He’s locked himself away, Pepper had told him three days ago, her mouth a thin line of worry. He won’t even come out to spend time with that spider kid, he’s farmed him out to Happy. I’m worried, Rhodey.
In the time that Rhodey had been back at the Tower, live-in PT and all, Tony had surfaced from his workshop precisely twice.
Finally - having used up the last reserves of his now considerably more limited patience - Rhodey had gone down to demand that he stop with the emo moping and come up, and found… this.
Rhodes regarded the locked-down doors of the workshop in silence. Well, that’s quite enough of that, he thought, and smacked his hand against the opaque glass with as much force as he could muster. “Tones, open up. Open up before I exhaust myself and collapse in a swoon on your front step!”
The workshop glass went from opaque to transparent alarmingly quickly - FRIDAY was still his best girl, evidently - the doors swooshing open. “Rhodey! You okay? Did anything happen?”
“You’re too easy,” Rhodes informed him, wheeling himself past and almost squashing Tony’s foot in the process. “One little sniffle and you’re all over me like a lovestruck teenager. 'You okay, Rhodey? Did anything happen, sugarplum? Should I carry you in my manly arms?'”
Tony narrowed his eyes at him as he followed him back into the workshop. “I didn’t call you sugarplum. Or offer to carry you, for that matter. Do you often cast me as a Regency hero in your daydreams?”
“Only when I’m cast as the heroine,” Rhodes said breezily. “Are you saying you don’t want to save me from a swoon?” He wheeled himself up to the worktable, calling up the last open file. The system gave him a gentle ‘beep’ in admonishment, followed by you do not have access to this file.
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning on swooning soon?” He reached past Rhodes and called up the file himself, snorting at Rhodes’s expression.
“Depends what you’re offering to -” Rhodes stopped as the prototype brace schematics came up. They looked… different. “Huh.”
“I’m simulating stress testing at the moment,” Tony said hurriedly.
His hands twitched and Rhodes raised an eyebrow at the movement. “This is more than a v2, though. They’re a step change from what we looked at before.” He’d tried out the earlier prototype, after all, and it had been… fine. The movement had been stiff, and walking without knees would definitely be challenge, but he’d been mobile in them. V2 looked nothing like the prototype he’d tried out. The load-bearing joints were completely different, and even the grip and cradle had been changed. These sat much higher on the body, curving up and around the hips, towards the small of the back. “You fix the joints?”
“Fully articulated,” Tony muttered to his feet, his hands twitching again. He cleared his throat. “And, uh, they dock with the suit.”
“You made me braces that would let me wear the suit?” He asked faintly. His breath caught somewhere south of his breastbone.
“They lock above the sacral spinal cord region,” Tony said, his voice even smaller, even more hesitant. “The lower body is cradled and cushioned. No G force impact at all below L5.” He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “I wasn’t sure if…” he trailed off.
He’d literally be suspended inside the suit, his body held up in a harness akin to a child’s stroller. But he’d be back in the suit, just the same. Rhodes gritted his teeth at the strange feeling that swept over him, part relief and part terror. Back in the suit. “Thank you,” he managed.
Tony stared at him.
“You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be - oh, for God’s sake! Is this why you’ve been hiding the damn thing away?” He glared. “You’re not gonna traumatise me with it, you idiot. The suit doesn’t scare me.”
It didn’t. It didn’t.
(As long as he stayed on the ground, he knew he’d be perfectly fine.)
“Is that why you’ve been…” He trailed off, eyeing Tony suspiciously. The braces, really? That didn’t sound right. The braces would account for Tony’s late hours, but not for everything else. He cleared his throat. “Anyway, you can stop hiding away down here. We’re supposed to be having a team dinner, and you are - yet again - late. Vision is making chili. It may even be edible.”
Tony’s eyes darted away uncomfortably. “Uh… I’m good. I ate. I’m actually full. I had a big lunch.”
There we go. That made a lot more sense than anxiety about the braces. (Rhodes’s anxiety about them was a whole different issue.) “You’re a terrible liar,” Rhodes said. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Look, I get it. Team dinners are a little… small.” It was a grand total of Rhodes, Vision, Pepper (who was not part of the team), Happy (also not part of the team ), and Tony, who was… not there. Rhodes had even thought about contacting the spider kid he remembered from Berlin, but according to Happy the kid was in the middle of his training programme and wouldn’t be part of the Avengers for a while. Other applicants were in the pipeline, of course; Rhodes had been asked to interview them, and had promptly roped in Maria Hill to help with the interviews with a, “you owe me. You owe Tony,” which had worked surprisingly well. He’d assumed not a single one of the ex-SHIELD agents had anything remotely resembling a guilt reflex left, but apparently Hill had fallen into the trap of spending too much time around Tony and had been infected by some lingering affection for him. An easy mistake to make; it was how Rhodes had ended up his friend, after all. “But the team will recover,” Rhodes pressed on, determined.
“Uhuh,” Tony said, busying himself at his worktable.
Rhodes was silent for a moment, looking at the curve of Tony’s back, at the shoulders pulled up defensively. “It would be ok if you missed them, you know.” He paused for a moment, trying to think of a way to phrase it. “It's - you can miss them and be angry at the same time.” He hesitated. “It's… it's where I am, pretty much.”
Tony laughed a little at that. It sounded bitter. “I know, honey bear. But that's because - in case either of us has forgotten - you're basically a much better human than I am. I don't miss them. I want them to have never existed. Because how dare they, my ego, etcetera etcetera, I'm sure the psych profile has made the rounds by now.” He closed his eyes. “I'd rather not have had them in my life than go through and unpick all of that.”
“Every time I screw up, I wonder how much grace I have left before you or Pep get caught in the crossfire. I guess I found out.”
When he turned around, his eyes were wet. “Christ, Rhodey. I'm so fucking sorry.”
Rhodes felt something inside him clench tight at Tony’s expression. It had been a month. A month of hospital tests, and catheters, and hours of PT, and Vision drifting around the Tower looking lost, and Tony visiting him at the hospital and otherwise locking himself away in his workshop. Rhodes had thought him - what? Angry? Heart-broken? Scared shitless of whatever nightmare Ross was pushing forward?
And instead… “It’s not your fault,” he said quietly, swallowing past the lump in his throat. “I made my choice, and whether you’d been there or not, I would have gone just the same. I would have done exactly the same thing.” Of that, he was certain. Once they were at the airport, once everything started to go down, there was very little he would have done differently.
“Yeah. But maybe you’d have been able to talk them down.” Tony’s smile was bitter. “Maybe you’d have been able to reach them. I should have put you as the face of it to start with, Rhodey. You would have done a much better job.”
Maybe, maybe not. Rhodes had no illusions about the state of the team. If he’d had his way, the entire Avengers Initiative would have been folded into the nearest available force the moment SHIELD fell. You couldn’t have a team this well-armed, this dangerous, this public, and not have some way of holding them accountable.
If the air force, or the army, or - hell! - the CIA had stepped forward and claimed them, there would have been no Accords, he knew. If he’d only made them listen… Sure, they would have been limited to US and allied territory only, but they would have been commanded and controlled and -
Well. If wishes were horses, Rhodes thought. Too late to bolt the barn.
He switched track. “Look, you know my feelings on paramilitary teams; it was always a hop, skip and a jump away from being branded mercenaries. I was surprised it took as long as it did for the Accords to filter thought, to be honest . And maybe if I’d spoken up earlier, offered an alternative…” he shook his head. “But we are where we are. And it’s no use wailing over spilt milk on that front. We need to move forward. With the new recruits, with getting the others back from their A-Team cosplay…”
Tony managed a smile at that. “They are rather embracing the whole ‘soldiers of fortune’ thing, aren’t they?” The smile became a little pinched. “Barton’s probably had to explain it to St-Rogers by now. Do they even get 80s reruns in Wakanda?”
Ah. There was the crux of the fucking thing. “Pretty sure they’re worldwide, Tones.” Rhodes sighed. “Look, I get why you're angry. And god knows, I agree. To have Rogers do something like this - to have him beat you half to death -” The A-Team, sure. If they’d actually committed the crimes they’d been accused of. (Barnes’s lack of involvement in the bombing notwithstanding, Rhodes was painfully aware that the arrest warrants for his teammates did not include any trumped up charges. Ross had been absolutely scrupulous on that point. It would make bringing them back - reinstating them - a fucking nightmare.)
“I don't have a problem with that,” Tony interrupted. He crossed his arms then seemed to realise he was doing it and rapidly uncrossed them again, jamming his hands in his pockets. “It was a bit harder than a practice bout, sure, but - look, I don't blame the guy for that.”
Rhodes blinked. “What? I don't - what the hell, Tones? How can you excuse something like -”
“I'm not excusing it,” Tony interrupted again, lifting his chin challengingly. “I'm saying there's nothing to excuse, not from me, at least.”
It was bizarre. Rhodes stared at him, bewildered. “But - why?” It made no fucking sense. It was right there, in the arrest warrant. He knew that Tony hadn’t wanted to press charges, but once Ross had slapped them with the ‘terrorist’ label, the entire Siberia debacle had been bundled in with the tunnel collapse, the attack on the guards and the fight at the airport. And Tony… hadn’t said anything to that. He hadn’t wanted to press charges, but once Ross had made it clear that this is how things were, he hadn’t commented further.
It made no sense. Rogers had fought with lethal intent - he’d cracked Tony’s sternum, for God’s sake - and Tony had no problem with it? “How can you say that? What he did - how can you say there's nothing to excuse?”
“Because I would have done the same,” Tony said simply.
Rhodes gaped at him. “What?” This was - he had not expected this. Tony hadn’t fought to kill, that much he knew. Not when he hadn't used the unibeam. Not when both Rogers and Barnes had left (mostly) intact.
Not when Rhodes knew what Tony -
“C’mon, Tony, don't be ridiculous. I know how you feel about the guy.”
Tony’s voice was very quiet. “If it had been you. If it came down to the two of you. I wouldn't have hesitated, Rhodey.” He turned slightly, smiling a little. “If it had come to that, I would have ripped his heart out with my bare hands.” He turned back to the schematics in front of him. “So, you see, I can't blame him for that. I would have done the same in his shoes.”
Rhodes looked at him for a long moment. “Then, if not for the fight, why…?” It took a moment, but finally it clicked. “He lied to you,” Rhodes realised. “He didn't tell you - before.”
Two years of it. Two years of knowing that it might come to this, that he might have to decide -
“Then why the hell was he always here?” He demanded. “To start with, he wouldn't come within ten feet of you. But recently…” Recently, Steve had spent more and more time with Tony. Had invited him out for dinner, for a ball game, for a stroll through New York. Had participated as avidly in their little group formation as anyone else. Has spent enough time with Tony for Rhodey to suspect that something was either going on there, or would be, fairly soon. He'd mentally prepared himself to tackle that particularly thorny topic with Tony, for God’s sake.
So, there were two options. Either Rogers had genuinely wanted to draw their little group together, Tony included - either he had genuinely wanted to spend time with Tony - or, or…
“He wanted to get close enough to figure out what you knew.” Rhodey tasted bile.
Tony was staring at the schematics vacantly. Suspended above the worktop, the hologram twisted and spun, almost dancing as the design of the braces was put through its battery of stress tests. “That. Yeah. Probably. And to enlist my help in the search, maybe. Make me hesitate if it came down to it, I don't know.” He looked down at his hands, resting on the smooth surface of his worktable. Tony stressed out was Tony in motion, and yet there he stood, as if carved from stone. “I don't blame him for protecting his brother, Rhodey. But I can't forgive him for pretending to be my friend.” He breathed deep. “I can't… I can't figure out if there was anything more to it than just that. I guess there probably wasn't.” He looked away, a dull flush across his cheeks. “It's… not as bad as it was with -”
Obie, Rhodes realised with a sickening feeling. It wasn't as bad as Stane, because Tony could wipe the entire slate of his friendship with Steve clean of any fellow-feeling. With Obie… he hadn't been sure. Still wasn't, probably. Because Obie had loved him, at least a little. Had loved him enough to put Tony through three stints in rehab and keep the whole thing hush-hush, when it had been in his interests to do the opposite. Had loved Tony enough to take him through two ODs, one accidental and one not, and to push him into Rhodey’s orbit as much as possible.You're good for him, Stane had said. That hadn't been the action of a monster. He had loved Tony.
And, somewhere along the line, he had stopped.
Tony was right. It would have been much easier with Steve, where he could just assume he’d been played. Far simpler if there had been nothing of substance there, if the entire thing had been a ploy to get just close enough to Tony to manipulate him.
Trouble was, Rhodes didn't think that Rogers had that much guile in him. A small deceit? An omission? Sure. But fabricating an entire friendship - an entire whatever it was they were to each other - out of whole cloth? No.
Oh, things really would have been a lot simpler if Rogers was just an evil bastard, Rhodes thought. He looked at Tony’s hunched shoulders and sighed.
Rogers may want to apologise, and Tony may well accept the necessity of them working together, but he hoped for both their sakes that Rogers didn't intend to rekindle their… whatever it was.
“Anyway,” Tony murmured, almost to himself. “Live and learn, I guess. You'd think I'd had enough practice, but.” He seemed to shake it off with an effort, turning a too-bright smile to Rhodey. “So, how about I get this set made up, and we can see how they feel on. Best development is when you have actual physics to deal with. Inspiration is much more likely to hit.” He waved a hand at the still-spinning hologram. “We’ll get you flying in no time.”
His smile was brittle around the edges, skin around his eyes tight with the effort of keeping them wide enough to dry them out.
“Sure, Tony,” Rhodes said after a moment. “That sounds good. Let's have a look at the new improved version.”
Tony’s smile stretched fractionally wider, looking almost painful, and that was when Rhodes realised the truth of it. For all his talk of his rage and his revenge, Tony wasn't actually angry with any of them. Well, the ones he had been close to; Rhodes doubted that Tony could even pick Lang out of a line-up, and he'd never exactly had warm and fuzzy feelings about Wanda. But the others? Yeah. That wasn't rage. It was so much simpler than that. He was hurt.
All that death, all that violence, and the end result was a fracture in the team more akin to a divorce than anything else.
So all I have to do is find them a couples counsellor, Rhodes thought, a little hysterically. That, and the best fucking lawyer in the universe. No pressure.
DUM-E chose that moment to trundle up to Tony and offer him a blue shake that looked like it was mainly made up of machine oil. “Thanks, buddy,” Tony said, and petted the bot’s arm. He placed the shake on the worktop. “I'll just, uh, save that for later.”
DUM-E beeped at him, satisfied, and backed away. Tony watched him go, smiling a little.
Oh, God, why couldn't they have just turned out to be evil. It would have made everything so much simpler.
He chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, debating with himself. “That’s not why I’m pissed, for the record,” he said at last.
Tony’s eyes snapped up to meet him. “What?”
“I mean, I get why you’re pissed that Rogers lied. But that’s not why I’m pissed. Oh -” he waved a hand, “what he did was shitty, yeah. And it would be a lot easier if he was actually a supervillain in disguise. Evil cackle, dank lair, grand master plan, the whole nine yards. But he’s not. I don’t buy him as a villain, plotting his evil machinations and twirling an imaginary moustache.”
“I think I’m technically the one with the lair,” Tony said faintly. “And the moustache.” His face had lost what little colour it had regained during their conversation until he just looked washed out and tired. “You really don’t think that -”
“No,” Rhodes said firmly. He grabbed Tony’s wrist, hauling him around so they were face to face. “Listen. I really, really don’t. Rogers isn’t - well, I don’t think I’m that bad a judge of character.”
“You punched him,” Tony said, staring down at Rhodes with his mouth open. “You met him, and your first reaction was to break your hand on his jaw.”
“He closed the portal on you,” Rhodes snapped. His grip on Tony tightened. “And after I punched him, you know what Rogers did?”
The corner of Tony’s mouth quirked at the memory. “Offer you ice?”
“He offered me ice,” he confirmed. “He lied, Tones, I’m not denying that. But - look, I don’t think he meant it as some grand plan.” What was that old saying? “Hanlon’s Razor,” he said finally. “Right? Never attribute to malice what’s adequately explained by stupidity. I’m not denying that he fucked up, Tony. But I think - no, I’m certain - that it was just a fuck-up. It wasn’t Obie all over again.”
Tony flinched at that. He looked away, at the sprawl of schematics hopelessly tangled up on the projections table. He reached out with his free hand and absent-mindedly righted the braces, pinching and twisting them back into their upright position. He didn’t answer Rhodes, but he didn’t pull his arm free, either.
Rhodes hesitated a moment, then plowed on. “And because it was a fuck-up, not malice, I can forgive it.”
At that, Tony snapped around to look at him. “How magnanimous of you,” he said acidly, pulling his arm free. “To forgive him on my behalf. I wasn’t aware I’d delegated that part of my life along with everything else.”
The wheelchair wasn’t cooperating. Rhodes huffed out an impatient breath as he wheeled himself forwards, grabbing for Tony’s arm again. “Yeah, you’re gonna like me even less in a minute,” he muttered to himself. “The reason I can forgive him, Tony, is because I’m used to it.” He met Tony’s gaze dead-on.
There was a short, painful silence. “What?” Tony managed finally, his eyes narrowed. “What are you saying? Who -”
Oh, boy. For a genius, Rhodes thought, Tony could be remarkably oblivious sometimes. (He didn’t subscribe to Romanoff’s assessment, of course. ‘Narcissistic’ was a step too far, and Tony had too much fucking empathy in him for that. But there were definitely… elements. God help him, his best friend was an idiot.) He sighed. “The reason I’m not having a conniption fit over Rogers’s dickish, selfish, thoughtless move is because you’ve done the exact same fucking thing to me.”
Tony looked like someone had taken a knife to his gut. All the blood drained from his face, leaving him ashen-face and gray. “What?” He whispered.
It was the genuine shock on his face that was the most galling part of it all. “Don’t act innocent,” Rhodes snapped. His grip on Tony’s arm tightened to a point where it must have been painful, but he didn’t let go. “Let’s not even dig that far back, okay? Because the fucking palladium poisoning, Tony. You looked me in the eye and you fucking lied to me. For months, for months, Tony. And for what? I nearly killed you!”
“It wasn’t you,” Tony defended automatically, wide-eyed.
Rhodes snorted. “Sure, that would have been a real comfort as I read out your eulogy. It wasn’t really me, just my suit, so it’s fine. Pizza for everyone! What was I supposed to do after you were dead, huh?” He eased up his death-grip on Tony’s wrist, his thumb making little circles over the pulse-point. “You literally decided to burn everything down around your head rather than tell me the truth, Tones. I love you to death, God help me, but you have control issues from here to Montana. You didn’t want to have that conversation with me, you were scared, and so you sat on that knowledge, and you lied and you lied and you lied, Tony.” He took a deep breath. “Just like Rogers. Just like Rogers.”
He didn’t turn away from the naked betrayal in Tony’s eyes. “You think I’m like him?”
Once upon a time, Rhodes thought, Tony would have been thrilled to have been compared to Captain America. Maybe even not too long ago. Now…
“I think you both have control issues,” he repeatedly gently. “That’s not uncommon, yeah? I’ve been dealing with my own ones, recently. Tones, come on. You know I love you,” he said, his eyes softening at Tony’s flinch. He’d been saying that a lot, lately, followed immediately be something Tony didn’t want to hear. Tony, I love you, but leave me alone for my PT, okay? / Tony, I love you dearly, but you need to step back from the Accords right now because you’re doing more harm than good. / Tony, I love you, but I think you’re just like the guy who beat you half to death and left you in Siberia. “You know I love you,” he said again, trying to put in that all he felt. You can screw up, and it’s okay, because I can still love you despite it. It’s okay to screw up, and to be scared, and to be less than perfect.
After a moment, Tony pulled his hand back and Rhodes let him go, feeling a pang of regret at the loss.
“I won’t deny that I have screwed up in the past,” Tony said uncertainly. He glanced across at Rhodes, down to the wheelchair and away again. He swallowed. “You think he just screwed up?” His voice was very small.
There was only one answer to that. “I think that Rogers was well on his way to being thoroughly charmed by you, whether he liked it or not. You’re…” he hesitated. “You’re hard to love, Tones. But once that starts, you’re hard to give up, as well. And that boy has been making eyes at you for some time now, so plainly that I thought I’d have to have a word with him about it. That much Machiavellian planning isn’t in him.” He quirked a smile. “Yeah, I think he screwed up.”
“Oh.” Tony was silent for a long while. Then - “So you want me to forgive him?” he asked hesitantly, squaring his shoulders as if facing a firing squad. “Is that what -”
Rhodes scowled. “Are you fucking kidding me? He beat you into a pulp and left you for dead in Siberia. Hell, no!” He reached up, grabbing Tony’s arm again and dragging him down until he was close enough to hug. He wrapped his arms around Tony, feeling the jolt of it as Tony responded. He’d missed this. “He hurt you. You’re my brother and he hurt you. He did what he had to for his brother, sure, but now it’s my turn. And I swear to fucking God, Tones, I’m gonna turn him into paste. He’s not even getting the courtesy of a shovel talk.” He gripped the back of Tony’s neck, drawing him closer as he felt him shake. “When I see him again, I’m gonna break his fucking nose,” he said, all the rage of the last few weeks in his voice. “And that’s a promise.”
Tony snorted, pressing his damp face against Rhodey’s neck. “More like break your hand again.”
Probably. “... It’d be worth it.”
There was a long silence. “Rhodey?”
“The braces aren’t the only reason I’ve been hiding away in the workshop.”
“... yeah, I figured.” He pulled back to smile at Tony’s expression. “Wait until I’ve punched him to give it back, though, ok?”