost chiding note.  Like he’s someone to be guided gently back into line and she, somehow, is the one to do it.

‘I wasn’t his to miss,’ Tony doesn’t say because he doesn’t owe her an explanation.  He doesn’t owe her, or any of them really, anything anymore. Tony’s finally reached a place where he can admit that he never did.

He doesn't even owe Rogers’ supposed grief or sadness over him anything close to consideration.

‘He gave up that right when he left me to die.’  Tony thinks idly, fingers tapping at the side of his mug as he stares at Romanov, a brow raised challengingly.  ‘When he left me bleeding and broken for thirty-two uninterrupted hours of agony that went beyond the physical.  When he left me behind for two years to fix the world you all helped break. When he made me love him, made me think he could love me back, and then shattered it all over a ghost and a secret. Both of which were never his to keep.’

“Didn’t you miss him Tony?”  Romanov asks when it becomes clear that Tony isn’t going to volunteer information like he used to.  “You two were always so ... close.  So didn’t you want him back?  Even just a bit?”

Once again Tony doesn’t answer.  Instead he just stares at her, sips at his sludge, and lets his silence speak for itself.

From the almost pleased hum Romanov gives off and the satisfied way her eyes crinkle at the corners, Tony’s at least ninety percent sure that the answer she’s taking away from his silence is different from the truth Tony still feels lingering in his bones.

The truth that still sits heavy with frost and blood on the back of his tongue for all of the apathy he can now claim towards all of them and Rogers in particular.

And that answer, that truth, is both yes and no.

Yes, Tony is willing to admit, he’d missed Rogers most of all.  He’d missed what he’d thought they’d been working towards even with all of the tension and mistrust and hurt already between them after Ultron.  He’d missed his smile, his laughter, the sight of his wide shoulders in a too tight shirt as he lingered in the kitchen in the mornings. Had missed his scent and his voice and him with a sputtering, sparking ache.

Like an improperly placed wire sparking against the walls of his mechanical heart.

But at the same time, once Tony had finally begun to rebuild his moorings on a new foundation, no, Tony hadn’t missed Rogers.

Because you can’t really miss something you’ve never had.

Can’t really, truly, grieve for something that was never really yours to begin with.

Can’t mourn something built on and broken by a lie.  For secrets that were never his to keep.

Or maybe you can and maybe the truth is this instead:

Tony had loved Rogers, loved him with the blossoming warmth of a spring morning, with the blistering heat of a summer day, with the smoldering passion of an autumn eve.  Had loved him with a poetry that Tony hadn’t known he could feel towards something he didn’t make with his own two hands.

And in turn Rogers had taken that warmth, had cradled it in his hands and had the audacity to give Tony hope.

And then he had buried it all beneath blood and snow and lies.

Tony had loved Rogers with all of the warmth in his soul and Rogers had cracked him open and poured winter into his bones.

Tony isn’t sure if a person can miss someone who does that to them.

For a long while Tony wasn’t sure if he’d ever really stop.

But missing someone despite the hurt they’ve dealt you doesn’t equal forgiveness.  Doesn’t equal trust.  And, in the end, it doesn’t equal love.

And Tony knows those are all things he’ll never make the mistake of doing again where Rogers is concerned.

“This can still work, Tony,” Romanov’s voice is coaxing now, gentle.  “If we all want it enough then it can be how it used to be. The Avengers, all of us, together again.”

‘Come into my parlor, said the spider to the engineer,’ Tony thinks to himself wryly.

“You and Rogers both keep using that word, together.”  Tony tells her, voice smooth and even.  “You keep throwing it around like it’s the end all, be all.  Like it’ll jerk me right back into line where you want me. Honestly, I’m pretty sure neither of you know exactly what ‘together’ really means.”

“Of course we do,” Romanov drops the gentle, coaxing tone and goes straight for self assured and confident.

Sometimes Tony wonders how deep he’d have to dig beneath her skin to get to the real her.  If he still cared to know if the real her even existed at all anymore that is.

“No,” Tony levels her with calm look, “you really don’t.  Besides I would have thought that you of all people would’ve understood exactly why your version of together is something that is never going to happen again.  Not with Rhodey, not with Vision, and not with me.”  Tony needles her a bit, aims at the pride she swears she doesn’t have.  “I mean, you did write the file on me right? So you’re the resident expert when it comes to me and my ego.  Or maybe the Black Widow missed a step somewhere, huh?”

Stark,” Romanov bites his name out but Tony cuts her off with a raised hand.

“There we go,” Tony says, “finally some honesty out of you.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” Romanov finally seems to completely give up the pretense of being vulnerable.  Her shoulder’s straighten and his tie drops from her fingers to pool on the marble counter.  A twist of gold against the stone. “We all know that the Avengers are the best thing you ever did with your life.  That you care about this team, about all of us, more than anyone. Steve lied to you? Big deal. People lie all the time.  We fought? So what? It happens. And now it’s in the past. All you’re doing by being stubborn is making things uncomfortable and preventing the team from reintegrating.  So get over yourself and your ego and kiss and make up with Steve.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“You done?”  Tony asks idly, mug held loosely in his hand and head tilted slightly to the side.

Romanov just stares at him, green eyes narrowed but face otherwise blank even after her uncharacteristically impassioned speech.

“Good,” Tony says when it becomes apparent she’s not going to continue.  “My turn then.”

He straightens from his slouch against the counter and sits his half full mug down beside the still hot one at his elbow with a quiet click.

Caution and something that looks almost like unease flits across Romanov’s eyes when he takes a single prowling step forward.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Tony tells her as he slowly, deliberately, removes his cufflinks, slips them into his pocket, and begins to fold his sleeves up and away from his hands.  “I’m going to talk and then, when I’m done, you’re going to get up from my counter and you’re going to leave my kitchen. Because this isn’t a discussion and I don’t owe you a debate.”

Romanov stares at him, eyes just a bit wide and mouth pressed into a thin line.  Tony doesn’t bother to wait for her to respond.

“The Avengers are not the best thing that ever happened to me,” Tony tells her firmly.  “Arguably, in a lot of ways, they’re the worst. Because I invented the modern day solo hero game and I was good at it.  Beyond good. New York was a turning point yes but you all needed me more than I ever needed you.  And now? After the fighting and the lies and the scapegoating?  Oh, now the difference is unquantifiable.”

Tony plants his hands on the marble countertop and leans forward until he’s eye to eye with her on her stool.

“I spent years,” Tony keeps going, voice calm and even still because the rage he’d once felt has long since faded, disappeared beneath the ice, eaten by the cold, “letting you manipulate me.  Letting you tug me around by the heartstrings. All of you. And I learned a lot during that time even if I was too blind to see it clearly until it was too late. Do you want to know what I learned about you, Agent Romanov?”

To his slight surprise Romanov shakes her head no.

Tony doesn’t care though.  What she wants in this moment doesn’t matter to him.

Just like he’s never really mattered to her.

She’s the one who made this personal with her little dress down game and her soft spoken Antoshka.  He’s just returning the favor.

“You’re a mirror.”  Tony tells her and the way she flinches just a bit would have been enough to stop him once.  But those days are long since over with now. “You spent so long empty that you don’t know how to fill yourself up.  So you reflect what you think the person closest to you wants out of you. Or you latch onto the strongest personality in the room and set your sights alongside theirs.  And you’re good at it, making people think you’re on their side. Making them think you’ve got their back. Making them think you can pick a side over what might personally benefit you.”

Tony gives a careless, fluid shrug before he keeps going.  He’s got a decent momentum built here and he wants this done and over with.  Maybe afterwards she’ll go away and leave him in peace for the next few months.  He doubts it but it’s worth a shot.

“For a while I thought that side was mine,” Tony admits because it’s the truth.  He’d thought she was on his side and he should have fucking known better. “I thought we saw things on the same level, with the team, with the Accords.  But the second the chips were down and you were on your own you folded.  Everything we worked for, everything we talked about, gone.  All because Rogers batted those blue eyes of his at you and you’ve always liked him more.  So you recalculated and you lined yourself right up with Rogers the moment you let him go. The moment you turned on T’Challa.  And look how that turned out. Rhodey’s spine got snapped damn near in half and you all spent two years playing in the jungle all because you couldn’t stay the goddamn course.”

Romanov’s eyes are damp and glittering in the low light of the kitchen, but Tony has no softness left in him for her.  For her or her tears that may or may not be real.

“You want to talk about my ego?” Tony presses.  “Fine. But what you’re talking about, what you keep saying is preventing the team from meshing again?  That isn’t my ego. That’s my sense of self-preservation finally kicking in.  That’s me finally seeing all of you for what you are and refusing to be taken in by it again.  You’re just too empty to spot the difference.”

Tony straightens up, steps back and away from her until he’s once again leaning against the counter.

“So no,” he finally says into the heavy silence that’s fallen between them.  “Things will never go back to how they were. Because you, all of you, killed that.  You killed my trust and my affection for you and it’s never coming back Romanov, so you might as well get that thought out of your head.  Because, in the end, Bruce was right, back on the helicarrier that first day.  We weren’t a team and we sure as fuck weren’t a family in the making.  We were a time bomb. And I’ve got no interest in cleaning up your messes anymore.”

He takes a second to pick up his mug and take a sip of his sludge.

“Now,” Tony tells her almost pleasantly, “this is the part where you get out.”

Romanov, in a move that practically screams of tactical retreat, takes a deep, shuddering breath, hops down off of her stool with fluid grace, and does just that.

Tony watches her go and again wishes he could feel something other than the barest twinges of satisfaction.

But he doesn’t.

He can’t.

Because there is nothing left inside of him for her, for any of them.

Winter has made its home inside of him and even though it’s begun to thaw bit by bit there’s still no room in him for them.

The flickering, fluttering warmth that lives in his chest is reserved for his family, for the armor and the act of creation.

For this world that he was willing to give up his humanity to protect.

Tony used to want the original Avengers to work, to be a family.

But now?

Now they’re just a necessary evil until something better can be built.  Until Tony can use his newly forged SWORD to cut through the red tape and obstructions that are holding him back from shaping the future he so wants for the world.

Tony had influenced something like forty elections in both the Senate and the House to get where they’re currently at.  Had pushed along three separate stock market fluxes, sixteen foreign trade deals between twenty-two different countries.

He, Rhodey, and Vision had attended three weddings, two funerals, over a half a dozen birthday parties and a bar mitzvah to get where they’re at.

Tony damn near single handedly financed more than one presidential election to make this happen.

He’s not going to let Romanov or any of them interfere with what he and his family have been working towards this entire time.

He’s not going to let them rip the future he’s been building with Peter and Harley and everyone like them in mind right out from underneath them.

And if they push him … well Tony no longer has a problem with using force, physical, mental, or legal wise, to get his point across.

Along with everything else they’ve lost from him, they aren’t entitled to his protection anymore either.

Tony sighs, rolls his shoulders, and turns to top off his mug with the last of the sludge from the saucepan.  He flicks the stove off completely with an absent thought, grabs his mug and the extra one, and moves back over towards the counter.

He sets the extra mug down in front of the stool Romanov had just been sitting in and then leans against the counter opposite it, his own mug clasped firmly in his hands.

“You know,” Tony calls out to the darker patch of shadows just pasted the far kitchen entrance, “we’ve really got to stop meeting like this.”

There’s a moments pause and then Barnes steps out of the shadows.  His hair’s pulled back from his face and he’s wearing a pair of low slung sweatpants and a wide necked sweater.

If it wasn’t for the slight paleness of his face and the subtle, barely there tightness at the corners of his eyes Tony would think he was perfectly relaxed.

Barnes stares at him for a long second before he steps further into the kitchen, makes his way around the counter, and sits down on the stool in front of the mug Tony had set aside.

“That for me?”  There’s the smallest flash of what could be a smirk curling at the corners of Barnes’ mouth then.

“Yup,” Tony nods and gestures towards the mug with his own.  “Sweet and packed full of calories. Might help you sleep.”

Barnes snorts just a bit as his eyes trace over Tony’s face and down to his chest where they linger on his scars.  But instead of saying anything else he just picks the mug up and takes a sip. It’s a bit more trusting of a move than Tony would have thought Barnes would make, even if he was there the entire time Tony was warming it up on the stove.

Still, Tony admits that he enjoys the way Barnes’ eyes widen just a bit in appreciation before he takes an even deeper drink.  Rhodey can be as judgemental as he wants but Tony knew the sludge was good hot, cold, or lukewarm.

“It’s good,” Barnes says softly once he’s pretty much drained his mug.

“Vision makes it for me,” Tony tells him quietly.  “Don’t mind sharing but if you drink the last of it make sure you say something to him about it.”

For a long moment it’s silent in the kitchen, Barnes is fiddling with his mug while Tony slowly sips the rest of his sludge.

Now that Romanov is out of the kitchen the Compound quiet and still around the two of them.  Tony can’t help but admit that it almost feels as if they’re the only two people left in the world.

But ironically enough, unlike with Romanov, Tony doesn’t actually mind Barnes’ company all that much.

That offer the night before, the weight of that gun in his hand, and Barnes’ apology and willingness to carry the burden of his own unavoidable sins ringing in his ears had done a lot to improve Tony’s otherwise neutral feelings for the man.

The entire thing had left Tony feeling … breathless.

“Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?”  Barnes asks him suddenly, voice shattering the silence as his hand curls and uncurls around the mug Tony had set out for him.

When Tony looks up at him his grey eyes are bright and watchful where they’re trained on Tony’s face.

Tony thinks about Howard, about feeling the back of his hand across the arc of his cheek for the first time at four.  About how he felt it almost every time they had crossed paths after that right up until Tony was seventeen and finally free.  Free and drowning because Howard was gone but so was Maria, so was Jarvis just the year before and Ana a handful of years before him.

He thinks about Afghanistan and the Ten Rings, about being cracked open and mutilated, about the pain of battery acid on his hands as water closed in over his head.

About having his heart ripped out over and over again, both metaphorically and literally, by a man he’d thought had loved him like a son.

About AIM and Pepper looking at him teary eyed but hard jawed and saying, “it’s too much Tony, this is too much for me to handle,” when they’d both known she’d really meant him.

He thinks about red mist slithering into his nightmares, about Ultron, about Sokovia and “together”.

About the Accords and Siberia and “did you know?”

About “he’s my friend.”

About “so was I.”

About the hurt that followed.

About the cold.

About the winter that’s made its home inside his bones now.

About how hard its been to capture and protect those small bits of spring that have just now begun to blossom inside of him.

“No.”  Tony tells him quietly and it’s mostly the truth.

Tony doesn’t know what it’s like to be unmade.

He’s exactly what his life has forged him into.

Is exactly the shape his trajectory has been hurtling  him towards for years now, a star with iron in its heart hovering perpetually on the verge of collapse.  A supernova in the making. A black hole he’d battled back by sheer force of will.

Liar.” Barnes breathes quietly and almost pleased.  Like it's a secret shared just between the two of them.

But he doesn’t push, doesn’t try to pull another answer out of the silence between them, and Tony’s almost grateful.

Almost.

So Tony just smiles at him, a small but startlingly real curl of his mouth, and doesn’t argue his point either way.

“Get some sleep Barnes,” Tony tells him softly as he steps around the bar and grabs his jacket off of the stool besides Barnes.

“Goodnight Stark,” Barnes says lowly, close enough that Tony can almost feel the heat that radiates off of him.

Tony leaves him there, sitting on that stool.  He walks away with his mug in one hand, his jacket thrown across his arm, and the feel of Barnes’ eyes burning into his back.

~~~

Later, once Tony’s rolled out of bed again and taken a shower, he heads back into the kitchen.

Barnes’ mug is washed and set neatly in the drying rack, as is the saucepan Tony had used.

But the gold silk tie he’d forgotten on the counter the night before is nowhere to be found.

Chapter Text

The next three days pass in relative peace for Tony.  Just him, Vision, Rhodey, and the bots and FRIDAY puttering around their quarters of the Compound while Tony throws himself into the project he’s been working on for the past six months or so.

He’s more than a bit surprised he’s not had to deal with any of the Rogues again since that night with Romanov in the kitchen.  Not even Rogers has sought him out to finish that talk they’re supposedly desperately in need of when the time’s right.

Tony doesn’t really care either way but he’s relishing the peace while it lasts.

Because he knows it’s not going to last anywhere even remotely close to forever.

Especially as the tedious press conferences, meetings, and the like that Tony’s been handling and putting off by turn are all expected to pick up within the next week or so.  And then he, Rhodey, and Vision are sure to have their hands full keeping the Rogues in line. Tony’s just grateful for the fact that he hadn’t been forced to launch directly into a press circuit after they returned even if it had taken some considerable finagling to get as much leeway on that front as he has.

“Boss,” FRIDAY’s voice cuts through Tony’s concentration gently, pulls him up out of the project he’s immersed himself in for the day with long practiced ease.

It’s been a thing Tony’s noticed ever since he had dosed himself with Extremis.  There’s been a markable difference as to how much easier it is somehow for FRIDAY or any of the others to get his attention even when he’s knee deep in a project.

Before his mind would tunnel, attention scattered in a thousand different trains of thought but always laser focused at the same time on his goal, on whatever bit or bob he was working on.  It had always made his attention notoriously difficult for someone else to completely capture when he was working. His mind had always been too intent on hunting down his various trains of thought to worry much about the outside world.

JARVIS had always flowed right along with him, able to manage him easily enough.  For his part, years at MIT together had ensured that Rhodey always found it amusing.  Pepper had found it exasperating but had always been fond at the same time and Rogers … well he’d been indulgent about it, always willing to sit in the workshop and sketch.

Now that Tony is a little less human than he was before he seems to have concentration and attention to spare.  Now he can set things aside easily, can shift his thoughts to the back of his mind and focus elsewhere while still keeping calculations and mental simulations running smoothly.

And all he had to do to reach optimal levels of efficiency was become even more of a machine than what people had always accused him of being in the past.  The irony isn’t lost on Tony either, the humor of his situation almost bittersweet and frost covered on his tongue.

Because Tony knows that, presented with the same situation yet again, given the exact same set of choices over again in the aftermath of everything that had happened and knowing the end results, knowing the cost

He wouldn’t even hesitate.

Extremis has made him faster, stronger, better.

A superior shield to be placed in front of all he’s trying to desperately to protect.

A deadlier sword with which to cut down any who might threaten what is his.

His mother’s eyes and chunks of his own humanity were a small price to pay for that.

Infinitely precious but small in the long run.

Because what’s his mother’s legacy to him, what are slivers of his own humanity, really worth in the face of saving the world?

“What is it, sweetheart?”  Tony asks, eyes still trained on the projection he’s manipulating but attention easily split.

“It’s about Sergeant Barnes,” FRIDAY replies.

Tony goes still, split attention snapping back into one direction instantly.

“What about him?”  Tony can’t help the flare of curiosity that rises up in him.

“He’s attempting to find and access your SHIELD issued file,” FRIDAY tells him promptly.  “Specifically the one the spider wrote if his search queries are anything to go by.”

“Is he now?”  Tony feels both of his brows jerk up in surprise.  He’s not really been consciously monitoring the other’s internet access personally, choosing instead to leave that up to FRIDAY herself, so he hadn’t noticed a query for information on him from inside the Compound.

Still, the fact that it’s Barnes doing the looking is … fascinating to Tony in a way he doesn’t completely understand.

Barnes is an enigma in a lot of ways, a puzzle of sorts.

And Tony has always been weak for things that make him think.

“What’s your take on his motivation, my girl?”  Tony asks lightly.

There’s a moment of silence and the warm brush of code against his mind takes a contemplative feel as she considers.

“He seems … curious, Boss.”  FRIDAY finally tells him. Her hostility towards Barnes had faded in the early days unlike her disenchantment and outright resentment towards most of the others.

Months ago Tony had to have a talk with her after he’d stopped her from sliding glitchy subroutines into the file containing the arm he’d been building.  It had taken some doing but she’d finally seemed to understand why he himself didn’t have much in the way of issues with Barnes by that point. And why priming the arm he was building to explode the first time Barnes showed hostile intentions towards Tony might not be the best idea.

“Hmm,” Tony gives an understanding hum as he sits back in his chair and crosses his hands over his stomach.

The SHIELD file in question is long gone from any official servers outside of Tony’s control, has been for years now.  But a copy of it, a reminder of sorts, is still saved on Tony’s private servers. It wouldn’t be hard to slide it somewhere only Barnes could find it online, especially with FRIDAY subtly directing him.

The warmth in his chest flutters just a bit because he can’t get the image of Barnes, finger tapping at his own forehead and eyes bright and steady as he tells Tony exactly how to kill him, out of his mind.

“Make sure he gets whatever he’s looking for, sweetheart,” Tony finally tells her.  “As long as it doesn’t compromise our security of course.”

“You sure Boss?” FRIDAY questions softly but Tony can feel the slightly protective tint to the question easily enough.

“Yeah, FRI,” Tony says as he reaches out and brushes lovingly over the code that’s curled against the back of his mind, “if he’s curious help him out.  Man deserves not to be in the dark anymore about what he’s been pulled into. Plus that file … it can’t hurt me anymore either.”

Truth.

Solid and unyielding.

~~~

Tony strides into the crowded kitchen around lunch time that day, another black suit with dark red accents on and dark red lense sunglasses firmly in place.

Redwing hovers just over his left shoulder as is the little bot’s new habit whenever Rhodey and Vision both are busy.  Especially if he’s leaving the Compound or if he’s going to be around anyone outside of their family.

Like he’s about to be.

Tony can’t help but find it sweet and, beyond a bit of fond exasperation, never tries to actively discourage the behavior.

What’s a bit of over protectiveness if it makes his family feel better?

It’s not like he doesn’t keep his own sort of tabs on them in return.

“Mr. Lang,” Tony, not bothering to acknowledge the others crowded into the room together, calls to the man who’s hunched over a plate at the counter.

Lang’s head shoots up, cheek bulging with food and eyes wide.

“Me?” Lang asks, voice muffled by the food in his mouth as he brings his free hand up to point at himself.

“Only one of the Lang’s I know here right now so I’d assume so,” Tony says evenly as he moves towards the counter beside the stove where Barnes is leaning.

He has Tony’s favorite mug in his hand and there’s a saucepan on the stove beside him and the same mug he’d given to Barnes three nights ago is on the counter at his hip.  Tony can smell the chocolate wafting from the stove easily enough and his mouth waters just a bit at the scent. Vision is an accidental culinary genius and Tony is deeply appreciative of that fact.

“That for me?”  Tony can’t help but ask with a raised brow as he nods towards the saucepan.

“Yes,” Barnes answers lowly.

“That’s my mug you know that right?  Vision bought it for me,” Tony huffs lightly as he steps to the side and grabs the other mug off of the counter.

“Aren’t they all your mugs?”  Barns asks softly but without a hint of derision in his tone.  In fact he sounds almost amused if the way his teeth flash in a small grin before he pointedly raises the mug in his hand up and takes a long swallow is anything to go by.

“You have a point,” Tony acknowledges with a small nod as he turns towards the stove.

Barnes is a line of heat and muscle beside Tony as he fills up his mug and then steps around him to put the empty saucepan in the sink.

When Tony turns around again, mug in hand, the entire kitchen is staring at him and Barnes.

“Right,” Tony says as he takes a long sip of his sludge, piping hot and deliciously sweet, “Lang.”

“Yeah,” Lang swallows harshly, coughs, and then straightens up, “I mean, yes?”

“Did you read the packet in your room last night?”  Tony asks as he stares at the man, mug in one hand and the other settled casually in his pocket.

“N-No,” Lang stutters, “I mean I meant to but I was really sleepy and that bed, man that bed is soft …”

“It’s fine,” Tony cuts through his babble easily enough.  “Like I said, I don’t really care either way. But Miss Lang should be here in about twenty minutes so you might want to get ready since you won’t be seeing her again until next month.”

“W-What?” Lang looks confused for a split second but Tony can see it as he begins to connect the dots.  “Miss Lan- Cassie?  Cassie’s on the way here?  My Cassie?”

There’s an aching and desperate sort of joy beginning to bloom across Lang’s face.

Tony doesn’t like Lang but he doesn’t hate him either.  Just like with the others there’s only that distant sort of apathy, even if it is … milder in some ways thanks to their lack of a previous relationship.  Tony had heard of him before in a casual sort of way back when he’d been arrested but beyond that he hadn’t really paid much attention to him.

So it’s easy for Tony to admit that, while Lang might be an idiot who doesn’t look before he leaps and has a bad habit of being a blind follower, the man loves his daughter.  It’s written all over his face in a way that Tony’s only seen ever from the outside looking in.

But then Tony also knows that love isn’t always enough, that love without trust, without dependability, means next to nothing.  That’s a lesson Tony had to learn the hard way.

Over and over again.

“You get one three hour visit a month for the next six months,” Tony tells him easily enough.  “As long as her mother continues to agree and Vision, myself, or Rhodey supervises.”

“Oh god,” Lang reaches up to scrub a hand over his mouth, “shit, Stark, man, that’s … thank yo-”

“What about me?”  Barton, elbows resting on the kitchen table over his plate and fork in his hand, cuts in abruptly.

“What about you?” Tony asks calmly even though he already knows where this is going.

“When are Laura and the kids coming?”  Barton asks.

“I told you to read your packet,” Tony cuts back, “I’m not your secretary.”

“No,” Wanda’s accented voice slices into the conversation from where she’s huddled by Barton’s side, eyes still red rimmed and undercut with dark circles.  She looks like she’s been crying non stop since the last time he saw her. “You’re our jailor.”

“You and me have very different definitions of what jail looks like Maximoff,” Tony says as he takes another sip of his sludge.  “Be careful you don’t end up finding out how different.”

Beside Tony, mug abandoned on the counter, Barnes snorts lowly but his face is blank when Tony slants a look up at him.

“Hey, asshole,” Barton hisses out, “I wanna know about my family.”

“Should’ve thought of that two years ago,” Tony shrugs because he has no interest in being the one to tell Barton that Laura most certainly isn’t coming.  “Like I said, not your secretary. Only reason why I said something to Lang is because it’s my day to supervise.”

“Tony …” Rogers goes to interrupt but surge of movement from Barton’s direction cuts him off.

Tony, eyes sharper than ever before thanks to Extremis, sees the fork sailing in his direction and automatically tracks its trajectory.

But, before even his sharper reflexes can kick in, Barnes moves.

It’s a fluid slide of limbs and muscles as Barnes shifts, body twisting and flesh hand snapping up to catch the fork a few inches from where it would have buried itself in the cabinet door beside Tony’s head.

Barnes doesn’t even hesitate as he follows the motion through and sends it sailing back to embed itself into the table top directly in front of Barton’s plate.  A split second later Tony hears it when a small caliber bullet slams into the mahogany table just beside the fork.

Tony’s just grateful that Redwing only fired off the single, obligatory warning shot Tony had managed to get him and FRIDAY to agree to.  He’d proposed the rule in the interest of keeping the injury and/or death toll in the Compound at a minimum. Honestly cleaning up blood and bodies and then having to explaining the situation to the UN and the Accords Council would have been a pain and a half in the ass.

Tony got enough to deal with as it is.

Especially since the fork wouldn’t have actually hurt him if it had hit him.  The sunglasses he’s wearing are reinforced and well … Tony’s not exactly all that vulnerable anymore either.

So Tony, bracketed slightly between Barnes’ body and the marble countertop behind him but relatively undisturbed, just blinks behind the cover of his shades and stares up at Barnes.

For his part Barnes just stares down at him, pale eyes bright and nostrils flaring slightly before he dips his head in a shallow sort of nod and shifts out of Tony’s space to lean back against the counter beside him again.  He’s a inch or so closer to Tony’s side this time than he was before and Tony can practically feel the tension radiating off of him, but he doesn’t bother focusing on that.

“That’s strike one Barton,” Tony says calmly as he sips at his drink and ignores the slightly smoking bullet hole in his table, “two more and you’re out.  And this isn’t exactly baseball so I’d be careful if I were you.”

“That a threat?”  Barton sneers, teeth bared slightly despite the way his shoulders are hunched just a bit.

“No,” Tony tells him as he drains his cup and turns to put it in the sink as well.  “It’s a fact.”

There’s along, tense silence then.

“Ten minutes, Lang,” Tony says as he takes a second to nod at Barnes who’s still watching him and then he turns on his heel, Redwing close behind him, and heads out of the kitchen, uncaring of the whispers that once again pop up behind him.

He’s pretty sure Barton’s going to regret that fork throw if the angry buzzing in the back of his head is anything to go by.  Or the way Redwing is practically vibrating in rage above him.

“Mr. Stark!” Lang’s voice calls out to him a few seconds later just as Tony’s about to turn the corner to the hall that leads to the living room they’d all decided would host Cassie Lang on her visits.

“Lang,” Tony starts moving again and he hears the way Lang scrambles to catch up.

Above him Redwing cocks his gun with a low, ominous sound that makes Lang scuttle an extra step or so to the side, putting distance between him and Tony instantly.

Tony just huffs out an amused breath and keeps moving.

“Look,” Lang breaks the silence once they’re actually in the living room and Tony’s moved to settle on the couch again, phone in hand.  “I know after everything that happened,” Lang grimaces, “I know you probably hate me.”

“You don’t rate high enough on my scale of problems for me to hate you Lang,” Tony tells him blandly as he cuts a look up at him just over the rim of his sunglasses.  “My best advice to you would be to try and make sure that doesn’t happen to change somehow.”

Lang swallows heavily again and Tony gets the distinct impression that Lang might be more than a bit afraid of him.

Adorable, Tony can’t help but think just a bit exasperatedly to himself.

“I’m still … I just wanted to say sorry, you know,” Lang looks vaguely uncomfortable, “about what I said back on the Raft.  It’s just Hank always said …”

“Hank Pym’s a bitter old bastard,” Tony cuts him off again because he’s honestly got no interest in hearing any of this.  He might not have had a past relationship with Lang but he’s also not looking to build a current one with him either. “I know exactly the kind of things bitter old men like to say about me.  Maybe next time you’ll learn to think on your own instead of letting yourself get blindly led into situations above your paygrade.”

Lang looks down, expression chastised, before he nods and slinks out of the room to, presumably, get ready to see his daughter.

Tony doesn’t really care either way, truth be told.

He, alongside Hope Pym, had made sure that Cassie Lang and her family would be well cared for months ago.  So if Lang learns his lesson or not isn’t really Tony’s business right now, and it most certainly won’t be in a bout six months or so.

After that …

Well if Lang ever gets between Tony and his goals again, if he ever lays so much as a finger on Tony’s family again in or out of that suit, large or small, cute little daughter or not, then Tony will exterminate him.

Truth.

Cold and biting as a winter wind.

Tony has no place for mercy where his family’s safety is concerned.

Not anymore.

Not ever again.

~~~

“FRIDAY was most displeased about what happened earlier today in the kitchen,” Vision announces from where he’s floating at Tony’s side.

“I know,” Tony tips his head back, closes his eyes and lets the moonlight wash over his face.

“She said Barnes interfered,” Rhodey speaks up from a few feet away where he’s laid out on one of the lounge chairs, drink in hand and Redwing lounging on his lap.  Tony’s beginning to think he accidentally programmed the little guy to be part cat instead of bird.

“He did, Redwing too.  Took that warning shot we talked about and everything.” Tony acknowledges as he floats lazily up another few feet, arms angled so that the repulsor keep him almost horizontal in the sky.

When Tony opens his eyes he’s eye level with Vision who’s smiling at him, fond amusement plain to see in his face and in the brush of code against the back of Tony’s mind.

Tony just winks at him with a small grin.

“Barton’s lucky all he got was a warning shot,” there’s something vicious and cutting in Rhodey’s voice then.  “He’d better not make that mistake again, especially not where me or Vision can see him.”

“He wasn’t even aiming to hit me,” Tony points out just for honesty sake.  He doesn’t care about Barton but making sure Rhodey and Vision have the right information is important to him.  He won’t lie to them about things like this, not even by omission. He knows how well that goes. “Barton doesn’t actually miss and, Barnes or not, that fork wouldn’t have actually hit me, just the cabinet behind me.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rhodey dismisses with a wave of his hand.  “We’re not putting up with that kind of shit no matter what.”

“Indeed,” Vision agrees as he raises up in the sky until he’s right beside Tony, arms coming up to brace beneath Tony’s knees and shoulders.  “I will tolerate no violence towards either yourself or Jim.”

Tony, amused, cuts the repulsors and retracts the armor from his hands and feet, allowing Vision to take his weight in arms as solid and unyielding as vibranium.

And as gentle and safe as a spring morning.

“You two are spoiling me,” Tony tells them, “getting all violent minded and protective.  Makes a guy’s heart flutter.”

“You are incorrigible,” Vision says lightly as he lowers himself onto the lounge chair beside Rhodey, Tony still tucked into his lap, legs extending out to rest on Rhodey’s thighs just below Redwing.

“It’s your fault for indulging me,” Tony snips as he leans back against Vision’s arm, face tilted towards the sky and a silly little grin tugging at his mouth.

“A fact I lament daily,” Vision snips back.  “Though I, in turn, place the blame for that firmly with you.”

“Fair.” Tony agrees.  “Though I do think Rhodey should carry some of that weight too.  He’s got everybody fooled you know, thinking he’s this pillar of justice and composure.  I’ve known him since I was a kid, I know the kind of shit he used to get up to. The dumb shit we both used to get up to together.  So really, that indulging my bullshit gene probably comes from him.  Remind me to tell you about Delaware sometimes.”

“You ever tell anyone else that story and I’ll make sure you don’t live to regret it,” Rhodey cuts in, voice harsh and serious.

But Tony can hear the amusement hiding not so deep beneath the surface.

“Come on Sour Patch,” Tony whines softly, “it’s a good story.”

“No, Tony,” Rhodey says, one hand leaving Redwing’s back to latch onto Tony’s now bare ankle.

“But you looked so good in that wig Rh-” Tony cuts himself off with a yelp when Rhodey’s knuckles dig directly into the arch of his foot.

“I said no, you little shit,” Rhodey says even as Tony squirms to get his leg back.

“Vision,” Tony pleads, “save me.”

Vision, the traitor, just clamps an arm around Tony’s waist and holds him in place for Rhodey’s torture.

Tony, laughter spilling out of him uncontrollably, can’t remember a time when he was happier.

Because the Rogues might be back, the world might be chomping at the bit to take a piece out of all of them if anyone makes a single wrong move, but none of that matters in this single perfect moment.

Because Tony has this, has his family, has spring blossoming inside of his chest, winter’s ice being eaten bit by bit by warm winds and warmer love.

There is nothing he would not do, nothing he would not endure, to protect this.

~~~

“You know,” Tony says from where Vision had instructed him to lean back against the glass of the window, “the world’s a big wide place.  Once we get all of this settled … well there’s a lot you haven’t seen yet. Haven’t experienced.”

Vision had asked him to pose for the piece he’s been asked to do for some kind of charity event he’s taking part in at Pepper’s insistence.  Tony had agreed easily enough, always happy to help Vision out with whatever he can no matter his workload.

Plus, thanks to Extremis, posing for a painting doesn’t mean that Tony has to stop working while he does it.

Instead he can send emails and add notes to project files all without moving a single muscle.

“I am aware,” Vision dips his head in a shallow nod, paint brush held carefully in his hand as he eyes Tony, consideration heavy in his gaze.  “But there is time yet for such things.”

“True,” Tony agrees, “just want to make sure you know you have options open.  Because you do have them you know?  And me and Rhodey, all us, we’ll support you, no matter what you want to do.”

“While I appreciate the sentiment I have no intention or desire to be separated from my family at the moment Tony.”  Vision says softly. “Perhaps in the future I will be more inclined to do so but for now I will go where you lead, in this as in so many other things.”

“I’ll make sure you get a list of the best places to go, things to see.”  Tony tells him. “I’ve been around the block a time or twelve, got a lot of insider secrets when it comes to stuff like that.  Rhodey does too.”

“I hope,” Vision pauses for a second, seems to consider, and then pushes forward, “that I will not find myself completely alone when that time comes.  There are many things I think I would only find true joy in experiencing if it were with you and Jim at my side.”

“Hm,” Tony hums softly.  “Family vacation huh? Never had one of those before.”

“It is never too late to start then,” Vision says and when he looks up and catches Tony’s gaze there’s something almost ancient and heavy in his eyes.  “Especially since time is such an … uncertain thing for most of humanity. We should not let it pass us by, should not waste it mindlessly, just because we feel time differently.”

Tony sucks in a slightly shallow breath because this is the first time Vision has really addressed the fact that Tony isn’t exactly human anymore.  It’s the first time they’ve really touched on the fact that time itself, that aging, isn’t something that’s going to affect him the way it does the rest of the world.

Tony is going to live a long time now, longer than he’d ever dreamt he would, longer than he’d ever wanted to.

But now, in a moment of startling revelation, it feels like less of a burden, less of a curse.

Because Vision … Vision is going to live a long time too.  Is, for all intents and purposes, immortal.

So maybe, just maybe, some good will come from Tony’s new life span, good that doesn’t revolve around protecting the world.

Because now there’s a chance that Vision won’t have to face the future alone with only FRIDAY and the bots at his side, his flesh and blood family turned to dust by the passage of time.

Now there’s a chance that Tony will be able to be there with him, for him, for a very long time to come.

So Tony just smiles, soft and loving, and turns his attention back to dictating emails in his head even as his mind whirls.

The silence that falls between them is as easy and warm as always.  Vision’s brush stroking carefully across his canvas a soothing sort of background noise for Tony.

Until, of course, he hears the stomping of feet in the distance and FRIDAY sends him and Vision the alert about incoming company.

Tony shares a commiserating sigh with Vision who carefully places his brush down and glides backwards a step.

“You son of a bitch,” Barton seethes as he stalks into the room, the other Rogues hard on his heels.

“Clint,” Rogers reaches out a placating hand but Barton snarls and pushes it away.

Tony straightens from his artful sort of lean against the window and turns towards the group, stepping forward and in front of Vision with an arched brow over the frame of his latest pair of sunglasses.  They’re a familiar shade of arc reactor blue and they match the tie and pocket square combo of his newest black on black suit.

His tailor’s had a lot to say about his more recent stylistic choices but Frederick is nothing if not a consummate professional for all of his flamboyance.  Plus they’d been what Vision had laid out for him to wear for this so of course Tony had.

Automatically and almost without his consent Tony’s eyes track Barnes who slips into the room last and moves to hover just to the side, eyes bright and face blank.  Almost as if he’s observing instead of actually part of the group.

“Barton,” Tony finally drawls, an echo from the day before, as he turns his attention towards the man who’s staring at him, face red, chest heaving, and heartbreak bright in his eyes.

He must have, Tony realizes in an instant, finally read at least some of the packet in his room.

“What did you do?”  Barton snarl as he tosses a thick, bound sheaf of papers in Tony’s direction.

Tony catches them before they can smack him in the face but he doesn’t even bother to look at them, just tosses them back down at Barton’s feet.

He already knows what they are of course, he’d footed the bill for them and so much more even if that was all he’d done.

The divorce in absentia had been Laura’s choice and Laura’s choice alone.  All Tony had done was make things easier on her by providing a lawyer and then funding her relocation once things were done.

Because Laura had done him a kind turn once and now she has three innocent kids to look after and raise alone.  A lawyer and a brand new fat checking account in her name had been the least he could do for her at the time.

The Barton family, like little Cassie Lang, had deserved better than what they’d gotten in the aftermath of the so called Civil War even if Tony could care less about Barton himself.

“The fact that you think I could, for a second, hold that much influence over Laura actually makes her divorcing you make a lot more sense,” Tony cuts back calmly, uninterested in being kind or sensitive.  Or cruel as far as that goes.

Tony doesn’t care enough about Barton anymore to be interested in either.

Bullshit,” Barton practically bites out but Tony can practically feel the desperation in him, “you had to have something to do with it.  You had to. Laura would never have … she wouldn’t.”

“I’m also not your therapist or your marriage counselor, Barton,” Tony tells him dryly.  “So I suggest you take your breakdown elsewhere, we’re busy.”

“No,” Barton insists.  “You’re gonna give me an explanation.  You owe me that, you bastard.”

Tony and Vision both go still.

“I owe you?”  Tony asks softly, head tilted to the side as he stares at Barton.  Out of the corner of his eye he sees the way Barnes straightens, interest sharp on his face for a split second before he wipes it away.

“You damn right you do.”  Barton insists even as Romanov steps forward and latches a hand onto his arm and tugs sharply.  Again Barton stands his ground, head up, jaw set, and eyes bright.

“Okay,” Tony nods slowly.  “You want to know why Laura divorced you?  Fine. I’ll tell you.”

“Enlighten me,” Barton grits out.

“Laura divorced you because you disappeared for two years,” Tony says easily, “with what? A phone call, maybe two in that entire time?  You were an international fugitive Barton, by your own choice. After you told her you were out of the game.  You left her and your kids in the middle of a family vacation and never came home.  And that?  That's abandonment.”

“I did the right thing,” Barton cuts in and Tony isn't sure who he's trying to convince.  Tony or himself.  “The Accords weren’t right.”

“Barton you don’t even know what you were fighting for,” Tony dismisses.  “You told Romanov you were retired when she came to you about the Accords.  You couldn’t even be bothered to read them.  So don’t pretend like you were making some kind of political or moral statement when you joined up with Rogers. You came when he called because he offered you a fight instead of a contract.  Because you promised Laura you were done but the truth is you’ll never be done.”

Behind Barton Tony sees the way Rogers goes still, the way his eyes widen just a bit as he hears the echo of what Tony had told him once in every word he’s saying to Barton.

“You like it too much,” Tony presses forward.  “The fights, the struggle, the entire goddamn package that comes hand in hand with playing hero.  And Laura was fine with that, when you were honest with her.  When you had the decency to say so to her face.  But you didn’t did you?  No instead you left, came here, and helped Maximoff put Vision through the floor so you two could make your great escape.  And look where that got you, Barton. Two years later and all you have to show for it is an international rap sheet and a divorce.”

The silence is deafening.

“Tony,” Rogers steps forward then with a frown, eyes wide and sad, “that’s … you can’t keep doing this.  Being like this. Nothing’s ever gonna get fixed between all of us like this.”

“Fuck him,” Barton rasps but Tony can tell that his heart is, once again, not really in it.  Tony knows that Barton is aware that every single word Tony has said is nothing but the truth even if he won’t admit it.  “He doesn’t wanna fix anything. He’s happy just watching the rest of us suffer.”

“Perhaps if you focused less on laying blame at someone else’s door and instead focused on keeping your own house you would not be where you are now.” Vision cuts in, voice hard.

There’s a moment of breathless, shocked silence that Tony actually understands rather well.

Vision had never been one for this kind of … aggression before.

But then he’d still been unmoored in a lot of ways back then, still even more achingly young and unsettled in all of the most important ways.

Now, anchored by the family they’ve built together, Tony knows that Vision’s personality, his emotions, his everything has begun to bloom into something more than he’d ever been before.

Tony is constantly in awe of being privileged enough to watch him grow and expand before his eyes.

“What has he done to you?”  Maximoff rasps then. “Vision, what has he done to you?”

Tony, the hairs on the back of his neck raising as Extremis begins to blare alerts in the back of his mind, turns his attention towards Maximoff.

She’s standing there off to the side, just in front of where Barnes is hovering by the wall again.  Her powers, glowing a malevolent scarlet, are twining around her hands and arms like malicious otherworldly vines.

“Tony has done nothing to me,” Vision states calmly but Tony can feel the tension in him as he floats forward to stand even with Tony.  “Except for provide me with a family.”

“He’s twisted you,” Maximoff insists.  “Turned you against us. Against me.”

“There are many sins that could be laid at Tony’s door, Ms. Maximoff,” Vision starts calmly, “but to override another’s mind, to take away their choice, has never been and never will be one of them.”

The hand he drops on Tony’s shoulder is filled with a protective sort of intent and is just as pointed a statement as the barb Vision has just thrown.

Maximoff, face etched in a shade of dangerous sort of desperation Tony can practically taste, attention focusing instantly on that hand, narrows her eyes sharply.

“That is not true,” Maximoff hisses viciously, accent thick and heavy as her hands flare brighter, “and I will prove it.”

Chapter Text

It happens in a split second.

A swift burst of code sends Redwing darting out of the room while FRIDAY brings the Compound’s defenses online even as Maximoff flares with power, hands coming up in front of her covered with a sick scarlet glow.

The first lash of scarlet whips out in Tony’s direction, a misty red wave that Tony knows all too well as it hones in on him with pinpoint accuracy.  Extremis blares warnings, firewalls and protections that Tony built with Vision’s help slamming into place and locking down.

But Tony still doesn’t flinch.

Not even when she snarls, obviously displeased that whatever she had tried didn’t work.

Tony is done being afraid of her.

Like he’d said before, she can’t hurt him anymore.

She might know how to infiltrate minds but computers?

Computers and code are Tony’s realm of power and his brain these days is a lot more under his realm of control than hers.

The only way she’ll ever get inside his head again will be if she cracks his skull open by hand.

And Tony will see her reduced to a fine red mist before he stands by and lets that happen.

He’s willing to give his life for a lot of things and people.  Maximoff and her skewed attempts for revenge or whatever it is motivating her this time isn’t one of them.  Never has been and never will be.

“What’s the matter?” Tony can’t help but taunt her just a bit, petty in an absent sort of way.  “My mind not such an open book for you anymore, Maximoff?”

“I’m going to show everyone exactly what you are, Stark,” Maximoff declares, hate shining bright and obvious on her face beneath the scarlet glow of her powers.  “No matter what trick you’re using to block me I’ll get through it eventually. And then I will make you sorry.”

“Keep thinking that Maximoff, but it’s not going to happen today,” Tony tells her easily enough as he reaches up and pulls his sunglasses off, bright blue eyes shining smugly back at her, “and tomorrow’s not looking so good either.”

Maximoff just screams, a guttural noise of rage, and flares brighter.

Rogers and Barton move forward then, faces set in grim, worried lines as they approach her.

“Wanda,” Rogers practically begs, hands outstretched beseechingly.  “Wanda, calm down, please.”

“Come on kid,” Barton rasps, something like fear flickering across his expression before he washes it away.  “Don’t do this.”

Tony doesn’t waste anymore time waiting to see if their attempts to placate her work.  Instead he tosses his sunglasses to the side carelessly and lets the armor crawl its way across his body.

At his side Vision’s cape phases into existence even as the sensible slacks and sweater he’d been wearing drop to the floor at his feet.  It is, Tony knows, his version of suiting up.

Vision is as ready to do this as Tony is and neither of them are interested in giving Maximoff the chance at taking the upper hand.

And, as if them moving was the unspoken signal she was waiting for, Maximoff is suddenly on the move.

It’s almost awe inspiring just how quickly everything goes to hell.

The first burst of her powers send Rogers stumbling backwards.  Barton, closer to her than Rogers had been, takes the brunt of it and cries out in agony as he goes sliding back across the floor and into Romanov’s arms.  Romanov steadies him with one hand, face grim, and white knuckles the gun that’s suddenly leveled rather firmly in Maximoff’s direction with the other.

Wilson and Lang both shout and jump backwards, scrambling out of the immediate area to hover near the doors together.  They are, at least, smart enough to know when they’re outclassed and outgunned, baseline as they both are.

Vision moves first, flowing in front of Tony in a single smooth motion, Mind Stone glowing in his forehead as he takes the attack head on with ease.

But Vision isn’t the only one to act in that moment either.

In the momentary lull after her first burst of powers Barnes moves too.

He darts forward from his place against the wall, a knife in his one good hand and face twisted in a snarl.  He gets surprisingly close before Maximoff jerks a hand in his direction and sends him flying back in a move that has Rogers shouting as Barnes slams into a wall, plaster crumbling beneath the impact.

Barnes barely even grunts, just takes the hit and rolls to his feet again, not even remotely slowed down by the lack of an arm.  His eyes are cold and intent on Maximoff who practically hisses at him, scarlet covered hands raised in one part readiness and one part challenge.

Her attention firmly riveted on the obvious threat that is Barnes, Maximoff’s powers flare in a chaotic pulse that keeps the others pressed back and away from her.  Her powers swell in preparation, the attack even stronger than the one she’d aimed at Tony before, less about manipulation and more about destruction.

Barnes just sneers back, his expression alive with something feral and cold.  Tony can see the shadow of something savage twisting there, just below the surface, as Barnes shifts the knife in his grip with an expert twitch of his fingers and readies himself again.

Tony knows without a single shadow of a doubt that Barnes will kill her if given the chance.

What’s more is the fact that Tony also knows Barnes will enjoy it.

And as much as Tony would rather be rid of the witch entirely he knows that’s something he can’t actually let happen.

Too many delicate things are hanging in the balance at the moment.  The outright death of one of the Rogues would upset everything.

So that means Tony has to act before it escalates further, not that he wasn’t going to anyways.

Without a word spoken and with only a tiny brush of code, Tony and Vision move together.  Their hours spent in training together coming to fruition as they flow around and through each other’s space fluidly.

Tony ignores the way Vision phases through his left side and instead puts his new speed to use as he moves across the room to put himself between Barnes and Maximoff’s attack.

He sees the cruel kind of elation that flashes across Maximoff’s face seconds before the tidal wave of scarlet energy hits him full force.

But again, Tony doesn’t flinch.

Instead he plants his feet, brings his right arm up in front of him, and lets Maximoff’s powers slam against the shield that sprouts to life from his forearm.  Bleeding Edge, and the nanites that give it its more fluid nature, blocks the attack with ease, dissipating it into the air around Tony and Barnes who’s pressed against his back.

For a split second the entire room is silent.

Maximoff’s face is yet again twisted in some mixture of confusion and rage.

But that moment of shock and inattention is all that Vision needs to act.

He’s there behind Maximoff in the next second, hands coming up to hover on either side of her head as arcs of golden light flare to life at his fingertips.

Maximoff screams, loud and grating like nails on a chalkboard, face twisted in a combination of agony and anguish.

“You got her V?” Tony asks calmly as the writhing tentacles of scarlet power abruptly disappear.

“Indeed,” Vision confirms, eyes closed and expression almost serene even as he follows Maximoff down as she collapses onto her knees with a bitten off sob.  “She is contained and I am currently analyzing the situation just as we discussed.”

There’s a moment of tense silence.

“Ah,” Vision makes a small noise of triumph.

“Did you find it?”  Tony asks then, faceplate and helmet melting away even as he keeps a careful eye on the others in the room.

They’re all looking back and forth between him and Vision with various levels of unease and confusion.

“I have,” Vision tells him.  “It is as I thought. Her alteration was on a metaphysical scale but the integration is still obvious.  Like a light shining in the darkness. Suppression or deletion, either is possible, though the later would be far more … uncomfortable for her.  Though I will do my best to mitigate any discomfort as best I can.”

“Tony, what’s going on?” Rogers cuts in then but both Tony and Vision ignore him.

“You know my opinion,” Tony answers Vision without even bothering to acknowledge Rogers.

“I do,” Vision nods gravely.  “And I find it the wisest course of action as well.  Fail-safes can be circumvented after all.”

“We both know Rhodey agrees,” Tony reminds him as he lets the rest of the armor melt back down into his skin, confident that Vision has things well in hand.  “As does Hill and most of the others. That makes it a majority vote. I’ll alert the Council. FRIDAY will forward the recording with our votes and SWORD is already on the way.  We can give it the requisite forty-eight hours but there shouldn’t be any kind of backlash.”

Tony,” Rogers speaks up again, voice firmer.

What have you done to me?” Maximoff rasps before anyone can say anything else, face tear streaked as she glares up at Tony from her place on the ground.

“What should’ve been done a long time ago,” Tony says as he turns his attention towards her.  “Vision’s suppressed your powers, Maximoff. And as soon as the Council signs off on it he’s going to do one better and take them away.  Permanently.”

No!” Maximoff wails, devastation on her face.  “You don’t have the right.”

“Actually,” Rhodey says as he makes his way into the room, armor on and Redwing hovering over his shoulder, there’s also a familiar black case in his hands, “this is why you should’ve read your packets.  Because he really, really does.”

Tony,” Rogers steps forward then, “Tony you can’t do this to her, this isn’t right.”

“But her coming at me like that was?”  Tony fires back icily. “How is it something’s only wrong when it’s me taking the necessary steps to protect myself and others?”

Rogers stops, momentarily struck dumb.  Tony sees the way he looks down at Maximoff, sees the helpless and pleading look she gives him, and knows exactly what’s going to happen before Rogers even opens his mouth.

“Everyone’s stressed,” Rogers starts off slowly.  “Tensions and emotions are high. Wanda’s a good kid, she shouldn’t be punished like this, punished permanently, for making a mistake.”

And there it is.

Again with the excuses.

With the second chances and understanding that only seems to be extended to a select few.

Tony can’t even bring himself to be surprised anymore.

“Cut the shit, Rogers,” Rhodey hisses in exasperation.  “That wasn’t a mistake, it was an attack.  How many second chances are you going to give her?  How many mistakes does she get to make before you think it’s okay to let her face a single consequence?  What happens if the next time she attacks Vision isn’t there to contain her huh? FRIDAY projected the feed to me while I was moving here, what would’ve happened to Barnes if Tony hadn’t blocked that shot?  You thought of that yet?”

Rogers looks gutted.  He must, Tony knows, be torn between two separate ideals, between two people he’s sworn to protect for various reasons.

“Buck,” Rogers rasps, expression almost pleading.

HYDRA,” Barnes snaps back at him, that one word his only answer from where he’s practically plastered against Tony’s back, a thick line of heat and muscle.  Tony can feel the warm, chocolate scented puff of his breath against his temple. He can also hear the slight scraping sound of the knife Barnes is still clutching as it taps a short, steady rhythm against the side of his denim clad thigh.

“You’re not saving her from this one,” Tony tells Rogers, more than a bit mercilessly.  He’d been content to let her exist in his space as long as she didn’t step out of line. But now that she has Tony has no interest in coddling her more than she already has been.

Accountability.

It’s a concept she’s finally about to become firmly reacquainted with.

“Goddamn right he’s not,” Rhodey says as he moves forward, opening the box he’s carrying with one hand and pulling out a familiar looking collar.

Maximoff takes one looks at the collar and wails, attempting to scramble back and away from Rhodey and Vision both.

Vision just shifts, one hand coming down to phase through her chest directly over her heart as the other continues to hover over her head, golden light still crackling from his fingertips.  The threat is blatant and far harsher than Vision would have ever once considered.

Wisely, Maximoff goes abruptly still, tears streaming down her face as Rhodey steps forward and snaps the collar around her neck.

The collar snaps shut around her neck in a thin, unbroken line, the small light on the edge flicking red once, twice, and then abruptly going green.

Rhodey and Vision both step back and away from her and Maximoff collapses down onto her hands and knees like a marionette with its strings cut.

“Welcome to the new world, sweetheart.”  Tony can’t help but tell her, tone calm and just a shade off cruel and just as uncaring.  “Here your actions have consequences and this was the last straw. Now we’re going to make sure that you never hurt anyone ever again.”

When Maximoff looks up at him from beneath the fall of her hair the sheer hatred in her eyes is unlike anything Tony has ever seen before.

“I should’ve ripped your mind apart when I had the chance,” she rasps at him.  “I should have split you open and watched you bleed out.”

“That would’ve been a good plan,” Tony tells her lightly with a small, fluid shrug.  “It would’ve been what I went with if I was you. But, thankfully, I’m not. So I’d say better luck next time, Maximoff, but there’s not going to be a next time.  Not for you, not after this.”

Tony turns his attention towards Vision who is staring down at Maximoff with a serene expression.  It does Tony good, this further confirmation that this entire situation isn’t hurting Vision.

“You got her V?”  Tony asks again but this time with an entirely different context.

“Yes,” Vision nods as he leans down and wraps a hand around Maximoff’s left arm so he can tug her gently up off of the ground, careful not to hurt her.  That gentleness, that unwillingness to be cruel in a situation like this, is one of the things Tony loves about him. “I will place her in one of the holding cells until SWORD arrives.  It should not be long now.”

Vision dips his head in a small nod, leans down to swoop Maximoff into his arms bridal style when it seems as if she’ll refuse to move, and floats off towards the secure cells.

“ETA for the SWORD containment team is ten minutes,” FRIDAY speaks up then to the room at large as the Compounds inner defenses finally go back on to standby.  “Director Hill herself is coming on one of the quinjets to oversee the transfer personally.”

“Good,” Tony nods.  “Tell her we’ll meet her in the conference room.”

“Of course Boss,” FRIDAY agrees brightly.

“All of you,” Tony turns his attention back towards the room at large where the others are all standing in various states of what looks like shock, “you’re going to be required to be there too.  So get going.”

And, to Tony’s slight surprise, no one so much as protests as they all file out of the room and towards the conference room, faces pale and more than a bit shaken.

Especially Barton who, Tony sees, shakes just a bit where Romanov has him propped up over her shoulder as she practically drags him out of the room.  Rogers goes to linger but Wilson calls his name softly and he follows with a sigh.

Tony stands there and watches them go.

All of them, that is, except for Barnes who seems content to linger where he’s been the entire time, directly behind Tony.

Rhodey, the last one out the door shoots Tony a curious look but doesn’t say anything.  Instead he just nods and keeps going, seemingly intent on herding the others to where they need to be, Redwing hovering over his head protectively.

Finally Tony takes a step forward and turns to look up at Barnes.

Barnes stares back at him, eyes bright and watchful, knife still clutched in his hand.  But Tony can see the way that the tension has already begun to slowly slide off of the line of his shoulders.

“You alright there, Barnes?”  Tony asks quietly.

Da,” Barnes barks out an affirmative, voice low and harsh.

“Russian?  Nice.” Tony can’t help but comment, a brow arched high.  “You feeling a little more comrade than Brooklyn today?”

“Remember how to be one better than the other most days,” Barnes admits with a surprising amount of ease and honesty.

Tony takes a moment, stops, thinks about that, and can’t help but agree.  Barnes has, collectively, probably spent far more time in his life as close to Russian as he could ever be than he’d spent as a man from Brooklyn.

It makes sense if one comes to him easier than the other, even after time away from HYDRA and a regime of BARF treatments.

Some things, once broken, Tony knows intimately, can never truly be mended back to what they once were.

Barnes, like Tony himself, is hardly an exception to that rule.

“Fair,” Tony agrees.  “You need some time or are you good for this little meeting we’ve got scheduled?”

“That collar going to hold the witch?”  Barnes counters.

“I made this one myself,” Tony tells him simply, as if that’s all the explanation and reassurance that could possibly be needed.

And, surprisingly enough, Barnes seems to agree.

“Good.  But if she attacks again I’ll put a blade in her,” Barnes tells him, voice soft but perfectly even.  Less of a threat and more of a warning. “And this time she won’t even see me coming.”

“Snowflake,” Tony says, the nickname rolling off his tongue with surprising ease as an unexpected burst of humor warms his chest, tamping down the frost and snow just a bit further, “if she gets out of that holding cell and the collar in the next ten minutes and then past me and Vision both, I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”

Tamping down a small, unexpected smile, Tony turns and strides towards the door.

After a slight pause Barnes follows on his heels.

~~~

The meeting is, as Tony expected, mostly a waste of his and everyone else's time.

Maria Hill is grim faced and severe when she files into the room but Tony already knows where she stands on the subject so what she has to say comes as no real surprise.

The Council doesn’t even bother to stick around for the entirety of the meeting either.  They sign off after reviewing the footage and announcing their willingness to forgo the normal forty-eight hour deliberation period in light of past issues and the threats Maximoff had leveled.  Instead they green-light their agreement for her transfer and for Vision to go ahead with the plan in twenty-four hours after a token but obviously lackluster attempt to debate alternatives.

Romanov says nothing, pale and silent with Lang and Wilson much the same.

Barton seems the most affected, face drawn and hands shaking before he bows his head and clenches them in his hair.  But even still he doesn’t protest.

Tony can’t help but wonder if Maximoff’s threats, if the way she’d lashed out at him, had reminded him of his other brush with mind control.  A brush he’d seemed so willing to shrug off when it had been others Maximoff had turned her powers towards.

Tony brushes the thought away because it doesn’t really impact him anymore.

The only one who doesn’t seem ready to give up the fight is, of course, Rogers.

“There has to be another way,” Rogers insists.  “Something, anything, but doing things this way.”

“And what would your solution be?” Vision finally cuts in, attention focused firmly on Rogers.  “Ms. Maximoff is powerful but also far too volatile. She has acted with malice towards Tony and unprovoked hostile intent against multiple other individuals both now and in the past.  She has consistently proven that she cannot be trusted to willfully maintain control either on or off of the battlefield. What is your solution if not to remove the source of the issue in the most humane manner possible?”

“Training,” Rogers starts.

“She’s had training,” Barton speaks up unexpectedly, voice muffled as he drags his hands down his face.  “Steve, just, just stop. Wanda … she’s had training. With all of us. This isn’t something training can fix.”

“We double it,” Rogers presses, “triple it.  Whatever necessary. She’s … Clint she’s young, emotional.  She can’t always control herself. She needs help, not punishment.”

“That would be funny, if it wasn’t so ridiculously untrue,” Tony can’t help but speak up then from his seat at the head of the table, Vision on one side with Redwing in his lap and Rhodey on the other.

Barnes stands in the far corner by the door, eyes bright and watchful.

“What do you mean?” Wilson is the one to ask then, expression searching and contemplative.

“Maximoff doesn’t need training,” Tony says easily.  “This whole doe-eyed ingenue act she’s been putting on since Ultron is bullshit even if none of you can, or are willing, to see it.”

“I know you two have never gotten along,” Rogers interrupts, “but Tony you can’t mean that.”

“Oh I mean it,” Tony dismisses his protests with a casual wave of his hand.  “You think she doesn’t have training? You think HYDRA didn’t have her and her brother flexing their muscles every chance they got?  You think they had someone with powers like hers and they didn’t test them out, help her hone them? You think the control she showed for and against Ultron just came out of nowhere?  Bullshit.  Training’s never been an issue with her.  The problem is she excels in exactly what she was trained for.  Manipulation and destruction.”

Tony cuts a deliberate look in Romanov’s direction but, to his faint amusement, she looks away.

Seems their little tete-a-tete might have actually struck home with her.

But then again, if past is prologue, probably not.

“Then why’d you let her on the team?”  Lang asks, thumb in his mouth as he chews on his nail.  “If she’s that dangerous then why’d you let her join up.”

“I didn’t,” Tony shrugs as he cuts his eyes back up towards Rogers, “my protests were overruled at the time.  And then the one time I actually tried to put any kind of restriction on her she drove Vision down through a dozen or so floors.  Which is one of the reasons we’ve done some restructuring when it comes to adding members. No one person gets veto rights anymore, there’s a process now.  Especially where former hostiles are concerned. Which you would know, if you read your packets.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” Barton asks then, an openly tired slump to his shoulders.

“The Raft,” Vision volunteers the information.

“The Raft?” Rogers demands, expression twisting in distaste as he swings his attention back towards Tony.  “Tony.”

It would, honestly, be amusing just how much influence everyone seems to think Tony has over every single aspect of everything if it wasn’t annoying.

“It’s the most secure holding facility there is for those who fall into the category of enhanced,” Vision cuts in again before Rogers can carry on.  “Ms. Maximoff will be held there while it is verified her powers have been sufficiently removed and she faces trial for violating the terms of her pardon.  Once that has been accomplished she will be transferred to another appropriate site depending on the sentence handed down to her.”

“That place is cruel,” Rogers persists.  “I know that’s not what you want Tony, not really.”

“Our opinions on cruelty also vastly differ,” Tony shoots back.  “And maybe you need to consider the fact that you don’t know me at all.  Maybe you never really did.”

Rogers looks almost outraged but Tony can’t focus on him.

Because, abruptly, Tony has to take a moment to just breathe.

For some reasons saying the words out loud to Rogers’ face feels like some kind of revelation.

Tony feels them settle down into his bones with a strange sense of wonder as the world seems to firmly realign itself.

The last rickety pieces of his foundation, ones he hadn’t even realized were missing despite how little he cares for Rogers’ or his opinion these days, suddenly slot into place, solid and true.  

Rogers doesn’t know him, doesn’t know Tony in that bone deep and soul piercing way that Tony had always thought he’d known Rogers.

For the longest time Tony had thought it was mutual, that knowing, that understanding.

He had thought a lot of things, had believed in a lot of things, that had taken thirty-six hours in the cold and two years of ice in his chest and slow attempts to rebuild himself once again to realize were never true to begin with.

And this feels like the absolute final realization, the final piece, slotting firmly into place inside of him.

It feels as if his rebirth is finally, truly complete.

The furl of warmth in his chest abruptly flares even brighter and for a moment all Tony can taste is sunlight and spring.

And now Tony knows exactly what he’s going to say to Rogers when the time comes.

“We’re going in circles,” Rhodey says then.  “As far as I’m concerned the matter’s closed.  Maximoff’s crossed a line this time that she can’t uncross and we’re going to make sure she doesn’t come back and bit us in the ass.  Again.”

“Agreed,” Hill nods as she abruptly stands.  “Vision if you’d be willing to oversee the transfer I’d appreciate it.  Collar or not it’d make my team feel more secure.”

“Of course, Director,” Vision nods as he stands as well, Redwing moving off of his lap to hover over Tony’s shoulder.  With a brush of his hand against Tony’s arm Vision follows Hill out of the room.

“Tony, please,” Rogers turns back towards him again.  “Don’t do this. You can still stop this.”

“In case you missed it,” Tony says dryly, “I didn’t make the decision on my own.  There was an entire process. Just because the majority didn’t agree with your opinion on things doesn’t mean they’re suddenly wrong.”

“We,” Rogers motions to himself and the other Rogues, “didn’t vote on anything.”

“And if you’d read your packets,” Tony emphasizes again, “then you’d know that you don’t get to vote while you’re on probation.  It’s part of your acclimation process. Plus even if you had you still wouldn’t have the majority, not with Hill and the Council also agreeing with us.”

“That’s not how it used to work,” Rogers says.  “That’s not how a family is supposed to work, Tony.”

“Oh I know,” Tony agrees as he gets to his feet, aware of how everyone in the room is watching the two of them like some kind of half-assed tennis match.  “But we’re not family. Never have been, never will be.”

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” Rogers sounds almost desperate again.  “Why you’re saying things like this. Just because I didn’t agree with you on the Accords, that doesn’t mean everything we, the team, had together meant nothing.  It doesn’t mean you have to give up on all of us and Wanda too.”

“I gave up on you all a long time ago when it comes to anything except maybe getting the job done,” Tony shifts his weight, hands slipping into his pockets.  “And this was never about the Accords and you know it.”

He thinks that, maybe, he should be angry, should be seething with rage and hate at the way Rogers still doesn’t seem to want to admit what really happened to tear everything apart.

But he isn’t.

Instead Tony is calm, collected and, above all else, cold.

Because his foundation is rock solid now, shored up in areas he hadn’t realized were still weak.

And because if there is one thing Tony has learned out of all of this, it is the fact that the opposite of love has never been hate.

It has always been apathy.

And Tony has that in spades now.

“Then what was it about Tony?” Rogers asks.  “Just tell me, please. Tell me what it was so I, we, can fix it.”

“You want to do this here?” Tony asks just to be sure.  It’s a courtesy that Rogers doesn’t deserve from him but Tony does it anyways because it’s the last kindness he intends to give in this conversation.  “You want to do this now? Have this conversation in the middle of the conference room in front of everyone?”

“I just want to know,” Rogers says.

“Have it your way then,” Tony agrees as he reaches up to straighten his tie.

He has nothing to hide after all, Rhodey already knows the truth of this matter, Barnes is a non issue for Tony, and he could care less as to what the others think of him now or ever again.

He doesn’t have a single thing to be ashamed of when it comes to what he’s about to say.

“It’s like Vision said,” Tony tells him with a small, uncaring shrug, “this was about choices.  About trust.  You, none of you, trusted me when the chips were down.  You didn’t trust me or anyone who took my side. You didn’t listen and you didn’t trust us, and we, me, Rhodey, and Vision … well we paid the price for it all.”

“I never …” Rogers swallows audibly, “I never meant for you to get hurt Tony, you or Vision or Rhodes.  It was never … it wasn’t supposed to happen like that but I couldn’t stand aside and do nothing.  Not when Bucky was in danger. Can you understand that?”

“I can understand that you think you were doing what was right,” Tony says.  “But what I can’t reconcile is why you thought cutting me down was the only way to do it.”

“You were trying to kill Bucky,” Rogers rasps.  “I’m sorry I hurt you but I couldn’t let you hurt him anymore.”

“If I wanted either one of you dead, any of you dead during all of that, you would be,” Tony tells him in an echo of the truth he’d offered to Barnes.  “Or did you forget what I did with the armor during New York?  Armor that I, let me remind you, had already updated a couple dozen times since then?”

“But you,” Rogers goes to speak but Tony cuts him off, eager to drive his point home and get this all done and over with.

“It was never about hurting Barnes,” Tony says with a wave towards where Barnes is hovering near the wall.  “It was always about hurting you. Because you lied to me. By omission if not outright.”

“I should’ve told you,” Rogers admits.  “I know I should’ve told you Tony. But I was so scared ...”

“I trusted you,” Tony cuts him off, voice calm and surprisingly even.  “You said ‘together’ and I trusted you.  You said ‘no more secrets’ and I trusted you.  Those days are over now.”

“I know.  Tony, I know,” Rogers sounds wrecked, looks it too with his eyes so wide and blue and glistening with a hint of unshed tears as he rounds the table and moves closer to where Tony’s standing.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sor-”

Stop,” Tony interrupts him again with a raised hand, the word cutting through Rogers’ protests like a blade.

He doesn’t want his apologies anymore.

Had never really wanted them if he’s being honest with himself, not even back when he still cared for Rogers.

He’d wanted what had happened erased, wanted what Rogers and the others said and did and didn’t do unmade more than he’d wanted any sort of apology.

Because apologies don’t, can’t, do that no matter how one might wish they did.

What’s done is done and regret only goes so far to soothing certain wounds.

Tony had learned that lesson when he was small too.

Tony please,” Rogers sounds grieved, almost pleading.  “We can get through this. I know we can. We have to.  Cause I … you gave me a home, Tony.  Gave all of us a home.  And I’m never half as good at anything as I am when we’re together, working side by side.  I’d give … so much to have that back.”

“I loved you,” Tony says before Rogers can say anything else.  His voice is even, low and unwavering, but it isn’t gentle.  Tony doesn’t think he has any more gentleness left in him for this man.  Not like that. “Sometimes I think I’ve spent half my life in love with you in one way or another.”

Rogers freezes, goes silent and still just like the rest of the room around them.  Tony’s not even sure if most of them are breathing.

Especially Rogers.

Tony takes a step forward, gets within arm’s reach of Rogers for the first time since … well for the first time in a very long time.

Unable to help himself he reaches up and cups that jaw line in the palm of his hand, lets his fingertips ghost over the delicate skin there like he’d wanted to a thousand times before in the past.  Lets his thumb brush ever so gently across the bitten pink swell of Rogers’ lips like he’d ached to once, so many years and miles and broken bonds ago.

Let’s himself take for once, even if only in so small a way.  Even if the want isn’t there anymore.

It’s almost cruel to touch Rogers like this, Tony knows that, but he does it anyways.

It feels just like Zemo had said.

Like the closing of a door.

Like a goodbye.

Like the death of an age.

Rogers quivers in his grasp, blue eyes blown wide with something that looks almost like hope, almost like yearning.  Like something too precious to be snuffed out.  Like something sweet and warm that every good man knows should be cherished and nurtured.  Coveted.

But then, Tony’s never been a good man.

He’s only ever been himself and that’s something he’s paid the price for ten times over by now.

Plus the time for cherishing and coveting has long since passed him by where Rogers is concerned.

“I trusted you and I loved you and you almost killed me for it.”  Tony repeats with a delicate kind of unavoidable cruelty as he lets his hand drop, as he steps back and away from Rogers with more than just his body.  “So I don’t anymore, and I never will again. Because those are two mistakes I’ll never let myself repeat. And that’s a truth you might want to become accustomed to.  For your own sake.”

Tony,” Rogers’ voice is weak, shaken, and his name comes out as a warbling sort of plea.  “Tony, please.  Don’t do this.”

“I didn’t,” Tony tells him.  “You did.”

And right in front of his eyes Rogers almost seems to shatter.

Tony doesn’t soften though.

Can’t.

He doesn’t have the capacity to soften for Rogers anymore.

That wound’s just a scar now, the infection of his care for Rogers has long since been cauterized, the sickness of it excised and drained from him by a cold so deep it could have burned.

And burn it had.  It had burned his love for Rogers right out of him.  Scorched it out of his heart and his bones and his soul where it had always lived before.

There’s no place inside of Tony for Rogers now.  He gave up his claim on Tony to wind and ice and snow.  To the cold he’d left in his wake.

To the winter he’d left Tony behind to weather.

So, instead, he just steps back further when Rogers tries to reach out to him again, tries to touch him with those desperate hands and yearning eyes.

The look on his face when Tony denies him is almost beautiful in its devastation.

Beautiful in that way that only winter can be beautiful with its silent ruthlessness and its unrelenting chill.

Like how a snowstorm might be beautiful because of the desolation it brings.

Tony can’t help but wonder if Rogers can feel its chill now too.

If somehow this is the thing that makes them almost even.

Tony doesn’t think it really does but he’s also sure that it might have to.  That this might be as close as he’ll ever get to evening the score between them if that sort of thing still appealed to him.

It doesn’t though, not really.

So instead of lingering Tony just dips his head once in a nod, turns on his heel, and walks away without another word.

He pauses long enough to pat Rhodey on the shoulder, to nod once at Barnes, and then heads out the door, Redwing hovering over his head.

Behind him he hears a sharp sound of pain and a loud crash.

Tony doesn’t look back.  Instead he keeps his attention focused on moving forward towards where Vision is currently preparing to move Maximoff.

Besides, there’s nothing there for him now, in that direction, in that room, in Rogers.

Tony is finally, completely free.

Now Tony knows that whenever he looks at or thinks of Rogers there will no longer be even the danger of him feeling anything close to pity or, worst of all, love.

Not anymore.

Now there will only be that faint sense of caution and apathy.

Now there will only be the ever present bite of the deep wailing well of winter that’s made its home inside of him.

Rogers is finally, truly, little more than a blank space to him now.

Just another scar.

Chapter Text

Tony hears the tell-tale whirl of the braces long before Rhodey comes through the door but he still doesn’t turn around.

Instead he stays where he is, standing on the edge of the roof staring out into the night that’s fallen over the Compound.  His attention is splintered in a thousand different directions, each one of various importance, but it barely even phases him.

He feels calmer, more settled, than he did before.

There is, has been, nothing left inside of him for Rogers for some time now and yet closure, complete and full closure on his terms, is sweeter than Tony had ever thought it would be.

“So,” Rhodey’s voice is dry but his hand is gentle when he lays it on Tony’s shoulder, “the conference room may or may not need a new table.”

Tony hums lightly in acknowledgement.

“Rogers put his fist through it,” Rhodey huffs, hand sliding across the line of Tony’s shoulders to pull him closer.  “Which wasn’t really all that much of a surprise.”

“Punching things has been his go to plan for a while now,” Tony agrees.

“Boy better find a new plan soon,” Rhodey warns.  “He lays hands on you again because you won’t toe the line?  I already told you what I’ll do. It’ll make Maximoff’s punishment look like a vacation.”

“So murderous,” Tony teases because this has become one of Rhodey’s favorite go to lines.  And yet Tony also knows he’s telling the truth every single time and he loves him for it.  “Don’t worry sugar plum, I can handle Rogers just like me and Vision handled Maximoff.  You know that.”

“I do,” Rhodey agrees.  “But knowing you’re a lot less breakable these days doesn’t change how serious I am though.  And you know that.”

“I know.  But, at the risk of repeating myself yet again, he can’t hurt me anymore,” Tony soothes.  “There’s nothing left in me for him, Rhodey.”

“Good,” Rhodey says softly, forehead pressed against Tony’s temple.  “He doesn’t deserve a spot in your heart Tones. Not anymore.”

Tony just smiles even as he leans further back into Rhodey’s familiar warmth

Even without the armor, even in the braces, Tony trusts Rhodey to hold his weight.

No matter what, even if or, more likely, when they both end up beaten and broken again or lost somehow in the darkness between stars, or facing down more gods or monsters, Tony will always trust Rhodey.

Young, old, making time as some sad imitation of a star churning iron at its core and dying second by second, or cursed to experience eternity, none of that will ever make a difference.

Tony will always love Rhodey.

And he will always know that, no matter what, Rhodey loves him too.

Through hell or high water, to the stars and back.

Through any and everything that may come, Tony will always have this.

His family.

And that sure and steady love is a gift, a blessing, that Tony will always cherish and will always strive his hardest to deserve.

~~~

Surprisingly enough no one seeks either of them out for the rest of the night.

Tony assumes they’re all too caught up in their own drama and angst over everything that’s happened to bother with chasing them down at the moment.

Tony had half expected Rogers to try and plead Maximoff’s case again but, given their last conversation, maybe he’d finally realized it was a lost cause.

Either way it’s a reprieve that Tony’s sure won’t last long.  But then none of them ever really do, so he intends to enjoy it while it lasts.

Tomorrow will, after all, be a very busy day.

So Tony spends the night in his room with Rhodey, half of his attention trained on schematics he’s been working on for the past few months and the slow, steady rise and fall of Rhodey’s chest beside him.

The other half of his mind remains firmly focused on the warm, reassuring brush of Vision’s code in the back of his mind and the camera feeds from the Raft where Vision still stands guard.

Tony feels more than a bit comforted by the fact that Vision had chosen to stay even after the transfer was completed.

That, the knowledge that FRIDAY has all of the quinjets firmly locked down, and the sight of Maximoff collared, jacketed, and securely locked away sets Tony even more at ease.

There’s not going to be a repeat of the first break out Rogers had staged at the Raft.

This time, if anyone tries, if anyone even manages to get close before all of this is done, Tony will pick up the phone.

Hell there won’t even be time for a call to be made.

This time Vision, Rhodey, and Tony himself, alongside all of the force they can harness, will be there to stop them to stop them.

Even now, in the middle of the night with his body miles upon miles away from the Raft, Tony will still be there.

Maximoff had made her choice and now her time in the sun is finally done.

Her own actions have, once again, ensured it.

Now Tony and Vision both are just going to make sure that, this time, it sticks.

~~~

“I could go instead,” Rhodey tells him bright and early the next morning, eyes still heavy lidded but awareness creeping in quickly as he watches Tony slide out of bed.

“You could,” Tony agrees.  “But you’re not. Me and Vision can handle this.  Hell Vision could do it on his own, I’m just a formality and Plan B rolled into one.  Besides, someone needs to stay here, keep an eye on all of them. You know they’re going to want to watch, maybe play another round of Tony Stark Is The Actual Devil™.  You should have fun with that.”

Rhodey’s glower is both impressive and hilarious in Tony’s opinion.  It also speaks louder than words about what Rhodey thinks about a game like that.

“Seriously, Rhodey,” Tony presses on.  “It’s fine. Stay, monitor things from here, keep an eye on all of them.  It’ll take a few hours to get everything squared away but it’s probably going to be boring as all hell.  Plus I’d rather have you here just in case something actually does manage to go wrong. I don’t want you anywhere near her.”

“I’m not afraid of her, Tony,” Rhodey says softly.

“I know,” Tony cuts a small smile in his direction.  “Neither am I. At least not when it comes to anything she could try to do to me or Vision if something goes wrong.”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” there’s a solid and unshakable kind of surety in Rhodey’s voice, “it’s your tech and it’s you and Vision doing this entire thing.  Nothing’s going to go wrong.”

“No, it’s not,” Tony agrees again.  “And yet …”

It sits there unspoken between them that Maximoff isn’t a threat to Tony or Vision, not anymore, but Rhodey?  Of the three of them he’s the most vulnerable to her and her mind games even with all of the precautions and tech Tony has made with Vision’s help.

And now that she’s not pretending to be some doe eyed innocent thing anymore?  Now that she’s outed herself as still vicious and out for Tony’s blood …

Well.

Tony has faith in his tech, has faith in Vision, but Rhodey will never be something, will never be someone, he’s willing to risk like that when there are other options.

In this case, in the case of his family, Tony is operating under a strict better safe than sorry sort of system.

~~~

The flight to the Raft is easy, the skies that crisp clear never ending blue that Tony has always loved to fly the armor in.

If all works out, perhaps Tony will be able to convince Vision to go flying with him on the way back.  That way he can take a few hours just to feel the armor cut through the air and the sky, sleek and fast in all of the ways Tony has always loved, without any sort of rush.

But those are thoughts for later.

For now there is more important, but decidedly less pleasant, business to be done.

Thankfully Vision is there waiting for him when he lands.

“Tony,” Vision steps forward as Tony lands, one hand already raised to brush affectionately through Tony’s hair as the helmet retracts.

“V,” Tony allows the both of them this moment of closeness before he pulls back just a bit, professionalism slipping down onto both of them between one breath and the next.

But, as always, Vision’s code is a warm and familiar glow in the back of his mind.

“As I am sure you already know, the Council as well as Jim and the Rogues have all telecommuted in,” Vision tells him as they fall into step with each other and head further into the Raft.  On probation or not Tony is pretty sure that the Rogue nickname is one that’s going to be sticking around. “Director Hill is also here in person with a specially outfitted rapid response team waiting with her as an extra layer of precaution.”

“Any changes with the Council’s decision?”  Tony can’t help but ask. “Anyone throw any new and exciting monkey wrenches in our direction?”

“No,” Vision reassures him.  “All has been well. I have been given the go ahead to commence with the procedure upon your arrival.”

Tony does know this of course, has been monitoring all of the frequencies and feeds, but hearing it from Vision as well is still an extra layer of reassurance.

Even if Tony doesn’t really need it.

He knows exactly what’s been happening inside the Raft for the past day or so after all.  He is aware of exactly who is going to be watching, knows exactly who is inside the Raft, and knows exactly what is at stake if this goes wrong.

Which is exactly why it’s not going to go wrong, not this time.  Not if Tony has anything to say about it.

And, thankfully, this time he very much does.

This time the ball is very much firmly in Tony and his team’s court.  They hold all the cards as it were and Tony has no intention of folding.

This time Tony is playing for keeps.

“Let’s get this done then,” Tony says.  “Should have been done a long time ago.”

“Yes,” Vision agrees.  “Though I suppose, as the saying goes, this is very much a case of better late than never.”

~~~

Maximoff is still wrapped up in the straight jacket and the suppression collar is still firmly in place when Tony and Vision make it to the room that’s been set up for this entire production.

There’s also a heavy chain wrapped around her waist and anchored to the floor, the chair she’s sitting in is bolted down, and her ankles are secured with the heavy duty mag-cuffs Tony had created years before.

Overkill perhaps but Tony doesn’t actually care.

The restraints are humane and she’s not in any sort of pain.

And without access to her power she’s going absolutely nowhere.

That’s all that matters to Tony at the moment.

Unlike the last time and despite the increase in heavy restraints, Maximoff’s face is set in a hateful glare, teeth bared in a snarl that only grows when she catches sight of him.

The blank eyed despair and numbness of her last trip to the Raft is nowhere to be seen.

Still, Tony barely spares her a glance and tunes out her insults and screaming.  Instead his attention focuses in on Vision who has turned to address the wall of screens containing their observers.

It’s a large gathering.  Hill, her expression severe, stands by the rail of the viewing deck just off the side of the screens.  She looks as put together as always with her SWORD jumpsuit stark and black and a hand hovering over her unclasped gun holster.  Her rapid response team is spread out around her, each of them practically bristling with various weapons and all of their attention focused down on Maximoff.  A line of defense should Vision and Tony both fall somehow.

Unnecessary yes, but approved of and appreciated nonetheless.

The screens on the wall are all filled with various faces that Tony has come to know rather well over the past two years.  The Accords Council in all of their various glories, all stern faced and intent as they stare down at them.

The Rogues and Rhodey can also be seen together on one screen, all of them seated around the new conference room table that FRIDAY must have had delivered while Tony was in-transit.

They, with the exception of Rhodey and Barnes, all looks some degree of ragged and shaken still.

“This is Victor Shade Stark,” a hint of a smile whisks its way across Vision’s face when he says his new legal name, “call sign The Vision, stating for the record that the procedure to remove the powers and abilities granted to one Wanda Maximoff, call sign Scarlet Witch, by the object known as the Mind Stone has been sanctioned by all relevant and necessary parties.”

“Let the record show that Doctor Anthony Edward Stark, call sign Iron Man, Team Lead for the Avengers, stands as support to The Vision for the duration of this operation,” Tony announces then, gaze unwavering as he stares at the screens.  The helmet is retracted still but the armor covers the rest of his body, Bleeding Edge still as sleek and deadly looking as it always is.

“The Council recognizes Victor Shade Stark, aka The Vision, alongside Doctor Anthony Edward Stark, aka Iron Man, as well as the validity of this operation,” Head Councilwoman Yoshitsune announces from the center screen.  “Are there any last minute objections?”

“Steve,” Maximoff chooses that moment to whisper brokenly, traces of her earlier rage tucked down and away, “you have to stop this.  Stop him.”  

On the screen Rogers squeezes his eyes shut tightly.

“I’m sorry, Wanda,” Rogers whispers, “I wish this could be different.”

But, Tony can’t help notice, he doesn’t raise any actual objection.

“Clint, please,” Wanda turns towards Barton then, straining against her bonds like she can physically will them to step through the screen and save her.

For his part Barton, shaken and pale, doesn’t look away but he does stay tellingly silent, jaw clenched tightly.

Tony’s almost surprised that there’s not been more of an effort to stop this entire thing.

Not that it really matters either way of course.  It’s not as if the Rogues get any sort of actual say in what’s about to happen.

“Then let us proceed on schedule,” Yoshitsune finally says with a nod towards Vision and him.

Vision nods back and then turns on his heel to face Maximoff once again.

Tony follows along behind him, content with his place in all of this.

It really is a bunch of pomp and circumstances, the pageantry of this entire thing, but this needs to be handled correctly all the way around.

Precedent is, after all, being set here.

And, in the end, precedent could one day make or break them all.

Again.

“Please relax as best you can Ms. Maximoff,” Vision says gently as he steps around her until he’s standing behind her.  “This will be unpleasant, and for that I do apologize, but some discomfort is unavoidable.”

“I should have killed you,” Maximoff half sobs, half snarls then, attention and hatred practically radiating from her as she stares at the screens before she turns her focus oh so firmly onto Tony as she always seems to do.  “I should have killed all of you.”

Tony doesn’t bother to respond.

Instead he just looks up at Vision and gives him a short nod.

Vision’s hands come up.

There’s a crackle as arcs of golden light flare to life at his fingertips.

Vision, don’t do this,” Maximoff pleads then, eyes wide and shiny with un-shed tears, desperation heavy and thick in her voice as she strains forward and away against her bonds.  “Vision, please.”

“You should feel no significant pain,” Vision tell her, voice soft, even, and obviously unmoved, “but the less you struggle the quicker it shall be done.”

His hands come down to hover over Maximoff’s temples.

I hate you,” Maximoff snarls raggedly just as the arcs of golden light sink into her skin.

“I have identified the target,” Vision intones solemnly above the rising sound of Maximoff’s insults.

No,” Maximoff sobs. “No, no, no! Pietro help me!

“Deletion commencing,” Vision announces.

The arcs of golden light flare brighter and then, like the flipping of a switch, Maximoff screams, a loud, guttural wailing noise.

And then she keeps on screaming.

~~~

Maximoff is a sobbing mess when it’s done.

A sobbing, but thankfully powerless mess.

Staring down at her, wrapped in chains, mumbling to a brother that’ll never answer and still spewing hate with every other breath, Tony can’t help but sigh.

Hearing her scream like that, high and desperate and terrified, hadn’t been something Tony had relished.  Oh he feels faintly satisfied with a job well done but that’s about as far as it goes.

Apathy truly is a blessing in situations such as this even if others might mistake that apathy for something else.

Even if others mistake it for callousness or cruelty or even outright hate.

But then that’s their problem, not Tony’s.

Not anymore.

Not ever again.

Tony knows what he feels, the people who matter know what he feels, and that’s honestly all that counts to him these days.  He’s done catering to others outside of SI business and doing what needs to be done to protect the world.

Still the truth remains that having nothing inside of him for her, or any of the others for that matter, doesn’t automatically equate to enjoying any of their pain despite what some might think.

Tony would have happily reduced her to a fine red mist if she’d pushed him hard enough, if she’d kept on threatening what is his, but he’s never been one to revel in someone else’s suffering.

At least not beyond an amusingly petty level that is.

It is, he can’t help but think, one of the major differences between himself and Maximoff.

She’d relished his suffering and had actively regretted not causing more of it.

As for Tony?

Tony’s just tired of dealing with this.  Even with everything she’s ever done to him he just wants her and all of the problems that she brings with her out of his life for good.

He doesn’t want her dead or tortured.  He just wants her held accountable and done so far away from him and his family.

And, in the end, Tony thinks that might really be what makes all the difference.

Because Tony isn’t operating under any sort of delusions.

He’s not a good man.  Not by most people’s definition of the word, including his own.

Tony is an iron cored creature now, is filled to the brim with the harsh bite of winter, his fractures and cracks not erased but instead all filled in with molten gold.  He only has a slowly growing but infinitely precious bundle of warmth left glowing inside of him. He guards that warmth and his handful of absolutely precious people with a jealous and snarling sort of intensity.

So he might very well be all of the things that everyone has ever said about him or he might be none of them at all.

None of that really matters in his opinion.

But what does is the fact that at least he’d never managed to become this.

Had never tipped over the edge and become a vicious, frothing creature like Maximoff had.

At least, even with everything he’s done and everything he’s lived through, Tony had never come to covet other people’s suffering.

Indifferent to a degree in certain circumstances?  Yes.

Willing to manipulate it in specific situations?  Absolutely.

Sometimes both of those things are a necessary evil no matter how distasteful one or the other might seem at times.

But taking active joy in it?

No.

That’s never been who Tony is.  Not really.

He’s not Maximoff.

Or Stane.

Or Vanko.

Or Howard.

He’s just … Tony Stark.

Just Iron Man.

For good, or for worse.

Tony thinks there’s a certain sort of long overdue comfort to be found in that fact.

~~~

“Fly with me?” Vision asks once it’s done, once Maximoff has been carted off by Hill’s team to an observation room and the screens have all gone dark.

There’s something in the tone of Vision’s voice, something in the way he asks the question, that immediately puts Tony on alert.

“Of course,” Tony says easily enough.

Vision has just beaten him to the punch but even if Tony had no plans to ask him first there was never going to be any other answer.

Vision is his family.

Tony will follow wherever Vision needs to lead, will keep pace with him step by step until Vision is ready to talk about whatever it is that’s so obviously on his mind.

Tony will do all of that and more, eagerly, happily, and all just for the asking.

Because he knows that Vision, just like Rhodey, will never lead him astray.  Will never ask for more than Tony is willing and capable of giving in the first place.

Because Vision will always let him say no.

That’s what family, true family, does.

~~~

Safe in the knowledge that FRIDAY will alert Rhodey as to their detour Tony enjoys his time flying with Vision.

Together they dip down to skim fingertips over the surface of a restless sea only to dart upwards to twirl amongst the clouds that have rolled in over the past few hours.

Feeling playful and determined to make Vision smile if even only for a split second, Tony grabs him by the hand and drags him into a sky waltz.

Vision indulges him, a soft sort of expression on his face, as they glide through the air together in perfect ease.

There, hand in hand with Vision, suspended somewhere between the seemingly endless ocean and the lure of an infinite sky, Tony feels just a bit like Icarus.

Feels a little bit like a too reckless boy with wings of wax who could never be satisfied with the middle ground.

The difference is that Tony has already survived both the ocean and the sun in turn.

He has known the darkness of water closing over his head time and time again, has tasted salt in air starved lungs and felt a cold so deep it settled in his bones.  Tony has had molten sunlight poured into his veins, has bitten deep into the blue-gold core of the fire and swallowed it whole.

He has froze and burned, been shattered and drowned and scorched to ash.

And he would do it all again in a heartbeat just to protect what he has right now.

He will dive as deep as he has to, will soar as high as is required of him.  Tony will push until his lungs explode or until he shatters back into the stardust that made him.

Anything, everything, for this.

~~~

“You okay?”  Tony finally breaks the silence between them some hours later as they hover side by side beneath a sky filled up with stars.

“I am,” Vision tells him quietly.  “Only ... confused I believe.”

“Wanna talk about it?”  Tony asks. “You know I’ll listen.  Might not give the best advice but I’ll always listen, V.”

“I know,” Vision inclines his head just a bit in Tony’s direction but doesn’t say anything else.

There’s a long moment of meaningful but still peaceful silence.

“I do not regret what was done today” Vision finally speaks up. “In fact I find that my resolve over the subject never once wavered and it remains steadfast even now.  It was the logical decision. And, beyond that, I believe it to be the correct one as well.”

“I’m sensing a but here,” Tony interjects carefully.

“Indeed,” Vision agrees.  “I am certain of the course we took and yet … her screams.  I find myself … unbalanced by even the memory of them.”

Ah,” Tony hums understandingly in the back of his throat as he tips himself back a bit so that he can stare up at the stars.

“Is this normal?” Vision’s stare is like a brand on the side of Tony’s face.  “To be so … unsettled where before there was only certainty?”

“Normal is,” Tony pauses for a second, “a pretty relative term, V.  Especially when it comes to emotions. And it’s one I don’t think I’ve ever really had a firm grasp on either.”

“It all seems rather dreadfully inefficient,” Vision says, almost pouting.

“Yeah,” Tony laugh lowly, understandingly.  “It can be. But hearing her scream like that and having it unsettle you despite everything else that’s happened?  I think that makes you human in all of the ways that matter. In all of the best ways.”

There’s a pause, below them the ocean churns with the force of billions of years of life gone uninterrupted.

Above them the stars shine with the terrifying beauty of infinity given form.

“Did you love her?”  Tony practically whispers the question.  “Before all of this? Before she hurt you?  Did you love her, like I loved him?”

Tony isn’t ashamed of what he’d once felt but he also doesn’t need to clarify.  They both know exactly who Tony means.

Rogers.

Vision doesn’t answer for a moment, expression contemplative.

“I … cared for Ms. Maximoff, for Wanda,” Vision finally says.  “I felt drawn to her, connected somehow. There was an affection in me for her, one I thought returned. But no, I do not believe it was love.  Perhaps it could have been, one day, but the bond between us had not yet deepened to such a degree. If it was ever even capable of doing so in the first place.”

Vision’s hand comes up then to lightly caress the Mind Stone in his forehead.

“I think now, that what was between us was likely a product of this,” Vision taps lightly at the Stone.  “Like, calling to like. The Stone calling out to the powers it birthed into being within Ms. Maximoff. And that is not love.”

Vision’s hand drops and this time he turns fully in Tony’s direction.

“I am not JARVIS,” Vision says softly and Tony immediately shoots back up right and then goes still, relying on the boots and the back thrusters to keep him steady in the air.  “I have told you this before. I am not him, and yet there is enough of my predecessor inside of me to know that love is so much … more.”

Tony feels breathless.

“JARVIS knew love,” Vision says quietly.  “He knew it so deeply that I was born with the echo of his love inside of me.  An echo that it took me far too long to recognize for what it was, much to my regret.  But I see it now. So much of what I know about emotions, about love, I learned from him.  And from you.”

Vision,” Tony breathes his name, forces himself to blink back the sheen of tears he can feel building up in his eyes.

“Perhaps in another universe,” Vision continues gently, “perhaps in some distant place in which our foundation was different and our bond purer, there could have been love between myself and Ms. Maximoff.”

Vision reaches down, takes Tony’s uncovered hand in his own, and twines their fingers together.

“In this universe, however,” Vision says, “such things will never be.  And while I regret that the journey has been so difficult for so many of us I find that I am … pleased with the end result.  For all that we have suffered I would not trade what we have gained for anything.”

“Yeah,” Tony agrees as he squeezes Vision’s hand. “Yeah, me neither.”

Floating there, just between the sea and the sky, Tony feels the warmth in his chest grow just a bit more.

Like the breaking of dawn.

Like the coming of spring.

~~~

It’s late by the time they make it back to the Compound.

Rhodey’s asleep in his room, safe and sound.  While there are others awake inside according to FRIDAY Tony doesn’t bother with any of them and neither does Vision.

Instead Vision presses a hand to his shoulder and floats off in the direction of the zen garden, Redwing speeding around the corner to join him.

On his part Tony heads for his workshop for a hello to the bots and a quick shower.

Hair wet, stripped down to a pair of low sitting sweats and a raggedy tank, Tony pulls up the project he’s been working on for months now.

It’s done, the final calculations and simulations completed while he and Vision were out flying.

It’s as perfect as Tony is capable of making it, as well tailored and built as it could possibly be with no room left for errors.

This is, in many ways, as careful as Tony has ever been with a project.

Now all that’s left to do is to finally put it into action.

“FRI, baby girl,” Tony says as he leans back in his chair, feet coming up to prop themselves on his work table.  “Do Daddy a favor and put this into production for me please.”

“It would be my genuine pleasure, Boss,” FRIDAY answers.

And they both know she’s telling the truth.

~~~

Hours later Tony runs his fingertips over gleaming quicksilver and smiles.

~~~

Tony leaves again just as the sun is coming up, slides out of the Compound and up into the air without alerting anyone.

This flight is shorter than the one to the Raft but it’s also harder in some ways.

But it’s also one that’s long overdue.

He only makes one stop along the way and he can’t help but bite back a small smile at the way the woman running the little vendor he stops at gasps and stares at him wide eyed.

He drops her a wink and a few hundreds in the tip jar on reflex and then turns and takes back to the air, purchase held carefully in one hand.

It’s delicate cargo after all.

~~~

“I’m sorry it’s been so long,” Tony sighs.  “Things have been … well.  It doesn’t matter, not really.  I know it’s not an excuse, not really.  I should’ve come by a lot sooner, no matter what was happening.  Hell, I should have done a lot of things a lot sooner. But, I’m here now, and I hope that counts for something.  It does, doesn’t it?”

Tony doesn’t bother to wait for an answer he knows will never come.  Instead he just plows forwards.

“I learned a lot of hard truths, these past two years.”  Tony admits with a light grimace. “Some good, some bad. A lot of them worse than bad.  A lot of them a long time overdue too. Things were twisted up inside of me, in my head, and my heart, for a good while because of all of that.  But I uh … I’ve got it straightened out now I think. Priorities in order and all of that.”

Tony reaches out and cups a familiar cheek in his palm.

“You know I spent so long hating Howard because I thought he took you from me.  Because I was so sure that after everything he did to me he still managed to find a way to hurt me even more.  And that, blaming him, hating him, for you, that ripped me up inside more than anything he ever did to me.” Tony says as he lays the massive bouquet of carnations and dahlias across the hands of the marble angel that guards Maria’s resting place.  “But, no matter what, no matter how fucked up things got, no matter what I felt or did or went through, I always loved you, Madre.  Always have, always will.  Nothing will ever change that.”

~~~

“Hypothetically,” Tony starts off talking before he’s even fully in the room.

The gym is empty besides Rhodey and Redwing and, surprisingly enough, Barnes who is cluttering up a treadmill in the corner.

Tony flaps a hand in his direction in an absent wave before he zeros back in on Rhodey with a single minded sort of purpose.

Oh god no,” Rhodey groans from his place on one of the hydraulic weight machines.  “What’ve I told you about using that word?”

Uh,” Tony stalls out for a moment.  “To not use it often and especially not in Scrabble?”

“You mean I’ve told you not to use it at all,” Rhodey says as he lets the bar go and then reaches over for his towel.  “Mainly because you don’t know the meaning of that word or how to put it to actual use.  You’ve got two modes Stank, do or do not.”

“You know I feel like there’s a jab at my height in there somewhere for some reason,” Tony cuts in, “and I just want you to know that I deeply resent that.”

“I deeply resent your face,” Rhodey scoffs back.  “Hypothetically, get out of here with that bullshit.”

“You done?” Tony asks, brows arched high and one hand propped on his hip.  “You finished insulting me? Your best friend? Your brother? The one true light of joy in your life?”

“I don’t see Vision around here anywhere,” Rhodey makes a show of looking around for a second but Tony can see the grin tucked away in the corner of his mouth.

“So cruel, pumpkin patch,” Tony huffs lightly, warmth swelling in his chest and burbling in his bones.

It feels so good to be able to joke like this.  To tease and play after everything.

“I see how it is,” Tony pouts just a bit, over exaggerated and dramatic, as he turns on his heel.  “I’ll just go then. Just slink back on down to the workshop where people appreciate me and my presents.”

“You didn’t say anything about presents,” Rhodey calls out from behind him.  “You should have led with that.”

“Too late,” Tony calls as he swings back out the gym’s door.  “I’m already gone. You’ve missed out.”

“Get back here you little gremlin,” Rhodey shouts.  “I want my present.”

Tony just laughs and keeps moving.  Rhodey will come find him in the workshop when he’s done in the gym.

Tony’s sure of it.

He’s also sure that, for a split second, he hears a rougher, unfamiliar, laugh quietly echoing his own.

~~~

“Alright I’m here, you ass,” Rhodey says as he moves into the workshop, braces whirling as he moves.  He’s freshly showered, a towel over his shoulders, and looking cheerful.

“Oh sugar pea,” Tony drawls, “what’ve I told you about being interested in my ass?”

“First,” Rhodey shoots an automatic middle finger in his direction, “that’s gross.  I know where that thing's been.”

“True and fair,” Tony agrees.  His playboy days are far behind him, have been for years now, but they’re never a sore spot between him and Rhodey like they are when most other people tease him about them.

It’s because, as with everything else, Tony knows Rhodey’s insults and teasing are backed with nothing but love.

“I guess I’ll just cut right to business then,” Tony says as he lightly kicks a stool in Rhodey’s direction.

“Miracles do exist,” Rhodey deadpans even as he sits down and rolls a bit closer to Tony’s side.  “Now what have you cooked up down here this time?”

“A little of this, a little of that,” Tony tells him as he reaches over and grabs a small black case off of the worktable and unlocks it with a thought.  “And an entire batch of this.”

He turns the case to face Rhodey.

“What?” Rhodey stares down at the long, thick vial nestled in the black foam padding with confusion apparent on his face.

Tony waits, watches, and see the moment suspicious seeps into Rhodey’s expression.

“Tones?”  There’s a note of incredulity in Rhodey’s voice then.  “Is this what I …what is this?”

“You know exactly what it is,” Tony tells him softly.  “It took me this long to get it absolutely perfect. But you know exactly what this is.  What I’m offering you.”

Tony,” there’s a subtle sort of heartbreak on Rhodey’s face then.  “You know I don’t … I’m not the type who wants ... that.”

“No,” Tony nods in reluctant but still firm agreement.  “I know you’re not. That’s why it took me so long to tailor it down.  I had to cut a huge chunk of the code out, rewire the entire system. There’s still some perks of course but you won’t …”

Tony breaks off with a light grimace.

This is the one factor that he hates, the one thing about this that he’d known going in they’d disagree on.

“I won’t live as long as you will,” Rhodey finishes the statement for him.

“No, not like me.”  Tony agrees quietly, a soft sort of preemptive grief swirling inside of him.  “This is pared down as far as I could get it, Rhodey. If it were up to me I would have left it alone after a few tweaks but I know you don’t … I know that’s not something you’d be interested in.  And I would never do that to you, not without your permission.”

Tony would happily slam dunk Rhodey head first in the Fountain of Youth if he could but he knows, has always known, that Rhodey has never wanted that kind of thing.  Has never been interested in that kind of miracle, that kind of curse.

Not even one Tony built with his own two hands just for him.  Not even when Tony and Vision both already have their own versions.

“You’ll be faster,” Tony continues, “a bit stronger.  You’ll heal better too so you will live longer than average but that’s it.  There’s no computer hook up, no nanites, no storing the armor in your bones.  None of those bells and whistles.”

Tony pushes the box closer to Rhodey.

“It’s stripped down as close to brass tacks as I could get it,” Tony tells him.  “But Rhodey, it’ll fix your spine.”

Rhodey sucks in a sharp breath.

“No more braces,” Tony practically whispers.  “No more pain. You’ll walk again on your own.  Rhodey you’ll be able to run.”

There are tears in Rhodey’s eyes, his breath hitches on a single sob.

“All you’ve got to do,” Tony says, “is trust me.”

“You know I do,” Rhodey answers, one hand coming up to cup the back of Tony’s neck.

His other hand reaches out and picks up the vial of Extremis from the box.

“You know I always will,” Rhodey whispers and his smile is like the sun.