I had no idea when I had last slept. It might’ve been four days ago, but by that point, everything blurred together. I knew that there had been two different battles, however, while everyone else got to sleep during our downtime, I had to finish a couple of upgrades for SI and fix all of the team’s uniforms that needed to be repaired after each battle. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to still be running the company, and I thanked God (not Loki or Thor, though) for the millionth time that I had put Pepper in charge. I probably should’ve been listening to what Steve is saying, but I was just so tired that it was hard to focus on anything. How mad would he be if I just got in the armor and left? I thought. Surely he can see how tired I am. It shouldn’t be this hard to catch a break to sleep for at least five hours. Hell, I’d have taken three if it only meant that I get the chance to close my eyes for longer than five seconds. Screw it. I’m leaving. I was about to ask why we were even still here when I felt water splash in my nose and mouth that had just started to open to ask my question…
I immediately choked, I had to get the water out, it was badbadbad, the house was falling, Pepper and my boys were falling, I couldn’t save them, I was weakweakweak, then I realized that I was back in that cave, I had never truly left, nonononononono I can’t do it I won’t build the Jericho please don’t I can’t pleasepleaseplease-
No one had expected Stark to react the way she did when Steve threw his glass of water on the genius. They could tell that she wasn’t paying attention anymore, probably hadn’t the entire meeting, so Clint had suggested throwing some water to help her wake up. The super soldier had thought it was a fine idea, but, next thing they knew after Steve had splashed her, Stark was in the corner wrapped into a ball chanting under her breath. They all froze for a second unsure of what to do when suddenly Toni’s phone started calling someone. She had left it on the table in her flight to the corner and everyone jumped when it started vibrating. Steve moved to pick it up but paused when JARVIS’s voice came out of the speaker.
“I would recommend not touching the phone, Captain, as I am currently calling for help for Ma’am.” JARVIS’s voice was extra chilly when he said Captain, causing Steve to flinch back like he had been burned.
“Now, come on JARVIS, we didn’t know it would send Stark into a panic attack! It’s-”
“Quiet, Mr. Barton, I am currently trying to talk to someone much more important than you right now.” JARVIS then went quiet, leaving the room in a stunned silence. Toni still hadn’t moved, and none of the other Avengers knew how to help her, so they trusted JARVIS and just made sure to not move too much to set Toni off even more. The Iron Man armor had also unfolded so that it was standing right in front of Toni, blocking her from the rest of the Avengers. Its head slowly moved from side to side, checking to make sure they didn’t get any closer to its creator. Suddenly, whoever the AI was calling picked up and the voice of James Rhodes issued from the speaker.
It wasn’t often that Toni called when she knew that I was on break; normally she left me alone to visit my Mama in peace. We were constantly texting though, the last I had heard she was going to another debriefing which should have been a completely safe event. So, I was therefore understandably confused and worried when I saw her picture pop up on the screen. Excusing myself from the table where Mama and I were eating, I hurried into the living room where I then officially answered the phone.
“Hey, Tones what’d you need?”
“I am sorry Master Rhodes, but Ma’am is currently unable to answer the phone at this time and I thought it was prudent to call you.” As soon as JARVIS started speaking I felt a flash of cold fear, then immediately decided I needed to get to my adopted sister as soon as possible.
“What happened JARVIS? Where are you? I’m coming, I promise.” With a nod and a mouthed ‘sorry’ to Mama, I jogged upstairs to grab the War Machine armor case.
“Ma’am was thrust into a major panic attack when some water was thrown on her face, and she is currently unable to pull herself out of it alone. We are at the SHIELD office in New York, I am currently sending the coordinates to the War Machine.” I knew I had to get there as fast as possible. Toni’s panic attacks happen frequently, but hardly ever were there ones that she couldn’t pull herself out of. I had the armor on and was headed towards Toni when the first part of what JARVIS said caught up with me.
“What do you mean thrown? What idiot threw water at my sister?” I bit out angrily, silently urging the thrusters to go faster.
“Captain Rogers decided it was a good idea to wake Ma’am up and he happened to use a glass of water to do so.” The disdain in JARVIS’s voice was enough of a tell for me, but hearing what Toni’s supposed “teammates” had done to her sent a bolt of white-hot anger through my entire body.
“Why the fuck would he throw water at someone with PTSD? Wasn’t he a soldier? I’m going to lock him in an ice freezer to see how he likes it when people purposefully trigger his disorders!” I yelled into the comm unit that was connected to the phone. “Get me an opening into that room JARVIS, I need to get to Toni.” I wasn’t sure what floor it was, but I knew once the windows on one of the higher floors exploded outwards. Flying up, I swooped into the room assessing everything I saw in a couple seconds. I saw the Iron Man armor with its repulsor still raised, all of the Avengers clustered around the table in the middle of the room, and then I saw my best friend curled into the tightest ball she could manage with her head burrowed into her legs.
I disengaged the armor trusting JARVIS to make sure it was okay, then strode across the room before finally crouching in front of my sister. “Hey, Tones, you’ve been through a shit day, haven’t you? Tones, can you hear me? It’s Rhodey, don’t worry you’re not back there, I will never let you go back there. You’re safe Tones.” I kept my tone low and my voice calm, knowing that it would only be a few seconds before she pulled herself together enough to actually hear me. It seemed that time had come when she raised her head- and oh fuck she was crying, the Captain could be the next Jesus I was still going to utterly destroy him for making my Tones cry. I watched as Toni gave another sob, then nodded at me. The nod was her cue that it was safe to touch her, we had learned early on that touching her only made things worse during her attacks. I quickly crawled forward and slipped around her so that I could pull her onto my lap. I arranged her so that her face was pressed into my neck and I could loop one arm around her to hold her there while my free hand ran through her hair. We had discovered this position pretty fast, as it was one of the only ones where Toni felt truly safe and could fully relax.
“R-Rhodey? H-How did you get he-here?” Toni hiccupped softly, while still burrowing farther into my arms.
“I flew here, I needed to check in with my favorite sister, looks like I came just in time too, huh Tones?” I murmured back, knowing that the more I could get her talking the faster she would calm down.
“But you’re su-supposed to be with Mama,” Toni hiccupped back, causing me to frown. “Besides, I’m fine, I just haven’t slept in a while,” Toni said not noticing my frown getting deeper.
“Hey, baby girl. Look at me.” I waited until she raised her head so that we could lock eyes, her tearstained face hitting me like a punch to the gut. “When’s the last time you slept?” I asked carefully.
“I-I don’t remember?” Toni said, sounding like she was questioning her own words. I just sighed then continued to run my fingers through her hair, just now realizing that I had stopped.
“I’m going to take you to Mama’s and we’re going to have a nice family meal, then you’re going to stay at her house for the next couple of days, OK?” I decided, not actually giving her a choice.
She must’ve seen that on my face because all she could offer in response was a weak little ‘ok’ that felt like another punch to the gut. I simply leaned my head forward, breathed in the unique scent around Toni, gathered up all of my anger, then slowly rose to my feet while supporting the genius so she was still with me. She stayed curled into me, but the fact that she was on her feet was what I was taking as a win. “JARVIS? Can you bring the armor over here?” It only took the AI a couple of seconds before I was staring into the faceplate of the Iron Man armor.
“First off, I’m using my override code, Alpha User: James Rhodes.”
“Understood Master Rhodes. What would you like to use your code for?” The AI asked after confirming my authority.
“Take Toni to Mama’s, tell her I’ll be there soon. I need to get her somewhere safe, and I’d like to speak to the resident assholes before I leave.” I all but hissed the last sentence at the Avengers who were still sitting around the table, apparently so deep in shock they couldn’t even move out of their “battle” positions.
A whimper had me turning back to my sister who had started shaking in my arms. “Hey, Tones, you’re okay. JARVIS is going to take you back to Mama’s where we’re gonna hang out for a couple of days,” I soothed her, hoping she could at least make it to the house.
I knew Mama wouldn’t have a problem housing her for a few days, she had long ago adopted her as her daughter. She kept shaking though, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong so I kept up some chatter of mindless comfort that I hoped would help her tell me what the problem was. Eventually, she murmured one little sentence to me and I could feel my heart breaking even more.
“Are you going to leave me here?” I closed my eyes for a second, before opening them again with a renewed anger for the Avengers and even more sadness for my Tones. I pulled her forwards again, laid a kiss on her forehead, and then raised her head so that she could look into my eyes and see the truth there.
“Baby girl, I will never leave you with people that hurt you, I promise. I’m just sending you to Mama so that she can look at her favorite child, don’t look at me like that, we both know it’s true.” I smiled softly, taking in her little chuckles as a step forwards. “I’ll be right behind you, I promise. Can you get in your armor for me, or do you want a couple more minutes?” I knew that it would be better for her to get in on her own, she hated feeling weak. She slowly nodded a yes at me, then shakily walked forward a step where the armor folded itself protectively around her. It then turned to me, as if waiting for instructions. Giving a little smile to the mother and son duo who were both piloting the armor at this time, I told JARVIS to make sure Toni got to Mama’s safe and that I’d see the two of them soon. The AI responded with a quick ‘Yes, Master Rhodes’, before turning and having the armor smoothly take off towards the window where they banked and flew around the corner of the building in the direction of Mama’s house. I took a deep breath in and out before using what Toni called my “Colonel voice” to start speaking with the other Avengers.
“Someone explain to me what the fuck just happened. You have two minutes before Rogers goes flying out the window. The number of times he will be thrown out the window depends on the quality of your excuses.” I crossed my arms and settled into a stance that always had the younger cadets scurrying to do my bidding. When no one started talking, I leveled a glare at what was supposed to be the leader and hissed at him to start talking. He blinked at me in what appeared to be shock, before he jumped into an explanation.
“We were having an Avengers meeting, and Stark looked like she fell asleep. So,” Rogers winced like he knew I was going to be mad at him “I threw a glass of water on her to try and wake her up. None of us had any idea she would’ve reacted like that!”
“If Mrs. Carter knew how you acted around and with her goddaughter, I know for a fact she’d drag you through hell while still looking flawless. You’re an insult to her.” I saw the way he flinched back in horror that my words would stick. Now for the rest of them. “How many of you know what happened at Malibu?” I calmly asked, looking at the faces around me. I watched as Barton, Rogers, and Romanoff all paled while Banner and Thor looked confused.
“What happened to Friend Stark in this Malibu you speak of?” Thor questioned, looking at me confusedly.
“Her house, with her, Pepper, and the bots inside, fell into the ocean because of a terrorist.”
Twin gasps of shock and horror came from Thor and Banner who had taken a step backward in disbelief. Rogers had closed his eyes and bowed his head, while Romanoff and Barton glanced at each other than away. I made sure I still had their attention before I resumed speaking.
“When she was held hostage in Afghanistan, something I know all of you were briefed on, she was waterboarded. When she got back, she couldn’t take a shower without a panic attack. It took her months of struggle to reach the point around water where she was okay to let it touch her head without panicking. Then Malibu happened and that reset all of her progress. She has just barely reached the point of being able to take showers again without calling me or Pepper to talk her through them. She hasn’t been able to be submerged in either a pool or the ocean without her suit since she went to Afghanistan. Now, when she was completely defenseless, half asleep, surrounded by people she believed would never hurt her willingly, you triggered one of her major panic attacks by thoughtlessly just throwing water at her. Do you understand why I’m pissed?” I tried to stay calm while I was talking, but I could feel the emotion in my voice. They were all standing with varying degrees of shock, sympathy, and pity on their faces when I glanced around.
“We’re very so-” In the middle of Rogers’s apology, my phone began to ring. I glanced at it, then sighed when I saw that it was Toni. I really hoped that she wasn’t in trouble, it would be just her luck to get attacked or something while flying home.
“JARVIS can you put her on speaker? Is she in any danger?” I asked the AI, hoping that my little sister would be fine.
“Of course, Master Rhodes. My sensors aren’t showing any danger to Ma’am at this time.” With that, the AI turned the phone on, and I could hear the rushing sound which meant that Toni was still in the Iron Queen armor flying around. I frowned as I calculated distances and time in my head, realizing that Toni had to have reached Mama’s by now, unless she was randomly circling her house.
“Hey, Honeybear! How are you doing?” Toni’s cheerful voice issued from the speaker cutting off my musing. I could feel the weight on my shoulder’s decrease knowing that she was almost back to normal.
“I’m doing a lot better now that I can hear your voice. Are you almost at Mama’s?”
When there was silence from Toni I knew that my assumption was correct. “Toni, you know you need to go see her. If she knows that I saw you and you didn’t go see her, she’s insufferable. You know this.” I wasn’t above using guilt trips, and I knew it worked when I saw that little slump that her shoulders did whenever she gave in.
“Fine, Rhodey, you underhanded guilt-tripper,” Toni bit out, but I could tell that she was pleased to go back home. She always had trouble believing that Mama wanted to actually see her. By the time she left in a couple days, though, I knew that Mama would make her feel better—- while also putting a couple of pounds on her. Both Mama and I knew she could take care of herself, but we both felt better when we could actually see her eating. I watched as she turned the armor around (JARVIS showing up on my screen to provide proof), before she finally decided to get to the reason she called me. “Hey, Rhodey?”
“Yeah, Starkster?” My nickname for her always helped her relax, and I could tell that she still needed some comfort.
“I know you’re mad at the others, but could you possibly not be that hard on them? It wasn’t their fault, and I really want them to like me. When I get back to the tower, I’ll apologize and then everything can go back to normal!”
Looking at her face and seeing how eager she was to make friends, and the fact that she assumed that it was her fault broke my heart. I looked up from the phone to look at the different Avengers who all looked to be in some state of shock and guilt. I slowly shook my head before looking back at my wayward sister who was still looking at me eagerly.
“Aw, Sweetheart, there’s nothing that you need to apologize for. They might not have known exactly what your triggers are, but that’s not an excuse. Besides, they’ll like you, if they don’t after I’m done with them then they don’t belong in your home! Don’t worry, little sister, you just get to Mama’s and I’ll see you soon.” I watched as Toni thought for a second, then decided she believed me and nodded at me before ending the call. “JARVIS?”
“Yes, Master Rhodes?”
“How soon should she arrive at Mama’s?”
“Ma’am’s flight path has her ETA in 7 minutes, Master Rhodes. Should I alert you for when she has arrived?”
“Yes, please, JARVIS. Tell your mom to just go ahead and get started on the pizza, but if she touches the ice cream I’ll haunt her ass for the next ten years.”
“Very good, Master Rhodes.” I knew that JARVIS was intentionally sounding sarcastic, but I still barked out a laugh at his response. All traces of humor left me though when I turned around and faced the Avengers again.
“Okay, I have a wayward Stark to feed and take care of, so I’m going to leave and I don’t want to hear from any of you for at least two weeks. I also don’t want Toni to hear from any of you. Have I made myself clear?” I took their stunned silence as agreement and started to head over to the War Machine armor when I was stopped by Rogers standing in front of me. “What’s your issue, Rogers? I’ve got somewhere I’d much rather be.”
“You can’t just leave! Yeah, we might have made a mistake, but if Toni had just told us then this never would’ve happened! I don’t-”
I don’t think any of them had ever actually heard my voice get that cold and threatening, which makes sense for why they all immediately froze, Roger’s mouth snapping shut with an audible click.
“If you ever victim-blame my little sister again and blame her for being tortured I will personally make sure that you are kicked out of the tower and you never see a piece of Stark technology again. Do you want to know who supplies SHIELD? It’s Stark Industries. So, unless you want your “team” to be using Hammer technologies then I suggest you watch your mouth when it comes to the person supplying you with everything in your life right now.” I took a deep breath before focusing on the first part of what he said to me. “Captain Rogers, do you know what my rank is at this current moment?”
“Uh, no, why would I?” Steve asked confusedly. I stepped forward so that we were maybe half a foot apart before speaking.
“You might be a Captain, but I didn’t earn the rank of Colonel to be talked back to by an O-3. Now I know you might not have a lot of combat experience, what with going in the ice and all, but I trust you know not to talk back to your Commanding Officer? You don’t get to tell me what I can or cannot do.” I could see him getting paler with every word I said, he actually flinched when I said my rank. “Now, I’m going to leave and you will not stop me, is that understood, Captain?”
“Y-Yes, Sir.” Rogers stepped to the side, and I gladly walked past him to get to the armor. I had never been more thankful that I had put in those extra years of flight training so that I knew how to deal with insubordinate officers. JARVIS silently unfolded the armor and I sent a mental thank-you to the AI and his creator. When I got in, the armor folded around me automatically, and I was finally able to release my sigh and start to actually relax. I smoothly took off towards Mama’s house where I knew my two favorite ladies were waiting. As I was flying I thought about what was waiting for me and what I left behind, and realized that even though it would take a lot of work, the people that I had just left could eventually become a great resource and support system for my little genius. I might be able to turn them into an actual team, one that would be able to handle threats a lot easier than they do now. If they all worked together then everything would be able to work out and be okay. Even though I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me, I found myself looking forward to the future and what it holds for all of us.