In August Tony lands in hospital after he's almost given himself alcohol poisoning.
'I don't know if I should me mad at you or happy that it wasn't the drugs,' Rhodey comments as soon as he enters the room. Tony is feeling absolutely miserable, but that doesn't stop him from smiling widely when he sees his friend.
He hopes they are still friends. They haven't been exactly talking since Rhodey found out Tony was using again, sometime in April. They argued. It hurt. It hurt them both, a lot, and Rhodey said he needed space because Tony was being too much of himself.
Tony didn't get what Rhodey meant back then, but he does now. He's been pretty much obsessed with a few things, with his work and girls and with his work again, and it was all blow out of proportion and simply insane. He sees that now. He isn't sure what that means, but he sees it.
'You're only nineteen, Tony,' Rhodey says quietly, sitting on the hospital bed next to Tony's stretched legs. 'Only nineteen. When we met, I was twenty. Why a are you doing this? What are you trying to achieve? Who are you trying to impress?'
Howard, Tony thinks. Obie. The whole world.
'Dunno,' he replies.
'Bullshit,' Rhodey says quickly and stares.
'Bullshit,' Tony agrees after a few long moments and lets his head fall onto the pillow, closing his eyes. He feels Rhodey's warm hands wrapping around his wrists tightly but not forcefully.
'What are you running away from?' Rhodey finally asks and Tony feels a painful know forming in his gut. Rhodey always sees through him and always figures Tony out. Sometimes Tony envies him this understanding people thing.
'Myself,' Tony replies almost inaudibly. 'My name,' he adds, because that makes more sense. If he can talk about sense of his pointless thoughts.
Rhodey sighs, shifts for a few moments, Tony hears two soft thuds, and then Rhodey is lying next to him on the bed, tickling Tony's leg with his warm foot dressed in soft cotton sock.
'Does anyone else know you're here?'
'Cassandra. She's my girl now.'
'Sure she is,' Rhodey sighs and wraps his arm around Tony, careful not to disturb the IV line going into the cannula in Tony's arm. 'Then I'm not going anywhere and I'm no listening to your protests.'
'You shouldn't stay with me,' Tony does protest, but Rhodey lifts up his head and glares.
'Damn right I shouldn't,' he replies. 'But I will.'
'So maybe this was a mistake,' Tony says when Rave pulls up in front of a small watermelon-red house, differencing only in color from endless lines of similar houses on both sides of the streets. Suburbs.
'Just tell me where we are exactly and I think I'll go,' Tony explains, shifting uncomfortably, but doesn't open the car's door. Rave blinks a few times and then sighs.
'You said you were okay with coming and that you didn't want to go back to where you came here from.. Changed you mind already?'
'I don't want to impose,' Tony explains, looking away. Because whichever way he decides to take this time: try a withdrawal again or just go with the flow and take drugs and be happy, it won't be pretty and he really shouldn't force random people to be involved.
'You can stay as long as you need.'
'What the fuck are you, a good Samaritan or something?' Tony asks before he can filter his words, at least. Rave offers him a wide smile instead of being offended.
'You could say so,' Rave laughs lightly. 'But you are free to do whatever you want.'
'But we are complete strangers –'
'That we are,' Rave agrees, but makes it sound as if it didn't mean anything.
'I don't understand you,' Tony states with a frown because no, in his world people do not do nice things to other people scooped from a street. It might happen in books or movies or maybe in someone else's life stories, but not in Tony's.
'Maybe you will,' Rave laughs softly. 'I hope you will.'
There is a moment of silence before Rave speaks up again.
'So, will you come in?'
'… okay,' Tony agrees and gets out of the car.
The house is small and neat and it feels homey as soon as Tony takes a step inside. It fits his vision of the person Rave is perfectly. Everything about the man just feels like it makes sense, like it's exactly the way it should be and like he's the most internally integrated man Tony has ever seen.
'Just stay for the night, if you want to go away soon. I'll cook. We can talk or watch a movie or do anything you want,' Rave says, taking off his jacket and walks up to the sink to wash his hands.
'I –' Tony starts, but before he gives Rave an answer, he takes a moment to listen to what he's body is telling him; the headache is finally gone after a short nap he took in the car and he can focus on something for once. It's difficult to say precisely, but he'd guess he didn't have any drugs in his system for at least three-four days, that means he's been half-conscious through the worst part of comedown and withdrawal and – that's remotely reassuring.
Even if he wishes he could just fucking remember what happened.
'I could eat,' he says finally, offering Rave a small smile. 'I can help, too, just…' he trails off, glancing at his dirty clothes.
'Bathroom's upstairs,' Rave replies easily. 'I'll leave some clothes for you by the door, and I'll be here in the kitchen. Good?'
'Yeah, thanks, Samaritan,' Tony says and then disappears into the hall and makes his way upstairs. There is a bath and a shower and Tony quickly sheds his clothes and steps into the bath without hesitation; shower might remind him of safety, but it's not the kind of safety he's looking for now. And it brings back memories.
He washes himself quickly and then, wrapped with a fluffy towel, snatches the clothes Rave left for him and puts them on, they're one or two sizes to big – he's skinny, coke and food don't mix well – but they fit, just a little bit loosely.
'Smell lovely,' he says as he gets down. Rave is stir-frying some vegetables in a wok; there is a pot with rice on the stove.
'Glad you like it. Allergies? I should have asked earlier –'
'Not at all,' Tony replies and takes a moment to look around the kitchen before guessing in which cupboard plates, glasses and crockery are kept. He guesses right. It's predictable.
'Are you okay? You look tired.'
'I am. Just a bit,' Tony replies truthfully. He can do that much, Rave invited him into his home, so it only seems fitting to repay him with honesty. It's a refreshing feeling. Tony's been living lies, or rather one big lie like an undercurrent of everything he's been doing for a few months.
It is exhausting.
When the food is done, they set the dishes on the table and Rave says a prayer. Tony hangs his head down and waits in silence until the man is done.
'I'll be going tomorrow morning,' Tony declares when they sit down.
'You going back home?'
Tony snorts. Home. Sure.
But then, he doesn't know. He might just stay in a hotel in San Francisco, somehow that feels like a better idea than going back to Malibu or New York. That's what he's done to his life: he doesn't even want to lay his eyes on his home. Even if he misses his bots and JARVIS like breathing.
'Isn't there anyone who could come to get you? So that you wouldn't be alone?' Rave asks when they are almost done with the food and Tony realizes he didn't answer the previous question.
'Sorry,' he murmurs, putting his cutlery away. 'I'm – I'm just unsure. I don't know,' he takes a few deep breaths. 'Not really, no. Not at the moment.'
Rave stares at him blankly, Tony can't guess at all what the man is thinking, but it doesn't bother him. He feels safe and it's so strange. He doesn't understand himself anymore. And he is over forty, he should have figured it out a long time ago.
It's Toma's fault, it's circumstances' fault, but most of all, it's his fault.
'I'm just feeling really bad about letting you go,' Rave says and then makes a face. 'That sounds silly, but you know what I mean.'
'Do I?' Tony questions, looking away. He knows the answer, yet he selfishly wants to hear the words aloud, so that they will feel real and not like his imagination.
'Has no one ever taken care of you?' Rave shakes his head, Tony sees that out of the corner of his eye, and pushes his plate away. 'I found you passed out in a street and I feel like if I let you go, it'll end the same way. You don't deserve that. I don't want you to get hurt.'
'Do you really care?' Tony asks, curiously, looking up.
He knows he's being ridiculous and childish, but that's all he knows how to be now. It doesn't hurt anymore.
'I do,' Rave says firmly. 'Otherwise I'd have just left you there. I might not know why you were there and what happened, but I don't care. I don't want to leave you alone.'
'… there is someone,' Tony says after a moment. Of course there is and there has been all the time, but Tony didn't even think about that because it's too selfish and humiliating and too terrible. 'But he's, uhm, not around.'
'He's military. Kind of top secret stuff. He's in Middle East and there's a mission, he's almost unreachable, there's a lot of confidentiality around that…' Tony stops there, trying not to think about Rhodey. None of the Avengers – not even Pepper – could contact Rhodey is regard to the situation with Tony. They're not exactly friends with the colonel. It's always been Tony and Rhodey only, their friendship operating on a different level of everything.
Rhodey is due home in three months.
'That's tough,' Rave comments, running a hand through his hair and messing it a bit.
'Everyone else kind of made me leave home because they didn't understand that I needed time, and that – that some decisions, I just have to make by myself and that's it. The decision is the most difficult and the most important part of the whole process. Been there.'
'So where do you go from here? Now?' Rave asks and Tony wants to laugh because the man can honestly ask about the exact things Tony can't figure out.
'I can't go any lower,' he comments, looking at his hands. 'You know, that passing out in a fucking street. I don't know, it's just, it's never been –'
'It got out of hand?'
'You could say that,' Tony chuckles darkly. 'Someone died, and then it just went –' he trails off and waves his hand pointlessly.
'You should call your friend,' Rave says quietly, with a worried frown on his forehead. 'Contact him, somehow. Is this an emergency? Do you feel suicidal?'
'Suicidal? No, no,' Tony replies quickly and doesn't let himself dwell on that too much.
'It's easier sometimes to let yourself hit your lowest place because then there's no other way but for things to get better,' Rave says, fixing his soft stare on Tony. 'But it's easier to embrace hopelessness and tell yourself that there's no way out. There always is. And there are things that you can't do alone, even if you have to make the decision and it's the toughest part.'
'Are you asking me if I'm ready for that?'
'Am I?' Rave answers with a question and Tony cracks a small smile.
'I don't want to fail again,' Tony mumbles finally. He doesn't exactly want to look up and see Rave's disappointed face.
'You're an idiot,' Rave replies and Tony can't help but to stare at him, wondering what brought this on so suddenly. The man's voice is serious and almost cheerful at the same time. 'You can do everything.'
'Has no one told you that before? You can,' Rave says and he sounds completely convinced.
Tony is sure Rave knows his real name and that he's perfectly aware of all Tony's affairs, just like the rest of the world, but he still says the words that aren't exactly what something he hears every day.
'Then I will,' he says and smiles. Rave smiles back.
His own words feel genuine, even if a little bit rushed, and for the first time in months he knows it's the truth and he believes himself.
The next morning Tony doesn't go away. Instead, he eats breakfast with Rave and goes back to sleep because he's exhausted. He spent half of the night staring at the ceiling, afraid to go to sleep, unable to let himself fall into the dreamland.
He didn't dream. A blessing, for once.
The next time he wakes up it's noon and he hears a sewing machine running downstairs, but before going down he takes a long bath and tries to organize his thoughts somehow. It's tough, thought, his head is a mess and his body is sluggish because it's that phase of withdrawal already, when he's slowly starting to itch for another dose of the drug, simultaneously falling into tired lethargic state in which everything seems impossible and exhausting and he wants to laugh at his declaration of yesterday, but he's not going to.
He can't keep going like that forever, in cycles. He's been there. Either he stops now or he doesn't for a long, long time.
It's good to have someone watching over him, even if he feels guilt laying heavy in gut because he's basically using his good Samaritan. But Rave hinted that he doesn't trust Tony with himself and Tony knows he's perfectly right.
When he does finally go downstairs, he stand in the doorway and stares at Rave working for a few moments before the man notices him. There are a few unfinished pieces of clothing laying around and there is a shelf in the back of the room filled with rolls of fabrics of different kinds and colors.
Tony realized he didn't even ask what Nate does for a living, or anything at all. Now he has at least one answer.
'Did you figure anything out?' Rave asks when he takes his foot off the pedal and the room is silent all of sudden.
'Uhm,' Tony grunts and shrugs.
'You keep saying that –'
'Because I mean it,' Rave cuts in, turning the dress he was sewing inside out in few skilled movements. It's burgundy, knee length and elegant and it look really good. Pepper would love it. 'Call your friend. Tell him to come to you.'
'I can't just interfere with his life like that,' Tony replies, rolling his eyes, because hello. He might have fucked up, but he doesn't have to add being a problem for Rhodey to the list of his faults.
'Would you come always across the world if he needed you?'
'Don't try the backwards psychology on me,' Tony says, crossing his arms and wrapping his fingers around his arms so tightly that it's probably bruise, but he can't make himself stop. 'And it's different. I do what I want. He has superiors he need to listen to.'
'There are more important things than work and your own life, even if it's all a matter of national security or whatever. You should know that. Everyone should know that.'
'You're a pain in the ass, you know it?' Tony asks, staring at Rave who smiles.
'So I've been told. But I'm also right.'
'Okay,' Tony agrees and watches Rave work for a few minutes before going back upstairs, to a guest room he's been occupying. He thinks and think and thinks, trying to keep his thoughts on safe tracks, but he's failing miserably. Things just seem impossible.
When Rave enters the room maybe two hours later, he's holding his cell phone with a very baffled look on his face, but he freezes as soon as he takes a step inside.
'I knocked,' he states into the space, the worried frown back on his forehead, as he notices Tony lying on the bed and crying. 'Hang on,'
That's what withdrawal does to him: he's an emotional mess. For a few weeks. It's like his body just can't keep it together and he breaks into million pieces, and he's never let anyone see him like that but two people. And one of them is dead.
'I'm just –' Tony starts, but Rave waves at him and shakes his head.
'Do you need anything? Water? Can I do something?'
'No, thanks,' Tony replies, wiping the tears quickly.
'There's a call for you,' Rave says, explaining the presence of the phone. 'I have no idea how they got my phone number, but it's for you. He says his name is Jarvis.'
Tony lets out a nervous chuckle, closing his eyes for a long moment. JARVIS. Of course it's JARVIS.
'Is he the friend from across the world?'
'What? No,' Tony answers and sits up. 'I'm sorry for that –'
'Don't be. Talk to him,' Rave replies, handing Tony the cell phone. Tony takes it with a little bit of reluctance and inhales and exhales deeply before speaking up. Rave is already gone.
'Don't do this, J. You're freaking the man out. What did you use?'
'Mister Rave Tyler is a public person, sir,' JARVIS replies, sounding more offended than relieved, but it's just a game. He knows what Tony likes and what he hates and always acts accordingly. And Tony hates pity. 'There was footage from a security camera, with you and him in a car. I checked the plate numbers and found the telephone number.'
'You're a god, J,' Tony breathes and laughs lightly. It's a bit hysterical, but he doesn't care.
'I was worried, sir.'
'Did you –'
'I did not inform anyone about the situation,' JARVIS assures Tony. 'You would leave for longer periods of time without telling me before, so I had no reason to, not until twenty-six hours ago I sent a text message to your phone and you didn't reply.'
Tony nods to himself; he always replies to JARVIS' texts immediately or as soon as possible. And after an hour or two without a response, the A.I. would figure something is wrong.
'Are you well, sir?' JARVIS asks, more softly this time. Tony considers.
'I'm a fucking mess, J. I'm sitting in a complete stranger's house, wearing his clothes and crying in his fucking bed and I can't even make myself get up and pull myself together because you know the symptoms. Emotional liability, I think they call it professionally.'
The words are easier to say that Tony thought they would, but it's JARVIS. JARVIS is a special case and he's always been. Tony still hates himself for worrying the A.I. though.
'Are you well, sir?' JARVIS asks again, stressing the word, and Tony wants to smack himself for not answering the real question.
'I haven't had anything for – four days. Five days. Something like that, I don't remember, it's a long story, I –'
'Don't worry, sir. There is no rush.'
'… I want it to end,' Tony finds himself whispering into the phone and it hurts everywhere when he says that. 'J.'
'I'm contacting Colonel Rhodes in a moment –'
'Don't,' Tony tries to protest, but he knows JARVIS too well.
'I am, sir. Unless you want to tell someone else to come for you and wait for them to understand. Which you won't do. And you don't have to tell Colonel Rhodes anything.'
'There is so much I've got to tell him,' Tony whispers again, feeling really exhausted all of sudden. The sole thought of telling Rhodey everything, of hurting his friend like that so much, it's just overwhelming.
'I'm contacting him, sir,' JARVIS says without any trace of question in the statement. 'Will you be coming home now?'
'No.' Again, Tony finds himself saying this before he can really think.
But no, he's not. If he did, he's just – he'd just do the same. He's not strong enough.
'I will send a courier with a phone for you to Mister Taylor's home address then. Expect it in the evening, sir. It will be much more convenient to have you close by.'
'Missed you too, J, baby,' Tony says before he ends the call. Knowing JARVIS, the phone will be here as soon as possible. It would be even quicker, but the A.I. knows better than to try to land a jet in Rave's backyard, which he totally could do.
Tony takes a moment to clean himself up, feeling a bit better after hearing JARVIS' voice, and goes downstairs to give the phone back to its owner.
'So you have another friend,' Rave says as soon as he hears Tony's footsteps. He's in the sewing room again, this time looking though a giant box filled with endless kinds of buttons. It's kind of fascinating, even if Tony is not really a fashion guy; he lets his tailors do everything for him.
'Why can't he come? He's certainly resourceful, finding you at my place like that.'
'If by resourceful you mean creepy, then yes,' Tony offers and sits down on one of the spare chairs. 'I owe you honesty and I want to tell you, but I need you to keep this secret,' he adds after a longer moment, subconsciously knowing that it's okay to say that aloud, that Rave won't do anything to endanger J.
'You've got my word.'
'JARVIS is not a friend. He's my kid,' Ton says and Rave turns around sharply. 'No, no, not like that – he's an A.I. I wrote, therefore my baby. He's a sweetheart. And he can run a facial recognition sequence, a bit like in those crime movies? He was looking out when he realized I disappeared. And he can't come because he doesn't have a body.'
'Sounds like a friend to me,' Rave states, and goes back to his search.
'Well, I'm not that surprised by the whole A.I. idea,' Rave admits easily. 'And what about your other friend?'
'JARVIS will message him.'
'I'm glad,' Rave smiles this time and Tony feels lighter. It's good to make someone smile instead of worry or get angry.
The delivery arrives around eight p.m. and as soon as Tony opens the box, he calls JARVIS and sets up a teleconference, so that JARVIS can see for himself that Tony is okay. As okay as it gets, given the situation.
'Colonel Rhodes will come to get you in approximately twenty-two hours, sir,' the A.I. states and Tony feels a smile creeping onto his face. He tries his best ignore the feeling of guilt he has about this.
'Thanks, J,' Tony murmurs, getting under the blanket. 'Are the babies okay?'
'They are,' JARVIS assures Tony and the phone instantly shows Tony a view of the Malibu workshop from one of the A.I.'s cameras, the three bots are visible and working. JARVIS the big brother is perfect.
Tony puts the phone on the bedside cabinet, leaving the connection on, plugs the phone to electricity so that the battery doesn't die, and falls asleep, murmuring things to JARVIS and staring at his baby bots dealing with their work in the empty 'shop.
True to JARVIS words, Rhodey knocks on Rave's door a few minutes to six the next afternoon, and then Tony opens the door – he's been tracking Rhodey's phone's GPS signal to know exactly when the colonel would arrive – Rhodey is in front of him in one big step and wraps his arms around Tony, hugging him tightly.
'Thank you for taking care of Tony, Mister Tyler,' he says when he finally unwraps himself from around Tony, nodding at the younger man standing a few steps behind. 'I'm sorry for all problems you might have had –'
'There haven't been any, colonel. Everything was fine. I'm happy I could help.'
'So, Tony, you don't have anything with you –'
'No luggage, but, uhm, we though you could step in and eat dinner with us? I helped,' Tony says, smiling at Rhodey weakly. Rhodey is looking at him with this piercing anxious look.
'Of course,' he agrees and then they eat. Both Rave and Rhodey tell some stories while Tony sits there, listening and focusing on their voices because it's easier to ignore the cravings and the anxiety.
It's the drug, though. It's not Tony. That's one thought Tony is trying very hard to keep in his mind. Rhodey used to tell him that all the time and it kind of stuck, even if not consciously.
They talk and eat and Rhodey offers Rave a brief explanation of his job, which the younger man finds fascinating. It's nice. Tony sometimes forgets that superheroes and spies and secret stuff is not everyone's everyday life.
They don't stay for the night, though. Tony promises to give Rave a call in a few days and then they get into Rhodey's car and Rhodey them to Malibu because that' what Tony wants. If he has Rhodey, than everywhere is good because Rhodey will not let him anywhere near drugs of any kind, not even painkillers. Not at the moment.
Tony falls asleep soon; his dreams are erratic and Rhodey wakes him up a few times, but in the end they do get to Malibu and Tony and Rhodey both climb into the big bed without taking their clothes off, and then they sleep.
Tony spends the whole year doing his third PhD, only because otherwise he's be bullied into working for Stark Industries already: he is a big boy. He is twenty now and that's supposed to mean something. It really doesn't, he still can't legally buy booze and everything else stays the same.
There are ups and downs.
Rhodey spends most of the year in various places all around the world, in Japan and Germany and Iraq and some islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
He makes Tony call him twice a week at least and when Tony doesn't, he calls so many times that Tony gets mad and disconnects the phone in his apartment in Boston.
Rhodey knows Tony is still using cocaine and he knows that Tony tried to stop, but he can't because his body is so used to the drug that when it's deprived if it, it's a terrible and painful experience and a real disaster and Tony can't put himself together for weeks, and eventually he grows tired of fighting and just gives in to his lethargic body and the cravings.
He tries to stop two times that year and he realized that Rhodey was right. He should have never started. He's reaching his limits right now, not sleeping, eating little, his thoughts are too tangled for himself to understand them, too quick to be written down.
There isn't a girl. There are some whores he fucks but there isn't a girl, or a boy or anyone.
It's just him and the drug and she's the mistress and Tony hates it.
When Tony wakes up, after sleeping longer than usually, but that's expected given his body's needs and waking up several times throughout the night, Rhodey is not there. Tony can smell something fried from the kitchen, so he crawls out of bed and makes his way straight to down the stairs and into the room.
'Morning,' Rhodey greets him and puts two plates on a table, filled with toast, sausages and cubed tomatoes.
'Hey, honeybear,' Tony replies wearily and sits down. It's going to be a long day, he knows that already, and it makes him anxious and irritated, even though he knows everything that's going to happen for the next few days or weeks is to help him.
'Eat,' Rhodey orders him and pours two glasses of juice.
'I am,' Tony replies, his mouth filled with toast. Rhodey nods with satisfaction and starts to eat, too. They stay silent for a few long minutes, but as soon as they're done with the food, Rhodey gives Tony The Look.
It's been several months since the last time, after the Chitauri attacked. It's a worried and disappointed look that Tony hates as much as he deserves it, every single time.
'I thought we had a deal, Tony,' Rhodey says, but his words are softer than someone else might have expected. Rhodey knows Tony too well to be angry with him.
'I know, but –'
'You're an idiot.'
'I know that, too,' Tony admits, looking at his knees, but Rhodey doesn't let him. He stands up, takes Tony's hand and leads him to the living room and makes him sit on the sofa and look straight at him.
'You were supposed to give me a call if anything happened. You know that I would have answered, no matter what. Not even my superiors would stop me from contacting you, Tony. You know you guys, the superheroes, are above the rules – it took me as much as a sentence including your name to have a jet ready in two hours.'
'I haven't been much of a superhero,' Tony says quietly, but Rhodey still doesn't let him look away. Tony really, really wants to just disappear right now, just curl up in a ball and disappear, because thinking about everything he's done – and everything he hasn't done – it's like torture.
'So I've heard. But I thought you just needed space.'
Tony actually laughs at that, the sound is high and dry and sad, but he doesn't mind.
'Only you would think that,' he says when he's calmed down a bit. Rhodey is staring at him with a strange look on his face. 'I don't think there is anyone else who'd be fine with me just casually stopping my superheoring. Well, in fact, I know that they aren't fine.'
'But you did it anyway. And moved to Malibu.'
'You're the only one to get that, too –'
'I would, I lived through you staying in Tokyo for four months after you left for a two-day conference because you claimed the hotel had the best air conditioning ever.'
'– even Pepper though I was –' Tony trails off, rubs his face and takes a deep breath.
'That you were?...'
'We had a row,' Tony sighs, slightly frustrated, looking down at his hands in his lap.
'What did they do?'
'They didn't – how did you know it was them, not her?'
'You've lived with your bunch of heroes for a few months. Of course they'd be involved. They always seem to be involved in all kinds of stuff.'
'They caught me pretty high one day. Freaked out. Wanted to have me taken to rehab and all that. But – I am a fucking grown man, Rhodey. I am. I know I don't act like it sometimes and I know that you can't trust an addict and that it's not something you can rationalize anyhow, but I've been there, you know? You know. You know all too well. And you know I need to be ready to make a decision. It can't be just… forced.'
'God,' I really do know that,' Rhodey says, shaking his head, but doesn't take his eyes off Tony.
'So I went to Malibu. I was fine and then I wasn't and it just… it ended at Rave's.'
'Tony,' Rhodey states firmly. 'Eyes on me. Good genius. Are you ready now? Are you ready to move on? Right now?'
'I want to be,' Tony laughs again, tilting his head back until it rests on the sofa's back and he's staring at the white ceiling. 'God, how much I want to be… I think I am. As ready as I can imagine myself be.'
'Good,' Rhodey replies and shifts a bit next to Tony, sitting arm in arm with him. 'I need you to tell me what happened. Exactly. Everything.'
'I know,' Tony whispers again, ignoring the sudden wave of nausea that fills his body when he thinks of Toma's smile and happy eyes and how he stretched out his arm without protest, like a rag doll. And he talks, but he starts when he was back. He starts with what has happened when he was finally released out of the medical care at the tower and let back into the Avengers.
Rhodey listens carefully and doesn't interrupt, even if he looks twice like he was going to say something, when Tony recounts him the row he had with everyone when they found out, and then when he mentions the girls that tied. He doesn't let himself think her name. It's terrible of him, but it's easier.
'Okay,' Rhodey sighs deeply when Tony is finally done, having arrived to the point when he talked to JARVIS at Rave's. Tony's throat is dry and sore and he's pretty much trembling, it's anxiety and embarrassment and the withdrawal messing with his body combined. Rhodey doesn't mind. He's seen all that and worse, even if it was twenty years ago. 'You need to tell me what the problem is. Was. Initially,' Rhodey adds, moving a bit again and fixing a hard stare on Tony. It's not judgmental, but it's firm.
'I couldn't stop.'
'I couldn't work.'
'Before that, too.'
'I couldn't focus. And I had things to do. Important stuff.'
'Nothing is important enough to do this to yourself, you moron, you complete and total moron. I'll just resign from the army and become your babysitter, I swear. You're impossible.'
'You should have told someone.'
'The thing that you're not telling me and that they didn't know about. From before you couldn't focus. From before everything. The moment things got messed up?'
'I –' Tony starts, swallows, shakes his head and feels so fucking much like running, but Rhodey's arm is still wrapped around his shoulders; Rhodey put it there some time ago and Tony didn't really notice.
'Hey, it's okay,' Rhodey tightens the hug and gives Tony a long look. 'I'm not leaving you. Whatever happened, I'm going to help you deal with it, but you have to let me in. I'm not going anywhere and you don't have to be scared. You know that.'
'Yeah,' Tony says and closes his eyes.
'You okay?' Rhodey asks quietly. 'JARVIS, have one of the bots bring us cold water and make us tea.'
'Of course, colonel,' the A.I. replies quickly and Rhodey takes his arm away, only to sit in front of Tony again, face to face.
'You're pale and sweaty. And you're looking away from me. You're scaring me, Tony.'
'Let me fucking help you, my lone gunslinger,' Rhodey murmurs and Tony smiles for a second at the name Rhodey's been calling him for decades now, since he got the glimpse of how much of a lone man Tony can be sometimes. Most of the time, when he's not pretending.
'It wasn't me,' Tony blurts out and closes his eyes. Rhodey's arm finds its way back onto Tony's back and a moment later his face is buried in Rhodey's chest and he's curled up and nested between Rhodey's body and the sofa.
'It wasn't you?' Rhodey repeats softly, waiting for the rest of the story.
'It was Toma,' Tony says, his voice almost trembling, muffled by Rhodey's clothes. 'The guy who kidnapped me, it was him. I didn't – I never wanted, I begged him not to, but he knew I used to, he knew and he knew how to make it all come back and I couldn't do anything, I had to let him, and then –'
'Calm down,' Rhodey whispers into Tony's hair. 'Hey, calm down. I've got you. It's fine. All right? It's fine. You don't have to tell me anything more if you don't want to.'
'I want,' Tony says, ignoring the nausea acting up again. He'll be fine. He will.
'Does anyone know?'
'JARVIS knows bits and pieces. Sorry, J,' Tony adds. JARVIS has been everything Tony has ever dreamed of, and more. And Tony is aware he hurt the A.I. with his evasiveness and his actions, and, maybe most of all, by cutting JARVIS out.
'Breathe, Tony,' Rhodey reminds him.
'I am,' Tony replies, but does take a deep breath, just in case, and then he talks and he doesn't even bother to mind when he's shaking or crying or acting like a baby and a sissy, because it doesn't matter. Rhodey doesn't mind. Rhodey knows.
When Tony finishes, they sit in silence for a few long minutes, listening to each other's breathing, and it's Rhodey to speak up first.
'Tony, you really shouldn't have lied about that.'
'I know. But I couldn't – I couldn't tell them. It's that – I just couldn't.'
'I get it,' Rhodey replies and Tony knows that he does understand. 'You should never be ashamed of being hurt. We had this talk countless times; I know you're a total badass and you own half of the world, but man, you're only human.'
'I'm a superhero,' Tony reminds Rhodey, because it seems like something big. Like something to hold onto, even if he stopped saving the worlds a few months earlier.
'So you built yourself a suit of armor and saved the world with it. That's amazing, but that doesn't mean you're any less vulnerable than any of us.'
'I know I made bad decisions that landed me here,' Tony says, avoiding s direct reply to Rhodey's words. Rhodey approves of the admission, he can tell. Rhodey's always been one for total honesty with yourself and Tony knows it works, but sometimes he's too much of a coward. 'But I want to fix it now, okay? I want to go back to before. I don't want to do this anymore. I don't.'
'I believe you,' Rhodey assures him. 'And I'm here. As long as you need. They'll let me stay if it's an Iron Man situation. Is it an Iron Man situation?'
Tony smiles weakly at the hidden question. He's been honestly thinking about that and despite everything that has happened, he can't really imagine going back to permanently not being Iron Man. He misses it so fucking much.
'Yeah, I think it is.'
'Well then, I'm staying with you for a few weeks and I'm gonna make sure you're fine. JARVIS, are there any drugs in the house?'
'Sir threw all of them out before he left,' JARVIS supplies and Rhodey actually looks proud. Tony doesn't blame him for asking the A.I., he wouldn't trust himself if he were Rhodey. Not yet. Not completely.
'You'll need to tell them,' Rhodey adds when they are both on their feet and stretching their back and legs after sitting in strange positions for so long. 'Or I can tell them for you.'
'You shouldn't –'
'I know, theoretically, you should be the one to tell everyone and fix everything by yourself, even if with help, because that's how things work and that's how you make things right. But you are not the one to blame here. You were an idiot when you were eighteen and taking too damn much drugs, but now, you are the victim.'
Tony flinches at that word and Rhodey notices, of course.
'You need to come to terms with that, too.'
'I'll try,' Tony promises. 'I will.'
The third doctorate is never finished. It takes longer than the previous two because Tony's doing a much complex work that includes experiments and endless trials and failures and it takes time. More often than not he's taking his time what means wasting his time. He's talking himself into insanity and having dreams so vivid that he wakes up drenched in sweat and wonders if they really were just dreams because they certainly don't feel like just dreams. It's just a step away from paranoia and two steps away from hallucinations and Tony is slightly surprised it took him that long to get to this point.
It seems like a few people notice something is off with him, but then the world is not ready for Tony Stark, drugged or not. So Tony ignores them.
Rhodey is still there and back, always training, always having something here or somewhere else, always moving, in in a way Tony envies him so much because he's doing something meaningful with his life. He's doing something with his life and it's enough. And Tony is still buried deep under the research that just won't come together and he's losing himself.
At some point he spends five days – after checking himself in – on a mental ward because he scared himself with his thoughts. He doesn't tell Rhodey until half a year later and Rhodey reacts the way he always does: he hugs Tony close and whispers to him that it's gonna be okay, as if his words had some magical power.
'I'm going to be home for a few long months after this one training,' he says in November. 'Just hang in there and I'm gonna be here for you. I can't stop now. I wish I could, you know that, right? I wish I could be with you. I don't hate anything more than seeing you sinking deeper and deeper, Tony. Just hang in there.'
'I'm that pathetic,' Tony laughs because the drug makes him giddy and excited and energetic. 'I'm gonna be here, but you don't need to come. I did this to myself.'
'You didn't,' Rhodey protests. Tony laughs again.
'Sure I did. You told me to be smarter and I wasn't.'
'You know what I read once somewhere?' Rhodey asks and Tony narrows his eyes at him. 'That you always have to remember that an addiction is a response to being hurt in one way or another. People that are perfectly okay won't turn to drugs. It's always looking for something you can't find, it's always running, and it's not your fault, It's the fault of what hurt you.'
'That's kinda silly,' Tony declares.
'Maybe. But it's true, too,' Rhodey counter and they both know he's right.
But it doesn't help. Tony only feels like the older he gets, the more conscious he is about everything, and he wants to run away even farther but there is no running away now.
And then in December Howard and Maria die in a car accident.
Rhodey comes back from his training-whatever even though he's in the middle of it. He takes Tony's hand and leads him and guards him for the next few days. Stark family lawyers and assistants and all the other people take care of the funeral.
Tony doesn't remember the ceremony much. He knows he didn't cry. That much he knows.
A few days later he tells Rhodey that he's going into rehab because he has to and he wants to. He leaves everything behind, his temporary girlfriend, the doctorate, his apartment, everything, and swears to himself never to go back. He doesn't.
It takes months for Tony to get his shit together, but when he finally comes back to the real world, he is a different person. He knows what he has to do, he remembers what he dreamed about when he was getting his previous doctorates and that's his motivation: he's an idealist. A futurist. He's been wasting those gifts on some random half-useless theoretical research, but now it's time to announce his presence, make up for all the lost years and rule the world.
With Rhodey as his shadow, always, feeding his ideas, and with Obie reminding him of the reality, he's going to make it work.
Tony and Rhodey spend five weeks in Malibu, managing Tony's irritation and depression and sleep problems and everything that is called the withdrawal phase – up to ten weeks, according to professional books. They manage cravings, during which Tony hates himself more than anything else and hides standing in the shower under a stream of hot water, in a dark room, but Rhodey is always there. Sometimes he lays in the floor, trying to distract himself from the pull by the freezing touch of marble underneath his body and sometimes he loses himself to his work and designs for eight hours straight, until his eyes and his back hurt like hell, and Rhodey is always there and he lets him.
But in the end the cravings go away, mostly, the little scarce annoying ones can stay with Tony for a few more months, but he's good. He'll be good. He knows he can manage them.
It's amazing to feel like a human again, not like a fucking animal. To be in control of yourself, in a complete and breathtaking control of your life that's not a deception and doesn't mean you've got to fight with yourself all the time to keep up your appearance.
It feels great to a simple and honest self, losing the cocoon of hatred and suffering. It's beautiful to respect yourself, and it feels like healing.
Tony sends a message to Pepper telling her that he's okay and cleaning himself up and that he's with Rhodey. Pepper calls him back and talks for half an hour, cursing him for disappearing and making her heart stop and scaring her like that, alternated with apologies for the row and no coming after him, even though they both know that even if someone did want pay him a visit, Tony wouldn't let them in.
He tells Pepper that he will come back to New York in a few weeks and that's what he really plans to do.
He calls Rave, too, and assures the man that he's doing fine with the help of him friend and then visits him before going back to New York, bringing him a set of tailored clothes in exchange of the one he got, and a customized cleaning bot that can find lost needles and buttons in addition to getting rid of every stray piece of thread in the universe.
When they are back in New York, after Christmas and New Year's Eve, it's Rhodey to tell the team. Tony tries, but when he sits in front of them plus Pepper, feeling their stares – not judging him, not anymore, but still stares – he can't make himself say a word.
'It's an incredible trauma, Tony, and don't try to deny it,' Rhodey told him a few hours earlier on a plane. 'It's okay if you have problems with dealing with it. It takes time.'
Tony tried to protest because hey, he didn't want to call himself a victim, still, but then JARVIS pointed out that what's happened to him was basically the same thing that rape is: an non-consensual violation of one's body and therefore mind, and the only difference is that it's not in sexual context.
JARVIS is right. He always is.
So Tony doesn't beat himself up for not being able to open up in front of his teammates and it doesn't mean he doesn't want to, because he had five weeks to make up his mind and he decided that he wants them to know. Not to prove them wrong – the whole argument and the fallout were as much his fault as theirs – but to make things straight because they deserve it.
They all look away when Rhodey explains what happened when Tony was in captivity and he suddenly feels invisible, but Rhodey fixes his stare on Tony and makes him smile. Tony can tell that they are angry at him for hiding the truth, it's perfectly understandable, he promised them he was fine and that he was just tortured psychologically, just a bit. He realizes they are not really angry with him but with Toma.
The realization doesn't stop him from leaving the room and throwing up in the bathroom.
Pepper comes after him, helps him clean up, and holds him in a close embrace for far too long for a hug, but he doesn't mind.
'Can I do anything, Tony?' she asks quietly.'
'Don't cry,' Tony replies quickly, noticing tars forming in her eyes, and she blinks them away.
'Can we do anything?' Bruce ask, looking like a kicked puppy and Tony can guess he's beating himself up for not noticing. Tony decides that he needs to find something to cheer Bruce up, because he's not going to have people sad because of him.
'Don't treat him like he's going to break,' Rhodey replies for Tony and they share a grin. 'No, really, don't, because it's easier to deal with things and remember how to get around a normal life when everyone else is normal.'
'Sure thing,' Clint says, glancing at Tony quickly, but not quickly enough to avoid Tony's raised eyebrow.
'I just can't believe we haven't noticed anything until you were drugged out of your mind, Tony,' Steve adds, sounding confused and apologetic. Tony half-pities Cap because while he's a great guy, he's always confused and gets sad so easily.
'You didn't notice because you've never been around Tony on drugs. He's himself, only more. More of everything and you think it's just Tony being Tony,' Rhodey explains and Tony wants to laugh, because that's so accurate that it's absurd. 'Also, we're getting rid of all alcohol in the tower, and you get to keep your medication in your private rooms only for a few months at least –'
'We?' Natasha questions, blinking exactly twice.
'I told my superiors I need a long stay here for superhero reasons. You know how things are. Here I am and I'm staying.'
'Good, James, I'm so glad,' Pepper says and gives Rhodey a look, but Tony can read it, too. It says I'm glad you're here because we've all failed him and you understand him better than we all do, combined, and you're good for him.
'We shall feast in honor of our friend being lost-and-found,' Thor declares, looking questioningly between Tony and Rhodey.
Tony nods at Thor who beams, takes a deep breath and puts one arm around Rhodey's back. His turn.
'So, off to the kitchen we march, shoo,' he says and everyone turns around to go, most of them rolling their eyes at Tony being Tony. 'Thanks for saving my little life again, cupcake,' Tony adds and Rhodey looks at him pointedly.
'The pleasure is all mine, at least as long as you service me War Machine or until the next prank you pull,' Rhodey replies, his eyes shining. 'And the life, it's not so little.'
'No, it suddenly got bigger,' Tony says, wonder in his voice, because it feels like he and the team can genuinely work out this time.
'I'm gonna need to find you a new nickname, lone gunslinger.'
'You bet,' Tony replies and nudges Rhodey to follow the team.
'You're gonna be fine?' Rhodey asks once again before they enter the now loud kitchen.
'With all the team cuddles I'm gonna get now if I make puppy eyes?' Tony laughs, but then he looks Rhodey in the eyes and adds, 'even if it's gonna take years.'
'And you'll talk to me and to them if anything happens?'
'I will,' Tony says and it's a promise. 'Besides, between you and J I've got all the therapy I need. You know that.'
Rhodey nods sharply and Tony takes a step to walk into the kitchen, but Rhodey stops him.
'No bullshit,' Tony assures him. 'You knew I never wants to repeat the experience. I can say the same thing right now. Never.'
'Go mingle with your heroes, then,' Rhodey says, letting go of Tony's wrist. 'And make sure there's steak. I need to make a call.'
'Tell them Iron Man neeeeds you,' Tony shouts across the room as Rhodey walks away.
If Tony's going to catch up with all the work he's been neglecting recently, and with normal life, he's gonna need a second head to work for him instead of a cocaine-fueled brain. Rhodey will be here for him.
There are going to be apologies now, too, and team members visiting him one by one, casually and inconspicuously, and Tony hopes they're going to find the balance they all need.
'It's good to really be back,' Tony tells JARVIS.
'It's good to really have you back, sir,' the A.I. replies in the same soft tone.
He has lost a year. They have all lost a lot, because she doesn't share. Any time Tony shared with her is her and not his – and there are no compromises. No in-betweens. It's black and white.
A moment later he realizes that he's been tracing his arms where Toma's needles punctured his skin, so he shakes his head, takes a breath and steps into the kitchen.
A/N: I know it took me ages to finish this story, but I did it like I promised. I never abandon stories, I can't sleep when I know I've got something waiting to be finished, so there.
Thanks for all the support I got so far. I hope you enjoyed this final piece. I'd love to hear your opinions :)