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Shadows Taller Than Our Souls

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Tony never thought that a day would come when he would do laundry.

He stared at the appliance in front of him and looked at all the buttons on it. He remembered seeing knobs on the last machine he saw, sometime back in college. Rhodey had explained its functioning back then but Tony remembers it through a haze of alcohol, half-naked girls, Dummy's whirring and a hacking challenge. He didn't think it useful to listen then, wondering when and why he would ever find use of a washing machine that ran without an AI or bot-help. 

"Reminiscing sucks, huh?" Rhodey asked as he wheeled over from behind and Tony turned slightly to shoot him a half-hearted glare that did nothing on his best friend of two decades, "Yeah, you keep glaring like that and the machine will combust from the power of your lasers, Superman."

"I can see that you're trying to be funny, but your end result is in dropping into the negative," Tony scoffed before grudgingly picking up clothes from one basket among the four on the floor and dropping it into one machine, "I don't get why we're transitioning into heathens. What exactly is wrong with the pretty little helpful laundry service I have?"

Rhodey wheeled around Tony's torso and observed him dumping the whites into the machine. "Nothing," he quipped casually, snatching a green sock stuck in the whites Tony was going to dump, "It just gives you something to do that isn't filled with grease, sharp pliers or shiny suits."

Tony paused between one t-shirt and another shorts before Rhodey continued.

"Besides, it makes him feel good about doing something. Something that doesn't need...his powers."

The 'him' in question was currently down in the training area, putting himself through another viciously rigorous regime that would do nothing to make him fitter but would give him an illusion of control over his body. Tony knew whey Vision did that regularly, without missing a slot. He knew why the android disappeared in the middle of the night from his floor. He didn't like it, probably didn't like Vision much as well, but he knew why he did it.

After all that had happened and all that they had gone through, using a washing machine to help someone recuperate wasn't a major task for Tony.

He nodded shortly before staring at the detergent bottles next to him and opening his mouth before shutting it with a sigh. 

"You know, paying a therapist is better than this torture," he commented to Rhodey who simply grabbed Tony's wrist when he decided to dump the entire bottle into the machine, "Speaking of therapy, when's your Chewbacca coming in?" 

Rhodey sighed and pushed his wheels to the side in an attempt to watch as the machine began to tumble. Tony had moved onto the colors now.

"I really don't know if you're insulting Chewie or Dr. Forester," he observed and ignored the shrug from Tony, "He's coming in an hour. Andrew will be coming in for physio in the evening. What about you?"

"I'm not insulting either, it's just the hair. What about me?"

Rhodey narrowed his eyes slightly but didn't move a hint. "Today's not April 1st so I know you're not fooling around. Your therapy, we talked about it last week, remember? Dr. Ghosh was supposed to be coming today for your first session."

Tony didn't answer and let his hands take their time in checking his pajamas pockets for hidden objects. He might not know a lot about laundry but he knew much about things getting stuck in smooth running machines. He knew a lot about chokers.

Finally, when he closed the second machine and saw it begin its cycle, he rested his hands on its top and breather out.

"It's not necessary," he said in a quiet voice and knew that Rhodey was frowning harder, even without looking at him.

"That's not your decision"

"It's not going to help" Tony answered patiently, watching his hands press against the machine, "It's fine, I'm fine."

"Fine isn't working anymore," Rhodey replied through clenched teeth, because this was the third time Tony was springing this denial on him, "Fine isn't your auto-pilot here. You know you need it just as much as I do."

"Not really," Tony shot back, turning around and shrugging down at Rhodey, who's glare turned fiercer at the fast-forming facade on Tony's demeanor, "I tried therapy once, remember? Bruce recommended I don't do it again."

"He recommended you don't do it again with him," Rhodey raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms in front of his chest, "Look, we can keep running around in circles here but the point is that it's okay to get help."

Tony dug his hands into his sweat-pant pockets and tilted his head at Rhodey.

"I'm not saying it's not okay, I'm just saying that  don't need help," he replied calmly, the way he always walked the line between caution and comfort with Rhodey nowadays, "Rhodes, you know what'll happen after one session. Why do you want me to traumatize another poor lady?"

Rhodey knew all about pushing Tony, he had learnt it long before he had joined the Air Force. There was always a time and place for things with the man, a rule that usually never applied with regards to Rhodey or Pepper a few years back. After Ultron, that rule had come into effect for Pepper. After the Civil War, it was creeping in onto Rhodey too.

He rubbed one hand over his left knee, trying to chase the phantom pain he felt whenever he thought about the war or that specific day of the war. Nothing made sense about that day to Rhodey. He remembers slipping into his suit, feeling his feet planting solidly against the metal sole of the armor. He remembers the trash talk that Tony made as usual, to mask his nervousness. He remembers standing beside Tony, ready to fly at command, eyeing Sam, no scratch that, eyeing Falcon. He remembers powering up and chasing the guy, close on Tony's heels, as they cut through the skies. He remembers seeing the red alert flashing on his HUD seconds before Tony screamed from the front.

He remembers catching a flash of golden beam before it cut his armor and blacked him out.

The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital, Tony sitting beside him looking worse than death, and blinking up at a mid-50's tall doctor giving him the patented fake-brave smile. He remembers the minute he realized Tony wasn't rambling and wasn't touching him, even though his hands hovered near Rhodey's arm.

He remembers the second he hears the word paralyzed. After that, he simply remembers emptiness and anger smothered by broken concern for himself and the only 'man' still beside him. He remembers the ghost of a past Rhodey still walking beside his wheelchair everyday. 

"You need help, Tony," he said quietly, holding Tony's gaze but refraining from touching him, "but maybe not today. Just...don't wait too long, okay?"

Tony didn't nod or reply but relaxed his shoulders a bit and offered Rhodey a miniscule shrug.

"Whatever you say, buddy" he commented before pointedly turning and snorting at the machines whirring under him, "You think they'll burst if I leave to pee?"

Rhodey rolled his eyes but answered nonetheless.

"Nah, go on, I've got your back," he replied and caught the slight freeze in Tony's eyes before the man smirked softly and walked away. 

Even though Tony was muttering under his breath, Rhodey still caught the sentence as he left.

"I wish I had yours"

Rhodey didn't follow Tony as the guy walked away, knowing that there was nothing he could say that would be both honest and comforting. He was still Tony's best friend but that was only because Tony's circle of friends had dropped to seriously low numbers. He had harbored trust issues for a longer time, probably since Obie, but Tony had still held a modicum of belief that not everybody he trusted was out to destroy him. It was that thickly veiled hope that had helped him become a part of the Avengers, despite their forced beginnings. Rhodey had seen Tony gel into the team over time, gradually, sarcastically, strangely and unwittingly. 

He had also been there for the gradual unraveling of that team. He had been there through the Ultron fiasco, had heard about the unmistakable guilt syndrome Tony adopted whenever he failed. He had been there when Tony had let slip about Pepper leaving and had casually asked Rhodey to not tell any of his teammates. He had seen Tony become insecure again. 

And then he had seen it all fall apart in the final war.

Rhodey had himself been a part of many wars and missions, had seen destruction and death at close quarters, watching the moment life got replaced by emptiness. Nothing in his experience had prepared him for a war against superheroes. Rhodey had expected things to settle down at some point, to get people to understand what the Accords meant. 

He had expected too much.

The day he had woken up at the hospital, Rhodey had known that they had lost completely. He had lost completely. Not just the function of his legs. Not just the confidence of his employers. Not just the dreams he had built. 

Rhodey hadn't lost just tangible things. He had also lost Tony. Somewhere in the middle of all the guns blazing and revelations swimming, he had lost his best friend too. 

The saddest part of it for him, the most irritating aspect, was that it wasn't either his or Tony's fault. It wasn't anybody's fault. They were still Tony and Rhodey, still the same people. But they were also not the same people of the past. It was a contradiction of losses that nobody anticipated. 

They should have anticipated it. They should have known that something as huge as what had happened to both of them would drive an invisible wedge, that would remain despite their closeness. He still cared for the guy like his brother and knew that Tony would throw himself in front of Rhodey when danger came, but they were just not the same. They couldn't joke without worrying about hitting a sore spot. They couldn't casually touch each other, hug, slap each other's back, without hesitating. They couldn't get over their new found height difference, even if they both pretended it didn't exist. 

They were the same people but their souls had changed. For Rhodey, that somehow felt like a far more hurtful loss than his damned legs. 

He knew that for Tony it was just another bullet in his torn out heart.

***********************************************

Vision heard the footsteps even before the man crossed the first curve of stairs. He knew that Tony didn't take the elevator often now, not unless it was absolutely necessary. The engineer didn't justify it or even acknowledge it, but the other two men living in the desolate Facility knew the reason, just as they knew that nobody ate Sokovian recipes anymore and spider webs creeped out Tony involuntarily. Vision knew that Rhodes couldn't see any shows related to the Air Force without hurting his cheek by biting. He knew that nobody looked at mirrors regularly anymore. He knew that Tony always avoided looking at the gem embedded in Vision's forehead.

He had learnt at his inception that he wasn't best suited for human emotions. They baffled him and made his unflappable intellect doubt self. Empathy, compassion, love, kindness and loyalty were beautiful aspects of this curse, but no boon came without a bane. Anger, sadness, anxiety, hurt, loneliness and plethora of gut-wrenching feelings came as part of the human package. Maybe he should never have attempted to try. Maybe he would have been better off as the droid people saw him as, instead of the clothing clad person he had come to recognize in reflections. 

He quickly brushed away those thoughts, knowing that they would invariably lead to her. He had been working hard to avoid her thoughts after the war. It would be unwise to let go now.

"Hey there," Tony called out as he came through the door, clad in his staple black workout attire, "wrong time to catch you?"

Vision had seen Tony at his worst and even that hadn't compared to what he was now. The sarcasm, the sass and air of confidence that he wore on his sleeve seemed to have vanished somewhere in damp dungeons and floating prison cells. He could still remember that, the horrendous prison, could remember the way her powers had been shut down before she could struggle her way out. 

He forced down that memory and turned his attention back to Tony, who was now stretching as warm-up.

"Is there a right time to catch people unguarded?" he quipped in reply, getting back to his meditation, attempting to reach that control point he aimed at.

"Ah, maybe not" Tony conceded and Vision heard nothing else for a whole five minutes before the silence bother him and he opened his eyes to see Tony quietly go about his workout routine.

In a month before this, probably even weeks before, Vision wouldn't have started a conversation voluntarily with Tony Stark, just because he knew that the man didn't need anybody to start conversations for him. He was a proud rambler and could talk anybody's head off without excuse. 

Today, Tony Stark is silence. Not the kind that soothes, but the kind that reminds you of stony graves and still ruins. Vision envisioned Tony absent from the scene and realized that his presence made no difference, not any more than his absence would. Tony Stark had turned insignificant in his silence, and that was the sharpest jab at the android's mind.

"What would you like to have for lunch today?" he asked in the calm tone he was used to and saw Tony pause in his regime before continuing fluidly.

"That sounds a bit like a homemaker for you doesn't it?" Tony asked and Vision felt a flicker of hope at the feeble sass attempt before Tony seemed to realize what he had said and backtracked casually, "We'll order in. Pizza sounds good."

"Yes, it does," Vision pushed a bit more, trying to continue the conversation as he left his meditation mid-way, "But I was hoping we could have something healthier? How about I make some pizza here? With less cheese, just the way you prefer?"

"Whatever you two decide," Tony replied over his shoulder and Vision held back a retort at the lack of input. He knew that Tony couldn't trust him completely yet and the only reason he was still here in the Facility was because of James Rhodes. If Vision had been given a heart, it would have shriveled in guilt at what he had done to that man. The Mind Gem had been a privilege, a terrible privilege at that, and Vision had been trusted by his teammates to have discretion of its usage. 

The laser beam that had shot War Machine out of the sky was not the usage anybody had predicted. The android knew that the alternative, of hitting either Tony or Sam, would not have been any better or less guilt-inducing.

Still, living with the man he had crippled for life and the man whose trust he had lost despite being his creation was a learning experience for Vision. He watched as Tony pushed himself into exertion, trying to fight an invisible foe under the weights. Vision knows that feeling, despite not having the same trauma as Stark.

He wondered if anybody had the same trauma as Tony did. If anybody could imagine what he was living through currently.

Unbidden to imagination, a name did pop up in his mind. The name of a leader they had trusted. The name of a man who had fallen. The name of a friend who had probably hurt Stark worse than any foe. 

Vision wondered if Steve Rogers felt the same way as Tony Stark did. He also wondered if the war had really proven its worth to him, had given him the freedom he claimed to be threatened.

Here, in the abandoned Avengers Facility that lay as a house and no longer a home, Vision could see that the war hadn't been worth anything for them. Two lonely men and one confused synthetic being, caught up in their guilts, grief and ghosts.

As he watched Tony fluidly press up against the pressure of the weights, he knew that no matter how many times Tony pushed back, he would always be bogged down by the nightmare they had gone through.

In the end, Vision looked down at his crossed legs and understood why Natasha had left. It was not because they had lost.

It was because they had nothing else left to fight for.

He closed his eyes and went back to his meditation, thought a golden beam of laser seemed to dominate his vision. He continued nonetheless, in the silence of his companion.

**************************

Tony took another bite of the pizza and put the slice back onto his plate. The voice of the actor on screen rose a few octaves but he couldn't catch the meaning of anything she said. It was some trashy show Rhodey had chosen for the night and Tony hadn't objected. 

It wasn't like it mattered anyway. It was all mindless drag, anything they chose. He picked up the slice of pizza and took another bite, wiping the cheese off his lips with the back of his hand.

He saw Vision sit quietly on the ottoman, politely watching a show Tony knew he didn't understand or appreciate. Vision was no fan of drama series, no matter how many Emmys they had won or how striking the lead looked.

It wasn't as though Vision looked at physical attributes or beauty, he thought lightly before Wanda's grinning face flashed in his mind and he looked at Vision again. He knew about them, of course he did. He knew about the strange bond the droid and the Witch had formed, silently comforting each other over warm homecooked meals, rich philosophical debates and opera. Tony knew he was being cynical in his analysis, knew that they were deeper than he described, but he wasn't as forgiving as he pretended to be or as people considered him to be. He could hold a grudge, no matter how many times Rhodey asserted that he proved himself otherwise. Tony wasn't a fool to his best friend's meaningless platitudes of pity. He knew that Rhodey had changed, that he wouldn't be as sharp and demanding as he had been before...

Before.

That was what his life, their lives, had become divided into : Before and After. It was like they had come through a plague, an epidemic leeching their souls. Tony was not even considering his losses at this point, having long forgotten the count of it. 

The losses of those who trusted him though, those were the ones he kept a diligent account of. Like Rhodey. And his legs.

Tony kept his eyes trained on the TV, forcing himself to not look down again, to not remind himself of what he had become a cause for. It wasn't something he had forgotten, hardly likely that he would ever forget it. Not when a damned wheelchair rolled around him, carrying his best friend in it.

Rhodey had once asked, in the beginning, if Tony was ashamed or uncomfortable with it. Of course, Rhodey's eyes had flashed with defiance and a challenge to dare say yes.

Tony had said no, because he really wasn't ashamed, God never that, not of Rhodey. He couldn't say that about himself though, of his choices, of his decisions and emotions.

On the screen, the lead doctor skidded to the floor as her traumatized patient rained blows on her. It was supposed to be a stirring episode and the shots were taken just right, to emphasize the pain and powerlessness of the woman as she fell and tried to fight back against the patient who wasn't in his senses.

Tony knew the reality of the situation. Knew what it felt like to be her. Knew what it felt like to be powerless against somebody you thought was harmless, somebody that you were convinced by others to be in control.

He could still feel the phantom blows against his head, alternating between two pairs of fists and a vibranium shield, all of them holding equal rage and power. He could still feel his hands tremble as he imagined the repulsor against his palm, ready to strike back, to punch a cowl-hidden face back. He could still see the vacant eyes behind a curtain of black hair, cold rage swirling under mind-control.

He knew what it felt like to be overpowered by somebody people called a victim. He also knew the dilemma that came after.

Whom do you blame for the pain? Where do you shift the blame? Is anybody guilty? Do your hurts have any worth or are they collateral in a larger picture?

He knew what it meant to be a victim of a victim. It wasn't a situation anybody should be in.

"You okay?" Rhodey asked from beside and Tony breathed in deep, adopting a small smile as he shrugged.

"Yeah," he replied, "Twenty bucks says the new girl, the hated intern, saves her."

Rhodey knew that Tony was diverting attention, that his trembling hands were trying to hide under the bait of a bet. If he was stable himself, he would have called out Tony on his bullshit. If he was strong himself, he would have stopped the trembling.

"You're on" he said, taking the bait and turning back to the screen, letting Tony handle his stress in the darkness.

In the corner, from the ottoman, Vision watched the two men relive their problems on a fictional show. 

He turned his attention back to the screen and predicted that Tony would win. 

Maybe in these small bets, they would try and win small things to cover up their losses.

Maybe these minor clean ups would help them hide their personal dirty linen.

Their lives had turned into a big basket of laundry, Vision observed, as he watched Tony's prediction come right.

****************************

Steve stared at T'Challa wordlessly, processing the information for the tenth time. It sounded impossible, not in action but in thought, and Steve had the sudden urge to pull at his hair.

"Is that our only option?"

T'Challa nodded once curtly, keeping his face impassive as he watched the ex-Captain flounder at the implications of the news. He knew what it would lead to, something as dangerous as this. He knew what it would cost Steve and how slim the chances were of him succeeding. 

"Isn't there any way you could do this, instead?" Steve asked desperately, grasping at final straws. T'Challa's jaw ticked like he was physically finding it difficult to admit it but he shook his head in the negative.

"He is the only one who knows the details," the king told calmly, hand flexing against his knee, "The only way to get in is to get his help."

"And you are certain of the tip?" Steve confirmed once more, "We really have an...alienc attack happening?"

"The Skrulls are masterful shapeshifters, Steve," T'Challa repeated himself, glancing at Sam behind Steve, "We have confirmed information about them taking the place and identity of five superheroes currently. The number of unconfirmed will be higher."

"Steve, we can't risk not doing anything," Sam said quietly from behind Steve, "It's too big to ignore."

"I know," Steve replied, wishing that he didn't understand it, "I know, Sam, but this is..."

"Tony, I know," Sam commented, not elaborating further.

It was the worst situation to be in for them. The information of a Skrull attack was hanging over their heads and they had to get data on all those in the government's list of superheroes, track them down and find out about any Skrull available. The catch came in when they realized that nobody but Tony Stark knew the details of the government and the masked superheroes. 

Steve could feel doom knocking at his door. There was no way in hell Tony would ever agree to help them. Not after what had happened.

"Will this be a problem, Steve?" T'Challa asked with a raised eyebrow, "Perhaps I should contact Stark instead?"

Steve considered that for a minute before realizing that Tony would rather eat his own heart than help T'Challa after the king had betrayed him blatantly.

"No, it won't work," Steve shook his head on a sigh, "It'll have to be me. I'm the only one he'll give the time of his day."

"Even after..." Sam trailed before he spoke anything further.

Steve shot him a knowing look and nodded sadly.

"Especially because of what happened," he commented and stood up, "I'm the only one Tony has a beef against right now. I am the only one who can play bait. We can't get through with this without a compromise, a deal. Tony won't have anything to gain from anyone else."

"What will he possibly gain from you?" Sam asked with a frown.

Steve steeled his eyes and took a breath before answering.

"The one thing that would probably rectify things a bit," Steve declared quietly as he met T'Challa's eyes, "Revenge."

"And Bucky?" T'Challa asked calmly.

Steve shook his head and dragged a hand through his hair.

"Tony won't go after him. Not when he will have me to go after," he sighed before squaring his shoulders, "I'll leave tonight for DC. We have to get this done as quick as possible."

T'Challa nodded and stood up, shooting a glance at Sam before leaving the room to arrange for Steve's transportation. Sam watched him leave before turning to stare at Steve.

"He'll kill you," he said bluntly, "He'll kill you before you get a word out."

Steve averted his eyes from Sam and gazed outside the corridor, over at Wakanda's skyline.

"He could have killed me at any time before," he replied softly, "He's Tony. He won't."

Sam wondered if Steve knew how foolish he sounded. He wondered if his friend knew what bet he was placing on his own life. He knew about Tony's rage, had seen it manifest into the prison, the Raft as it was called.

He wondered what gave Steve this ridiculous confidence about a man he had left broken back home.

Steve could feel Sam's stare on his back and resolutely avoided his gaze. He knew that Sam was considering him foolish. He also knew that the possibilities of that being true were high.

Maybe he was being foolish. Maybe Sam was right and Tony would kill him.

But then he remembered that letter he had written in a moment of sheer guilt when they first came to Wakanda. The night Bucky had decided to get back into a cryo.

He remembered sending in that letter, wishing he could possibly smooth things over.

He knew that the thought was childish and that things would never be the same. He knew that Tony hated him.

Somewhere though, somewhere in his good memories, he also knew that Tony Stark had once trusted him enough to follow. He remembered when Tony had once agreed with Steve, to face foes together.

He hoped that he could try that again. No matter what Tony would ask in return. 

He just hoped that he could find it in himself to face the man again.