For the first time in his life, Tony feels his mind begin to slow down.
Oh sure, he’s had plenty of moments where his mind has become fuzzy with alcohol or sleep deprivation, and there was the occasional time where drugs had thrown his head for a loop-de-loop and staring at the wall gave him a pleasant sort of static feeling between the ears, not to mention there have been the times he’s been concussed, knocked out, strangled nearly unconscious and under anesthetic, but that was never accompanied by slow thoughts. Now, though, now Tony knows what it’s like, to slow down.
He can’t say he likes it very much.
Worse still, he doesn’t think he can stop it, either.
The suit’s been dead for a while now, the last of its light and life flickering when the sharp edge of that damn shield bit into his chest again and again and again and again.
When I get out of here, Tony promises himself, his thoughts slow, his eyelids slower as he opens them to stare across the bare concrete at the slightly convex form of the vibranium shield, I will melt it down and make it into the base of a snow globe. Put a small collapsed Iron Man in the bottom and fill it with red snow. Thanks for visiting Siberia! Come back soon!
He’d laugh, but his breath is too shallow to catch and the last thing he tasted before his tongue became too cold to taste was blood. His breath, when he does manage to gather it, makes something bubble. Tony wonders when his ears will be too cold to hear, or if, like in the Princess Bride, the frost will take his ears and nose and lips and eyes but leave him able to hear, able to hear the horror that will, inevitably, make his rescuers exclaim aloud. He thinks he’d hate to hear that sound, but that’s a lie.
Anything would be nice to hear if it wasn’t bubbling and the howling wind.
Insulation, Tony mouths the word and swears his fingers twitch as he stares ahead. His eyes are so cold and so dry but if he closes them, then he’ll fall asleep. He can’t fall asleep. Not yet. He’s working. The air in front of him is filled with bleak concrete and a white wall of wind-whipped snow and Tony can see the blue of his holograms in the air. He’s modifying his suit, ticking off all the things that could make it better, could make this survivable.
Insulation against extreme temperatures that doesn’t rely on power to function.
Back up energy, hidden somewhere instead of a big ass target on his chest.
Magnetic release catches that only flip when the suit is depowered.
Maybe a secret snack compartment, or a flask, because he’s real sure that he’s real hungry. Or at least he should be, if the cold wasn’t such a problem.
Focus, Tony tells himself. He can’t let his mind wander. He has to fix his suit so that the next time he goes and plays in a snowstorm and gets his ass kicked and his chest through a grinder, he won’t come so close to dying.
Back up oxygen; maybe a specific suit that was air-tight.
Smaller jets for more careful maneuverability in zero-gravity.
A distress beacon, a really, really powerful one, just in case.
No, wait, Tony’s brow furrows. He hears something crinkle. He holds his breath. It doesn’t continue so he relaxes.
What was he thinking about?
Fixing the suit.
Insulation was a must, he had to be more careful of extreme temperatures.
Backup battery, not one that would explode painfully when punctured, either.
Tony’s eyes are fixated, straight ahead. He can’t see anything, but that’s okay. He doesn’t need to see to plan his building. Seeing will come later.
Tony’s pared his final regrets down to three. Which, considering all the fucking mistakes he’s made in his life, he’s pretty proud of narrowing it down to so few. He’s regretted so much in his life that the slide-show of Tony Stark’s Life has at least ten compilation segments of his top one hundred biggest regrets of his existence. Not to say that it was all regrets. He had some good moments too. He had the bots he’d made and there had been Jarvis and JARVIS and the first time he’d flown in the suit, the taste of freedom and the taste of Pepper’s kisses, and the choice to get out of the arms race- no he had lots of things he didn’t regret. And he could let go of ninety-nine percent of his regrets, here and now, if only he could do something about the three that he still had.
Tony sighed, air bubbling out of the back of his throat with the thick blood that he feels building there. He can’t cough so most of it slides back down his throat, filling his lungs up. At least, that’s what he figures he did. It’s not like he bothered to get a medical degree along with the rest of his degrees. The mystery of the human body was someone else’s to discover. Tony liked his machines. Machines didn’t crush his chest on purpose. Machines had only ever done exactly as he wanted and needed them to.
He hoped they would understand, that they would be okay. FRIDAY would take care of them, no, they would take care of each other. And Pepper. And Rhodes. They’d watch out for each other. Tony trusted them to do that.
Tony’s blind eyes moistened slightly, but before the tear could overflow from his eyelid, it froze.
He didn’t even notice. He couldn’t feel it anyway.
Pepper is going to be so mad, Tony thought, distracted, tired, his thoughts slow. So mad. So, so mad.
Always telling me to rest, Tony thought, staring at nothing, staring at the whiteness in front of his blind eyes. Rest, Tony, rest! Always telling me…
Not like this, Tony thought, he couldn’t hear himself breathing anymore. Had his ears finally frozen too? Didn’t want me to rest like this.
Pepper is going to be so mad, Tony thought. But he was so cold. He was so tired. And Pepper was right.
He needed to rest.
Tony’s foot slips on something. His knee buckles and he hits the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Sand and grit get into his mouth as he rolls over. He grunts, spits, wipes at his mouth and then sits up.
It’s blindingly hot. Tony squints against the sun, directly overhead, and at the dunes around himself. The sky is a blue so bright it hurts his eyes. The sand reflects the sunlight and every glint of metal spread out across the area screams into his retinas. Tony almost rubs at his eyes with his hands but stops himself when he sees how absolutely filthy they are.
The faint blue glow of on his forearms, as he stares at his hands, tells him everything he needs to know about where he is and what is happening.
Afghanistan, he thinks, his mind whirring faster and faster as he looks down at his chest, down at the first edition arc reactor glowing a faint blue right smack in the middle of his ribcage. His clothing is nearly threadbare; it looks like he’s worn mostly the same thing for three months and, if Tony’s memory of this particularly world-view shattering event is correct, he has been.
Tony staggers to his feet, turning in a circle. First thing was first. He needed to orientate himself and then-
His foot slides and his shin comes into contact with metal. He hisses, pulls back and looks down to see a piece of metal, cut and welded into a piece of armor. Part of the first Iron Man, before Iron Man even existed. Tony looks around, and now that he’s searching for it, he can see pieces scattered all around. Hissing, he pulls off his shirt. He’ll be blistered and burnt by the time he’s out of here but Tony doesn’t care.
He’ll get out of here in one piece and that makes all the difference in the world.
Fuck you, Siberia, he thinks to the winter wind that howls in his mind.
By the time Rhodes finds him, Tony is blistering across the shoulders and feet, but he’s still walking. He’s left a winding trail in the sand, two feet and one dragging line. Part of his shirt became a rope that he tied to the salvaged chest plate and the other part he wrapped around his head, for what little that could do for him. The chest piece is piled high with other bits and pieces of his broken armor and he thinks, he’s not certain, won’t be until he gets home to his lab, but he thinks that he’s got most of the armor now.
Rhodes and a company of soldiers find him walking along the crest of a dune, lips dry, skin red, eyes half open. Walking in the desert, Tony finds, is just like falling asleep in sub-zero temperature, after a while, everything hurts to a point of numbness and then, as the numbness sets in, nothing hurts.
Until you stop moving.
Tony stands still for a moment, looking down at the vehicle and the men walking towards him. His eyes are on Rhodes, walking up towards him a half step faster than the others. No, not running because that would be too much, but quick. He’s hustling up the dune and Tony only has eyes for him.
Tony feels a weight lift off of his chest. He takes a step forward. His leg cramps and he slips. With a yelp, he slides halfway down the dune, scrap metal tumbling after him. Rhodes catches him, pulls him out of the way of the shrapnel, and holds his arms tightly. Tony’s not sure if Rhodes is only doing it because he needs to or because Tony will fall over without his help. It’s probably both, though. Rhodes cares.
“Tony,” Rhodes says and Tony cuts him off with a grin.
“Did you find my sunglasses?” Tony asks. He grips Rhodes by the shoulders, fingers tight. Rhodes is alive. He is walking. They’re both out in the baking heat. Tony makes a show of looking around them while Rhodes stares at him like he’s a maniac. “I lost them somewhere,” Tony says, “And I’ve got to say my eyes are killing me.”
“Tony,” Rhodes says and this time he sounds less marveled at the very sight of him and more exasperated, more disbelieving. “Who gives a fuck about the sunglasses, man? Are you okay? What the hell happened to you? Come on, we need to get you out of the sun before your skin starts boiling off.” He tugs on Tony’s arms and Tony follows willingly.
Tony laughs, he can’t really help it. Rhodes is walking. Everything is fine. Except his eyes hurt. They hurt so much. He needs his sunglasses and, “Hey! That’s Stark property you’re poking at there!” He shouts to the soldier poking at the pile of scrap. Tugging on Rhodes’s collar, Tony tries to direct him towards the pile. “I need that boxed up and taken back to the states with me. Rhody, sugar bear, be a sweet and make sure they don’t lose my shit, will you? I tracked across the desert for that and I’m not about to go home without it.”
Rhodes’s giving him that look of disbelief and Tony grins at him. Something he sees in Tony’s face makes him let go of one arm and turn to the soldier. He tells them to box it up and they do so, Tony watching as they bring it over to the vehicle. Rhodes helps him over to it, the cramp in his leg has eased up, and Tony’s trying not to laugh. Here he is, limping along with Rhodes supporting him, just like it should be.
Tony will die before he lets Rhodes take a hit like that again, not when Tony’s there to protect him.
In the shade of the car, Tony drinks a bottle of water and offers a high five to the private who offers their sunglasses to him. The tinted lenses ease the pain of his eyes enough that Tony sighs and, making sure that they’ve got his scrap goods, he finally gets into the car.
Tony leans back, not caring much for the way his back complains with each bump of the vehicle making his sunburnt skin brush against the seat. His mind is whirring too fast, clipping along the different paths as he sits and enjoys the ride.
He’s already changed this world. He went back for his armor. He didn’t do that last time.
Tony fiddles with the water bottle in his hands. The plastic crinkles as he twists it, but he stops before the lid pops off. Rhodes looks at him, frowning slightly. Tony looks at him and gives him a smile. He’s looked at the electron and it’s changed its behavior. There’s no reason to stop now.
“Hey, Rhodey?” Tony asks, “Got a phone you could let me borrow? I need to call Pepper.”
Pepper stands beside the sleek black car with Happy. They’re both silent. They’re both waiting.
It seems to take an eon before either one of them spot the jet on the horizon. The sleek shape of it becomes larger and larger as it approaches. Pepper’s never been so glad to hear the whine and thunder of its engine and she blinks furiously to keep the tears out of her eyes.
The tires of the jet squeal and scream as rubber hits tarmac, then the jet smooths out its landing and slows down. Flaps shifting and wings adjusting, the jet taxis around the strip, slowing down until it comes to a stop in front of them.
Pepper is frozen, heart in her throat, breath caught in her lungs. Happy takes the first step forward, then another, then stops.
The door opens.
Rhodes steps out first, adjusting his cap on his head, and taking a few steps out. Then he turns and looks back.
Tony steps out of the jet and Pepper just wants to cry. He looks red and even from thirty feet away she can see his face is bruised and he’s limping a little. He’s wearing his normal clothes, a t-shirt and jeans with a blazer thrown over his shoulders, but there’s an unnatural thinness to him that Pepper picks up on immediately. The other oddity is the faint circle of blue light coming from the center of his chest. Pepper does not like that at all and knows instinctively she’ll dislike the explanation for it even more.
Rhodes walks Tony down the stairs and towards them. Tony limps but doesn’t seem to wince in pain with each step. He’s wearing sunglasses despite the fact that it’s nearly evening. Tony picks up his pace suddenly and hobbles towards them, “Pepper! Happy!”
Pepper is in Tony’s arms before she can even think about it. He smells clean, like antiseptic and lemongrass and aloe, and his grip on her shoulder is tight. The hug is brief, too brief, and then he’s hugging Happy, who has become red in the face and is refusing his tears by blinking rapidly. Tony steps back from them both and looks between the three of them. “My three closest friends,” Tony says and there’s a thickness in his voice that makes Pepper think he’s just as overcome with emotion as they are. “What would I ever do without you three? Who would I be?”
“Mr. Stark,” Pepper begins, but she doesn’t know where to continue to. Tony’s lowered his sunglasses and is looking at them with eyes that burn orange, bright and fiery, right around the normal brown of his iris. Pepper’s eyes widen. What happened to him? What did they do to him?
“There’s so much that I need to do, so much I need to take care of. The world’s been without me for three whole months! Pepper, did you schedule that press meeting for tomorrow afternoon?”
“I- Yes,” Pepper nods. She automatically hands over her tablet to him, showing him the venue. She always shows him, but he never really looks. This time, he takes the tablet, scrolls through the press briefing and nods. “But I- Mr. Stark, are you really ready to be questioned about your time in Afghanistan?”
Tony smiles, big and wide and Pepper swears she sees that orange ring in his eyes burn like a solar flare. He hands her back the tablet and says, “I’m sure there will be other more interesting things for them to ask me about. Now, Happy, let’s get out of here, pick up some dinner and get home, hm? I have work to do.”
He claps Happy on the shoulder and then walks past them all to the car. Happy hurries after him while Pepper turns slowly. Rhodes steps up at her side and she gives him a nervous look, “His eyes,” she whispers, “Did you see them?”
He nods, “There’s no explanation. The doctors looked him over and besides a few sprains, a sunburn to king all sunburns and some malnutrition and dehydration, he was pronounced fine. No changes to his eyesight. No blind spots. No crazy laser vision. Nothing.”
“Rhodey, Pep!” Tony shouts from inside the car, “Hurry it up! It’s burger time!”
Rhodes presses his hand to Pepper’s back, urging her into motion. She stutters for a moment more, then shakes herself and hurries over to the car. The two of them pile in after Tony, who is looking at the mini-bar with the kind of fondness that makes Pepper uneasy. She can’t blame him for wanting to get a drink after, well, everything, but still-
Tony closes the fridge with a sigh. He sits back and Pepper blinks at the bottle he’s chosen. Tony pops open the purified water bottle and downs half of it with a gasp, “I don’t think I’ll ever take water for granted again,” he says.
Pepper makes a note to add more water bottles to the cars and then bites the inside of her cheek.
Tony’s changed and she can’t tell if it’s for the better or worse. Not yet anyway.
As soon as Tony steps into the door of his Malibu home, JARVIS can be heard through the speakers.
“Welcome home, Sir.”
Tony stops in the hallway and has to close his eyes. The others are talking amongst themselves, already deeper into the house, and within moments the two of them are alone. Tony swallows. When he’s sure that he can speak without a tremble, he replies, “Thank you, Jarvis. I’ll be down in the lab soon to take care of some things. But first, burger time.”
“I will make sure everything is ready for you, Sir,” comes the reply and Tony smiles.
Happy’s spread out the burgers on the table, the fries a big pile and plenty of dipping sauce available by the time Tony arrives. They look up at him and give him concerned smiles and Tony hasn’t missed the way they look wonderingly at his eyes. Tony, for his part, drags out a chair, sits down and digs into his burger. The others follow suit.
Even Pepper is enjoying a burger, taking small bites in between ketchup dipped fries, but she’s watching him as she does it, brows knitting together like she’s working on a puzzle.
Tony leans back in his chair, drinking from his styrofoam cup, and sighs contentedly. “I plan to announce a big change for Stark Industries tomorrow, Pep,” he says. She blinks and her attention is on him again. Or rather, she’s present and listening to him now, instead of staring at him like he’s a tough sudoku in the Sunday edition. “I want to tell you three but only because I know you’ll need time to get ready and you won’t be likely to spill the beans on any of it.”
“That doesn’t sound good, Tony,” Pepper says quietly, setting down her burger. She wipes her hands on her napkin and brings out her tablet, setting it down beside her on the table.
“What is it?” Rhodes says, leaning forward, elbows on the table and a dark, worried look in his eyes.
Happy says nothing, chewing industriously on his burger. Waiting.
“I’m taking Stark Industries out of weapons manufacturing,” Tony says, “Completely. No guns. No bullets. No missiles. No tanks. None of it. Everything is going to be recalled, melted down and turned into something else. All the tech is going into a vault that I’m going to lose the key to and drop into the ocean, metaphorically of course. Stark Industries will no longer make anything that’s sole purpose is to get people killed.”
They stare at him, just as shocked here as they were there. He smiles, grabs a fry, dips it, eats it.
“What about all your employees?” Pepper says, “All their work and all their jobs-”
“Give the factory workers a month off while we switch things out,” Tony says, “Pay them for it, of course. Everyone in tech will be reassigned to new research- clean water programs, clean energy research, armor tech, hell, if someone has an idea about how to save a life with something new, something that isn’t some damn drug, have them write up a request and submit it and we’ll greenlight it if it's possible.”
“What about your contracts?” Rhodes asks, “Are you just going to renege them?”
“SI can no longer fulfill the promises of those contracts,” Tony says, picking up his drink, “We’ll have to terminate them.”
“The stocks-” Pepper begins, then stops, “Our costs- Tony, the lawyers for this-”
“Are going to be hideously expensive, I know,” Tony says. He’s still smiling easily. Talking them through it is easier than he remembers, though he can’t be quite sure he actually did talk it through with them last time.
“People won’t be happy,” Tony says, “But I’d rather a million pissed off people than half a million grieving ones. Pep, contact the lawyers, tell them what’s up. But don’t worry about Obie or the board until later.”
“Tony, you’ve got to tell Obie,” Pepper insists, even as her fingers tap across the screen of her tablet. “You can’t make this kind of decision without telling him.”
Tony smiles, “Pepper,” he asks, and he knows already that his tone is too sweet, too wrong, because she immediately stops typing and looks at him with wary eyes. “Who the fuck do you think sold me out in Afghanistan?”
“Jesus,” Rhodes whispers. He puts his hand over his face.
Happy blinks at him. “No,” he says first, “Obadiah’s bit of a tough guy and an asshole but he cares about you. He wouldn’t.”
Tony shrugs a shoulder, “I won’t accuse him until I’ve got proof,” he picks up the last of his burger and gestures with it, “But I suspect to have some by tomorrow afternoon. So no, I don’t have to tell Obie anything. It’s my company. It’s my tech. It’s my name. Stark Industries is no longer making any weapons. For anybody.”
He pops the last bite into his mouth and then stands. They’re still stunned, looking at him in disbelief, like he’s about to say it all was a ruse and he was joking, but Tony doesn’t joke about killing people, not anymore. Taking off his shades, borrowed from some nameless soldier in Afghanistan, Tony tosses them onto the table and then turns, “I’ve got some work to do. Remember, not a word. The world finds out tomorrow afternoon, two o’clock sharp, Pacific time, and not a moment before,” he grins and walks away.
“Jarvis,” Tony calls out as he heads to his lab, “I’m on my way.”
The door slides open for him without a sound and Tony grins. So much work to do, so little time.
After Afghanistan, after Siberia , the brightly lit, cluttered and isolated workshop is a luxury that Tony thinks he’ll never take for granted again. This is where he belongs, behind his workbench, with JARVIS projecting on one holographic screen his current project, surrounded by tools and tech, and with a keyboard at his fingertips. The center screen is all code and Tony’s eyes don’t drift away for a moment.
He hears the whirr of DUM-E’s motor and reaches out for the smoothie that the robot has made for him. It looks and smells suspiciously edible so he decides absently to enjoy it. He sips from it, typing one-handed, and then stops, highlights a line of code and says aloud, “Jarvis, test this line. I can’t have any loopholes. Your baby sister has to be ironclad.”
“Yes, Sir,” and the third screen shows a replication of that line. JARVIS processes it, tests it, runs it through scenario after scenario, more than Tony can think of, more than he could do in the same amount of time. Tony would worry about a power bill, but he’s already recreated a small arc-reactor that he’ll install as the house’s off-the-grid power source when he’s got a moment.
Now, though, his attention is fully set on his newest AI.
“Sir, test complete. Here are suggestions to the code, in order to tighten its parameters and still allow access for interpretation,” A pop up appears on the third screen. Tony’s eyes switch to it, read over it and he nods.
With a twitch of his fingers, he says, “Add it in.” JARVIS complies.
Tony falls back into silence as he works. JARVIS raises the music’s volume and Tony lets the sound fill in the cracks around his thoughts. There is nothing but him and his work- no emergencies of any kind, supernatural or otherwise- and for the first time in what feels like years, Tony feels steady. Centered. Peaceful.
In another time, he would have been filled with the manic energy of creating the iron man suit for the first time, perfecting the thrusters, the adjustments, the calculations, the shape and form- but Tony’s got all those old blueprints in his head already. Iron Man can wait; the Ten Rings aren’t going anywhere and Tony wants to be sure Obie is out of the picture before the man knows what he’s capable of.
Tony stops, fingers half an inch above the keys and he stares at the ceiling. “Cut one head off…” he murmurs. Obie might not be Hydra, but he’s a cockroach. If all Tony does is swat him from his position of power, Obie will come back for him, nastier and nastier each time. Tony sighs and shakes his head.
He drags his hands through his hair. He pulls and gives a frustrated grunt. “Jarvis.”
“Open new project; code name Won’t Do Nothing. Give yourself oversight but work it in as a subroutine on baby sister here. In it, find and list all methods of non-lethal removal; every way that you can get someone out of your life short of someone dying, and list it in order of most to least severe. I’ll double check the severity level later.” Tony nods to himself. That’ll work to start with.
JARVIS makes some noise of acknowledgment while the screen displaying the reactor he’d built earlier fades and is replaced with a New Project screen. The list begins to populate itself and Tony, with a crack of his knuckles, gets back to work.