When he first opens the package and the phone falls out beside Steve’s letter, Tony stares at it for what feels like hours. He can’t say he isn’t surprised by the gesture, or the contents of the letter when he finally gets to it, especially with how he and Steve left things; hell, the last time they were together, they were trying to kill each other.
They very nearly had.
It takes him a while to sort through his feelings. Once he’s over the initial shock of seeing such an ancient piece of technology on his desk, a gut-wrenching ache begins to form in his chest that he’s fairly certain has nothing to do with his cracked ribs. Not for the first time since this whole fiasco began, regret bubbles up inside him, but is quickly beaten back down by the still fierce, stubborn determination that burns within him. He idly wonders, as he leans back in his chair, why fighting for something he believed – believes – in, something he knows is right, makes him feel so desperately ashamed of himself. Quite possibly because still, after everything that’s happened, everything he’s done, everything he’s hidden and lied about, Tony still needs Steve’s approval above anybody else’s.
Well, except maybe Pepper’s.
It’s the thought of her that makes him sit up straight and sweep both the letter and the phone into one of the drawers in his desk. He doesn’t need Steve. He doesn’t need Pepper, either; she hadn’t even called him when the airport battle had hit the news to make sure he was all right. Despite what he’s been telling himself, passing the accords doesn’t seem to have helped his relationship in the slightest. If anything, he has never felt more alone.
But that’s fine. It’s fine, because he still has things that need to be done. Rhodey has a follow up scan that Tony needs to drive him to, and Secretary Ross is still out for blood. Tony knows for sure that he has at least thirteen different people on hold that he should probably get back to at some point, and then he needs to get in touch with the September Foundation to make sure that’s up on its feet properly. Actually, he should probably stop in on that Parker kid to make sure he’s all right, too.
Basically, over the next couple of weeks, he loses himself in his work. He tells himself that he’s forgotten all about the phone in his desk, and all thoughts of Steve and the other Avengers get pushed right to the back of his mind. He doesn’t go back to the Tower, because Pepper lives there now, but he doesn’t go back to the Mansion, either. At first he’s not sure why, but then he remembers Steve’s letter, how he didn’t want him wandering around the place by himself, and he gets angry with himself all over again. He still doesn’t go back, though.
Instead, when he’s not busy bouncing from meeting to meeting, press conference to interview, he stays at the upstate Avengers facility. Vision is there most of the time, moping around, and Rhodey is rehabilitating there as well, but for the most part it feels incredibly empty without the other Avengers there.
He has to keep reminding himself that the Avengers don’t actually exist anymore, and he should stop naming them as such.
Eventually, it all just becomes a little bit too much. He’s been popping pain meds like Pez for the past few weeks and just powering through, because he has to, but eventually that all goes to shit when Vision appears in the kitchen doorway one morning, looking stern.
“Mr Stark, you must rest,” he insists as Tony tries to side-step him.
“No can do,” Tony replies briskly, because he has no time for this now. Everett Ross left a very angry voicemail on his personal phone, which can’t be good, and Tony also needs to ask him whether there’s any relation between him and Secretary Ross, because it’s been bugging him for weeks.
“I must insist,” Vision presses, and raises his arms to keep Tony from slipping past him. “You are yet to heal properly, and you are starting to look unwell. When did you last sleep?”
Tony wants to snap that it’s none of his damn business, but… for just a moment, his voice sends Tony back in time, reminds him of JARVIS so much that the ache in his chest comes back in full force, and he feels all the fight leave him. He can’t remember the last time someone asked him how he was actually doing; it was probably Natasha during the war.
Tony hasn’t seen her since she threatened him to watch his back.
“There’s too much to do,” he tries, but even this short pause is bringing to light how tired he feels, and how much he aches. He should probably take some more pain meds, maybe with a glass of scotch or two.
“You are one man,” Vision argues gently, and places a hand on Tony’s shoulder. It feels unbearably heavy, sitting there. “The responsibility does not lie only with you.”
“I have a meeting with Everett Ross,” Tony shakes his head, but his will is wavering. “I think they want me to take some kind of Director job –“
“I will go and give them your regrets,” Vision tells him firmly, and holds his hand out for Tony’s phone. Tony gives it to him without much fuss. “Take the day for yourself. I’m sure Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes would enjoy your company, and you should rest.”
With a deep sigh, Tony nods his head and then looks down at the floor. He has been working on a set of waterproof walking aids for Rhodey so he can maybe do some water therapy or something, and he could take them to him and spend some time in the pool downstairs.
He doubts that he’ll sleep.
“Just… if anything comes up, send a message to FRIDAY. She’ll make sure I get it, and I can come right over –“
“Thank you, Mr Stark, but I’m sure your assistance won’t be necessary,” Vision smiles at him, and then simply turns and walks through the nearest wall.
He’s still working on the concept of greetings and goodbyes, Tony thinks.
He seriously thinks about grabbing a glass of scotch from the cupboard over the sink, but then decides against it; alcohol will make him sleepy, and he has no interest in sleeping any time soon. That, and drinking feels strangely like giving in, or admitting that he’s struggling and needs help to get through it.
Tony doesn’t need anybody.
And so, instead, he takes a quick trip to the temporary lab that he set up before the war to grab the prototype for Rhodey, and then he heads back up to Rhodey’s room. He’s been working on his general politeness – something he’s had to learn to do since working more closely with the government – and so he knocks instead of just swanning into the room.
“Come in,” Rhodey calls, voice muffled by the door between them. Shifting the prototype under one arm, Tony does as he’s told and pushes the door open.
Rhodey is sitting at his desk by the window when Tony walks in. He doesn’t turn to look at him as he walks across the room, but that’s because Tony knows it takes a lot more effort for him to do so now. He feels a little sick as he thinks about it.
“Hey, Pooh Bear,” he calls in greeting, and leans over Rhodey’s shoulder to get a look at what he’s doing. “Whatcha working on?”
“Secretary Ross sent some amended legalise over,” Rhodey replies, flicking through a few pages of what looks like a very thorough document. “Wants everyone to sign it at some point.”
“I’ll have a look through it later,” Tony agrees, and rests his chin on Rhodey’s shoulder. “It doesn’t need to be done right this second, right? Ask your Mom if you can come out and play instead.”
Rhodey huffs out a laugh and uses his desk chair to spin himself around. “What’re you thinking, Mr Stank?”
“Please, I beg you, let that go,” Tony shakes his head, but Rhodey is smiling, and knowing he’s happy makes Tony happy, so he doesn’t push it any further. “I’ve, uh, got some waterproof legs for you. Thought we could hit the pool, if you’re game?”
Rhodey smiles indulgently and nods his head. “Sure, Tones. You mind helping me change?”
And just like that, with those simple words, it really hits home all over again that Rhodey can’t walk now. It makes Tony so angry that for a moment his breath catches and he wants to punch Steve Rogers in his stupid face for forcing everyone’s hands and leading them to this point.
“Tones?” Rhodey’s voice brings him back to the present. “We talked about this, remember? We all made our choice, and this doesn’t change mine, okay? Now are we going swimming, or not?”
“I…” Tony swallows his anger back down and nods his head. “Yeah, okay. I – where do you keep your speedo, huh? Been dying to get you in one for years, and now, finally –“
Rhodey just rolls his eyes and laughs. “Idiot.”
“You love it,” Tony replies automatically, and is smiling as he pads across the room to rummage through Rhodey’s drawers.
It takes a little while, and is a bit of a struggle, but between the two of them they manage to change Rhodey into his shorts. They were told he would be able to dress himself eventually, but with him still healing Tony doesn’t mind offering a little help. Hell, it’s not like they haven’t seen each other naked before.
Once Rhodey’s shorts are on, Tony helps him into the metal braces and straps them into place. He considered making them red and gold, but ultimately decided against it; Rhodey’s gone through enough, and even Tony knows when a joke can go a little too far.
“Comfortable?” he asks, taking Rhodey’s hands to help pull him to his feet. The braces whir to life and take his weight, and he stands with practised ease. “They’re lighter than the last pair, but should be more durable. I’m hoping I can get the next pair unobtrusive enough that you could wear them under a pair of pants –“
“They’re great, Tony,” Rhodey cuts off his rambling by patting his shoulder. “Thanks, man.”
“You’re… it’s fine,” Tony replies, and follows along close behind Rhodey as he starts to move. “They holding up all right? I can –“
“Please stop hovering,” Rhodey asks with a roll of his eyes.
Instead, Tony heads across the hall to his own room and quickly changes, meeting Rhodey at the end of the corridor as he waits for the elevator. The pool, when they get there, has been warmed and feels like stepping into a bath. Tony helps Rhodey down the steps and then lets him go to test out his legs. As he watches his friend swim with ease, as though nothing has happened in the past few weeks, Tony feels some of the ever-present tension in his muscles begin to temporarily dissipate.
“Looking good, honey-buns!” he calls across the pool, floating idly along as Rhodey begins some laps.
“They’re amazing, Tony!” Rhodey pants happily as he swims by, floating to a stop beside Tony. “Seriously, good job.”
“It’s nothing –“
“It is not nothing,” Rhodey tells him firmly, and then pulls him into a hug.
For a moment, Tony flails, taken aback by the physical contact. After the initial shock wears off, however, he wraps his arms gently around Rhodey’s back and hugs him in return. God, he can’t remember the last time someone hugged him, and he quickly realises, with a jolt, that it was as Pepper was leaving for the final time. Rhodey seems to be thinking along the same lines, because he just clutches Tony closer when he goes to pull away, and it doesn’t take a lot of pressure for Tony to sink back into his arms.
If his eyes are a little wet, and not from the pool, then nobody needs to know about it.
“There y’go,” Rhodey mumbles, and pats Tony’s back as he pulls away a little. “You wanna talk about it?”
“Nothing to talk about,” Tony replies quickly, and bats a few traitorous tears from his eyes. “There’s too much chlorine in this water –"
“Tony,” Rhodey stops him quietly. “Talk to me.”
“About what, Rhodes?” Tony yells, something dark and heavy snapping inside him. “About what, exactly? About how truly fucking horrific the last few months have been? About how the man my father did nothing but praise as the height of humanity turned his back on me – us? About how he’s been lying to me this whole time about how James fucking Barnes killed my mother, even though she had no hand in Dad’s business, just because she was there? That package I got? Fucking Rogers telling me that he’s still there if I need him, as though I fucking need him after what he’s done!
“Or should we talk about what a mess my relationship has turned out to be?” he screams, smacking his hand down against the surface of the water and wishing it was something more solid. “We could talk about how Pepper didn’t even call to ask if I was okay after getting the living shit beaten out of me by Captain America, huh? We could talk about me finally taking responsibility with the Accords, all for her, and it meaning nothing. Did she even visit you in the hospital? She can hate me all she wants, but she can’t blank you, too, because –“
“Stop,” Rhodey orders firmly, and Tony feels the rest of his rant die in his throat. “Steve has been in contact with you since he disappeared? And you didn’t tell anyone?”
“I –“ For a second Tony is so shocked by Rhodey’s answer that he doesn’t know how to answer. “That’s what you took from that –?“
“Pepper did visit me, by the way,” Rhodey cuts him off before he can launch into another rant. “She calls me almost every day, too.”
“So it’s just me she hates,” Tony nods, feeling bitterness bubble in his chest. With a sigh, he propels himself over to the side of the pool and pulls himself up to sit. “Great.”
“You know,” Rhodey shakes his head, following Tony over to the side of the pool. In an act of agility and strength that honestly impresses Tony a little, he pulls himself up and pivots to sit beside him. “Sometimes I really doubt your genius, because you act so stupid I’m surprised you can dress yourself, never mind design a multi-billion-dollar suit of battle armour.”
“I’ve just told you I’ve been having a bad couple of months, and I’d appreciate it if you stopped insulting me –“
“Pepper doesn’t hate you, dumbass,” Rhodey tells him flatly, and Tony shuts up immediately. “She loves you so much that she can’t bear the thought of seeing or talking to you because she’s afraid she’ll just go diving back into a relationship with you when that’s not what she wants.”
“She… what?” Tony asks dumbly. His chest is starting to ache again, and he’s beginning to sense a pattern.
“She’s staying away to try and make the split easier for the both of you,” Rhodey sighs, “but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care. Why do you think she calls me every day? She’s still checking in.”
Tony’s at a loss of what to say to that. Pepper was always his dream girl, the end game, and hearing Rhodey say that she can’t bear to be near or even speak to him makes him unbearably sad. He feels weighed down, knowing the love of his life really is gone.
“I haven’t really slept since she left,” he finds himself murmuring. “I mean, sometimes I fall asleep in the ‘shop, or at my desk, or sometimes in the back of the car, but… no beds.”
He can’t go back to sleeping alone now he knows what it’s like to have the person he loves above all else sleeping next to him. He’s tried, but every time he steps into his bedroom, it’s almost as though he can feel icy cold air drifting towards him from his bed, and he can’t quite bring himself to get in it.
“That’s not healthy, man,” Rhodey shakes his head, and then sighs. “And as for all this Accords stuff… you have to just accept it. Steve made his decision, just like you made yours, and that’s that. You have to stop taking on responsibility for the sake of other people and focus on yourself, though, you hear? So whatever this guilt thing you’re doing is, stop it, okay? Do you stick by your decisions?”
“Yeah,” Tony whispers, hanging his head. “We need to be held accountable. No more innocent people can die because of us.”
“Then we pick ourselves up and we go back to work,” Rhodey insists with a nod of his head, reaching out to clasp Tony on the shoulder. “Fighting the good fight.”
“Yeah,” Tony nods, and then clears his throat; a lump seems to be forming there that he doesn’t appreciate. “Yeah.”
“So what I suggest is we go make a snack, and then we take a nap in your room,” Rhodey hums, and is already swinging himself up to stand before Tony can even offer to help, never mind protest. “When was the last time we shared a bed, huh? Had to be MIT, right? Honestly, we’re overdue –“
“You know, that kinda talk is exactly why everyone thought we were gay for each other in college,” Tony tells him, reluctantly rising to follow him as Rhodey heads for the elevator.
It’s not lost on him that Rhodey is trying to distract him from the fact that he’s offering to share a bed so Tony won’t be so alone. Tony loves Rhodey so damn much.
“Eh, everyone’s a little gay in college,” Rhodey grins as they step into the elevator together.
It’s dark outside when Tony jerks himself awake from a nightmare. FRIDAY helpfully projects a holographic clock beside him as he swings his legs over the side of the bed and gets up; the light from the hologram casts long shadows across Rhodey’s still sleeping face. It’s late – 2am – and without a word, Tony pads across the room and out into the hall, letting his feet take control and steer him wherever he needs to go, because his mind is still full of his mother’s face as she took her last, stuttered breaths.
He finds himself in his office, and pulls a bottle of scotch along with a glass from the nearest cupboard without really thinking about it. It’s been a hard couple of weeks – months, even – and he’s been doing relatively well with the alcohol, but not now. Now, he needs a drink.
The first couple of fingers burn as they go down, but the next one he pours is much smoother. Sitting down at his desk, he sets the bottle and glass next to him, right in front of the picture of his parents he has propped up. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. The last of his nightmare is beginning to fade, but he feels no more at ease for it.
“FRIDAY, bring the lights up a little,” he instructs softly, rubbing a hand across his tired eyes as the AI complies. “You, um… did Vision say anything when he got back from that meeting with Ross?”
“No, Boss,” FRIDAY replies, and Tony sighs. “It can only be a good sign, right? I’m sure he would have mentioned if something was wrong.”
“Would he?” Tony hums, unconvinced. “D’you think he has a thing for the Maximoff kid? He’s been awfully morose since she left, and I’m pretty sure he’d cry if he could. I’m not ready to be a grandfather, FRIDAY, and –“
“Boss,” FRIDAY murmurs, and Tony sighs.
“I’m getting pretty sick of people cutting me off,” he grumbles, and necks another couple fingers of scotch, before pulling a keyboard towards him. “Um, bring up my emails, would you?”
“At least you listen to me,” he huffs. “Thank you, dear.”
It doesn’t take long, as he gets down to some work, for the alcohol to begin taking effect. It starts slowly, a creeping numbness setting in just under his skin, and he’s halfway through typing a very pathetic email to Pepper when he remembers the phone that is sitting in the top drawer of his desk.
Slowly, because some part of his drunken brain is telling him to treat the phone like a wounded animal, he leans forwards and pulls the drawer open. The phone is still in there, as seemingly innocuous as he remembers from before. His hand shakes a little as he reaches in to pull it out, but he tells himself that’s just from the alcohol after going without for a while. Even drunk, he feels ashamed for even associating with such an outdated piece of tech, though he understands why Rogers chose it; older tech is harder to trace, making it harder for Tony to track wherever Steve is now.
He simply toys with it for a while in his hand, trying not to think about the fact that the last person to hold it was probably Steve. After a moment simply touching it isn’t enough, however, and Tony finds himself flipping the top up for a better look. When he turns it on – his brain no longer telling him why that’s supposed to be a bad idea – it takes him a moment to navigate, as he’s unused to the interface. There’s only one number programmed into it, but there is no set name to go with it. Tony can’t imagine it belonging to anyone other than Steve, however, and takes a moment to just giggle to himself at the thought of an underground Avengers secretary on the other end of the line somewhere.
Instead of hitting call, however, he finds himself drawn to the text menu, instead. He opens a fresh page, ignoring how his chest seems to be hurting again, and stares at the screen for a moment, completely at a loss. He doesn’t know what to say; what is there left to say? It certainly wouldn’t do him any good to repeat any of what he said to Rhodey earlier, because Rogers has proven that he doesn’t care.
In the end, he just types a simple Hi.
It seems a little anticlimactic, but isn’t that how people usually start a conversation? He certainly isn’t going to call, won’t give Steve the satisfaction, but that doesn’t mean he can’t put his feelers out a little, see if Rogers is willing to keep his word.
Not that Tony needs him.
The alcohol is making him defiant, he knows it is, but that knowledge doesn’t stop him from hitting send. He refuses to admit that he’s a little disappointed when he doesn’t immediately get an answer, too, because there’s absolutely no logical reason why Rogers would reply to that. He’s probably got better things to do, like defying the government or betraying his friends.
Tony decides he needs to at least try to tone down his bitterness, because he imagines this is one of the many things he does that annoys other people.
The alcohol, at least, seems to be doing its job, because in the next few moments he’s so sleepy that he’s pretty confident he could crawl back into bed beside Rhodey and not even have any more nightmares. In fact, he decides, staggering to his feet, that’s exactly what he’s going to do. He barely even manages to make it back to his room before his eyes close, and he’s fairly certain he’s asleep before his head even actually makes contact with his pillow.