Was it terrible to think that this wasn’t even the worst dinner Tony had sat through? Because it wasn’t. It was awkward being peppered with questions, some of which Tony didn’t feel safe answering or which he couldn’t answer. But it was really nothing compared to some of the dinners he’d sat through with Howard or Obadiah Stane, or even the first dinner the survivors had eaten together after the snap. That topped the list.
He ate what he could and then a little bit more, until Strange stopped eyeing him with a judgmental look that suggested Tony was going to get force fed if he didn’t eat enough to satisfy the doctor, before setting his fork aside. He’d eaten about three quarters of his meal, which was pretty good in his opinion. Most of the people around him had eaten even less. Clearly, this was not the victory dinner that any of them had planned. Tony didn’t have the heart to tell them a second time that most of them wouldn’t have lived to eat it.
Wakandan custom said that he had to wait to leave until the King rose first. Shuri, in the days following the snap, had swiftly done away with much of the propriety and flat-out told them all that if they treated her like the queen, she was going to have them executed. Tony hadn’t been able to resist pointing out the disparity of that statement, which had actually made Shuri laugh for the first time since losing her brother and mother.
He didn’t think T’Challa would have the same reaction or propensity towards breaking the law as his sister did – or at least, not if it didn’t directly benefit him in some way. And right now, T’Challa was feeling dangerously out-of-sorts and like he didn’t hold enough power in this situation. Tony could see it in his face. It was better to sit quietly and wait to be dismissed than push the envelope.
Stark, apparently, felt differently. He stood when he was done. “I have some calls to make to New York,” he said curtly. “I left in a rush and there are urgent things that need my attention. Please excuse me.” He muttered something to Peter and then started walking away.
“Of course,” T’Challa said shortly to his back, anger flickering through his face.
Tony felt like rolling his eyes. Okay, so six months ago he would’ve done the same thing. He wasn’t proud of it, but he was positive that Stark really did have urgent things – like an explanatory phone call to Pepper – that needed to be done. He also suspected that Stark wasn’t feeling too respectful of T’Challa right now, since the presence of the ex-Avengers in Wakanda made it blatantly obvious that T’Challa had been shielding them all this time. Or, at the very least, that he’d known where they were.
It was the truth. Shuri had told him that much. She’d apologized, and said that T’Challa had been thinking of himself when he brought Barnes and the rest of the Avengers back, not of Wakanda. Tony couldn’t deny that. Barnes may not have killed T’Challa’s father, but, in his time as the Winter Soldier, he’d killed a heck of a lot of people. No matter what Steve said, Tony fiercely believed that Barnes should still face his day in court.
Back then, it had been a moot point: Barnes died in the snap. Now, it wasn’t. Tony glanced at Barnes, who’d spent the meal with his head lowered, and decided that it was probably time to say screw the rules. He needed to talk to Stark, and he wasn’t planning on staying here. Now that Strange had offered him a place, he was anxious to go home. Wakanda would never be home, not again.
“I apologize,” he said softly. “I have something I have to do, too.” He pushed his chair back and stood without thinking, only then realizing that Strange was still eating. He froze, his heart quickening. Could he leave without Strange? Did he want to? Should he sit back down? Would that look too weird?
It seemed an age, but was probably only seconds, before Strange wiped his mouth and stood. “Your highness,” he said with a polite nod to the three royals in the room, and then actually offered his arm to Tony. Like they were at a party or something. Tony was grateful for it, because his knees felt suddenly weak, and took his arm to be escorted out of the room.
“Thank you,” Tony whispered as they passed out of the dining room.
Strange shook his head slightly. “They were hardly the best of company,” he said dryly. “I can only tolerate being in the spotlight for so long.”
“Sorry. I should’ve answered more questions,” Tony said.
“It’s not your fault. Had they been more polite…” Strange trailed off, shaking his head. “I find it hard to understand their lack of trust in you. I know I was skeptical and wary when we first met, but within a day or two I knew that you were genuine when it came to saving the Earth. Stark may not have travelled back in time, but I’ve followed the Avengers for a while. He – you – have done remarkable things. Their attitude is off-putting.”
“It’s always been like this,” Tony said slowly, trying to get his thoughts in order. “I thought… I don’t know. That we could be a team. I even had rooms built for them after the Battle of New York.” He flushed a little, having never admitted that to anyone outside of Pepper or Rhodey. “But they didn’t seem interested, so I didn’t push it. I guess they became a team without me.” He paused, then added, “Barnes didn’t help the situation. I only learned after it was too late that Steve has zero objectivity when Barnes is involved.”
“That’s a story I would like to hear someday if you’re willing to tell it,” said Strange.
“It’s not a fun story,” Tony told him uncertainly. After the snap, he’d done his best to put aside everything that happened so that he could work with Steve and the others for the sake of the world. It ended up being one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Those first few weeks after he moved to Wakanda had been filled with more nightmares of a shield coming down towards his face than the snap.
Steve had seemed to think that, due to everything they’d lost, Tony had seen the necessity of forgiving and forgetting, and that all was well between them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tony had never forgotten, and he certainly had not forgiven no matter what Steve seemed to think. He might work with Captain America on the field if necessary, but he would never again call Steve Rogers a friend or teammate. It just wasn’t worth it. Not when Tony had never been able to shake the thought that the only reason Steve had paid so much attention to him was because Barnes was gone.
He supposed that since the snap had never happened, Steve would go either one of two ways. Either he’d act like he had no idea why Tony or Stark were upset – which was a tactic Steve had done a lot over the years, Tony knew – or he’d keep up this cool, skeptical act. The part of Tony that was still hurt thought bitterly that it would depend on whether or not Steve wanted something from him.
“I have my own share of not fun stories,” Strange said, drawing Tony’s attention back to him.
“I’ll show you mine and you show me yours?” Tony said with a small, but genuine smile. Strange winked at him and he laughed out loud.
“Do you mind?”
Both of them startled. Tony looked up to see Stark standing there, frowning at them. The hand holding his phone dangled loosely at his side, which Tony took to mean that Pepper hadn’t answered. She had to be in a meeting of some kind, as otherwise she would’ve been waiting for Stark’s call. Tony squashed the flicker of sadness that ran through him – he’d never gotten to call his own Pepper – and cleared his throat.
“Don’t mind at all. I wanted to talk to you,” he said.
Stark frowned, instantly suspicious. “Why? About what?”
Tony squeezed Strange’s arm and let go, hoping Strange would take the hint. He was pleased when Strange did, silently continuing down the long hall – just far enough that he was out of immediate earshot, but not so far that Tony couldn’t see him. It was more comforting than it should have been to know that Strange was within easy reach. He turned back to Stark rather than ponder that.
“I know you’re pissed off that I didn’t come see you when I came back in time. You’ve probably taken it as a sign that I don’t trust you. That’s stupid. I am you in all the ways that count. It was just easier to go to someone who didn’t know me, us. Strange is familiar with magic; I didn’t have to waste time trying to convince him that I really had traveled back in time,” Tony explained quickly. He wasn’t sure how much longer dinner would last, and Peter would probably come find Stark as soon as he was done.
“I would’ve believed you,” Stark said indignantly, and Tony snorted.
“Yeah, after two dozen tests and a lot of paranoia about whether I was a Maximoff-induced hallucination,” Tony said. They both shuddered at the same time, looking away from each other.
“You still should’ve told me,” Stark said after a moment. “Given me a heads up.”
“There just wasn’t time, and you would’ve asked questions I didn’t want to answer.”
“Like?” Stark looked directly at him with a silent challenge.
Tony met his gaze evenly. “We lost Peter. He faded away in my arms. He begged me to save him,” he said, wondering if the raw pain he still felt was audible in his voice. He didn’t think he’d ever get over that. It had left him terribly aware of just how fragile all life was, and how tragically short it could be, and how painful it could be to lose someone you loved. And even though they’d stopped Thanos, it was a memory that would always haunt him.
Stark inhaled sharply, paling a little. “Really?”
“Yes. Pepper too. She was long gone by the time I got back to Earth. I never got the chance to tell her that I was sorry.” Tony’s chest was growing tight. He had to force himself to breathe through it. He couldn’t even express what he’d wanted to apologize to Pepper for; there were just so many things, and he thought that Stark might already know them all.
“Who else?” Stark whispered.
“Fury and Maria Hill. T’Challa. That almost killed Shuri. Wilson. Barnes,” Tony said, and Stark looked at him sharply. “Vision. Maximoff. It was kind of nice living in a world where I didn’t have to worry about her.”
Stark snorted at that. “Yeah, I bet.” He uncrossed his arms and sighed. “What’s with the cape?”
Tony blinked, looking down at the cape. It fluttered against him. “It was Strange’s,” he said.
“Well obviously. Why do you have it?”
There was no adequate answer to that. Tony looked away, his eyes automatically tracking and finding Strange. He couldn’t describe the comfort the cape’s presence had given him during those long months. He didn’t think Stark would understand – or maybe Stark would understand a little too well. Either way, it wasn’t something Tony was prepared to go into right now.
So he just said, “It needed a home, and I was the closest person.”
Stark didn’t look convinced, but he appeared willing to let it go because all he said was, “And now you’re stuck here.”
“I guess I am,” Tony said with a shrug.
“Rhodey?” Stark asked.
“He survived, but his family didn’t,” Tony said quietly. Rhodey had struggled with that big time.
“Fucking hell.” Stark sighed loudly and ran both hands through his hair, looking as tired as Tony felt. “Okay, fine. I don’t like it, but I get why you went to an impartial third party. At least you didn’t come to Rogers and the other ex-Avengers.”
“God no,” Tony said. “We’d still be arguing over whether they can trust a single word that comes out of my mouth.”
“I guess some things never change,” Stark said bitterly. “You’re coming back to New York, then.”
“I am. I’m not staying here. I don’t think T’Challa would welcome me,” Tony admitted. The King’s pride had taken a serious blow tonight, and relations between Stark and T’Challa hadn’t been ideal to begin with. He was pretty sure that any Stark was now on T’Challa’s bad side.
Stark hesitated for a few seconds, then awkwardly said, “You could come to the tower?”
Touched, knowing that the offer was genuine, Tony shook his head. “Strange said I could go back with him for a while. I’m still – I need to get my bearings. Being somewhere that’s not where I was after the snap… it helps.” He thought that probably sounded weird and dumb, but at least Stark nodded like it made sense.
“Fine. This is – ” He stopped himself and laughed a little, shaking his head. “Fuck. I’ll give you a credit card. Linked to my account. You’re me, right? It’s your money too. Or it would’ve been.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, surprised in spite of himself. “I’d appreciate that.” Perhaps this was what Pepper and Rhodey meant when they said that sometimes Tony could be unfailingly generous. He’d never really seen it before, but this was definitely an offer that Stark didn’t have to make. Tony hadn’t even thought about money yet, but of course Strange couldn’t be expected to support him.
Stark waved a hand. “Don’t mention it. We’ve got plenty of money. More than even two Tony Stark’s could spend. Or two Iron Men?” He looked curiously at Tony, who shrugged.
“I’m probably not giving up the suit anytime soon. Oh, er…” Tony touched the arc reactor. His suit flowed over him. Down the hall, Strange turned quickly. Tony waved him off as the helmet coalesced and the HUD came alive. He carefully removed the helmet and held it out to Stark, who was giving him a very intense look.
“What are you doing?” he asked warily.
“Just put it on,” Tony ordered. He watched as Stark obeyed, the helmet obscuring his frown. He could tell the moment that JARVIS began to talk; Stark went stiff all over. He didn’t speak, just listening, but when he took the helmet off a couple minutes later his eyes were wet.
“JARVIS,” he whispered.
“Vision didn’t die in the snap. The mind stone was taken. What was left of JARVIS’s code remained,” Tony said, stepping closer so he could lay a fond hand on the helmet. He would die before he would lose JARVIS again. “I harvested it and combined it with all the scraps I could find in my own private servers. It took a while, and the armor is his only source of power right now, but it worked. He’s been helping me pilot the suit.”
There was something hungry in Stark’s eyes as he clutched the helmet. “I still have his old servers.”
“We could share,” Tony allowed. “Or JARVIS can help you fill in the missing gaps for your own JARVIS.” Part of him wanted to squirrel JARVIS away like something precious, but he wasn’t that selfish. He couldn’t be. Not with something that mattered so much.
Stark just nodded. He seemed speechless.
Tony said, “I’d like to go home tomorrow. If we could hitch a ride in your jet.”
That jolted Stark out of it. “Of course. Peter’s aunt will be looking for him –” He paused, seeing Tony’s wince. “What?”
“May survived when Peter didn’t,” Tony explained. That had been one very devastating conversation. “She… she blamed me.”
“Of course she did,” Stark muttered, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Can’t blame her.”
“No, I didn’t, either. All the same… the sooner Peter can see her, the better,” Tony said quietly. Thank god this was a world where May Parker would never have to break down because she’d lost her nephew. He took the helmet back and released the suit, suddenly feeling unspeakably exhausted.
Stark’s fingers opened and closed around empty air, then he sighed. “I’ll get the kid. Early start.”
“We’ll be there,” Tony said, stepping past Stark. He walked down the hall to Strange and was immeasurably pleased when Strange lifted an arm, letting Tony slide under it.