Despite what everyone says, Tony Stark can in fact take a hint.
Admittedly, he might need it spelled out for him in giant fucking letters sometimes – especially, for anything requiring interpersonal skills - but he will reach the desired conclusion eventually.
And after the whole Ultron fiasco, one of those big-ass lettered sign is very clearly saying that the team doesn't want him anywhere near them. They make that pretty fucking clear.
Because Tony tries in those first few weeks. Tries to fix things with the team, tries to make things better, tries to make amends in any way, shape or form he can think of.
He is rewarded with snide comments, brush offs, glares, accusations.
And he gets it. Really, he does.
He knows he fucked up with Ultron. But his guilt is already eating him alive and he would have loved some support from his team. He really doesn't need the helpful reminders of just how wrong everything went, thank you very much.
But considering the shit he put them through with his last fuck up, he thinks it's only natural that they might want to keep him at arm's length for now. Until the dust settles. Until they are hopefully, hopefully able and willing to deal with him again.
He pushes down the cynical voice in his head reminding him that it’s apparently only his part in Ultron's creation that is entirely unforgivable, but Bruce's is never even mentioned. And Wanda actually working with Ultron is somehow easily forgotten.
Because Wanda is now living with the team and Bruce has already taken off to god knows where.
So much for that friendship.
And the team is clearly all too willing to replace Tony. They don’t seem to miss him at all.
So, Tony takes the hint.
He starts locking himself away in his workshop whenever possible and tries to fix things in different ways. He invents better weapons for the team, updates their gear, modifies the Compound according to their demands. He attends press conferences for damage control, sends relief to Sokovia and South Africa, gives interviews and settles lawsuits.
Anything to distract himself from how incredibly silent it is in his workshop. Because JARVIS is gone.
His breath stutters every time he even thinks about it, chest constricting whenever he automatically asks JARVIS for something and every time - for just a moment - being surprised when JARVIS doesn't immediately answer.
His workshop is silent. Sometimes he doesn’t speak to a single person for days. His team is happy to have him out of their hair, Pepper gets texts, Rhodey gets voicemails and everyone else has to content themselves with emails.
Tony is grieving and sometimes it feels like the silence is slowly crushing his soul.
It goes on for about a month.
And then, his Rhodey bear stages an intervention.
Tony blinks at Rhodey.
Rhodey is in his workshop.
How did Rhodey get into his workshop?
"Hi?" Tony's voice is a scratchy. But staying awake for 48 hours straight, without food or any sort of human interaction, will do that to you.
He swallows and then pastes on a bright smile that is not entirely faked because Rhodey is one of the few people he will always be happy to see.
He tries again. "It's my Rhodey bear! What brings you to my burrow?"
"Tones." The friendly exasperation in his best friend's voice is so normal that it almost makes Tony want to cry. "You didn't answer my messages."
Yep, definite reprimand in his platypus' voice.
"Messages? I didn't get any messages. Oh no, they must have gotten lost somewhere!" Tony claims dramatically.
Rhodey just looks at him and Tony barely manages to keep up his smile. But the expected comment doesn't come, instead there is silence. It stretches. And he wants to fill it, but he is tired. And all out of witty commentary at the moment.
His best friend is watching him intently, before finally huffing, releasing some of the built-up tension.
"You've been locked in here for days. You haven't replied to any of my messages. You've been talking in press conferences and interviews and commentaries. But you haven't said a single word to me. We're having a heart-to-heart." Rhodey points imperiously at the couch in his workshop.
Heart-to-heart. It's their code word for serious, no-holding-back, all-filters-off, bare-it-all conversations.
Tony called it that once in jest back in college. When they still had to have these regularly because they just couldn't read each other all that well yet, when both of them were so much more insecure and when they still felt like their newest teenage drama was the worst that could possibly ever happen to them. The name stuck.
And honestly it's exactly what Tony needs. A chance to just get everything off his chest. And apparently, Rhodey is in the same boat.
So, they talk.
As usual, they get past the important stuff pretty quickly. Apologies, accusations, self-recrimination, observations, assurances, explanations. It's messy but so very easy at the same time. Whatever is mentioned is already forgiven and it is only really an exercise in getting things off your chest. By the end of it, Tony is sprawled on the couch and Rhodey on the floor, both of them utterly exhausted and neither of them entirely sober.
After the personal stuff, they've now moved on to more general topics.
Tony is doing his best to translate the mess of parallel trains of thoughts and multiple calculations of various outcomes that are running through his head at any given time, into coherent sentences - and depending on how the press conference goes tomorrow, there might be problems with the interview in Sokovia next week and if Sokovia decides to really put their foot down then Europe might join them out of solidarity which might drop SI stock in Europe and that might affect the stocks in China which will then definitely impact SI stock in the US and after the hit it already took from Ultron that might actually give Congress ideas and then that hearing could get pretty hard-ass but there are some things I will not budge on no matter what and that might drop my political standing here which could affect the Avengers' standing as well and that will make it harder to get a visa for Wanda which is apparently my responsibility as I have been informed, but if Sokovia is still pissed off and my political standing here isn't sufficient to push it through...
Thankfully, his best friend is probably the one person who not only knows Tony well enough to understand his babbling but Rhodey is also a genius in his own right. And he knows just how much Tony's brain processes at any given moment. Back in college, Rhodey was actually the first to figure out what Tony's problem with communicating his thoughts to others was.
No one had ever thought to tell fourteen year old Tony that other people's brains didn't in fact run on multiple fully thought-out trains of thought at once. It had been a revelation. It's also the reason why they came up with their heart-to-hearts in the first place. Because sometimes even Rhodey needed an explanation for some of the shit, Tony had thought would be a brilliant idea at the time.
And Tony missed this. He is so fucking sorry for always pushing his friends - Rhodey, Pepper, Happy - aside in favor of the team. Always having something to do for the Avengers, with the Avengers, in the name of the Avengers, to clean up for the Avengers, to build something for the Avengers, and so on. And somewhere along the line he had apparently stopped hanging out with his friends altogether.
Tony sucks as a friend.
He says as much to Rhodey.
Rhodey immediately agrees, "Yeah, you kind of do, Tones. But it's not like any of us are any better. Especially in the recent, fuck what has it been, years?"
Tony honestly has no idea what Rhodey is talking about. Because his platypus is perfect.
Rhodey clearly sees his confusion as well and before Tony can even say anything, his best friend is sitting up and gesticulating wildly, his frustration simply boiling over.
"I’m definitely not a shining example of friendship! I never said a fucking word. Not once did I say anything against those fuckers, with their self-righteous, egomaniac, egocentric, minimalistic world views. Who are now even living in your house, off your money, demanding more time, more resources, more equipment all the fucking time. As though it were their god-given right to be coddled like a bunch of fucking toddlers. And I just let them walk all over you and never said a fucking word."
Tony is speechless. He has rarely - if ever - seen Rhodey this angry.
"And they think so highly of themselves but have no fucking clue what they are actually doing. They burn down an entire secret agency with no thought to all the lives and livelihoods attached to an organization like SHIELD. Or to the fact that SHIELD had its fingers in every fucking pie they could get their hands on, that their files included information on every single US intelligence agency. They didn't give a damn that the agents from other, non-HYDRA-infested agencies crashed and burned with SHIELD."
Rhodey is snarling at this point and seems nowhere near done.
"Not to even mention the international political shitstorm they caused, because those files sure as fuck didn't only contain information on agents in mafia cartels and terrorist cells. The US had just as many spies in foreign governments and we're still trying to get most of them back to our country. Not to even mention the secret military bases and covert ops in places the army cannot even officially mention. We'll likely never see those soldiers back on US soil." His best friend rages on.
"But I don't have to tell you that! Because, you were right there with all the other agencies scrambling to protect as many compromised agents and endangered civilians as you possibly could. Despite being about twelve hours late to the party because you were still recovering from your surgery and no one had even given you a fucking heads-up."
"Those were lives. We lost hundreds of lives, civilians and agents and military personnel, within fourty-eight hours. Just because they couldn’t be bothered to pick up a damn phone."
There is silence in the penthouse.
Because Tony does know. He is haunted by it.
He knows the exact number of confirmed deaths from the leak, civilian and non-civilian. He knows the number of captives in the hands of US allies who are currently negotiating for some pretty hefty concessions on their side - this is the first time in US history that other countries have had enough leverage on them to actually threaten sanctions against them. But in most of those countries, prisoners are at least treated well, sometimes even much better than in the US of A herself.
Because he also knows the exact number people captured in countries which despise the US. None of those are even pretending to want to negotiate. The most they have seen of the people lost in those countries are torture and execution videos sent to them from various terrorist groups all over the world.
And Tony cannot even imagine. He spent three months in a desert cave. But the Ten Rings had also needed him for their agenda and what he endured had been mild torture at most, because they had no interest in permanently harming him before they got what they wanted. They knew that an untrained city boy like him had no chance to hold out against torture. And they had been right. He had only managed to hold out for a few days before pretending to cave in to their demands. Tony cannot possibly imagine being in that same situation without a way of relief.
The silence between them stretches, as Rhodey mourns the soldiers lost and Tony is haunted by the numbers he will never be able to forget.
The next part of Rhodey's rant is much more subdued, but the anger simmering beneath his words has only gained in intensity.
"And those fuckers just went home, patted themselves on the back for a job well-done and never thought about the repercussions again. They even seem to think themselves irreplaceable. Just, why? A shield-throwing, self-righteousness hypocrite who has not bothered to absorb any new information since waking in this century but has no problem lecturing others about their opinions, a turncoat spy who has no sense of loyalty, a military man with no critical thinking to speak of and a supposed god with all the common sense of a golden retriever puppy."
Now his platypus is mostly grumbling instead of outright snarling like before. Clearly, he has been dying to get all of this off his chest for quite some time now.
"And that is without even mentioning the fair-weather friend whose main source of pride is getting his own damn anger issues under control. Or the witch they now decided to take in. A witch who messes with people's minds and shows no real remorse or intent to make amends for her fuck-ups."
"Actually, she fits in just perfectly with them."
Tony can't help but snort at Rhodey's last grumble.
Although, he sobers again quickly.
"They took her because I left." Tony remarks as calmly as he can, trying to keep the hurt at being so very easily replaced out of his voice.
Rhodey immediately rounds on him. "No, they made you leave so they could take her! They wanted her on the team despite knowing you and Banner are uncomfortable around her. They didn't even bother to pretend they cared about anyone else's opinion."
Tony hesitates, but then says out loud what has been haunting him. "But I messed up. I made Ultron. It's my fault. They -"
He doesn't get any further, because Rhodey is already in his face, snarling, "Yes, you messed up. You made a mistake. And Ultron happened. Yes, to all of that. But you sure as fuck weren't the only one! Ultron is not all on you. And in contrast to everyone else involved in this mess, you were trying to do something good, to protect our entire damn planet!"
Rhodey is looming over the couch but the anger in his glare seems to be directed everywhere but at Tony.
"I mean fuck, you have been talking about an alien army on the other side of that damn portal for years and not a single one of us has given you the time of day. SHIELD could've started stretching out feelers, I could have talked to the army, hell, Pepper could have let you expand the SI defense tech department as I know you asked her to. And we all sure as fuck could have listened. But we didn't. So, you came up with a different solution, as you always do. Because you see a problem and then you fix it. That's what you do. The whole fucking world knows, that's what you do!"
Tony is just staring at his best friend, who is returning his stare intently, clearly looking for something. Tony doesn't know what Rhodey is looking for but he definitely doesn’t like the devastation in his best friend’s eyes when he clearly doesn't find it. The next words are much softer.
"Tones. You tried to protect the world. You always try to protect the world. No matter what other people like to accuse you of these days, even the weapons manufacturing was about protection in your mind. Bigger-army diplomacy works. It’s a fact. As I and the entire damn US military will tell you. The revelation that the very weapons you were making to protect our country were being used to kill our soldiers damn near killed you. Not only literally. But in your crisis of faith, you didn't give up, you created New York's first superhero. You became Iron Man. And you have been protecting as many people as you possibly can as Iron Man ever since."
Tony has no words. He opens his mouth. Closes it. Swallows. Starts again.
"I mean... I've been trying." His voice sounds much weaker than it should. God dammit, no one has ever said something like this to him. "But everything just always seems to turn into the exact opposite of what I'm trying to do." And for once, he allows himself to show his insecurity, helplessly looking up at his best friend.
Who flops down on the sofa next to him and is now smiling at him for some absurd reason.
"No, Tones, it really doesn't. We've had this conversation before, but the weapons manufacturing went to shit because of Obediah. Not your fault. But even with the under the table dealing, SI weapons still made the US the most formidable force on this planet. And when you took that away, because your conscience gave you no other choice, you promptly turned around and came up with a completely different kind of nuclear deterrent."
Rhodey leans back in his seat.
"You know that none of the bigwigs will ever actually try to make you stop being Iron Man. Sure, about every six months they like to have another meeting and bluster about getting at your tech. But their access to Iron Man and SI weapons and whatever else, is only ever in addition to you being Iron Man. No one is willing to mess with the best protection this country has had in decades. Not our enemies and not our own damn politicians. If only because the public would riot. And even the military has no interest in overreaching with you. Because there are other places to get decent weapons -"
Tony huffs. "Hey!"
"Of course, not quite as spectacular as SI weapons." Rhodey rolls his eyes.
"That's better." Tony decrees magnanimously.
His platypus is looking wonderfully exasperated at this point. "But they know that Iron Man gives us an edge they couldn't ever have dreamed of. Within our own borders and outside of it." Rhodey looks at him. "So, while the SI weapons program might not have turned out as you intended, you did what you always do. You saw a problem, came up with a better solution and fixed it."
Well, this is different. Of course he knows all of this as fact - people liked to avoid messing with Iron Man's home country - but hearing someone state it out loud like this, is definitely new.
After a brief pause, Rhodey continues, "And I'm absolutely certain, Ultron will turn out the same way. You might not quite have reached a solution yet, but you will. You will not only find a way to protect our planet from those damn space lizards but you will also figure out how to somehow turn this entire mess into something positive. I know you will."
He is speaking with such conviction that Tony can't help but simply believe.
Then he realizes what his best friend had just said, his eyes widen. "You believe me about the aliens."
Rhodey closes his eyes, seeming almost defeated at this point. Tony hates seeing it.
"Yes, of course I believe you. I believed you the very first time you mentioned what you saw out there. The accusations that you either made it up or you hallucinated is ridiculous. Your brain doesn't do hallucinations. Even when under the influence of highly illegal substances. We established that in college. I just never actually opened my fucking mouth to help you get that fact through everyone else's heads."
Tony stares at his best friend. And he finally, finally feels some of the crushing weight lift from his shoulders.
There is a pause before his platypus seems to physically shake off the somber mood, "So. On that note, I have already scheduled a meeting with General Morey for the day after tomorrow to remind them of the risk of a potential alien invasion. The military should really get their asses into gear. We’ve been slacking."
A careful look in Tony's direction, "And until then, the two of us are going to dig through every inch of your servers for every single damn line of code that remains of JARVIS. We're going to put our friend back together, even if it takes us the next twenty years to do so."
Tony breathes through the sudden ache in his chest.
"Okay." He says.
Rhodey clearly struggles briefly, before growling out, "And you will stop letting those half-brained, barely functional human beings with egos the size of the fucking Grand Canyon walk all over you. They don't want you? Fine, their loss. You already have people in your life, who would do anything to keep you in theirs. Stop acting like you owe those fuckers anything."
Tony grins through his suddenly watery eyes.
"Will do, platypus."
They spend the next ten minutes blinking up at the ceiling, pretending neither of them is crying.
It's just really dusty in his workshop. Really, it is.
It had been a fun talk.
In the two days since their mutual verbal catharsis, Tony has spent a lot of time re-evaluating the past several years.
While he might not have liked hearing most of it – and he doubts he would’ve even listened before Ultron went down - Rhodey's speech warms something in him. After so long of always, always having to defend himself - be it about his political views, his standing with the media, his money or his willingness to banter with asshole Congress men - hearing his best friend put himself firmly and immovably on Tony's side feels like a breath of fresh air.
Suddenly, all the snide remarks and mistrustful glances and supposedly casual 'What are you working on in that workshop of yours, Tony? Mind if I stop by for a bit?' from what should be his team, seem all the more infuriating.
The whole 'a team is built on trust and support' thing is apparently bullshit.
Although, of course none of this changes that Tony fucked up. No matter what he originally intended to do with Ultron, he knows better than most people that intentions count for nothing. Either you succeed or you fail, but no one will ever ask you what you were actually trying to do.
He knows that no matter how many other people were involved, no matter how many other factors might have played a role in this mess, without his attempt at a planet-wide defense system, Ultron wouldn't have happened. So, that's on him.
'Partially! That's partially on you!', his inner Rhodey grumbles.
His best friend’s rant had certainly driven a few points into Tony's skull.
The main one being, it's not all Tony's fault.
And everyone else should really step up to the plate and take their share of the blame.
After two days of deliberation, Tony decides that it's about time that he acts accordingly. His platypus will be so proud.