Hospitals were the worst, Tony decided. He'd never really liked them before becoming Iron Man and since then he'd spent more time in them than anyone should ever have to; it made him something of an expert.
For starters, everyone was very particular about when he was allowed to leave his bed and how many hours he should be sleeping and just what foods to have - it was maddening. He'd survived for years with a glass of scotch and an hour or two a night; just because someone decided to stick him with a knife, he was still the same guy.
Pepper was the main reason he wasn't throwing things at passing doctors yet. She kept him grounded when his mind descended into swirling chaos and she provided enough of a deterrent to stop him from running away. Whenever he even mentioned trying to get out of bed she would glare him into submission.
The rest of the team still flitted in and out but Steve continued to avoid him as much as was possible. Considering he'd been awake for sixteen days now, it was almost impressive that the soldier was still able to produce legitimate excuses to stay away from the hospital, made stranger by the fact that when Tony had been unconscious he'd stayed at his side like... like a friend. It was only when he woke that Steve turned into a shadow.
The guilt was still clawing at his insides and all he wanted now was to talk to the soldier alone, try to explain himself and hope to god that Steve was forgiving. Because if he wasn't? Tony would have just lost a friend and worse: his place on the Avengers would be gone for good. Of course, no one was actually going to kick him off the team but it wouldn't be hard to see that he wasn't wanted and why stay where he was unwelcome?
A rational part of his mind tried to tell him that it wasn't so bad. Clint, Thor and Natasha all seemed to have decided that what had happened was between Tony, Bruce and Steve and as such were ignoring it entirely, acting as though everything was perfectly fine (apart from the fact that Tony was in hospital and had almost died multiple times in the last month). Many of Tony's waking hours were filled with banter and plotting pranks with Clint, or trying to explain how the internet worked to Thor.
And then there was Bruce. Tony had half expected him to pull a disappearing act like Steve but he hadn't, preferring instead to remain at the billionaire's side in a welcome display of camaraderie. The air between them was still horribly clouded but they had come to an unspoken agreement to deal with it when Tony was eventually released from hospital.
"You look happy. Stop it. It offends me," Tony told a grinning Clint with a scowl. He was in a bad mood today (he was in a bad mood in general at the moment due to his confinement but it was worse than normal at the moment).
"Oh cheer up, it's not all that bad."
"Yes it is. If you're going to be infuriatingly optimistic, I'm going to have to ask you to remove yourself."
"Make me, Tin Can."
Tony glared at him but there was no heat in the gaze. He could already feel his temper slipping away, to be replaced with a comforting warmth that only friends could bring. "Is there a reason you're grinning like an idiot? Or are you just trying to irritate me?"
Clint's smile grew wider. "I know something you don't."
"That's sufficiently enigmatic. Thanks."
Tony was able to retain his curiosity for all of a minute. "Clint."
"Tell me," he ordered, trying not to sound petulant and failing miserably.
Clint hummed as though considering. "I don't think so. This is more fun."
Tony threw his pillow at him, inordinately pleased when the movement didn't send pain spiking through his torso. He was nowhere near healed but the intense edge to his injuries was fading, allowing him just a little bit more freedom from the memories that crowded at the back of his mind.
He was distracted from launching further projectiles by Pepper walking into the room, smiling warmly, followed closely by his doctor. The aged man nodded to the archer, who was grinning like a two year old, clutching Tony's pillow to his chest tightly.
Tony looked at them all suspiciously. "Is anyone going to tell me what's going on?"
His doctor smiled gently but ignored the question. "How are you feeling today Mr Stark?"
"Neglected. What's happening?" The doctor didn't answer him, just looked incredibly put upon. "For another thing, why does everyone call me Mr Stark? I have several PhDs. Shouldn't that make me Dr Stark?"
"We know better than to fuel your ego like that," Clint informed him, still holding the pillow. He was practically bouncing in his seat.
The doctor started flicking through Tony's chart, apparently wondering what he had ever done wrong to warrant having him as a patient. "Is there any more nausea?"
"No," Pepper answered for him as though predicting the sarcastic response Tony had prepared. "Not for a few days now."
"And the pain?"
"Much more manageable."
He scribbled a few notes down. "Ah. Well it seems that you're healing as well as we could hope for Dr Stark. Your previous bullet wound is knitting together nicely and the fracture in your arm is remarkably unaggravated. Of course, it will take far longer for your kidney and intestines to show signs of recovery but all in all, you're doing remarkably well. If you stay on the restricted diet, you should recover without any lasting effects. It's like there's someone watching over you."
Tony was tempted to point out that whatever guardian angel he might have seemed to be doing a piss poor job when he was abducted and tortured but he stopped himself. He had found that he liked this doctor - he was straight with him and not afraid to threaten him when Tony started 'misbehaving.'
"Sounds like you did a good job then," he said instead, smiling.
"You should thank the surgeons, not me but nevertheless, you're welcome. Now, down to business. I'm under the impression that unless I let you out of here soon you're going to start trying to climb out the bathroom window. No matter how amusing that might be to anyone in the general vicinity, I can't see that it would be conducive to the healing process and therefore I'm going to discharge you-" he held up a finger, glaring at Tony sternly, "-provided you go home with Miss Potts and remain there. You are not to strain yourself, deviate from your diet and I swear if I see any mention of Iron Man in the papers, I will chain you up myself."
Tony could think of a million snarky comments he could say in response to that but he turned them all down in favour of letting a smile spread across his face, honest and open. Pepper squeezed his hand, her own grin widening at the sight of him so happy.
"Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," he told him, still glowing. Clint was laughing in the corner but Tony couldn't bring himself to care. "Thanks for everything Doc."
"Just please do us all a favour and try to avoid getting stabbed a second time?"
"I'll do my best."
It was all seen to remarkably quickly after that. Tony found himself out of the hospital the next morning, followed by more threats to do everything Pepper told him and not to forget to take his medication and don't you dare drink any alcohol Mr Stark! But despite all that, it couldn't drag his buoyant mood down; he was free.
The slight downside was that he was returning to the tower and not to Malibu - the mansion was apparently a complete wreck - but it was almost fitting to return to the place it had all began. Tony was surprised at how much he had missed the place.
Of course, there was one major change that his going home brought about. His deadline had passed. His agreement with Bruce had only lasted until he was discharged and now that he had been, he couldn't run away from it anymore - he wasn't even sure that he wanted to. Running hadn't solved anything before and it wouldn't now. This was something he had to just face up to and hope that he could still be forgiven for everything he had done.
"Jarvis can you get Steve and Bruce to come here?" Tony had decided that he should just get it over with so he'd sent Pepper on an errand and gone to sit in his lab. He didn't want anyone else walking into this conversation.
"They are on their way sir," the AI said a moment later. "I should inform you that Captain Rogers expressed certain trepidation."
Tony tried and failed not to flinch. This was going to go so well.
"You know, I'm pretty sure Pepper banned you from here," Bruce said idly as he strolled in, the tense line in his shoulders betraying his discomfort.
"I'm not doing any work. I just wanted somewhere quiet to talk."
The doctor shrugged and slid into a seat not far from the billionaire but Steve seemed more hesitant. He lingered in the doorway, eyeing the pair but not looking at Tony's face, his back ramrod straight.
"You can sit down Steve," he called, trying not to let his own anxiousness flood his voice. Very slowly, the soldier sank into a chair several metres away. "So, I figure that we need to talk. Just... Please hear me out. After that, whatever you think or decide, I won't try to change your mind but please listen to what I have to say first."
"That sounds fair," Bruce told him. Steve didn't react other than his eyes flicking to the doctor and then back to the floor.
"There is nothing I can say that will justify my actions," he started. He'd tried to prepare something of a speech for this moment but he had come up empty; now he was just going to wing it and hope for the best. "I acted without thinking and in doing so I managed to convince myself that any friendship we had built was a lie. It was unfair on both of you and far less than you deserve.
"The truth is, I have trouble trusting anyone. In my life I have completely trusted a grand total of four people. Pepper is one and Happy another. The third is Rhodes. I still consider him a friend and yet when the army ordered him to steal one of my suits he did so, even though he had to go through me to get it. Of course, that was the plan but... It was still a betrayal. And I've forgiven him for it but the fact remains. The fourth..."
"Obadiah," Bruce supplied when Tony's voice failed him. The billionaire nodded slowly.
"You both know what happened there. I'm not trying to play for sympathy or pity here, anything but. My point is that in my whole life there have only been two people who haven't betrayed me in one way or another and after a while you just... You expect it. It's like there's a clock ticking in the back of my head, waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it does I know I'm going to lose it all and unless I'm prepared for it, it'll destroy me. I'm sick of losing friends.
"That was the problem I guess. When I heard - or thought I heard - you guys saying those things, it was like every nightmare scenario I'd thought of had finally come to life and I wasn't ready. So I ran because I was too weak to face that truth. Maybe had everything gone to plan, I'd have gotten to Malibu, realised I was being an idiot and come straight back. But I'm starting to realise if there's something good in my life it will find some way of going wrong sooner or later." He sighed heavily, his eyes ghosting over his friends who gave nothing away. Steve's eyes had drifted to his face though, so that was something.
"Neither of you deserved what I thought. You're both far better men than that and I will be forever sorry that I didn't realise that sooner. I just want you to know that the conclusions I jumped to are not a reflection on your characters, but on mine. And I'm sorry for all that I did. More than I have words to express." He tailed off there, letting his eyes drop to the floor and bowing his head slightly as though waiting for the execution blow. He looked so frail it was all Bruce could do not to just hug him, right then and there. But there was something else they needed to know:
"Can we listen to the recording?"
Tony flinched a little when he spoke but he looked up again and there was something like hope in his eyes. He hesitated but then nodded. "Jarvis? Is it still in your systems?"
"It is sir. One moment."
As soon as the voices started talking Tony went rigid in his chair, fingers worrying at the hem of his shirt. 'It's not real,' he told himself sternly. This was a fiction created by Tanovitch (who had apparently been caught in the crossfire when Natasha and Clint attacked Q's men - Tony's only regret there was that he hadn't killed the bastard himself) and he would not let it have the power to hurt him anymore.
By the time the recording was finished Bruce had made up his mind. "Tony, look at me." The billionaire didn't move for a moment but then his eyes slowly glided up to the doctor's face. "You don't have to apologise to me. You had no way to know that the recording was a fake - it sounded pretty damn convincing. None of this is your fault, you hear me?"
Tony swallowed, then nodded slowly. "I hear you."
Steve made a gentle noise in the back of his throat and the billionaire looked at him, tensing up again. "I'll admit, when I came down here I didn't expect this conversation to go well. I just couldn't understand how you could think so little of us that you would believe we'd turn on you so readily but... In the forties you couldn't do things like that. You couldn't make voices say things that they hadn't before and I guess I just couldn't see how something like this could happen. But hearing that... You have nothing to be sorry for Tony. Nothing at all."
That took a second to process and when it did, the billionaire couldn't quite believe it. He had been expecting that sentence to end very differently and the idea that he was being forgiven? It was more than he could have hoped for.
"You- You're serious?" He stammered.
Bruce smiled, stepping closer to hug his friend, careful of the multitude of injuries. Tony was still too stunned to return it. "Of course we are. You're our friend Tony and you can't be blamed for people like Q or Tanovitch. You've been burned before, more than anyone could ever deserve and the fact that you're willing to even try and trust us? I don't think you see how incredible that makes you."
Steve stepped forwards and joined in the slightly awkward group hug. "He's right Tony. You don't believe him but he's right. I mean, look at everything you've been through in the last, what? 32 days? And you're still standing, still willing to give us a second chance."
"You didn't do anything wrong," Tony pointed out, his voice thick with emotion he didn't want to reveal. "Can we just... start over? Pretend this didn't happen?"
Bruce chuckled, stepping back carefully. "If that's what you need. We're not going anywhere."
"Thank you. For... everything."
"Don't mention it."
Their moment was cut short when another voice suddenly filled the air. "Tony! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Pepper was standing in the doorway to the lab, hands on her hips, the very picture of rage.
"Ah, Pep, I can explain-" Tony tried, looking a little horrified. It was almost cute.
"I don't want to hear it! You're going to go back upstairs right now before I drag you by your hair."
The billionaire wasn't stupid enough to argue with her. He hauled himself to his feet carefully and made his way to the door, still limping slightly but free of crutches. Just before Pepper followed him, she turned back to the two Avengers still in the room.
"Is everything... alright now?"
Steve nodded and smiled at her. "Yes Ma'am. Everything is back to normal."
The red head suddenly seemed to straighten as though something that had been weighing on her had suddenly been lifted and her face broke into a wide smile. That one look was enough to prove just how much she loved Tony.
"Whatever you said to him: thank you."
"We just told him the truth. Sometimes, I think that's all he needs."
Three weeks later and Pepper found herself almost missing the quiet, withdrawn Tony from Malibu. He was a lot less of a handful. It was remarkable really that even with a whole in his stomach, the billionaire was still able to make her life hard - no thanks to that good-for-nothing archer who had only gotten worse during Tony's convalescence. He said it was something to do with making up for lost time.
Regardless of the cause, it ended with her being glared at by Fury as S.H.I.E.L.D agents swarmed around them, desperately trying to understand how the troublesome duo had managed to fill all the meeting rooms of the helicarrier with foam. If she hadn't been so annoyed at her boyfriend, she might have been impressed; there was a lot of foam.
Jarvis managed to direct her to Tony and Clint, who had holed up back at the tower to weather the storm. When she got there, she was greeted by the sight of the two of them trying to hide behind Bruce who just looked at her with a very put upon expression.
"I had nothing to do with it," he told her before turning back to his book.
"Agent Barton," she said in her most commanding of tones. "I believe that Director Fury is looking for you. Should I inform him of your whereabouts?" The archer actually went pale.
"Please Pep, it was just a bit of fun!" Tony tried to placate her, moving out of the doctor's shadow to stand in front of her. His arms had wrapped around her before she had time to pull away. "You have to admit, it was quite funny."
She maintained her rigid posture for another moment to preserve her image before relaxing into his hold. "How did you manage it?"
Tony chuckled, away that the battle was won. "I built some heavy duty foam machines. Feathers snuck into the air vents and planted them there. Of course, I had to do all the hard work."
"You think sneaking into the ventilation system of the most secure ship on the planet is easy?" Clint asked in mock outrage.
"Well you managed to do it. How hard could it be?"
Despite himself Bruce snorted quietly at that, earning him a look of betrayal from the archer. "I'd like to see any of you do the same!"
"I could," Natasha called from the doorway, having appeared as silently as always. "In fact, I think I have." Clint glanced around at them all but found himself without allies and threw himself into a chair beside Bruce.
"You all suck."
Tony chuckled softly. He had found that provided he didn't laugh too heartily, he remained blessedly pain free.
"Tony?" Steve called, wandering up behind Nat. "Why is Fury calling me and demanding your head on a plate?" He looked so innocently bewildered that all Tony could do was laugh harder, pressing a hand into the stitches on his stomach to try and ease the ache.
Clint laughed with him, no doubt feeling vindictively happy that he wasn't the only one about to be emasculated by Fury.
A few minutes later everyone had descended into giggles even though no one really knew why. Then Thor appeared, apparently alarmed that all his friends had gone entirely insane and Tony had to sit down so that his own laughter didn't knock him over.
It was a strange way to end such a pain filled journey but Tony was willing to take it. This was what he had almost given up, the family he almost lost, and yet here he was, surrounded by people he trusted, really trusted. As soon as he realised that, the clock ticking in the back of his head stopped.
So. Oh my god. This has been the most amazing ride people. When I started this story it was supposed to be three chapters and I didn't intend for it to be anything special - here we are, fifteen chapters and 1112 followers later and it's finally over. I know this chapter took a long time but I couldn't bring myself to write it; it's hard to leave this story behind when I'd built such a strong connection to it. But then end had to come and here it is.
I'd love to know what you all thought.
I can't thank you enough for being so supportive through all of this, you've been the most amazing readers I could ever ask for. If you want to check out the rest of my stuff, that would be great. There's a few other Avengers fics if you're interested.
So after 1 year, 1 month and 5 days, this is the end. Thank you and good bye.