Coming back from Siberia didn’t change anything for Tony. His "home" was wrapped in the same cold oppressive silence as the bunker. He didn’t feel any less shattered in the US.
Though, he supposed Siberia felt more distant now. Everything did. His emotions felt like a heavy fog rolling out over the sea, suffocating anything that tried to float in the unnaturally still water. A storm was coming, but it wasn’t there yet. He could picture it in his mind's eye: ozone burned his nose and the sky had taken in a sickly yellow cast, but the storm wasn’t there yet.
Almost two weeks in, the storm broke. Both literally and figuratively. If he was in better condition (his chest ached worse with every breath), Tony would’ve laughed.
He used to say to Rhodey, back when he was young and whole and storms would fall over his exam dates and he could grin at his rain soaked friend (when rain was biggest threat to Rhodey’s health and his biggest worry was walking...oh god...walking in it).
“Thunder and lighting!”
Rhodey had cackled despite his best efforts to remain pissed about the weather (his books were wet and he had bitched about buying new ones for ages),
“Enter three witches!”
Tony had wrapped himself in a bedsheet, slinging one around Rhodey as well, absolutely ruining them for the night like an idiot, but Rhodey had laughed. Tony had always tried so hard to make Rhodey laugh.
Shaking off the memory, Tony stared at the gathering storm clouds and mumbled under his breath,
“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
His hand tightened on the cheap plastic phone in his pocket. Turning away from the window, placing his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, and drawing an exceptionally (alarmingly) painful breath, Tony went to his doctor’s appointment (the beginning of the end).
“You already knew there were hairline fractures in your artificial sternum, Tony.”
Helen said, snapping out her hand to slap his raised one out of the air, glaring at him reproachfully,
“Don’t you dare try to lie to me. I can’t make you take care of yourself, and I actually value the fact that you at least trust that you can come to me when it’s dire, so I won’t bother threatening you or getting into an argument about this.”
She sighed, running her fingers through her hair in a distinctly Pepper-like movement. Her long (dry, cracked, and clever) fingers caught on a snag, and he nearly laughed (Pepper would never - maybe he should send a stylist out to Helen. Was that insulting?).
“Your sternum is artificial, Tony. It doesn’t...it doesn’t grow back. It doesn’t heal. A fracture turns into a fissure with this. The whole thing has shifted and is putting pressure on your chest cavity. The soft tissue there is already damaged, your bruising is putting one hell of a strain on your breathing already, and your diaphragm is still swollen from whatever blunt force trauma it has been through.”
Tony grimaced. Why was it always the torso with him? It had been through enough already and pushing the wrong side of 50 wasn’t helping at all. God, just getting up in the morning was...well, maybe that had more to do with the rolling fog on the horizon of his mind than oxygen deprivation. At least, he hoped so (hah, since when had depression been the better option?).
“It’s going to need to either be braced, in which case you CANNOT risk damaging it again, which honestly I already know isn’t going to fly with you, OR you’ll have to surgically replace it.”
Yep, that was pretty much what Tony had feared, somewhere off 39 degrees and several miles from the main issues his mind had been focused on at the time (not dying, not letting Barnes escape, kicking Steve in the shins until he couldn’t wa-no. No. No no n- Helen is here. Focus on Helen). She was watching him, sympathy showing so obviously on her face that it nauseated him. He waved her onwards, shifting his gaze to a wall behind her.
“I don’t know if you’ll survive another surgery, Tony. The scar tissue in your chest is exceptionally thick and it has already compressed your chest cavity. Cutting through it again would further reduce your lung capacity. That kind of scar tissue will also place additional pressure on the sternal plate and has a risk of growing over it. There’s also the risk of you developing plurosis - it’s honestly a miracle that you haven’t yet - and a billion other factors I can’t account for. I don’t like it. I can’t exactly grow you healthy grafts with the cradle, either."
The words tumbled out so quickly Tony barely had time to process them before Helen continued,
"I can’t remove all of your damaged tissue without killing you."
She took a deep breath, allowing her uncertainty to show (he remembered the first time he’d decided Dr. Cho was worth every single piece of praise he’d heard about her. When she walked into the dick swinging contest of a medical engineering conference on a guest’s invitation, where she was supposed to speak about her hospital’s expertise and nothing else, with untested technology and no trace of doubt in her eyes).
“I prefer you alive, Tony. If that’s not good enough for you, I have more points to sway you to invest in my idea for not going under the knife.”
She tried out her version of his Vegas showman’s grin. Somewhere, far far away from the still waters in his mind, Tony was reluctantly charmed.
“James needs somebody, will need somebody for years while he recovers, and you’re that somebody. Ms Potts needs her R&D whiz. I’m pretty sure Mr Hogan wouldn’t have any reason to drive fancy cars without you, and you and I both know it’s not a hobby he’ll indulge in without a reason. Your employees would miss you.”
His face must’ve twitched or something (Rhodey had worn an expression, way back when, so far back Tony had to crane his neck to make eye contact with him, that was a dead-ringer for the first time Jarvis saw the scruffy nearly bald cat Tony had hidden in his closet. “I wanna be mad at you,” Rhodey had said, though Tony couldn’t remember why, “but your stupid Bambi eyes are doing the whole “here is my entire soul and I am very sad, please don’t yell at me” thing and I’m a very very weak man.” Jarvis had struggled with those eyes too, tried to shield Tony from the world, though Howard still beat the shit out of him when he found out about the cat). Helen’s eyes narrowed, and she clicked her tongue in displeasure.
“Your employees love you, you idiot. They run a Twitter that is pretty much exclusively photos of you being a dork in the labs, being a dork during employee reviews, being a dork in their email inbox...they enjoy it. You’re the reason they work where they do.”
Tony knew about the Twitter, of course. JARVIS used to...used to keep tabs on it. When he was alive. Fuck. Fuck, he was tired.
“What am I supposed to do, Helen?”
He finally sighed, pressing his knuckles into the thin dry skin of his eyelids until he saw stars (something else that had been ruined for him. Wow, wasn’t he just a barrel of laughs today?).
“I need to go before the council. I need to work. I need to be Iron Man. I can hardly get up in the...”
The fog in his head was thickening, swirling and condensing, turning into something horrible and dark. To his horror, his face heated up in the tell-tale way that told him he was going to cry.
“In the morning. Breathing sucks and this SUCKS and things are going to go very VERY badly if I look weak for too long. This whole thing is already fucked and it’s hinging on the one fucking finger I have on the wheel!”
He snarled, trying his best to beat the tears back with anger but...Christ, Helen didn’t know half of what was going on. She couldn’t because it was classified and completely irrelevant to her anyway. She didn’t need him to...
Her fingers (dry, chapped, and split in more places than he could count from countless washings - it always struck him, how clean Helen’s hands were) closed over his own, prying them away from his mouth.
“You’re Dr Stark.”
She said, smiling at him without any doubt in her eyes (swaggering onto the conference stage, ballsy as anything),
“And I’m Dr Cho, the smartest person in the room. Two geniuses in front of a problem. We’ll think of something.”
And for the first time in weeks, Tony huffed out a genuine laugh.
“Three geniuses. We need to bring Dr Rhodes into the fold, if only to remind him of the true meaning of research. My sour patch’s brain is going to rot in the military.”
(“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightening, or rain?” Helen would make an excellent witch. She was a history maker, after all.)
Tony met with the council with his chest braced. He was sweating bullets the entire time, doing damage control while his lawyers reviewed a running transcript of everything, sending suggestions in real time to a teeny text log in the corner of his sunglasses. Tony didn’t like testing his luck with these people any more than strictly necessary, and them finding out about this kind of leak would bring everything down in flames, but he couldn’t afford to be anything other than the best of the best right now. He had to use every inch of showmanship (every ounce of every stage in Vegas, every slicked back salesman he’d ever met, every politician, every overly decorated general-) he had to deflect away from the makeup on his face, the extra bulk in his suit (slight as it was), or how shallow his breathing was.
He got the council to ban the entry of the rogues (a cute nickname packed with a lot of bitterness) into any of their countries, with the guarantee of capture leading to a court date, instead of hunting them down like rabid dogs. He ensured that everyone placed directly into the line of fire of the Accords squabble (not a WAR) would be compensated by the council in an act of goodwill. He made sure not to shove his own standing further into jeopardy while niggling at Ross’ like a loose tooth.
Finally, exhausted, he stealthily directed their attention to his meowness. He knew exactly where the rogues were and, honestly, T’Challa could fucking deal with the consequences of his own actions. If that meant covering up their presence or owning up to it while hiding behind diplomatic immunity, well he was sure T’Challa could handle it.
Nintencatz sent him a picture perfect replica of the offended cat stare. Through the fog and pain and the sweat chilling his everything, Tony felt a petty spark of satisfaction.
Extremis was Tony’s worst nightmare. He was fascinated by it, used to pull out a dozen projects on it on nights he couldn’t sleep, had completed more work on its potential capabilities than he cared to admit...but he did that with all his worst creations. The worst things never left him alone. His mind never stopped, and the worst things were all the best in varying aspects: destructive power, speed, strength, and the body count left behind.
Extremis had killed more people than it could ever save. It could never be used to just save a limb or two. It couldn’t ever be used like the serum either. It wasn’t dormant, waiting for a single-use activation. Extremis was always on, always needed to be used, too much energy to be contained in a single body (he empathized with the concept and then promptly tried to forget he ever had).
It was a catalyst that would chew up every single reactant available to it in seconds unless constantly redirected. Unless it was isolated from the reaction immediately after achieving what it was meant to achieve.
It would have to be controlled - conscious and unconscious, just like every other component of a complex biological system. It was no surprise that Tony had almost immediately thrown nanobots into the mix. It was no surprise that he aimed to have them controlled by a consciousness. That he gave that consciousness computing power by extending its reach through all available resources (spreading out across the worldwide net, server farms, satellites and-).
It had just been for storage at first. But then he couldn’t ignore the possibilities presented by information traveling two ways. Of an AI that could access anything and upload a person with the information they needed. And then, because sharing a headspace would be uncomfortable with any new AI, because that would force one of his children to see his thoughts and experience his feelings to some degree, Tony had thought; why not just be his own AI?
He’d completely broken what it meant to be human in his attempt to fix Extremis. He didn’t know...he didn’t know if he could live that.
“Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.”
That’s what Pepper had taken the arc reactor to mean. He loved the thought. He loved her fiercely for being the kind of person who would even think it. Because the arc reactor was a machine and...having it made him one, just a bit.
This would change “a bit” to “completely”. Tony’s body would be a machine. No matter how vulnerable his squishy human bits were, Tony had always...
(His mother had called him a romantic before he even knew how to love. Her eyes had sparkled at his upturned nose, refusing to understand romantic love when kisses were icky, and she’d tried to explain the concept of romantic languages, literature, and cities. Of the romance of things. Romance had been his first love)
He’d always believed in being a human, fighting as a human, dying as a human. He’d believed in the soul of it. In the permanence.
Humanity was his second love. And he was going to have to give it up.
Helen tweaked his ideas, adding biological elements to it he had never considered (a thousand tiny intricate steps in every single cell and signal), and Rhodey pushed his applications to the limit (ethics, rules, damage control...maybe his mind wasn't rotting in the army after all). Was he utilizing Extremis to its full extent? What contingencies did he have in the event of an error? In the event of a virus? Does the human brain have enough memory for this kind of thing? What was the processing equivalency?
Still, their final product was volatile. Lab trials had faired unpredictably and, God, Tony was going to adopt every single lab mouse he encountered for the rest of his life to make up for the suffering he had caused (Helen had told him she had ethics approval. That she’s passed this by a board, all very hush hush, tied up in NDAs and old professional relationships, and that they had willingly provided the mice. He still felt cruel, though).
Fact: they didn’t understand how a human mind would assimilate with this kind of technology. What it would do to sense perception, how it would impact self-awareness (people couldn’t stand the sound of their own breathing or blood rushing through their veins, so could Tony stand the knowledge of nanobots swarming over his bones?).
They found their answer in Vision. He’d shadowed their every movement through Friday, drifting through the compound like a ghost none of the remaining Avengers were strong enough to acknowledge (though Rhodey tried, he always tried, he needed time). As a synthetic lifeform with a body based on human biology, he filled the gaps piece by piece. It helped that he could also interact with the nanobots (though they all poked and poked and poked to make sure he couldn’t anymore by the time their trials were concluded. It was...an unsettling concept).
Of course, Vision raised a lot of questions, too. About humanity, personhood, what Tony really thinks about his AI and what they think of him (he'd spent so many late nights with Jarvis, teaching him about everything. About what it was like to have a pet, about the joy unique to stepping out under a blue sky after days of rain, about longing for touch...he hadn't had those conversations with Friday. He didn't know how).
It was hard. It was like looking at everything essential to Tony’s life through a twisted funhouse mirror. It was still the same fundamentally. But he could never see it the same way again. It was like looking at the ghost of Jarvis in a completely different entity.
Jarvis was everything essential to Tony’s life anyway, wasn’t he? All wrapped up in a nice bundle of code. Snug as a bug in a programmers rug.
With Vision’s hand on his shoulder, Helen at his back, and Rhodey watching over him with his thousand and one fail-safe protocols, Tony Stark walked through the valley of the shadow of death and he was really fucking afraid.
He died. He died just like he always did: going up in flames, bringing suffering to everyone who loved him, destroying things he cared about, and, of course, for only a few moments (death never stuck, did it?). And just like before, he came back changed.
Extremis killed his aged body (with every scar he’d ever used as a reminder, every bald spot from burns he had earned, his white hair that promised him an end to all of this some day, and his mother’s brown eyes, fucking Hell, the only piece of him untouched by-). It built him a new one. It also crawled through his chest in a way none of them had ever anticipated, but should have, because Tony was a romantic and could never seem to shake it.
It settled in the crater his mechanical heart had left behind, snuggling up to every poisonous thread of palladium fused to him until death do they part, and sparked arc reactor blue.
Rhodey laughed and, like he was reading Tony's mind, said the exact goddamn Milton quote Tony used back in the day when Rhodey was coming home after months away (back when he wasn’t afraid of having a heart):
“What is dark within me, illuminate!”