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oOoOoOo

Avengers Compound, New York

He’s done.

He’s known it for awhile now, but pushed himself right to the limit. Over and over, he’s tried to do the right thing, tried to wash the blood from his hands, tried to assuage his guilt. Tried to wipe the red from his ledger. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many foundations he funds, how many beneficial technologies he develops, how many charitable projects he starts.

Tony Stark is the Merchant of Death, and it’s that legacy that will follow him into the ground.

Maybe it’s never mattered. Maybe it’s always been futile. Maybe the entire point of his birth, his life, his continued survival against every single odd stacked against him has been to serve as the world’s scapegoat. Quite frankly, he’s tired of carrying the weight of other people’s sins and failures. He has enough of his own without everyone around him stacking more on top of him.

Stane, Hammer, Aldrich. They all tried to break him, and failed. Loki tried and failed. Ultron tried and failed. His critics and his exes and every junior reporter sniffing after a scoop tried and failed.

It took the Avengers to break him. The hilarious, ridiculous, pathetic thing was, they weren’t even trying.

But that’s the story of his life, right? Everyone else gets to do whatever the hell they want, damn the consequences, and because their intentions were good, no harm no foul. But Tony? Even his most altruistic of intentions are scrutinized and dissected, put under the microscope, cross-examined and interrogated for villainous motives.

So he’s just… done.

He’s done with it all.

“Mr. Stark? We’re ready, sir.”

Tony shakes himself out of his introspection and glances at the foreman, then back at the room where his team used to unwind. If he squints right, he can see them all. Wanda and her teas, Steve and his history books. Sam tinkering with Redwing. Vision. Natasha. Rhodey. Clint, bringing the family for a visit. Pepper, perched on the arm of Rhodey’s chair, nose wrinkled but laughing at some pathetic joke Clint made.

“Mr. Stark?”

He sighs through his nose, lifts an arm from where they’re tightly folded against his chest, rubs at his eyes. “I need a minute.”

“Take your time, sir.” The foreman respectfully withdraws, leaving Tony with his ghosts.

Tony pulls the letter Steve sent him out of his jacket pocket and flips it, still folded, between his fingers thoughtfully. I’m glad you’re back at the compound. The Avengers are your family , Steve said.

Well, he’d certainly thought so. Until he’d seen every single one of their backs as they walked away. In the end, he’d just been the guy with the money and the ego, given tolerance but not respect. Annoying, obnoxious, always wrong. Always wrong, no matter what.

I’m sorry I hurt you. I thought I was protecting you, but I was only protecting myself.

Too little, too late, Tony thinks, and pulls his father’s old Zippo out of his other pocket. Way too little, far too late. His thumb flicks the lid of the Zippo open and shut, open and shut. The rhythmic sing-click of the metal soothes him, centers him. He lights the wick with another flick of his thumb, and touches the flame to the corner of the letter, watching it catch.

He holds it as it burns, nearly until it’s burning his fingers, watches Steve’s handwriting brown and crumble, blow into ash and dust, then drops the remnants on the floor. Without a second look, or another thought, he turns and walks to the door, through the door, and out onto the lawn. He doesn’t even look down and think of Thor as he passes the place where the Bifrost touched, the runes still burned into the ground. Not this time. Not ever again.

“I’m done,” he calls to the foreman as he heads towards his car. He tosses a hand up, waving over his shoulder. “Level it.”

Driving away from the Avengers Compound, he only looks back once, lifting his eyes to the rearview mirror when the series of muffled booms announce the demolition crew blew the charges set around the place. There’s a cloud of dust and debris in the distance behind him, and he feels a pang of loss.

It was never real, but it was nice to pretend it was.

oOoOoOo
Barton Family Farm

Laura Barton stares at him with hollow, lined eyes, leaning on the door as if it’s the only thing holding her up. “Tony,” she says tiredly, in lieu of hello. “I don’t know where he is.”

Tony resists the urge to fidget, to shift from foot to foot. It’s a better reception than he thought he’d get, but it’s still an uncertain welcome. “I know,” he says. “Clint’s an idiot, but he wouldn’t risk telling you. Not because you’d tattle on him. Because he wouldn’t want you to be charged with colluding or aiding and abetting or whatever other charges the government has for folks these days. May I come in?”

Laura bites her lip and stares at him some more, then her head goes down and she steps back, pulling the door wider. It’s not explicit, but it’s pretty clear. Tony steps through the door, and she closes it with a soft click behind him. It’s almost exactly the same as it was a year ago, except there’s a wall missing where the dining room used to be. “Nice place,” he says, peering around, taking note of the likeliest places listening devices would be planted. “Very country chic. Rustic even. Are your kids home?”

“I sent them upstairs when I saw your car,” Laura says slowly, moving into his field of view. “Tony, what’s going on? Why are you here?”

“Oh, just some unfinished business. You know. Looking out for the little guy.”” He thumbs the device in his hand, killing the transmission of any planted bugs, and drops the jovial act. “Grab your kids and anything you can’t bear to leave behind. You need to leave, now. The pulse only lasts five minutes. Go.”

Laura blinks but, to her credit, doesn’t stop to ask questions, she just calls up the stairs for her kids to grab their things, and disappears into what he assumes is the nursery, given that she comes back with Nathan on her hip, rosy and mussed and sleepy-eyed,  and two bags slung over her other shoulder.

“We’ve been waiting to hear,” she says, and Tony’s astonished to find he’s deeply relieved that the color has washed back into her eyes, the slump gone from her shoulders. “Did he send word?”

Tony laughs, can’t help its bitter tinge. “He wouldn’t send word through me, Laura. But it doesn’t matter. There’s a quinjet equipped with stealth tech hovering above your house. You’re going to get on it, say hello to Cassie Lang and her family, and then leave the country. Ross is out for blood, and he’s just the kind of asshole to take it out on families.”

Laura’s eyes go soft and vulnerable and, as the two older kids come thundering down the stairs, she leans up and kisses Tony on his cheek. “Thank you,” she says. “Do you want me to pass on any messages?”

Tony shakes his head, violently, then checks the time. Ninety seconds. He hits the button that signals the quinjet to touch down, and holds open the door. “No. In fact, don’t tell them I had anything at all to do with this. No, don’t look at me like that. We don’t have time to argue. Just…” He sighs. “Please, Laura.”

She looks like she wants to argue, but again closes her mouth. Her mouth is a tight line of disapproval and unhappiness, but she nods in agreement, then hustles her family out the door. Tony supervises the loading of the quinjet, gets them all on board in record time, and stands back to watch the quinjet depart.

He’s sure someone somewhere along the way will yell at him for making the Barton and Lang families into criminals by having them flee the country, but at least they’re out of Ross’s reach. He can tune out anything else. He’s getting good at it.  

Now, he's done. The innocents are out of the way. On their way to reunite with their loved ones. He's often been accused of being selfish and uncaring, but now the world is about to truly see what that's like.

oOoOoOo

He’s out for three months before the first big crisis hits and the world, smug and satisfied with the dissolution of the Avengers, starts screaming for someone to save them. Not that he’s been following the news or anything, but the Inhumans are becoming a bigger and bigger thing. Contaminated fish oil, or something. Whatever. It’s not Tony’s problem anymore.

Phil Coulson, who is supposed to be four years in the ground, shows up at the Malibu house one bright and sunny Tuesday at the end of April, looking for his help. Tony is in the middle of designing the next generation of holographic interfaces, trying to figure out a way to make them more cost-effective for consumption by the general public when FRIDAY announces that the Director of SHIELD is here to see him.

“SHIELD is defunct,” Tony replies, not taking his attention off his schematics hanging in the air in front of him. “Tell Fury to go away, FRIDAY.”

“I’m not Fury, Tony,” comes a voice he never, ever expected to hear again, “And SHIELD isn’t defunct, it just went underground.”

Tony turns slowly around, stares at Coulson for what seems like an eternity, but could really only be a few seconds’ duration. His head throbs, and a dull roaring noise thunders through his ears, sounding an awful lot like his own voice, tight with anger, informing Loki that there’s one other guy you pissed off. His name was Phil. It seems nothing, right back to the beginning of it all, was ever real.

Coulson looks tired, but otherwise in the pink of health, like it had just been yesterday Tony'd last seen him, instead of bloody and lifeless and four years ago. Coulson smiles faintly. “Hi, Tony.”

It breaks Tony from his freeze. He snorts and turns back to his work. “Agent,” he replies. “You’re looking good for a dead guy.”

“Tahiti. It’s a magical place.” There’s a pause and then footsteps coming closer. Coulson reappears in the corner of his eye. “Tony, we need your help.”

“Pass.” He doesn’t even stop to consider it, doesn’t hesitate for a second. “The world needs someone to save it? It can look elsewhere, cos I’m done. Finished. Retired. Kaputski.”

Tony keeps working through the silence that follows, hands dancing over the interface in the air. “FRIDAY, what if I increase the capacity of the processors by replacing the silicon with black phosphorous?”

“Running the numbers now, boss,” FRIDAY says. “It might be enough, boss, but you’d need to increase the size of the heat sink to compensate.”

“Hm. Alright.” He clears a space with swipes of his fingers. “Give me two running tallies here. One, cost of manufacturing a single unit, and the other, spec details compared to the top of market right now. Update as I tweak.”

“Tony,” Coulson says.

Tony spares him a glance. “You still here? I said no, Agent. If you want my tech, you can buy it like everyone else. If you want my advice, speak to my secretary and schedule paid consulting time, if you can afford me. If you want Iron Man, he doesn’t give a damn anymore. Show yourself out when you’re ready, Agent. I’m busy.”

Coulson sighs. “Stark, what happened to you?”

Tony doesn’t bother answering, just keeps working, keeps adjusting his specs, keeps tweaking readings, keeps ignoring Coulson until he finally looks up and Coulson isn’t there anymore. Tony pauses for a moment, chews on his lip, then shrugs and goes back to work.

oOoOoOo

The world trucks on without his assistance, just like he knew it would. The new holo-enabled Starkpad prototype debuts at Stark Expo ‘16 to enthusiastic reception, and advance numbers are through the roof. It was a lot of sleepless nights, spending day after day in the workshop, arguing with FRIDAY about numbers and cost until he wanted to change things over to JOCASTA for a few days, just to not hear FRIDAY’s voice for a little while.

His speech at the presentation is uncharacteristically low-key, more akin to his speech at MIT than those of Expos past. He sticks to the teleprompter, doesn't go off on tangents, doesn't try to add flair and pizzazz. He introduces the product, waxes lyrical about its capabilities, reiterates its affordability to the average consumer, encourages people to visit the demo booths, and then passes the stage to the next product.

Pepper is waiting at the bottom of the stairs as he leaves the stage, clutching a Stark Industries folder against her chest like a shield. His hesitation is only a moment long, a tiny pause before he continues his descent. He can handle this. He can handle this.

“That was a good speech, Tony,” she says, but her eyes betray her anxiety, raking over him. What she’s looking for, he can only guess.

He shrugs. “I have good speech writers,” is all he says.

She smiles, and her smile is tremulous. “How’ve you been?”

A thousand answers pop into his mind, ranging from the heartbroken to the romantic to the snarky to the downright cruel, especially as her hand shifts and the light catches off the diamond in the ring on her left ring finger. He smiles, one corner of his mouth turning up in a bittersweet curve. “That’s not really your business anymore, Pep.”

“Tony,” she says, agony and worry drifting through her face. “We’re still friends.”

“That’s not a word I understand,” he replies. “Not anymore, anyway, if I ever did.” He forces his shoulders back, tips his chin up in challenge. “If that will be all, Ms. Potts?”

She sighs, slumps in defeat. “That will be all, Mr. Stark,” she murmurs, and presses a hand to her face as he passes her.

oOoOoOo

A reporter catches him coming out of the Stark Industries building in Los Angeles after an R&D meeting with the engineering department. He’s feeling surprisingly positive about his team, most of them recent MIT graduates with starry eyes and big dreams the weight of the world hasn’t yet crushed. His clean energy initiatives move forward; the energy crisis is being handled, and he’s confident he’s got the right people to bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the table in order to get the costs of the arc reactors down to manageable levels.

To find a microphone abruptly shoved into his face is, needless to say, a bit jarring. “Mr. Stark! Are you aware that Captain America and the Avengers have been pardoned by the President of the United States and have been recalled from exile?”

If the microphone was jarring, that’s a downright nasty shock. “I wasn’t, no,” he says shortly, and tries to go around her. “If you’ll excuse me.”

She moves aggressively to block his path, and his pulse pounds in his temple. “What do you have to say to those who criticize you for not responding to the threat posed by the Inhuman Maximus several months ago?”

Ah, right. Not-Dead Coulson had come to try and recruit him to do something with saving the world. His teeth clench, and he relaxes his jaw with supreme effort. “I’m just a businessman these days. I’m no longer affiliated with the Avengers Initiative, and honestly didn’t know about any Inhuman threat.”

He manages to slip around her and get a hand on his car door, but she’s not giving up so easily. The microphone comes at him from the side. “You don’t think it was cowardice to hide away in your mansion while New York and Chicago were under attack, Mr. Stark?”

He growls and turns around. “Look, you want the truth? I’ll tell you the truth, whoever you are. The world didn’t want the Avengers to continue doing what we were doing. The Sokovia Accords were drafted to curb what the public and the government saw as unlimited authority and lack of accountability, and I worked within the law until the law was repealed as unconstitutional. Now I’m retired, and the world wants me out in armor again, saving it? Sounds to me like the world needs to once and for all figure out what it really wants, because I'm sick of the yo-yo ride.”

He snaps his mouth shut and yanks open the car door, sliding into the driver seat. The reporter, undeterred and clearly smelling a larger story than the one she came out to get, catches the frame of the door before he can close it. “Sounds like you're angry, Mr. Stark. Any comments you would like to give, maybe on the schism in the Avengers?”

Rage flares up, and Tony wrestles it back. “I'm not angry,” he says, snappish. “I'm busy. Clean energy doesn't solve itself, after all.”

He yanks the door against her grip, and she lets it go. He peels out into the street and drives a little too fast back to the mansion, his good mood gone.

oOoOoOo

Bruce tries next, when the world goes to shit once more. Something about the Kree this time, and a purge they want to do to the Inhumans. Honestly, Tony is getting sick of hearing that word, sick of the endless discussion on whatever channel he turns on. Sick of whatever bullshit villain-of-the-month pops up, newly infused with fish oil and craving subjugation.

Unlike Coulson, Bruce refuses to go away when Tony ignores him. He waits, and waits, eats Tony's food and waits some more. When Tony finally, aggravatedly, grudgingly, gives him attention, Bruce just says, “Running away doesn’t fix anything, Tony. Take it from me.”

Out of all of them, Tony thought that he and Bruce had been the closest, but with time and distance and a cold, hard look at things, he realizes now that had been all a sham too. He remembers Bruce sleeping through his attempt to reach out about the whole Aldrich Killian affair. Remembers his disbelieving voice when Thor said that Tony was right. Oh, the world is definitely coming to an end. Remembers Bruce leaving without so much as a goodbye.

“I don’t have to take anything from you, Banner,” he says, and turns back to his work. They have several iterations of the same conversation over the next few days before Bruce finally throws up his hands in exasperation and leaves Tony to his holograms.

oOoOoOo

Tony laughs in Natasha’s face when she comes for him, when some magician in New York is fighting a flame demon in Central Park. “Fuck off, Romanoff,” he says, and closes the door in her face.

She gets her foot between the door and the jamb, hip-checks the door open again, and glares. “Are you done being childish, Tony?”

“I dunno, Natasha. Maybe you’re going about it all wrong. Maybe you should just stop, because I’m clearly not going to. No, wait.” He taps his chin in mock-thought. “Sorry, forgot. Only Rogers gets that courtesy.”

The words hit home, he knows when she flinches. “We need you, Tony.”

“No, you don’t,” he snarls, suddenly savage. “You don’t need me. You need my tech, my money, my tower for living space. You need my armor. None of it is available. Why don’t you go try Rhodey?”

She flinches again, more violently, and dark satisfaction surges in him. “Tony…”

It’s been dormant for months, but the armor doesn’t rust. The frame of the repulsor crawls out of his skin at lightning speed as he snaps his hand up and out, the blue-white shine bright and hot in his palm.  “Get off my property, Natasha,” he says, low and clear. “I’m done with all of you.”

She doesn’t try to stop him when he closes the door again.

oOoOoOo

He moves to Seattle to open a new plant for the new line of RT cars Stark Industries is about to unveil at the upcoming Expo ‘17, gets an apartment under an assumed name, goes low-tech for his living arrangements, wears a nano-veil when out and about. He hears about the Avengers, based once again in New York, wonders where they’re getting their funding nowadays. Decides he still doesn’t care, because he has work to do.

One day, he returns to his apartment to find Clint sitting on the couch, with a glass of water in his hand. Tony stares at him, then closes the door behind him, and gets a fingernail under the edge of the nano-mask to remove it. “Really? They’re reduced to sending you ? Don’t care, don’t want to hear what you’re peddling, not interested, fuck off.”

“I told Cap as much,” Clint mutters, then drains the water and sets the glass on the coffee table. “ Try anyway, he said. Well. I tried.” He shrugs his jacket on and moves towards the door, pauses as he draws level with Tony. “Listen, about Laura and the kids—”

“I did it for them,” Tony says, before he can get any further. “Not you. Because she deserved better than she got, and didn’t deserve what was coming.”

Clint pauses again, looks like he wants to say more, but then just swallows, nods and leaves without another word.

oOoOoOo

Eventually, Steve shows up at his door. Tony should have expected it. They’ve pretty much run down the list of people he’d entertain seeing until they scraped the bottom with Barton, so now they must be running through the list of people he never wants to see again in his life.

It’s been nearly a year since Steve left him bloody and bruised in the middle of nowhere to crawl back on his own. It’s obviously treated Steve more kindly than it has Tony. Benefits of being America’s golden child, he supposes.

Steve is leaning against the wall beside his door when he returns from the plant late on a Friday afternoon. No telling how long he’d been there either. He doesn’t smile, or hold out his hand, or do anything than straighten up as Tony approaches. “Tony. Can we talk?”

Tony doesn’t look at him as he unlocks his door. “We have nothing left to say, Captain. You want to talk business, make an appointment with my secretary. Otherwise, leave me alone.”

“Fair enough,” Steve says, and unlike the others, doesn’t try to intrude into Tony’s space, doesn’t try to stop him from shutting the door, doesn’t try to prevent him from leaving.

That night, Tony dreams of Steve’s shield bashing into his helmet again and again, biting into the armor, cutting through the arc reactor. Only the arc reactor in his dreams is still powering his heart, so when Steve kills the reactor, Tony dies too.

He wakes in the dark, cold and shivering, feeling the phantom bite of a vibranium disk slicing through his chest. He reaches for his phone, his only link to FRIDAY and the rest of the world these days. “Make sure my schedule is booked solid for the rest of the year,” he says.

“Whatever you say, boss.”

He hopes Steve will get the hint, but one thing Captain America has never been good at is changing his mind, right or wrong. His hopes are not high.  

oOoOoOo

Tony’s not sure how they conned Rhodey into coming for him next, but he has to commend them for their effort. It’s far harder to tell Rhodey no, but he does, gently and firmly. “If they need Iron Man,” he says, and presses bracelets into Rhodey’s hands, “the Mark VII is all yours.”

Rhodey shakes his head, but doesn’t try to give the bracelets back. “Hard to believe after all these years, you’re not going to suit up and hit the sky, Tones. I thought that’d be the last thing you’d be willing to give up.”

“That’s why I’m building flying cars, Rhodey,” Tony says, and claps him on the shoulder. “I can’t believe you’re willing to go back out there after all that’s happened.”

Rhodey shrugs with a grin. “Honestly, me either. Guess it’s in my blood, this superhero thing.” He looks down for a moment, then looks back up. “I know you don’t wanna hear it, Tony, but Thor says there’s a storm coming. End-of-the-world kind of stuff. These infinity stones he keeps going on about…”

“Thor’s back?” Tony says lightly. “Good deal. Sounds like you’ve got all you need to deal with whatever’s down the line. I’m rooting for you, huggybear. Popcorn and cheerleader uniforms all the way.”

Rhodey settles his hand on Tony’s shoulder, holds the back of his neck, makes sure Tony’s looking directly into his eyes. “We need you, Tony,” he says. “They’re your friends.”

Tony sighs, bumps his forehead against Rhodey’s, and then gently backs away. “You’re my friend, Rhodey. They never were. Whatever you need, you got. Just don’t ask me to come back. I can’t. I won’t. I’m done.”

“Okay, Tony,” Rhodey says with another sigh. “Okay.”

oOoOoOo

He's back in Malibu before the next attempt comes. He expecting Thor to show up, regaling him with tales of valiant warriors, or maybe Wanda, chancing that he won't turn her into a grease smear on the spot. Maybe Vision, banking on their connection through nostalgia and the long-dead JARVIS. Maybe even Peter, the only one he still communicates with, through sporadic email.

Instead, he opens his door to see Laura Barton on the other side.

He blinks, because that is not at all what he expected. She looks better than the last time he saw her, younger, less worn and pale. Wakanda had obviously agreed with her, which is good. “Laura. What are you doing here?”

She smiles faintly. “Hi, Tony. Can I come in?”

“Yeah, of course.” He steps back and pulls the door wider, to let her in. “Can I get you some tea or... “ He tries to think of the last time he had food delivered, can’t remember when it was, doesn’t know if he has anything else to offer her. “Tea?”

“No thank you,” she says. “I won’t stay long. I know you’re a busy man. I don’t want to keep you from your work.” She follows him across the floor, settles on the couch and clasps her hands over her knees. “I think you know why I’m here, Tony.”

He thought no one would be harder to say no to than Rhodey. He sighs through his nose. “Yeah,” he says, rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Listen, Laura…”

“When you came out to the farm last year,” she says, talking over him in a tone that shuts him up instantly, firm and gentle at the same time. Her Mom Voice that never fails to work. “You told me you were looking out for the little guy. Is that still true?”

He leans back in his chair, swipes a hand down his face. “I don’t know,” he says, surprised because he meant to say something else entirely. “What’s the point when the little guy doesn’t want someone looking out for them?”

For some reason, Laura just smiles, chuckles like he said something funny, and opens her purse. She pulls a thin, worn composition book out of its depths and cradles it in her hands for a moment, thumb brushing over the cover. “Lila wanted me to give this to you, Tony,” she says, and holds it out.

Tony eyes it like she’s trying to hand him a nest full of wasps, then slowly reaches out to take it gingerly. He lifts the cover, feels a lump choke his throat as he stares down at the colored pencil sketch of Iron Man fighting off men in black suits while a woman with a baby and two kids run towards what is clearly a quinjet. “It didn’t happen like that,” he says, hoarse and broken.

“Didn’t it?” Laura asks lightly, then stands and shoulders the strap of her purse. “I’m not going to try to talk you out of anything, Tony, or into anything for that matter. But it’s getting bad out there. This Thanos they say is coming…” She shakes her head. “You said you were looking out for the little guy. Well.” He looks up at her through a shimmering veil as she touches his shoulder. “I got three little guys, Tony, and they need someone looking out for them.”

“They have a superhero father,” Tony mutters, tracing a fingertip over the lines of Lila’s drawing of Iron Man.

“And they adore him,” Laura says, “but you’re their hero too. I just thought you should know that.” She blows out a breath and smiles at him. “Anyway. Like I said, I’m not going to keep you from your work. Take care of yourself, Tony.”

“Yeah. Nice seeing you, Laura.”

He doesn’t have enough composure to walk her to the door, but she doesn’t seem to mind letting herself out. He forgets his work, forgets his deadlines, loses hours just flipping through the drawings. The entire book is full of them, one page after another. Drawings of Wakanda and the Avengers, the Barton family together again. Every so often, though, there’s a drawing of Iron Man, or Tony out of the suit, having fun with the others, set down in childish skill and colored pencils. The very last page of the book has no drawing, just what is obviously very carefully printed “Thank you for helping us, Mr. Stark. I hope you like my drawings. Please come visit soon.” with a big, red, lacy heart underneath, and  an equally carefully-written cursive “Lila Barton” at the bottom.

By the time he looks up from the book, it’s almost midnight and he’s lost the full day. “Dammit,” he whispers, lifting a hand to find his cheeks wet. “Aw, dammit, Laura. That’s not fair.”

Which was her point, he supposes, flipping one more time through the book before getting out of the chair and setting it in a place of honor above the faux fireplace on the mantel.

He’s still tired of carrying the weight of everyone else’s sins and failures, along with his own. He’s still tired of being the whipping boy, the scapegoat, the face that gets blame and accusations hurled from all directions.

The weight of Laura’s three little guys, on the other hand, settles around him like a blanket. That kind of weight, he discovers, he doesn’t mind at all.

oOoOoOo
Avengers Compound, New York

Someone, he assumes Pepper, rebuilt the facility at the old compound site, made it sleek and modern, retrofitted it with the latest tech and upgrades. In hindsight, he’s glad he didn’t know, because he would have had it torn down all over again.

He flew across country in the armor, getting used to the response and feel of it all over again. Bleeding Edge is different than any of his other versions, bonding to him and responding like a part of him. It’s an adjustment, and the couple of hours’ flight time help immensely.

He’s still a ways out when his HUD tracks someone in the air who abruptly descends to the ground. Sam, he thinks after magnifying his field of view. Rhodey might be flying again, but he doesn’t have that kind of wingspan. He assumes Sam calls in his approach, lets the others know, because they come out of the compound in a stream, like ants out of a kicked hill. He circles the place once, debates just taking off again instead of dealing with this like a semi-functional adult.

“FRIDAY, who’s down there?” He can see for himself, but he’d like the tally anyway.

“Everybody, boss,” FRIDAY replies. “Everybody.”

“Alright,” he sighs. “Let’s get this over with.”

He drops out of the sky and lands fist-down in a three-point crouch twenty feet from where the Avengers have gathered. FRIDAY wasn’t exaggerating; everyone is there. The original Avengers, the new kids. A few faces he doesn’t recognize watch from the windows above, but everyone in front of him are people he knows.

Steve’s in the middle, arms folded and face unreadable. Sam and Scott on one side. Natasha and Clint on the other. Thor, Bruce. Wanda. Vision. Rhodey. Even Peter’s here, crouched overhead on the flag pole. Scott’s ex and kid. The Bartons.

He doesn’t want to be here anymore, but it’s way too late now. The armor starts retracting as he straightens, leaving him in his jeans and black t-shirt, sneakers and mussed hair, staring at the people who used to be his friends, who used to be his family.

Unbidden, Zemo’s voice rises from the depths of his mind. An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead. Forever.

No one says a word. No one moves a muscle.

And then Lila Barton breaks out from behind her father and streaks across the lawn towards him, pigtails flying and arms open and laughing delightedly. “Mr. Stark! You came!” He’s not sure exactly how it happens, but she launches herself at him and he’s got her scooped up, snugged against his hip. Her arms are around his neck and she’s hugging him like he’s her favorite uncle. “Did you like my drawings? I made them just for you.”

He has to clear his throat a couple of times before he can reply. “I did, thank you,” he says. “I’m happy I was able to help you.”

Lila pulls back, eyes impish and face serious. “Daddy cried when we got off the jet,” she says, serious as a heart attack and loud enough to carry back to the group. In the corner of his eye, he sees more than a few smirks, and then a shrug from Clint.

“What? I did. They’re my kids, man. It was emotional. Hey, ow!” With a none too gentle shove from Laura, Clint stumbles forward, turning to glare behind him. Laura arches a single eyebrow and folds her arms, and Tony’s impressed by how fast Clint caves.

Looking like a man doing the absolute last thing in the world he wants to do, Clint trudges over the lawn to where Tony’s holding Lila. “Hey man.” He smirks a little, uncertain and defensive. “Clearly retirement doesn’t suit you.”

“Got tired of playing golf,” Tony says. “Played eighteen. Missed eighteen. Just can’t seem to hit.”

Clint’s mouth twitches, and Tony can’t bite back the smile. A second later, they’re both laughing hysterically. It’s not friendly laughter, but the shared bitter humor of people who have been through heavy, brutal shit together. Tony’s practically crying by the time his guffaws die down, leaning hard on Clint, who’s leaning hard on him.

“Just so you know, I pulled the short straw to come talk to you. We are not okay,” Clint says through his smile.

“Nope, we’re not,” Tony agrees, and settles Lila more securely on his hip. She’s watching them both like she can’t believe how childish they’re being, but doesn’t seem inclined to get down from Tony’s arms. “Half a dozen cars on your head, maybe then we’ll be okay.”

“Technically, I didn’t do that,” Clint says. “That was Wanda.”

“You helped. But fine. Three for her, three for you.”

“Only if you spend a few weeks locked up in supermax.”

“Shake on it?”

Clint clasps his hand and that sets them off laughing again, accompanied by Lila’s exasperated scoff. “You and your friends are weird,” she informs them both.

“I know, honey,” Clint says and ruffles her hair. “Go back to Mom, huh?”

“Kay.” Lila kicks and Tony lets her down, then shoves his hands in his pockets and watches her go back to her brothers and mother.

“Your wife,” Tony says, without looking at Clint, “is evil and manipulative and I never want to see what happens if she tries to take over the world.”

“I know.” Clint lifts a hand and scrubs at the back of his neck. “It’s a thought that keeps me up at night, not the least because I’ll end up doing most of the work.” He shifts uncomfortably. “Listen…”

Tony rolls his eyes. “God, no. No no. We’re not talking about our feelings like grownups, Barton. Three cars on your head, a few weeks of supermax for me. We’re good then.”

“Works for me.” He side-eyes Tony. “Welcome back, by the way. No one will ever admit it, but we did miss you around here. This going to be permanent?”

“We’ll see. Trial basis.” Tony rubs his forehead, swipes a hand down his face. “So. Thanos,” he calls, raising his voice towards the group still standing like statues. “That’s a thing, I hear.” He swallows. “Need my help?”

Steve moves first, dropping his arms from their tight fold across his chest, smiles tentatively. “Yeah,” he calls back. “We were just talking about it. Come inside and take a look at what we’ve got.”

Maybe Zemo had it wrong, he thinks, moving towards the gathered Avengers and the compound, watching the skittish, wary, awkward way people are moving around one another, avoiding each other’s eyes, hesitate when they would have spoken before. But it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, when the Avengers formed in the wake of the Chitauri, reformed in the wake of Ultron. He knows suddenly that they’ll get through it. He knows for sure that Zemo was wrong.

The Avengers have never been an empire. They’re all of them a a family. Families can tear each other to shreds, rend each other bloody and raw, abandon each other and turn their backs on each other, but can somehow manage come through the worst still together. It’s still too early for Tony to say with any certainty if this will last past the looming threat of Thanos, but he’s done hiding away, nursing his wounds. He’s done not trying to heal. He’s known it for awhile, but he pushed it right to the limit.

He’s just done.