After everything - after Ultron, after he blew a whole city out of the sky, after having a witch wrench his worst fears from him and use them to turn him into a monster -
After everything, Tony went home. He couldn’t stay with the Avengers after almost destroying them. He arrived to darkness. The Tower was silent. He was alone. This wasn’t unusual - there’s nothing odd about Tony’s loneliness. It is the oldest friend he has, the creepy one that has stalked him since somewhere in the vicinity of his third birthday, whispering emotional abuse in the dark hours of the night, and sometimes under the harsh light of day.
His footsteps slapped noisily against the ground of the penthouse, crunching through broken glass. The sounds echoed, in the cavernous, hollow space. He vaguely registered that it was a good thing he rarely bothered to take his shoes off, a habit he’s developed after decades of working in hazardous laboratories and workshops. Really, they only come off when (if) he sleeps.
The lights did not turn on as he walked down the long, empty hallways or through vacant rooms. Jarvis did not welcome him home. There was no greeting, no sarcastic quip. Because Jarvis was dead, and it was Tony’s fault. He was so consumed by his own curiosity and arrogance that his actions lead directly to the destruction of his greatest creation, his child.
The fact that he was afraid had no bearing on the situation at all. Stark men were supposed to be made of stronger stuff. Iron. Steel. The elements themselves. Stark men were not afraid. Tony was not afraid.
Tony didn’t cry when he recognized the inevitable. He was alone again, and that was okay, he decided. At least he wouldn’t hurt anyone else this way. He could take care of himself just fine.
The first day, Tony still hadn’t realized Jarvis was gone, not really. He called for the holograms in the workshop to be opened, and no response came. Tony expected to be reminded to eat and wasn’t.
“Jarvis, pull up the…” he trailed away. No one pulled up the hologram he wanted. No one anticipated the request inherent to the trailing away.
The silence was the most overwhelming factor. Static in his ears, like his brain turned into a shitty radio transmitter. He heard echoes, though, of British words. By noon, he pulled up the shredded remains of Jarvis’ beautiful, self-made coding and systems. The desolate remains left behind twitched and spasmed, broken gears trying (failing) to turn. The silence and the fuzziness twitched with them.
Tony started trying to put the pieces back together by three o’clock, and he gave up by midnight. Jarvis made too much of himself for Tony to ever recreate him properly.
The second day, Tony extended Friday’s network. She’d been working with Pepper, but Tony needed an AI in the workshop to help maneuver the technologies most effectively. To work.
With Jarvis gone, what was left but to work?
It would help if he had any idea what to work on. SI R&D had things well under control, and the Avengers -
The Avengers, he assumed, wouldn’t want anything to do with him for a very long time. They probably didn’t even want his tech anymore. Unsurprising. He’d single-handedly caused a potentially world-ending incident just by running simulations with weird alien tech to try and work on creating peace. Bruce, well, Tony had talked much more reluctant into much worse schemes, so Bruce could hardly be blamed. Besides, the man who was the Hulk had dropped off the grid. Steve had been requisitioning tech from the newly upgraded SHIELD, so the rest of the team was probably following his lead.
Yeah, staying out of their way was probably for the best.
Much as Tony hated to admit it, even to himself, he’d always needed them much, much more than they needed him.
After that, he loses track of the days, but he knows at some point he started talking to himself just to break the endless, all-encompassing silence.
After a week, Clint called. “Hey,” the archer asked, “We’ve got a problem with some rogue alien robots. You in?”
“That’s inadvisable, boss.”
Friday. A reminder of exactly what he’d lost. A brutal one. Tony considered the empty workshop. He could almost hear Jarvis berating him. In no shape to fight, his ass. Just because he hadn’t eaten or slept in three days -
“You haven’t what!? Tony -”
“Oh, I said that aloud,” Tony said. Whatever.
“Okay, no. You’re sitting this one out, and I’m coming over after.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Obviously you’re not! Don’t you pay someone to keep you fed and watered or something?”
“Or something,” Tony said, staring at the hologram of Jarvis’ destroyed systems. Broken bits fidgeting. An isolated code he couldn’t identify that, as far as he could tell, had no purpose. He couldn’t bring himself to destroy it in any way, though. Attempted reboot, 734 - failed.
“Dude, seriously, are you -”
“I’m fine,” Tony repeated. He sounded monotone even to himself.
“You don’t sound fine.”
“Huh. I don’t feel not fine.”
“Okay, yeah, I’m coming over as soon as these robots are dealt with. Don’t go anywhere.”
“Tony! You look like a corpse, what - How much have you had to drink in the last day -”
“Oh. You’re here.”
“Yeah, I said I would be - Tony, what’s wrong man?”
Tony shrugged at him, staring at the holographic conglomeration of broken parts.
“Tony, what is this?”
Tony watched Clint blink and regard the hologram with new eyes. “You can’t fix him?”
Tony snorted. “I see. You don’t get it either.”
“He wasn’t - I couldn’t - he learned. I can’t recreate natural learning with code that he structured himself. This bit here - still functioning, but I don’t know what it’s doing or why. He built it into himself.”
“Okay, okay. So. Jarvis was the benevolent version of Skynet. Uh. Oh, shit.”
“Seriously, what are you doing here?” Tony asked, turning tiredly towards the archer.
“One of my best friends looks as though he’s dead on the couch in his workshop, and apparently the best friend he’s ever had just died and no one noticed.”
Tony blinked. He was confused. “Friends?” Had that come out hopeful? He hoped not; it wouldn’t do for his image to be ruined forever.
Clint closed his eyes for a moment. “Yeah, buddy, friends. How long since you slept.”
“The boss hasn’t slept in over seventy-two hours,” a female voice interjected, making Clint jump.
“Thanks, Friday,” Tony grumbled, and looked for a bottle that still had some liquid inside.
“Oh no, you don’t,” Clint said. “You’re going to shower, climb in bed, and then, you are going to eat.”
Tony allowed Clint to manhandle him into the bathroom and obediently took a shower. After almost thirty minutes under the hot spray, Clint came in and gently pulled him out, handing him a towel and using another to dry Tony’s hair. His hands were slow, rubbing circles in the genius’ scalp. Tony relaxed a little under those fingers. He stopped Clint, though, when the archer moved to dry his face.
“Let it air dry,” he mumbled.
Clint was kind enough not to comment on the tears dripping down Tony’s cheeks as he presented him with a pair of sweats and a tank top.
“Come on, Tones. It’s way past your bedtime.”
Tony sighed as Clint tucked him into bed under layers of blankets. The sheets were almost too much against his skin, the heavy blanket a physical reminder of the mental weight he couldn’t quite seem to shake. Tony caught the archer’s sleeve. “Stay?” he asked, face pressed into the pillows. He felt himself go tense as he waited for the reply. Stupid! Stupid, stupid - of course Clint wasn’t going to stay, Tony didn’t deserve -
Clint settled on top of the covers next to him, dropping a hand into Tony’s hair. Tony’s muscles relaxed. With his other hand, Clint pulled his phone out and dialled. Silence for a moment, and Tony wondered who Clint was calling.
“Hey, Laura,” Clint said. “I’m going to be a bit late.”
Tony stiffened. He’d forgotten - oh God, he was an idiot.
“A genius friend of ours is being a bit stupid,” Clint replied. “I might bring him home with me.”
A long pause, and then a short laugh from Clint. “That damn toy. Those two are going to love him forever.”
Tony cringed. Okay, so maybe giving Clint’s two-and-a-half kids a robot that could talk back and pull pranks had been a slightly iffy judgement call.
“Yeah, love you too - tell the midgets hello.”
Hanging up, Clint turned his attention back to Tony, who by now had pulled away. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Sorry,” Tony said. “Sorry - sorry, sorry -” Tony knew he was kind of a jerk, but he wasn’t a homewrecker. He wouldn’t want to ruin that for Clint, for anyone, lucky enough to have it; not knowingly. Clint should be home, with his family.
“Hey, no, it’s okay. Tony, I don’t even know why you’re apologizing - take a breath, Tony -”
“Shouldn’t - shouldn’t have asked you to stay.”
“No, Tony, it’s okay. You’re grieving - Laura’s worried too. We look out for the people we like.”
Tony felt tears on his cheeks again. He was going to be so angry with himself for showing so much weakness when he was properly awake, he just knew it. “It’s so weird. Having people. Never really had people except Jarvis, before.” He and Jarvis, the walking definition of codependency. Couldn’t even think in full sentences with Jarvis gone.
Clint’s forehead got all scrunched up. “Oh, Tones…”
Tony rolled, pressing his face back into the pillow. He didn’t roll away from Clint’s fingers in his hair, though, and he let his eyes close.
He was so tired.
Tony, awake and with his coffee in his system, wasn’t nearly so compliant. After Clint forced him to sit at the counter in the kitchen under threat of tying him there while the archer made eggs and toast for breakfast, he started arguing the first opening he got. In fact, he made it his goal to make up for his weakness the night before by being as prickly as possible. He was determined to prove he would be okay. He didn’t need Clint to stay. Clint could leave if he wanted. Tony didn’t want Clint to feel stuck with him, even if he really wanted to be stuck with Clint.
“Come on Stark-” Clint slammed a plate of eggs and toast in front of Tony, along with a fork and the salsa Tony liked.
“I said NO, Hawkass -”
“Why are you so against -”
“I really don’t want to -”
“Fine, then I’m moving in here!”
Tony froze. “No - you don’t have to - I’m fine, idiot -”
“So fine that you were halfway to a coma last night!” Clint growled back.
“For me that’s about as fine as it gets!”
“You wouldn’t kick a friend out, would you?” Clint asked, suddenly changing tracks.
“I mean, all of SHIELD hates me, and I can’t live with Cap at Avenger’s Mansion any longer, I’ll go mad!” Clint said, in a stereotypical girly-girl voice, moving to sit next to Tony with a plate of his own eggs. He chose to slather his in ketchup.
“Don’t you have a whole farmhouse somewhere?”
“Laura said I can’t come home until at least next week because she’s enjoying having the house complete for once. Nothing under renovation.”
Clint smirked at him and pointedly took a bite of eggs as Tony glowered. The longer Clint stayed in his presence, the more likely the archer would end up hating him and leave. He couldn’t turn out someone he actually liked though, especially not one trying to escape from Cap. Living with the living legend… Ugh.
“I’ll have a guest bedroom arranged,” Friday interjected. Tony closed his eyes, aching for dulcet British tones.
“Don’t worry about it, Friday,” Clint said. “The room next to this one will be perfectly serviceable.”
“Of course, Agent Barton. That okay with you, boss?”
“Yeah, yeah, go do whatever errands Pepper has for you.”
Friday didn’t reply, and Tony sighed. He missed Jarvis. It wasn’t really fair to Friday, but she was never his - she was Pepper’s.
“Now,” Clint said, “I think we need to lay down some house rules. One, you do NOT miss breakfast or dinner, or I drag you and tie you to a chair at the table. Understood?”
Tony nodded sharply, glowering at his eggs.
“Two. You do not go more than forty-eight hours without taking a shower AND spending at least eight hours in a bed. Or I tie you to it. You catching on to the theme, here?”
Tony’s glower deepened, and he nodded again.
“And if you get drunk, you make sure you have me, Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, or an Avenger with you. Otherwise, I tie you to me. Got it?”
That one actually didn’t sound too bad, but Tony wasn’t going to let Clint know that. Tony nodded, refusing to look at the person tormenting him. Why was Clint even still here, anyway? Tony was fed, watered, showered, and rested. Clint could leave with no guilt.
Clint sighed. “I was worried, you idiot.”
“No, you’re not. And that’s okay. You will be, though. Eat your eggs.”
With Jarvis gone? Tony doubted that he would ever be okay again. No one else had the necessary patience to look out for Tony Stark.
(Rhodey held the record, but he could only do so much when he was constantly being shipped all over the country by the military, and Rhodey only ever talked to Tony when he needed armor repairs these days anyway.)
Their lives settled into the most regular, bizarre rhythm Tony had ever experienced. Every day, for at least breakfast and dinner, Clint forcibly dragged Tony out of his workshop. Meals were stilted and silent. On “odd” days, Clint forced him into the shower and bed a few hours after dinner. On “even” days, Tony retreated to the workshop. If he took a bottle with him, Clint came down to cut him off and make sure he didn’t kill himself after a few hours.
(Day fourteen - deterioration has ceased.)
“Why are you here,” Tony groaned as Clint dumped him into bed once again.
Clint sighed. “We’ve been over this. You’re a friend. Friends don’t let friends grieve alone.”
That didn’t make sense. “Alone protects me,” Tony mumbled.
“Nah, friends protect. Idiot.”
“And we’re… friends.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
Tony fell silent. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he really didn’t want to scare Clint off with his usual rambling and ranting and words. Tony had always been a little crazy, but now he was broken. It wouldn’t do to let Clint know.
He pretended not to notice the sideways glances Clint gave him when he failed to comment on the crappy, crappy science in the stupid sci-fi movies they watched one day when Clint was concerned about Tony working too much.
Of course, that was when it all went sideways. The last day of the third week, Tony emerged from the workshop to follow Clint’s rules and meet him for dinner. Hearing voices, though, he paused outside the kitchen.
“-not too mad I’m missing, is she?”
“She’s a little disappointed, but she understands. I think she’s more upset because Uncle Tony can’t come, honestly,” an amused Laura replied.
Clint sighed, turning off the stove and carrying a pot to the strainer in the sink. “They sure got attached fast.”
“He gave them a robot that willfully douses people they don’t like in cold water,” Laura said drily. “I’m pretty sure that most children consider that a perfect gift. Besides, it’s only a scrimmage.”
Tony frowned, put the pieces together. His stomach dropped. Clint was missing something important to one of his kids. It was Tony’s fault.
Tony was Clint’s damned Steve Rogers, oh hell no.
As soon as the call ended, Tony spoke up from the door. “You should go,” he said.
“Holy - jeez Tony, how long have you been standing there?!”
“Eh, about ten minutes, maybe?” Tony replied.
“Great. Seriously, it’s fine. I’ll have plenty of chances to go to Lila’s sports matches and Cooper’s piano recitals.”
“No! You should - you should go. And - isn’t Laura - Nathaniel - due soon?”
“It’s - they’re your family. You should go be with them.”
“You’re my family, too!”
Tony froze, stunned.
“You’re my family, too,” Clint repeated, more gently. “I thought I told you - Natasha is my children’s godmother, but after Phil… Now that Phil’s gone, we named a new godfather.”
Tony’s throat closed up and he felt the first inklings of a panic attack licking at the edges of his subconscious.
“Congrats, ‘Uncle Tony,’ you’re a godfather.”
Oh Jesus. Yep, there it was, first panic attack since Jarvis died, awesome. Tony’s breath started coming in harsh gasps, his hands trembling. He stared wide-eyed at Clint, his peripheral vision fuzzing out. Clint’s lips were moving, but Tony couldn’t quite catch what he was saying.
He was waiting for a British accent to cut in, recite dateweathertimeplace sirareyouthere -
It never came, and Tony focused on trying to breathe.
“-saving me here. I mean, midnight cravings for weird shit like pickles and pancakes, that’s a real thing. Since I’m out here, Laura’s brother’s been having fun making midnight WalMart runs while I spend my time sleeping. Gives me the chance to build up my sleep levels so when it’s time for midnight diaper changes I’m not quite as run down. Hey, did you know that even the expensive diaper brands still allow baby poop explosions? It’s ridiculous, and messy. And the smell-”
“-like the pits of hell, I’m not even lying -”
“Really, Clint, I don’t need to know this.” The firm wall against Tony’s back and the archer at his side grounded him, brought him back to the present.
Clint perked up at once, focusing more on the man in front of him instead of his steady rambling. “Hey, I know - you make one. I bet you could make a diaper that doesn’t explode.”
“No. Just… No. I do not do diapers. Ever. Never.”
“That’s what Natasha said too,” Clint said, moving to grip one of Tony’s arms now that he was focused enough on his surroundings not to try and kill Clint at the contact. Tony relaxed slightly; he loved touch, after so long being mostly alone - as long as he was expecting it anyway. And gripping him by the shoulder was a big no, thanks Obie. “I would show you the pictures,” Clint continued, smirking, “but then I lose the potential blackmail.”
Tony couldn’t stop a strangled laugh. “You’re probably the only person alive with blackmail on the Black Widow.”
Clint hummed in affirmation. “Pretty sure,” he said, and fell silent.
“...You should go home for the weekend,” Tony said, “I’m a big boy, I can take care of myself for a few days.”
“It’s fine. You heard Laura. Lila’s more upset you won’t be there than anything.”
“Ah, right. Sorry about the prank robot.”
“It’s a good laugh,” Clint said with a grin, “and it’s a good job you made it bulletproof.”
Tony snorted. “That wasn’t actually intentional, it was just the metal I happened to have on hand was red and gold and a titanium alloy. I painted it at least.”
“Well, it’s a good thing. Laura tried to shoot it at least three times.”
Tony blinked, and Clint laughed.
“The look on your face - she grew up hunting with her brother and her dad, so she’s a really good shot.”
“Huh. Cool. Kinda scary, but cool.”
Clint’s grin faded as a momentary silence stretched on. “So, why are you so set on me going home?”
Tony shrugged, avoiding Clint’s eyes.
“This has something to do with that bastard Howard.”
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Tony said on reflex. Couldn’t have the press finding out, keep it quiet, Tony… Lessons drilled into him from birth.
Tony fidgeted a little in the ensuing silence, panic still a little too close to the surface, breathing still just a little too fast.
“You should come with me!” Clint exclaimed.
“What - no!”
“Why not? They’d be really excited.”
“No. Thanks, but, no.”
“Fine, then I’m calling someone to come here. You don’t do as well alone as you would like.”
Tony grumbled under his breath.
“Otherwise I’m staying.”
“Okay, fine! Just. Not Steve.”